Sundays With Shakespeare

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I put together a small book of 52 Shakespeare and scripture quotes, as a weekly spiritual devotional. From the Amazon description: “Each entry has a title based on the theme and a quote from scripture on the same theme, all focused on inspiration, reflection, and self-improvement. 50 footnotes explain difficult wording, and an index for play titles, subjects, and scriptures make this a useful resource for talks and lessons, as well as for personal study.” A perfect Christmas gift! Set some self-improvement goals for 2017 and this can help you.

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Shakespeare’s Best Female Character

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-2-54-27-pmShe’s in a poem that’s rarely read. Not only is she Shakespeare’s best female character, she’s his second best character overall (darn you, Hamlet!). She’s Lucrece, of the long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Two things especially impress me about her. The first is right before the criminal act of the title, when she attempts to persuade her attacker not to do it. She does not, however, say what might come to mind first in that situation, like saying that it’s cruel and selfish and hurts an innocent person. She actually improvises a compelling bit of oratory that appeals to his point of view, essentially warning him about the unintended consequences this act will have on his political career. Quite clever.

But after it happens, most of the rest of the story takes place inside her head, as she mentally soliloquizes about her situation for dozens of pages. She throws out one apostrophic lament after another, addressing her impassioned complaints to fate, lust, the gods, etc. Her thoughts here go far deeper than just depression (though, obviously, that’s a big feature) as she waxes profound about the nature of life and the world in a frenzy of philosophy that would make the Prince of Denmark jealous. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s truly and undeniably great writing.

More than once while reading it, I marveled at the depth of detailed world building that Shakespeare achieved in the mind of this one woman, and often wished that the reader could have met her under better circumstances.

 

Patrick Stewart Performs Shakespeare’s “This Sceptered Isle” Speech

I like each of the four versions in this video, but the final one–starting at 5:35 and delivered by Patrick Stewart, from the Richard II segment of The Hollow Crown–really gives me chills.

Two Great Shakespeare Documentaries

Miramax recently put online their “Shakespeare in the Classroom” feature, produced as part of the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. This is great news for teachers whose VHS copies died long ago. The 45-minute intro to the Bard has the cast doing the heavy lifting, with enough scenes from the film that it’s especially useful for illustrating Romeo and Juliet, though any Shakespeare unit benefits from it. Also, check out how stupid young Ben Affleck looks with that goatee.

Sadly, just the opposite has happened to the great four-hour documentary In Search of Shakespeare (really, four episodes of an hour each). Any copy of it on YouTube is being deleted. It’s worth your time to track down a copy.

One major strain of thought in it is an attempt to show that Will was a closet Catholic, and I have to admit, they marshal quite an impressive bit of evidence for it. I also enjoyed the host–his boyish enthusiasm for every scene really kept me drawn in. In between scenes, too, this film has more beautiful, lush shots of the English countryside than you’d expect from an actual documentary about the English countryside. Just a gorgeous work.

“Relatable” Reading

There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.

If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)

There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.

The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.

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9 Blue Jokes in Shakespeare That Made Me Laugh

I admit, these juvenile gags gave me a giggle, and I kept track of them in my notes.  In chronological order:

#9. Guys get teased about someone sleeping with their mother.

Shakespeare is full of practical life advice. Like this: let’s say you’ve been secretly sleeping with some powerful female executive, which would really cause a scandal if revealed, because you’re black.

But then she gets pregnant and the baby comes out black, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that one. Then, her two spoiled brat sons start whining to you that your little scandal has ruined mom’s career. What’s a guy to do?

Don’t worry, Shakespeare’s got you covered:

Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother.

–Titus Andronicus, Act IV, Scene 2, emphasis added

That’s right: tease the jerks about it. When Chiron says, “Thou hast undone out mother,” he means that Aaron has spoiled their mother’s reputation. Perhaps Titus Andronicus is set in Mississippi. But Aaron replies with one of those clever plays on words that Shakespeare is so famous for. Aaron’s response also uses the word “done,” but here it means…something more literal.

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Every Play By Shakespeare, Ranked And Graded

Last year I read everything Shakespeare wrote. Here now are my final notes on the plays.  The grades only represent how much I enjoyed reading each work; they are not meant to be an objective measure of quality:

 

D

38. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Almost a total loss. There are a few cute parts and clever lines, but this juvenile, obvious mess of a play is clearly the work of someone still getting the hang of playwriting.  I’m not one to judge past works by present standards, but the casual misogyny of the conclusion is jaw-droppingly awful.

37. Pericles

Nearly as bad as Two Gentlemen. Yes, the last act has some very nice stuff, and I actually liked Act IV, but the first three acts are so wretched they almost seem purposely bad. At one point, a character remarks on how poor his speaking is.  A meta joke?

36. The Two Noble Kinsmen

This late work is far more complexly plotted and artfully written than the two plays above, but while those areas are much more competent, this play suffers from an identity crisis. Too light to be tragic and too violent to be comedy, this one also has little to say about human nature, an unforgivable sin for Shakespeare.

35. The Merry Wives of Windsor

A star vehicle for a great but minor character from other plays—Sir John Falstaff—this play is no different from a thousand other vanity project spinoffs: it loses the original charm completely.  Still, there are quite a few funny, if lowbrow, jokes here.

34. The Taming of the Shrew

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King Lear Reimagined As a Band of Five

In my project of reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year (currently at 33 down, 5 to go), I read King Lear for a second time.  Something that struck me is just how complementary the five most sympathetic male characters are.  I was reminded of the Five Man Band trope, which shows itself in numerous stories and films.

I think a modern movie or TV series based on Lear’s five man band could be quite good.  Picture an ongoing series of conflicts in a large story arc, where their dynamic strengths and weaknesses both contribute to their success while often hindering them (not very original, that), could make for excellent episodic storytelling.

Consider these character notes:

Lear: Out of touch with reality from betrayal brought on by his own shallow pride when (he was younger, here).  When lucid, he’s brilliant and fierce, though wracked with remorse.  Often, though, he falls victim to fugues of emotional breakdown.  Fallen from a position of power before the story started.

Kent: Disguised, unknown to Lear: serves Lear despite Lear foolishly hurting him in an earlier wrath (years before, in our version), before insanity.  Wants to save the old man; doesn’t (consciously) blame him for the assault and subsequent bad fortune.  Loves Lear from empathy for the role fate has played in his fall, and from seeing him used and abused by those he loved and trusted.  Has to balance desire to protect and nurture this father-figure with occasionally dealing with repressed anger over the suffering he endured at his hands–though, again, he doesn’t hold Lear fully responsible for his actions.

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Shakespeare’s Histories Are Pretty Gangsta

Betrayal.  Revenge.  Conspiracy.  Murdering your way up the ladder of power.  People usually associate these plot elements with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but I see them operate most strongly in his histories.  That’s one reason why those tend to be my favorite of his works.

Besides just being The Sopranos on an Elizabethan stage, the language here is where Shakespeare gets the most deliciously vicious.

Consider some of the lesser history plays.  Even there, the dialogue tends to be enough to make one’s blood boil.

Henry VI, Part II takes us into the War of the Roses, which was also the historical basis for Game of Thrones, so you know this’ll be full of politically venomous mayhem:

And even now my burthen’d heart would break,
Should I not curse them. Poison be their drink!
Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!
Their sweetest shade a grove of cypress trees!
Their chiefest prospect murdering basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ sting!
Their music frightful as the serpent’s hiss,
And boding screech-owls make the concert full!
All the foul terrors in dark-seated hell—  (III.2.320-328)

And this one has my favorite lines of all in Shakespeare’s early plays:

Upon thy eye-balls murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world.  (III.2.49-50)

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College Textbooks

A recent article includes college textbooks among the biggest consumer rip offs in America.

Yup.

Releasing superfluous new editions is a favorite trick of publishers.

Why do we need brand new algebra books?  Has there been some major breakthrough in the field of algebra lately?  Some paradigm-shifting, cutting-edge research totally redefined that field and now the algebra books from 2010 are hopelessly obsolete?

Ditto for Shakespeare.  What could possibly cause a legitimate demand for new editions of Shakespeare?  It’s not like he’s written anything new lately.  We could literally use the same Shakespeare textbooks we had 300 years ago.

Two Shakespeare Quotes Dissing School

Some people may think Shakespeare is difficult, elitist, old-fashioned, or whatever else they don’t like, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Like all permanently classic works–Mozart’s music, the Bible, The Simpsons–Shakespeare endures precisely because he’s the opposite of all those things.  Shakespeare speaks the truth of real, universal human experience so powerfully and honestly that he makes us see life more fully. 

Case in point: Shakespeare had no illusions that school was fun or popular.  He makes fun of how much kids hate school.  See?  Hundreds of years later, and people are basically the same. 

I recently finished reading Henry IV, Part 2, which wasn’t nearly as good as the other three plays in that series, but it did have one line that I really loved.  In act IV, scene 2, after being tricked into a truce by the prince, some rebels report that their armies have disbanded.  One leader tells the others just how quickly the soldiers have gone home after hearing the news:

My lord, our army is dispersed already;

Like youthful steers unyoked, they take their courses

East, west, north, south; or, like a school broke up,

Each hurries toward his home and sporting-place.

Heh.  That information could be visualized like this:

Things that run away quickly

A stressed out army after peace is declared

Farm animals after being unchained

Boys leaving school

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I Hate Romeo

I recently finished teaching Romeo and Juliet to my freshmen classes. This is the first time in several years that I’ve read this play, and it instantly brought back one very big reaction: I hate Romeo. He’s a wimpy jerk. Though there could be many more, five examples from the text will suffice to make the case:

We first hear about Romeo when his friend and parents are talking about how worried they are about him. Romeo’s father says that the boy has been moping around all night, sighing and feeling sorry for himself, then locking himself in his room all day, with the windows blocked out:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,

With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew.

Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;

But all so soon as the all-cheering sun

Should in the furthest east begin to draw

The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,

Away from the light steals home my heavy son,

And private in his chamber pens himself,

Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out

And makes himself an artificial night:

where, I believe, he paints his fingernails black, listens to emo music, and sits in a corner cutting himself.

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