Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sorry Gandalf, I'm Gonna Side With Hannibal On This One

Sir Ian McKellen doesn't think you should read Shakespeare.

Sir Anthony Hopkins does.

How great is it that we can actually have a conversation that starts this way? Both actors are starring in The Dresser, and there's plenty of articles coming out where both are interviewed.

McKellen: "I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre! Reading just reduces him to an examination subject.

In the joint interview, Sir Anthony urged actors to read “anything you can get your hands on” and took a less rose-tinted view of acting in the theatre.

Now, let's be clear. This is not a black and white topic.  I think that if someone has the option, then of course you need to go see live theatre every chance you get.  I've always taken issue with the idea that it has to be one or the other, as if there's teachers out there saying, "Well we have a chance to go see the Royal Shakespeare Company person Othello, but we're just going to read it instead." If you find those people, then absolutely, gouge out their eyes and read King Lear to them.

But if you see it, and you love it, and you say "I want to do everything I can to get closer to the material", then isn't reading it (and everything about it) the logical option?  In fact, say that the thing you want most is to perform Shakespeare. They're doing Macbeth next.  So what do you do, exactly? Do you run and watch every version of it you can find? Or do you, I dunno.....read it?

If you *want* to read Shakespeare, read Shakespeare. Anyone who tries to talk you out of it has missed the point. Period.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Failure Is Not An Option (A Geeklet Story)

My oldest has been distraught lately over her first C on a significant exam, and we've been discussing daily whether getting all A's is the most important thing in the world.  She seems to think I enjoy watching her get bad grades because it shows that she's finally working hard enough, but she feels that if those bad grades cause her to not get into college then what's the point.

"If I FAIL...." she starts.

"We fail?" I interjected, predictably.  "Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll...not....fail!"

Blank stare. Open mouthed, speechless daughter.

"Lady Macbeth," I explain.

"That's not what I thought you were going to say," she countered.

"Also Beauty and the Beast," I said. "Gaston."

"That's what I thought you were going to say."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

Ok, this might be the geekiest thing you read all day.

You've probably heard of the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", where you name an actor and then have to link him back to Kevin Bacon in less than six movies.  It's based on the "six degrees of separation" theory.

Well, I'm honestly surprised that it's taken this long for someone to think of Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.  What exactly was the original Bacon's social network, and were people like William Shakespeare on it?

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have an easy "List two names and we'll tell you the connection" mode.  You enter a name and then get a very geeky map of nodes, and you have to explore it to find the connections you want.

My plan is to enter Edward de Vere and see if he shows up.  But company just came over and I must come back to it later!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

On Translating Shakespeare

Devil's advocate time here, people.

I've been avoiding all the discussion about Oregon Shakespeare Festival's plan to translate all the works into "contemporary modern English".  The general response seems to have been, "GAH! DON'T TOUCH IT!"

Personally, I agree.  Just...not enough to jump on my blog the very instant the news broke, and start a boycott.

Instead let me ask a question. Haven't the works of Shakespeare already been translated into, well, pretty much every language in existence? Including Klingon and Esperanto?  George R.R. Martin himself hopes that constructed Game of Thrones language "Dothraki" is next.

Did we grab the pitch forks for all those translations as well? Why not? Isn't it the exact same thing?

Earliest Known Draft of King James Bible Found?

Ok, this story isn't specifically about Shakespeare, but it's got some obvious parallels.

Scholars believe they've found a draft of the King James Bible dated somewhere between 1604 - 1608.

There's a popular story, which I'm sure most of you know, that says Shakespeare was not only one of the translators, but that he hid his name in Psalm 46.  Count 46 words in and you get the word "Shake", count 46 words backwards from the end and you get the word "spear".  Shakespeare would have been 46 years old in 1611 when the KJV was published (well, technically in 1610, when they were supposedly finishing the project). Boom. Mind==blown.

That story's great if you have absolutely no other details about how the KJV was created, and just assume that that's how it worked.  That a bunch of guys just banged it out in a year, and Shakespeare, being the biggest fish in that particular pond, helped himself to psalm 46 and slipped in his easter egg.

The great thing about today's news is that it brings the actual true details of the KJV into the spotlight.  Such as how the bulk of the work was really done 1604 -1608, which doesn't line up at all with the whole 46 thing. Or how there were actually six separate companies all working on the translation, and any one of them could have been responsible for psalm 46. Or how they submitted their work to the general committee in 1608, meaning that Shakespeare would have to have been so dedicated to making this happen that he planned ahead two years and said, "Yeah, I think we'll be done around 1610 when I'm 46."

Either that or it's one a big coincidence.

Honestly, scholars have been flat out proving it's not true for years. But sometimes it takes a mention in the NY Times for people to finally start paying attention.  No offense, scholars. ;)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Best Movie Adaptations of All Time?

Whenever a new Shakespeare movie comes out, everybody does a list of movie adaptations.  But here's my problem.  Nobody seems to want to do the research.  Take this one, for example:

Are these the 10 best Shakespeare screen adaptations?

4 of the 10 are from the year 2000 or later (including Julie Taymor's Tempest.  Really?)

3 from the 1990's (including 10 Things I Hate About You, grrrrrrr.  Not the same thing!)

1 each from 1950's, 1960's and 1970's (including Brando's Julius Caesar, Peter Brooks' King Lear and Chimes at Midnight)

We've been filming Shakespeare for basically about one hundred years. So is it reasonable to believe that 70% of the best versions all come from the last 25 years?

What sort of criteria should we use?  You can't drop a 1936 Romeo and Juliet into a class full of high school English students alongside the 1996 Leonardo diCaprio version and ask them which one they like better.

The art of movie making, it would seem logical to assume, has gotten better over time. The quality of the equipment that goes into it, the special effects, the scope and budget.  So is it true, then, that the best movies in general have all been recent movies? When we speak of those older movies is there an implied, "...for its time" qualifier tacked onto the praise?

Does anybody have a favorite Shakespeare adaptation from before 1990 that they believe stands up to a more modern adaptation? If a friend asked you for a recommendation, would you dip into 100 years of Shakespeare movies or would you stick to the more modern stuff?

UPDATE : This guy gets it right.

Grok Learning and Shakespeare Bots

I was hoping this article would have more relevant content, given that it teases "fake Shakespeare sonnets" right in the title. But I found a gem of an idea that I love:

It’s called a Shakespeare-bot. A group of ten-year-olds have written a basic computer program based on language patterns. Plug hundreds of words into the program and it will begin to spit out fake Shakespeare sonnets. 
“The trick with teaching computer science is to integrate it with other curricular subjects,” says Nicky Ringland, co-founder of Grok Learning, a platform of online computer science courses teaching children to code and providing teachers with much-needed computer science support.
That's all we get for Shakespeare references.  I am currently looking for links to the project and will update the post if I find any.  Seriously, I'm thinking I'll try to contact them directly.

What I love love love is the "integrate it with other curricular subjects" thing.  Amen to that.  That's the essence of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) that's all the rage these days. But that's only one side of the equation.  All those words are really just variations of each other (what is science without math?  engineering without science?).  But unless somebody puts them together, nobody is going to connect math and Shakespeare or science and Shakespeare.

This is something I brought up several years ago ("Teaching With Shakespeare"). I'm glad to see I'm not the only crazy one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Shakepeare on Unemployment?

For various reasons we don't need to go into, I am applying to jobs as of late (not much mirth involved).  One of the application web sites broke the monotony by asking specifically for me to "write something out of the ordinary that will get our attention." I wrote:

I've been building web sites since 1995, but my 8000 social media followers only want to talk about Shakespeare.
My coworkers (we're all looking, so we're all helping each other) liked the personal nature of the Shakespeare thing to me, and suggested I take it even farther by working some Shakespeare into my cover letter.

Hmmmm....but what?

Who's got good quotes related to unemployment?  Positive quotes, mind you.  Not about how much unemployment stinks.

I went with the following:

"To business that we love we rise betimes and go to ’t with delight."

Personally I believe that you do a better job when you love what you do. I've never been one to chase the money, or take a job that I would hate (or disagree with philosophically) just because it's a career move. So I get it out in the open early. I think it makes me a stronger candidate, honestly.

In case I get to pull that trick again, what other quotes do you have for me?

Introducing Macbeth

I bookmarked this article about The Riddles of the Witches thinking it would be something interesting, but it's really not. Looks like a high school student's homework.

However I did find one thing worth discussing:

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. There is no sub-plot. Shakespeare has constructed it with great structural economy even without introducing the main characters.
Without even...??

First scene : Witches.  What are the witches there for? They're there to meet with ... Macbeth!

Audience:  Ok, who the _____ is this Macbeth character? Sounds evil.

Second scene : A dying soldier describes in detail about how this Macbeth character hacks his way through enemy troops to come face with the leader of the rebellion, whom he then proceeds to "unseam him from the nave to the chop" and fix his head upon the battlements.

Audience:  Whoa.  Bad ass.

Third scene : Witches again.  A drum, a drum!  Macbeth doth come!

Audience:  Can't wait!  Bring him out here! Let's see what the big deal is all about!

In other words, I'd suggest that Macbeth has one of the best introductions Shakespeare gave any of his main characters.

Which of the other title characters get that kind of build up?

Why is Shakespeare Relevant ... to You?

I always bookmark and retweet articles like this one that offers Three Reasons Why Shakespeare Remains Relevant. I am unabashedly biased on this question, and as long as there are people asking *if* he is relevant, then I'll be there to post as many answers to the question as I can put my hands on.

But ... I don't like this lady's answers.  Her three reasons:

1) Adaptability.  Great so you're saying that his staying power comes from the fact that whatever parts we don't like, we can just change or omit? I guess I get the point, that there is an underlying foundation to Shakespeare's work that is not found in the details.  But, still ... it seems weird to say that he's still relevant because you can change the parts you don't think are relevant.

2) Popular Touch. This one I just flat out disagree with. I'd say that an equal number of people would cite to you all the kings and queens and royal courts and say, "People these days don't want to watch a play about that."  True, you can adapt a story by turning the king into a mob boss or family patriarch, but still, once again, you end up arguing that Shakespeare is relevant because of the parts that you can take it upon yourself to make up out of whole cloth.

3) Great Publicity.  Well, I mean, I suppose.  It's kind of weird that she uses the existence of the First Folio as the prime example, and doesn't really mention David Garrick.  Just the fact that Shakespeare's works were published in Folio was not enough by itself to catapult him to the godlike status he enjoys today.

So let me ask you, then - why is Shakespeare relevant to you? How do you, personally, answer the question?

For me it's more about the universality(?) of the work. By that I mean that all around the world, for the last several hundred years, most of the people on the planet have had something in common, whether they knew it or not. If I have seen Much Ado About Nothing, and you have seen Much Ado About Nothing, then there is a certain bond that exists between us that can be turned into something more. It does not matter if you live in the same country as I do, speak the same language, or if you're twenty years younger or older.  It's like a constant against which all things are relative. It's a building block.

Make sense? Back in high school I learned a bit of Esperanto.  Anybody familiar with it? Esperanto is a language invented by L.L. Zamenhoff around one hundred years ago.  He thought that if the entire world had a universal neutral language, that cultural boundaries would dissolve. You could start to share literature. You could travel all around the world, and always be able to speak the language. There would be no burden of "my country is more powerful, therefore if you expect to deal with me, you will learn to speak my language rather than me learning to speak yours" (I'm looking at you, english).

Shakespeare's like that.  Remember last year when The Globe did all the plays in all different languages? There you go.

P.S. - I also happen to own a copy of Hamlet translated into Esperanto by Doctor Zamenhoff himself.  Apparently he too believed that our beloved Shakespeare could serve as a Rosetta Stone for achieving his dream.

See Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet Live This Thursday!

This Thursday, October 15, you might be lucky enough to see Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet in your local theatre!

This is a Hamlet for a world on the edge: a warning from history, and a plea for new ideas from a new generation

A fresh, dynamic staging with a vivid, supple performance at its heart.
-Financial Times

Is anybody going to get to see this?  I have an event at my kids' school that night (and it may be with gritted teeth but kids come before Shakespeare), but the web site does say Encore Performances on Oct 22, so maybe I'll get lucky!

UPDATE : After relating this story to my kids they were all, "Daddy, of *course* you go see the Shakespeare.  This school thing happens every year, and you've already been to them the last couple of years anyway. Shakespeare over this."


I then discovered that all my local showings are sold out. :(

On the one hand I'm happy that there's this much interest in a Shakespeare event!  But, of course, bummed that I'm not going to be a part of it.  Hoping for a DVD release hot on the heels of the live show :)!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

And then, suddenly...Shakespeare!

My daughter is starting to look at private schools, and I'm trying very hard to let her drive it at her own pace and not be one of those dads that asks all the questions. So I'm picking my spots on when and how to bring up Shakespeare.

The typical pattern, for context, is that you're assigned a current student who shows you around campus and answers questions, both from the child as well as the parents. Then you sit down for a more formal interview -- first your child goes in, then the parents.

School #1:  One of the biggest and best in our area, and probably her first choice.  We're shown the theatre and are told that there's a fall musical, as well as a drama production. I scan the posters on the wall and see Midsummer Night's Dream.

I ask, "What sort of drama productions do you do?"

"Oh, all kinds," our guide tells me.

"Any Shakespeare?" I ask.  "I saw the Midsummer Night's Dream poster back there."

"Oh we do a whole variety of shows," she tells me.  "Most recently we did this one play called Columbina, I think it was?"

For a second I think she's actually trying to say "Coriolanus", which would have impressed the dickens out of me.  But alas she is not, she's talking about a modern piece that I have to assume was about the events of a post-Columbine world.

Afterward I learn that my daughter is even more forward that I am, and during her interview asked, "Do you have any Shakespeare classes?"  That's my girl!  She gets the answer that there will be some Shakespeare, yes. There are not dedicated classes, but it's covered in the English classes.  Which I guess is the best I can expect.

School #2: We're going around, I'm looking to pick my spot. I have learned from the first school the general pattern of how these things go and the terms to watch out for, so I'm waiting for her to bring up whatever performing arts programs they offer in case Shakespeare comes up organically.

We're walking through the visual arts area and the guide is going on about various offerings, and I'm only half paying attention when I hear "...blah blah blah, blah blah Shakespeare blah."  (She wasn't really saying blah, I just don't know the context of what she was saying.)

I lift up my head and it appears to me like my wife and daughter are now looking at me, to see if I caught the Shakespeare reference.  But the girl has not stopped talking, so I'm playing it all back in my head to figure out if I can guess.  I can't.

"Did you just say Shakespeare?" I ask.

She looks confused.  "I....don't think so," she says.

I look at my wife and daughter, who also look confused. I have apparently imagined this entire thing.

Tour guide takes a moment to run back in her head everything she did say, because now she's wondering why I would randomly have brought up Shakespeare in the middle of the visual arts building, but nope, Shakespeare apparently has not come up.  "We're big Shakespeare fans in my house," I tell her, trying to cover the awkwardness, "So whenever somebody mentions Shakespeare I tend to whip around and look to see where it came from. Guess it was a false alarm."

That was literally the only Shakespeare reference at this school. My daughter doesn't even remember if she asked about it.

School #3:  Big school, many buildings, lots of kids moving around in all directions.  We are in the arts building and walking up a flight of stairs when we pass two male students, one of whom is clearly carrying a jester's hat and a sword. A legit metal sword.

Wondering if it's perhaps a Renaissance Festival kind of thing, or maybe they have Society for Creative Anachronism on campus, I ask our guide, "Ok, are we going to find out why that guy's walking around with a sword? I have to know."

So she flags him down.  "David!  This gentleman wanted to know why you have a sword."

He says something to her that I don't hear because she's had to open a door and follow him into a hallway, but he's coming back with her when she returns.  "Performance project," she says.

One of the boys explains, "It's a great class. Our teacher Mr. <whatever> assigns parts and then you have to act them out in class."

"So," I ask, "What are you performing?"

"Hamlet," they say.

I turn to my daughter.  "We're done," I tell her.  "You're going here."  I explain that Shakespeare is huge in our house and we're very excited to hear them say that.  I ask what part specifically they'll be performing.

"Today," says one boy, "I will be killing Polonius," motioning to the other boy.

"Great scene," I tell them.

"Act 3," says Polonius, and I wonder whether he knows the scene number and has just forgotten it. That's ok because on the fly I'm not sure I'd remember the exact scene either.

I'm seriously tempted to sit and have a discussion with them, because honestly I think that the best part of that scene is Hamlet's confrontation with Gertrude, but they don't have a Gertrude with them so I'm temporarily at a loss as to what to say next.  "Break a leg," I say, and we carry on the scene.

Not ten seconds later I'm playing the scene in my head and decide that what I should have said was, "How now, a rat? Dead, for a ducat! Dead!"  Then that made me think of those episodes of the Cosby Show where Theo has to do his Shakespeare homework and magically all of the dinner guests his parents have invited over just happen to have the play memorized and begin reciting the big scenes.  In other words, cool in my head, but nerdy and embarrassing out loud. :)

Next time, though, for sure :)