Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hamlet Didn't Have A Tragic Flaw, He Just Had Bad Luck

At any point during a Shakespeare tragedy should we just kind of look at it and think, "Dang, you know, that was just really unlucky"?  How about Polonius being behind the arras in the first place? Sure, it was pretty impulsive of Hamlet to just go all stabby all of a sudden, if he'd done that literally any other time when somebody wasn't back there, the play would go totally differently.

The article linked above asks why we feel obliged to pretend luck doesn't play a factor.  Luck suggests that even if you don't do the right things, you can still come out ahead (people like to cite Bill Gates, college drop out, as a great example here). Or, that you can do everything right and still one day tragedy strikes and you lose everything. It's hard to accept that sort of randomness, because it acknowledges a complete lack of control.  If I choose a certain path, I want to expect that certain things will happen. If an unexpected thing happens, my brain wants to go back and create a new path that I must have taken to get myself to that spot.

Personally I believe in the theory that says, "At any given time, you are the sum total of your experiences and decisions up to that point."  I always take issue when people say something like, "I'm happy with my life, I just wish that X had been different."  You can't have it that way, because if X had been different, then everything that came after X would also be different.

Luck, therefore, is part of the definition -- a thing happened at a certain time because of conditions that all your previous decisions got you into. Luck is basically the uncontrollable bit.  Sure, Hamlet decided to go to his mother's room, get all upset, and murder the tapestry.  But nothing he did was responsible for putting Polonius back there. Sure, sure, you could argue that the whole play-within-a-play, which deliberately pissed off Claudius, set Polonius into action, but ultimately Polonius has free will as well that Hamlet does not control.

I guess the whole point is, does the tragic flaw exist? Or is it just a construct we put in place after the fact, to rationalize what is ultimately just a series of uncontrollable events, making your choices like waltzing through a mine field and hoping your next one doesn't blow up in your face. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Idea : This Day in Shakespeare History

After noticing that Merchant of Venice was entered into the Stationers Register on July 22, I wondered (not for the first time) about what other days of significance there are for Shakespeare geeks?  Granted this isn't a particularly significant one, but it's fun for context (and makes you wonder about the dates of all the other plays).

Has anybody ever attempted to compile something like this?  Should we?  Lord knows that whenever you walk into a bookstore around Christmas time there's table upon table of calendars for every possible bit of trivia. Why not something for the Shakespeareans?

How Well Do You Know Your Shakespeare?

The other day I tweeted, but did not blog, an amusing little Shakespeare "translator" that takes select quotes from the various plays, and then offers up a modern interpretation in one of several United Kingdom dialects. It's called What Do You Shakesp'hear? and it's amusing enough, I suppose, but being on the wrong side of the pond I guess I have no point of reference for most of it :)

But!  The creators of this tool, Leicester Square Box Office, emailed me to talk about it.  My first thought was, "If these guys are interested in dialects they should talk to Ben Crystal."  Well, they already had:
“… every modern spoken English accent is a descendant of Shakespeare’s London accent, so when people go and hear it they tend to say ‘oh, that sounds a bit like where we come from’. They’re hearing the echo or the glimmer of their own accent’s decedent or ancestor. That means that it’s relatable…”
They've also got a classic "words and phrases that came from Shakespeare" quiz that, I'm ashamed to say, I found pretty difficult. The "which phrase came from Shakespeare" bit is easy, but half the questions are archaic Shakespeare-only words that you have to define. Which is really somewhat contrary to their mission, if you think about it? What's the point of saying "look at all the words we use today that came from Shakespeare" alongside "look at all the words Shakespeare used that we don't use anymore"?

Anyway, here's a link to the quiz. See you how do.  I only got 10/15.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sir Patrick Stewart To Play White Othello

How'd I miss this?

Sir Patrick Stewart wants to do Othello again (he's performed the role before, in 1997).  This time, though, he wants to do it white:

‘In the big picture, everyone should be able to play anything and I am against embargoes on actors playing roles that differ from their own ethnicity or gender...I am in favour of as much diversity as possible because it’s art — it’s not politics, it’s not government, it’s creativity.’
What I don't understand, however, is that Stewart played Othello white in 1997 as well, didn't he? I remember that story, because they did a "mirror image" version with a white Othello and, I'm assuming, a black supporting cast.

Then again, I think the article is just weak on this point. I see here where Stewart clearly says, "I want to play a white Othello again."  Note the again.

Maybe this time it won't be a "mirror image" gimmick, and it'll just be ... what's the term for it?  Race blind?  Race agnostic?  I wonder, then, how they'd deal with all of Iago's racist language at the beginning.  Interesting.

As You Like It Needs More Battle Scenes

First spotted on Reddit with the title "Pupils at Howell's Girls' School in Denbigh, north Wales, perform Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' during the 1930s", apparently from this January 2013 news story.  But I only have one question.

What scene is this?

Since they are all dressed identically it's impossible to identify individual characters. I just can't figure out when during the play there is any sort of military clash of opposing forces at all?

Those Two Guys

Everybody know what TV Tropes is?  Technically it's like a Wikipedia for movie and television cliches (imagine an encyclopedia of variations on "jumped the shark" cliches).  Depending on who you ask it's also Internet quicksand, guaranteed to cost you hours of time should you happen to stumble upon a link.

Good news! I've escaped with some Shakespeare.  Specifically this idea of the "Those Two Guys" trope.  Definition, you say?

Two characters, usually in a school setting, to be the mundane Greek Chorus. They may or may not be snarky and unlike the Greek Chorus, they don't break the fourth wall very often (if at all). They're completely ordinary... and no, we don't mean as in the Ordinary High-School Student, or the Badass Normal. They're ordinary. Often the best friends of the main character (who is an Ordinary High-School Student) before all the weirdness with aliens, robots, magic, demons, harems, etc.
Some pairs become involved in the plot less and less as the series progresses, especially if the plot becomes more serious. Given what usually happens to people involved in the plot, it's probably for the best. However, it's not uncommon for Those Two Guys to also become popular and even iconic characters in the series. 
Their personalities usually sharply contrast, e.g. calm/hyper, jock/geek, etc., or their appearances contrast, e.g. short/tall, thin/fat... When they don't, they will be exactly the same. They might even wear Coordinated Clothes. Their names are often esoteric (either too complex or too simple to stand out), plus their non-involvement with the plot usually results in them being called "Those Two Guys".
Here's where it gets interesting, over on the Theatre page, where we learn that the original pair of Those Two Guys was none other than the "unintentional evil minions" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I guess, looking at the "it's always X except for when it's the complete opposite" definition above ("they're sharply contrasted unless they're exactly the same / they're involved less and less in the plot unless they become popular and iconic characters, etc...) it's hard to argue that R&G do not fit.   (Of course they can't fail to note that Timon and Pumbaa from the Lion King are also based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This "those two guys" thing might be the only thing that they have in common!.)

But it wouldn't be TV Tropes without lots of examples.  How about ...

Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Augueface from Twelfth Night?

Trinculo and Stephano from The Tempest?

Ross and Lennox (or Lennox and Angus) from Macbeth?

Benvolio and Mercutio from ...

..wait, what?  Mercutio? MERCUTIO?  The page does mark this as a special case, however -- it's "somewhat off" because both of them are "somewhat relevant" to the story. Oh, well, at least they cleared that up.  Somewhat.

I'm thinking they could shorten that original definition to "any two guys that typically have a scene together."

EDIT : Apparently William Shakespeare is some sort of patron saint on the site, and it is acknowledged that he in fact created most of the so-called tropes.

Friday, July 17, 2015

There's a Shakespeare Geek Born Every Minute

Today I learned something. Always a good day when that happens.

Today I learned that the Shakespeare Birthplace -- as in, the home where our beloved playwright was born -- was almost shipped to the United States, brick by brick, in the 1800s. The mastermind behind this plan was none other that P.T. Barnum, who is perhaps best known as one half of the famed Barnum and Bailey Circus. It's also a famous quote of his that I borrowed for the subject line : there's a sucker born every minute.

I wonder if Barnum was a little like the Donald Trump of his day? Sees something he likes, and more importantly something he can own for himself and make money from, and says, "How much? Name your price." We can assume that he would have stamped his name on it as soon as the last brick was placed in New York.  P.T. Barnum presents William Shakespeare's Birthplace.

Alas, Barnum was foiled in his attempt by, in his own words from his 1855 memoir, "some English gentleman who got wind of the deal" and got some friends together to buy the house for 3000 pounds, keeping it in England.

That English gentleman's name?

Charles Dickens.

And now you know.....the rest of the story.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Shakespeare Geek Readers Get 15% Off A Shakespeare T-Shirt from Litographs! Limited Time Offer!

I've got quite a selection of "Shakespeare plays on stuff". I've got posters, pillows, coffee mugs... But the big problem is that all that stuff is in my house, and you need to come visit my house if you're ever going to see it.

So how about if you could wear your favorite Shakespeare play around on a t-shirt? Well, check out these designs from
 Hamlet Tee from Litographs

 Midsummer Tee from Litographs

Check out their entire collection (which contains many more classic books, not just Shakespeare). Designs are both back and front and I believe contain the entire text of the play, and really do look to be quite the conversation starter. Can't wait to get one.

BONUS! Now until midnight on  Sunday (July 19) use promo code SHAKESPEAREGEEK and take $5 off your order!  That's 15% off the single shirt price!

(Disclaimer - I'm getting no kickbacks here. I actually asked if they had an affiliate program, and they do not. I'll most likely be getting the Tempest shirt for myself!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Did You Get To Ask Sir Ian McKellen Anything?

Despite the recent drama, reddit ("the front page of the internet") has become famous for what it calls the AMA ("ask me anything") segment where they frequently score impressive celebrities, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Barack Obama. I sometimes check the upcoming schedule to see if there's anybody worth camping out and waiting for, but rarely do I remember to do anything about it. They typically last an hour, and you usually have to post your question well ahead of time to get it seen above the noise, so if you're not on top of your game you'll miss it.

So imagine my surprise when I checked this afternoon to see that Sir Ian McKellen had done one and I missed it!  Obviously he was there to promote his new Mr. Holmes movie, but the name of the game in the AMA is that the audience can ask him anything, and it's always fun to see which questions they will answer.

Naturally I went scanning for Shakespeare questions, and spoiler alert, I'm quite disappointed with how few there were.  Reddit seems primarily interested in Gandalf, advice for LGBT youth, and memories of Christopher Lee.  Oh, well.

"I met Patrick in Stratford-upon-Avon when we were both working in the theatre there doing Shakespeare. In about 1976."   

(Note, a number of people asked the same question.)

Have you talked to Michael Fassbender (your younger Magneto self) in regards to him playing MacBeth?
"No I have not talked to Michael about McBeth, and don't expect to. He's giving his own performance and I think it might be confusing.

You don't want to be bothered with what someone else did. You want to do your own performance."

I wish I'd been in that conversation, because Patrick Stewart is on video many times telling the story about the advice that Sir Ian gave him for his version of Macbeth. I hate to call the man out, but perhaps it's a case of him politely saying that he just doesn't know Michael Fassbender as well as he knows Patrick Stewart.

Is there a character that you'd like to play before you retire from acting?
"Perhaps Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice, because he is one of the very few obviously gay characters in Shakespeare."

Have you ever had bad luck when saying the title of the Scottish Play?
"No. Macbeth! [shout it loudly] was a lucky play for me. As I was in a wonderful production with amazing cast. But I am careful not to mention the play, or quote it, in the dressing room as other actors can get nervous."

I may have missed a few, but this unfortunately is about it. Among AMAs I have to say it's a relatively poor one, he does not answer many questions and those that do float to the top are all variations on the same idea - advice for LGBT youth, stories about Patrick Stewart or Lord of the Rings, what got you inspired to act, etc...    He may also suffer from the recent shakeup in AMA management at Reddit, where they fired the people who used to babysit the celebrities through the process.

I wish I'd been there to see it, but honestly I don't know what I would have asked. If you got the chance to ask Sir Ian McKellen a question that he stood a very good chance to actually see and choose to answer, what would you ask?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stories from Shakespeare for Children by Alice Hoffman

Longtime reader and contributor catkins sent me something wonderful that I'm only just now able to fully sit and appreciate.

The task of retelling Shakespeare's stories for children has been undertaken many times, perhaps most famously Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. Personally I never loved that one because I went straight for The Tempest and did not enjoy how they edited it.

Well, catkins clearly knows this about me because he sent me Alice Hoffman's 1904 version!

The pictures fascinate me.  I'm always on the search for public domain Shakespeare images, so I've seen many of the ones included here. Does that mean these are the originals? I haven't figured that out yet.

But happy birthday to me, because there's images I've never seen! A number of the characters get this sort of head shot, as I've included here for Prospero, which I think is a neat touch for a children's book as you introduce the characters.

I actually own a version of The Tempest illustrated by children, where the images change on every page. That is, Caliban does not look the same on page 3 as he does on page 5, and so on. This made it impossible to read this book aloud to school children, I found out the hard way, as they kept saying, "Who is that? Wait, I thought caliban was green and slimy? That guy is red and fiery."

I have not read this one all the way through yet, but I'm looking forward to it. As long time readers know, I've always thought of The Tempest as my own personal benchmark for Shakespeare, because it is the play I first introduced to my children. Looking forward to adding this one to the collection.

Monday, July 13, 2015

There's a new King Lear film on the horizon...

Lately I've been in touch with Alexander Barnett about his new film version of King Lear that's nearing completion (for release in 2015). I don't know much about it, though he has been doing a great job of putting out plenty of what I guess I'll call "work in progress" updates?  The casting and the visuals look excellent.

When is the last time we got a Lear film? Was it Sir Ian's version back in 2008? There's been rumors of both Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins as far back as 2009, but I can't find any up to date information.  IMDB lists the Pacino version as "in development" but there's plenty of projects listed in that status that never see the light of day.

If you've got any questions for Mr. Barnett please post them here or send them along directly to me, perhaps we can get some Q & A going?