Friday, May 27, 2016

Alexa, Back Me Up

I thought, after I developed my Shakespeare Geek skill for the Amazon Echo, that I'd have no use for it. After all, I know all of the content I put into the thing.  Turns out it's my greatest invention ever.

Middle geeklet: <asks math homework question>

Oldest geeklet:  "Are you serious? How do you not know that? Daddy, I was trying to help her with this stuff on the bus yesterday and I asked her whether 6.25 or 6.5 was bigger and she didn't know. How do you know not know that?!"

Me: "Take it down a notch, that's not being helpful."

Oldest: "No, but seriously, point two five.  Point five. How can anybody not know that?"

Me: "Alexa, tell Shakespeare Geek to insult my child."

Alexa: “Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous.”

Middle geeklet:  "Ha!"

Oldest:  "Daddy!"

Me:  "I didn't say it!"

Oldest: "Yes you did, you programmed it!"

Oh I'm going to have fun with this.


I don't usually listen to the radio in the morning, I prefer audiobooks. But today my phone wasn't charged, so while I waited for it to come back to life I listened to the radio. The DJ's were playing a round of "First World Problems".  You know this game?  People would call it with things like, "Didn't have time to make breakfast this morning so I had to stop somewhere and pay someone to make it for me."

I immediately started wondering what this would look like in Shakespeare's world...

First World Shakespeare Problems

  • Helped my incompetent husband not screw up a simple regicide, and got blood on myself. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Need to buy new pillow set, Desdemona got makeup stains all over one of our best ones. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Getting annoyed that new hot guy wasn't giving me the time of day, but apparently he's a girl. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • When your mother embarrasses you in front of your mortal enemy by telling you not to invade Rome. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Stuck on an island for thirteen years with exactly one boy, and when he finally decides to make a move on me Dad walks in. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • My wife's a statue. So, what, does that mean we're divorced, am I widowed, what's the ruling here? When can I start seeing other people? #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Not really sure why I'm an ass all of a sudden, but this girl I just met is really into it. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Dad not to content to call me a useless do nothing while he was alive, now his ghost does it. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Incorrectly called my fiancee a whore on our wedding day (not my fault!) and she  literally died of embarrassment, now I'm stuck marrying her cousin.  #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • And he doesn't leave any poison for me, though, does he? You let the girl have the poison and the boy stabs himself, everybody knows that. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • "Don't go the Senate today!" she says. "Something bad's going to happen!" She'd never let me live this down, if I'd lived. #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • Told the guy I like that the girl he likes ran away with the guy she likes. Not really sure what I thought was going to happen next.  #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems
  • The contract clearly stated that I keep 100 knights, and my daughter tells me I can only have 50? FML, what else can go wrong today? #FirstWorldShakespeareProblems

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Amazon Alexa, Meet Shakespeare Geek

Show of hands, how many of you have an Amazon Echo device, lovingly referred to as Alexa?  If you've got one, I've got a treat for you.  If you don't, let me explain what it is.

You know Siri, right?  Take your phone out of your pocket, his whatever button it is to invoke her (I can never remember if it's hit-twice or press-and-hold), ask your question slowly and carefully.  Then ask it again because she didn't understand you.

Imagine if a Siri-like assistant what just kind of there, in your house, all the time.  Amazon Echo is a device that sits on your kitchen counter (for example) with it's excellent microphone and speakers, waiting for you to talk to it.  "Alexa?" you ask - from the next room.  She bongs to let you know she's awake.  Then you ask your question - "What's the weather going to be like tomorrow?"  "How did the Red Sox do?" "When is Tom Hanks' birthday?" and she happily responds, to all of those.  Oh and there's also "Alexa, put eggs on the shopping list" (which will sync to your mobile phone for when you're at the store), "Alexa, what's on the calendar today?" (syncs to Google calendar) and all kinds of other personal productivity tricks.  My kids use it to help with their homework, from checking their math and state capitals to setting timers for reading.  It's also a streaming music player.

It's really quite cool.  Everybody knows "that guy" who never lets a question go unanswered, always grabbing for his phone and asking it right in the middle of the conversation so that everybody knows the answer (heck, I am that guy).  Now you can still do that, only it's as if Alexa is another person in the conversation.

And now she's connected to Shakespeare Geek.

It's always been easy to get facts about Shakespeare - just go to Wikipedia, which Alexa can do.  And it's always been easy to get quotes (if somebody hasn't made an Alexa app for quotes yet I'm sure somebody will), but I find quote databases boring.  Too many to choose from, without any kind of context.

Well, Shakespeare Geek is different.  I've loaded it up with "trivia" about Shakespeare, rather than plain old Wikipedia entries, to keep it interesting.  I've also coded up as many of our original jokes as I could shove in there.  There's also a bit of a quote database, but I tried to do it more in "fortune cookie" style, where you're supposed to treat Alexa like a magic 8-ball, getting her to answer a question for you.  "Alexa, ask Shakespeare Geek his opinion."  / "Talkers are no good doers."  That kind of thing.

Hopefully I can grow it over time!  I really want to add something like a "Shakespeare in the news" feature that can be linked to something dynamic that's different every morning.  And of course the trivia/jokes/quotes databases can always grow.  What I'd really like to see is a bunch of downloads and hopefully some good reviews so I know that the effort will be worth it.  My kids know all this trivia and all these jokes, so other than as a neat demonstration it's not really something I'm building for myself.  It will be much more fun to know I'm keeping it updated for 500 people, than for 5.

Have fun!

Look! I'm a Helicopter!

I may have mentioned, one or two thousand times, that my daughter is finally learning Shakespeare in class.  Last week she had her first test.  Beforehand we went through the obligatory joking, me telling her to find some other place to live if she doesn't ace it, her saying, "I know, I know..."  That sort of thing.

She has the test.  Texts me when she gets home from school, "That was the easiest thing ever."

Gets her grade back on Friday - a 92%.  She is *livid*.  The school actually posts scores online ahead of time, before you ever get to see the exam, so she doesn't know why she got a 92 or what she got wrong.  It's Friday night, she and I are at the dress rehearsal for her dance recital, and she is standing there in full makeup and costume grilling me over the answers to the questions she can remember (e.g. whether "feathers heavier than lead" counts as an oxymoron) and basically planning all possible outcomes for what might have happened.  Stupid error on her part?  Fine. Stupid, but fine, her fault.  Question that she flat out gets wrong because she did not know the answer? Again, fine. Wouldn't be happy about it, but wrong is wrong, and that's how we learn what right is.

What she's preparing for is the technicality, the matter of interpretation / opinion, the answer where it's technically right but arguably not exactly what the teacher wanted.  She's bracing herself for this outcome, and what she will do if that's the case.  I suggested that she bite her thumb at the teacher.  She thought that was a great idea.  I said no, that's not a great idea, don't do that. As we followed the stage managers out onto dress rehearsal, she told me that if necessary she's going to need me to bring the full force of the blog down upon him, to right any wrongs that may occur.

Well we got the test back.

Wrong answer #1:  "Which of the following things does Lord Capulet call Tybalt?" followed multiple choice answers like "saucy boy" and some others that I'm sure I would not have remembered.  She picked one.  Answer was actually "all of the above".  Oh well.

Wrong answer #2: What city does the play take place in?  She wrote verona.  As in, without a capital V.  Got partial credit.  That's just one of those "What are ya gonna do?" moments. It's technically wrong.  I'd like to see how many kids didn't actually write down Verona at all, for comparison, to see how important it is.  I wonder if she'd capitalized it but spelled it wrong (Varona?) whether it would have been a partial answer or not.

Wrong answer #3:  Here's where it gets interesting.  The question was, who brings the invitation list to Romeo to read it?  She answered, "A Capulet servant who can't read."  The answer the teacher wanted?  "Clown." (Which is ironic because when they read the play in class, that's the role she played.)

Again, I can see why he wanted that answer.  But my daughter doesn't understand why hers is wrong. The First Folio (I checked) does say "Enter Clown", even though his actual lines are prefaced with "Ser" as in "Servant".  My daughter asked me why he's even called a clown, he doesn't do anything funny.  I tried to explain the role of the clown as a specific thing, he's not just some random clown wandering through the streets, how many of the plays have somebody in that exact role, but my heart wasn't in it. I thought about bringing up terms like "commedia dell'arte" but I thought I'd lose her, plus my understanding of that area isn't strong.

All in all, not the worst showing.  2 out of 3 mistakes were just silly, and 1 falls into that bucket of "there's lots of ways to answer this question and I didn't pick the one the teacher wanted".  The most important lesson, from where I sit, is that she takes her understanding of Shakespeare very seriously and wants to confirm at every opportunity that she does, in fact, know what she's talking about.  I'm ok with that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More Capulet-ish, Really

I have been waiting a long time to have conversations about the text with my daughter, and I couldn't be more excited now that it's happening. Every day she brings me a question that makes me say, "I don't know, I'll research it."

Today's question?

Rosaline is a Capulet, isn't she? She's invited to the party, and on the list she is referenced as "my fair niece".

So why, then, is it ok for Romeo to be head over heels madly in love with her, but when he finds out that Juliet is a Capulet, he says, "My life is my foe's debt"?

The best answer that I could give my daughter - who was the messenger for other kids in her class - was that we're talking about really extended families here, and "cousin" or "niece" didn't necessarily mean like we mean it, you are the child of my mother's brother or something.  Instead it meant something more along the lines of "kinsmen," as in, "We are related by some combination, but you are not my child or my sibling. Therefore if you are of my generation I will call you cousin, if you are younger than me I will call you niece or nephew."  By extension, Romeo's problem with Juliet isn't so much that she's a Capulet at all, but that she's the daughter of the head of the family (just like he is son of the head of the Montague family).

Which then led to the question (man, sometimes these kids are quick!), "Then what the heck is Tybalt?  He's a cousin, right?  Why is Rosaline no big deal, but Tybalt is right in the middle of everything?"

Good question!  My best answer was that he was very close to the Lord and Lady Capulet, and grew up with Juliet, almost as if they were brother and sister.  Which is later explained after Tybalt's death, so I think that there's some textual evidence to back that up.

How'd I do?  Is there an easier or more accurate way to explain that?

Romeo and Juliet Homework Help Here!

Bardfilm and I were joking this afternoon that my daughter, who is now studying Romeo and Juliet, is in the enviable (?) position of knowing more about the entire play than most of her classmates, setting her up to be the one they turn to for answers to all their questions.  So of course we started considering how she might abuse that power...

Romeo and Juliet Helpful (Not Really) Homework Answers

There's a lost scene from the Quarto version of Romeo and Juliet where the Nurse tries to resuscitate Tybalt, which explains why she is called Nurse.

Mercutio is supposed to be on drugs during the "Queen Mab" speech. The 1996 Leonardo DiCaprio interpretation is one of the few that gets that correct. It's not supposed to make any sense.

Friar Laurence was arrested for illegally trading in herbs.  That’s why the young lovers have to visit him in his cell.

Audiences so completely misunderstood the ending, assuming Friar Laurence was executed for his role in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, that Shakespeare inserted a cameo for him in Two Gentlemen of Verona, the play he'd written by popular demand to show off Valentine, Mercutio's brother.

The Rolling Stones made the play relevant by turning Romeo’s  response to Juliet’s “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” into one of their biggest hits:  "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.”

A “thumb” is an Italian dessert on a stick—something like a popsicle gelato.  Eating one while pointing the stick at someone was considered very rude.

The planet Mercury was discovered in 1599, the same year Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. That's where he got the name Mercutio.

"Wherefore" actually does mean "where". Your English teacher is just messing with you.

Perhaps the most famous speech in the play comes near the end of Act V.  Romeo says, “Juliet, the dice was loaded from the start / And I bet and you exploded in my heart / And I forget, I forget.”

The "ancient grudge," as explained in the original source material, refers to a time two generations prior when the patriarchs of both the Capulet and Montague families were wrestlers who battled frequently at fairs an exhibitions around Italy.

"Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon" is a not-so-subtle jab at the actor who played Moon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, who was known backstage to have a serious attitude problem.

Mercutio and Valentine were supposed to be twin brothers, and the play a traditional farce. When the actors all got together and told Shakespeare, "No more twins!" he killed Mercutio out of spite and rewrote the second half.

This above all: you must have fun with it. Shakespeare doesn't make life better by being stodgy and stuffy and difficult, a chore to approach with fear and trepidation. Don't ever be afraid to get silly with it. Laugh at the parts you think are funny. Make up weird back stories for the minor characters. Rewrite your favorite song lyrics to fit the play. Drop a reference here and there and see who picks it up. When you read and understand and remember Shakespeare you have a special bond with millions of other people, across the world and throughout history, who read and understood and remember it, too. We do this for fun, and there's always room for more to join the game.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Alas, Poor Donald (Another Geeklet Story)

"Daddy!" said my middle daughter, "I have a Shakespeare reference! Can I tell you?"

"Silly question!"

"Ok, so, we're in art class, and we're making these puppets.  And this other girl is making this one that looks like a skeleton. It's supposed to be Donald Trump, but whatever. Anyway she holds it up and says, "To be or not to be, what is the question!"

"Is this one of the girls I would know, from when I came into your classes and taught Shakespeare?"

"No, you don't know her."

Ok, cool, so a completely random Shakespeare reference.  I like her already.

But ... can we get back to the "skeleton that's supposed to be Donald Trump" thing???

Only My Geeklets Could Spoil A 400 Year Old Play

"Oh my god, I feel so bad!"

My daughters were at the school this fine Saturday morning working on a garden project with other middle schoolers.  I assumed she felt bad that I was picking them up early and leaving their friends to continue the work.  "Why?" I asked.

"I just totally spoiled Romeo and Juliet for my friends," said my oldest.

"How do you spoil a 400 year old play? How does anybody not know how it ends?"

"They didn't know that Mercutio and Tybalt both die!"


"Ok, Elizabeth and I were play fighting, so she said, "I'm Mercutio, you be Tybalt!"

Ok, pause...   *beam with pride* ... Ok, continue.

So then my oldest continues, "So then I say, Mercutio drew first! Ha! You die!  But then I remembered Tybalt dies too and said Oh wait no so do I.  And my friends who are reading the play in class with me now looked at us like, "WHAT?""

Only my kids!  But you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way :)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Of Quartos, Folios and Wherefores

I love it when my coworkers want to talk Shakespeare.  Glad that I'm there to answer their question (because, if I hadn't been there, would they have found someone else? Or just never asked it?) and also glad that here's another person who wants to learn more about my favorite subject.

I'm especially pleased when they ask me questions I don't know the answer to, because I get to post about it and we all get to learn something.

Today's questions are about the publication of the First Folio, and the Quartos before that.

I consider my copy a work of art.
Q1:  Why was there a market for quartos at all?  We all seem to be in agreement that there was really no market for "casually read the play as literature" like we might do today.  The market for them seems to have been purely Shakespeare's competitors who were looking for new ideas, to put it generously (to steal his, to put it more realistically).  But how is that a valid model, to go through all the trouble?  If 100 people visit a bookseller but the market for a certain book is only 2 or 3 of those people, wouldn't it be easier to shop your work around directly to the other theatres?  Why print N copies if only a fraction of N will ever be purchased?

Q2: Before the First Folio, was "collected works" even a thing?  This is an extension of the former question, because if there was no real market for "read the plays as literature", and the only people who wanted the quartos were competing playwrights and theatre owners, then what in the world would have been the point of making an official, authorized version of the playwright's entire work and making that available?  Wouldn't that just enable the problem all the more?

Was the whole idea new?  Did Marlowe or Jonson or Fletcher or anybody else get their complete works published like this?  Or was this the first milestone that said, "Shakespeare was different, Shakespeare's contribution to the art deserves a memorial effort that has never been done before."

Friday, May 06, 2016

Could You Double Mercutio and Juliet?

This came up in conversation awhile back but I never posted it.  I'm pretty sure that Mercutio and Juliet never actually share the stage, right?

A new Midsummer was thinking about (not sure if they went through with it) having Helena played as a gay man.  I think that's a horrid idea myself, but that's just my opinion.  The point is that we're getting pretty bold in our creative re-imaginings for the purpose of making certain statements.

People often want to argue whether Mercutio is gay.  That's nothing new for the internet, of course - any popular male character can find fan fiction that portrays him as gay.  But what if we ran with that idea, and put the suggestion out there that what Romeo sees in Juliet is, in fact, his best friend?

Which Movie Versions Best Adhere To The Text?

When my daughter was having trouble with the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, I fired up the 1968 Zeffirelli movie version so she could follow along ... and promptly discovered that, at least for the beginning, they're not on book at all.  It's entirely new language.  Maybe it gets better later? I forget.

So I swapped out for the 1996 Romeo+Juliet version which, although it cuts out the collier/choler/collar stuff, seems to say true to the text for the rest of the scene.  Then somebody told me that this version only retains about 40% of the original. I don't know if that's true, or if I even understand it -- does that mean they flat out cut 60% of the play?  Or that they wrote new dialog? Because I haven't really paid close attention to either of those possibilities, I'm usually too distracted by the direction and over acting.

I have the 1930something Norma Shearer / Lesley Howard version on DVD, but I haven't watched it. I'm guessing that it's probably pretty close, since back then they seemed more interested in sticking to the original intent, setting, costume and language than we do today. But I'd also suspect it's edited way down, it doesn't seem long enough to be even close.

So that's my question.  Let's say that a student wants to sit down with text in lap and watch a movie version, much like Amazon would have us do with our books by letting the audio version read it to us while we follow along on paper.

Which play, and which movie, would give the best results?  Obviously, Branagh's full text Hamlet is the gold standard, and not eligible as an answer to this question.  I'm wondering about all the others.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

You See? This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

"Meet the IRL Romeo and Juliet who met via Snapchat Story," the headline promised. Now, you know I'm going to click on that.

I dare anybody to find a single shred of anything having to do with Romeo and Juliet in that story.  It's pretty much just a standard "missed connection" playing out via Snapchat on some college campus somewhere.  No ancient grudge, nothing star crossed, no unhappy ending.  We've now reduced "Romeo and Juliet" to meaning "Oh, I hope those two get together."  

He hasn't even been to a party at her house yet.  I'm not sure when he's even planning to kill her cousin, if at all!

I think the only thing we can take away from this story is that kids are making it to UW these days without understanding what Romeo and Juliet is about.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Geeklet Starts Romeo and Juliet. I Think.

My daughter was told that they're starting Shakespeare something like three weeks ago. They did a week on Shakespeare's life, a week on the sonnets, and almost a week on the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.

So at long last my daughter comes home from school today and flies directly at me.  "Daddy!" she yells excitedly, "We finally started Romeo and Juliet!"

"Great!" I say, "How did he end up approaching all that collier/choler/collar stuff?"

"We didn't get that far."

"As in, literally the first line. You didn't get that far."

"Well, we didn't really start it."

Turns out they started watching the movie.  The 1968 Zeffirelli version that everybody watches.

"Oh, so how far did you get in the movie?" I asked.

"The scene where Juliet's mom is asking whether she wants to get married, and the nurse says a bunch of inappropriate stuff which we mostly didn't understand."

"And how did your teacher handle that?"

"He explained one of them, kind of, in a very roundabout way. I don't even remember which one it is."

"Here's the thing about Romeo and Juliet," I told her (for not the first time).  "If you start out by assuming that everything either Mercutio or the Nurse says is a dirty joke?  You're probably right.  There's a really good one in the beginning where, I think the Nurse is actually saying it was her husband that says this to a 13yr old girl, but it's something about how she's so klutzy she falls on her face, but when she's older and knows better she'll learn how to fall on her back."

"THAT'S THE ONE!" my daughter said.

I tell you, this teacher and I are on the same wavelength. :)

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Jungle Hamlet

I have just returned from Disney's latest live action adaptation, The Jungle Book.

Rejoice, oh followers of the Lion-King-is-Hamlet cult!

It turns out that the Jungle Book is ALSO HAMLET!

Check it.

There's this dude, right? And then his dad gets killed. So he goes off on adventure with his friends, but has to return to avenge his father.

Boom.  Frickin Hamlet, right there. QED.

I mean, sure, there's bits of Hamlet that aren't there, too.  Like a Polonius or an Iago or Fortinbras or Horatio, but they're not in Lion King either. I thought that was the rules, that we just pick an arbitrary number of similarities, ignore the differences, and call it a day?


Sorry, had to be done. There's a scene where the tiger literally sits on a "pride rock" and says, "Once the man cub learns what's happened he'll have no choice to but to return and take his vengeance," or something like that, and I thought, "Pretty much the essence of Hamlet right there, if you want to split hairs about it."

Every "Hero's Journey" is not Hamlet, people.