Friday, December 17, 2010

Julius Caesar: The Problem With Top Billing

The Death of Caesar at the Hands of the Senators by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798

As Shakespeare dramatizes the over two-thousand-year-old assassination of Roman general Julius Caesar, he raises a number of timeless questions about the problematic nature of success.  Late rap music great Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G., famously hinted at the heart of the problem when he said that “The more money you make, the more problems you get.”  Whether the bar is set by money, power, position, or even virtue, the rise of any individual to some substantial level of greatness always seems to simultaneously give rise to envy, criticism, and even hatred.   Haters will want to see a great man brought down.  Unfortunately for Caesar, back in 44 BC, haters weren’t just going to hate; they were going to stab you thirty-three times in the chest.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Tempest: Adventures on a Magic Island

Miranda by John W. Waterhouse 1916

It really is as cool as it sounds.  Shakespeare’s The Tempest is like an awesome mash-up of Lost, Harry Potter, and Giligan’s Island.

What we’ve got here are five acts filled with shipwrecks, intrigue, magic, and monsters.  It really is incredibly entertaining.  The play was initially grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, others later categorized it as a romance, but the only descriptor that really matters here is fun, because that’s exactly what The Tempest is.  It’s got everything.

The drama kicks off right away as a ship filled with important passengers (the King of Naples being one) loses its battle with a fierce storm.  However, this particular tempest is not the work of Mother Nature; it was conjured by a POWERFUL SORCERER!  Dun Dun Duuuuuunnnnnn! 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Titus (1999)

Little did I know, when I literally tried to pitch a film adaptation of Titus Andronicus to Quentin Tarantino several months ago, that critically acclaimed director Julie Taymor made her debut bringing Titus to the big screen back in 1999.  I guess that explains why Tarantino’s agent never got back to me.  Note to self: do more research before contacting Hollywood agents with your next big idea.  In fairness to Julie Taymor, I’ll say that I was dreading my viewing of Titus well before I hit play.  Shakespeare’s text is so gruesome and disturbing that I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to make it through the whole film.  But with Taymor’s Tempest on the way, I knew that I had to acknowledge this bold new voice in Shakespearean cinema.

I had braced myself for horror, but nothing could have prepared me for Titus’s opening scene.  Having expected the action to begin in ancient Rome, I was caught completely off guard when the first thing I saw was a young boy with a paper bag over his head, breaking his toys apart amid a large-scale ketchup explosion at a 1950s-era kitchen table. In fact, I was afraid I had inserted the wrong disc into my DVD player.  Though this fear turned out to be unfounded, the strange scene made for anxiety-filled viewing all the same.  Things did calm down for me moments later as a large man, dressed entirely in black, burst through the kitchen window to seemingly kidnap this child.  Normally, this would be alarming, but once you see the kind of mess the kid was making, you’ll accept the fact that he had to be stopped somehow.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Coriolanus: Pride Plus Betrayal Equals Bad News for Everybody

Coriolanus at the Gates of Rome by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1730
In a Rome more ancient than that of Julius Caesar or Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus centers around the marquee-stealing pride of an exceptional Roman soldier, and – no surprise here – the disastrous effects of that greatest of errors.  The arrogant master of arms in question is Coriolanus, but don’t look for that name to pop up until the penultimate scene of Act One; until then, the man who will be known as Coriolanus goes by Martius.  This original name is a great fit, since his prowess on the battlefield inherently associates him with Mars (Roman god of war), and all things martial.

No, not that kind of martian.
Though his reputation precedes him, we don’t get to see our martian friend in action on the battlefield before we see him in the throes of his other powerful passion – hating the common people.  Charming, right?  Being of Roman nobility, Martius disdains the lower class, and is only too happy to give these “dissentious rogues” a piece of his discriminating mind when the need arises.   The commoners have been kicking up an accusation-heavy fuss concerning their oppression at the hands of the ruling class (particularly as it relates to corn for some reason), and have thus been granted tribunes to represent them in the government.  Martius is livid.  He’s really not a “no taxation without representation” kind of guy.   Martius speaks his mind in all things, so his feelings about the common people and their representatives are no secret.  As the play opens, the protesting citizens label him “chief enemy to the people.”

Don't mess with these Romans' corn

Thursday, October 28, 2010

As You Like It (2006)

By any standard, Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 production of As You Like It is exceptional.  It is both an incredibly entertaining film and – in my mind - a terrifically faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s original play.  In the DVD extra “From Page to Screen With Kenneth Branagh,” the director explains that, as a filmmaker adapting Shakespeare, “you’re trying to serve the story in the medium you’re working in” (emphasis added).  The point being that if you just stick to the text, then you don’t have a visually stunning movie; but throw the text out the window in order to make a Star Wars prequel-esque, special effects-heavy, cinematic explosion, then you’ve lost Shakespeare’s genius in the translation.   Brannagh makes neither mistake here.

In As You Like It, Branagh makes the bold decision to change the play’s setting from a French dukedom (of an uncertain time period) to the feudal Japan of the 19th century.  In fact, as the film opened, I felt like the play was happening in the cover art of Weezer’s classic 1996 album Pinkerton.  
You should own this album.
As a huge fan, I was that much more excited about the movie.  The setting change was a make it or break it move for Branagh’s production, one which proves itself over the course of the film to be a brilliant decision. Shakespeare’s play begins with the hostile takeover by Duke Frederick already completed, but the cool new setting allows Brangh to stage it at the film’s outset as a ferocious samurai invasion.  Pairing that awesome open with seamless translation of Shakespeare’s “wrestling” in Act One to the sumo wrestling in the film, and you not only have a dynamite new setting, but also the brilliant juxtaposition of the dukedom’s violence and the peace we find in the Forest of Arden.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Troilus and Cressida: All’s Not Fair in Love and The Trojan War

Cressida and Pandarus View Passing Warriors by Alexandre Bida 1890

I was excited to find that this play, wholly unknown to me prior to this reading, was set during the Trojan War.  I had enjoyed The Odyssey in high school, and more recently made my way through The Illiad (incidentally, I was surprised by where The Illiad ended: Troy is still standing, Achilles’ heel hasn’t been a problem, and nobody had even mentioned a giant horse). Troilus and Cressida presented me with an interesting combination: a play I knew nothing about, but with a cast of characters that I did know fairly well.

It’s a good thing that I am into the Trojan War, because the marquee-garnering romance between Troilus (son to Priam, king of Troy, and youngest brother of Trojan hero Hector) and Cressida (some Trojan lord’s daughter) totally takes a back seat here to the war itself.  Like The Illiad, Troilus and Cressida spends a lot of time on the Greeks’ struggle to get Achilles to come out of his tent and actually fight, and also on what eventually transpires between Achilles and Hector (when Achilles is finally done throwing his little fit).  Cressida completely disappears during Act 2 while we check in on the problems and resulting arguments of both the Greek and Trojan leaders, which wouldn’t have seemed weird if she hadn’t gotten top billing.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Henry V (1989)

I think it’s important to note that I don’t evaluate a film in the Shawn and Shakespeare Film Review Series solely on its own merit, but also on how effectively, and how faithfully, it presents Shakespeare’s original play.   In the case of Henry V, I realize that I am expecting a lot: I want the film to have everything I love in the play, and to be as faithful as possible to it – allotting, of course, for a reasonable degree of change in the transition from stage to screen; yet I also want all the bells and whistles that a motion picture can deliver.  I would indeed like my cake, and the privilege to eat it too.  In short, I know myself to be placing a pretty tall order.

Having said all that, there is no question in my mind that Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 production of Henry V is a great film (though I do ultimately have some complaints).  The greatest strength of this adaptation is a number of excellent performances.  Branagh himself is dynamic as Henry, and was even nominated for an Academy Award for the role (as well as for Best Director).  Derek Jacobi is awesome as the Chorus, and Branagh weaves Jacobi’s narration between scenes brilliantly. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

HENRY V (at the Sedgwick Theater in Philadelphia on Sunday October 3rd 2010)

Performed by the Quintessence Theatre Group, and directed by Alexander Burns

Click here to read my interview with HENRY V director Alexander Burns.

Click here to find out more and to get yourself tickets to this - spoiler alert - AMAZING show!

I had wondered, as I was looking forward to this performance, how it would be possible for Henry V, which is so powerful on the page with its clash of kingdoms in epic battle, to have the same kind of impact when performed on stage. Of course, Shakespeare himself was aware of how ambitious an undertaking this process was, having the Chorus offer the preemptive apology in the Prologue to Henry V: “Pardon, gentles all, / The flat unraised spirits that have dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object.” It was clear to me, from the very first moments of this performance, that the Quintessence Theatre Group and director Alexander Burns had boldly embraced the gutsy spirit of Shakespeare’s original production.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Henry V: England’s Great Underdog (That’s the Humor of It)

The Duke of York Mourns the Death of Suffolk by Alexandre Bida (19th Century)

This play has everything! High stakes action and adventure? Check. The intense drama of war? Check. Great comic elements? Check. Romance? Check. The depth of moral ambiguity and philosophical debate? Check. Suspense, tension, intrigue, betrayal, corruption, funny accents, foreign languages, arrogant braggarts being taken down a peg? Go ahead and call the bank now, because we’re going to need more checks.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

As You LIke It: Dude Looks Like a Lady, Sorts Everybody Out

Rosalind by R.W. Macbeth (1887) - with a name like that, you just have to draw something from Shakespeare!

I liked my other subtitle idea better: “As You Like It: Four Weddings, No Funeral” – but it didn’t really leave me with a whole lot to say.

The conflicts in As You Like It, in one sense, center around two feuding sets of brothers. Duke Frederick has usurped the Dukedom of his older (and aptly named) brother Duke Senior, while elder brother Oliver has neglected (and quickly steps up his villain-game by trying to murder) his own younger and better-liked brother Orlando.

But these feuds really only bookend the play’s action. The real focus of the play is on the various roadblocks and pitfalls facing certain young would-be-lovers. There are four different couples to marry off by the end of the play, and a lot needs sorting in order for that to happen. There is only one man for the job – and it’s a woman. Ok, it’s a woman dressed like a man. Ok, you got me: if you want to get really technical it’s a man playing a woman playing a man.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hamlet (2009)

When I discovered that Doctor Who (David Tennant) plays Hamlet, and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) plays Claudius and the Ghost in this BBC-produced, Gregory Doran-directed version of Hamlet, I was beside myself with excitement. I grew up with Stewart’s Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and my wife and I have spent the last couple years catching up on (and loving every minute of) Tennant’s run as the tenth Doctor on Doctor Who. Needless to say, I was completely geeking out to realize so many of my favorite worlds had herein collided.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hamlet: Supernatural Suspense and The Ethics of War

Hamlet and His Father's Ghost by William Blake (1806)

I’m absolutely amazed by this play. There are so many layers! This was easily my fifth or sixth time reading it, and yet I continue to find new elements. On the surface, there is certainly enough action and excitement to entertain the casual observer, but apparently close readers can come back again and again, each time well-rewarded for their time and trouble. It seems perfectly clear to me why this play garners so much attention, why it is so synonymous with Shakespeare’s genius, why it is the go-to play at every level of education: it is just that good.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Love's Labor's Lost (2000)

I won’t lie. As I sat down to watch my first Netflixed selection in the Shawn and Shakespeare Film Review Series, it came as a complete surprise to me that Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was actually a musical. Not having much experience of any kind with musicals, save that one trip to New York with my wife to get our Broadway on, I prepared to temper my review with a particularly large grain of salt. “It weirded me out, but what do I know?”

My worry was completely unfounded.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Love’s Labor’s Lost: They’re Just Not That Into You

The simple lesson for the fellas in Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labor’s Lost is that when four eligible bachelorettes show up at your doorstep, telling them they’ll have to stay outside in a tent because you’re too busy studying is not your best move.

The King of Navarre and his three-man entourage make a pact at the beginning of the play, swearing off female company for three years, so they can focus on studying. A couple minutes later, who shows up but – you guessed it – female company. The Princess of France arrives with her three attending ladies, to an ungracious welcome and a lame excuse. “Here is my best tent for you ladies. Holler really loud if thou dost need anything. We’ll be in this comfortable castle . . . studying.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare’s Horror

Titus has the dagger. The look on the faces of the guys in the back pretty much says it all.

Titus Andronicus makes Romeo and Juliet with its “tragedy” (yep, Titus comparatively puts that in sarcastic air quotes) and even something like Hamlet (which I had previously subtitled “Everybody Dies”) look like Disney movies by comparison. This play has got Quentin Tarantino written all over it. If I were better connected, I would totally pitch that: “Sorry guys, Branagh is out. I have a better idea.” The point is that this play is beyond frightening: it is well and truly disturbing. It’s not just that it’s a bloodbath start to finish, or that it has such an abundance of mutilation, what makes Titus Andronicus so shudder-inducing is the idea of how horrible human beings can be to one another.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Romeo and Juliet: By Any Other Name

For my money, Romeo and Juliet is an incredibly entertaining play. Not a moment passes without brawling, marrying, killing or some ominous prelude to one of those big three – not, at least, until the Prince comes out at the end to say “Shame on all of you, and me for putting up with you. Look what we did to these poor, whiny teenagers!” I mean, let’s be honest about our protagonists: these two weren’t exactly “look on the bright side” kind of people. One of my favorite scenes sees Romeo sprawled out on the ground of Friar Lawrence’s sell, crying his eyes out about his banishment. Both the bawdy Nurse and the good Friar himself in turn effectively say to Romeo “Geez, man. Seriously? Man up already.” Juliet of course throws some major fits of her own, but she clearly gets that from her crazy dad - one minute she’s his only unswallowed hope, the next he’s ready to kick her out and have her “die in the streets” (3.5.204).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

King John: You Just Can’t Trust Anybody

Having finished The Life and Death of King John, I feel confident in subtitling the play as I have above. Ought Sir Robert Faulconbridge have trusted his wife not to cavort with King Richard I whilst he himself was away on business? That’s a no. Should Lady Faulconbridge have trusted her sons not to expose her adultery after Richard’s death? Also a no. Should the young prince Arthur, arguably the heir to the English throne ahead of his “usurping” Uncle John, have trusted his uncle or even his own grandmother not to plot his death? Again, that’s a no. Should King John have trusted poor Hubert - picked for the job because John thought since he was ugly on the outside, and he just figured “well, if he's ugly on the outside . . .” – anyway, should John have trusted Hubert to stab out the young boy Arthur’s eyes with a hot poker and then kill him? Or should Hubert have trusted King John not to say “why did you kill my nephew just because I asked you to? Geez, man. You could’ve said something. I would have come to my senses if you'd just said something. But, no. You were all like, ‘Sure, King John, I’ll be happy to kill your little nephew for you’” despite the fact he hadn’t actually killed said nephew? Should Arthur, having puppy-dog-eyed his way out of having his eyes burnt out and his short life ended for him, trusted his ability to survive a jump from several stories up to escape captivity? Exactly! A no to every one of those questions.

You just can't trust anybody, I guess.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Look Again

I decided to try writing a sonnet of my own today. Here's what I came up with:

If you could look again on things that pass’d

And change the part you played in what you see,

Before the die you threw had first been cast

And what you've done in life had come to be,

How much to come would you be proud to keep

Compar’d with all your heart would long to change?

Could you then find another moment's sleep

Until you might a new ledger arrange?

This need not die as but a simple dream;

The chance set here before us all is real.

As strange perhaps a thing like this may seem

Can you doubt what your heart begins to feel?

Of life, today is yet the highest bar;

It is today that makes us who we are.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Richard III: Oh No He Didn't

Wow! Richard is so evil! His “monster” resume is unreal. How does he feel about killing family members – no problem, killing children – no problem, trying to woo the woman whose husband you murdered over the dead body of her father-in-law who, of course, you also murdered – you guessed it, that’s no problem!

The thing about Richard though is that he’s not simply a masked horror movie killer, he is more complicated than that. He has a charm about him, a presence. In fact many of his misdeeds are actually accomplished through manipulation. He can convince others to kill for him, can turn brother against brother, he can somehow convince people they can trust him despite the fact that just about everybody connected to him winds up dead, and yes, he can even get the girl whose husband and father-in-law he killed to marry him. I’ll give you one guess what happens to her later on.

Long story short, Richard proves to be every bit the memorable villain that I had heard him to be.

And there is so much that comes to a head in Richard III. Having followed the whole story which led up to this, I’m not surprised to find the conclusion so satisfying. Chronologically, Richard III is the last play of an eight-part story arc. I think that arc, (with its differing chronology and publication) to be pretty interesting in its own right, so I’ll save that for another post.

There is one more item I definitely wanted to mention about Richard III, that being that Act 5 Scene 3 is easily one of my favorite scenes in any play I’ve read so far. At this point, Richard has been going around killing anybody he felt like for a play and a half, and now on the eve of the big final battle between Richard’s army and the late-arriving hero Richmond’s army, all of those victims come for their revenge. As he sleeps, nearly every victim appears to Richard and commands that his guilt weigh heavily on his heart in the coming battle, and a number of victims end their speech with the passionate and powerful line “Despair and die!” How incredible is that?! The ghosts then turn one at a time to Richmond, also camped out and asleep on the opposite side of the stage, and reassure him saying that the spirits will be fighting alongside him tomorrow. What an amazing scene! It comes to life so vividly on the page that I have to believe that it was larger than life on the stage.

Good one, Shakespeare! Take that, Richard III!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

William's History Lesson

As I mentioned, I'm currently reading my way through Shakespeare's histories. Right now, I'm working through Richard III, which is the ninth of the ten for me (only King John is left after this). And other than the Queen Elizabeths and Henry VIII (who I had always assumed was preceded in some fashion by seven other King Henrys - it turns out that was a good guess), I had virtually no prior grasp of the history of the British monarchy. So I've been doing some online research to sort of fill in the blanks in helping me understand the whos and whens, at least as far as the plays are concerned.

This research has drastically improved my understanding of the surprising number of pop-culture references to the historical monarchs. Allow me to illustrate.

Here is the villainous Prince John as I've most recently encountered in the awesome BBC series Robin Hood. Well - spoiler alert - he goes on to become the King John whose play I'll be reading next. John's grandson, also an English king (though not the subject of any Shakespearean play), is none other than . . .

. . . Edward I, a.k.a. Edward Longshanks, a.k.a. the sadistic bad guy from the movie Braveheart - which was amazing if you've never seen it. My family still has a VHS copy - you know a movie is epic when it takes two VHS tapes to contain it. Anyway, I digress. Edward just happens to be the great-grandfather to a British king who is cool enough to have his own Shakespearean play, and that man is . . .

. . . Richard II. Richard, however, is not cool enough to keep his crown from being taken from him by Henry IV (who gets not one, but two plays). Cue some nasty business between the Houses of York and Lancaster (i.e. The War(s) of the Roses), flash forward almost one hundred years, during which there are six more kings, and then we finally come to . . .

. . . the prolific-marrying, church-schism-creating, wife-killing, Henry VIII. I knew him best from the first couple seasons my fiancee and I watched of the Showtime series The Tudors, which, like Shakespeare, didn't give Henry VII - Henry VIII's dad, the original Tudor monarch - a whole lot of airtime.

For me, it has been really cool to be able to connect all of these dots; and, in the process, to come to understand a number of things I have really enjoyed that much better.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Status

(This is one of the three spreadsheets that I'm currently using to keep track of my progress. I'm crazy like that.)

At present, to the best of my understanding, there are thirty-eight surviving plays that are widely accepted to be – whether as significant part of a collaboration or as a whole – the work of William Shakespeare. If you count thirty-six in your ultra-rare first printing of Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies from 1623 (a.k.a. The First Folio), then take note of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Two Noble Kinsmen to bring yourself up to that current total.

My goal is to read them all, along with the 154 sonnets and other poems he definitely wrote, not to mention the smattering of works which he may or may not have had anything to do with – just to be safe.

In any case, my main focus to start with has been the plays. Again, counting only from Julius Caesar last spring, not the half-dozen plays I was assigned in high school or college, my completion stats at the moment are:

12 of 16 Comedies (Still to go: Love’s Labor’s Lost, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Two Noble Kinsmen)

8 of 10 Histories (Still to go: Richard III, and King John)

2 of 12 Tragedies (Still to go: everything except Julius Caesar and Macbeth)

22 of 38 Total

Now, before you start e-mailing me with things like “What do you mean you never read Hamlet?” or “Hey, I taught you Romeo and Juliet!” please know that while I could make a good case for having read those and three other tragedies at least once, the fact is that I encountered those plays too long ago to claim any credit for the purpose of this mission.

Most recently I have been making my way through the histories, and I’m getting really into them! More on that next post. For now, I will say that I’m currently reading Richard III. Although I’m only one act in, – SPOILER ALERT – the word on the street is that he is a bad, bad man.

Very much unlike yourself, who is awesome for reading this blog (along with other great awesomeness credentials, I’m sure).


Friday, March 26, 2010

The Mission

I am on a mission to read everything that William Shakespeare ever wrote. The more I look into it, the less sure I am exactly how much material that is, but more on that later. The Shakespeare project has been a major focus of mine since this past September, though it actually began a few months before that, and had been something I kind of had in mind for several years now. I’m not counting anything before March of last year, when I read and taught Julius Caesar (neither for the first time). Since then, I have read twenty-two of Shakespeare's thirty-eight canonical plays - more on the canon later too, if you’re wondering.

It started simply enough: I graduated college in 2006 with a Bachelor’s in English and my teaching certification, but what I didn’t have was the feeling that I was terribly well-read. My college had an excellent English program, but for every classic work of literature I did study, I realized that there were dozens more that I hadn’t. Throughout my first four years in education, I’ve become more and more driven to become the best teacher I can be. I may not ever be able to actually know it all (despite my occasional attitude suggesting the contrary), but I am determined to constantly learn as much as I can. I feel very strongly that every book or play that I read helps make me a better English teacher, and – in the well-rounded, man of the world sense – a better person.

I figured that if I was going to expand my knowledge of literature that there was no better place to start than at the top – and that meant Shakespeare. For many people, Shakespeare is the greatest challenge they face as readers. If I could crack that code, I thought, if I could know everything there was to know about Shakespeare, then I could look in the mirror and know that I truly belonged in front of an English classroom.

Operating on the very best of advice (my amazing fiancée’s), I’m going to share my Shakespeare experience here on this blog in a variety of forms. The mission has been going so well, and has really surprised me in that this is no longer simply an item on my long-term to-do-list, instead it is a full-fledged passion, and one I hope might become interactive and interpersonal in this new medium. I appreciate your interest, and I would love to receive your comments, questions, reactions, personal experiences and reviews, or anything else you can think of.

In my next post, I plan to share the details of what I have under my belt so far, what is on my plate right now, and my plan of attack for the rest of Shakespeare’s catalogue.

Until then, best wishes!