There is no better time than now to enjoy Shakespeare

A young Gibson reading, what I imagine to be Shakespeare

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

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!

Until we meet again friend,

Anon!

O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall

“O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall” is a line from A Midsummer’s Night Dream

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.

 

 

Anon!

Welcome to the Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare

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:

  • Ophelia,
  • Bianca,
  • Cressida,
  • Desdemona,
  • Juliet,
  • Portia,
  • Rosalind,
  • Cupid,
  • Belinda,
  • Perdita,
  • Puck,
  • Mab,
  • Miranda,
  • Ariel,
  • Umbriel,
  • Titania,
  • Oberon,
  • Francisco,
  • Caliban,
  • Stephano,
  • Trinculo,
  • Sycorax,
  • Margaret,
  • Prospero,
  • Setebos,
  • Ferdinand.

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:

  • auspicious
  • baseless
  • bloody
  • castigate
  • control (noun)
  • countless
  • courtship
  • critic
  • critical
  • dishearten
  • dislocate
  • dwindle
  • eventful
  • exposure
  • fitful
  • frugal
  • generous
  • gloomy
  • gnarled
  • hurry
  • impartial
  • lapse
  • laughable
  • misplaced
  • monumental
  • obscene

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.