Thursday, September 30, 2010

Songs Inspired by Shakespeare

The folks over at 365 Days of Shakespeare are doing a project similar to ours, and at the moment they're counting down the top 10 songs inspired by Shakespeare. What do you think? Do your favorites make the list? I would have put the Indigo Girls song higher on the list, but I have a weakness for indie folk rock.

Now, I have to go download Tragically Hip's "Cordelia," which somehow I don't already own.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Monday Distraction

Have a case of the Mondays? Take a break with "Animaniacs," the wonderfully irreverent '90s cartoon. This segment is the show's (very loose) translation of Puck's closing speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Look around on YouTube, and you'll also find loose translations of Hamlet's Yorick speech and the three witches of Macbeth.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

One of my earliest exposures to Shakespeare was Julius Caesar, which we read during my sophomore year of high school. I will always remember reciting Mark Antony's funeral speech while my friend Jon sprawled on the floor to represent Caesar's dead body. I look forward to revisiting this text, and I look forward to our discussion starting next Sunday.

Discussion: Much Ado About Nothing

The play: Much Ado About Nothing

The plot tweet: Beatrice and Benedick wrangle, are tricked into falling in love. Claudio and Hero woo, are tricked into falling out of love. Resolution = mass wedding, as usual.

My favorite line:
I do love nothing in the world so well as you.
Is not that strange?


When I was in Italy a few years ago, our Tuscan tour included a stop at Vigna Maggio. The winery looked vaguely familiar during the tour, and eventually I realized -- thanks to a poster displayed in the lobby -- that the winery had been the setting for Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version of Much Ado About Nothing. "Huh," I thought. "This place looked grander on film."

It's not a bad analogy for Much Ado About Nothing. The play is frequently performed and received well by audiences, despite the fact that, on closer examination, the plot is painfully contrived, the villains are relatively unambiguous, and the clown of the play (i.e., Dogberry) is a one-trick pony of misused vocabulary. What is it that we find so appealing?

The answer, of course, is that we love Beatrice, one of Shakespeare's greatest female comic roles. When performed well, she is a joy to watch, despite her edge of bitterness. We delight in her dazzling war of words with Benedick and marvel at her quick wit. We wonder about the couple's back story ("marry, once before he won [my heart] of me with false dice"), and we speculate endlessly about whether this couple will live happily ever after.

One could make a serious argument that Beatrice and Benedick are the most engaging couple in Shakespearean comedy.

That's fortunate, because these two characters are bigger than their own play. Nobody seems to care much about Claudio and Hero, the play's other pair of lovers. Claudio is not remotely likable: He is too cowardly to woo his own wife, and his motives for choosing her are questionable ("No child but Hero; she's his only heir."). He is quick to accuse her in the most callous way possible, and he makes light of her death (until, of course, he learns that she was innocent).

Then we have Hero, who for some reason puts up with Claudio's nonsense. Shakespeare gives her very little personality, no back story -- nothing to engage us. I have seen her played well on stage, but she doesn't come across well in print.

It occurs to me that Claudio and Hero could simply switch places with Romeo and Juliet. Then, the true lovers, our beloved R&J, could ride off into the sunset, and Claudio could swallow some poison in Hero's fake tomb instead.

To draw another comparison, measure the characters in Much Ado against the characters who populate The Merchant of Venice. The characters of our current play seem flat and empty in comparison, with weaker personalities (always excepting Beatrice and Benedick) and fewer ambiguities. In fact, the only truly ambiguous character in Much Ado is Don Pedro. Why does he volunteer to woo Hero on Claudio's behalf? How serious is his marriage proposal to Beatrice? Why doesn't he have a wife already? Why, at the end of the play, is he sad during the pre-wedding dance? In this play, Don Pedro alone presents the kind of mysteries we are used to exploring among multiple characters in most other plays.

Fortunately, Beatrice and Benedick are engaging enough to transcend the weaknesses of their play. One gets the sense that if Shakespeare ever had a true love, she might have been very much like Beatrice.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hamlet Humor

A friend sent me a link to this fabulous comic strip today. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, we'll be reading Much Ado About Nothing, which features one of Shakespeare's most beloved couples: Beatrice and Benedick. Will they find true love? And, if they do, will they manage to live happily ever after? We'll have lots to discuss -- starting next Sunday at noon, as always. Happy reading!

Discussion: Henry V

The play: The Life of Henry V

The plot tweet: Prince Hal grows up, fights war in France. He wins miraculously and woos French princess, but triumph will be short-lived. Side note: Falstaff is dead.

My favorite line:
Gloucester, 'tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be. (King Henry V)


How strange this play must have seemed to theater-goers in Shakespeare's time. At the end of Henry IV, Part II, they'd been promised another history play featuring the beloved Falstaff -- and then the "fat knight" dies early in the play, off-stage, as barely a side note. And perhaps, as I do, they felt a disconnect between the Prince Hal they'd encountered in the earlier plays and the formal, ceremonious King Henry of this play.

But they must have felt such a swelling of patriotic pride, watching their nation's supposedly miraculous victory at the Battle of Agincourt. It even gets me a little bit, and I'm American.

Perhaps, because of that, they forgave Shakespeare for so unceremoniously killing off such a well-liked character. (I, for one, am not sorry to see him go.)

Henry V has several of Shakespeare's best known lines and speeches, and the playwright skillfully builds tension surrounding the Battle of Agincourt. Yet when I saw this play performed -- last year, at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin -- it was deflating, like an extended epilogue to the Henry IV plays. We find out what becomes of Hal, Falstaff, Pistol, Mistress Quickly and other familiar characters, and we see the completion of Hal's redemptive cycle. But the play feels vaguely empty, as if Shakespeare were going through the motions to complete his cycle of history plays and tie up loose ends.

One clue that perhaps Shakespeare was being lazy: The chorus that opens each act -- which has always seemed a bit odd to me -- describes every detail of the setting, a job that in most other plays is handled skillfully by the characters themselves, in context.

What do you think? Do you connect with Henry V as a character? Do you miss Falstaff? Is this play merely a history lesson, or is it successful as a dramatic work?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

After reading the unfortunate Merry Wives of Windsor, let's put Falstaff to rest, once and for all, with Henry V. I look forward to discussing Hal's growth and development from the Henry IV plays. As always, I'll post my thoughts next Sunday at noon, and I look forward to the discussion.

Discussion: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The play: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The plot tweet: Falstaff woos two women to get at their money -- but quickly becomes the fool in his own game. The Bard at his weakest and most commercial.

My favorite line:
Ford: I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
Mistress Page: Be sure of that -- two other husbands.


Let's start today's discussion of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which should be Falstaff's triumphant moment in the spotlight, with the words of renowned Shakespeare critic A.C. Bradley:
[Falstaff is] baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible.
The tradition is that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who had seen at least Henry IV, Part I and wanted to see Falstaff "in love." Shakespeare didn't take the command very seriously, as Falstaff's romantic attachments in this play are merely mercenary, and we have a sense that he didn't enjoy his assignment. His witty wordplay and beautiful poetry are almost entirely absent from this -- dare I say it -- pedestrian comedy of small-town life.

Shakespeare didn't put his whole heart into this play, and thus he didn't give us the real Falstaff. Bloom writes, "the hero-villain of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a nameless impostor masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff." The same could be said for this play. One wishes we could remove this piece of fluff from the Shakespeare canon and assign it to some lesser playwright.

Oddly enough, the most engaging character in this play isn't Falstaff at all. For me, it's Ford/Brooke, who suspects his wife of infidelity but eventually joins her plot to shame Falstaff. I saw this play recently at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and Ford/Brooke got more laughs than every other character combined.

As a side note, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is presenting Merry Wives as one of its headline shows next season, in its largest theater. I assume the director has something special planned, but this still seems to be a very strange decision. We'll see.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Program Reveals Shakespeare's Face (Maybe)

What did Shakespeare really look like? We have several portraits, which don't all look alike (and might not even be Shakespeare anyway). And now we have a 3D model of his face, based on his death mask -- that is, an alleged death mask whose authenticity has long been questioned.

The image will be featured in "Death Masks," a History Channel documentary scheduled to air Sept. 13.

What do you think? Does the face look like the Shakespeare you imagined? Honestly, I can't work up my enthusiasm for this project. Does it really matter what he looked like?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company: Much Ado About Nothing

Did you ever encounter an actor who simply rubs you the wrong way? Someone whose performance you are guaranteed to dislike, no matter what the role? I love the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which does outstanding productions on very small budgets, but the current performance of "Much Ado About Nothing" gives a starring role to a performer I just can't stand (and who is woefully miscast). As soon as I saw the playbill, I groaned.

Unfortunately, the evening didn't get any better from there. This production is riddled with flaws. Set in 1968, the production opens with a peace rally. Throughout the play, the characters smoke pot, make Molotov cocktails and dance around the stage while intoxicated. The jangly bracelets, fringed vests and voluminous bell bottoms distract from the text -- the cardinal sin of any Shakespeare production. Several of the jokes are over-played, and the scenery, featuring neon flaps that open and close, makes absolutely no sense. I spent way too much brain space trying to figure out why certain flaps were opened at certain times.

You know my rule: You can do anything you want with a Shakespeare text -- any setting, any costumes, any casting -- as long as it enriches rather than detracts from the text. Usually, CSC does that very well. Not this time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

For this week, let's visit Falstaff one more time with the much-maligned Merry Wives of Windsor. In addition, I'm giving myself some extra homework: I owe you an update on my recent three-country whirlwind of Shakespearean theater (which I promise to write just as soon as I unpack).

Discussion: The Merchant of Venice

The play: The Merchant of Venice

The plot tweet: Antonio borrows money from Shylock so Bassanio can woo Portia. Bassanio succeeds; Shylock tries to claim "pound of flesh" but is outwitted.

My favorite line:
In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself. (Antonio)


It is, perhaps, now impossible to understand Merchant of Venice in the way Shakespeare intended. After the horrors of the Holocaust, we simply can't view Shylock as the purely comical character that Shakespeare might (or might not) have intended. In the midst of culture wars over gay marriage, we can never understand the Antonio-Bassanio relationship in the same way that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have done. And, in a post-feminist era, we find it difficult to interpret the spunky but also submissive Portia. Reading Merchant today is like falling into Alice's rabbit hole: It is endlessly fascinating, but it leaves us feeling a bit upside-down.

Even the name of the play sometimes causes confusion. Ask the casual Shakespeare fan who the "merchant" of the title is, and he or she is likely to answer "Shylock." (I once made that mistake on a crossword puzzle.) The right answer is, of course, Antonio, the merchant who becomes the target of Shylock's murderous plot. This is not Shylock's play: He appears for the final time in 4.1, and he actually speaks very few lines. Yet he is the character we often remember and discuss, and after he exits, the rest of the play can feel rather empty.

Shylock would seem to be more at home in a tragedy, and perhaps the character got away from his author. His defeat in the courtroom scene is so total -- and so difficult for a post-Holocaust audience to watch -- that it seems Shakespeare was determined to crush him and get back to the comedy he intended to write.

I also find Antonio endlessly fascinating. I could fill a whole post with my questions about him. Why is he so sad at the beginning of the play? Why has he treated Shylock badly in the past? What is his romantic history (if any) with Bassanio, and why does he risk everything for him? What are his feelings about Portia? How does he feel at the end of the play, when the paired-off lovers exit without him? For each of these questions, I can think of at least three possible answers, and every answer offers a whole new interpretation of the play.

One thing modern readers can understand about this play is the Venetian culture of wealth and credit. When Antonio says he is sad, his friends suggest that he is concerned about his investments. When Bassanio wants to woo Portia, he must borrow the money to do it in style -- a theory no one ever bothers to question. The language of this play returns so often to words like gold, treasure and wealth, we would hardly be surprised to see Paris Hilton make a cameo appearance.

One critic has suggested that Antonio is sad because he alone recognizes the emptiness of the Venetian lifestyle, and that he hates Shylock because the money lender embodies what Antonio hates about his own friends. Perhaps so.

Just as I don't know what to think of Antonio, I can't make up my mind about Portia. She is contemptuous of her suitors, often in a racially charged way, and her much-lauded "quality of mercy" speech is merely a hypocrisy, since she soon afterward refuses to show any mercy to Shylock. She is spunky and independent but also bows to the will of her late father and her new husband. She is generous with her friends, but perhaps only because she takes her wealth completely for granted. She has been praised as one of Shakespeare's great heroines and dismissed as a spoiled brat; my own opinion is probably somewhere in between.

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare's work is that we often come away with more questions than answers. Reading a play like Merchant is like looking into a kaleidoscope; the view keeps shifting every time you consider a new possibility. For that reason alone, Merchant is among my favorite Shakespeare plays.