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.