Thursday, June 25, 2015

How Could I Forget The Bacon Story?

So the other day I'm in my daughter's classroom for a return visit to teach Shakespeare. I want to show them my Blank Verse but we're having trouble with the WiFi, so while the teacher works on it I ask if there are any questions.

My daughter - MY daughter - asks me to tell about that lady who thought that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.  So I start by disowning her :), then begrudgingly tell the story of Delia and Francis Bacon.

That's the only question we get to, though, as my game comes up.  It's basically Mad Libs where you fill in the blanks with nouns, adjectives, and such ... only the end result comes from Shakespeare.  So I'm walking around the room asking for words, the teacher's typing, the kids are supplying the craziness.  "Ok, I need a noun!" I'd say.


"Great, pig it is.  Now an adjective?"


"Ok, pig, fat, makes sense. Next...another adjective."


"Really?  Ok, chubby it is.  Pig, fat, chubby, I think I see a pattern.  How about a ... noun?"


<pause for laughter>  "I think you're proving my point!  Pig, fat, chubby, ba....wait, did you say bacon because of pig or because of that story I told about Delia and Francis Bacon?"

"<shrug> I just like bacon," says the kid in the back row who'd offered it as a suggestion.

Other kids in the back row nod.  "It's true," they say, "He answers bacon for everything."

Here's the kicker.  Turns out that my daughter has a crush on that kid.  So I'm pretty confident that she asked me to tell the Delia Bacon story specifically because that kid would find it cool.  Nicely played!

Using Shakespeare To Sentence The Boston Bomber

All we're hearing about in the news is how he apologized to his victims, but the more interesting story today is how the judge quoted Shakespeare when sentencing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.

Want to take any guesses? I thought maybe something about the quality of mercy, but apparently the judge was not in that kind of mood.

"The evil that men do lives after them," he said, "The good is oft interred with their bones. So it will be for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev." 
"Whenever your name is mentioned, what will be remembered is the evil you have done. No one will remember that your teachers were fond of you. No one will mention that your friends found you funny and fun to be with. No one will say you were a talented athlete or that you displayed compassion in being a Best Buddy or that you showed more respect to your women friends than your male peers did. 
"What will be remembered is that you murdered and maimed innocent people and that you did it willfully and intentionally. You did it on purpose."
Harsh. I approve.

He later went on to quote Iago, but from Verdi's opera rather than the original Shakespeare text, when he spoke of those who believe in a cruel god.  I can't find the actual quote, does anybody know it?
"Surely someone who believes that God smiles on and rewards the deliberate killing and maiming of innocents believes in a cruel God," the judge said. "That is not, it cannot be, the God of Islam. Anyone who has been led to believe otherwise has been maliciously and willfully deceived."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Happy 10th Anniversary To Us!

On June 8, 2005, Shakespeare Geek was born.

10 years.  Wow. That's older than my youngest child.  If you look closely, you can actually see them grow up before our very eyes. My son saw his first show (The Tempest) when he was still in his stroller. You can find the sonnet I wrote to my daughter on her first birthday, or the time I taught them to sing Sonnet 18 almost before my littlest could speak. (* Alas the actual audio file is no longer available online.)

What a long, strange trip it's been. I remember how and why I got started, too.  I was listening to Howard Stern on the radio, and Robin was doing the news.  She made a Shakespeare reference. I got it, but then I thought, "You know, when I get to work there's nobody that I can tell that story to, because I don't think anybody I know would get it."

So I got online and started looking for forums that talked about Shakespeare. But this is a tricky subject for me, because I didn't want to talk about performing the plays, nor did I want to talk about studying them academically. I more or less wanted to talk about things like pop culture references, like hearing a Shakespeare reference on the Howard Stern show.

So I made one.  The original name, if anybody remembers, was actually "Such Shakespeare Stuff." I started it as a category on my family blog (long since gone), but eventually transitioned it over. Somewhere along the line somebody called me a real Shakespeare geek and the name stuck because I liked the idea that I'd spent my life as a computer nerd type person so geek just naturally seemed to fit.

As you can see by my earliest posts I was really just combing the net for Shakespeare stuff and posting anything I could get my hands on.  There wasn't much discussion, because there wasn't much readership.  I thought, when I started it, that maybe I would begin to build an audience of people who didn't know much about Shakespeare, but wanted to learn more.  That, after all, was typically how my real life conversations went.  Anytime Shakespeare came up (usually because I brought him up), I was the only one in the conversation with any knowledge of the subject. So I did most of the talking and others just kind of listened and hopefully learned.

Oh, then there was the one day that Google quoted me.  They had just put Shakespeare's work online and kicked it off by quoting me.  Note the name of the blog at the time. :)

Then a funny thing happened.  Actual Shakespeare scholars started showing up, who wanted to talk about Shakespeare in a less formal setting.  People like Catkins and Bardfilm, David Blixt and JM and Cass Morris and Alan Farrar (RIP), all of whom knew way, way more about Shakespeare than I did. There were times when I immediately switched over to impostor syndrome and thought, "What am I doing? How can I host this, when everybody that is reading what I'm writing actually knows more about this than I do?"

But my honored guests didn't seem to mind. On the contrary we would often stumble across topics that hadn't been studied before, like a bowling reference in Sonnet 20 or our debate over whether Francisco saw the ghost.  And I realized that in my own small way I was contributing to something of value to the conversation, because I was asking the questions and hosting the place to discuss the answers. We had created a place precisely where people with no knowledge of Shakespeare who wanted to learn could interact with people who had the knowledge and were excited to share it. All I had to do was sit back and facilitate the discussion.

One day a coworker came up to me, a coworker who'd never spoken to me previously, and said, "I thought of you this morning."  Which was cool, because she was a very attractive coworker :).  "I was watching a movie and they said something about Shakespeare, and I thought hey, I should tell Duane about this."  And that's exactly why I do this.

We made merchandise, and one day I even saw one of my t-shirts in the wild.

We created jokes, and one day I saw somebody get up on stage and deliver one of my jokes before a performance.

My family and I toured the Folger vault, and I got so close to the most beautiful book in the world I could have eaten it.

I wrote a book.

I wrote an app.

I regularly teach Shakespeare at the local elementary school, and have done so since my children were 7 years old.

Today as I said goodbye to my group of fifth graders (since I'm unlikely to get the opportunity to teach them at the middle school, believe me I've already asked), I left them with the four words that have become the mission statement for this blog.  Shakespeare makes life better.  I've been doing it now for ten years. That sounds like one of those questions you hear in a presidential debate.  "Ask yourself, is my life better now than it was ten years ago?"  Absofrickinlutely.

I can't begin to recap 10 years in one blog post, even though I'd like to try.  Thank you so much to all my readers, my contributors, and most importantly, to steal a line from my Rebel friends...

Thank you, Shakespeare!

The Curse is Real

Must tell this story.  A few weeks ago when I was teaching Macbeth in my daughter's class I really stressed the whole curse thing, and told them that if they are on stage and say the word, bad things will happen.

Well, I'm back today and sure enough a hand shoots up.

"Remember when you were here, and you told us about the curse, and how if you say the name of the play on stage then something bad will happen? Well, Antonia wanted to see if that was true, so, at our dance recital? After the curtain closed, after we took our bows and were still on stage?  She said it. And then, for the night performance? A hurricane came through and blew the roof off the building, we all had to be evacuated."

Love it. The best part is I know that story to be 100% true, because my daughter is in that dance class, and I was there. Fire marshall and building inspector and everybody had to come in and determine if the building was safe, while around 1000 parents and dancers sat in the cafeteria.

The Game's The Thing

So I just got back from an encore performance at my daughter's fifth grade class. They've got less than a week of school left and the teacher had basically warned me not to expect them to want to learn anything new, so I decided to just have fun with it.

At this age (10, 11ish), death and dying are still pretty cool. When we did Macbeth, it was the prospect of swinging a foam sword and maybe killing your best friend that made it exciting. So I decided to go with that theme.  I got a bag and filled it up with over 100 slips of paper containing the wide variety of ways to die in Shakespeare's time.  These included:

died at birth
died giving birth
hanged for poaching
drawn and quartered
burned at the stake
died in the war (drowned, hit by cannonball, scurvy, etc...)
killed in a bar fight

I honestly can't remember how many I made.  Of course there were a few variations on "Still Alive", too.

I explained to the kids how lucky we are that Shakespeare lived to be 52 years old, and how easy it would have been for him to have died much younger. How his son died, and his sisters, and eventually Marlowe.

Told them all the stand up and, one by one, draw from the hat.  If you were still alive, you played in the next round. Otherwise you died, sit down.

They *loved* it.  One kid, before drawing, said "I hope I die!"  He got typhoid.  So I explained to him what that was and just how gruesome his death would have been. That's how it went, around the room, me explaining the circumstances and gory details of each death.

After the first round, 8 kids were left out of about 24.  After the next round just 2.  Then both of them died.

They immediately screamed that they wanted to play again.  In this round a boy got "Died giving birth", which brought the place to its knees in hysterics.  This time there was eventually just one girl left, and the class insisted that she continue to draw slips until she died. Sure enough she draws an Alive slip again and everybody claims she must be cheating. But then on the next draw she got plague and died.

Highly recommended, if you've got an audience for it.  Took me a reasonable portion of my evening to cut up and write out the slips, but totally worth it. I made over 100 slips for the class of 25, which meant that even after 2 rounds of the game there were still plenty to choose from.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Macbeth V : Fleance Strikes Back

It's time once again for your Shakespeare Geek to head into his children's classroom and volunteer to expose them to the wonderful world of Shakespeare. I've been doing it for years, and it's always quite the experience.

This year my daughter is turning 11, which puts her in 5th grade according to typical USA grading levels (I know sometimes saying grade 5 is really confusing to my international readers). In third grade we'd done Midsummer and in fourth grade we'd done selections from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. So this year it was Macbeth by request.

In the past I've taken a firm stance on not using "modern interpretation" because I think that you're not giving the kids a chance to appreciate the original that way, you're just somebody retelling the story.  From experience I've taken a step back from that stance, however. This is not a stage production where I've got a multiple visits and rehearsals with these kids. I need to get them introduced to the topic and doing something with it in a single visit, typically 30-60 minutes. I could easily spend that much time doing a single scene of a single play, in original text.  While most of the class sits watching, bored.

So instead I did something different. I banged out my own "kid's Macbeth".  Half streamlined summary, half modern language, with some key classic bits left in because I wanted them to be able at the end of it to say that they're performed Shakespeare and not just some random dad's retelling of Shakespeare.

I get there and am quite pleased that they are expecting me, and looking forward to it. I check to see how many of the kids were with me for fourth grade or third grade, and it looks like more than half the kids have done Shakespeare with me in the past.  So I dive right in and tell them about what we'll be working on today - Shakespeare's scariest story complete with murderers and ghosts and witches and beheadings, and I'm pleased to see a number of fist pumps at the prospect. I go on to tell them a little bit about King James and why Shakespeare wrote Macbeth. And of course I tell them about the curse.  "Shakespeare wrote a play about witches that was so good, that he may have overshot his mark just a bit. This play is so realistic, and so scary, that people believe he actually conjured real demons who put a real life curse on the play."  Well, the kids just eat that up.

I also have a treat in store.  I explain to them that they all already know at least some Macbeth.  I nod to the teacher to cue up the video that I've brought. I ask who has ever heard of a book called Harry Potter.  Hands shoot up.  I ask who has seen the movie.  I ask who has seen the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban.  They begin discussing among themselves which one that was.  I say, "Watch this."

*BOOM* I drop my massive copy of the First Folio on one kid's desk (I love doing that), opened to the appropriate page, and read, "Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake. Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble."  What you just heard?  Shakespeare wrote that four hundred years ago.

One girl says to no one in particular, "I think I've heard that before."

"I guarantee you've heard that before," I tell them.  "At one point in your lives, whether it was a tv show or a movie or a cartoon, if you've ever seen the image of witches around a cauldron making a magic potion, you've seen those lines.  And you know what?  Now you get to perform them."

So we dive right in and I explain my version of what somebody once told me was the "whoosh" game. To avoid fighting over parts, what we'll do is have a steady stream of kids come up at every Entrance.  Enter as Macbeth? Fine. But once you exit, you get back in line, and next time you might be entering as a messenger or Banquo or a witch.  Just go with it. I encourage them that if you're a ghost, give me some serious ghost moves, make it scary Walking Dead zombie stuff. And if you're a witch, even if you're a boy, you make sure to bring your cackly witch voice. If you get to kill somebody make it a good one, and if you get to die, die a glorious death.

We also did something different with the script. I asked the teacher to project it on the wall, teleprompter style. I knew that this would be an issue with looking at the screen instead of each other, but I thought this would be better than having them constantly lose their place flipping through a paper script.  (We actually compromised, since I got there and she had printed all the scripts -- so the kids in their seats followed along on paper while the kids 'on stage' read from the screen.)

I won't go over the entire thing but the opening scene offers a good example:


Sounds of a battle are heard.

I cue the seated students to provide the sounds of a battle, which they respond to so enthusiastically that the teacher has to tell them that there is standardized testing going on in the next room, keep it down.

Enter King DUNCAN.

Where is everybody? Can somebody tell me how the battle is going?  Hello, people! King giving orders, here! Somebody tell me whether we're winning!

A wounded soldier staggers on stage.

You there! Soldier! How goes the battle?


Right, yes, doctor, but first give me a report of the fighting.

We were losing, badly, to the rebel Macdonwald,

(Enter Macdonwald, silently, swinging his sword as if fighting an invisible enemy)

I wanted to start off fun so I added this bit, a mini dumb-show with Macdonwald and Macbeth demonstrating exactly what "unseam'd from nave to chops" means. Most importantly I went into my bag of tricks and pulled out two foam swords. The gasps and "coools" and "awesomes!" from the crowd were the best part. Suddenly the game became "Will I get a sword when it's my turn to go up?"

until the thane of Glamis, brave Macbeth, swinging his sword thusly, carved his way through the enemy troops and stood face to face with the traitor.

(Enter Macbeth, sword in hand, carving his way through invisible enemy troops to face Macdonwald)

And then what happened?!

Macbeth did unseam him from the nave to the chops!

(Silently Macbeth mimes stabbing Macdonwald in the stomach and pulling the blade up to his chin, then cutting off Macdonwald's head. Macdonwald dies a gruesome death.)

I take a moment to explain what this means, just in case they missed it. It's important to highlight the gross bits, and I made sure that this scene is referenced multiple times later in the play.

O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!  Excellent news.  Also, kind of gross.


Oh, yes, right, of course. Go, get yourself a doctor.


As you can see, that's a sort of half original text / half rewrite that I was going for. There wasn't really much of a pattern to it, it was more like "Take a look at original text ... do I think that it's simple enough that the kids can figure out what it's about without lots of explanation? Prune it for time and content and keep it. Otherwise, rewrite."

So on went the show. The wounded soldier who staggers off would later come back on as Macbeth, King Duncan would come back as a witch, and so on. Any student who came up got to play multiple parts. A few students chose not to play, and that's fine as well. I think they were afraid of their reading abilities (from what my daughter tells me about which kids skipped the chance).

I deliberately left in the Porter scene, because I wanted to explain the knock knock joke. And they actually got it! Well, not the joke. But I had his speech up on teleprompter and said, "Anybody see anything familiar about this?" When nobody responded I said, "What's his first line? Knock knock, who's there. Sound familiar now?" The class said it sounded like a knock knock joke. Thought that "Shakespeare invented the knock knock joke" was another one for their "Guess what I learned today" files.

I deliberately wrote Fleance as a joke, because he had no good lines to keep and he doesn't really advance the plot, other than the fact that he escapes the murder of his father. So every time he's on stage I have people acknowledge that he's there, and then he just waves. Until he and his father are set upon by the murderers. Now, I've made it perfectly clear in my rewrite that killing the boy is essential:

You see that man and his son who just left?

Yes, lord.

I'm going to need you to kill them.

Not a problem.

Very important that you kill the boy. Don't forget the boy.

Check. Kill the boy.

Exit everyone

So when their big scene comes I tell Fleance that it's very important for him to escape, while his father fights off the bad guys. I yell, "Action!' because sometimes I like to do that :), and Fleance - in slow motion, no less - round kicks Murderer #2, steals his sword and attempts to go in for the kill. Teachers laughed, class laughed, I laughed, and explained that while it was indeed a cool improvisation, he'd pretty much be rewriting the course of Scottish history.

Final best part comes at the end. During this entire thing I've done my bit to play director, telling my ghosts to be ghostier and the witches to be witchier, how Macbeth should be scary to everybody except Lady Macbeth, because even Macbeth is scared of her. And it just so happens that the tiniest, quietest girl in class has ended up as Macbeth in the final battle scene. She is wielding this massive sword that I stole from my son's toybox. I tell her, "Ok, this is your big moment. You are standing in the middle of this battle, and you think you're immortal because of what the witches have told you. That guy there in the last scene? You killed him in about two seconds, because he is not of woman borne. As far as you're concerned you are a god walking the face of the earth, and the very mention of your name should strike terror in the hearts of those who hear it. Are you ready to do this?" The rest of the class is cheering her on. The scene begins, and god love her she does her best to speak up. But if I told you that on a scale of 1-10 her normal speaking voice is a 1? She got it up to about a 3. Which, for her, was an accomplishment. So you can just imagine the squeaky little "Lay on, Macduff!" that we got. It was awesome.

As I'd gone well over my time I was packing up my props while entertaining questions from the kids. They all wanted to know about the curse and whether they were all bound by it now. I informed them that they absolutely were, and that if they ever found themselves in a theatre, never to utter the M word. It was forever to be known as the Scottish Play. "If you're in a theatre and you mention the M word in front of somebody that believes in the curse? They'll drag you right out of there. I've seen it!"

I heard someone comment, "So Macbeth was really a bad guy." So I said, "Actually, that's a very deep topic you're scratching at there. In a few years, when you get to high school, your teacher is going to make you write essays on topics like that. Because Macbeth wasn't necessarily a bad guy. He was a soldier in the army, and a good one. A loyal follower of the king, with a loving wife at home. And then along come these witches who tell him, "You can be more." A big theme of Shakespeare's work is about what happens when people try to step beyond the position that they've been given in life."

After the school day was over my daughter brought me 20+ handwritten thank you notes about how much the class had enjoyed my visit. Every one of them commented on the curse. Some only said Scottish Play, some said M word, and a few actually wrote out, "Thank you for coming to teach us about Macbeth...oops! I said it!" One girl wrote that when she gets to high school she promises not to roll her eyes when the Shakespeare comes out. Another wrote, "Today I learned that if you are not satisfied with your position in life your friend will kill you."

I would do this again and again. I already wrote to the teacher offering my services in case she has free time to kill, so we shall see!