Monday, November 14, 2022

Art Note: John Everett Millais's Ophelia

Millais, John Everett. Ophelia. 1851–1852.  Oil on canvas. Tate Britain [formerly known as the Tate Gallery {and, before that, known as the National Gallery of British Art}]. (and elsewhere).

Hamlet wears black and carries a skull.  Ophelia is surrounded by flowers.  Lady Macbeth looks like the kind of person you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.

All that is right, right?  But how do you know?

Well, sure, you could read the plays carefully, noting every line and every nuance of every line.  Or you could let artists throughout art history do the work for you!

Let’s start with Ophelia, who has received a great deal of artistic attention over the centuries.  The top contender for “Most Recognized Portrait of Ophelia” is probably the one by John Everett Millais.

The painting visualizes a scene that is not actually put on stage in Shakespeare’s play.  It’s a visualization of Queen Gertrude’s “willow” speech reporting Ophelia’s death to King Gertrude and to Ophelia’s brother Laertes.  Here are a few key sections from that speech:

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make.
. . . . . .
[Then she] fell in the weeping brook.  Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (IV.vii.165ff, passim)

Let’s take a moment to paraphrase Gertrude’s speech.  “You know where that willow over the brook is?  Well, Ophelia went there and made a bunch of daisy chains with all sorts of flowers (not just daisies).  Then she fell in, singing all sorts of hits from the ’80s all the time.  And it looked like it would be all right for a moment—you know how your swimming suit is full of bubbles when you first get in the pool?  But it didn’t take long for her clothes to fill with water and drag her down to the bottom.  And when they did, she died.”

This painting picks all those details up and gives them, in words from another Shakespeare play, “a local habitation and a name.”  It fixes the lyricism of Gertrude’s speech in a specific image we can all contemplate.  The willow is there—if we think of the brook as flowing from right to left, she’s about to float under it; if she’s heading downstream feet-first (the order in which the images are presented in the text), she’s just passed under it.  The garlands are there—notice one woven together as a laurel crown floating near Ophelia’s right foot.  Either it’s following her downstream or it’s proceeding her.  The singing might be there in that expression on Ophelia’s face—or it might not. There’s ambiguity in what her open mouth portrays.  But there’s less ambiguity in the garments that are also there.  They are clearly getting “heavy with their drink”—mostly around the waist at the moment the picture portrays, but we can imagine the currently-floating skirt of the dress filling with water and eventually bringing Ophelia fully under.

You may think I’m making too much of the ambiguity about which way the water’s flowing and whether Ophelia is singing and what I mean by the “eventually” of Ophelia’s drowning, but those are all important components of the painting.

In a recent Twitter poll, more people thought the brook is flowing to the left (i.e., Ophelia is floating headfirst down the stream) than the other options. And some respondents were pretty vehement about it!

Why does it matter which way the brook is flowing?  Frankly, it doesn’t.  But that’s kind of the point.  When Laurence Olivier made a film of Hamlet in 1948, he provided images of Ophelia drowning while Gertrude’s speech plays in voiceover.  (As a side note, not all films of Hamlet show Ophelia at this point—Kenneth Branagh doesn’t—apart from a quick image of Ophelia already drowned; Franco Zeffirelli does—for a few seconds . . . from a great distance.)  Olivier deliberately appropriates Millais’ vision of Ophelia, but he makes some changes.  Olivier’s film is filmed in black and white, which clearly mutes the vibrant colors Millais uses.  And Ophelia’s feet are to the left in Olivier’s film (though I don’t know that that’s a significant change).  And she’s floating feetfirst down the stream:

That might not be a change from Millais’ painting, but it is a decision that an artist in film made based on the vision of an artist in paint.  And it matters!  It matters because Millais’ painting is a snapshot—the same way Gertrude’s speech is a snapshot.  Notice that (despite my paraphrase) Gertrude doesn’t say “She died.”  She says “But long it could not be . . .”  She’s holding Ophelia in an indeterminate position.  She’s still alive, and she won’t be alive long, and it won’t be long until she’s not alive . . . but she’s not actually declared dead in Gertrude’s speech.  Gertrude just says “long it could not be till . . . death.”


Millais is doing the same.  We don’t know which way the brook flows because it doesn’t matter in Millais.  He wants us to have the suspense of the alternatives.  Ophelia becomes a Schrödinger’s cat of sorts.  In Schrödinger’s thought experiment, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive.  It has to do with the uncertainty principle and quantum physics—and you can find someone better qualified to explain it to you.  But in terms of art, we have Ophelia simultaneously dead and alive in this painting.


In the same way, we don’t know whether Ophelia is singing.  She could be singing—or we could imaging her mouth being open to take her very last breath.


In the Olivier film, Ophelia floats past the camera (feetfirst, from right to left, in black and white).  Then the camera pans to catch up with her, and we just see some garlands floating downstream and under the water.  Olivier can’t stop the film—he has to go on to tell the rest of the story.  Millais has the . . . shall we call it a luxury?  Millais has the luxury to show us one slice of Ophelia’s life without reaching the conclusion—however inevitable that conclusion will be.

Links: The Painting at Tate Britain.

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Thursday, September 8, 2022

One More Calvin & Hobbes & Shakespeare

Watterson, Bill. "Whither Goest Thou, Young Rogue?" The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. 3 vols. Vol. 3: 1992-1995.
Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005. 3 May 1992. 42.

Remember when Robin Williams gave us some Shakespeare-esque language in Mork and Mindy (for which, q.v.)? Here, Bill Waterson does the same.

I'm very fond of Calvin & Hobbes, but I don't think the punchline here really pays off. Calvin seems to think that cop shows are full of highfalutin language—like . . . Shakespeare plays are?

It also strikes me as a bit strange that Calvin, complaining about a lack of real dialogue in the show, begins his complaint with "Holy Schlamoly." Perhaps his perspective on realistic dialogue is a bit skewed.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Calvin, Hobbes, and Lear

Watterson, Bill. "Uh Oh." The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. 3 vols. Vol. 3: 1992-1995. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005. 3 May 1992. 10.

I've often complained that Bill Watterson doesn't work enough Shakespeare in to his Calvin and Hobbes comic.

He does cover the "To be or not to be" soliloquy" (for which, q.v.), but not much else.

But what do you think of this one?  It seems like a pretty clear allusion to King Lear—including the "Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here" of Act III, scene iv.

Let's tune in to see what happens (click on the image below to enlarge it).

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Friday, August 12, 2022

A Little Touch of Harry in 30 Rock

"Gentleman's Intermission." By Tina Fey and John Riggi. Perf. Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, and Alec Baldwin. Dir. Don Scardino. 30 Rock. Season 5, episode 6. NBC. 4 November 2010. DVD. Ushe, 2020.

The last time I wrote about 30 Rock, it was for the Macbeth (for which, q.v.). At that point, I didn't know much about the show at all. But I've been recently making my way through the entire brilliant, clever, compelling series.

And that's when I found a reference to Prince Hal!

The subplot—well, one of the subplots—of this episode involves the actor Tracy Jordan being upset because the video obituary NBC put together for him (just in case one might be needed on short notice) shows him as being extremely foolish in a number of ways. That's not surprising. But he decides to turn his life around, which is surprising.

That's when Jack Donaghy talks about how Prince Hal was able to change his reputation:

Once again, Shakespeare proves himself not to need to be made relevant—he's relevant already! He's relevant still!  Age cannot wither him nor custom stale his infinite variety!

Note: My favorite part of the clip is Tracy Jordan playing Prince Hal in a Central Park production of 1 Henry IV.

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Book Note: Midsummer Knight

Rogers, Gregory. Midsummer Knight. New Milford: A Neal Porter Book (Roaring Brook Press), 2006.

When we last saw our ursine hero at the end of The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard (for which, q.v.) he was drifting down the Thames—out of danger, but also out of the eponymous Boy's life.

Midsummer Knight—not quite a sequel / more like a companion book—follows the bear downstream where he enters a mysterious forest, gets shrunk to a tiny size, and meets a bunch of fairies—many of whom look almost exactly like the characters in The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard—just with fairy wings.

Eventually, the wingéd Boy and the shrunkén Bear discover that the Fairy Queen has been imprisoned—with a fairy version of the Baron from the first book. But they only discover this by being thrown into prison themselves! And who does the throwing? Fairy / Bumblebee William Shakespeare!

Midsummer Knight is another wordless book, which adds to the complexity of the narrative. Here are a few pages from about midway through:

I'm not sure why Shakespeare has to be the bad guy in these books (he—if it is he—is also a bad guy in The Hero of Little Street, the third in the set), but there you have it.

I hope this whets your appetite for tracking down the book and reading the rest of it!

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Bonus Images from The Hero of Little Street, in which the boy meets the dog from the painting The Arnolfini Marriage and they go on an adventure which includes the Shakespeare-looking character making stray dogs into sausages:

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Book Note: The Dark Lady

Akala. The Dark Lady. London: Hodder Children's Books, 2021.

This one is odd and interesting. It's a young adult novel set in Shakespeare's day. Our protagonist, Henry, lives with Matthew and Mary, who are brother and sister. Their mother, Agnes, is Henry's enemy. Joan, the other member of the household, was Henry's mother's friend—but Henry's mother is gone . . . either dead or in Venice.

Henry, Matthew, and Mary are pickpockets and thieves. On the gritty, smelly streets of Elizabethan London, that's the only way they think they can survive.

Henry's mother is from Africa (he's often dismissively called "Moor"), and his father is from England (as far as we can deduce). This brings some really interesting and frequently-overlooked elements to the plot.

And then we bring in the magic. No, not magical realism—really real magic. Joan and Agnes are powerful witches; Henry is able to translate any text—even hieroglyphs—into English.

And that's when things get weird.

Henry and Mary are captured when trying to rob a Duke's home, and the Duke turns out to be a member of a secret society that is trying to translated everything into English (for no clearly-discernible reason). All the while, Henry has dreams of a dark lady—his mother. And those sections are interspersed with Othello references that are hard to work out and fit into the plot.

And that's where my summary stops. It's an odd, interesting book that is well worth a read. Let me provide you with a sample. In this chapter, Henry travels to the secret society's meeting . . . and finds Shakespeare there!


The author is Kingslee James McLean Daley, who performs and writes under the name Akala (see his material here). He's a hip-hop artist who has had a lot to say about hip-hop and Shakespeare. If you're wanting more, you can see his Ted Talk on the subject below.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Rare Shakespeare Manuscript Stolen . . . in 1939 . . . in Fast and Loose

Fast and Loose
. Dir. Edwin L. Marin. Perf. Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell, and Reginald Owen. 1939. DVD. Warner Archive, 2013.

Fast and Loose is the second of three films in the Fast movie franchise: Fast Company, Fast and Loose, and Fast and Furious (Note: Not The Fast and the Furious—just Fast and Furious. Each of the films features the husband and wife rare books dealers / amateur detectives team Joel and Garda Sloane (played by different actors in each of the three films).
I'm fond of this film (though the first one is admittedly better)—and, naturally enough, my interest lies primarily in its use of Shakespeare. Here, the Maltese falcon (if you will) of the film is a Shakespeare manuscript. All we learn about the manuscript is that it's "the only scrap of Shakespeare manuscript in the whole world . . . a little throwaway worth about half a million dollars." From the one brief glance of the manuscript that the film supplies, we can tell it isn't Hand D from the manuscript of the play Sir Thomas More (you can find a tiny bit more about that play and Hand D here, and if you really want to go down a rabbit hole—including lots of conspiracy claims related to the passages written by Hand D—go ahead and Google something like "Is Hand D Shakespeare's?" . . . and good luck to you).

As so often happens, I appear to have digresses. So let's just head back to the film, shall we?

Here's a bit of the Shakespeare-related material. Take a gander:

That sets the stage for an intriguing detective story. Yes, the manuscript is stolen. But no, it isn't—it was a forgery. Or was it? And then we get some suspects. And then we get some murders. All in all, it's a good detective film.

But let's take a closer look at the glimpse of the manuscript (see the image below; click on it to enlarge it). I've zoomed in as close as I can on two devices, and I've even tried projecting it on a screen in one of our classrooms, but all I can make out is an exchange of dialogue between two people, and most of it seems to be in prose. Are any of our paleographers out there able to decipher the handwriting? Are any of our film historians able to give us any insight?

Each of the films offers a fun romp through the rare book world, and I recommend them.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Book Note: Cue for Treason

Trease, Geoffrey. Cue for Treason. New York: Vanguard Press, n.d. [written in 1940; this edition—the fourth printing, printed in the U.S.A. by H. Wolff, New York—1941].

Cue for Treason is a Shakespeare-related Young Adult Novel avant la lettre. I enjoyed reading it in 2022; I imagine readers in 1940 enjoyed it as well.

I tracked this down because of the Shakespeare connection—by which, I mean the biographical connection to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a character in the book, and I wanted to see how he was characterized.

The plot involves Peter Brownrigg, a young boy who runs away from his village because he threw a rock at Sir Philip Morton, a local landowner who is enclosing the traditional village grazing grounds, and fears execution. He meets up with a troupe of traveling players (who are putting on Richard III), and he hides in a box backstage. It turns out the box is the prop coffin that represents the corpse of Henry VI, and it's brought onstage just when Sir Philip's men are searching backstage.

Soon, he's on he way with the friendly troupe. He has some skill in singing, so he's made a player.  The troupe encounters another search party, and Peter is found! But the search party doesn't care. It turns out that they're searching for a young woman who has run away because she was being forced to marry someone she doesn't like.  [Spoiler (but probably not a very big one): The man in question is Sir Philip!]

Soon, another young boy asks to join the troupe. He's very good at playing the female roles, so he's hired (and this makes Peter very jealous).

[Spoiler (again, you probably saw this coming): He (going under the name Kit Kirkstone) turns out to be She—the young woman who ran away. Her name is Katharine Russel, and she goes by Kit whether people think she's a boy or a girl.

Hijinks Ensue.

My interest in starting the book was to find out what Shakespeare's character was like, so let me give you a sample of that portion (from which you can also glean the quality of the writing and the level of attention to historical detail). The two new members of the acting troupe don't meet him until they get to London, but here's what happens when they do (I'm giving you the end of the chapter where they realize that the kind man they've been talking to is Shakespeare himself and the beginning of the next chapter):

And now we'll jump to the next chapter, but not before I fill in the plot! In the rest of that chapter, Kit is ready to debut as Juliet . . . until she suddenly panics and runs away. Peter has to take on the role, and his nervousness about it only increases when he sees his enemy Sir Philip in the audience! But Sir Philip doesn't recognize him—partly because he's able to imitate Kit imitating Juliet so well.
I'm giving you the entirety of the next chapter, but if you want to jump straight to the Shakespeare part, you can start with the last line on page 112.

Shakespeare is portrayed in a significantly sympathetic light. He's a man with greater-than-normal insight into the human condition.

My interest in the novel started with its portrayal of Shakespeare, but it didn't stop there. I was completely caught up in the rest of the plot, in which Peter and Kit are intent on tracking down a manuscript of Henry V that was stolen from Peter. In their attempt to get it back, they learn of a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.

Suspenseful Adventures (à la Treasure Island) Ensue.

I won't tell you more about the plot, but I will tell you that I tore through the rest of the book to see where our protagonists would end up and whether Queen Elizabeth I would be safe.

The book reminds me of the Shakespeare's Spy series by Gary Blackwood—which I'm just now realizing I never wrote about on this blog! I'll rectify that soon.

In the meantime, track down a copy of Cue for Treason and read it yourself—or recommend it to your favorite high schooler who likes Shakespeare. Better yet, be that high schooler who likes Shakespeare, and read this book!

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Note: The one on the left is expensive; the one on the right considerably cheaper.

Additional Note: I was temped to call this post "Cue Trease on Cue for Treason." You know—because of the author's last name.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Book Note: Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History

Manzer, Paul Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History. London: Bloomsbury Arden ws, 2015.

I've had my eye on this book for some time, but it was on the dear side for someone with Quarto tastes and a Dover Thrift Edition budget. But I finally convinced a library to buy it.

And I don't regret that, though I am a bit disappointed. I really wanted more anecdotes and less analysis. And I really wanted to track down an anecdote about the blinding scene in a production of King Lear that used (unsuccessfully) a sheep's eyeball as a prop—vile jelly indeed!

But that's what we have: an interesting collection of theatrical anecdotes dating back through the ages to Shakespeare's day and some serious scholarly commentary on them. All the anecdotes relate to just five plays—Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and Macbeth.

For some of them, I appreciate the commentary as much as the anecdote. For example, here's an old saw that's been told and retold many times before—the "which actor is the more drunk" trope:

In the Hamlet chapter, we have a delightful anecdote or two about Guildenstern's off-script response to Hamlet's demands that he play on the pipe:

Oh, I would have loved to have been there for that first one. It seems like a show could recover from that and move on successfully—the other one, not so much.

Finally, we have an anecdote told by Peter Bowles which is too good not to be true (though it seems not to be true):

The book is worth reading, but, again, I'd like to have a full collection of theatrical anecdotes—and ones from many more plays than are represented here.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest