30 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: The Finals!

Our Final Four matches have yielded our finalists, and I confess, I'm surprised by them both -- but pleasantly surprised! Ladies and gentlemen, we have two ladies contending for the title of Shakespeare's Ultimate Fighting Champion. Beatrice easily put down Macbeth (45-22), with a strong show of support on her side. His partner-in-crime fared better, however; Lady Macbeth took down Iago, 19-9.

So. Our bracket stands thus:


And our final match: Beatrice vs Lady Macbeth:

  • Beatrice
  • Lady Macbeth

Who should win the title? The wit possessed of a fury, or the fiendish queen of Scotland? A woman who would eat a man's heart in the marketplace, or one who drugs guards and smears them with a king's blood? You tell us -- Show your support for your favorite of these incredible ladies, argue your case, and rally your supporters.

This poll will remain open through the weekend, and we'll crown our winner on Monday. Let the game begin!

28 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Final Four, Part 2

With yesterday's match off and rolling, here is the second Final Four combat: Iago vs. Lady Macbeth, a true battle of will, guile, deceit, and pure malice. Which of these two formidable contenders should move on to the finals? You decide -- Tell us who you think has the upper hand and what in the text leads you to believe that.

Final Four, Match 2: Iago vs Lady Macbeth

  • Iago
  • Lady Macbeth

Don't forget to vote in yesterday's match -- and on Friday, we'll reveal the two finalists!

27 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: The Final Four

We're coming down to it, and our Elite 8 matches saw some surprising upsets! In an unexpected turn of events, witty Beatrice overcomes last year's second-place winner Henry V, 26-17. In the closest match of the round, Macbeth is the one who finally knocks The Bear out of contention (22-21). Well-fought, bear; if you have to go out, it may as well be to one who smacks of every sin that has a name. Iago ends the winning streak of everyone's favorite shrew, Katharina, using his cunning and deceit to overpower her feminine ferocity (23-11). And finally, Tybalt and his Spanish blade can't defeat the guile and ruthlessness of Lady Macbeth, who puts him down 27-7.

The bracket stands thus:


So that gives us our Final Four: On opposite sides of the bracket, Shakespeare's most gleefully malicious couple, scheming and stabbing their way to the top; perhaps the wittiest of all the comic heroines, whose cheerful nature masks a ferocious heart and righteous fury; and the devious villain whose jealous machinations create a whirlwind of destruction. Match 1 begins today; Match 2 tomorrow. Who deserves a spot in the Finals? Let us know what you think!

Final Four, Match 1: Beatrice vs Macbeth

  • Beatrice
  • Macbeth

22 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Elite 8, Pt 2

With yesterday's matches off to a rollicking start, it's time to welcome the rest of the competitors in the Elite 8 to the field. Today: Iago vs Katharina and Lady Macbeth vs Tybalt. The conniving killer or the cursed shrew? The ambitious wife or the hotheaded cousin? Who has what it takes to advance?

Elite 8, Match 3:
Elite 8, Match 4:

Who wins the battle?

  • Lady Macbeth
  • Tybalt

Acepolls

Which of these fearsome competitors should move on to the Final Four? You decide! Get your votes in by early next week, and rally supporters to help your favorites to victory. And don't forget to vote in Part 1 of the Elite 8 as well.

21 March 2012

Book Review: 'Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?' by James Shapiro

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies "not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story." Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and "more disturbingly," those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, "I don't believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don't want to draw a na├»ve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it's a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it's possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare's authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book."

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare's life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare's life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare's life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro's depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father's deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in "Shakespeare's hand": deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry's own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare's plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:
the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn't support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.
Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia's ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia's historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:
The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn't serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.
Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, "Donnelly didn't have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce."

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that "Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in," giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare's identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced "loany", despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare's life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford's could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth's lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon's direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn't think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth's totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare's plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public's increasing fascination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. "In such a climate," Shapiro says, "a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense."

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father's approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud's support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford's own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt's Twain's rationale, and Shapiro's dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; "For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked." It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that "novels necessarily reveal something about a writer's life." I would argue that this is more true in so-called "literary" fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) -- and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well -- have no more expectation of a creator's personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare's original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While "serious" fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer's viewpoint won't peep through from time to time, but they don't dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:
When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays'] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.
Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare's name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

Shapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare's contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare's plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood -- the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who "left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare's authorship of the plays." Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare's writing that I find it a violation of Occam's Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can't believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude. From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First Folio

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare's plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:
We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth's reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare's latest play, there would have been only one answer: 'Blackfriars.' The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.
Shapiro's recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare's latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays' timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the "controversy" – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare's prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro's book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What's more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

If you're interested in further thoughts on this topic, please join the ASC on March 31st at 10:30am at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen will be delivering a lecture featuring his own dissection of the authorship matter, entitled "Knock, Knock: Who Wrote Shakespeare?"

20 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Elite 8, Pt 1

Welcome back to another week of Shakespearean March Madness! This week: The Elite 8 take the field, battling it out for spots in the Final Four. But who are those lucky combatants? Here are the winners from the first matches of the Round of 16:

Eminent conqueror Henry V takes a respectable 28-19 victory over Titus Andronicus; a plethora of expendable sons proves no match for the power of pure rhetorical inspiration. Crafty Iago knocks magical Prospero out of contention, 31-17. In an upset rematch, Lady Macbeth dominates over Richard III; his habit of underestimating women finally gets the better of him, it would seem. This match was hotly contested, with a final score of 36-26. The Bear continues his Cinderella story, with a 43-19 victory over Mark Antony -- but will his prowess lead him into the Final Four? It's been another good week for our ladies from the comedies -- Beatrice edges out Hotspur, 17-15, and Katharina easily bowls over Jack Falstaff, 29-7. Things didn't go so well for Doll Tearsheet, however, whose tavern brawling ways couldn't defeat Tybalt's skilled rapier (26-13). Finally, Macbeth knocks Philip the Bastard out of contention (33-8); sorry, Philip, but we actually meet your mom on stage, so we know you're of woman born.

So, here's the bracket for the Elite 8 (click to expand):



Today, we welcome four competitors back to the field: Henry V vs Beatrice and The Bear vs Macbeth.

Elite 8, Match 1:

  • Henry V
  • Beatrice
Elite 8, Match 2:

  • The Bear
  • Macbeth
Who deserves a coveted slot in the Final Four? Let us know what you think! Defend your favorites with evidence from the text and win other voters to your cause. These polls will be open until early next week, so you have plenty of time to rally support! My picks will, as usual, be in a comment.

16 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round of 16, Pt 4

Today, the final contestants for the Round of 16 take the field. First up, a battle between two capable generals: Macbeth vs Philip the Bastard; and finally, the hot-headed hellcat Doll Tearsheet versus that King of Cats Tybalt Capulet. Who is most deserving of a spot in the Elite 8? Let us know how you're voting:

Round of 16, Match 7: Macbeth vs Philip the Bastard

Who wins the battle?

  • Macbeth
  • Philip the Bastard

Acepolls


Round of 16, Match 8: Doll Tearsheet vs Tybalt

Who wins the battle?

  • Doll Tearsheet
  • Tybalt

Acepolls


Don't forget to vote in Parts 1 (Henry V v Titus and Iago v Prospero), 2 (The Bear v Antony and Richard III v Lady M), and 3 (Hotspur v Beatrice and Katharina v Jack Falstaff) of this round as well -- you could make the difference in a close match, or perhaps even turn the tide of a crushing defeat. You have the weekend to rally your friends to support your favorites. Sally forth!

15 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round of 16, Pt 3

We're seeing some great battles in Parts 1 and 2 of the Round of 16 -- Now it's time to introduce the competitors for Part 3. Taking the field today, two fiery ladies, one fiery rebel, and one jolly coward. Beatrice faces off against Hotspur, and Katharina takes on Jack Falstaff. Who will prevail and move on to the Elite 8? It's time for you to decide:

Round of 16, Match 5: Beatrice vs. Hotspur

Who wins the battle?

  • Hotspur
  • Beatrice

Acepolls

Round of 16, Match 6: Katharina vs. Jack Falstaff

Who wins the battle?

  • Katharina
  • Jack Falstaff

Acepolls

These polls will be up until the middle of next week, so you have plenty of time to get your votes in and to rally support for your favorites! Need some guidance? You can always check our players' stats back at the introduction post.

"Let each man render me his bloody hand": Blood on the Ides

On the Ides of March last year, I explored the rhetoric of what is possibly my favorite speech in all of Shakespeare: Antony's funeral eulogy for Caesar, in which he whips the plebeians into a murderous frenzy. As I was last year, I remain a little in awe of the strange cultural phenomenon surrounding this day. Quotes from Plutarch and Shakespeare are everywhere -- and I wonder how many people are consciously aware of whom they're quoting, or if those phrases have so permeated our world that they've detached entirely from their original context.

I make my living now with my head in the early modern era, but I've always kept one foot trailing in the classics, particularly in this fascinating period where the Republic crashed and metamorphosed into the Empire. Fortunately, Shakespeare gives me fertile territory on which to indulge both of my historical obsessions. And I'm not alone -- those of us in the Shakespeare world seize on the opportunity that this cultural awareness provides (carpe occasionem?). Twitter is full of our enthusiasm today, and a video on Pursued by a Bear explores the play's place in the common consciousness as well as providing an interesting analysis the dearth of really good productions of the show.


This year, I thought I'd take a look at a particularly interesting staging moment which precedes the great speech I explored last year: when Antony greets the conspirators just after Caesar's murder. Two of the most visually striking moments in Julius Caesar are Caesar's assassination and the subsequent decision of the conspirators to wash their hands in the corpse's blood. This scene can pack quite a bit of power -- especially in a theatre like the Blackfriars Playhouse, where the actors share light with the audience -- but it also lends itself to quite a bit of mess. Blood is something that actors and production companies have to negotiate with, deciding how much to use, what kind to use, where to hide blood packets, whether or not it can get on clothing (and if so, how to get it out; if not, how to keep that from happening). Often, productions choose to stylize the blood in this scene, for those very practical reasons. I will always champion the use of live blood, however, because of what happens later in the scene.
CASSIUS
Where is Antony?

TREBONIUS
Fled to his house amaz'd:
Men, wives, and children stare, cry out, and run,
As it were doomsday.

BRUTUS
Fates, we will know your pleasures:
That we shall die, we know; 'tis but the time
And drawing days out, that men stand upon.

CASSIUS
Why, he that cuts off twenty years of life,
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.

BRUTUS
Grant that, and then is death a benefit:
So are we Caesar's friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry 'Peace, freedom and liberty.'

CASSIUS
Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?

BRUTUS
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust?

CASSIUS
So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call'd
The men that gave their country liberty.
First of all, this is weird. There is just no getting around that this is a really strange thing to do with someone you've just killed. This is not a bit of a historical culture, not something Romans just did when they killed someone. To me, it reads as Brutus coming a little unhinged. Then, think about how deep you would have to plunge your hands into a dagger wound -- likely a puncture far more than a rending gash -- to get up to the elbow in blood. It's pretty gruesome, and I think that the more real and visceral the blood appears, the more the audience is going to feel the grotesque aspect of the scene, rather than dismissing it as, "Oh, a thing people just did back then." Live blood also gives the other actors a lot to work with -- physically as well as figuratively -- in terms of how much they are on board with Brutus or not. If at least a couple of the conspirators are visibly uncomfortable with smearing themselves up to the elbow in blood, that also transmits some important information to the audience.

Secondly, it's ambiguous whether or not Trebonius washes his hands in blood along with the rest of the conspirators. He's on stage at this point, but as someone who did not actually take part in the stabbing, I think there's justification for not having him join in the literal bloodbath. You could certainly choose to have him wash in blood at this point, but I think there's more money in having him hold back, because of what happens when Antony -- whom Trebonius detained outside the Senate, whom he kept from coming to Caesar's aid -- enters.
Enter ANTONY

BRUTUS
But here comes Antony:
Welcome, Mark Antony.

ANTONY
O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.
I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank:
If I myself, there is no hour so fit
As Caesar's death hour, nor no instrument
Of half that worth as those your swords, made rich
With the most noble blood of all this world.
I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard,
Now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke,
Fulfil your pleasure. Live a thousand years,
I shall not find myself so apt to die:
No place will please me so, no mean of death,
As here by Caesar, and by you cut off,
The choice and master spirits of this age.

BRUTUS
O Antony! Beg not your death of us.
Though now we must appear bloody and cruel,
As by our hands, and this our present act
You see we do: yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done:
Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful:
And pity to the general wrong of Rome,
As fire drives out fire, so pity, pity
Hath done this deed on Caesar. For your part,
To you our swords have leaden points, Mark Antony:
Our arms in strength of malice, and our hearts
Of brothers' temper, do receive you in,
With all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence.

CASSIUS
Your voice shall be as strong as any man's
In the disposing of new dignities.

BRUTUS
Only be patient till we have appeased
The multitude, beside themselves with fear,
And then, we will deliver you the cause,
Why I, that did love Caesar when I struck him,
Have thus proceeded.

ANTONY
I doubt not of your wisdom:
Let each man render me his bloody hand:
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next, Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now Decius Brutus, yours: now yours, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and my valiant Casca, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius.
Gentlemen all: Alas, what shall I say?
Antony comes in and shakes each man's bloody hand, one by one, and as he names them, it's hard to feel that he's doing anything other than marking them down for retribution. And then, at last, he comes to Trebonius, who did not stab Caesar himself, but who was nonetheless instrumental to the plot, the means by which Antony was not there to defend his friend. So if Antony has just shaken six other bloody hands, his own would be quite smeared with blood by this point -- which he then transfers to Trebonius. If his hands have been clean till that point, Antony's gesture makes a powerful statement: Trebonius is, in his eyes, every bit as guilty, every bit as culpable, and Antony is every bit as determined to take him down. So, while you could have Trebonius engage in the blood-smearing earlier on, I think you get greater payoff from saving it for this moment.

An exploration of this and other staging challenges in Julius Caesar can be found in our Study Guide -- and the play will be part of the 2013 Actors' Renaissance Season. I'm going to be serving as dramaturg for that production, so I'm sure next March 15th, I'll have something new to share. Until then, cavite idus Martii, everyone!

13 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round of 16, Pt 2

First, the results of the final batch from the first Round:

Like Portia before her, Beatrice has no trouble handling Shylock. Her brilliant wit lets her outmaneuver the crafty moneylender to a 30-5 victory. In a far closer match, Philip the Bastard takes the win (19-16) over Othello, using his combination of cleverness, combat skills, and pure cheek to win out over the Moor of Venice. Poor Othello just can't seem to make it out of the first round, but maybe he'll get a lucky break in 2013. Improbable Jack Falstaff defeats Cordelia 17-15, proving that crafty cowardice can definitely get you further than noble honor, if applied correctly. Finally, our expert swordsman Tybalt sends rough-and-tumble Guiderius back to his mountain, with learned skill triumphing over untutored strength (19-10). Better luck next year, Guiderius -- maybe after seeing Cymbeline in the fall, more folk will back you up.

So, here's the bracket at the end of the first round (click to expand):



Today, we send two more pairs into the ring to compete for the chance to join the Elite 8. In Match 3, The Bear lumbers from Bohemia over to Italy to take on Mark Antony, and Richard III faces Lady Macbeth in another rematch from last year. Who of these four deserves to move on to the Elite 8? You tell us!

Round of 16, Match 3: The Bear vs Antony

Who wins the battle?

  • The Bear
  • Antony

Acepolls

Round of 16, Match 4: Richard III vs Lady Macbeth

Who wins the battle?

  • Richard III
  • Lady Macbeth

Acepolls

My picks will be in a comment. These polls will be open until early next week. Don't forget to vote on Pt 1 as well, and stay tuned the rest of this week for the other Round of 16 matches.

12 March 2012

Shakespeare and 'The Lion King'

Last Sunday, I had the great good fortune to be able to indulge a passion that holds only a slightly less dear place in my heart than my love of Shakespeare: my love of musical theatre. The Lion King touring company was performing in my hometown of Richmond, so I made the trek down out of the mountains to see it. This sort of show is about as far from what we do at the ASC as you can get -- pure, beautiful spectacle, on an enormous stage, mic'd and amp'd for a few thousand people -- and it's glorious, using song and color to convey emotion and energy. The audience contact is different from we do it here, but it's still there, even in such a large venue -- you get brought in a bit when the animals come down the aisles during "The Circle of Life", "One by One", and other songs, and characters like Zazu and Timon take jokes out in frequent asides. I also think The Lion King is one of the greatest examples of creative stagecraft: the puppetry, the choreography of aerial ballets and wildebeest stampedes, the costumes that allow the audience to see both actor and animal at the same time, the use of lighting, shadows, and backdrops to convey savanna, jungle, and wasteland -- it's so delightfully inventive, a real indulgence of imagination at work.

I know a lot has been written about the connections between Shakespeare and The Lion King. This is not news. Many, many people have drawn the connection to Hamlet -- and it is there, if only in the broadest strokes of the plot. Evil uncle kills dad, usurps throne, pays for it in the end when dad's ghost tells son to take revenge. But beyond that familial tangle, there's actually not a lot else that's tremendously similar. Sarabi doesn't take up with Scar, Nala doesn't drown herself, and no neighboring lions decide to declare war on their way across the Pridelands toward the Masai Mara. More importantly, the emotional quality of The Lion King is markedly different (unsurprising in the movie, aimed at younger audiences, but they could have chosen a darker direction with the musical). Simba doesn't stick around like Hamlet does; he doesn't fall into an existential depression or feign madness; he doesn't turn on Nala or murder Zazu. He may be in the same position as Hamlet as far as the plot's concerned, but he is not a character in Hamlet's mold. The musical does draw in some quotations -- "There's the rub", for example -- but it still doesn't dwell on quite the same ideas and psychological explorations as Hamlet does.

I've seen great arguments, though, for the story really having more similarities with 1 Henry IV. Simba, the renegade heir who spends all his time loafing around with irresponsible freeloaders, has to remember his duties and take his place as the honorable heir to the throne. On an emotional level, Simba's story seems a lot more like Hal's than like Hamlet's. His response to stress isn't "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt" or "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" -- it's "Hakuna Matata". Feeling he'll never live up to what he's supposed to be, Simba runs away from the burdens -- only to find that, ultimately, he will have to "pay the debt [he] never promised." It's still not a perfect comparison, obviously -- Hal's dad is quite alive during 1 Henry IV, whereas Mufasa has to stir his son to greatness from beyond the grave (and Mufasa, with "Remember who you are; you are my son, and the one true king", manages to be a lot more succinct than Henry IV does in his sit-down with Hal in 3.2).

What struck me on Sunday, though, was how The Lion King contains echoes of a different Shakespeare play from the point of view of a different character. For Scar, this story is Macbeth. He disrupts the natural order of succession, and the earth itself revolts against him for it. In the disturbingly vivid scenes where the vibrant Pridelands turn into a barren desert, the joyfully leaping antelope turned skeletal, the waters receding and leaving cracked rocks in their wake, I couldn't help but think of lines from Macbeth, in the conversation between Ross and the Old Man, describing the unnaturally dark sky, the inversion of predatory order, and Duncan's horses going mad. When Sarabi tells Scar there is no longer any food because he has forced the lionesses to overhunt and the herds have moved on, I heard Ross telling Malcolm and Macduff:
Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call'd our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark'd; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man's knell
Is there scarce ask'd for who; and good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
The moral message here is the same: upset the natural order, disrupt the Circle of Life, and everything you sought to gain will turn to dust and decay in front of your eyes. Scar also has troubles with his own line of succession; though he has no Lady M, he makes a play for Nala, keenly aware that without sons of his own, his usurpation is for naught. Consider these lines from "The Madness of King Scar", a song not found in the movie, only the musical:
Scar: What did my brother have that I don't have?
Zazu: Do you want the short list or the long?
Scar: Whatever!
Zazu: Well, he had adoring subjects... a loving family... a devoted queen...
Scar: That's it! I need a queen!
Zazu: A what?
Scar: A queen, man! A queen! Without a queen, what am I? A dead end, no line, no descendants, no future. With a queen, I'll have cubs... Immortality will be mine! Immortality will be mine!
Hearing those lines, I had Macbeth in my head, saying:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.
These thoughts continued to percolate on my drive home. Okay, so if it's somewhere between Hamlet and 1 Henry IV for Mufasa and Simba, and if it's Macbeth for Scar, then what is it for Nala? There's not a perfect analogy. Nala's a very martial heroine, and martial women in Shakespeare tend to be villains, or at the very least, rather morally ambiguous characters (Joan la Pucelle, Queen Margaret, Goneril and Regan, etc). Nala, on the other hand, is in many ways the moral center of the play. She's aggressive, defiant, and proud, but never self-serving or deceptive. The closest analogy, I think, is Cymbeline, with Nala as a more pro-active Imogen. Both leave their homes to escape oppressive usurpers (the stepmother Queen and Scar, respectively), both suffer some sort of sexual harassment that spurs the journey (adultery for Imogen, threat of rape for Nala), both find the lost heir in the wilderness (Guiderius and Arviragus to Simba). It's a stretch, to be sure -- but that's where my mind went.

Now, do I think Disney had any of this deliberately in mind when they created The Lion King? No. As Duane at Shakespeare Geek once pointed out, the creators noticed the Hamlet connection and modeled at least a little on the similarities, but that certainly doesn't seem to cast the movie or the musical as an adaptation of Shakespeare's story. And while others have commented on the connections to 1 Henry IV and Macbeth, I'm fairly certain I'm the first person to write publicly drawing any connection between The Lion King and Cymbeline. (If I'm not, please let me know, because I want to know who else out there may be as dotty as I am). But a writer, an actor, a designer can still be inspired by something, even if he or she isn't consciously imitating it, and there doesn't have to be a deliberate attempt at re-invention for an audience to hear the echoes. There's something to the universality of all of these stories, to the themes and tropes that cycle to prominence again and again -- and that show us, even through the use of lions, what it is to be human.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round of 16, Pt 1

A new week, a new set of matches for Shakespearean March Madness. Before we begin the Round of Sixteen, here are the results of Round 1.3:

Hotspur
takes a narrow 21-17 victory over Oberon, proving that the fiery rebel has as little patience for fairy magic as for Welsh superstitions. Macbeth handily wins over poor Toby Belch (31-6), whom we can only hope was soundly smacked around but not actually killed, and is now drinking off the shame and sorrow of his defeat. In a surprise victory -- at least it surprised me, even though I was supporting her -- Katharina takes a commanding 25-11 lead over Cassius. And finally, Doll Tearsheet's pub-brawling prowess gives her the win over Richard II's eloquence (26-9). Those two feisty females join Lady M in the Round of 16, so despite Queen Margaret's nigh-unbelievable loss to The Bear, I can at least be glad that my gender's not going down without a good fight.

Today, the first two face-offs from last week's champs: Henry V vs. Titus Andronicus and Iago vs. Prospero. All four of these blokes made it to the Elite 8 last year (and Titus and Henry actually squared off in the Final Four) -- so in 2012, at least two of them are going home disappointed (if not in pieces).

Round of 16: Match 1: Henry V vs. Titus Andronicus

Who wins the battle?

  • Henry V
  • Titus Andronicus

Acepolls


Round of 16: Match 2: Iago vs. Prospero
My picks will, as always, be in a comment. Don't forget to vote for Round 1.4, which I'll be closing out tomorrow -- there are some real nail-biters in this set, so every vote counts!

08 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.4

Welcome back for the final installation of our first round. Before we introduce the competitors, here are the victors and losers from Round 1.2:

Coriolanus enjoyed an early lead, but ultimately lost 25-20 to Titus Andronicus; these Roman heavyweights pitched a violent and well-matched battle, to be sure, but the man who sacrificed a few dozen sons advances. Antony takes a handy victory over Jack Cade, 27-9; Cade might have gotten a few licks in, but Antony knows nothing better than how to handle an unruly mob of peasants. Prospero's magic gives him the edge over the Duke of York in a 21-15 victory; the Duke put up a good fight -- maybe it will be down to his son to avenge his honor? In Round 1.2's closest battle, Lady Macbeth just barely ekes it out over Aaron the Moor, 19-18. The fiendish queen uses ruthless wiles to put down the unapologetic evildoer and advances to the Round of 16.

Here's the bracket as it stands after the first 8 matches (click to expand):

Shakespeare Education: Shakespearean March Madness 2012

Who else will advance to the Round of 16? Time to decide: Entering the ring today, we have: a true battle of ferocious wits, Shylock vs. Beatrice; the prowess of the Moor of Venice against the agile mind and fearless arm of a Plantagenet, Othello vs. Philip the Bastard; self-sacrificing faith against self-preserving cowardice, Cordelia vs. Jack Falstaff; and a courtier's well-trained rapier against a mountain man's brute strength and natural skill, Tybalt vs. Guiderius. Need a refresher on who any of these characters are or what they might bring to a battle? Revisit their bios.

Match 13: Shylock vs Beatrice

Who wins the battle?

  • Shylock
  • Beatrice

Acepolls

Match 14: Othello vs Philip the Bastard

Who wins the battle?

  • Othello
  • Philip the Bastard

Acepolls

Match 15: Cordelia vs Jack Falstaff

Who wins the battle?

  • Cordelia
  • Jack Falstaff

Acepolls

Match 16: Tybalt vs Guiderius

Who wins the battle?

  • Tybalt
  • Guiderius

Acepolls

These polls will be open until early next week; don't forget to vote on Round 1.3, also still open.

06 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.3

Before I introduce the next 8 contestants to the ring, here are the results from Round 1.1:

Paulina makes a good show, but loses 40-11 to Henry V. Much though it shames me to announce it, Queen Margaret, last year's champion, gets knocked out in the first round by The Bear. This match was about as close as they come -- 28-26 for the final score -- but the ursine competitor got the upper paw over the she-wolf of France. (Here in the office, Graphics Designer Lauren Rogers wants everyone to know that she's put her money on The Bear to take home the title). Iago pushes ahead over Tamora, 30-22; the Queen of the Goths' guile put up a good fight, but wasn't enough to overcome the wily machinations of her opponent. And finally, Richard III dominates over Cornwall in what was very nearly a shut-out, 43-3. Cornwall may be vicious, but Crookback Dick's resolve and intensity give him the edge.

And now, for Round 1.3, the next set of combatants are: Hotspur vs. Oberon, Macbeth vs. Sir Toby Belch, Katharina vs. Cassius, and Doll Tearsheet vs. Richard II.

Match 9: Hotspur vs. Oberon
Match 10: Macbeth vs. Sir Toby Belch

Who wins the battle?

  • Macbeth
  • Sir Toby Belch

Acepolls

Match 11: Katharina vs. Cassius

Who wins the battle?

  • Katharina
  • Cassius

Acepolls

Match 12: Doll Tearsheet vs. Richard II

Who wins the battle?

  • Doll Tearsheet
  • Richard II

Acepolls

This set will be open through the end of the week.

Don't forget to get your votes in for Round 1.2, which will close Thursday -- a few of those matches are running really tight. Make your opinion known and help your favorite to victory!

02 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.2

With yesterday's matches off to a rollicking start, it's time to bring on the next eight contenders for the title of Shakespeare's ultimate fighting champion. In the ring today: in a battle of the Roman heavyweights, Titus Andronicus vs. Coriolanus; two masters of the mob, Mark Antony vs. Jack Cade; the magical Prospero vs. the ambitious Duke of York; and the ruthless Lady Macbeth vs. the conscienceless Aaron the Moor. Who should advance to the Round of 16?

Match 5: Titus Andronicus vs. Coriolanus

Who wins the battle?

  • Titus Andronicus
  • Coriolanus

Acepolls

Match 6: Antony vs. Jack Cade

Who wins the battle?

  • Antony
  • Jack Cade

Acepolls

Match 7: Prospero vs. Duke of York

Who wins the battle?

  • Prospero
  • Duke of York


Match 8: Lady Macbeth vs. Aaron the Moor

Who wins the battle?

  • Lady Macbeth
  • Aaron the Moor

Acepolls

As before, my picks will be in a comment. Do you have a favorite up in this round? Let us know who you're cheering for! You might win over some new converts and turn the tide of battle.

01 March 2012

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.1

It's March 1st, and that means we welcome the first eight competitors to the field. Up today: Henry V vs Paulina, Queen Margaret vs. The Bear, Iago vs. Tamora, and Richard III vs. Cornwall.

Match 1: Henry V vs Paulina

Who wins the battle?

  • Henry V
  • Paulina

Acepolls


Match 2: Queen Margaret vs The Bear

Who wins the battle?

  • Queen Margaret
  • The Bear

Acepolls


Match 3: Iago vs. Tamora

Match 4: Richard III vs. Cornwall

Who wins the battle?

  • Richard III
  • Cornwall

Acepolls

An interesting starting field, with a lot of villains squaring off against each other. My picks will be in a comment, so as not to unduly influence anyone else's opinions. Who are you voting for? Who should advance to the Round of Sixteen? Let me know! Rally support for your favorites, and remember -- there's nothing so convincing as good, solid, text-based evidence. These polls will be open until early next week, so there's plenty of time to build enthusiasm for your picks.

Let the games begin!