Monday, December 23, 2013

My 2013 Shakespeare Life

2013 was a very big year for Shakespeare in my personal life. I spoke, I wrote, I created, I had an existential crisis, I taught, I saw.   Who knows what 2014 will bring?  Let's get started...

Party on, Shakespeare.
As loyal readers know, there are always Shakespeare facts, trivia and references flying around my house. Just search "geeklet" and you'll see what I'm talking about.  Well, in February of this year I learned first hand that everything their geeky dad is telling them doesn't just go in one ear and out the other in Geeklet 1, Geek 0.

Then in March I got to scribble "speak publicly, in person, on the subject of Shakespeare" off ye olde bucket list when Bardfilm asked me to participate in My First Videoconference with his Modern Shakespearean Fiction class.  Thanks KJ!

Then came the bombing of the Boston Marathon.  I live about 20 minutes outside of Boston, and knew many people there (thankfully, none of my friends or relatives were injured).  Even then were we able to take comfort in what Shakespeare offered us.

But April is not a time for sadness, it is a time for great joy because another Shakespeare Day was upon us! Every year I celebrate with my own personal Shakespeare marathon, trying to post more stories in a single day than ever before.  This year?  28.  That's more than a story an hour (assuming I didn't sleep!)  And I'll have you know I don't cheat and schedule those ahead of time, I monitor and post throughout the day.  That's part of the exhilaration that comes along with it!

Shakespeare is Universal
This year I also tried something different, something of a "putting other people's money where my mouth is" campaign, when I launched Shakespeare is Universal. The idea was simple - if you make a real world product, can you get 100 people to buy it?  After doing this for eight years I really and truly hoped so.  I didn't let it all ride on some "Prose before Hoes" gimmick, either.  I put my faith in a message that I've been preaching all this time, and deeply and truly believe.

Which led first to a funny story about Mel Brooks running away that I can't begin to do recap, so you're going to want to go check that out :)

 ...and quickly after that to my own personal existential crisis as my deadline approached, I did not hit my goal, and I began to question the whole to blog or not to blog thing in All Good Things... (which I admittedly stole from the Star Trek : The Next Generation finale).  But!  I'm still here, because we did hit our goal, because there are that many people in the world who think that Shakespeare is Universal, and for that I'm eternally grateful.  I'm also almost certainly going to make a followup shirt this year, so be prepared ;)

Ok, now back to the good part!  As the school year came to a close in June, my perennial attempt to teach Shakespeare to my kids' elementary school classes paid off double this year.  Every year I offer, to every teacher, to bend a Shakespeare lesson into however they think it will fit their curriculum.

For my 10yr old daughter (fifth grade, US) I came in for Shakespeare Geek Teaches The Sonnets. I thought this would be a fairly dry topic for this age group, but I ended up staying nearly two hours. Brace yourself, that's a very long post that might well take you as long to read as I did to experience it in the first place.

For my 8 yr old daughter (third grade) I fulfilled a lifelong dream by actually getting the kids out of the seats and reciting the text in My Directorial Debut!  If you thought the last story was long, this story is divided into three parts (#1, #2, #3)  This one was particularly special, because after all these years this marked the first time that one of my kids got to "perform" the text, on stage and in front of people:
And now comes the next big highlight of my day, as my daughter wakes from her slumber and begins, "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again. Mine ear is much enamour’d of thy note; So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape; I swear, I love thee!" 
This marks the first time that one of my children has performed Shakespeare. In public, on a stage, reading original text. I damn near wept. I am thankful that it turned out to be a small part because I think that the longer it went, I might well have exploded. And you know what? She was good. She woke up on cue, and actually got up while reading her lines, which she did not stumble over. Definitely one of my better performers, duly noted for future reference.
Loyal readers may want to go make themselves a snack, maybe do some quick stretches, because we're only in June here people.

Ok, with July comes Shakespeare on Boston Common!  I've gone every year for 9 years, the memory of the year I missed Hamlet still haunts me, and 2013 would mark my 10 year anniversary. Even though they were doing Two Gentlemen of Verona (truly one of Shakespeare's "meh" plays), neither rain not sleet nor snow nor dark of night was about to stop me.

Or was it?  Read the rest of the story in What Wouldn't I Do For Shakespeare Part 1 and My Review of Two Gents  to go along with it.

My son's favorite Hamlet.
Fast forward now October, and a quick story involving my 7yr old son and Richard Burton in Why I Love My Shakespeare Life.

You know what else fall brings?  Parent Teacher Time once again, and another opportunity to do my volunteer thingie.  This time I got two very enthusiastic responses (my oldest daughter has graduated to middle school so her story will come later).  I have yet to get into the classroom, but it's a start!

You know what else else fall brings?  Why, a Red Sox / Cardinals World Series, of course!  I'm sure you know that your Shakespeare Geek is a Red Sox fan, but did you know that his arch-nemesis Bardfilm is a Cardinals fan?  And that the Red Sox / Cardinals have a World Series history?  A wager! There must be a wager of Shakespearean proportion!

Shakespeare is a David Ortiz fan.
For the conclusion to *that* story, we take a quick side trip over to Bardfilm's blog for the stunning results.  Don't miss the part at the end where we're featured on television!

As the year draws to a close we move on to November and my own "National Novel Writing Month" challenge.  The local high school did Hamlet this year, and I decided there'd be no better time to put words to paper and instead of just explaining the play to my kids before they saw it, I'd write it down. Even better, I'd write it down and then hand it over to my daughter's middle school teacher, where she'd have her entire class of 11yr olds read it!  Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 (and my review of the Hamlet, for the curious). 

Well, that about wraps it up for the year! Happy Holidays Everyone!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Best Original Posts of 2013

As another year comes to a close I thought it would be fun to go back and pick the biggest posts of 2013.  I'm happy to discover that the top 5 are, in fact, original content produced by Bardfilm and myself.

I'm presenting these in chronological order, because the older a post is the more chance it's had to get traffic (so it's not really fair to compare a January piece to a November one).

January 24, 2013  
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare -- in Haiku
This piece is amazing because when he said Complete, he meant it.  KJ does a haiku rendition of 39 Shakespeare plays.  We should print and bind this.

February 14, 2013
Shakespearean Pickup Lines for Valentine's Day
We all know that Shakespeare wrote the best wedding quotes, but you can't just jump to the end of the story!  What about the pickup line that gets you started?  Shakespeare's still your wing man.

February 22, 2013
Shakespearean Hip-Hop Lyrics
The trickiest part of this mashup is deciding on a genre of hip-hop!  It has been around for a little while, and changed quite a bit over the decades.

May 8, 2013
Most Popular Shakespeare Tattoos
I'd always wanted to do a gallery post, and this was my chance. 

July 30, 2013
Game of Thrones? That's cute.
When I saw that someone had do a meme where all the Star Wars characters say patronizing things to Game of Thrones characters (well, and vice versa) I knew I had to mash it up with Shakespeare. I think my job was far more difficult, though - it's not like Viola from Twelfth Night is instantly recognizable like, oh, Darth Vader.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Now Gods, Stand Up For Shakespeare's Brother

Edmund Shakespeare
Today I Learned that Shakespeare's little brother Edmund (born 1580) followed him to London to become an actor.

Who wants to speculate on connections between little brother, and Shakespeare's most famous bastard from King Lear?  Edmund had a bastard child of his own, though the child was born four months before Edmund's death in 1607, making the event too late to have any connection to King Lear, which was written prior to 1606.

How cool would it be if Edmund went to London and actually stayed with his brother during that time, maybe even acting in one of the plays?  No records exist, but does that mean it didn't happen?

The Sanders Portrait Has A New Home

Which portrait is your favorite?  It seems like Droeshout and Chandos always get the love, but there are quite a few more contenders : Cobbe, Flowers, Sanders?

Well, the Sanders portrait is changing ownership.

The portrait – an oil on two joined oak panels named after its likely creator, John Sanders (1559-1643), Mr. Sullivan’s great grandfather 13 generations removed and a Shakespeare associate in London – was first brought to international attention by The Globe and Mail’s Stephanie Nolen in a front-page story in May, 2001. 
Mr. Sullivan, who inherited the portrait in the early 1970s from his dying mother in Montreal, began to try to confirm its authenticity in the early 1990s and to date has spent more than $1-million in the effort.
Anybody on the "Sanders is the only portrait painted from life" side?  Other than the guy with the direct family connection, who is not shy about talking up how important it is for Canada to have a Shakespeare portrait, what's the "mounting evidence" they mention in the article?

Hey Remember When We Wrote The Shakespeare in Love Sequel?

You've probably heard the news that a Shakespeare in Love sequel that's coming now that Miramax and the Weinstein Company are doing business together again. "The new venture will get off the ground quickly with sequels to the Best Picture Oscar winner Shakespeare In Love and Rounders..." the article reads.  What "quickly" means in moviemaking time, I don't know.

What I'm curious about is whether we could write the plot for this one. What stage of Shakespeare's life do you think they'll cover?

I ask, because we covered this exact topic in 2010.  Miramax always planned to do a sequel.  I guess business got in the way.  So this week's news isn't so much about a new project, as it is getting an old project back on track.

Some ideas that came up in the original thread...

* Do the Dark Lady / Sonnets storyline.

* Late career, while he's writing The Tempest

* Do something around Falstaff

* Make the whole story about his daughter Susannah

Seriously, go back and read the original thread, there's genius ideas in there.  How crazy would it be if one of our ideas takes off?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

"Chrome"-Plated Shakespeare

For those of you using the Google Chrome browser, David Fisco just sent me his game "Rote Shakespeare". It's a plug-in (why he wrote it as a plug-in I have no idea?) memorization game where you get a passage from the play of your choice, where one of the lines is left out and the words scrambled for you.  Click to put them back in order. There's no timer, which I prefer, though it does count how many times you tried to get it right and always resets you as soon as you get a word wrong (which makes it easier, because you know exactly which words you got right and can just do process of elimination).

Fun game, and I like how you can zero in on the characters that you want (so you're not accidentally handed some random spear-carrier's line to remember).  I don't think it has anything to do with rote memorization, though.  Unscrambling the words is actually a distraction from remembering what the line is in the context it's given.

I'm just not sure where the plug-in thing fits.  I think it's more of a "Chrome App", which is fine, but I'm confused about how to install and run it if I ever want to find it again.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Most Important Person Ever

What happens when computer scientists want to figure out what would once have been a hypothetical question? Like, say, "Who was the most important person in the history of the world?" They think like Google:
We rank historical figures just as Google ranks webpages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation (including PageRank, article length, and readership) into estimates of their fame, explained by a combination of achievement (gravitas) and celebrity. We correct for the passage of time in a principled way, so we can fairly compare the significance of historical figures of different eras.
 I'll just tell you -- Shakespeare comes in at #3.  #1 probably won't surprise many people, but I think that #2 might.

There's a link right to their WhoIsBigger site, which looks like it could be fun to play with.  It looks like it might be broken, though -- I'm in "American Writers" and the top category is dominated by Howard Stern, Angelina Jolie, director Ed Wood and professional wrestler Jon "JBL" Leyfield.  I don't even know what category that's *supposed* to be.

They also have a book Who's Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank , which could probably be some interesting bathroom reading material for that college student relative you haven't bought for yet. :)

Speaking of Music and Shakespeare

"Music doesn’t make you smarter, Harvard study finds," the headline read.  Actually I should say "The angry Facebook post read" because I first spotted this story when a musician friend of mine shared it.

But then it showed up on my Shakespeare radar because of quotes like this:
“We don’t teach our children Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy because it makes them do better in American history class or at learning the periodic table of the elements,” said Samuel Mehr, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education who led the work. “We teach them those great authors because those great authors are important. There’s really no reason to justify music education on any other basis than its intrinsic merits. We have our Dante, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and they are Bach, Duke Ellington, and Benjamin Britten.”
I love that like "we teach great authors because great authors are important."  It sounds like something a fourth grader says when doing an oral biography report.  "Charles Darwin...was....a really great scientist...because....he did great things....and he was really great."

What's interesting to me though is that while we've done away with the idea of the "Mozart effect", we may be living in a world of  "Shakespeare effect."  What if reading Shakespeare really does make you smarter?

Or am I just grasping at the same straws the musicians grasped at with the Mozart thing?  Something that will be totally debunked in a few years?  Or should expecting parents start piping audiobooks of Love's Labour's Lost through suction cup headphones directly to the womb?  Get it?  Pregnant? Labor?  Ah, forget it.

(Seriously, though, who remembers the episode of E.R. where Dr. Mark Green tries to save a pregnant woman and her baby?  That episode was so good they used to play it every year on Thanksgiving. They won awards for that episode.  That episode was called Love's Labor Lost .)

Which of Shakespeare's Friends Created Father Christmas?

HuffPo's article on "Literary Connections to Christmas" hit my radar because Nahum Tate, who gave King Lear a happy ending, also wrote the Christmas Carol "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks." I'm not even sure I know that one.

But keep reading, loyal geeks, because the fun fact comes later in the list:
The term 'Father Christmas' -- used to refer to the personification of the festive season, a bit like 'Old Father Time' -- first turns up in a 1616 masque ... [featuring] old man 'Christmas,' attended by all ten of his children, whose names include Carol, Wassail, Misrule, and Minced-Pie.
Guessed which contemporary?  No fair if you already knew.  It's 1616 so it's probably not Marlowe, what with him being dead and all.  Speaking of dead, it's also probably not Edward de Vere, though that won't stop him from laying claim to the credit.

The friend of our beloved Shakespeare who brought us the term Father Christmas was none other than Ben Jonson.

Crash Into Shakespeare

My little Dave Matthews joke.  Because here's Dave Matthews putting the "Come Away" song from Twelfth Night (Act 2, Scene 4) to music:

I found it hard to understand him, particularly in the beginning, so here's the words:


Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!

What do you think?   I thought it was slow and mumbly, myself.  But as I wrote on Twitter, it's always a big deal to me when professional musicians go after Shakespeare.  David Gilmour's rendition of Sonnet 18 changed my life.  If they can bring the audience for their music into my world?  It's a win for everybody.  If music makes people understand and remember Shakespeare?  Yes please.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Who's Up For Nose Painting?

Spotted this question on Reddit, but it's not getting much conversation over there and I think it's interesting.

The question is this : When the Porter in Macbeth says that drink provokes, "nose-painting, sleep and urine" what exactly is nose-painting?  The student in question assumed, as do many online resources, that it refers to the idea that your nose turns red when you drink too much. His teacher apparently told him that it's more vulgar than that.

Well, off to Filthy Shakespeare and Shakespeare's Bawdy I went.  Both list it as a euphemism for sex, without going into any detail that I can find.

But here's the thing.  Look at the context:

What three things does drink especially provoke? 
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and
urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes;
it provokes the desire, but it takes
away the performance: therefore, much drink
may be said to be an equivocator with lechery:
it makes him, and it mars him; it sets
him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him,
and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and
not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him
in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

So his first joke was that drink makes you want to sleep, urinate and ... well, you know.  But then he starts calling it "lechery" and does the rest of the speech about how drink "takes away the performance", and the more I read that the more I realize that almost every word is a euphemism for something sexual.  "Stand to and not stand to" is particularly illustrative on dear Mr. Shakespeare's part, I think.

That doesn't seem to flow.  "Drink provokes sex, sleep and urine.  Sex, it provokes and unprovokes..."  What?

"Drink makes your nose red, makes you sleepy, and makes you need to pee.  Sex?  Sex is funny when you're drinking.  You want it, you just cant do it."  Makes more sense to me.

I believe that Macbeth is the only place where Shakespeare used nose-painting, so we can't compare context anywhere else.  All of the online references I find suggest that it is the "your nose turns red" thing, not the sex thing.

What do you think?  Anybody got some more academic references like an OED where we can get something definitive?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

6 Facts About Cymbeline That Will Keep You Up At Night

This week we got our first look at the trailer for the upcoming Cymbeline movie, starring Ethan Hawke.  If you haven't yet taken a look, here's your chance:

While the most hardcore of Shakespeare geeks debates the merits of another Ethan Hawke version of Shakespeare (and whether the flame throwers were a good idea), I thought it might be a good opportunity to play catch up with the rest of the world who are scratching their heads and asking, "Cymbeline? Wotzat?" Well, brace yourself. This is not your Mama's Shakespeare. (Your mother was a high school English teacher, right?)

1) Unless you study these things, you've almost certainly never heard of Cymbeline. IMDB shows only 5 filmed productions dating back all the way to 1913 (and counting this yet to be released one). In comparison, I stopped counting Hamlet productions at 30+, and that wasn't even counting all the variations (Hamlet 2, Zombie Hamlet, and so on). Romeo and Juliet has even more. Many Shakespeare plays have become ingrained in our cultural subconscious to the point where we all recognize various Shakespeare references before we ever sit down to watch the show. You've almost certainly seen a balcony scene reference, or Hamlet talking to his skull, or Macbeth's witches around their cauldron. You've almost certainly never seen any Cymbeline.

2) The only quote you're likely to recognize will also probably make you cry. There's no "To be or not to be" here, no light through yonder window breaking, no witches chanting around a bubbling cauldron. If you recognize anything that comes out of this play, chances are it is this funeral dirge:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. 
Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust. 
Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust. 
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renown├ęd be thy grave!
3) It's not a tragedy, or a comedy, or a history. It's true that Shakespeare plays had a certain formula you could rely on. Comedies end with a wedding (or, well, the promise of one), and the joke is that tragedies always end with everybody dead. Ok, fine it's more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Cymbeline breaks all the rules. It's listed in the First Folio as a tragedy, but hardly anybody dies, and rumor has it that the editors of the Folio may have never actually seen a performance of this one. There's not really a single central "tragic hero" like you might expect to find. It has a happy ending, but everybody was already married. It's arguably something of a history, because Cymbeline was a real king who ruled at the same time as another of Shakespeare's favorites, Julius Caesar. And, like watching a production of Julius Caesar, you're likely to come away from Cymbeline wondering, "Ok, now, wait, how much of that was actual history and how much did Shakespeare just make up?" In short it's a little bit of everything, which leads us to ...

4) Lazy sitcoms did not invent the "clip show" or "greatest hits," lazy Elizabethan playwrights did. (Credit to Shakespeare geeks MagpieAndWhale and TheRoaringGirl for those expressions.) Shakespeare had his favorite characters and plot devices, and threw them all into the stew for this one. To borrow from theroaringgirl's useful summary, "It has star-crossed lovers, missing princes, a manipulative wife, an aging king, a trusty servant, a villainous liar (whose name literally means “little Iago”), a “breeches part,” an idealized pastoral setting, war with Rome, getting lost in wales, a visit from the Gods, a soothsayer, songs, mistaken identity, a death-like sleep, and the most convoluted 5th act reveal ever written." Orson Welles is credited with the quote, "Now we sit through Shakespeare to recognize the quotations." If point #2 told us that there's not going to be many quotations to recognize, the good news is that there's probably going to be a whole lot of plot you'll recognize from other plays.

5) Most critics over the centuries have hated it. Samuel Johnson did not want to "waste criticism" on its "unresisting imbecility". George Bernard shaw called it "stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order." Henry James offers, "The thing is a florid fairy-tale, of a construction so loose and unpropped that it can scarce be said to stand upright at all.I bet Ethan Hawke and friends can't wait for the latest crop of reviews to come out! (Credit to blog Ten Pages or More for these and more similar quotes.) None of this stops them from calling it "Shakespeare's undiscovered masterpiece" in the trailer however.

6) It's a pastoral comedy with a happy ending, done in the style of a flamethrower-wielding motorcycle gang. You did watch the trailer, right? I'm not making that up. As someone else noted, it's like doing Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It with a motorcycle gang. And flamethrowers.

There's your lesson in Cymbeline for the day. So - if you weren't already planning to go see it (because hey, Shakespeare movie!), did I convince you?

P.S. - What do you think of the new font?  Too big?  I'm trying it out.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nexus 7 Shakespeare Commercial

Thanks to my wife for pointing this commercial out when I missed it!  Google tells us that the Nexus 7 is as good at reading the classics as it is at reading the best sellers, and uses Romeo and Juliet to prove it:

What's unusual is that a father appears to be reading Romeo & Juliet to his daughter as a bedtime story.  I'm not sure if I love that or find that bizarre.  Maybe he's going to skip all the dead people.

Is it wrong that I totally want one now, just because of this commercial? I have no need for it, there's Kindle Fires all over my house and I develop software for the iPad at work.  But still.  Seems like the kind of advertising I'd want to support :).

UPDATE : Found the whole 30second spot! Apologies, I'd grabbed the first one I saw and didn't realize that one I posted wasn't the whole thing.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Blank Verse : A Shakespeare Web Series?!


BlankVerse is a web series that recasts William Shakespeare and all of his contemporaries as modern college students.    Apparently it's been running since August 25 and will continue to the end of the year.

I'd write more but I have to go watch every single episode right now.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When Does Hamlet Cast His Nighted Color Off

Here's another one of those teeny details that I enjoy exploring.  When we first see Hamlet he's traditionally dressed in black, in support of this exchange with his mother:


Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
Ay, madam, it is common.
If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Maybe I'm painting this with too broad a stroke but I've always taken this to mean that everybody else is done with the mourning period, that only Hamlet is still wearing black, and his mother would like him to be happy again.

My question is this -- does he simply wear black throughout the rest of the play and nothing is said of it again?  A reasonable period of time passes, does it not?  When he gets back from England, he's still mourning?  Or maybe after he's seen the ghost and has now gone into his antic disposition, he changes his clothes?  Signifying, at least to his parents, that he's no longer obsessed with his father?

Assuming for the moment that that's not true, and that he spends the whole play in black. How would it change his character if, at some point in the play, you put him in some other color?  Where would you do it?

Idea - right after the play within a play, where Claudius guilt is shown, and Hamlet is whooping it up with Horatio that his plan worked, maybe there's an opportunity for him to grab a random scarf or other bit of cloth discarded by one of the players, and wrap it around himself.  Just a glimpse, while he's talking to Horatio.  Then, when R&G and Polonius show up, he drops it again.  There's me being a director for you. :)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Curious Case of Five Hamlets

So Saturday was the big day! I'd been training my girls on Hamlet, so that they could actually understand what was going on before seeing the play produced by the local high school (where they'll be going in a few years, and hopefully performing).

My son has religious education practice, so he couldn't join us. Which gave my wife this opportunity to a quick cheap shot:

Son: How come the girls don't have to go?

Wife: The girls are going to see Hamlet.

Son: How come they get to have fun!

Wife: They're not. They're going to see Hamlet.

Ouch.  I'll get you for that.

Anyway, the girls put on their Shakespeare is Universal shirts and we head to the show.

And, as always, I end up disappointed. In my brain I tell myself that I'm about to walk into a whole bunch of people of all ages who want to talk about Shakespeare, and education, and educating people about Shakespeare. I imagine people engaging my kids in conversation when they see their shirts.  I imagine seeing parents whose kids got to read Hamlet last week because of me.

None of this happens. One volunteer says, "I like your shirt" to one of my girls, and that is the entirety of discussion.  This is not a mingly crowd. This is a crowd made up entirely of parents whose kids are on stage.  I don't know what I expected (well, that's not true, see above) but I should have known better.

While waiting for the show to start, my girls read the program and begin asking me who "Juggler" and "Lady Nora" are.  I have no frickin idea who those people are, until we decide that they've given proper names to all of the Players.  Fine.

My older then notices that the character of Hamlet shows up twice in the list.  I figure that is understudy or something, but it's not marked that way. We then realize that there are *5* Hamlets listed.  All girls.  Interesting. I assume that this is a case of the director needing to cast everybody who auditioned, or something.

The play begins, and out come ... all the Hamlets?  This should be interesting.

They immediately launch into the "too too solid flesh" speech, entirely out of context.  They yell it, in sync with each other.  I guess this is supposed to give us our backstory, because it touches on the death of Hamlet's father and the o'erhasty marriage of his mother to his uncle.  But honestly, what are you doing? If somebody came to this play actually trying to understand it for the very first time, why would you do that?  Both my girls asked me what was going on, and I just shrugged and said I'd explain later.  My expectations were all messed up now.

After the five Hamlets, then the play begins with the famous "Who's there?" and the changing of the guard.  At least from that point on, I'm pretty sure they stuck to the script.

The five Hamlets come out at the same time.  Four hang back while one delivers lines.  They often switch. During the big speeches they interchange their lines, speak in sync, and other gimmicky things.  I'm still not sure what this is supposed to be.  I thought maybe it could be some sort of "facets of Hamlet's personality" thing, but I don't think that's what the director was going for - they are all dressed identically, even during costume changes.  There is a certain progression of Hamlet's insanity as his (her?) wardrobe unravels throughout the play, but that's the only real development of this device I saw.

Followers on Twitter may have seen my rant about this, but THEY CUT YORICK.  We have a gravedigger's scene, including all the gravedigger jokes, and at one point the gravedigger starts pulling skulls out of the grave in front of Hamlet and Horatio.  But, no Yorick speech.

I should mention that this performance is part of a "90 minute Shakespeare" festival.  So there's to be cuts. Sometimes, big ones. I do not envy the director who has to decide what to cut. But I am curious whether any of you cut the Yorick speech.

Other bits that were cut include Hamlet coming across Claudius at prayer and deciding not to kill him. Also, Ophelia only got a single crazy scene (before Laertes returns home).  I think they just folded everything for her into the single scene, but I couldn't tell you exactly what might have been cut.

What they didn't cut? Fortinbras. All the Fortinbras scenes (including all the Cornelius and Voltimand scenes) remain.  I thought that an odd choice, if they were aggressively cutting for running time.  Take the ending, for example. Did we end on "The rest is silence"?  Nope.  Hamlet dies.  Then Fortinbras (who the audience has only seen once) enters, and Horatio actually shouts his final lines, stomping up and down the stage, and I'm like, "WTF is he doing?" Fortinbras then gets the final lines, although I should go back and check my text because I did not hear "Bid the soldiers shoot."

Observations from my kids:

* I pointed out when "To be or not to be" was coming. My oldest held out her hand and said, "No skull?"  So she clearly was still getting the two speeches confused.  I've seen lots of people do that.  It doesn't help that I have a t-shirt that shows the To Be speech drawn out in the shape of Yorick's skull.

* My younger was mostly lost.  It didn't help that they could barely hear what was going on, so if they didn't have a very clear understanding of the characters and plot to follow along, I could see where it would be confusing.

* They both spotted the doubling. The actor playing the ghost showed up in some other role, which they spotted...and I'm pretty sure that dead Polonius played the priest at Ophelia's funeral, which was really confusing.

* During Ophelia's singing, my oldest leaned over to me and said, "I am so doing this."  I asked, "You want to play Ophelia?"  She said, "Well, any role, but Shakespeare definitely."

* My oldest told me that she saw at least one fellow student from her class, and wondered whether he'd been convinced to come see the play after reading my book.  I expect that the odds were more in favor of his sister being a Hamlet.

I only went to one performance of three, so I have no idea what the crowd was like at the other two. I've not yet received any actual feedback from the teachers who were using my text in their classes.  I'd like to think that I helped, but honestly between the way they cut this production and the fact that it was impossible to follow the text when you couldn't hear it, I don't know how much I helped.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

NaNoWriMo #6 : My ... Debut?

Yesterday, Friday, I woke up mopey.  I complained to my wife that although I'd circulated my work to about a half a dozen people, nobody had given me a word of feedback.  I do not count the generic "Wow this is amazing this is so great!"  I can take criticism (at least, some.  I do still like to hear the parts you liked :)).  The show is today (or tomorrow, in the context of yesterday, got that?) so I was afraid that my whole "Get kids interested in Hamlet so they'll be more interested in going to see it" thing was going out the window.

Got a text from my daughter yesterday afternoon to let me know that her teacher had her classes reading my work!  *snoopy dance*

"What did they think?" I text back.

"They said they understood it. Some were a little upset that everybody died. Some thought the dying part was great (the boys)."

Nice.  I found that particularly amusing because, after my daughter was confused over Laertes' death, I'd gone back in and rewritten my summary so that they truly fell like dominoes, leaving nothing to confusion.

This morning I got more details.  The teacher had three of her classes read my work directly, which I figure has to be approaching 75-100 kids.  Some did not have the time, so according to my daughter she, "wrote it out on the board."  I figured out that at this point she was telling them Hamlet herself, and not specifically using my work.  But, as my daughter pointed out, since by then she'd been through multiple readings and discussions, she no doubt was borrowing some of my ideas.

I asked again whether kids liked it.

"People were coming up to me and asking whether it has a happy ending," she said, "while they were still in the middle of it."

No, no it does not.  Except for Fortinbras and Horatio, of course.

And me.  Today, I am happy. I like that this may have gone to the next level.  For the past few years, me as Shakespeare guy has seemed a very local sort of thing, like only the people that I've personally met know me and what I do.  But there's only one middle school in the whole town (there are three elementary schools), so my audience is suddenly 3x the size and now there's going to be kids going home to their parents, parents who have no idea who I am, and saying "We read Hamlet today, because this girl's father is writing a book about it."

Today is the show.  I'm terribly curious whether my little effort has succeeded in putting any butts in the seats, or whether I'd know if it had.  My girls are coming with me, wearing their Shakespeare is Universal shirts of course, and I've got a pocket full of business cards, so I'm prepared!

Show is at 2pm.  I'll report back.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

NaNoWriMo #5(?) : Milestone Achieved!

Ok, I set a goal for myself of having something to distribute to strangers by Wednesday. Today I asked my daughter to approach her teacher and ask whether she'd be interested in seeing the early version of my work. She said absolutely she would, and with permission she would share it with her class.  I also took the opportunity to email my other daughter's fourth grade teacher, who also said that she'd happily read it.

So my first draft, sitting at just over 3800 words, is now sitting in both those inboxes. How will two actual teachers of this stuff take it? I honestly have no idea, and I'm quite curious. They could hate it. But I've since learned that this would not be the end of the world, and the feedback is crucial to the project. I know the audience I'm aiming at, and they know that audience better than I, so I can't be afraid of what they've got to tell me.

The only thing I fear would be anything coming back on my kids. I asked my oldest daughter whether it would be embarrassing for her to have my book in progress read by all her friends. She said, and I'm quoting, "No it wouldn't be embarrassing at all why would you even think that it would be. I think it would be awesome."

What other encouragement does a father need?

Before the night's out I'm going to send copies to a couple of other teachers from the past who showed an interest in our Shakespeare work. The younger the class the more unlikely that they'll be able to share the material, but I can still get the teacher's input.

My Missed Yorick

Bardfilm just learned this story, and insisted that I post it. To this day the significance had not clicked with me.  Since the story was relayed via instant message, I'll copy it here to give it the same flavor:

Although, true story, we did find a skull once.

I now regret not being into Shakespeare yet at the time.  True once in a lifetime opportunity missed.

What kinda skull? Human.

Some random Saturday morning, back in the days when the kids could just say "Going out!" and be gone on an adventure all day.

We were wandering around "the marsh" area of town, going on various adventures, when one of the kids in the lead (my cousin Joey) spotted a brown paper bag on the trail.  He kicked it, in case some sort of treasure lie within.

And by treasure, I mean Playboy magazines, beer, etc....

Out rolls a skull.

I can't honestly remember how much of a skull it was, but it was clearly a human skull.

My cousin had gloves, so he picked it up and we began marching home with it.

Vivid memory of walking down the street in a procession, as a car came the other way and slowed as we walked.

My cousin actually had the presence of mind to say "What'samatter, lady? You're looking at me like I got two heads."

We get it home (his home), parents call the police.

That's when one of the kids in the group (Richie), loses it.  He announces that the bad guys who killed the guy in the first place are gonna find us and kill us, and runs all the way home to his own house.

Turns out it had been stolen by somebody working in the nearby museum or something, and was part of some old indian exhibit.

I wish I could remember when this had happened, but I figure I had to be younger than 13 years old. My love for all things Shakespeare had not yet kicked in, so poor Yorick never crossed my mind until this very day. After posting this I will contact my mom, see if she remembers when this story took place. I'm also going to cc my brother, who was there at the time.

That was our oh so brief "Stand By Me" moment.  We got written up in the town newspaper, but only cousin Joey got his name in the paper.

UPDATED August 18, 2014 : My cousin Joey died this morning after a long illness.  RIP, Gizz.

Monday, November 11, 2013

NaNoWriMo #4 Update

Hovering at just over 3000 words.  Have let several people read the rough draft and gotten feedback, which I've incorporated. Turns out that when you're writing for this age level, if you don't clearly say "and then he dies," your reader won't realize that the character has died. When I heard, "Wait, Laertes dies?!" discussed between my daughters I had to go back and look at what I'd written was this:

Laertes, now near death himself, tells Hamlet everything: how the wine was poisoned, how the sword was poisoned, how Hamlet himself is as good as dead and just hasn’t fallen down yet. He tells Hamlet that it was all Claudius, and begs Hamlet’s forgiveness.
I guess they're right, it's not exactly clear :).

I've also got some rudimentary structure in my head that hopefully I can flesh out enough to give to non-family members and have it not look half finished. I've started and restarted Hamlet guides many times over the years, and I've always found the hardest part is in having a lot to say and not knowing the best way to organize it.  This hard deadline and fixed audience is at least putting me on the right track to complete something, even if it doesn't give Harold Bloom a run for his money.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Like Polonius, Like Laertes

Act I, Scene 3 
And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.
Ay, springes to catch woodcocks.


Act V, Scene 2 
How is't, Laertes? 
Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric;
I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.
Never noticed that before.

Friday, November 08, 2013

NaNoWriMo #3 - Formatting Time

Wordcount : 2844

I was more interested in editing today. You look at what I've got written and it's seven pages of nothing but lengthy paragraphs.  I don't expect middle schoolers to dive right into that.

Here's the conversation I had with my 11yr old test subject this morning (my daughter):

Me: Did you read the latest version?

Her: I did.

Me: What did you think, did you like it?

Her: I did like it. It's good.

Me: What should I change?

Her: Nothing.

Me: Seriously, it won't hurt my feelings, there's got to be things that I can change to make it better.

Her: No, really, nothing. It's good. Don't change it.

Me: Really?  Nothing?

Her:  ....wellllll......who is Gertrude?

Me: ...  ummm.....err......QUEEN Gertrude?  Hamlet's MOTHER?

Her:  Ohhhhhhh!

Me:  That's in the second sentence!

Her: Well I didn't get it!

Me:  You just said it was good it was good don't change a thing!

<later, in front of the computer>

Me: I used the word Gertrude 11 times.  I used the word mother 11 times. I'm not sure where it got confusing.

Her: Yeah but you never said mother Gertrude together!

Me: You mean other than here in the second sentence where I wrote Hamlet's mother Gertrude?

Her:  There should be a comma there.

Me: What?

Her: After mother.  Hamlet's mother, comma, Gertrude.

Me: That's not the point!

Tonight we're visiting friends, who have a daughter my own daughter's age who is also into theatre.  The whole family is extraordinarily well-read but admittedly weak in Shakespeare. They also know I'm doing this project. I will almost certainly bring them a copy.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Hamlet

Oh, it's on now.

While working on my Hamlet guide for the kids I wanted to make sure I had my capitalization rules correct, so I asked on Twitter.  When speaking of Hamlet, do you capitalize the word "prince"?  I figure there's multiple ways to say it:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Hamlet, who happens to be Prince of Denmark
Prince Hamlet of Denmark

and so on.

What I got back for the most part said, "If he is the only prince, i.e. he has no siblings, then it is his title and titles are capitalized. So, always Prince."

Until this morning when a professional copy editor checked in and said, "Nope, titles in general are not capitalized.  Prince Hamlet yes, but Hamlet prince of Denmark is just a description so no."

Let the bloodshed begin.  Which is it?  Cite your references.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

NaNoWriMo Challenge, Day #2

See Day 1 here, if you're curious about why we're 7 days in to November and I just started counting.

Today's word count : 2545

My "brain dump" portion is relatively complete. As I explained to my daughter, this is the raw version where I just make sure that I get the information on the page.  It's not even what I'd call a rough draft because there's no formatting at all (short of paragraph breaks).

Now I want to go through and flesh it out, add what I missed, clarify thoughts, stuff like that. I found myself explaining what was up with Fortinbras, why the story has to end with him, rather than on "The rest is silence," although some productions might well cut it there.

My daughter is reading it each day with the following guideline: "Could you give this to a friend to read? Would your friend understand it? Would your friend want to see Hamlet after reading it?"

All three questions are important. I don't want to make something that you would tell a student she must read.  Then it's just another form of homework. I'm aiming for "This was an enjoyable read all by itself, and now I want to go see this story performed on stage" rather than "I read this because you told me to and I'll go see Hamlet if I have to."

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My Own Little NaNoWriMo Challenge, Day 1

I've always wanted to tackle the NaNoWriMo challenge ("National Novel Writer's Month"), where authors commit to writing a thousand words a day for a month. For various reasons, I have not.

That doesn't mean I can't create my own, however.  As I mentioned yesterday, my daughter's high school is performing Hamlet November 16-17. That's a week and a half away. My goal is to produce a summary/guide/cheatsheet to the play that could be circulated among the 11yr olds (my daughter's friends) that would meet two goals:  first, that they could actually understand what's going on, and second, that it might prove interesting enough that they want to go see the play.

Last night I knocked out 1382 words on the subject.

I'll report back daily until my task is complete.  Unlike NaNoWriMo where the goal of the entire month is word count (with editing presumably to follow), I have a hard deadline of next Thursday (allowing them time to read it before show time!) for something that's at least acceptably edited and formatted.

Wish me broken legs!  Because if I broke a leg then I could stay home from work and write more about Shakespeare. :)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Still Dreaming Is Almost Here!

Back in April 2011 I told you about Still Dreaming, the next project from Hank Rogerson (who brought us the award winning Shakespeare Behind Bars). At the time they were looking for funds to start filming, and they easily hit their goal and went off to do just that.

Fast forward two years and filming is complete! But it does take a great deal of effort (and, ahem, resources) to see a movie through to completion, and they're looking for funds to complete the work on "hiring a composer, doing a sound mix, titles, and final polish."

To describe the project I can do no better than return to what I wrote originally:

What I think is amazing about the potential for this story is that they're not just walking into their local nursing home and sticking a script in front of a bunch of people who've never acted a day in their long lives (although that would be a story in itself, albeit a different one). These are people who have been entertainers for decades, and who aren't letting age get in the way of their ability to continue being entertainers. 
"What is it like to lead a creative life, even at the end of your life?" Spitzmiller asks in voiceover. It works on a whole bunch of levels. We talk an awful lot about the universality of Shakespeare, and I think we're about to witness another demonstration of it.

The mission statement for Shakespeare Geek has become, "Shakespeare makes life better." I think that if Hank has his way we're going to see a demonstration of exactly that.  If you'd like to see Still Dreaming become a reality, please consider donating to their fundraising campaign.

Summarizing Shakespeare

For years, loyal readers know, I've been telling Shakespeare stories to my children. Sometimes as a bedtime story, sometimes by request, and sometimes to entire classrooms of elementary school children.  Thus far it's been fairly straightforward, and I've been able to tell most of them off the top of my head.

This month is got complicated.  My daughter, at 11yrs old, is in middle school (sixth grade) and starting down the theatre road (she's playing an orphan in their production of Annie next month).  What's interesting is that in the high school, just three short years away, they do Shakespeare.  This year it's Hamlet.

I thought, "I know! I'll write up a Hamlet intro/guide/summary/cheat sheet that's not just an off-the-top-of-my-head summary, but an actual short ebook that would be advanced enough for middle school kids to understand. My goal : a middle school student reads my book, then goes to see Hamlet, and actually gets a better experience because of it." I even told my daughter that I'd have something for her, and that if we thought it was good enough, maybe she could forward it around to some of her friends. My true goal would be to go straight to her teachers, of course, and distribute it that way.

And here I sit, word processor at the ready, half a dozen attempts started and restarted.  How do you summarize Shakespeare?  At one end you just collapse it down to the essential plot line, leave out most of the interesting bits, and end up with something that could as easily be the Lion King. But at the far end of the spectrum you get something in the "modern English translation" category where you're so afraid to leave out even a single bit that you go through the play word by word, "updating" it in the hopes of making it easier to understand? Does that ever work?

I'm looking for advice.  I don't want to do some sort of novelization where I'm reinventing setting and dialogue.  I want to tell enough of the play, presumably to an audience that's not yet seen it, that when they *do* see it they'll recognize what's going on and be able to pay attention to details that I've told them ahead of time to watch for.

Right now I'm going scene by scene, almost as if they were on flash cards.  That at least gives me a baseline to treat the entire play on equal footing (rather than front loading it with all the introductory stuff and the whipping through other scenes too quickly).  I'm not sure how that will format in the final version.  I'd also like to something more character driven.  I definitely believe in the "short attention span" approach, and would like to serve up Hamlet in a number of bite-sized, more easily processed bits.  If my reader wants to absorb them in random order, that's fine with me.

How would you summarize Shakespeare?  Would you swing more toward the "less is more" side, cutting out everything that gets in the way? Or is every detail important, and it's all a matter of how succinctly you explain them?

Monday, November 04, 2013

What Francisco Saw

While trying to explain all of Hamlet's characters to my daughter I found another interesting spin I'd never considered.

Poor Francisco is in the play entirely to hand over the watch to Bernardo and Marcellus (and Horatio, but he's not technically one of the guards). 

How come one guy is being relieved by two?

Second question - do you think Francisco saw the ghost? 

Think about it. He has no witnesses to back his story. Who is he going to tell?  At least Marcellus and Bernardo have someone else with them so they can do that whole "Did you see what I just saw?" dance.  But Francisco's just out there by his lonesome with no one to talk to but himself.

I got a laugh out of the image of the ghost appearing before Francisco, and Francisco just staring blankly back at him.  The ghost, who is here to get a message to Hamlet, gets more and more frustrated at Francisco's refusal to tell anybody that he eventually throws up his hands and tries Marcellus and Bernardo.  Meanwhile Francisco's all, "Yeah, I'm not saying a word about this."

You could even work it in here:

BERNARDO Have you had ... quiet guard?

FRANCISCO (wait for it.....wait for it.....) Not a mouse stirring.
"If you're asking whether I saw the ghost of dead king Hamlet then no I most certainly did not thank you very much, I'm going to bed."

GIVEAWAY - Star Wars Shakespeare!

Ok, so. I've had this review copy of Ian Doescher's "William Shakespeare's Star Wars" for months, given to me by the publisher, with the intent that I post a review.  And then I never did it.  The more time goes past the more I tell myself I should, and then I feel guilty that I'd be forcing myself to review it out of guilt and thus not give it a fair review, and then I put it off even longer.

So it's only fair that I give it to someone who is going to review it.

How To Enter

1) You must be a Shakespeare blogger.  You can prove this by posting something on your Shakespeare blog, linking back to (the homepage if you please, not this specific post).

2) You must not have previously reviewed the book. I don't know why you'd want another copy if you already have one, but I need to put this in.  I'd like the book to go to someone who has not yet read it, and would like to.

3) In your post, make a Shakespeare/Star Wars reference of some sort. Be creative.  Here's a whole bunch of ideas to get you started.

4) Contact me and let me know you've done this and where I can check.

5) Do all of this before end of day Saturday, November 9, 2013.  That's this Saturday. End of day for the detail-oriented folks means midnight in the Eastern Standard time zone, counting for daylight savings time. I've never had anybody run it down to the minute before but my lawyers insist I say that.

6) Continental US residents only, please.

Obviously I am hoping that the winner will succeed where I failed, and post a review of the book. I can't force that ahead of time, I can only ask nicely.  So whoever does win, please post a review of the book?  Thanks :)

Hamlet's Crazy Timeline

I'm working my way through a Hamlet summary for my daughter (their high school is performing Hamlet next week!) and I want to make sure I understand something.  Here's the timeline of how Hamlet's "antic disposition" goes down:

* Hamlet sees ghost.  Hatches plan to "put an antic disposition on."

* Scene with Polonius where Ophelia runs in to tell her father that "she has been so affrighted" that Hamlet wandered into her room looking all crazy and what not. Polonius decides that he's mad from love and runs to tell the king and queen.

* Scene with Claudius and Gertrude, who have already summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to snap Hamlet out o this mood he's been in.

* Polonius enters, announcing that he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's madness. The queen says well duh it's obviously his father's death and our o'erhasty marriage.

* Polonius then reads the love letters that Hamlet has sent Ophelia.

So I'm trying to figure out how much time is going by here.  If we take Ophelia out of the picture we're led to believe that significant time has passed, for Claudius and Gertrude to decide that something's wrong with Hamlet and to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, right?  Everybody seems to agree that something's wrong with Hamlet, and has been for awhile.

If that's true ... then how does the Ophelia story work into it? Why now all of a sudden is she so suddenly affrighted? Doesn't she know that Hamlet is crazy? And, doesn't Polonius also know that Hamlet is crazy?

Maybe Polonius has an epiphany here, maybe in whatever months have gone by Hamlet's had nothing to do with Ophelia (as Polonius desired), but now he suddenly bursts in on her and Polonius says "Aha!  He's clearly mad because he hasn't been close to my daughter! I've cracked the case!"

But if *that* is true...then where did the love poems come from?  He doesn't apparently give her anything when he barges into her room.  And if the letters were part of what Ophelia gave over to her father back at the beginning when she was initially asked, those would have been written at a time before Hamlet was supposedly nuts.  So that means that Hamlet's been writing letters to Ophelia during these intervening months?

Is that it?  Ophelia is no longer speaking to Hamlet. Hamlet is writing letters to Ophelia, which she is not answering, and he's getting more and more desperate.  Nobody notices the connection. But now he's so desperate he's getting physical, and Polonius finally connects the dots.

Do I have that right?

Gertrude's Levirate Marriage

This morning I learned what a "levirate marriage" is.  From the wiki page:

a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow.
Interesting.  Now, who do we know who married the brother of her deceased husband?  Gertrude is even referenced in the Wikipedia page as a popular culture reference.

Any connection, or purely a coincidence?  I expect the latter.  The technical definition of the term suggests that only *childless* widows count, and Queen Gertrude is not childless ... is she? :)  While some folks like to argue that perhaps Claudius is Hamlet's real father, I don't think anybody argues that Gertrude is not his real mother.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Unanswered Shakespeare Questions

About two and a half years ago I launched a companion site to Shakespeare Geek called  This site was intended to be a Q&A site in the flavor of Yahoo Answers or Quora, where all the content was strictly in an Ask a Question, Get Some Answers, Pick Your Favorite Answer format.

Quite honestly I stopped paying attention to it after that, until recently.

Turns out that it pulls in about as much traffic as this site does!  So I'm dusting it off and poking around a bit, seeing how I can improve the user experience now that I know there's thousands of people pouring through the site.

I've pulled out the list of most popular questions that have no answers. These are the questions that people are typing into a search engine, and then coming to Shakespeare Answers in the hope of finding an answer, only to find ... nothing.  I'll bet that there's nothing in the database that my loyal readers can't handle.

THIS IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A HOMEWORK CHEATING SITE.  You are welcome and encouraged to "preach" Shakespeare as much as you feel is necessary to explain your answer.  If somebody came looking only for a quick yes no answer and an answer/scene citation, and they don't want to actually learn anything? Well, that's their problem.  It's my vision to have *good* answers to these questions, not just answers that will get a passing grade on the homework.

With that in mind, let's get to the questions!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review : Shakespeare At Play's "Romeo and Juliet"

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing - interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here's the thing, though - one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other. Here we look at the app.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It's a question we've beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it's the "or" that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

Every time I have a new project I think to myself, book or app? The traditional book format reaches a wider audience with simpler requirements, but you sacrifice  your ability to really dig in and create a truly interactive experience.  An app is a more complex beast, taking longer to produce for what is ultimately a smaller audience, but you get to make it do exactly what you envisioned.

Today we have the Shakespeare At Play app for review.  Much like other offerings in this space, this product walks you through Shakespeare's work by providing half a page of text and half a page of video.  Each scene gets an audio description, a textual description, and a textual description of the characters.

Before getting into the quality of the content, I want to mention a few other features. Under the global Menu option is a Shakespeare FAQ, whose purpose I did not truly understand. It's just a text file, not even searchable. There is an integrated glossary, which is a nice touch.  As you read you'll see some words in boldface.  Hold your finger on one, and you'll get the definiton.

There is also a Download Manager. In my previous post I mentioned that without internet connectivity I was unable to stream the videos, thus giving a point to the more traditional book format. However, you can opt to download all the videos and take them with you. The thing is you need to plan to do that ahead of time, it's still not going to work if your internet goes out :).

This is also a player app for multiple titles, and as such it has its own Library (unlike iBooks, where going to Library takes you out of each individual title).  As of this moment I think that their Library functionality needs work, it took me ages to figure out that I'm supposed to click on the unadorned price box under each title in order to complete the in-app purchase and actually get my book.

Lastly, what I think is perhaps the most useful feature of the entire app.  Running alongside the text is not what I'd call modern translation, but more like "director's notes" telling you what's going on, and why.  An example:
Presumably Gregory sees Tybalt approaches, which is confusing as it is Benvolio who arrives first. This could mean that Tybalt is seen by Samson and Gregory, but is positioned so as to surprise Benvolio.
This commentary runs throughout the play, and I thought it was an excellent addition.

Ok, with features out of the way let's talk about the content.  In this particular case I've chosen Romeo and Juliet, since I did Macbeth in a previous review.  The company's Hamlet is listed as "Coming Soon".

Similar to the previous title I reviewed, each scene is a bare stage (that in this case blends almost completely into the page), tightly focused on the speaking characters. This puts an unfortunate focus on the quality of the acting, which is far from award winning.  It's more like people just got in front of the character with the intent of demonstrating how the lines should go.  But that's fine, it's not like Sir Ian and Sir Patrick are just hanging out waiting for their phone call.  The value of these apps is in their interactivity, not their stagecraft.  I don't mean to fault the enthusiasm of the actors who made this, I just don't think that this nothing-but-character-closeups method of filming is the best way to present Shakespeare. 

Each video represents an entire scene, which you follow along by vertically scrolling the text in a separate frame. I would love it if these could be synced up in some way.  If you let the video run for a few minutes and then actually have a question, it's going to take you awhile to find that spot in the text. Similarly if you're reading ahead and want to jump the video to a certain place, you'll have equal trouble.  

I'm at a complete loss as to what I'm supposed to do when I get to the end of a scene.  There's no obvious way to move to the next one.  The unobvious way is to tap the current Act and Scene button at the top of the page, which brings down a menu and allows you to pick another scene.  I find this so unintuitive that I assume I'm just missing something.  Sure, it allows you to easily jump around the play.  But aren't most reader/watchers going to most often want to simply say "next scene"?

What else....  the audio commentary I suppose is a nice idea, but the interface needs work. Unlike the video player which has the traditional pause buttons and progress bars, the audio offers none of that, just a play button. Every time you stop and start, it starts over.  Which I'd be fine with except for the fact that there's no way to tell how long he's going to talk!  Is this a 45 second commentary or a 12 minute one?  That makes a big difference.

I'd like to see many more features to bring an app like this on par with a book.  Highlighting passages and taking notes would be a big one.  That seems like an easy add.  As I mentioned I'd like the video and text to stay in sync, even going so far as to seamlessly jump between scenes so you could if you wanted just watch the whole book end to end.

Right now I think that the "director's commentary" I spoke of is the best part of this app.  Perhaps they could marry this together with the video syncing and the audio commentary to produce something more like a modern DVD?  Where the user could opt to turn on the commentary track and then following through the play in text and video, while listening to the director's notes?  That would be seriously cool.

Review : Read and Watch Macbeth

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing - interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here's the thing, though - one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It's a question we've beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it's the "or" that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

I've always been a big proponent of using technology to fix this gap, and Apple's new "interactive books" make some important steps in the right direction. Unfortunately I think there's still a long way to go before they can compete with dedicated apps.

New Book Press graciously sent me a copy of their WordPlay Macbeth for review. Keep in mind that this is a book, not an app, and you'll find it in the Books section of the iTunes Store.

What goes into an interactive book? Well, start with the original text, that's obvious. There's a summary page for each scene which includes clickable images of all the characters in that scene. Click one and you get a summary of that character's role as well.

But this is only half the page! The opposite page is filled up with a movie so you can follow along the text while the actors perform for you. This is actually pretty cool. Now you truly can read and watch and the same time!

There's more. You watch the actors perform it. You can see the text as they do it. What if you still have no idea what they just said? Here's something you can't do away from your computer -- hit that "Tap to translate" button and up pops an English translation of what you just saw/read.

Like any book you can also bookmark your place, and search the text. You can also take notes as you go, highlighting passages and adding your own thoughts. The website mentions "social sharing" functions, but all I found was the ability to email your own notes.

This is a great deal of functionality for a book, and it should be viewed as such. I don't want to take away from that. I do, however, feel that there are a number of things that they may want to change, if the format allows it:

  1. The "Tap to Translate" button brings up the modern copy as a balloon style dialogue box, half atop the text and half over the video (which might still be playing).  That means there's no real "side by side" comparison to what you're reading. You can't move it.  The video also doesn't switch over, which I understand (that would double the already huge filesize), but it would be cool if you clicked that button and then got to watch the actors perform it in modern language.
  2. Every page is some text, and a video.  That means that you get very little text per page, and very little acting (since each video only represents what's on the page).  So working your way through the book would be an exercise in "Play video, watch 30 seconds, video,  watch 30 seconds, flip..." for 4 hours worth of content.
  3. I'm not sure what they were going for with the acting, whether it's supposed to be legit or campy or educational or what.  The background of the videos is pure white, along with the book itself, so when you play a video it's as if characters are running out of the page right at you (which is actually kind of cool).  Monologues are frequently spoken directly to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, which was a little jarring to me.
  4. They doubled up on some actors, which is no big deal in a real stage production but if this is intended to be an educational resource, you have to assume that there's a younger audience who is actually trying to pay attention and learn something ... and when the guy that was just playing the third witch a minute ago suddenly runs up to report to Duncan about Macbeth's exploits on the battlefield, many readers will be left confused.
  5. Each "chapter" (Act and/or Scene) comes with a summary page that contains clickable portraits of all the actors, and one or more still images of the videos to come, along with a high level summary of the chapter. I found this more confusing than anything else.  I wanted to click the still images and fast forward to those sections (you cannot).  The "bio" for each actor is the same no matter where they appear in the play, so once you've read one they just get in the way.  It might have been better to use that space to actually talk about what each character is going to do in the scene?
  6. I'm very confused by the name to look for. The web site calls these books WordPlay Shakespeare, but when you look on iTunes the book is called "Read and Watch Macbeth : Complete Text & Performance." I don't know if that's because I got some sort of early review copy or what, and I apologize to the publisher if I'm calling it by the wrong name. But I also want people to be able to find it in the store!
 Overall, I'll say again, I like the idea of the "interactive book" format and think it has potential. I witnessed one advantage just this week when my internet went out. As I mentioned above I have another interactive Shakespeare app that is very similar to this one -- but without internet I could not watch any of the videos :(.  With this version I have everything I need downloaded, so I could take it with me places that may not have a live net connection.  That's a bonus that we often forget.

Macbeth requires iBooks 3 on an iPad device with iOS 5.1 or higher.