Five Myths about William Shakespeare

September 6, 2015 at 4:18 pm (Asides, Shakespeare's Life) (, , )

The Washington Post publishes a weekly piece called “Five Myths about…” on various topics and this week’s happened to be “Five Myths about William Shakespeare.” The author, Ari Friedlander, is writing a book called “Rogue Sexuality: The Erotics of Social Status in Early Modern England” about sex, crime and class in Shakespeare’s era.

The 5 myths he addresses include the authorship question and the related huge vocabulary and lack of education questions. It all boils down to this: “It is far more likely that the many contemporaneous references to Shakespeare, like that of Francis Meres in 1598, mean what they say: that William Shakespeare, stage actor, theater owner and, yes, barley hoarder, was a widely recognized and admired writer.”

Friedlander also brings up the myth of Shakespeare being a lone artist when there is ample evidence that he collaborated with others on a number of projects. And finally, probably the closest to Friedlander’s heart given the topic of the book he’s writing, the fifth myth is that Shakespeare’s love poetry was written to a woman. Friedlander contends that much of it was written to “Mr. W.H.” and that male-to-male eroticism was much less stigmatized in Elizabethan times than now. And that actually, the skin color of the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets would have been more shocking at the time than the gender of Mr. W.H.

I thought his myth-busting was interesting and it has raised quite a stir in the comments section! What do you think of it?

Sorry for my long blog hiatus… my time to read and write about Shakespeare is severely limited these days, but I hope to continue on my project reading and commenting on all the plays some day. I notice I have some unpublished draft posts sitting there silently waiting to see the light of day, so I’ll take a look back at them and release them soon!

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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!

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December 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , )

I enrolled in graduate school unexpectedly shortly after I started this blog project. So, my progress on the project of reading through Shakespeare’s plays has been glacial, but I intend to keep plugging away. The Two Gentlemen of Verona are sitting there patiently waiting for me. They’ll get my attention soon.

In the meantime, it’s the end of the semester, and while I’m over a year from finishing my degree, I have already earned a doctorate in procrastination! Yay, me! Shakespeare is not wholly responsible for my distractions, but he has his place in my Netflix queue, and every little bit helps!

So, I was pleased today to watch a brief survey of Shakespeare’s life and works courtesy of A&E’s Biography series called William Shakespeare: A Life of Drama. It’s an easy watch, nothing too exciting, but a good basic biography. The story is interspersed with clips from film and stage, there are interviews with Shakespeare scholars and other experts (I enjoyed seeing director Peter Hall). This would be a good introductory classroom video… at 45 minutes, it’s the right length, and it moves along fairly well. This was produced quite a while ago, but A&E still has a classroom guide on their website.

So, I gave you the good news first. Now for the other in my twofer post. I had the misfortune last week of watching The Shakespeare Conspiracy. After seeing Anonymous, I was vaguely interested in learning more about Derek Jacobi’s part in the authorship debate. He narrates this one.

Well, what can I say? Yawnnn. I’ll be honest, I watched it with the same complete slack-jawed disbelief that I felt when first learning about the tenets of Rastafarianism… what with the holy weed smoking and the deification of Haile Selassie (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Um, yeah. So, I felt that same kind of disconnect from reality while watching this. Really? I mean… really?

Alrighty. Well, they served their purpose of distracting me from my studies at a critical moment. Well done! Now, I have one exam left, some Christmas decorating and cookie baking, etc., and then The Two Gentlemen are waiting for me in Verona and maybe I’ll even get to The Comedy of Errors during winter break!

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November 5, 2011 at 6:38 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , , , , )

The authorship debate is not my thing. At all. I believe in my man, Will. Will wrote the plays, people. Got that?

So, when I heard rumblings about this film, Anonymous, I was not interested, not even thinking about going to see it. I thought I might watch it on video some day when I had nothing better to do. I thought it was going to be just so much more noise. I heard it compared to Oliver Stone’s JFK. Conspiracy theory extraordinaire! The real inside scoop! Someone finally put all the pieces together!

I am so glad I left all THAT NOISE behind and actually went out to watch this film! It is wonderful! Splendid! I loved it!

And no, I have not suddenly turned Oxfordian! Have no fear. That will not happen!

Let’s get the truth out right now, okay? It’s Fiction. F-I-C-T-I-O-N.

I hate to break the news, but the historical accuracies in this film are by far outweighed by the fun fiction. Hello? Do people really believe that Queen Elizabeth had multiple bastards? Hello? Do people really believe… okay, I’ll let it go.

It’s fiction. So is Shakespeare in Love, and you know I love Shakespeare in Love. I think I may love Anonymous even more.

This film is luscious! Beautiful cinematography. Absolutely breathtaking! Wonderful acting! Fantastic sets and costumes. A feast. I mean, wow! And smart. And entertaining! There’s romance, tragedy, intrigue, farce… even a miracle at the end that saves the plays from destruction.

This film is truly Shakespearean to the core (a seemingly impossible feat since the film is set on portraying Oxford as the Bard!). We revel in the beauty of the words here. The plays are beloved and treated with reverence in this film. Many are partially staged and it’s just lovely to see.

Shakespeare loved the play within the play. This whole film is a play within a play… and so much more! Here when the Mousetrap in Hamlet is staged, we have the play within the play within the play within the play within the movie. Bravo! (Let’s go over that… we have the Mousetrap which is Shakespeare’s play within Hamlet and it’s all happening in the play which is the story of Oxford’s authorship which is set within the framework of a modern play about the authorship question in the movie Anonymous. Yes, there will be a quiz!) It reminds me of the scene in Mad Men where Sally Draper talks to the neighbor boy about the infinity of little Land O’ Lakes Indians on the butter box (the Indian is holding the butter box with the picture of the Indian holding the butter box with the picture of the Indian holding the butter box…).

I think Shakespearean scholars (which I’m not) would catch all kinds of allusions in this film that go over my head. I think Shakespeare/Tudor film/TV buffs (which I’m not… keep your eye on BardFilm) will see all sorts of allusions to shows that go over my head (for example, I noticed Elizabeth’s finger sucking in her dotage, which I just happened to see Glenda Jackson do in the old BBC series Elizabeth R).

Love this film. Love it! I was so happy watching it! I was smiling through much of it and smiling on my way home! Oh my goodness, Rafe Spall playing Shakespeare does such a fully fantastic performance of this farcical jackass… I literally laughed out loud every time he appeared on screen. And can I say, thank you Rafe, for redeeming yourself in my eyes after that truly godawful film One Day… one of the few movies I would have walked out on, but my friend kept telling me it HAD to get better (it didn’t). Rafe Spall, you are redeemed. (I just want to point out that Rafe is the son of Timothy Spall who played the trippy Don Armado in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost).

Rafe Spall’s Shakespeare is a relatively minor character in Anonymous. The film belongs to the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans who has been a fave of mine since the quirky Danny Deckchair). Oxford is also played well in his youth by Jamie Campbell Bower and  by Luke Thomas Taylor as a boy. Other fine characters here are Queen Elizabeth (played convincingly at different ages by Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson), Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), and then there are the Cecils, Southampton, Essex, etc.

It’s a great story… and amazingly loose ends are tied, i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed! It makes perfect sense!

Just one more reminder, repeat after me: It’s fiction. It’s wonderful Shakespearean fiction! Enjoy!

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Shakespeare, In Fact

April 6, 2011 at 11:00 am (Asides, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , , , )

Last month I read the most extraordinary obituary in the Washington Post: A Local Life: Irvin Leigh Matus, 69, penniless Shakespeare scholar who lived by his own design.

Ever since arriving in Washington in 1985, Irvin Matus seemed to survive on little more than charm, wit and the kindness of friends and strangers.

He seldom had a paying job — mostly out of stubborn pride — choosing instead to spend the past 25 years as an independent scholar of the life and works of William Shakespeare. He showed up each day at the Library of Congress or Folger Shakespeare Library to conduct his research, then slipped away in the evening to cadge food from Capitol Hill cocktail receptions, striding in as if he were a congressman.

He lived in dozens of places as an itinerant housesitter and became known as something of a “man who came to dinner.”

“Invite him to stay the night,” a fellow Shakespeare scholar told The Washington Post last week, “and he might still be in your home a month later.”

It reminds me of Six Degrees of Separation, except that he wasn’t scamming anyone — it’s how he wanted to live his life! He just wanted to study, so he hung out all day on Capitol Hill at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress and sometimes, when he had nowhere else to stay, he slept at a nearby construction site and then cleaned up in the morning in the public restrooms. When people asked where he lived, Matus answered, “The Hill,” like everyone else in the DC neighborhood around the Capitol building. I get such a kick out of this! What a character!

I find Matus’s story amazing. He had no formal education beyond high school and he was not affiliated with a university. He was a baseball stats genius and a Shakespeare lover. He simply studied for studying sake. A true scholar! He published a couple of apparently well-received books, including Shakespeare, The Living Record and Shakespeare, In Fact. According to the Post obit:

He wrote magazine articles for Harper’s and the Atlantic and went on to publish in 1994 a second book, “Shakespeare, in Fact,” which has come to be recognized as a near-definitive refutation of the argument that the works of Shakespeare were written by someone other than the historical Bard of Avon.

“He distinguished himself by his passion for Shakespeare, his deep respect for the historical record, and his devotion to research,” Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “His book, ‘Shakespeare, in Fact,’ was recognized as a reliable, trustworthy, and authoritative source for what we know for sure about Shakespeare.”

Wow! So, as you may remember from my previous brief foray into the authorship question, I am not very interested in it. I don’t really care about the conspiracy theories. It’s just noise to me. Beside the point.

But I thought this guy was so interesting that I wanted to see his book. I was able to get it through inter-library loan, so I ordered it. ILL doesn’t give me much time with it, and frankly, I’m not that interested in the minutiae of the arguments, but I can say after skimming: anyone who wonders whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare should take a look at this book. Matus takes every little piece of evidence used by Oxfordians (people who argue that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays) and explains in minute detail everything he found in his research to refute each minute detail. This book is minutiae.

I don’t find the authorship question intriguing and I don’t have much time to pore over the evidence one way or the other, but I do find Irvin Matus intriguing! He was an amazingly free spirit. Anyway, if you have questions about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, this is the book for you.  I think it will make a diehard Stratfordian out of you! (Steve!)

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Much Ado About Something

June 26, 2010 at 11:16 pm (Asides, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , , , )


My brother asked me a couple weeks ago who wrote the plays. I told him Shakespeare. And also I don’t care about the authorship hubbub. It doesn’t interest me and I’d rather spend my time on the plays, not on the conspiracy theories. He said he liked the noise.

Then I remembered when I was searching for video versions of Much Ado About Nothing, I had seen available on Netflix a 2002 Frontline episode called Much Ado About Something. So, I put it in my queue.

It’s noise. It’s not even well done noise. Just noise. In this version, Michael Rubbo, the filmmaker, has an agenda that he puts right out there from the start. He is quoted on the PBS website:

Well, I feel in my gut that Shakespeare was not the author. I don’t think the proof against him is conclusive, but he just doesn’t feel and smell like the author to me.

Okie dokie. He believes Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 murder was staged, that Marlowe escaped to Italy and wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He believes Shakespeare was an actor and plausible front man who received Marlowe’s manuscripts and slightly modified them.

So in this version of reality, Marlowe and Shakespeare are collaborators. Marlowe is Cambridge-educated and has the necessary book-learning. He’s also the more successful poet and playwright (a “fast learner”) at the time of his supposed death at age 29. As it’s put in the film:

So, they become writing partners with Marlowe providing the learning and the great themes and Shakespeare the heart and soul of merry England.

In other words, Shakespeare adds the farce… Falstaff, Dogberry, Bottom. Right.

So Rubbo substantiates his thesis with a series of annoying interviews with “experts” whose expertise I question and with academics whose interviews are edited to make them appear a bit dotty.

His basic argument is that Shakespeare was not educated enough to write these plays and so it just doesn’t seem like he could have done it. There is a lot of time spent describing parallels, similarities and even word-for-word matches between works attributed to Shakespeare and Marlowe.

The conspirators analyze these and use their findings as proof that the works are from the same hand. The explanation given by scholars seems to be that the modern concept of plagiarism didn’t exist in Elizabethan times and that Shakespeare was not above lifting good ideas (sometimes verbatim) when it served him.

And then there is a lot more noise, errr, I mean additional evidence regarding the lack of record for various things that Shakespeare should have done if he’d really written the plays. He’s guilty of such sins of omission as not having any record of books in his estate (the writer of these plays would have owned lots of books!), he apparently didn’t bequeath money to the grammar school he might have attended (if that’s where he got his education, he should have donated money to them!), etc.

And then there’s noise, errr, I mean facts like Shakespeare’s daughters may have been illiterate (how could a man who lived with words like this not have taught his daughters to read them?), and then, of course, his handwriting just didn’t look neat enough from the six signatures extant — he was no John Hancock! (Did JH write plays? He sure had nice handwriting! He should have been a good writer!)


Umm, I just did not find anything about this particular show believable or intriguing. I’m sure there is better stuff out there regarding authorship, but I’m not particularly interested. There is a lot of back and forth on the PBS forum for this show. Noise. Endless noise.

To paraphrase Mr. Rubbo, well, I feel in my gut that Shakespeare was the author. I don’t think the proof against him is conclusive, and he just feels and smells like the author to me.

Noise, Steve. Got anything better for me?

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