Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Note: Desdemona by Tony Morrison

Morrison, Toni. Desdemona. Lyrics by Rokia Traoré. London: Oberon Books, 2012.

This play (perhaps verse drama would be a better description) by Tony Morrison recently came to my attention.

In my Literary Studies class, we study Rita Dove's Darker Face of the Earth. Her verse drama retells Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, recasting it in the antebellum South.

Toni Morrison's play doesn't retell or recast the story of Othello. Largely, it gives the impression of the characters meeting in the afterlife to discuss the events of the play.

That leads to some interesting discussions—for example, Desdemona's mother has a brief exchange with Othello's mother.

But Desdemona herself is the main voice we hear.

She reports on the stories Othello told to woo here (here's a brief sample—there are more stories related in the middle of the play):

I find that intriguing—but even more fascinating was the use Morrison finds for Barbary. Readers of Othello may recall that, near the end of the play (and therefore—spoiler alert!—near the end of her life), Desdemona recalls a maid her mother used to have:
My mother had a maid call'd Barbary;
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of "Willow,"
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song to-night
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary. (IV.iii.27-33)
The moment is thrilling and moving and complicated—Iago had early alluded to Othello as "a Barbary horse" (I.i.111-12)—"Barbary" meaning "Arab" (according to M. R. Ridley's Arden edition) or "The Saracen countries along the north coast of Africa" (according to the OED in def. II.4.a).

Barbary and Desdemona meet in this play, and the sensitive and touching memory is undermined by Barbary's declaration "We shared nothing" and her accusation "you don't even know my name."  I'm including that scene in its entirety:

I find that to be a marvelous riff on that part of the play.

All of these scenes are interspersed with songs written by Rokia Traoré. They provide a different and poetic, lyric voice to many of the characters.

The work is short, but the doors it opens lead to long corridors.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Note: Vinegar Girl

Tyler, Anne. Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold. London: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016.

My criteria for a novel that retells the plot of a Shakespeare play include (1) its ability to tell us something about the play that we hadn't noticed, seen, or thought deeply about and (2) its status as a novel in its own right.

Those two criteria sometimes fight with each other. If the work becomes too much its own thing, it may not have that much to say about the play (cf. Tempestuous). If it doesn't become much of its own thing, it may not tell us anything about the play (cf. John Marsden's Hamlet).

When the Hogarth Shakespeare Series was announced, I was expectedly thrilled. When great novelists take on Shakespeare plays, the result will surely be excellent, inventive, inspiring. It will also be useful in my Modern Shakespearean Fiction class.

The Gap of Time was the first, but it proved to be pretty disappointing (for which, q.v.).

And I'm afraid I have to say something of the same for Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl. I had even higher expectations for this, having enjoyed some of Tyler's novels in the past. And I did start to enjoy it and find some depth in it after about a hundred pages.

The plot involves a scientist father who is largely absent, a daughter whose shrewishness is largely a tell-it-like-it-is attitude, a much younger sister who is falling for her high school Spanish tutor, and a lab assistant from Russia whose visa is about to expire and who therefore needs to marry an American as soon as possible.

I appreciate the inventiveness of that last plot element. Perhaps it helps to explain why a woman would marry a man quickly while still not particularly caring for him. The sample below gives a taste of that part of the relationship:

The one part of the novel that called our attention back to the play itself for realization, reconsideration, and reflection comes at the very end of the novel. Note: This is something of a spoiler. Here's how things wrap up:

Overall, the novel doesn't fit my criteria. But the attempted translation of Katherine's "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech does have considerable interest in it—enough to provoke some good discussion both of it and of Shakespeare's original.

So let's start some! What's your impression of Anne Tyler's version of the speech? Is it a fair modernized version of the speech? Does it radicalize the speech or return it to largely-conservative territory? Give us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Note: William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World's Greatest Author

Manning, Mick, and Brita Granström. William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World's Greatest Author. London: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2015.

I chanced upon this book at my local library—and it just goes to show that a trip to the local library is very seldom wasted.

This recent children's book provides an invaluable survey of Shakespeare's biography in an engaging yet highly informative way. Not only do we glance at Shakespeare's history and culture, we get a number of very large spreads with careful (albeit brief) summaries of the plays.

I'm providing a couple of the spreads as examples. Click on them to engage them.

First, we have the "Lost Years." There's speculation here, but it's presented as speculation rather than fact. It seems a bit heavy on the "Shakeshaft" theory (see the sidebar in blue), but it does present a balanced position on that idea:

Second, here's a two-page spread on Henry V that gives us the plot of the play—together with some speeches and some audience annotation.

Finally, a small quibble (that is, I'm afraid, an uphill battle) with part of the text. In a section about Shakespeare's theatre (one that nicely re-tells the story of the parts of The Theatre being used to build The Globe), the book tells us that The Theatre—built in 1576—was "the first purpose-built theatre" in England. Although there's not absolute scholarly agreement on the subject, many scholars consider the Red Lion (in use from 1567) to be the first purpose-built theatre in England. But they do get the bear baiting (and good old Harry Hunks) right:

The books is pretty terrific, and I'm certainly going to add it to my library. I highly recommend it for libraries—public and private—as a tremendous introduction to Shakespeare's life, times, and works.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Note: Still Time

Hegland, Jean. Still Time. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015. 

You may have noticed that Shakespeare Geek has provided a good review of this book. I just want to add a bit to it and do what I can to increase the novel's visibility.

Still Time isn't a derivative version of any Shakespeare play, but it contains multitudes. The main character is a retired Shakespeare scholar who has recently been admitted to a nursing home. He's suffering from Alzheimer's disease or dementia. He struggles to remember his daughter, and he keeps insisting that he's meant to be heading home before nightfall. He recalls bits of his career from time to time—and bits of Shakespeare. Those seem to stick deeper than some other elements, but even those are occasionally hard to grasp for him.

As you can imagine, that's a tough story to tell. What impressed me most was the deep and convincing way in which the story is told. This isn't a tearjerker—though it's likely to make you cry. This isn't a simple narrative—though it's clear. This isn't a story about recovery from loss—though it provides thoughts on that subject.

I also felt like I might be reading my future in the novel. That makes it harder, of course, but it also makes it genuine.

I often talk to my students about writing with depth and significance. This complicated novel provides just that—without providing an easy moral at the end. 

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Note: "The Merchant of Stratford"

Ramirez, Frank. "The Merchant of Stratford." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 3.7 (July 1979): 125-33. Rpt. in Laughing Space: Funny Science Fiction Chuckled Over by Isaac Asimov and J. O. Jeppson. Ed. Isaac Asimov and J. O. Jeppson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982. 293-300.

It took a while to track this one down, but I managed it (with a little help from the magic of Inter-Library Loan).

Most of us have (I daresay) wished for a time machine so that we could travel back in time to Shakespeare's day. This short story imagines just such an event.

Or, I should say, events.

The story imagines what would happen if nearly everyone who wanted to visit Shakespeare in a time machine did so. It's told from the perspective of the first time traveller in history. He arrives toward the end of Shakespeare's life, cautiously and carefully approaching the great man so as not to shock him.

Instead, he's the one who's shocked. Shakespeare has been plagued by time travellers since his youth. Once time travel was possible, everybody and their second cousin wanted to visit him.

It's great fun, but I won't give any spoilers on the plot. I will, however, provide an interesting moment from the middle of the story. It turns out Shakespeare is a Science Fiction fanatic—and he makes something of a case for treating SF as literature. After all, he argues, his own work wasn't considered literature in its day.

Track the story down—it's worth the search. It will probably make its way into my "Short Packet o' Short Shakespeare Adaptations" in my Modern Shakespearean Fiction class next semester.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Romeo, Juliet, Lenny, and the Squigtones

"Suds to Stardom." By Buz Kohan. Perf. Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, David L. Lander, and Michael McKean. Dir. James Burrows. Laverne & Shirley. Season 1, episode 14. ABC. 11 May 1976. DVD. Paramount, 2014.

I learned about this, like so many things, from Shakespeare Geek.

The quirky Lenny and Squiggy (who often accompany the almost equally quirky Laverne and Shirley) participate in an audition for the Shotz Brewery talent show.

The song they've put together is called "Star-Crossed." The lyrics later make the connection to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet explicit:
I live on the north side. She lives on the west.
The west is the worst side: the north is the best.
Her mudda's a drunk; her fadda's a punk.
But I know (yes, I know) that our love (yes, I know) could be real.

But we're star-crossed.
We're like Romeo & Juliet.
Star-crossed—she just dont belong in my social set.

But I know (yes, I know) that someday (someday)
The Lord will look our way, and we'll be free.

We meet in the shadows and wish on a star.
We kiss in a phone booth or under a car.
Our friends put us down. They say we're a clown!
But it hurts (yes, it hurts). Yes, it hurts (yes, it hurts) in my heart . . .

That we're star-crossed.
We're like lollipops and caviar.
Star-crossed—so we'll drive up to the reservoir.

Even though (even though) it's a sin (it's a sin),
We'll throw each other in, and we'll be free.
It may be a big tangential, but there's still some interest there. The narrative has more elements of West Side Story than Romeo and Juliet, and I'm curious about the socio-economic placement of the Juliet analogue.

It's also just quite a lot of fun. Observe:

You'll be happy to note that this was (for Lenny) just the beginning.  Lenny really did go on to make it big, changing his name from Leonard "Lenny" Kosnowski to David St. Hubbins when he joined Spinal Tap.


Links: The Episode at IMDB.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Note: Hamlet had an Uncle

Cabell, Branch. Hamlet had an Uncle. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1940.

Shakespeare took a narrative already told and raised it to the level of sublimity. Branch Cabell takes a sublimely-told narrative and lowers it far past the level of mediocrity to the utterly dull and uninspired.

This is the kind of book I used to think of when I thought Shakespeare-inspired fiction. It reminds me somewhat of the ineptitude of The Best House in Stratford (for which, q.v.).

The story is meant to be historical fiction telling the original narrative from Claudius' point of view. Claudius is caught in Gertrude's bed by Hamlet, Sr., who threatens to kill Claudius but who is stabbed in the back by Claudius as he turns to berate Gertrude.

It should be possible to tell a narrative that begins that way in an exciting, thrilling way. As it is, the most thrilling points are the chapter headings. I'll provide some of those for your amusement—and also a sample of the plodding prose (if you can take it).

The contents. Try "Wiglerus Gets a Bad Wound" for fun and excitement:

A slice of Chapter Four: "Of Hamlet: How he Troubled People."

The colophon. I take this to be the moral of this retelling of Hamlet. Could this be what Hamlet should teach us, too?

Give this one a miss. Even John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius (for which, q.v.) is better than this.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Note: Ruled Britannia

Turtledove, Harry. Ruled Britannia. New York: NAL, 2002.

Speaking of alternate history—and we were speaking of alternate history, weren't we? With alternate history, it's so hard to tell. In any case, let's speak of alternate history now.

I spotted Ruled Brittana on a list of Shakespeare-related fiction somewhere; in the interests of keeping up with the current Shakespearean fiction scene—well, of keeping within a couple of decades of the current Shakespearean fiction scene—I decided to give it a try. I requested it from my local library, and it arrived within a few days.

When I saw the size of the book and its cover, a gnawing, growing skepticism about it seemed to grip me. But, as Shakespeare said, "Never judge a book by its cover," so I (eventually) cracked the cover.

The first few pages absolutely sucked me in. The storyline became instantly compelling, and the characters soon followed suit.

The book imagines that the Spanish Armada succeeded in its 1588 invasion plans. England has become a Catholic nation, ruled by Philip II. After roughly a decade of this rule, an undercover group of English nationals is preparing to overthrown Spanish rule and put Queen Elizabeth I back on the throne.

And they need to recruit William Shakespeare to their cause. He's asked to write a play about Boudicca, one that will enflame English spirits to revolt against their Spanish, Catholic overlords. He's simultaneously working on a play called Philip II, which the Spanish want to use to celebrate their king upon his death (which is imminent).

Another playwright haunts the theatres of London. He admires Shakespeare, but he's working on his own craft—in Spanish. It's Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, the great Spanish poet and playwright.

I'm very taken with the novel. The characters are fascinating—especially Shakespeare (perhaps, though not necessarily, of course), Will Kemp (who is hilariously ribald and laughs in the faces of—well, everyone), and Richard Burbage.

I don't want to give you very many spoilers—have the fun of reading this novel for yourself!—but I will give a few sample pages.

Lope de Vega's opinion of Shakespeare:

Samples of Shakespeare's work in progress (lifted, but adapted, from Titus Andronicus and other locations):

Finally, a constable named Walter Strawberry, who's humor lies in malapropism and a dogged search for the truth (ring any bells?):

The book is very cleverly put together. The spy plot and the battle scenes are terrific, and the scenes at the Globe are quite compelling. Numerous allusions and quotations from Shakespeare abound in the common speech of the characters (in fact, that's the only quibble I have with the book—those lines become a bit too much and threaten to distract from the narrative).

Don't let the size or the cover sway you. Try this intriguing novel.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Hamlet with Vegetables (a.k.a. The VeggieTales Hamlet)

"Omelet." By Phil Fischer. Perf. Jimmy Gourd; Archibald Asparagus; Phillipe and Jean-Claude, The French Peas; Scooter Carrot; Mr. Lunt; Larry; and Junior Asparagus. Additional Perf. Mike Nawrocki, Lisa Vischer, Jim Poole. Lyle the Kindly Viking. VeggieTales. 2001. DVD. Big Idea, 2012.

Recently, I noticed a gap in the blog. I've frequently shown a brief segment of a VeggieTales episode during my "Mystery Shakespearean Derivative" day in my Shakespeare and Film class. I teach at a small Christian liberal arts college, and many of my students grew up on the show. They appreciate taking a new look at the show—and at Hamlet at the same time.

I thought I had written about the episode here, but I have never done so. Perhaps that's because I like to keep the Mysterious Shakespearean Derivatives a mystery. But I'll take the chance.

In Lyle, the Kindly Viking, Archibald Asparagus (who is usually a bit snooty anyway) is attempting to raise the tone of the show by incorporating thing with greater cultural value. Thus, Hamlet. There are some fairly-good adaptations of lines from the play to recognize.

Here's part of the segment (in keeping with Bardfilm's Fair Use Policy, I'm not providing the clip in its entirety). Enjoy!

I like to think that the last two lines indicate a desire on the part of the characters to explore Shakespeare's play itself rather than this adaptation. Either way, they are funny.

Links: The Wikipedia Article on the Episode.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

The Tempest—Now with Puppets!

The Tempest. Dir. Conrad Bishop. Perf. Anthony Shaw Abate, Jessica Bauman, Conrad Bishop, Jan Freifeld, Benjamin Stowe. Produced by The Independent Eye in collaboration with Sonoma County Repertory Theater, Sebastopol, California.  Premiered Sept. 18, 2009, at Sonoma County Repertory Theater. DVD. The Independent Eye, 2009.

This is another post that I've owed an attentive reader for some time.

Back in 2009, a group of actors put on a production of The Tempest using puppets.

Don't think The Muppet Show. Think nearly life-size puppets without strings.

I found the show very compelling.  The image above is of the Propero puppet, but you can make out the performer carrying it. At strategic moments throughout the film, he puts the puppet aside to carry on acting on his own—but he's the only one (as far as I noticed) to do so.

I'm providing two scenes for you to get the feel of the production. Here's a good segment of Miranda and Prospero talking at the beginning; it segues into an exchange between Ariel and Prospero:

And here's the entirety of Act II, scene ii—where Caliban takes cover and Stephano and  Trinculo try to join him. It's played for humor, but the language is still given a great deal of priority:

The film version of the stage production is exceedingly enjoyable. It works for the Shakespeare scholar, but I think it would also work for introducing neophytes to the play.

Links: The Film at the Independent Eye.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Note: Courting Cate (and Other Amish Shakespearean Fiction)

Gould, Leslie. Courting Cate. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2012.
———. Adoring Addie. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013.
———. Minding Molly. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2014.
———. Becoming Bea. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2014.

I can't remember quite where or when I heard that there were retellings of Shakespeare set amongst the Amish, but I eventually tracked them down.

This genre isn't my cup of tea, so take that into consideration. And the publisher was very rude, picky, and stingy about supplying review copies, so put that in, too. Finally, consider that I've only read twenty-five percent of the books I have.

With a caveat like that, you can probably tell that I wasn't thrilled by this book. I'm intrigued by the idea, and the writing is competent, but I'm not convinced that we learn much about either the Amish or Shakespeare by reading this kind of book.

The one I read was Courting Cate. It's meant to be a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and it follows the plot roughly, and that's intriguing. But the way the characters are drawn and the way the plot is carried forward remains problematic. For example, Cate's shrewishness seems to be embodied merely in reading too much, being a bit standoffish to some cousins who teased her when she was young, and burning biscuits.

Note: Some spoilers will follow.

I'm also not convinced by the romantic developments in the novel. Cate has to marry before her younger sister can marry (as in Shakespeare's play). Cate finds out that her cousins are paying Pete to court her (as in 10 Things I Hate About You). Our Katherine analogue enters into a marriage of convenience with our Petruchio analogue (Pete) because her sister is pregnant; if her sister doesn't get married (and fast), it will bring shame to her Dat, who has raised them both since their mother died a few days after her sister's birth. Cate then moves away to live with her in-laws, who are rude and mean (mostly). When she comes back home for her sister's wedding, she sees that her sister isn't pregnant after all. It turns out her sister never did anything that would cause her to get pregnant, but she didn't read the books Cate gave her to read on the subject, so she thought she was pregnant when she wasn't.

Fortunately, Cate's fallen in love with Pete by then—his sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag and working hard at her in-laws gradually caused her to fall for him—so everything works out all right. But that plot device seemed a bit cheap and frustrating.

But the writing isn't terrible, and there's some character development that makes sense—so I'm a bit torn. Of course, the writing does occasionally head toward the ridiculous, as in this example:

It wasn't my father; it was Pete. My heart fluttered at the sight of him. He smelled fresh, like the cold spring air mixed with the scent of goat's milk soap, and wore a clean shirt and nicer pants than the ones he'd had on the other times I'd seen him, but they weren't anywhere close to new. (67)

When the couple went to New York City and overheard some actors saying, "Kiss me, Kate," I had hopes for some metafictional contemplation of the way Shakespeare's story matched that of the couple in the novel—but we're left to do that on our own. Still, there's something self-aware in the passage:

On the next page, we get something that could be developed much more fully—but it's a nice start:

And the idea of finding something of our stories in Shakespeare's is caught up toward the end of the book as well. Here, things are starting to work out—but there's still some room to go:

For a character whose "shrewishness" is defined by her excessive reading and excessive trips to the bookmobile, it's surprising that she's never read any Shakespeare—but what would she have done if she had?

If the idea of Amish Shakespeare fiction sounds good to you, try it—and the three others Leslie Gould as written. The writing is good, and they're fairly well-crafted. And they play with the plots of Romeo and Juliet (Adoring Addie), Midsummer Night's Dream (Minding Molly), and Much Ado About Nothing (Becoming Bea).

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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