Sunday, December 1, 2013

How Not To Write Historical Fiction

I remember how piqued I was when a Publishers Weekly reviewer criticized my first novel, My Father Had a Daughter. She didn't like the book -- a fiction based on the life of Shakespeare's youngest child, Judith -- because it didn't end with the girl's death, like the sad fantasy about Shakespeare's sister spun by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own. Woolf's protagonist was also named Judith, and Woolf's Judith killed herself. The critic thought mine should have, too. Yet it wasn't this puzzling critique that sparked my ire. What got to me was this critic's disparagement of my novel's

Friday, November 1, 2013

Saint Shakespeare

On All Saints Day, not only may you buy a secular "Saint Shakespeare" candle (, you may also ask: what saints did Shakespeare like? He wrote plays in a militantly Protestant England that had severely demoted saints during its Reformation some sixty years before. The famous shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury had been dismantled (and looted). No one was going on merry pilgrimage there, or to St. Mary at Walsingham, and it was forbidden to pray to St. Cuthbert of Durham, which is one of the reasons you've never heard of him. English saints were not marching in, but roving, sad, invisible and homeless, across the land. Yet they weren't forgotten. They were still enshrined in the calendar (St. Swithin's Day, St. Lucy's Day -- who are these people?). Even though the church nearest Shakespeare's Globe had its name changed from "St. Mary's" to "St. Savior's" during the Elizabethan period, many churches, not to mention towns, retained their traditional saints' names. And saints still throve in the popular imagination. So it shouldn't surprise us that references to this saint or that pop up all over the place in Shakespeare. Here, in honor of the day, are five notable Shakespeare saints.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Elizabethan Paint Jobs

 I've long been fascinated by the horrible things late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Englishwomen of means did to their faces, in order to conform to a standard of beauty that was largely prescribed by literature. What standard? Eyes like suns or stars, skin like snow (except for the cheeks, wherein red and white roses were to be mingled), lips like cherries, teeth like polished alabaster. (Somehow that reminds me of George Washington.) Many people know Shakespeare's famous poetic critique of this (when you think about it) bizarre visual ideal, Sonnet 130, which begins, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and includes the line "coral is far more red than her lips' red." Not so many folks are familiar with the kind of poetry Will was reacting to, so here's a sample, from his contemporary Thomas Campion: "There is a garden in her face / Where roses and white lilies grow; / A heav'nly paradise is that place / Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow." Now, let's stop right there.  The woman may have a fungal skin disease, and on top of that, the fruits in her face are flowing, like, maybe, applesauce. Yet there's more. "Those cherries [the lips] fairly do enclose / Of orient pearl a double row [her choppers] / Which when her lovely laughter shows, / They look like rose-buds fill'd with snow."
     This is hardly grammatical. Campion clearly stuck the word "They" in the last line

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lights Under Bushels: Renaissance Folk in Hiding

I recently talked with a friend of mine, Chuck Bentley, at the Starbucks in our local Barnes & Noble where he and his wife Donna hang out. Chuck is hands down the finest Michigan Shakespearean actor I have ever seen perform, and his skill is worthy of the major theaters of New York and Chicago, which I have visited more times than I can count. He might have gone to the big city, but he chooses to write and perform here, in Kalamazoo, participating in or organizing local productions, all the while happily championing

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Ten Best Shakespeare Performances on Film

For this August post I'm sharing my choices for the Ten Greatest Shakespeare Performances Ever Committed To Film Based on an Incomplete Sample of What's Out There Because Shakespeare's Been on Film for Over a Century and I've Seen Less than Half of It. So perhaps I should call what follows The Ten Best Shakespeare Performances in Films I Have Seen and Happen To Remember. Another possibility: Random Choices of Great Shakespeare Performances I'm Thinking about Today. All are good titles, so please choose the one you like best. Now, like David Letterman, I'm going to start with my tenth-ranked winner.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Did Shakespeare Write Everyone Else's Plays?



 At twenty-something he went off to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody . . . .  

                         -- Jorge Luis Borges, “Everything and Nothing

The town was an ocean of faces and noise. He stood in the Strand, a pack on his back, confounded, and thought, I am a drop in the surrounding sea. Anonymity was new to him, but this mental habit was old, inescapable, and often unconscious: the instinctive apprehension of real things by means, and only by means, of metaphor. The sun was never the sun, but a hot wench in scarlet taffeta. The moon? A loon’s mournful wail. Thus his mind was made, or mismade. Yet what in Stratford had made him conspicuous, peculiar, and strangely wanting could profit him in London. He’d come to the place where the word-merchants were, to make a virtue of necessity.
    He translated himself, at first to a player named Shakspere. Yet soon

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Shakespeare Profiteers Make Out Like Bandits!

Have you checked out these suits who are making a killing marketing "corporate" Shakespeare? To be accurate, some business types are only trying to cash in, while some actually are profiting, big time. Google "Shakespeare in business" and you'll find a slew of "Get rich the Shakespeare way" books, including Paul Corrigan's Shakespeare on Management and Jay Shafritz's no less (or more) originally titled Shakespeare on Management. (Book description: "William Shakespeare's vast and important contributions to literature have long been acknowledged, but his shrewd insights into business and management have been all but ignored -- until now.") Even some folks with an actual interest in theater are sucking up to the corporations, a trend which, hilariously spoofed in one episode of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, turns out to be perversely real. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival now offers "Business Workshops for Professional Development" ("Making your world a stage, all year round!"). If you want to spend the rest of your day in a state of shock and depression, watch their promotional video:

No one can deny that Shakespeare himself was a shrewd businessman. He knew enough to buy stock in his own theater company, the most successful in England,

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Five Reasons for Hamlet's Delay

My answer to last week's Shakespeare puzzle, “Why does Hamlet delay?,” got so long I had to turn it into a blog-post. This proves that if you read Hamlet enough times you get as wordy as its protagonist. In the end I boiled it all down to these FIVE REASONS HAMLET MUST TAKE HIS SWEET TIME TO AVENGE HIS FATHER’S MURDER:

1.      Mr. Thoughtful. First, let’s consider Hamlet’s claim that he’ll avenge his dad “with wings as swift as meditation.” Shouldn’t this be “with wings as swift as an F-1 bomber’s,”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

#ShakeAss at the Royal York

It's a few weeks late, but since April Fool's Day and Shakespeare's Birthday intervened and
demanded to be addressed, I'm just now reporting on the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, which took place at the end of March at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto, and was marked by many fine  and much-applauded moments, not least of which was the public unveiling of the association's new informal Twitter hashtag, "ShakeAss." Let me just start by saying that people in Canada are really, really nice; I mean, almost supernaturally nice, eerily nice. As an example, upon my arrival at the general zone of the conference hotel in downtown Toronto late on a Thursday night, suffering from a variety of cranial pains due to my having struck myself forcibly on the nose with a tennis racquet two weeks before (don't ask),

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Go Fishing with Shakespeare

Shakespeare's birthday is worth a blog, although new blog posts ordinarily come up monthly on Shakespeare in Fiction and Fact. (This will in fact be the third April post, since the extraordinary discovery of a new scene from Romeo and Juliet on the oddly meaningful date of April 1st demanded its own story.) Shakespeare is 449 today, and celebrations of his birth among Shakespeare maniacs are in full force on both sides of the Atlantic. If you want to wander down or teleport to the Bankside, London, you can hear world-class theater historians discussing such topics as why the Globe playhouse was round and how Elizabethan London looked when it was plastered with playbills. Washington, D.C., that intellectual town, has declared it open house at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where are stored most of the original First Folios. (These are huge first editions of Shakespeare's complete plays put out by his fellow actors in 1623, and We Capitalize Them.) (Pun unintentional.) In Chicago, they're doing their annual "Chicagoans Talk Like Shakespeare Day," so stay away from there. It's best, I think, to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday in Kalamazoo, where spring has finally arrived and where, though students at Western Michigan University are now taking their Shakespeare finals, many will later be gathered at Shakespeare's Pub downtown on Kalamazoo Avenue. What is that, you say? It's a beautiful old squarish stone building with "Shakespeare" engraved on the front wall, and inside it's a sports bar! But it wasn't always a bar. For seventy years it was the national headquarters of the still enormously successful Shakespeare Fishing Tackle company, begun in 1897 by William Shakespeare, Jr.,

Monday, April 1, 2013

Simply Shakespeare, on Film: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Joss Whedon

Last Friday, in a prologue to a sneak preview of his new movie, Much Ado about Nothing, Joss Whedon betrayed some anxiety about exposing the film to scholarly scrutiny. The occasion was the Shakespeare Society of America’s annual meeting in Toronto, the audience was several hundred British and North American Shakespeare academics gathered in a vast hotel ballroom, and the mode by which Whedon expressed his nervousness was a fake British accent. Not that he mocked the crowd. That would have been unShakespearean. In his filmed introduction, he alternated between the stuffy drone of an Oxford academic and his regular voice, in which he expressed gratitude to those who’d committed their professional lives to helping students understand and like Shakespeare. When the film began, it became clear pretty quickly that Joss Whedon knew how to do both.

Whedon’s stripped-down, low-budget, black and white version of Shakespeare’s great mid-career comedy is simply Shakespeare, without modernizing gimmicks or tricks.  Except insofar as every transplanting of a play from live theater to film is an adaptation, it isn’t one.  It’s the play. The setting is a Los Angeles-ish mansion in the twenty-first century, to which characters arrive by limo, toting cell phones, but Whedon has made no attempt to update the ceremonial language of the

Lost ROMEO AND JULIET Scene Radically Changes Play

Dateline: April 1, 2013. Printed below is the full text of the newly discovered lost scene from act one of Romeo and Juliet. The scene exists in a quarto version of the play found in February in a British bookseller’s collection. The quarto’s provenance was debated at the Shakespeare Association of America’s just-concluded annual meeting in Toronto, where the consensus of textual scholars was that the work was Shakespeare’s. The finding marks the first “new” (newly discovered) Shakespearean work since that of “Hand D” in the anonymous collaborative 1590s play Sir Thomas More in 1871. The Romeo and Juliet quarto with the additional short sixth scene dates from 1598, and is an interim text between the “bad”quarto version of 1597 and the “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended” version issued by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599; the process of its authentication is described at length in

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Skeletal Richard

Hi! Welcome to this month's commentary on Shakespeare in the news.
In recent months lots of people have been talking about the finding of King Richard III’s skeleton under a parking lot in Leicester, England. Several people who I didn’t (and don’t) think cared about Richard III at all asked me for my reaction. Did I think it was really him? My own husband asked me this last night.  He thinks I know! In fact, through the wonders of DNA evidence, it’s been established that yes, it’s really Richard III – or was. He was lying in the ruins of a church buried under centuries’ worth of dirt and finally paved over, resident there more or less since he was killed by a serious knife to the head during the last great battle of the Wars of the Roses at Bosworth Field in 1485. That’s a big date, 1485. Henry Tudor, whose forces defeated Richard’s at Bosworth, was crowned that year and began the more than century-long-lasting Tudor dynasty, which ended in 1603 with the death of Henry Tudor’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I. 1485 was also very close to the time William Caxton brought to England the printing press, an excellent invention that would radically expand public literacy and facilitate, over the subsequent century, the mass distribution of ancient and modern books in print, and enable hundreds of English writers of all social levels, including Shakespeare, to speak to the people (kind of like the Internet, our own time’s great textual leap). So 1485 is a pretty good date to choose if you want to mark the end of the middle ages in England and the beginning of the Renaissance. And if we see it that way, Richard III, who perished that year, was the last medieval English king. Maybe that’s why so many people are excited about this dead and now very skinny royal.