Friday, July 30, 2010

Two Days at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

When I discovered the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last year, I was blown away by the setting: The open-air theater is in the back yard of Ewing Manor, a Channel-Norman mansion with stone walls and towers, a slate roof and timber framing. The sloping lawn is a great place for picnics, and the manor's courtyard hosts low-key musical acts before each show.

A project of Illinois State University, the festival offers solid acting and traditional interpretations of plays by William Shakespeare and other playwrights. Last season, I saw a hilarious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the lightest and funniest version I have seen. This season, I stayed for two days, braving a rain storm to see The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest.

With Merry Wives, I broke a fundamental rule: I did not read the play before seeing it. I've read much about the weakness of this text, however, particularly in terms of the character of Falstaff. Although this production was well done, I have to agree with the critics: The text is amusing, but it lacks substance. Falstaff is a shadow of his Henry IV self, a villain and fool in his own play. The actors here did the best they could with the material, however, and the evening passed quickly.

I was somewhat less impressed with this production of Tempest. (To be fair, I just saw the Stratford production with Christopher Plummer, which is probably impossible to top.) The actor who plays Prospero is not memorable here, and several of the roles seem miscast. Many comic opportunities are missed or underplayed, and the role of Ariel lacks magic and mystery.

The play did have one fantastic moment. One question people often ask about this play is: What are Prospero's original intentions for revenge, and why does he abandon them in favor of forgiveness? In this production, there is a clear moment of reversal:
Ariel: ... If you now beheld them, your affections would become tender.
Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Here, Ariel and Prospero exchange a long look, and Prospero's anger melts away. When he responds, "And mine shall," the turning point is clear, and Prospero chooses the "rarer action" of forgiveness rather than vengeance. It's a great moment in an otherwise average play.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We've read eight of Shakespeare's plays, and we're making great progress through the complete works. Now, it's time for a little change of pace. Your assignment for this week is Shakespeare's two early narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, written when the theaters were closed in 1593-1594 during an outbreak of the plague. I have never read these, so I'm looking forward to it!

Discussion: Richard II

The play: Richard II

The plot tweet: Terrible king pisses off the wrong guy; Bolingbroke rebels to claim inheritance and then claims whole kingdom. Richard makes poetry, dies.

My favorite line:
More are men's ends marked than their lives before.
The setting sun and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past. (John of Gaunt)


This is the first time I've read Richard II, and my marginal notes look something like this: "Wait, is Richard crazy?" "Why did he just do that?" "WTF?" "Okay, he's definitely crazy." Actually, he's not crazy, but he is a disastrous politician. In the hands of someone else, the situation with Bolingbroke could have been easily remedied (or may never have occurred in the first place). But Richard handles the situation so badly, he practically deposes himself.

Richard is a guy who truly believes in the divine right of kings ("Not all the water in the rough rude sea / can wash the balm off from an anointed king"), and that gives him free reign to think and behave as he pleases, even to his country's detriment. This introduces the central question of the play: What value does this doctrine have, when the "anointed" king is so clearly worthless and the usurper so much more qualified to lead his country?

Shakespeare doesn't seem to answer the question, perhaps because none of the characters is particularly sympathetic. Even Richard, who begins spouting beautiful poetry after being deposed, doesn't connect with the audience the same way a very similar bad politician, King Lear, does. I'm cheating a bit here, because we haven't read King Lear, but the similarities are striking: a bad politician who essentially deposes himself and then struggles with his own identity, with liberal usage of words like "shadow" and "nothing." Compare Richard's "Alack the heavy day, that I have worn so many winters out, and know not what to call myself" with Lear's "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" Yet, in Lear, we are all on Lear's side, and we mourn his death intensely. Meanwhile, Richard gets murdered by a couple of thugs, and I think, "Well, too bad. That might cause some problems."

The reality is this: England is in better hands with Bolingbroke, and if the "divine right of kings" doctrine hadn't put his authority in question throughout his reign, he might actually have done his country some good. (Perhaps Shakespeare posits an opinion about the divine right of kings after all.)

But here's one thing I can't decide: What is Bolingbroke's original intention when he foments this rebellion? Is he really just trying to claim his inheritance, or does he always secretly hope to claim the crown? If usurpation isn't his original intention, when does he realize that's where he is headed, and how does he feel about it? He does claim authority before he is actually king, ordering executions and the like, but he still makes a show of deference to Richard. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sarah Palin as Next Shakespeare, Part II

The chatter about Sarah Palin's "refudiate" gaffe continues. On Twitter, check out the trending topic #ShakesPalin, which answers the question, what would Palin say if she wrote like Shakespeare all the time? Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Double, double toil and trouble; drill baby drill, and Gulf oil bubble.
  • Something is rotten in the Socialist, over-taxed State of Denmark...and all those other kinky EU countries.
  • But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? It is the East, and I can see Russia from my front porch.
  • Et tu, Bristol?
  • To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberals, or to quit half-term, and by opposing, rake in speaking fees.
  • A moose! A moose! My kingdom for a moose!
  • "It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." Sometimes, you don't need to change a thing.
Today's challenge: Come up with your own 140-character ShakesPalin tweet!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Bit with the Dog

My dog-related questions have been answered! Click here for a picture of Auto, the dog who will be starring in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. (Thank you to social media guru Aaron Kropf for posting this.)

Sarah Palin as Next Shakespeare?

This is not a political blog. I'm not going to tell you what I think of Sarah Palin. I'm just going to say, in a totally neutral manner, that she compared herself to Shakespeare this week after using the non-word "refudiate" in a tweet. Just thought you'd want to know. Totally neutral.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Weekend at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

When writing about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, I am prone to overdoing my praise. I love this place, truly, more than any other in the world, and it seems to have been designed specifically for me. It wasn't, of course, but it was designed for people like us, the kind who live and breathe Shakespeare.

This is my first trip of the summer, and I find the place pretty much as I left it last fall, with all of my favorite restaurants and shops still open for business (and my least favorite store, the tacky Christmas shop, thankfully closed). As always, the shows are some of the highest quality productions in North America.

A few quick notes about the plays I saw this weekend:

As You Like It
When we read this play a few weeks ago, I confessed that I've never really seen the appeal, either with Rosalind as a character or with the play in general. None of the productions I've seen in the past year has managed to change my mind (especially not that disastrously awful America-through-the-ages production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which I may never be able to forgive).

Having seen the Stratford production, I'm still not willing to concede that Rosalind is, as Harold Bloom claimed, one of the best female characters in all of literature. However, I do like the play much better than I did, especially with theater-crush Ben Carlson as Touchstone and the excellent Andrea Runge as Rosalind. The charm of the play, and the magic and wonder of the Forest of Arden, are better expressed here than I have ever yet seen.

The play is set in the 1920s, during the rise of both Surrealism and extreme political movements such as fascism. The usurping duke's court is Nazi-esque, which should weigh down the production but somehow does not. The rest of the staging is decidedly bizarre; ensemble characters wander around with flower bushes for heads, giant apples dangle from the ceiling, and for one scene a deer leans casually against a tree, smoking his pipe. This is all very strange, of course, but it gels nicely with the characters' very subjective understanding of reality and time. Beyond that, it is simply beautiful. At one point -- when the red court banners are stripped away in an instant and the flora and fauna of the forest are revealed -- the audience actually clapped for the scenery.

Of course, the production isn't perfect. I'm not a fan of Cara Ricketts, who plays Celia; there's something about her delivery that jars me. (I've heard it described as "cheerleader on speed.") And Brent Carver, who played Jaques, was a bit flat.

Still, I loved that, in the final scene, Jaques was the only one dressed in black, amid a sea of characters costumed in white. It was a great way to set him apart. And the songs from the play, so often glossed over, are here performed with gusto and skill, bringing the forest wonderfully to life.

The Winter's Tale
Did I mention that I have a little theater crush on Ben Carlson? He did a fantastic Hamlet here a few years ago, and his Ernest (in The Importance of Being Earnest) was one of the funniest things I've seen, here or elsewhere. He brings the same talents to Leontes, who ranges so wildly between fury and despair. This production is touching and sweet, staged straightforwardly on the Patterson thrust stage with minimal distraction.

The best and most beautiful moment in the play is, as it should be, the revelation of Hermione's statue. I was sitting next to a women who apparently did not know the story of the play; when Paulina promised to make the statue move and speak, my neighbor gasped and whispered, "She's alive! Oh, she's alive!" It was a good reminder for me: This play may not be Shakespeare's most popular, but it is wondrous all the same. It is a perfect example of the themes of redemption and reunion on which Shakespeare so often focused toward the end of his career.

The Tempest
Starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, this is the headline show of the season, and it deserves every ounce of that attention. The staging and costuming are pure magic, featuring enchanted swords, flying fairies, man/fish hybrids, a "floating" Plummer, a light-up magical cloak and other fun moments. In the wrong hands, these could be mere gimmicks, distracting from the text, but not here. I've never seen a production that so fully captures the magic of Prospero's private wonderland.

From an interpretive standpoint, this production focuses less on the master/servant dynamics of colonization and more on the bonds between father and daughter, father and son, brother and brother, and (soon to be) husband and wife. These are ordinary relationships, functioning in a distinctly non-ordinary place, which makes the production lighter and more relatable than its servitude-obsessed peers.

And, of course, the acting is superb, especially from Plummer; Julyana Soelistyo, who plays Ariel; and Trish Lindstrom, who plays Miranda.

I tend to be stingy with my standing ovations, but I was on my feet the moment the lights came up (and so, I might add, was every other person in the theater). Truly, this is a wonderful show. If you can get up here to see it, do.

P.S. On a totally unrelated note, I saw Christopher Plummer around town twice this weekend, on Saturday night for dinner at the Church restaurant and on Sunday night for dinner at Rundles. Apparently we have the same foodie tastes!

P.P.S. If you've ever wondered about the Shakespeare statue featured on the banner of this blog, you'll find him in front of Stratford's Festival Theatre.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

By popular vote, this week's reading assignment is the next play in the histories cycle: Richard II. As always, you have until next Sunday, and I look forward to your comments!

Discussion: Two Gentlemen of Verona

The play: Two Gentlemen of Verona

The plot tweet: Proteus loves Julia, then Valentine's girl Silvia, then Julia again. Or as explained in Shakespeare in Love, it is "love, and a bit with a dog."

My favorite line: "Upon some book I love I'll pray for thee." (Proteus)


The critical reaction to Two Gentlemen of Verona is rather amusing. The critics apparently really want to say, "I really hate this play. It sucks." What they say instead:
"The weakest of all Shakespeare's comedies ... so manifestly peculiar that Shakespeare cannot have expected any audience to accept this, even as farce." (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human)
"Little more than the first outlines of a comedy loosely sketched in ... [quoting Pope] I wish I had authority to leave them out, but I have done all I could, set a mark of reprobation upon them." (William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays)
"It is useless to try to deal with the characters as if they were sensitive, intelligent, highly developed and psychologized persons ... [this play is] the first in a long series of romantic comedies that are superior to it." (Maurice Charney, All of Shakespeare)
"We might regard Two Gentlemen as an anthology of bits and pieces waiting to be crafted into more compelling drama." (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All)
Gosh, I didn't think it was that bad. Did you? As Garber points out, Two Gents has all the familiar elements of Shakespearean comedy crammed into one play: a female character dresses up as a boy, a female character woos another woman while disguised, a pair of lovers plan to elope, a worthy gentleman is banished, a harsh ruler makes things hard on young lovers, a clown provides comic relief, and everyone pairs off and gets married in the end. It's like some bizarre Shakespearean YouTube mash-up. I think we can all agree it's not Shakespeare's best work, but neither would I say that it is irredeemably bad.

That said, my copy of the play is now peppered with marginal question marks, my way of noting, "I have no idea what just happened here." The largest question mark is in act five, scene four, which basically goes like this:

Silvia: Alas, woe is me, I love Valentine!
Proteus: Fine, if you won't love me, I'll rape you instead. By the way, I also told on you to your father and lied about my first love being dead.
Valentine: Dude, get away from my girlfriend! I am so disappointed in you. We can never be friends again.
Proteus: Oops, sorry.
Valentine: Hey, no worries. I forgive you. If you want her, you can have her.
Julia: Hey, wait a minute ...

How are we supposed to interpret Valentine's instant forgiveness of so many grievous faults? And, at the end, when Valentine says the couples will go to "one feast, one house, one mutual happiness," who exactly is supposed to be happy in this situation? Not Julia, certainly, and probably not Silvia either, since Valentine has just offered her up to Proteus as a token of friendship.

These are questions that must be answered on stage, and I look forward to seeing the play next month at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where one of my favorite actors, Bruce Dow, will play Speed. More than anything, I'm wondering whether they'll use a real dog. If so, what breed will it be? How will it behave on stage, and how does one train a dog for stage acting ...

Perhaps the fact that I'm thinking about the dog is the best indication that this play lacks substance. It does not, however, lack charm.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Top 10 Shakespeare Phrases

Shakespeare, in addition to penning some of the greatest literature in the English language, also invented countless words and phrases that we still use today -- often without realizing they belong to the Bard. To celebrate that contribution, Merriam-Webster recently published this list of top 10 Shakespeare phrases, such as "green-eyed monster" and "in a pickle." Can you imagine the English language without "wild goose chase"?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom groups three Shakespeare plays into a category he calls "early comedies": The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. We've done two of the three, so let's finish up this category with Two Gents.

Side note: This play always makes me think of the scene from "Shakespeare in Love," when Will says, "I'm still owed for one gentleman of Verona!"

As always, I'll post my thoughts next Sunday, and I look forward to the discussion!

Discussion: King John

The play: The Life and Death of King John

The plot tweet: Young Arthur seeks John's usurped throne; brief war; brief peace; cardinal stirs up war again; Arthur dies (oops); nobles revolt; John dies.

My favorite line:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (Constance)


A few weeks ago, I attended a performance of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Seeking to establish the mock superiority of their Shakespeare knowledge, the presenters said, "Oh, these people don't know anything about Shakespeare. For example, who here has read King John? Go ahead, raise your hand." Not a single hand went up, not even mine.

"Well, that's no surprise," they said. "King John is considered part of Shakespeare's apocrypha ... also known to critics as total crap."

As you can imagine, I picked up this week's reading assignment with very low expectations.

I am willing to concede that King John lacks the magic and artistry of Shakespeare's later plays, but still I was pleasantly surprised by this play -- a quick read with engaging action, some memorable moments of beautiful language, and of course the out-sized character of the Bastard. The scene in which Hubert threatens to blind young Arthur is painfully touching, and the verbal catfights between Elinor and Constance are delightful.

From a critical perspective, however, I can't quite sink my teeth into this play. Apparently, neither can professional critics. The essays I read praised the character of the Bastard and then reverted to plot summary. Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, also managed one paragraph each about eye imagery and mother-son dynamics. Maurice Charney, in All of Shakespeare, got a few pages out of the historical inaccuracies of the play.

Critics do seem universally annoyed with Shakespeare for leaving out the signing of the Magna Carta, which we see as a pivotal document in the march toward democracy. This criticism puzzles me, as the histories are never particularly accurate, anyway. In any case, England was still a monarchy in Shakespeare's time, and perhaps the Magna Carta didn't seem as important to him as it now seems to us.

I think Charney does the best job of explaining our disquiet with this play:
The Bastard provides an outspoken, witty and heroic model for such later figures as Henry V, and his bluffness and honestly stand as a bulwark against the political chicanery of the rest of the play. But the Bastard is suddenly at the end deprived of the kingship he so richly deserves. The conclusion is strikingly indeterminate, as if there must be some other play or plays to wind up the historical action. We expect a mini-series that never comes.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Folio Fail: Raymond Scott Convicted

If you've read Paul Collins' excellent The Book of William, about the history of Shakespeare's first folio, you know that every known copy has been meticulously studied, with every flaw and misprint carefully recorded. Pick any single page of a folio, and the experts can probably tell you which copy it's from.

So, how clueless is Raymond Scott? A few years ago, he walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and asked them to authenticate his copy of the first folio -- the same copy that had been stolen from Durham University in 1998. I can just imagine the librarian, with a pasted-on smile, pleasantly asking Scott to wait "just a few more minutes" while she quietly dialed the police. She probably offered him coffee and a Danish.

After a colorful trial, Scott was cleared this week of stealing the folio from Durham, but he was convicted of handling stolen goods. Given the value of the folio -- about 15 million British pounds -- he is likely to be sitting in prison for quite some time. Long enough, at least, to read the complete works of Shakespeare. But I very much doubt that he will.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Byrd and the Bard

Senator Robert Byrd, who died last week at 92, apparently had quite a reputation for quoting Shakespeare on the Senate floor. According to this column in the New York Times, Byrd managed in 1994 alone to quote every single play. It's hard to imagine any other senator doing that these days without being labeled an elitist. (Remember the snide remarks about Obama's preference for arugula?) So, if you could choose a Shakespearean eulogy for Senator Byrd, which quote would you choose?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We can't avoid it forever. In the quest to read the complete works of Shakespeare, we eventually have to read the histories. So, here we go: This week's reading assignment is King John.

Generally, we've been approaching the plays in loose chronological order, based on our best estimate of the publication date. I want to approach the histories a bit differently, so that we're reading them in chronological order according to the characters and events portrayed. That gives us the following approach:

King John
Richard II
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Richard III

Henry VIII

Don't worry; we're not going to read them all in a row. Let's just slog our way through King John, try to find some redeeming qualities in the play, and move on. (As you can probably guess, I've never read the play, and I've never heard one good word spoken about it. I'm hoping I've been misinformed.)

Happy Independence Day!

Discussion: The Taming of the Shrew

The play: The Taming of the Shrew

The plot tweet: While lovers vie for Bianca, Petruchio woos and weds her sister Kate. Tames shrew with her own medicine, probably lives happily ever after.

My favorite line:

And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.
So I to her, and so she yields to me,
For I am rough and woo not like a babe. (Petruchio)


As Marjorie Garber points out in Shakespeare After All, critical analysis of The Taming of the Shrew has tended to focus on two things: the introductory practical joke played on Christopher Sly, and Kate's final speech about women's duties to their husbands.

Some critics are derisive of the Sly introduction, claiming that it has no relation to the Shrew plot. (Indeed, in every production I've seen, this portion has been cut.) Other critics say that the Sly portion introduces themes, such as impersonation, transformation and disguise, that are critical to our understanding of the play. If this is true, it seems that the play should be crafted to teach Sly a lesson, perhaps about his drunkenness or the hazards of impersonating a nobleman. Yet drunkenness isn't an issue, and those in the play who do impersonate noblemen are sympathetic characters whose stories end well. Instead, the whole thrust of the action is the love story (and I think it is one) of Petruchio and Kate. What is Sly to learn from this?

I'll get to the other issue, Kate's final speech, in a minute. First, a question: Why, exactly, is Kate such a shrew in the first place? Does it come naturally to her, or does she have some cause? A few years ago, a production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival took literally Petruchio's line "Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?" The suggestion was that her physical disability -- and society's reaction to it -- had created her foul temperament.

A more likely cause is the treatment Kate has received from her father, Baptista, who clearly favors Bianca. "Will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see / She is your treasure," Kate accuses him. During the course of the play, he calls her "thou hilding of a devilish spirit," "a shrew of thy impatient humor" and "the veriest shrew of all." With a father like that, who wouldn't turn out a bit nasty?

In that context, Petruchio's proposal offers Kate a welcome escape from an unhappy home (especially since she is probably the only one who realizes that her sister isn't the perfect angel she appears to be). Crazy as Petruchio seems, at least he claims to care for her. And they're clearly interested in each other from the start; their witty banter is laced with sexual puns, and Kate is genuinely upset when she thinks he's left her at the altar. Their partnership isn't instantly perfect; Kate must learn to manipulate quietly rather than rage and shout. But learn she does, and her final speech seems to reflect their unspoken agreement to live in harmony -- presenting a proper face to the world, but with Kate always quietly in control.

The Taming of the Shrew has sometimes been labeled a problem play, but Bloom doesn't think so, and neither do I. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he writes that Kate and Petruchio are "rather clearly going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare." Lucentio, it seems, is the one we ought to pity.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Shakespeare Gear

Are you the type to wear your heart on your sleeve? If so, you'll love today's Shirt.Woot t-shirt, an A-Z image of Shakespearean characters ($10). Or, try this charm bracelet on Etsy, with the names of several plays hand-stamped in brass ($44.95).

Another of my favorite Etsy finds is this origami Christmas ornament, created from the pages of King Lear ($25).

With the exception of items that say "To thine own self be true," which I find annoying, I'm a huge sucker for this kind of Shakespeare merchandise. My library is home to a stuffed Shakespeare, with his companion Queen Elizabeth, a bobble-head Shakespeare, and a large Shakespeare bust. I also have half a dozen sets of antique Shakespeare bookends; my favorite feature the Tempest quote, "My library was dukedom large enough."

Do you have a favorite Shakespeare tchotchke? If so, send us a photo! Shall we give a prize for the tackiest one?