Shakespeare Uncovered

February 2, 2013 at 10:31 am (As You Like It, Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Macbeth, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

shakespeare_uncovered_basic_page_main_image_528x297CI wanted to post a detailed review of the exciting new PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered. Unfortunately, the shows air late on Friday nights and I keep falling asleep while I’m watching them, so I am not able to give you a useful summary. But I will tell you to watch them! The videos are on the PBS website, so watch them at your leisure… I plan to!

Each of the six episodes features a different Shakespearean actor delving into the “story behind the story” of various plays. In the first episode, Ethan Hawke takes you on his journey to prepare himself for playing Macbeth. He talks about the dark side of this man… is the evil in this play supernatural or is it within Macbeth? He goes into the theatrical history of the play, the witches, the unfiltered evil of Lady Macbeth, and the drama of the dagger speech. And much more. When I have a chance to re-watch, I will post more about it.

In the next episode, Joely Richardson talks to her mother Vanessa Redgrave about the wonderful women characters in Shakespeare as she focuses on the comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. I admit to major snoozing during this one, but no fault of the show itself, which I am eager to re-watch.

shakespeare-uncovered-8Last night, Jeremy Irons talked about Henry IV and V… made me really excited to watch and read these history plays down the road. I have gotten so bogged down with my project for this blog, but I still plan to read through and comment on all the plays some day, and this episode made me quite excited about the Henry plays.

And then the late one (the snoozer for me) last night was Derek Jacobi on Richard II… again making me look forward to this history play. He talks much about the modernity of the play, how it speaks to the behavior of despots throughout history. Jacobi also brings up the authorship question and his Oxfordian beliefs.

Next week comes The Tempest with Trevor Nunn and Hamlet with David Tennant. Don’t miss this series… it is really special.

I was also excited to see my favorite local Shakespeare group, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, do a series of entertaining 60-second Shakespeare videos that show between the episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered on Maryland Public Television. I hope they get wider distribution, as they’re really well done. Watch here, the short videos on Ghosts, Hamlet, and Shakespeare in America. CSC is also hosting a number of roundtable discussions in conjunction with Shakespeare Uncovered. There is one left about Hamlet next week, February 5 in Annapolis.

I’m so excited about this nicely-done series, and I look forward to enjoying it again and again in the future!

© All Content, Copyright 2013 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Signature Shakespeare

October 6, 2012 at 10:50 am (Asides, Hamlet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

A while back I read a piece by Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles about a beautiful new series of Shakespeare’s plays in print: Signature Shakespeare by Sterling Publishing. These works are illustrated with lovely laser-cut illustrations by artist Kevin Stanton. This interview with Stanton on the Casual Optimist blog gives more info and pictures of these amazing books.

I see Barnes and Noble is selling a Nook version, which seems like an idiotic marketing idea for these particular books which are meant to be touched.

Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet are currently available. Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet will be released in the fall (you can pre-order now through B&N). More to come if sales are good. I hope they are! On his website, artist Stanton who is only 23, says: “I’m so proud of these, and feel really lucky to have gotten such a sweet job….I hope that you enjoy them – I know I do!”

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Slings and Arrows

May 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm (Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Oh my, oh my, what fun I’ve had the last couple weeks watching the first season of the 2003 Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The show is set in fictional New Burbage where a venerated Shakespeare festival (a la Stratford, Ontario) is undergoing major changes in personnel, funding, and focus. I will be honest, I didn’t expect much from this series, but oh my, it is excellent… modern and funny, wonderful characters, great acting, and of course, the central theme is the actors’ efforts to put Shakespeare on the stage.

The show begins with the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the accidental death of the festival’s artistic director Oliver (played by Stephen Oimette). Former actor Geoffrey (Paul Gross) is pulled in to replace Oliver, and finds himself haunted by Oliver’s ghost. Sounds corny, but it works! Many complications ensue, as Geoffrey must produce Hamlet, a play that marked the end of his acting career when he suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of a performance. The back story unfolds slowly over a number of episodes, with the help of Oliver’s ghost. We learn that Geoffrey was in love with leading lady Ellen (played by Paul Gross’s real life wife Martha Burns) and heartbroken when he learned that Ellen had slept with Oliver, who is gay.

The comic foil to the actors’ drama is the hilarious, almost slapstick idiocy of the marketing office, fronted by clueless general manager Richard (Mark McKinney) but really controlled by the corporate schemer Holly (Jennifer Irwin). Holly sends elderly board member May into a coma when she brings into her hospital room a scale model of the proposed “Shakespeareville” theme park, complete with glitzy theater for performances of two musicals per day!

There is also a great side story involving the young Kate (Rachel McAdams), who ends up playing a mighty fine Ophelia, and her Hamlet, the American movie star Jack (Luke Kirby), who lacks the courage to face his slings and arrows until the very last moment, when he pulls off a great performance. As Anna the stage manager says at the end, “F— me blue, we’re done.” (Umm, yeah, this series is not recommended for children.)

What I liked best, not surprisingly, was watching actors discuss Shakespeare’s words and meaning and how to bring it to life on the modern stage. I’m sure all modern Shakespeare companies face these realities… marketing, financing productions, the difficulty finding audiences, artistic differences, personality conflicts. It is fun to watch it all play out. When Geoffrey takes over as director of Hamlet, he says, “One encouraging thing that I can say is I just happen to believe this play is the single greatest achievement in Western art. We’ve got that much going for us.” Bravo!

I’m looking forward to watching season two unfold around Macbeth and season three with King Lear. I don’t think I’ve seen another TV series rated 5 stars on Amazon, but this one is. It’s also on Netflix. Watch it!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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And There’s the Humor of It

March 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm (Asides, Hamlet, Live Performances, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew) (, , , , )

Phlegm, Image from Deutsche Kalendar, 1498. Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library.

Why am I sick? Why is he greedy? Why is she a shrew? In Shakespeare’s time, these questions would have been answered using the four humors. I realize that means very little to most people today. In Shakespeare’s world, people were thought to be ruled by four bodily fluids (called “humors”) — blood, phlegm, black bile (also called melancholy), and yellow bile (also called choler). Each of these fluids was believed to have inherent qualities that when in balance brought good health. When the humors were out of balance, illness and behavioral/personality problems resulted.

Medicine focused on bringing the humors into balance. Each humor was associated with moisture and heat. So, to bring them back into balance, the physician might add the opposite quality or take away whatever was in overabundance. For example, heat would help someone suffering from too much phlegm or melancholy (“cold” humors). Bloodletting would help a person with a fever, who must have an overabundance of blood (a “hot” humor).

Based on a picture from the book "The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World" by Brian M. Fagan

How do I know all this? I live in a cool place (phlegmatic?!). The Folger Shakespeare Library is, of course, a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers. But there is a whole lot more coolness in the Washington DC area. There is the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Why is this a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers? They currently have an exhibition called And There’s the Humor of It: Shakespeare and the Four Humors.

The exhibition is lovely, with books from the National Library of Medicine’s collection tracing humorism back to its roots in antiquity… Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Humorism, especially as expanded upon by Galen, was a comprehensive system and was used to explain… just about everything. From the exhibition’s website:

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) created characters that are among the richest and most humanly recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood human personality in the terms available to his age—that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors—blood, bile, melancholy, and phlegm. These four humors were thought to define peoples‘ physical and mental health, and determined their personalities, as well.

The language of the four humors pervades Shakespeare‘s plays, and their influence is felt above all in a belief that emotional states are physically determined. Carried by the bloodstream, the four humors bred the core passions of anger, grief, hope, and fear—the emotions conveyed so powerfully in Shakespeare‘s comedies and tragedies.

Today, neuroscientists recognize a connection between Shakespeare‘s age and our own in the common understanding that the emotions are based in biochemistry and that drugs can be used to alleviate mental suffering.

Bonny Kate, the Shrew (e.g., full of choler), W. Joseph Edwards, Angry face of Katharine Minola, 1847. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

I attended a lecture  called “Shrew Taming and Other Tales of the Four Humors” at NLM by Gail Kern Paster, the former director of the Folger and co-curator of the current NLM exhibition. According to Paster, Shakespeare’s audience would have understood life through the lens of the four humors, and there would have been no way for them to separate the psychological from the physical qualities attributed to the humors. So, she said to read Shakespeare “humorally,” that is, with the humors in mind, brings a much deeper understanding of his work.

Paster calls the humors “a code largely opaque and unknown to us” since they have no place in modern medicine and are largely forgotten now. But she says they were pervasive in Shakespeare’s time, and taking the effort to look for the language of the humors (i.e. references to heat, cold, moisture, and dryness) helps decipher meaning in Shakespeare and adds depth to understanding his works.

Paster focused her talk on the humors associated with three Shakespearean characters: Shylock, Ophelia, and Katherine Minola (bonny Kate, aka the Shrew). These characters were selected for the NLM exhibition because they displayed evidence of the “darker emotions” associated with melancholy and choler (much more interesting than boring phlegm which corresponded to a lack of activity).

Melancholy, Henry Peacham, “Melancolia,” Minerva Britanna, 1612. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

The humors were thought to literally make you who you were. Because humorism was so all-encompassing, Shakespeare couldn’t help but to write with the assumption that his audience understood the context, implications and references to these things that simply go right over our heads today. However, we can watch for triggers that indicate Shakespeare is speaking humorally… often when he is describing emotions in physical terms.

The Greek physician/philosopher Galen expanded on the humoral system and added a whole host of other things to consider including the environment, place of birth, gender, age, etc. Paster noted that “The power of Galenism is it is so multifactorial… pick your factors and you have an explanation.” So, for example, the taming of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew involves manipulating a number of Galenic elements like diet and activity level to deal with Katherine Minola’s overabundance of choler.

Bloodletting, 1860. Photo from the Burns Archive.

Paster’s talk was fascinating and introduced me to a whole layer of “stuff” in Shakespeare that I had never before heard of. I have to say, I will certainly be on the lookout for humoral references from now on, even if I understand them imperfectly. The thing that amazed me most is that this system was used for about two thousand years, and it is only in the last 150 years or so that it has been almost completely erased. Bloodletting continued well into the 1800s. Think about how much things have changed!

If you live in the DC area, you may want to take a trip to Bethesda to view the exhibition at the NLM. It will be on display at the History of Medicine through August 17, 2012. While you’re there, be sure to take in the very nice (and much bigger) exhibit on Native American medicine (you really need a couple hours to do it justice). The Shakespeare exhibition includes a traveling exhibit that will be touring the country. If you can’t see it in person (and even if you can, actually), check out the excellent website they have put together. For teachers, there are extremely well-done lesson plans for middle and high school, as well as a college-level teaching module. Maybe you will get as interested in humorism as I have!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Hobart Shakespeareans

November 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

My kids go to school in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the best districts in the U.S. and yet my 10 year old is struggling to put words onto paper. Here I am, a writer, an editor… a person who loves words. And I have really struggled with helping my son, because the way he is taught makes no sense to me. He brings home the most inane worksheets, character maps… busy work! I don’t write like that and I don’t even like thinking about them.

I’ve struggled with this and then last week, Jay Mathews, an education columnist in the Washington Post, wrote a column that put my ambivalence into words: Writing Lessons? Please stop. He speaks of the mechanical way children are taught to write. This was what I needed to see. This is the paragraph where I had my epiphany:

The result of such clerical work is usually unreadable. Few people who learn to write this way ever make it their life’s work. The professional writers I know got excited not in class but while compiling personal journals, or composing poems and songs, or sending long letters or e-mails to friends, or working for the school newspaper.

A friend of mine who teaches said she uses the “hamburger model” — layering sentences in each paragraph — for teaching writing to little kids. No offense, Debbie, or if any of my kids’ teachers read this, but… I can’t imagine getting excited about writing that way. It is clerical. It’s boring! No, it’s mind-numbing. And it has very little to do with translating thoughts onto paper. I have a vague and excruciating memory of being forced to write a paper on Huckleberry Finn in high school using outlines and this kind of structured paragraph. Eeek!

I essentially studied reading and writing in college (English lit, history and Spanish) and wrote a whole lot of papers. I skipped Freshman English, but had a writing seminar first quarter Freshman year where I learned a lasting lesson. My professor, Michael Squires, covered my papers with T’s for “Tighten”! Say what you mean in as few words as possible. Cut to the chase. I’ve been writing professionally for decades — research reports, proposals, articles, books. I have never once thought about structuring my paragraphs like hamburgers. I think about what I’m trying to say… and then I make sure I say it clearly. And I Tighten (thank you, Dr. Squires!). And I edit, edit, and re-edit my own work.

So, I struggled with helping my son, and then a light went off and I thought… no, I cannot help him with any of the busy work, but I can help him learn to write, because I love to write and I am good at it. Reading and writing and learning about words and loving them… that I get. I know that teachers have a tough job, but using structured methods is not the way to teach a creative skill. Jay Mathews is apparently getting quite a lot of feedback. The latest column asked people to share their anecdotes: What made you a better writer? I’m looking forward to the follow-up columns.

So, with this all recently on my mind, it was with great interest that I watched The Hobart Shakespeareans (made by Mel Stuart for the PBS series POV). In the mode of Jaime Escalante, made famous 25 years ago in Stand and Deliver for hooking inner city kids on calculus, this documentary follows Rafe Esquith, who uses Shakespeare and great literature to hook his 5th graders. A veteran elementary school teacher who has respect and high expectations for his students, Esquith loves what he does and he sees huge rewards for his efforts.

In contrast to the suburban school my kids attend, Esquith teaches in a huge inner city Los Angeles school surrounded by inner city crime. In one scene, there is a murder a block away and they lock down the school rather than letting the kids walk home with a killer loose. The kids take it in stride — this is the reality where they live. Yet Esquith has created an oasis for these kids with two rules: Be Nice. Work Hard.

And they do. They learn to play music, they read great literature they can relate to like Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, and Huck Finn (hopefully without writing outlines and hamburger paragraphs!). And they read and play Shakespeare. In the film, Shakespearean actors Michael York and Ian McKellen (who the students treat like a rock star) visit the class to share their love of the Bard. The children put on a performance of Hamlet. A teary McKellen notes that what always impresses him in Esquith’s class is that the children understand Hamlet… they really understand the words. He notes that this cannot be said for all actors who play Shakespeare.

Esquith is realistic. He is shown speaking to a shocked audience at a teachers conference about the fact that some kids will get left behind… that he knows that’s the truth and that some kids fail. His point is that if everyone is given a fair chance, it is then up to the kids to decide to do the work. He has a big poster in his classroom that reads, “There Are No Shortcuts,” and in one scene he is shown talking to some kids he caught cheating… he talks to them quietly and says afterward that he knows it won’t happen again.

The students are from immigrant families — the year this was filmed, all the students spoke English as their second language and spoke their native language with their families at home. Most are Latino or Korean. The neighborhood is rough. Esquith wants them to get out. He wants them to get a taste of the world they can strive for, so he takes them on trips to Washington DC and Mount Rushmore and they stay in nice hotels and eat at good restaurants (a nonprofit organization started by a former student funds their activities).

He takes them to colleges so they can see what it is like in a place of learning and respect where everyone is working hard and no one will bother them. He tells them he believes in them and he knows they can do it. I wish my kids could have an experience like this instead of the busy work “great curriculum” that results in high standardized test scores (I guess) at their school.

I love writing about literature, but please deliver me from ever having to fill out a character trait map about Romeo or Hamlet. Dear God. I think it would stop even me from wanting to write. Stop me dead and put me into a coma. You should see what it does to my 10 year old. And yeesh, you should see the mess he makes on these things trying to scribble crap into the little boxes and circles. (To be fair, maybe it helps some learners organize their thoughts… it does not work for me, and apparently not for my son!)

I’m reminded of a quote my friend uses: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” (Not sure if this originally comes from Yogi Berra or Einstein or computer scientist Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut!) I think it describes the situation at my kids’ school. There is a disconnect when they teach mean, median, and mode to second graders who haven’t yet mastered division. There is a disconnect focusing on the mechanics of writing and leaving out the art and creativity and meaning. I think teachers like Escalante and Esquith make the connection between theory and practice. They create a passion in the kids and help them find meaning. It’s a rare gift.

The film about the Hobart Shakespeareans ends after their performance of Hamlet, as the children are filled with emotion and many in tears. Esquith gives them a final pep talk, telling them that they have learned things they never thought they could learn and that this is just the beginning… that he knows they can do so much more. Reminding them of the life lessons they have learned, he quotes Hamlet by saying, “The readiness…” and the children finish “is all!”

The readiness is all.

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)

July 21, 2010 at 11:14 pm (Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , )

Have you ever seen it? It’s very silly. I saw it maybe 10 years ago, and to be honest, I don’t remember any specifics. I remember coming out of the theater a bit breathless from the zaniness of it all. I remember feeling the same way after the Complete History of America (abridged).

The Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) website lists seven minimum opuses! In addition to Shakespeare and American history, they’ve tackled sports, Hollywood, the great books, western civilization and the bible. My, they’ve found quite a little niche here! I’m sure they’re all quite funny.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to revisit when I saw a video of a 2000 stage production of the RSC performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is available on Netflix (it’s also on YouTube).

The Wikipedia article summarizes the play’s action succinctly:

The three actors first introduce themselves to the audience and begin with a parody of Romeo and Juliet. Next, they do a parody of Titus Andronicus, portraying it as a cooking show. Following it is Othello, which is done through a rap song. The rest of the first act demonstrates most of the other plays, with all of the comedies being combined into one convoluted reading (the justification being that they all recycle the same plot devices anyway), all of the histories being acted out through an American football game with the British Crown as the football (or as a soccer match in at least one German production or an Australian Rules football game in the recent Australian production), a reduction of Julius Caesar to his death, followed immediately by a reduction of Antony and Cleopatra, and a reduction of Macbeth to one duel while explaining all the other elements (witches, Macbeth’s downfall, etc.) in poor Scottish accents. There is also a failed attempt at scholarly discussion of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. At the end of the act, the characters are about to finish when they realize that they forgot to perform Hamlet, Shakespeare’s greatest work. Adam (Adam Long) becomes nervous and petulant about this and runs out of the theater with Austin chasing him. The final actor is left to entertain the audience by himself, which he does by telling jokes and calling for the intermission (the role’s second performer, Reed Martin, who studied clowning before becoming part of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, would play the William Tell Overture on his larynx and eat fire before calling for intermission).

After the intermission, the two actors who left return, saving their partner from having to cover the sonnets by writing them down on a 3×5 card and passing it around the audience. The reluctant one is convinced to continue with the performance. The entire second act is the performance of Hamlet. The audience gets involved during this segment when one audience member is asked to portray Ophelia for the Nunnery Scene. The rest of the audience makes up Ophelia’s subconscious, with three sections that each represent her ego, superego, and id. After the portrayal of Hamlet, the actors play it out several times increasing their speed of delivery. They finish by performing it backwards.[1]

Oh yes. It’s as silly as it sounds. I don’t really have much to add. The whole thing is silly from beginning to end. Hamlet (half the show) is really funny. The play-within-the-play is presented as a puppet show and a shark with Jaws music makes an appearance. They skip the “To be, or not to be” speech because the audience is laughing and makes the actor self-conscious (he milks it). Ophelia drowns on a cup of water (this is even funnier when done in reverse in the finale).

It’s a giggle-fest. It’s very kid-friendly, too. My preschooler was loving it. He was especially fond of the guy that often needed to vomit on audience members (always a crowd-pleaser with the little ones). He also liked the accordion playing, the fire eating (and marshmallow roast) and the William Tell Overture tapped on the larynx. That, my friends, is a very special skill.

© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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