Hello and welcome back. I hope it is a beautiful day wherever you are. We have had extreme heat and sadly, extreme fires. This is this first day in weeks that I am able to sit here and view the mountains through an open window. I love days like this. I can breath and think again.
One of the things I love more than a warm and breezy summer day is spreading the gospel of Shakespeare. It warms my heart to see someone’s eyes light up when they read or hear a quote and say, “Wow, Shakespeare said that?”
This happened a couple of weeks ago when a group of my co-workers and I were treated to tickets to see Lake Tahoe Shakespeare’s premier of Macbeth, the famous play that encapsulates the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I am seeing the production again next Sunday, so I will hold off talking about Lake Tahoe Shakespeare’s production and the play in general until then. I don’t think it is fair to review a play before the cast and crew have had the opportunity to figure out what and what doesn’t work. Spoiler alert for those who have access to this particular production; most everything works!
As we walked past the vendors one of my co-workers, a groundling herself, stopped in amazement. I paused to see what had her so transfixed. To be sure, there were many items to look at; everything from blankets to lotions, all adorned with famous quotes taken from Shakespeare’s plays. She turned to me and asked, “Are these all from Shakespeare?” I assured her that yes every line was from him. “Oh man, I really have to read his work” came her breathless response.
Sometimes this is all it takes. A few impactful lines can do more to draw a person to Shakespeare than any lecture or blog post. It seems once someone realizes just how relatable his words are, the fear of Shakespeare’s language melts away. So, without saying more, I give you a few of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare.
The Merchant of Venice
“You speak an infinite deal of nothing.”
“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
“Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.”
“Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
“Though she be but little, she is fierce!”
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“What’s done cannot be undone.”
“The love that follows us sometime is our trouble, which still we thank as love.”
And lastly, my favorite quote from Macbeth which sets the plot in motion:
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
See? Shakespeare is for the most part, easy to understand. His words stand the test of time as does his ideas and themes. We will now move on from our discussions about his words to more specific topics of the plays, and themes. We will explore just what it is about Shakespeare’s plays that set him apart from other writers, and why the critic Harold Bloom believed that Shakespeare invented the human personality as we know it.
Happy Sunday. I hope after last week’s post inspired you to read a play. One of the many fun aspects of getting familiar with Shakespeare is learning how he has inspired modern culture. As you dive deeper into Shakespeare’s world you will find many surprising discoveries about your favorite moves and music. For instance, did you know Disney’s The Lion King is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet? It’s true! Though thankfully for children, Disney rewrote the ending.
Not too long ago I decided to try listening to audio versions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is not my favorite way to enjoy Shakespeare, as it can be hard to follow who is who if unfamiliar with the play in general, but does allow one to think about different aspects of the play.
As I listened to A Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, written in 1609, I found myself thinking of another Disney movie and Shakespeare’s possible influence on it so I did some research. Learning about the history of story of Sleeping Beauty, I think we can agree, Disney made the right choice.
The origin story of the fairy-tale we know as Sleeping Beauty is the stuff of nightmares. This early modern horror-story account follows decades of older oral tradition. God only knows what people must have thought of the French troubadours who recounted this gruesome tale.
If you’ve never encountered Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story, Sun, Moon, and Talia, consider yourself lucky. His is so far removed from the one we know today, it’s hardly surprising Basile’s name is lost to the ages.
In Basile’s story, the young sleeping princess is found not by a young prince, but by a married king who rapes the comatose girl and then returns home as if nothing out of ordinary had just happened. Unfortunately for the king, he is married to a heartless shrew and he begins to think about the girl who just lay there. In fact, the more he thinks about her, the more convinced he is in love with her. And the story only gets worse from there! Let’s consider what happens to the maiden when she awakens from her coma:
The young princess gives birth to twins one of whom suckles her finger causing the enchanted splinter to fall out, which in turns causes the princess to wake up and see that she inexplicably has two babies at her breast.
The king comes back, tells her what he has done, and promises to find a way to bring her to his castle, because for reasons that defy explanation, the two fall in love.
The story only gets worse from there! The queen finds out about the princess and her children. She is furious and demands to have the babies brought to her so that she can have them cooked and feed them to the king. The cook (the only decent person in the story) decides against cooking the children and instead tells the king of his wife’s plan. That is the end of the Queen. In the end the king, the princess, and children all live happily ever after.
Thankfully, by the time the Grimm brothers recounted the tale as “Brier-Rose” in 1812, all mention of rape and cannibalism was gone. Their story is one in which the young princess sleeps for “many long years” until a passing prince, upon hearing about the beautiful girl, decides to find her and behold her beauty for himself. He awakens her with a kiss and they live happily ever after.
Disney could have easily used the Grimm version of the tale, yet they chose to have their prince be the very person who would have married the princess had she not been cursed. As you may recall, the two were betrothed right after she was born. This version did not have the grieving parents die childless; rather, everyone lived happily ever after. But only after some very Winter Tale like mishaps.
In both tales, a young princess is brought up believing that she is a shepherdess. In both tales a young prince falls in love with the shepherdess due of her beauty and singing voice. In both tales the two would have been wed (had mishaps not occurred) because their fathers were good friends. In both tales the prince is forbidden to see the shepherdess again, but because both end on happy notes, it is assumed both pairs marry. And to add more fuel to the speculation fire, Florizell (the prince in Shakespeare’s play) calls Perdita (the princess) “Flora”. “No shepherdess, but Flora peering in April’s front”. Act 4 scene 4. Flora is the name of one of the three fairies tasked with keeping Aurora (the Disney princess) safe. In case you forgot, they are: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.
I recommend reading A Winter’s Tale for its fairy-tale like quality. If nothing else, read it because it contains the most often (or only quoted) stage direction in theater history; Exit, pursued by a bear.
When you discover references to culture by Shakespeare do let me know in the comment section below. It is always a treat to find Shakespeare’s influence in our modern world.
D. L. Ashliman’s Folktexts, University of Pittsburgh.
Hello and welcome back friend, to the Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare. It’s been a few weeks since we last met. Sorry about that. My day job has been keeping me rather busy of late. As much as I would like to say blogging and guest lecturing is my livelihood, it is not. Someday! I do rather love my current day job though it does take me away from my passion now and then. As we move on and get into the heart of Shakespeare’s work I promise to post on a regular basis and let you know when there will be a gap as I travel out of town.
It is summer here in the States, and the temperatures are climbing for us in the west. If you are anything like me, this is a good time to stay indoor and read; ceiling fans and water at the ready. Now is a great time to talk about reading Shakespeare more specifically, how to read Shakespeare.
Being new but interested in Shakespeare you may have an introduction to Shakespeare book or two in your collection. If so, no doubt the advice given tells that the ideal way to immerse yourself is by attending a Shakespeare play. Some say this is the only way! Sound advice for sure if, A: Shakespeare plays are routinely running in your area, and B: the plays are performed by well-trained actors. There is nothing worse than seeing a performance of let’s say, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, acted by performers who rushed through the performance as if they were on stage because they lost a bet. Sadly this did happen to me one summer . You can find my review of it here. https://wp.me/p28tJt-nf
There are as many poor performances of Shakespeare as there are good ones. It would be a shame if a first time audience member were to be put-off due to bad acting. Better to recognize a bad performance than think this is how Shakespeare is supposed to be. You can only do this if you have some basic understanding of what you are about to see. This is when reading comes in handy.
The beauty of reading Shakespeare is that the experience allows time for you to go slow and savory the lines. Shakespeare wrote some of the best lines/thoughts in the English language. Reading them for the first time allows the reader to appreciate them for their beauty and composition. An example comes from Romeo and Juliet.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Beautiful, right? The first time I read these lines, I made notes and quickly memorized them. Now, imagine hearing these lines for the first time by an actor who whispers them is a rushed tone; as if they were disposable and unimportant. Yes, this happened once in a live production. Later I repeated the lines to my theater companion, and asked if she remembered hearing them. She had not. A couple of days later she found herself reading the play just to catch all of the beautiful lines that had been missed in the performance.
Reading Shakespeare can be a rich and rewarding experience if you know how to read the text. It is not, as a lot of goundlings assume, all that difficult a skill to master. Don’t let some of the archaic language stop you from this enjoyable hobby. Less than 10% of Shakespeare’s words are outdated. The meaning of many of his words may have changed but, set in context it is easy to understand his use of them.
The modern reader of Shakespeare has a variety of editions to pick from. I go back and forth between Folger’s and Arden editions. Each contains useful guides at the beginning of each scene that offers tips on some of the lesser known words and phrases. Despite what your high school English teacher tried to tell you, reading Shakespeare is not like trying to decipher a foreign language. But there are a few things you need to know before picking up that book. Here are some useful tips I learned from Professor Mark Williams in his class Painting on the Page.
Prose vs. Verse
Shakespeare wrote i several forms, though two are vital to our understanding. Prose is a theatrical reflection of our common language. When a character speaks in prose it is our cue to understand that he or she is not of the court. Though there are times when a seemingly “low born” uses poetry. This is seen as highly emotional speech and is used to convey intelligence beyond the character’s station.
Verse is poetry. Shakespeare arranges highborn characters’ speech patterns into poetry, or rhythmical lines. When we hear verse it is our cue to know that someone of importance or nobility is speaking. It is also why Shakespeare continues to enthrall audiences worldwide. His use of verse is unequaled in the theater.
The form of poetry that was popular in Shakespeare’s time was iambic pentameter. It is one of the forms of poetry that closely mimics English-speaking speech patterns. This form of rhyming consists of a line of ten syllables, made up of five strong beats (penta) and five weaker beats. The first syllable (beat) is weak, followed by the stronger syllable. It looks like this:
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
a HORSE a HORSE my King Dom for A horse!
to BE or NOT to Be that IS the quesTION
The length of an iambic pentameter line can be said in one breath and follows in a heartbeat-like pattern of rhythm. Try it for yourself but try not to get carried away by the strong beat or you will end up sounding less like Kenneth Branagh and more like William Shatner.
Heightened speech (or verse) is often employed as blank verse. This is verse that does not rhyme but follows the syllable pattern of iambic pentameter. You can usually identify it by the use of a capital letter in each line.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
(The Merchant of Venice )
As you read Shakespeare you may wonder at some of the “misplaced” punctuation marks. Remember this; not all thoughts end in a line. All thoughts stop at a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. Often the written form of the line is to show which of the words actors are to pause on before continuing without breaking up a thought.
When reading Shakespeare you will notice that some lines begin halfway across the page like this from Macbeth:
Where the place?
Upon the Heath
This is form of pattern is known as shared lines. It refers to verse lines shared or split between two or more speakers, a frequent device for composing fast-paced dramatic dialogue. Think of it as the second person finishing the first’s sentence. The lines are shared as if they were one line.
That’s all. It’s that simple. This is all you really need to know to start your reading journey into Shakespeare’s world. Start with any of the plays you like. I always refer new readers to Julius Caesar. The play is short and one that easy to follow. Midsummer’s Night Dream is a lot of fun. The play with-in the play should not be missed. Once read I do recommend seeing it live, or if that is not an option, rent Peter Hull’s 1968 version.
Above all, have fun with the texts. After all they are just “Words, words, words” (Hamlet).
Greetings and well wishes to you my friend! Thank you for following me and taking the time to read this blog. It’s an honor to have you here. Let’s you and I talk about the various ways in which you can jump in and start enjoying Shakespeare.
Oh, you are starting at exciting times. Luckily for you, technology is bringing Shakespeare’s works to life in new and clever ways. Take apps for instance; how wonderful it is to live in a time when the complete works of Shakespeare can appear as if by magic at our fingertips. Sure you can carry a play with you, or download one to your mobile phone or reading tablet, and I recommend you do, but there are two apps that do more than just allow you access to Shakespeare’s world.
The first app is called Shakespeare at Play. While this one does not contain the complete works (at least not yet) it does hold 7 of his more famous works. The beauty and magic of this particular app is that it also contains video content! It is designed to allow viewers to see the play while reading. This is one of the best ways in which a person unfamiliar with Shakespeare can become well acquainted with his patterns of speech. My only complaint is that the players are not always great actors, and do not give stellar performances. Please do not think this is how Shakespeare is presented on the stage; use the live action to assist your understanding of his work.
The second app that everyone, from novices to theater aficionados, should immediately download is the Shakespeare Pro app. Don’t let the name fool you. The reason pro is in the name is because the makers of this app are pros at making everyone feel comfortable with the plays. Each play contains scene breakdowns and notes on the characters (Dramatis Personae). The app has a glossary of terms, portraits (even the forged ones) of Shakespeare, and random quote generator, a study guide on the plays, Elizabethan theaters, statistics and much, much more. I cannot praise this app enough. If you are studying Shakespeare in school or want to learn more about his work and lifetime, this is a must have.
Not everyone is fond of reading. You may be one of these people. Rest assured there is no right or wrong way to enter the world of Shakespeare. Not everyone starts out by reading Shakespeare (though in our next post I will make an argument for it). Many, many people leave a live production of Shakespeare wanting more.
Ahh, but let’s be honest, it is not every day that you have the opportunity to enjoy a live performance. And, it’s not likely that a troop of hungry artists will knock on your door asking if they can perform on your porch (maybe if you own a tavern they might). Again, thanks to technology you can sit down right after reading this and enjoy any number of performances, provided you have a screen and Internet access.
Viewing Shakespeare can be a thrilling way to be introduced to his work, if and only if, the production is worthy of his words. A great actor can breathe life into Shakespeare’s poetry, bombast, and bawdy word play. Seeing a great performance of Shakespeare’s work for the first time is a thrilling event and can leave an audience member wanting more.
Let’s look at some of Shakespeare’s plays that you can enjoy right now.
The Hollow Crown Series
This is must see TV! Thanks to the BBC, there is a series based on Shakespeare’s history plays about the War of the Roses, starting with Richard II, through the three Henrys and ending with Richard III. The production is nothing short of stunning; it is hard to believe the series was made for TV and not the big screen. Admittedly some of the language will be hard to follow for beginners, but stick with it as it is well worth a little confusion from time to time. Tom Hiddleston as Henry V will make you forget that he is now best known as Loki. Richard Whishaw is such an amazing Richard II that I cannot imagine anyone else playing him. The series ends with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III. If you watch anything based on Shakespeare this is it.
This series is not currently streaming. Check your local library to see if they have the DVDs. Or, do what I did and purchase them through the PBS website.
Much ado about nothing
This one is for the ladies. Any time a woman tells me she can’t get into Shakespeare I ask her to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Oh to see him and Emma Thompson’ characters fall in love despite their shared distain of such deep emotion is pure perfection. The play is both hilarious and heartbreaking. The setting is beautiful and ensemble cast is marvelous. How can you say no to young Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, and Denzel Washington?
And then there is the over the top performance of Michael Keaton as Dogberry.
This can be found on Amazon Prime.
Hamlet is a must for any introduction to Shakespeare. If you can’t see it live, I suggest starting with Mel Gibson in the Zeffirelli film. I really wanted to like David Tennant as Hamlet, but I don’t think he was able to capture the agony and frustration as well as Gibson did. There are several adaptations of Hamlet; Branagh directed himself in one, but this is my personal favorite.
A really fun treat is to find Mystery Science Theater 3000’s riff on an old black and white German adaptation on Hamlet. But don’t let this be your introduction to Shakespeare.
This is offered on several streaming services, including Google Play and iTunes.
As you like it
This is a very fun play (and one that seems to be produced often enough that it should be easy to find locally). Rosalind is a strong female character and is arguably one of Shakespeare’s strongest characters. She takes charge of her circumstance as best she can while trying to navigate her way through the unknown. She is banished to the forest of Arden just as she is coming of age. College students can identify with her plight and marvel at her hesitation to fall for the first man who shows her some interest.
The play contains some of Shakespeare’s most well known quotes included the”7 ages of man” speech. Yes, all the world’s a stage, and in this play Shakespeare shows us how at times we all play different parts. It’s a feel good play that ends as we like it; with love and laughter.
I suggest renting the 1978, BBC adaptation of the play staring a very young Helen Mirren.
This is offered on Amazon
A midsummer’s night dream
I’ve seen good productions and bad productions, but yet even the bad productions can be a life-changing event. This play like no other invites the audience to enter into a fantasy world in which fairies meddle in the affairs of men. Love and lust, we learn can and often overlap. We are forced to ask ourselves if we can really tell the difference between the two.
My favorite is Peter Hall’s 1968 adaptation. You can find it on Amazon.
One of the best things about a live production of AMSND is the ending, when Puck makes the final speech to the audience. I can think of no better ending.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Thanks to the magic of technology you can chose to read, study, or watch it performed, all in the comfort of your own home. Exciting times indeed!
Let’s imagine shall we, that you and I are meeting for the first time. We strike up a conversation during in which you learn that I’m a researcher and Shakespeare scholar. I wouldn’t be going out on a limb by guessing you would probably respond by saying, “Shakespeare?! I’ve always wanted to get into Shakespeare (or) learn how to enjoy Shakespeare but don’t know where to start”. Believe it or not, this is the most common thing I hear from new acquaintances whenever Shakespeare is involved. It happens a lot! This is the main reason I started this blog. There is an invisible wall between his work and many people’s presumption of it. His work is too hard to understand, it doesn’t seem accessible (as in there are currently no running plays to see), and or the person fears that the appeal will fail to capture his or her attention, leaving him or her to wonder, “What’s wrong with me, everyone else likes Shakespeare?”
If this is you, please don’t feel alone. This wall is lined with people from all walks of life, who for one reason or another cannot see the doorway leading to the other side. Just the other day I met a woman who is working on her second PhD. She had come into my office for some research material related to a project she is working on and noticed my Shakespeare bobblehead. This led to a conversation in which she asked for my help. Her teenage son had recently told her he wanted to know more about Shakespeare’s work. She admitted that this was a subject in which she felt lost and asked for recommendations on where to begin. I was stunned. I would assume that a woman with a PhD, working on a second would know how to do some research or at least know how to locate the nearest library. I quickly realized that this was another person standing at the wall, closer to the door than most, but still unable to see it.
Before I tell you what I told her, let’s take a step back from the wall for a moment. Let’s first, look at why you are there in the first place. To better understand how to enjoy Shakespeare, let’s first explore why his work matters. In other words, finding the door is easier when you know why you want to find it.
Harold Bloom, one of the curmudgeonliest yet beloved Shakespeare scholar wrote a book with the hyperbolic title, Shakespeare The Invention of the Human. Clearly Bloom didn’t believe evolution started with Shakespeare, but he did argue, rather eloquently, that of all of the writers and poets before and after, Shakespeare alone is responsible for creating our human archetype. Shakespeare holds a mirror up to humanity and says “This is the human condition in all of its glory and failings”. This is why his work is still immensely popular some 400 odd years after his death. We don’t just enjoy his beautiful words or laugh at some of the most ridiculous plots ever conceived; we see ourselves in his words and in his improbable settings. His work is the foundation for most of our modern Hollywood plots and modern philosophy.
Other writers craft caricatures of human emotion. Shakespeare tapped into something deeper and gave us fully formed humans complete with all of the conflicting emotions that each of us have. He gave voice to our inner selves like no other. His plays were character driven. I don’t believe it is hyperbolic to state, that without Shakespeare’s work, we would not recognize human folly as easily as we do now.
If you’ve experienced depression or ever wondered, “What’s the point to all of this?” you’ve already know how Hamlet feels.
If you or someone you know has ever been given more power than you can handle, you will connect with Macbeth.
If you’ve let your passions get the best of you, I suggest sitting down and commiserating with Othello. Or if he is too intense for your taste, Romeo & Juliet may make for better conversation companions.
Beyond the cerebral, there are other reasons why we enjoy Shakespeare. It would take several posts to list them all. In a nutshell, having some exposure to Shakespeare will enrich your experience as an audience member and allow you to fully grasp some of the subtle (and not so subtle) entertainment nods to Shakespeare.
Did you know that in each of the episodes in the first two seasons of the West Wing, one character or another quotes Shakespeare?
Did you know that most of our modern so called, ‘Rom-coms” are based on either a specific play or plot? Ten Things I hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew.
Did you know The Lion King is based on Hamlet?
You may be quoting Shakespeare and not even know it. Here are a few common phrases from his work:
“Give the devil his due” — (Henry IV Part I)
“Good riddance” — (Troilus and Cressida)
“Heart of gold” — (Henry V)
“In my mind’s eye” — (Hamlet)
“Love is blind” — (The Merchant of Venice)
“Wear my heart upon my sleeve” — (Othello)
“Wild-goose chase” — (Romeo and Juliet)
“The game is afoot” — (Henry IV Part I) See, even the renowned British Detective Sherlock Holmes quotes Shakespeare.
In case you are wondering what advice I gave to the woman about her son, I told her this:
Find out why your son wants to learn about Shakespeare, and then introduce him to a play that corresponds to that reason. By doing this, he will better understand and respond to Shakespeare. In other words, the why will drive the how.
In our next chat I will show you some of the easier ways to jump into Shakespeare’s world.
Welcome to the first blog post of the Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare. I am launching this site on April 23, the day we celebrate the birth of the beloved poet! My hope is that this site will your muse on fire, your light as you begin the journey of discovery. Here you will find book reviews, essays, ideas, and posts; each designed to help you discover the world of Shakespeare and why he still matters today.
How about we start with 7 things you may not know about Shakespeare?
We probably don’t spell Shakespeare’s name correctly—but, then again, neither did he
Sources from William Shakespeare’s lifetime spell his last name in more than 80 different ways, ranging from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd.
Shakespeare’s epitaph wards off would-be grave robbers with a curse
“To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” It must have worked. Shakespeare’s remains have yet to be disturbed.
Google must love him
There are 157 million pages referring to him. God has only 132 million.
These seats better be comfortable.
The longest play in the Shakespeare cannon is Hamlet. With no cuts to the play, it takes over four hours to perform. His shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, takes a third of that time.
Even NASA loves Shakespeare
While I cannot find the original source, or who started the trend, all of Uranus’ moon are named after Shakespeare’s characters (except two that are named after characters in Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock). Shakespeare’s characters are:
Words, words words
Shakespeare is credited with invented 1700 words. (though it may be that this is the first time we have seen them in print).Shakespeare has been credited for inventing single words that normally would have taken several to mean the same thing. I won’t list them all, but here is a partial list of words we use today:
Now here is a reason to learn Klingon
Of all of the languages that Shakespeare’s work has been translated to, Klingon is my favorite. Both Hamlet and Much ado about nothing have been translated as part of the “Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project”. Who said aliens don’t appreciate culture? Don’t believe me? See for yourself. I give you, “To be or not to be” in Klingon.