Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Swan Theatre, The Isle of Dogs, and The Interview

Jonson, Ben, and Thomas Nashe. The Isle of Dogs. N.p.: N.p., 1597.

In the summer of 1597, Ben Johnson, Thomas Nashe, and a number of players got in very hot water indeed. They had just performed The Isle of Dogs, and such was the furor over it that the Swan Theatre, where it was preformed, was closed—permanently.

No one is quite sure what specifically gave so much offense, but it is clear that it deeply offended the government in general and Queen Elizabeth I in particular—indeed, it may have made fun of the King of Poland (and / or his ambassador) and Queen Elizabeth herself. The Lost Play Database has complied a number of important documents relevant to the case, and they give the feeling that people are even afraid to talk about the play, much less provide specifics about the outrage it spawned.

As my grandmother used to say, I told you that to tell you this.

In the winter of 2014, a film called The Interview was cancelled by Sony Pictures. About that film, we know a great deal. Its plot involves coercing talk show hosts who have landed an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un into attempting to assassinate him in some way during the interview.

What's fascinating is that the film would probably not have caused such a ruckus if its subject had been a non-contemporary world leader. What if the show were set in the 1940s and the interviewers were asked to assassinate Hitler? How about setting the play in the future and having a more generalized world leader as its subject? What about making the conspirators Elizabethan Catholic plotters interviewing Queen Elizabeth I as a pretext for an assassination attempt on her?

The contemporaneity of the two works caused the trouble. Shakespeare occasionally got himself into warm if not hot water (cf. the "I am Richard—know ye not that" episode), he largely avoided it by what we Shakespeare scholars like to call "The Thin Veil." By thinly veiling contemporary issues, Shakespeare was able to address them without causing such turmoil. After all, Shakespeare himself wrote a play about the assassination of a world leader whose succession was in question, yet 1599 (the year in which it was written and first performed) did not see the closing of the Globe Theatre; instead, it was one of Shakespeare most successful years.

Links: The Play at The Lost Plays Database.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Banquo's Chair: A Play in One Act

Croft-Cooke, Rupert. Banquo's Chair: A Play in One Act. London: H.F.W. Deane & Sons, 1930.

You may recall the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that dealt—not altogether obliquely—with Banquo's ghost (for which, q.v.).

With the help of an excellent librarian, I was able to track down the source material. It turned out to be a one-act play with the same title. The story is roughly the same, including the same cleverly twisting ending—but the ending works itself out slightly differently in the play.

I'm attaching images (click on them to enlarge them) of the last four pages of the play so that you can see the difference for yourself. And if you happen to direct any amateur dramatic societies, you might consider putting on this play—I think it is quite likely to please an audience!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

More Shakespearean Monkeys—Baboons, to be Precise

The Okavango Macbeth: A Chamber Opera. Libretto by Alexander McCall Smith. Comp. Tom Cunningham. Dir. Nicholas Ellenbogen. Perf. Mr. McFall's Chamber Orchestra and Edinburgh Studio Opera Chorus. 22-23 April 2011. Delphian, 2011. CD.

No, I'm not on about the infinite monkeys alluded to in Douglas Adams (for which, q.v.). Nor do I refer to the Monkeys that did Romeo and Juliet (for which, q.v.). No, I'm talking about The Okavango Macbeth.

"What's The Okavango Macbeth?" I hear you asking. Ah, well, there's the rub. I chanced upon our library's holdings of an audio recording of this opera (for it is an opera) while teaching the English majors at my institution the finer points of research. Why I was trying the search term "baboon" (for it is about baboons) escapes me for a moment, but it may have had something to do with Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey's Tale, about which we had just been talking. How Macbeth got in there (for it is about Macbeth) is also something of a mystery, but I had Macbeth on my mind and was showing the class how to use some of the Boolean operators to reduce a result list of thousands down to a manageable few dozen.

In any case, we chanced upon a title that seemed to have to do with Macbeth even though the Library of Congress subject heading was "Baboons -- Songs and Music." My jaw dropped as I realized that I had once heard of this show and that I could (if I wished) listen to it right then and there with my entire class.

I didn't, of course, but I did manage to put in on later. In fact, it’s quite good—both the libretto and the music are fairly deep and haunting. The author of the Libretto is Alexander McCall Smith—he of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The work is set in Botswana—that of the Okavango River Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve.

Here are the program notes' summary of the first three acts (there are four in all):
Act One
The animals recall the time when all lived together in peace but then came drought and famine—greed was born.  The animals blame the baboons.
Act Two
The primatologists set up camp in the delta and agree that they will watch the baboons but never interfere.  The baboons then emerge and observe the humans–such strange, unfinished creatures–and agree that they will watch but never interfere.  Two of them, Lady Macbeth and her friend, complain about the males and start scheming.  When Macbeth arrives, she flatters him, but he reminds her she must marry Duncan according to Baboon Law.  She urges Macbeth to kill Duncan.
Act Three
As evening approaches, the primatologist reflect on the nature of animal behavior.  Lady Macbeth consoles Duncan whose kingly responsibilities fall on his weary shoulders.  She lulls him to sleep.  With some difficulty, she encourages Macbeth to kill him.  The following morning, the primatologists come across the body of Duncan and discern evil in nature’s paradise.
There are a few scattered videos of pieces of performances available on YouTube. Here's one of an Act Four song entitled "Grubs First, then Ethics."

"Grubs First, then Ethics"

Affairs of state
And love and hate,
That keep the great
Awake at night,
Are from our sight
Grubs first, then ethics.
Beneath the ground

All fat and round
The grubs are found;
Prepare to eat
This lucious treat
Grubs first, then ethics.
The primate way
Can give no sway
To those who say
A leader strong
Will last for long
Grubs first, then ethics.
That's great, and it gives a good sense of the production. There's quite a bit of good humor there—and some particularly good voices.

A more serious scene (and one for which I can't find a video counterpart) involves an exchange between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.
Macbeth arrives.  Lady Macbeth’s friend withdraws discreetly.
Lady Macbeth:
My lord Macbeth is come,
The one who is all glorious,
In my eyes, O georgeous one,
My lover bright, in courage spun;
Who sends the leopard to his cave;
And in whose presence weak are brave,
Who takes the sun from out the sky,
And plucks the eagles as they fly
With talons drawn, and dashes them,
And dashes them, and dashes them.
Is that me whom you describe?
Am I so brave who once was . . .
Lady Macbeth:
Brave, and always was.
A man may think he’s
Something other
In the generous praise
Of a lover.
Lady Macbeth:
A woman sees the best in men,
A woman finds those depths often
Unseen by man himself.
Still, I am only . . .
Lady Macbeth:
Only one; you are the one and
Only one I think of
When I’m lonely.
I cannot be your suitor,
No matter how much
I love you;
No matter how much
I want you.
You cannot bear my children
Against baboon law.
Lady Macbeth:
Baboon law?  What is the law
But the way people have done things
They could have done
Otherwise if they had thought?
It is the law;
there is no more
to be said about it.
We cannot break
Nor lightly take it
Another way.
It is the law.
And the law says
Duncan, it is Duncan
Who will be your mate;
Duncan, the powerful,
Duncan, your destined
Lady Macbeth:
But I want you.
Me will kill a rival:
Do not ask me
To put my head upon a block.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him first, my lovely,
He will kill me.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him now, my honey,
I cannot do it.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him now, my darling.
He will kill me.
Lady Macbeth:
But he must sleep, all creatures sleep,
The mighty lion must also sleep
The leopards may by moonlight creep,
But they, too, sleep; but they, too, sleep.
And in this sleep where is his strength,
If in his sleep through night-time’s length,
He cannot see, he cannot hear?
And one who strikes need never fear
The strength of one who isn’t there.
I am not sure.
Lady Macbeth:
But I am sure, and you are strong;
This thing is not the act of one,
But that of two, of me, and you.
(Repeat as a duet)but he must sleep, etc.
and he must sleep, and they must sleep, and we must sleep.
I would really like to see a production in its entirety. And, with my preoccupation with Shakespeare in Africa, I'd like to explore any particularly African resonance that might be there (if any). In the meantime, it's astonishing to know that this exists and that, for at least some university libraries, a recording of the entire opera is only a click away. 

Click below to purchase the CD from
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Note: Y is for Yorick

Adams, Jennifer. Y is for Yorick: A Slightly Irreverent Shakespearean ABC Book for Grown-Ups. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2011.

I want to take a little time out from grading papers to call attention to a little volume I just obtained. I saw this in a used bookstore, and I just couldn't resist.

Y is for Yorick is a deliciously tongue-in-cheek Shakespearean alphabet book. Indeed, I think Yorick himself, known to be a fellow of infinite jest, would have been set on a roar by some of the pages—such as the image to the right. Any guesses as to who is illustrated there?

The book runs through the entire alphabet, repeating irresistible letters like O (Ophelia and Othello) and H (Hamlet, Henry V, and Henry VIII).  Even though it takes a few easy outs with Q (why Queen rather that Quickly, Quintus, or Quince?), X, and Z (ah, that whoreson Zed—that unnecessary letter!), it's quite enjoyable.

To give you a feel for the book, I'm providing the pages for B, I, and J.

There you have it—except to add that there are holidays coming up . . . and there are Shakespeare lovers out there . . . and people have a lot of wallets and purses . . . and they gotta buy something.

Click below to purchase the book from
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hamlet and Macbeth meet in Alfred Hitchcock Presents

"Banquo's Chair." By Francis M. Cockrell. Perf. Alfred Hitchcock, John Williams, Hilda Plowright, Max Adrian, George Dillon, Tom Dillon, Reginald Gardiner, Kenneth Haigh, and George Pelling. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Season 4, episode 29. NBC. 3 May 1959. DVD. Universal Studios, 2009.

Occasionally, I reward myself for finishing a particularly difficult bit of writing or a peculiarly large stack of grading by posting to Bardfilm. As you may be able to tell from the length between this post and the last one, I've had a fair bit of both kinds of work, and that's kept me from posting.

And that's unfortunate because, some time ago, I happened upon a marvelous episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that employs a trope from Macbeth for Hamletesque results, and I've desired to post about it ever since.  In this episode, a retired detective wants to crack a two-year-old unsolved case, and he resolves to go about it with—perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously—Hamlet’s idea in mind:
                                I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions.  (II.ii.588-93)
Most interestingly, he decides to use a device from Macbeth—the appearance of the ghost of Banquo—to trap the man he suspects of murdering his aunt. He invites the suspect to the aunt's old home, convinces the house's new owner to host a dinner party to which he brings a Shakespearean actor (which allows for some of the dinner conversation to turn, notably, to Hamlet) and the murder suspect. He also hires an actress to impersonate the suspect's aunt.

I've reduced the show to its absolute essentials in the clip below—minus any sort of thrilling twist that Hitchcock may or may not have provided at the show's end (no spoilers).  Enjoy!

Now that you've seen that, you may be wondering what happens next. The following clip is most certainly a spoiler, so do not watch it if you want to watch the entire episode yourself at some point. Additionally, see if you can anticipate any sort of Hitchcockian twist that might be coming.

Links: The Episode at the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Forthcoming: Romeo and Juliet in Harlem

Romeo and Juliet in Harlem. Dir. Aleta Chappelle. Perf. Harry Lennix, Aunjanue Ellis, and Jasmine Carmichael. 2014. TAG Films, Moon Shadow Films, not yet released.

Ah, the power of Bardfilm. No sooner do I lament the relative dearth of Shakespeare films given an African-American cultural setting (for which, q.v.) than the wheels start turning, resulting in Romeo and Juliet in Harlem.

The film seems to be making the rounds of the festivals at present, but there is a trailer, which gives a sense of what the film is doing:

We have a Romeo of Hispanic descent (thanks for the note of correction in the comment below) and a black Juliet in an adaptation (a film that keeps Shakespeare's language, as opposed to a derivative, which keeps Shakespeare's plot but abandons the language) set in Harlem. I'm very intrigued by the idea, and I gather than the film is an ultra-low budget endeavor (despite having a big name like Harry Lennix), which may explain some of the more amateurish aspects of the trailer.

In any case, I'll be working hard to find a venue to see this film—and to see what issues it deals with—particularly in terms of black / white race relations in the United States—which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a timely conversation to have right now.

Note:  If you're anywhere near Memphis on November 1, head to the Indie Memphis Filmfest for a screening of Romeo and Juliet in Harlem!

Update: The film is now available for rental at Vimeo!

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Deliver Us From Eva: A Film Derivative of The Taming of the Shrew

Deliver Us From Eva. Dir. Gary Hardwick. Perf. Gabrielle Union, L. L. Cool J, Essence Atkins. 2003. DVD. Universal Studios, 2003.

I wish there were more derivatives like this; it recasts Shakespeare in African-American culture. Unlike O, which, as far as I remember, involves African-American culture by way of contrast to white American culture, Deliver Us From Eva is a derivative of The Taming of the Shrew  that sets itself entirely in Black culture in America—or, rather, what passes in Hollywood as Black culture, which isn't quite the same thing.

I also wish this film were better. Even though it has L. L. Cool J, it falls flat. I think part of it is the overall interpretation of the story arc. The younger sisters need to get Eva (our Katherine analogue) out of the way so that they can enjoy their own relationships; the men in those relationships hire Ray to get her to fall in love with him, move away with him, and then be dumped by him in some faraway location. And the idea they all have in mind is that Eva is shrewish because (not to put too fine a point on it) she hasn't had a man sexually. Once she does, the shrewishness will be all gone. I feel that this is not a fair reading of Katherine or of women, and the film suffers as a result.

I've chosen three representative clips to give you a feel for the film. Please note that the material in them, even though I have done some editing to remove more objectionable content, may not be acceptable to all audiences.

Clip One: The men try to persuade Ray to date Eva.

Clip Two: Ray sees Eva's shrewishness at work in her job as health inspector. 

Clip Three: Ray asks Eva on a date.

I'd genuinely like to know your thoughts—and I'm particularly interested in an African-American perspective on this film. Does this reflect or undermine Black culture in America? Does the derivative work? What other Shakespeare plays should find African-American derivative versions? Please add your thoughts to the comments below!

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Note: The Daughter of Time

Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. New York: Scribner, 1995.

One of the last Shakespeare-related books on my summer reading list was Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. I was looking forward to it. She's a well-respected mystery author, the book is about Richard the Third, and I've heard reviews that adore the book and that revile it in equal measure.

My reaction was probably the worst that an author can hope for: Relative Indifference.

The general plot involves a detective in the police force lying in a hospital bed, feeling pretty sorry for himself. His friends try to interest him in historical mysteries, and, looking at the portrait of Richard and thinking that it couldn't represent the monster of received history, he starts on an amateur research project. The research goes very slowly, but the end result is a determination that Richard was not responsible for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower.

The problem is twofold. First, it's not a very interesting journey. It's a bit like Rear Window meets Oliver Stone's JFK—but without the suspense of either. Second, it's filled with specious conspiracy-theory reasoning. Yes, Shakespeare paints Richard III as worse than he probably was—that's a claim that can be made with various degrees of success and with varying levels of scholarly support along a continuum. But this book seems to be making the case that he was an angel, and it's basing the claim on inadequacies. Much of the reasoning is of this sort: "If that happened, then this certainly would have followed. But this didn't happen; therefore, that couldn't have happened." It's something of a non post hoc, ergo non propter hoc argument (for some Shakespeare-related information on the informal fallacies, q.v.). And it also says things like "Did you know that the Tower of London was a royal residence in the 1400s? It wasn't a prison at all!"  Well, yes, the Tower was a royal residence—but it was also a prison!  It can be (and was) both.

In a similar way, this book is both well-written and fairly dull, and readers shouldn't be swayed by its argument.

Click below to purchase the book from
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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jack Benny and Ronald Coleman Try their Hands at Othello

"Jack and Mary See Coleman's Movie." The Jack Benny Program. NBC. 2 February 1948. Radio.

From my earliest days, I've been a fan of Jack Benny. I remember many hours at the Headquarters Branch of the St. Louis County Library, listening to LPs and audio cassettes of old time radio programs—and always searching for more and more Jack Benny.

The dubious benefit of having all the advertising slogans of Lucky Strike Brand Cigarettes (L.S. / M.F.T.—It's Toasted!—Smoke a Lucky to Feel Your Level Best—Be Happy; Go Lucky!—et cetera) running periodically through my head is outweighed by the delight that the rest of the show occasions.

In 1948, Ronald Coleman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in A Double Life, the story of an actor who fears playing Othello because he may become murderously jealous.

I told you that to tell you this. Ronald Coleman and his wife Benita frequently appeared on The Jack Benny Program as the exasperated next-door neighbors of Jack Benny. The plot of a 1948 episode of the program centers on Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone's trip to the movies to see A Double Life.

I've extracted the part of the episode that has to do with Othello and placed it in the video below.  Ronald Coleman delivers the "By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in his hand" speech (V.ii.63ff), and Jack Benny shows him how to do it better.

The video images are from the 1911 silent film Desdemona (for which, q.v.), the Emil Jannings silent Othello (for which, q.v.), and from Janet Suzman's Othello (for which, q.v.). I realize the combination of the radio show's audio with these visuals is a bit surreal, but it's the easiest way for me to get the audio to you.

Links: A Double Life at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Great River Shakespeare Festival: Go. Just Go.

Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Mery Wives of Windsor. The Great River Shakespeare Festival. 26 June to 3 August 2014.

Yesterday, I managed to make a road trip to Winona, Minnesota (from the Twin Cities, a drive of just over two hours) to see two plays at The Great River Shakespeare Festival. And I regret nothing.

Every year, The Great River Shakespeare Festival gives the region professional, astounding, life-altering Shakespeare productions of the very highest quality, always rivaling and often superseding the offerings of the nearby metropolitan areas. In short, it is theatre that you should not miss.

Only a few days remain in the season, and they're very close to beating their all-time record for ticket sales. Drop everything and head to one of the shows. If you've never been, they're offering tickets at two for the of one. If you've been before and are bringing a friend who has never been, the same offer applies.

I just have time to make a few notes about the most amazing parts of the productions I saw. These are the points that go above and beyond the baseline of great acting, interesting direction, careful attention to the text, and clear and moving storytelling. These are the transcendent moments The Great River Shakespeare Festival provided.


I've seen whole handfuls of Hamlets, and I'm always interested in the directors' choices—but I'm not usually surprised by them. In this production, I was delightedly surprised on at least three occasions.

When Hamlet and Horatio have their first exchange, it's generally light, with his "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" delivered very flippantly. Horatio responds much more seriously, breaking through Hamlet's fa├žade of humor with the line "My lord, I came to see your father's funeral." At that point, Hamlet breaks down completely crying on Horatio's shoulder. It was surprising and very effective. We got the sense that there are greater depths to Hamlet's character that only Horatio can unlock. Hamlet staggered on to try to return to a light level with his crack about the funeral baked meats, but now the joke was covering up the pain rather than just a flippant remark.

When the Player King (played to perfection by Jonathan Gillard Daly) delivers his long speech on Hecuba, he paused briefly but significantly after the lines "for, lo! his sword, / Which was declining on the milky head / Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' the air to stick." He glanced ever-so-slightly toward Hamlet, and we got a sense that this was part of Hamlet's problem—that his plan for vengeance is stuck at this point. Again, there was some depth there, and a sense that the Player King knew more than we might expect him to.

When Hamlet comes across Claudius at prayer, he picks up Claudius' own sword as he contemplates dispatching him then and there. Later, he exits with the sword. After Claudius concludes with "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: / Words without thoughts never to heaven go," he notices the missing sword and looks about for it perplexedly. I don't know whether this was the director's intention or not, but I suddenly wondered whether a biblical allusion was at work. The story of Saul and David in the cave has some intriguing parallels to the scene:
When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats' Rocks. And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. And the men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.’” Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's robe. And afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord's anointed.” So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way. Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed.’ 11 See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it.” (1 Samuel 24:1-11)
I find the possibilities there very interesting. David doesn't take Saul's life out of respect for the Lord's anointed; Hamlet doesn't take Claudius' life out of disrespect for the usurper. That moment along has given me much food for thought.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

This was a remarkable production. I can't enumerate the points that were done so brilliantly—there were just too many of them—but the best thing about the production (besides the incredible harmony of the acting pair of Doug Scholz-Carlson and Christopher Gerson) was its pacing. Unlike every other production of the play I've seen, this one deals with the material with a light, fast touch. It's perfect. The audience gets everything—it's enunciated clearly and played with dazzlingly deft blows of language—but nothing gets bogged down. As a result, the mix of humor and philosophy comes through much more powerfully.

Additionally, the Great River Shakespeare Fest, year after year, produces high-quality videos related to its productions. These are, without exception, remarkable, interesting, humorous, and serious. Witness, for example, "Kids Explain Shakespeare's Hamlet":

If you're anywhere near Winona, Minnesota—by which I mean within a roughly three hundred mile radius—it is completely worth heading to The Great River Shakespeare Festival. Go there. Go there now. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Note: Not Hamlet

Suzman, Janet. Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama. London: Oberon Books, 2012.

I read this book some time ago and set it in a pile of things to make a few notes about. It's a delightful excursion into the history of women in the theatre by a marvelous woman of the the theatre. I like Janet Suzman best not for her Cleopatra but for her direction of an Othello produced in South Africa under Apartheid (for which, q.v.).

I like this book best not for its contents (which are quite good) but for the section entitled "A Rogue Prologue:  A Heartfelt Plea for a Bit of Common Sense." In it, she takes on the authorship doubters, whom she calls "time-wasters" (14), and the film Anonymous (for which, q.v.).

She goes on at considerable length, but I'd like to give you all just a quick sample of her thoughts and her style
In 2011 a murky and far-fetched film was released —Sony-backed, shame on them wasting their money on
such a bad subject—called Anonymous, the invented story of how this poor put-upon Earl of Oxford was the teal author of the plays. No facts to back it up, just wild submissions and some quite good cinematography of the gloomy historical documentary kind. Some months before seeing it, I had been invited to a debate before it went on release, where incidentally it received universal critical trouncings. Professor Stanley Wells, the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, and Professor Michael Dobson of The Shakespeare Institute and the University of Birmingham were present to defend William. To traduce William were present the director of the film, Roland Emmerich (bet they couldn’t find a British director to do the hatchet job), a distant descendant of the Earl’s, and a little man from a small but perfectly misguided suburban university which gives degrees in maligning Shakespeare and whose name I have forgotten . . . .

Roughly this is how their batty film version goes: Oxford was always secretly writing plays, having written Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was about eight years old and henceforth entranced with his own prodigiousness, he continued in secret. But how was he to get these works into the playhouses without revealing his blue-blood? The Queen would have had him topped had she known. Thus Oxford, desperate for a theatrical conduit, singles out Ben Jonson, playwright, needing money for a reason I cannot now recall, and Ben is duly blackmailed and sworn to silence—a brilliant writer libeled beyond recognition.

Oxford could now feed his plays through Jonson’s bribed hands to reach the actors. However, one day a doltish and illiterate member of the acting company—justify an illiterate actor to me please—namely one William Shakespeare, finds out about the deception and so poor Ben has to pay him clandestinely, courtesy of the rich earl, to keep his mouth shut. Oh, and for the use of his nice name. Thus it is that he, dim-witted Will, got all the kudos for the huge success of these plays. We should be thankful that comical Will Kempe wasn’t chosen as the dupe in this film—a close call; consider the dull thud of The Royal Kempe Company.

Has it never occurred to this bunch of dreamers how such a daft plot, might work in a busy theatre company? Their scenario only works off torture and bribery anyway. There wouldn’t be enough money in the universe to stop all the actors in a company from blabbing till Doomsday, let alone the masses of other people involved in a theatre company; the tirers delivering head dresses, the sewing women mending torn costumes, the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers. No whispers and sniggers about such a plonking modus operandi, a deception stretching over twenty-five years? Did this doltish William of theirs never crow in his cups about his secret benefactor and his growing wealth? Did the Company never notice how illiterate Will had suddenly turned scribe, brandishing inky cue-sheets under their noses, scribbly fingers freshly stained? Did no one ever mark how rewrites—for rewrites there surely were—happened only after this William returned from a loo-break? We must assume the author earl was in the building that day skulking about in the gods ready for consultation. You think the cleaning-woman didn’t spot him as she swept up the vomit and hazelnut shells? A conspiracy, you understand, demands silence from everyone; unattainable in a theatre company, with skittering boys and prying eyes all on the loose in a building with no doors to shut on secrets. If they didn’t blab they were inhuman, and actors are all human, that’s for sure.

It becomes increasingly evident that the Oxfordian view of human nature is just a touch—well, out of touch. What do people do? They gossip. Universally, they gossip. To this day and forever, they gossip. What makes Oxfordians think human nature has changed? A mystery. When all is said and done the reason why William Shakespeare’s plays remain as vibrant as ever is because human nature hasn’t changed; they tell us stories about recognisable human beings. All of them with natures like ours, some the size of giants, others our size, all of them recognisably us in extremis. These guys have badly lost the plot. (17-21)
She continues in that vein for some time. I found it awfully refreshing to hear the voice of a woman of the theatre—not a trained Shakespeare scholar but a vibrant, life-long participant in the theatre—telling it like it is—and was.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Note: Anyone But You

Askew, Kim, and Amy Helmes. Anyone But You. Avon: Merit Press, 2014.

Careful readers of the blog will remember a post on the "Twisted Lit" series of Shakespeare books (for which, q.v.). Well, they've released another one.

Anyone But You is the Twisted Lit. answer to Romeo and Juliet, and half of it is pretty interesting. I've read the book myself and I've talked to a member of its target audience, and we agree that the Romeo and Juliet sections are less than intriguing. The better half of the novel addresses a possible backstory for the feud.

In the novel, Romeo and Juliet (Roman and Gigi to us) come from rival Italian restauranteurs. That section is pretty straightforward—with the usual over-the-top current teen drama thrown in. It's also fairly dull. The backstory involves how they came to be rivals, and it's much more interesting. There's considerable back-and-forth between two boys growing up in Chicago between the World Wars. I won't give you more than that, because that's worth reading. But you might want to sip every other chapter until the last thirty pages of the book.

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Book Note: Shakespeare in America

Shakespeare in America: An Anthlogy from the Revolution to Now. Ed. James Shapiro. New York: Library of America, 2013.

Despite the paucity of posts, I've not been entirely idle this summer. I haven't seen too many films, but I've read a fair number of books, particularly in preparation for an American literature course I'll be teaching in the spring.

[Note: When they told me I'd be teaching the course, I said, "American Authors? This is gonna be the best day of my life." But I digress.]

Shakespeare in America is an anthology of Shakespeare-related material edited by the great author and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro. There's a wealth of magnificent material here (along with some genuinely awful offerings). Reviews of film and stage productions elbow poems commenting on Shakespeare plays and the man himself. Pieces by Nathaniel Hawthorn and Herman Melville bump up against vaudeville burlesques and philosophical works.

I wish that the book provided more supplementary material—particularly for the musical pieces. There are occasional vague links to related material (e.g., a section on Orson Welles' "Voodoo" Macbeth helpfully points interested readers to the URL, but they could be more numerous and more precise (e.g. pointing readers to for a clip from the Welles' production).

All the same, this is a book to add to your library—it will provide hours of interest and enjoyment.

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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