Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Guest Post: Shakespeare's Skull and the Usual Suspects

Now that we know that Shakespeare’s skull is no longer in his grave with the rest of his mortal coil, Bardfilm and I know that the time has come to round up the usual suspects. Without much ado, here are the people we'd call in for interrogation:

Amateur dramatic company of Stratford who borrowed it for a production of Hamlet and, because of poor reviews, decided not to return it.

Enraged Macbeth descendants who thought “a head for a head” was a pretty good policy (they’re also responsible for moving Stratford forest closer to the birthplace).

Phrenologists from the 1700s wanting to discover the “literary genius bump schematic.”

Literary critics from the future determined to paint it an inch thick to see what favor it would come to.

Prank by George W. Bush for the Skull and Bones society gone horribly awry.

Someone playing Jaques who had a really weird interpretation of the seven ages of man "sans everything" line he wanted to try.

Some well wisher who no doubt thought that Shakespeare could not be sent to his account with all his imperfections on his head if he had no head.

Somewhere, somebody obsessed with Ophelia has got his head in her lap.

The people in charge of the Richard III archeological dig getting a bit carried away.

Marketing department of Skullcandy™ thought they had a brilliant new campaign. Abandoned because of a surprising outbreak of good taste and tact.

"Shakespeare Geek took it—it's just the sort of silly trick he's been playing since he walked along the railroad tracks of Boston as a kid." —Bardfilm

"Bardfilm is the one who took it. That guy has no shame when it comes to shameless self-promotion." —Shakespeare Geek

Bearded old woman (can't call them witches anymore, sargent, that's not "politically correct." And they're not too keen on "wyrd," either) caught wandering down by the river chanting "Fillet of a fenny snake, / Cranium of Willy Shake."

Treasure hunters found with a copy of Richard III in which the "wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels" laying in dead men's skulls passage was underlined.

Caliban, who we expect may have battered it with a log. He's also suspect in what happened to all the books.

Pistol, who was unable to satisfactorily explain why he was carrying a leek without a permit

Guildenstern, for completely misunderstanding a recent "throwing about of brains."

Did anyone bother to scan his heels? Lear's Fool suggested that we might find it down there.
Our thanks for the idea for this guest post to kj, the author of Bardfilm. Bardfilm is a blog that comments on films, plays, and other matters related to Shakespeare.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review : The Fosters - Romeo and Juliet

I think I would have liked this show 20 or 30 years ago.  When I was closer to high school. This just made me feel old.

Look, every sitcom in history that's had anything to do with a high school or high school aged students, from Head of the Class to The Brady Bunch, has at one point or another done a Romeo and Juliet episode. But not too many attempt to pull off a rock musical version.  Not only that, they had alumni from High School Musical and Glee helping out (including Corbin Bleu as Mercutio).  So I wanted to have high hopes.

As always, and I think seriously this has become my trademark, my review is this:  "Needs more Shakespeare."

I don't know the show, or the characters, or their arcs. So I'm sure that I missed the lion's share of the significance of what else was going on, who kissed who, who used to be a couple but broke up and are now on stage together. But you know what? This is where I feel old.  Because I didn't care.  I just wanted to hear the text.

It started out well, singing the prologue to piano accompaniment. The song itself wasn't that good, but I applaud the effort.  But just about all the other songs had little to no text in them, and instead were focused on this theme of being "unbreakable" and/or "unstoppable", whatever significance that is supposed to have, and also how "love will light the way."  There's a token reference to jesting at scars that never felt a wound, which is a repeated lyric in one of the songs, but out of context it's just kind of hanging there.

Meanwhile there's a whole other story arc going on that just reminded me that these people are closer to my kids' age than my own.  Example?  Ok, picture this.  Set against the backdrop of SHAKESPEARE, here's some actual dialogue:

"I'm still in love with you!"
    "Then why didn't you answer my note?"
"What note?"
    "I left a note in your backpack."
"I never got it. What did it say?"
    "That I'm in love with you too."

Whoa.  I've got to sit down for a minute. For a brief minute there I got a kick out of the parallel of an important letter gone unread, but I couldn't get over the overly dramatic dialogue over something so childish.  But then I suppose if I'd let my kids watch this show they would have thought it's the greatest thing in the world.

Oh, well.  I'll still probably try to download some of the songs again to see if full versions are available, and if they do more justice to the text than I first noticed.  But I'm pretty sure it's not going to knock off Hamilton anytime soon.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Whoa. Wait. What?

Tell me if something in this headline catches your eye like it did mine:

What the heck is a "previously unknown" folio? You don't just drop something like that into a headline and walk away.  Everybody knows that all the "known" Folios (233) are accounted for and micro-catalogued, and if Christie's had one in its collection, surely it would not be a secret, would it? Surely this is some fancy word wrangling for publicity, like everybody calling Sir Thomas More "Shakespeare's Last Play" and "The Only Play Written in Shakespeare's Handwriting."
"...and the volume for sale at Christie's is a new addition to that list."
Interesting!  Tell me more. How can this be?
Christie's estimates the previously unrecorded copy currently for sale will fetch £800,000–1.2 million (about $1.16 million–1.74 million). It has not been seen by the public in over two centuries, and last changed hands in 1800, when it was purchased by book collector George Augustus Shuckburgh-Evelyn (1751–1804).
 I'm having trouble getting my head around this.  You mean to tell me that the people who run this sort of thing have had one of the most rare and valuable books in the world in its collection, potentially for centuries, and not only did they not let anybody see it, THEY DIDN'T EVEN TELL ANYBODY IT EXISTED??

What's next up for auction, all of Shakespeare's personal library, Amelia Earhart's skeleton and the Holy Grail?

Please Do Not Celebrate The Anniversary of Shakespeare's Death

Bardfilm pointed this out to me a couple of weeks ago and I've been paying careful attention to headlines ever since.

"Celebrate The 400th Anniversary Of Shakespeare’s Death In Style," says the Huffington Post this week.

Please don't do this. 

We celebrate his birth, or his existence, or his accomplishments.  We do not celebrate when people die. Can you imagine?  "Phew, thank god that son of a gun is finally dead, huh?  If he'd stuck around a few more years imagine how many he might have written!" 

Commemorate his death if you like. Mark the occasion with much festivity. But celebrate his life, not his death. The world was made a better place because of the former, not the latter.

This has been a public service announcement.

Whoa, Is a Romeo and Juliet Rock Musical About To Sneak Past Us?

All I know about "The Fosters" is that the commercials keep coming up while my pre-teen children try to watch their shows, and those commercials typically want to talk about very not pre-teen things.  So it's not a show I hold in high regard.  I knew I was on the right track when this story appeared last month about a high school banning Romeo and Juliet because it glorifies teen suicide.  They have the obligatory student debate about it ... and "ban it" apparently won.

So last night I'm in the kitchen making dinner and I know the kids have got the ABC Family Channel (now "Freeform") on, like they do.  So when I hear a random "Juliet" come out of the tv my head naturally whips around to see what's up. My first thought is, "This must be something having to do with last month's episode," while still thinking, "Why would they still be talking about last month's episode?"

And they're singing. They are in masquerade attire, and they are singing.  What dark magic is this?

Apparently, in the spirit of Glee, it's a Romeo and Juliet Rock Musical.

Does anybody follow the plot line of this show and know what's going on? This could be awesome.  Every television show about high school kids has, at one point or another, done a Shakespeare episode.  And it's almost always about the balcony scene.  But I don't recall anyone attempting to do an entire retelling of the play - as a musical, no less!  I'm kind of excited about this.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Death by Shakespeare (A Kickstarter Project)

Despite my own personal experience otherwise, it seems as if we're seeing a bit of a boom in Shakespeare books.  There's LOL Shakespeare, Star Wars Shakespeare, Lego Shakespeare ... you name it. Every time I see a new one (assuming it's any good), I bang my head against the wall for a little while wondering why I didn't think of that first.

Not all of the best ones will show up on the shelf of your local Barnes and Noble, however. For the smaller independent efforts we must turn to Kickstarter, where this week we find Death by Shakespeare.

My first thought was, "Hey, this looks a lot like the Deaths in Shakespeare infographic (by friend of the blog Caitlin S. Griffin)." But is that a bad thing? That's the joy of public domain, that two different people can take the same source material and go in two different creative directions. I don't really have the space or the decor to put up a poster, but there's always room on my bookshelf or coffee table for a nicely illustrated hardcover.

The authors are close to their goal, which is a good thing, but sometimes it's all about the stretch goals. They've got plenty of rewards and add-ons for you to customize exactly what you want. Check out the "Thou Getst Art" rewards, where you can get a special individual print of your favorite character's demise. Joan of Arc? Bardolph? Adonis?  Looks like they didn't just stick to the classics we read in high school.

If you want to help support more such independent Shakespeare publishing projects, go check it out! 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Lots and Lots of Monkeys

(Spotted this on a Reddit "Shower Thought" the other day and I liked it.)

Keep searching "Shakespeare" over the years and you're going to run up against the "Infinite Monkey Theorem" again and again and again.  If you're not familiar, it's the philosophical idea that if you sit enough monkeys behind enough typewriters for enough time, eventually one of them will bang out the complete works of Shakespeare.

In 2003 somebody who clearly does not understand infinite number theory actually managed to get grant money to give real typewriters to real monkeys and see what happens. As you could probably imagine, the most interesting results to come out of that experiment were that they held down the S key, and then generally smashed the computer with rocks before peeing on it.

Somebody even simulated the idea in source code. He claims to have proven it, but his interpretation does not solve the same problem.  The theory suggests that eventually a single random string of characters would be generated that matches Shakespeare's complete works. What he did was to keep looking at substrings, and when he found a match, he'd cross it off and consider it "found", until all substrings were found. A neat project, no doubt, and a cool bit of code - but not the same thing.

That project was inspired by this Simpsons reference that shows just how pervasive this idea has become:

Anyway, back to the shower thought.  Try this on for size:

The theory has already been proven once. It's took 4 billion years, I don't know how many billions of evolving "monkeys" and countless technological advancement in "typewriters", but the system (known by its other name, "life on Earth") did, eventually, produce William Shakespeare and his complete works.
Mind blown.  Aren't we just evolved monkeys?

Who knows. Maybe it's obvious, maybe it's a restatement of the premise with no semantic content.  I'd never heard it, and it's an interesting new way to look at something I've seen hundreds of times already. Reminds me a bit of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (which also has its own infinite monkey reference, if you remember ;))

Friday, March 11, 2016

We Need To Talk About Maggie Smith

The first ladies of Shakespeare are, no doubt, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren. But there's a third contender for that throne who does not get nearly enough blog time here on Shakespeare Geek. Let's remedy that, shall we?

You likely know Dame Maggie Smith as either Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, or the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey. But those are just two of her more recent and more popular roles.  She's been in over fifty movies.  How many of these have you seen?

Gnomeo and Juliet. Sister Act. Nanny MacPhee. Hook. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Room With A View. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

I'm literally just pulling the ones there that I think are most recognizable. Sometimes it feels like she's in everything, the industry's go-to "cranky but kind-hearted, amusing old lady."

Just like with Alan Rickman, I see an actor I like and think, "Please tell me there's some Shakespeare there."

Her stage debut came as Viola in Twelfth Night, 1956.

How about Desdemona opposite Olivier's blackface Othello in 1965?

Or Beatrice in 1967 Much Ado About Nothing? (She played opposite her husband Robert Stephens - something later echoed by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in his 1995 version.)

We can't forget the Duchess of York in Sir Ian's 1995 Richard III!

And those are just her IMDB credits.  I can't even list all of the stage credits to be found on her Wikipedia page. She's won numerous Shakespeare awards, and has worked with both Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ian McKellen (not to mention Dames Helen Mirren and Judi Dench).

Unfortunately I think I see why we don't see her nearly as often as we should in our Shakespearean side of the universe.  It's not just that Shakespeare didn't write a Prospero or Lear for the ladies (that certainly didn't stop Helen Mirren). No, it's that Smith herself just doesn't see it:
I wanted to be a serious actress, but of course that didn't really happen. I did Desdemona [at the National, opposite Olivier] with great discomfort and was terrified all the time. But then everyone was terrified of Larry.
Ultimately, Shakespeare just wasn't her thing.  No, seriously.
My career is chequered. Then I think I got pigeon-holed in humour; Shakespeare is not my thing.
That's ok, we still love you.  To end on a happy note, enjoy How To Be Fabulous, starring Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith :)

P.S. - Here's where I got that image.  Check out Helen Mirren! Wow.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Geeklet Remembers

Parents of middle school children, you know this scene. You've got to head up to the school hours after classes are over to pick up one of your children who had to stay after for one activity or another.  As a parent you think, "Great! One on one time! Bonding!"

"How was school?" you ask.

"Eh," you  hear come from the back of her head. She's busy texting.

"What were you doing after school?"

"What? Daddy, I'm trying to schedule my next appointment. And I need to pee."

"Oh. So we'll just sit here in silence, then."

"I just have to do this.  And pee.  Badly. I haven't gone to the bathroom since seven this morning."

Now, I'm the kind of dad that won't take this sort of thing lying down. So I spend the ten minute drive home narrating the entire trip.  "Hey look a red light, we'll just hang out and be quiet longer, that'll be nice. Oh, no, wait, turned green, here we go. Taking a left.  You know the police tend to hang out on this street you have to be careful, it says limit 25 but before you know it you're going 40 and that's when they get ya. I should really slow way way down. You did say you had to pee, didn't you?  Wouldn't want to get pulled over, that would take forever."

You get the idea.  Get sassy with me missy and you'll pay for it.

So we get home, she flies upstairs, we go about our business.  I help make dinner.  Eventually dinner is ready and we all sit down to dinner.

"Guess what?" this same sassy child tells me as I'm setting the table.

"What?" I ask.

"We had a Shakespeare presentation at school today!"


"I told you, I had to pee."

"What kind of presentation?" I asked.

"Some guy dressed up like Shakespeare, told us everything about him."

"Which you probably knew already."

"Yeah, mostly. Then he did some stuff from the plays.  He recited a sonnet."

"Which one?"

"The shall I compare thee one."

"18.  Obvious choice."

"And I was sitting there listening and I thought, 'Hey, I know this one.'"

"You certainly should, you've literally known how to sing it since you were five years old!"

How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth, To Have A Thankless Geeklet

My children have literally grown up with Shakespeare, from the time my oldest was five, my middle three, and my son one.  Of course it was much more prevalent when they were younger and I could read/sing/show them whatever I wanted. As they've gotten older, life gets in the way and other responsibilities and activities take over.  So I've often wondered how much of what I tell them remains.

The other day I was telling them about the plan to scan Shakespeare's grave, despite the curse.

"What did they find?" asked my oldest.

"They haven't said yet," I told them. "Apparently it's a big deal for the 400th anniversary of his death, so we have to wait until then."

"When did he die?" my middle child asked.

"I have no middle child," I said, mouth agape.

She froze, realizing that Shakespeare Day is something I may have mentioned two or three thousand times in their lives. "Give me a hint," she asked.

"Did he die on my birthday, or close to my birthday?" I asked. Embarrassed silence.  "Oldest child," I said, "Help her out, would you?"

"When's your birthday?" asked oldest child.


I'm changing my will and giving everything to the boy.  Also, changing his name to Cordelia.

Watch Empty Space. Seriously. Right Now. Go.

Ok, stop what you're doing.

"Empty Space” is a love-letter to live theater, a nine-episode web comedy that explores and glorifies the world of diehard thespians, those hardcore beasts of the theater who soldier on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because, after all, the show must go on.
That's direct from their About page, and I don't think I could describe it any better. Remember Slings & Arrows? Of course you do.  Love of Shakespeare extends beyond the text. We love to be around other people who love Shakespeare.  Put me in the audience, or let me watch from back stage, or heck let me hang out with these people in their normal lives. We all have a shared passion and it's great to be around.  (And let me tell you, having hung out with theatre people back in college, "we all have a shared passion" has a whole double meaning I hadn't even considered when I wrote it!)

We open with Kira, our Juliet, speaking directly to the audience while she sits in makeup. She's open in her criticism of the crew, and we clearly see one of them flip her off in the background.  "This is a mirror," she says, "I can see you!"

Our story then parallels Mr. Shakespeare as we quickly see the two houses - "Montacrews" and "Castalets", as the director dubs them - hate each other. The actors claim that crew are just has beens and wannabes.  The crew claims that actors are, and I love this line, "Props with dialogue." The feud escalates into a literal sword fight (albeit with prop swords) until the Prince/Director steps in to declare that the next time anybody starts something, they're fired, banished from the theatre, you name it.  Get the picture?

You can probably see where it's going.  We introduce Orson, a new Mercutio, after the old one falls off the stage and breaks himself.  Orson then starts fraternizing with a pretty costume designer.  How long before he's off to the drug store for poison?

Ok,  maybe it doesn't go that far. I think that most of the parallels were just their way of showing that they could go there if they wanted to. This whole production - just ten episodes, running around ten minutes each - is wonderfully self aware, and I'm sure the theatre geeks who've actually gotten up there and done the half speed stage combat and the overly dramatized back stage romances will find even more inside jokes than I did.  Heck I laughed out loud when they dropped in a random reference to a production being "post apocalyptic" like that explained everything.

The whole point is, as I quoted above, a love letter to live theatre. Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at actors, director and crew. People are fired. Replacements do not live up to expectations. Props are switched. Russian mafia come looking for the stage combat guy. Yet the idea of the show not going on just never materializes. Everybody rolls with it. Because at curtain call, when the audience applauds? It's all worth it. Always.

Oh, and if it sounds like I enjoyed the series? The epilogue (of course there's an epilogue, haven't you been paying attention?) knocked me out of my seat.  Our Mercutio, who also happens to have written the show, comes out to address us.  "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage," he begins. "A man walks across this space whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

"Damn," I think. "That's really good. I mean, I get that, immediately. I understand that sentiment completely."

"Peter Brook," he continues.

"Oh, well, there you go," I say to my empty living room.

He then continues his ... what should we call it? A call to arms? A mission? About the actors' duty to fill the empty spaces of the world with theatre at every opportunity. Seriously, it made me want to go enlist. I want to go find some guerilla Shakespeare now.  Maybe I should start some...

...oh, and did I mention this is all entirely free online? Not on Netflix, not on Amazon Prime, not coming to a theatre near you.  Just hanging out on a web page, every episode, just waiting for you to fill up some empty space in your day by binge watching it.  So why are you still reading?  Go!