A recent trend going around Shakespearean theatres is the new trend of putting on a production of Shakespeare’s plays, with at least one of the actors drunk for the majority of the performance! There is a Drunk Shakespeare company in New York, and the trend has started spreading to other theaters, so I resolved to check it out for myself! I can only speak for this particular production, but I can say pretty confidently, if you get a chance to see a Drunk Shakespeare, do it! I was expecting a hilarious train wreck, but what I got was a great time!
This production of Drunken Hamlet was mounted by the thespians at Weary Arts Group in York Pennsylvania.
Unlike Drunk Shakespeare in NYC, the entire cast takes shots while performing. They lose their lines, make drinking part of the stage business, and the audience is encouraged to throw flowers at the cast at any point of the show, which means, (you guessed it), “more shots!”
With the amount of effort that it takes to memorize a Shakespeare play, the inebriated cast often can’t remember the Iambic pentameter but, rather than bringing the show to a halt, the ad-libs and bawdiness they bring as they curse and giggle back to their lines is all part of the fun. I remember one moment where Claudius actually talked about the Disney Movie “The Lion King,” calling the villainous lion Scar the hero of the cartoon for murdering his brother and marrying his sister-in-law. This blend of authentic literature and bawdy adult silliness reminds me of the popular Comedy Central Show “Drunk History,” in that sometimes the actors speak the dialogue, sometimes they make funny ad-libs and sometimes they just drunkenly slur and giggle their way through the play.
Furthermore, the audience was encouraged by the director to become part of the experience- we were asked to boo characters we don’t like, to talk to the actors,basically to react without any standards of politeness or decorum! I actually got a big laugh when, as Claudius gave the famous couplet: “It shall be so. Madness in great ones must not unmatched go,” and I shouted back, “Tell that to Donald Trump!” In all modesty, the six pack of pumpkin beer probably sharpened my wit.
I’ve read that, due to the filth in the rivers and lakes in London, alcohol was an essential part of the diet for most people in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare himself might have died from a fever he contracted after having too much to drink in The Mermaid Tavern in April of 1616. It’s also true that Elizabethan audiences regularly drank and yelled at the actors onstage. With this in mind, Drunk Shakespeare does have a small spirit of authenticity about it, and that energy really helped me enjoy the play.
My only major complaint about the show was that Hamlet doesn’t lend itself to Drunk Shakespeare as well as other plays. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare wrote the play because he was tired of trying to appeal to the drunk groundlings, and wanted to appeal to a more refined and upper class clientele. Hamlet himself says these groundlings are: “For the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.”
However, I’m glad I gave this kind of grounding theater a try, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a good time with some irreverent Shakespeare.
I am disgusted by the recent violence in Charlottesville VA. The fact that in 2017, White supremacists threatened, hurt, and killed innocent Americans is despicable and truly disheartening. I won’t go into my political views here since this tragedy transcends politics and forces everyone in this country to re-examine who we are and what we stand for as a people, and do our part to help prevent this kind of mindless hatred.
I’m not a politician, I’m not a policeman. My area of expertise is Shakespeare, so I am going to try to make a case for why the study of Shakespeare can help people, (especially young people), learn about the world, examine new points of view, and try to improve the world. I will then add a list of resources for teachers and students to deepen your understanding of the play.
My first argument for the play is that Merchant has two of the best speeches about intolerance ever written.
You’ve probably heard of this speech, (spoken by the Jewish moneylender Shylock), and I’m also well aware of the fact that, in context, it is not entirely about peaceful coexistence and tolerance, but it nevertheless establishes Shakespeare’s argument that condemns bigotry and violence, particularly against Jews:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. Merchant, Act III, Scene i.
Al Pacino when he did this speech said that it has the eloquence and power of Dr. Martin Luther King. Patrick Stewart initially had the same reaction, but later realized that Shylock turns midway through and the speech becomes a justification for revenge. What’s clever here is that Shakespeare manages to give Shylock two good arguments against bigotry; by emphasizing how Jews are no different than any other racial or religious group, and also warning that oppressing a people will only result in more retribution and pain on both sides. This is what he means when he says: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.” We’re seeing this sort of reaction right now with the recent surge of violence by both white supremacists and the Antifa; without tolerance and common decency, chaos and bloodshed reins.
Another speech, much less well-known, is this speech of the Prince Of Morocco, one of Shakespeare’s only black characters. The speech below is the first time he speaks while attempting to woo the heroine Portia:
Prince of Morocco. Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene i.
People often forget that this speech condemns pre-judging a person based on the color of their skin. Morocco tells Portia, (who in all probability has never seen a black man before), to not judge him by his appearance. His tone is gentle, but it is not apologetic. He says he won’t change his skin color for anything, (except maybe if it would win her heart). The Prince is a dignified and proud representative of his country and his race.
My second argument for reading or teaching this play is that it reveals how bigotry and racism is usually tied to money and profit. In Act IV, Scene i, Shylock points out the hypocrisy of his Christian brethren in keeping slaves, which they justify by saying that they are not people, but property:
Shylock. You have among you many a purchased slave, Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts, Because you bought them: shall I say to you, Let them be free, marry them to your heirs? Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds Be made as soft as yours and let their palates Be season’d with such viands? You will answer ‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you: The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law! There is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it? Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.
Shylock turns this hypocrisy back on the Christians by saying basically, “How can you call me and human when you debase and subjugate your fellow creatures?” The answer to both questions of course, is that it is economically convenient. Shylock earns his money by lending money at interest, and threatens dear penalties if not repaid on time. Similarly, the Christians revile Shylock because their religious practices forbid them from lending money, so they have to go to him instead of other Christians. We see echoes of this unfortunate tendency today: the white supremacists in Charlottesville were chanting: “Jews will not replace us,” which clearly exposes their fear of losing political and economic influence to minorities. In addition, our country has refused countless immigrants from poor, war-torn countries which we justify to ourselves by saying the cost of letting them in is too great.
The play’s comic sub-plot also has many lessons for today’s world. The hero Bassanio undergoes dramatic transformation from a spoiled prodigal son to enlightened married man. At the play’s beginning, he has a close friendship with the merchant Antonio, that might be played as a one sided homosexual relationship. Antonio is very affectionate to Bassanio, and lends him a large amount of money without any expectation of repayment, which has sometimes been interpreted as a hinting of Antonio’s unrequited love for Bassanio. Though Basanio doesn’t reciprocate any romantic feelings, he eventually saves Antonio’s life, and at least tries to repay him for his kindness.
Bassanio also takes a very feminist attitude towards the play’s heroine Portia- he understands that being married means making your spouse a partner, and giving her an equal say. At the beginning of the play, he sails to an island called Belmont, to try to win Portia’s hand, by correctly solving a riddle. You may have heard of the three caskets, gold, silver, and lead. If Bassanio guesses right, he wins Portia and her fortune. Bassanio chooses the correct casket, but halts afterwards, and does something unexpected; he asks Portia herself if she wants to marry him. He doesn’t treat her as his prize, and throughout the play asks her opinion, and her permission before he acts, just as a good husband should.
Fair lady, by your leave;
I come by note, to give and to receive.
Like one of two contending in a prize,
That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether these pearls of praise be his or no;
So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;
As doubtful whether what I see be true,
Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Scene ii
I would argue that, although Portia is a far more important character, Bassanio is the moral center of the play. He is the only person who treats Shylock like a human being, by trying to reason with him and pay Antonio’s debt, instead of spitting in Shylock’s face like Antonio, or forcing him to convert like the characters at the end of the play. Bassanio also is one of the only characters who call Shylock by name, everyone else just calls him “Jew.” Thus, audiences and students can learn from this kind of person; the kind of person Christ said could be saved and become a true Christian, because he acknowledges his sins and tries to correct them. Bassanio is the prodigal son in this play, and we benefit from the parable of his life.
By contrast, some of the other characters, Christian and Jewish, are examples of the kind of morality that we all wish to discourage in our children, and society in general. Though they are outwardly pious, the Christians like Antonio and Portia, are capable of vindictive, cruel, and definitely impious behavior. Portia, (probably due to her sheltered life on Belmont), can be deeply racist and prejudicial. She is prejudiced against the Prince of Morocco because of his race, hoping that “All of his complexion,” will fail to win her love. In addition, when she poses as a judge presiding over the court case between Antonio and Shylock, she throws vengeance at Shylock, even though she barely knows either of them. She strips Shylock of his property and nearly gets him sentenced to death, even though she preaches mercy to him in her most famous speech. If you look at the contrast between her words and actions, she is a deeply hypocritical person. Shakespeare shows how toxic it can be to raise a child in an isolated environment. Portia’s isolation makes it harder for Portia to relate to and understand different types of people, and it planted her predjudices within her heart.
Antonio for his part, seems to define himself by how “un-Jewish” he is, believing that generosity and mercy are anathema to all Jews, particularly when Shylock confronts Antonio in the courtroom:
I pray you, think you question with the Jew:
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard,
As seek to soften that—than which what’s harder?—
His Jewish heart: therefore, I do beseech you,
Make no more offers, use no farther means, Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.
Although Jesus preached loving ones neighbor, and being the Good Samaritan to other religions, Antonio seems to think that being a true Christian, means being Anti-Jew. He is a counter example of piety that audiences and students can learn to mollify and avoid within themselves.
My final example of religious counter examples, Shylock himself, shows how prejudice can destroy a man if he lets it. At the beginning of the play, Shylock has had to endure losing his wife, having Antonio spit on him, mock him, encourage his enemies, and call him a host of dehuminizing names. That’s not even taking into account the horrible Venetian ghettos of the 1590s, in which Shylock would have been forced to live were he a real Venetian Jew. One quote that helps explain his behavior comes from Henry Norman Hudson in 1882:
[In Shylock] “we see the remains of a great and noble nature, out of which all the genial sap of humanity has been pressed by accumulated injuries.” – Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, H. N. Hudson, Ginn and Company, Boston, p. 291. “
Scholars and actors have emphasized ever since the end of the Second World War, that, although Shylock is still guilty of reprehensible acts, his cruelty is a reaction to the cruelty he has had to endure, or as he puts it: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.
Shylock’s lack of joy and love manifests itself by the way he treats everyone in the play. He keeps his daughter locked away from anyone, which later inspires her to run away with the Christian Lorenzo, (while stealing a huge amount of Shylock’s money). Shylock then rages against the citizens of Venice, especially Antonio, whom he blames for his losses, and concocts a plan to kill him by taking a pound of flesh away from his heart.
Shylock’s pain and hardships have turned him into the kind of bloodthirsty Jewish stereotype his enemies have always assumed to be. At the same time, he constantly points out the cruelty and hypocrisy of Christians, calling them no better than himself. In the end though, through Portia and the Duke sentencing Shylock to will his money to Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity, Shylock has to become what he hates, and surround himself with people who will never accept him; an ending that fills the audience with pity and maybe even remorse.
Now, there are compelling arguments that teaching this play can actually encourage stereotypes, which it can, and has in ages past. I read several articles that debate this issue in various ways. I’d like to discuss two articles written within one year of each other that are particularly fascinating. The first one was an article from The New Yorker by Professor Steven Greenblatt, who claimed that Merchant is “Shakespeare’s Cure For Xenophobia.” The other was a Washington Post article that argues that in the interest of keeping negative Jewish stereotypes from perpetuating themselves, this play should be ignored altogether.
On the other hand, as Professor Greenblatt says, the genius of the play is that it shows stereotypes, but it also shows the people under them. If you compare Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, to other contemporary Jewish characters like Barrabas in Marlowe’s Jew Of Malta, he is a much more compelling, complete, interesting, and at times moving character. Love him or hate him, Shylock inevitably gets under your skin. He’s a man who strips the varnish off our culture and exposes the hypocrisy, greed, and prejudice that lurk just beneath the waters of the Rialto, (as well as the modern Potomac and the Hudson). The saving grace of this play is that it forces us to examine ourselves- how do we treat people, how do we see people who are different than us? What makes our points of view good and bad, and what can we do to heal our misunderstandings? Though this play cannot answer these questions, it encourages us to confront them, to open a dialogue, and hopefully, open avenues for change.
Today in 1804, Alexander Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr. Since Shakespearean plays portray and frequently refer to dueling, I thought I would post this song about the rules of dueling, which also applies to Shakespearean duels.
Donald Trump Jr tweeted two questions after the Julius Caesar play protest I posted over the weekend:
“When does art become political speech, and does it change things?”
I would like to try to answer these questions and by doing so, see if I can explain this fascinating moment in Shakespearean performance history.
Though this production raised new questions about art, and has raised passion from many people, it is not as radical as the protesters might think. Here is a list of historical points of reference to show you the many similarities between this protest and others throughout the history of Shakespearean performance:
1. This is not the first time a Shakespeare play has been seen as a spur to violence: In February of 1601, The Earl of Essex commissioned Shakespeare’s company to perform a scene of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second one day before he attempted to overthrow queen Elizabeth, and make himself head of the English government.
Shakespeare’s company was exonerated, but Essex himself was tried convicted, and executed for high treason. Similarly, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, he had previously performed in Julius Caesar, and reportedly complained, (while on the run from the law), that “I am being hunted for what Brutus did so freely”
Source: New York Times Review. Now in both cases it is worth noting that Shakespeare’s company was not responsible for the death of a political figure, it was the people who interpreted his work that bear the responsibility themselves.
2. This play is also not the first time a director has portrayed Caesar as a contemporary president-
As many people have pointed out, in 2012 The Acting Company put on a production of Caesar with an Obama-esque version of the title character. No protests came from the left or right, though Caesar died in the exact same way- bloodily stabbed onstage. I would argue that these shows demonstrate that portraying Caesar as a contemporary figure does not itself incite violence. The audience knows that the figure of Caesar is simply meant as a link between Shakespeare and contemporary politics. This is how the director Oskar Eustis of the Shakespeare in the Park production defended himself against criticism of his staging: https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/theater/donald-trump-julius-caesar-oskar-eustis.amp.html
I frankly also find the disproportionate reaction to these two Caesars rather insulting. When Obama was in office, he got plenty of negative criticism that sometimes extended to threats of violence. If you click here you can see a threat by country music singer Ted Nugent who threatens to shoot the president with a machine gun. The double standard that threatening a president on the left has no consequences, but threatening a Republican president is worthy of scorn, derision, and its backers pulling their support, deeply hypocritical.
3. Thirdly, this is not the first time a Shakespeare play has depicted Trump negatively. If you look at the comments of my Trump villain post, a director mentioned his production of Henry the Sixth Part Two, in which an actor portrayed the character Jack Cade as Trump. Like Caesar, Cade also murdered in the course of the play. Clearly, portraying Donal Trump as a Shakespearean character is not what is unique here.
4. Though it is certainly true that the play depicts violence and the overthrow of a regime, it doesn’t endorse violence, and is not intended to glorify the murder of a president or even a demagogue like Caesar. As I will later discuss, this play can’t be an endorsement of violence, since everyone who commits violence is duly punished.
So why has this particular production, that uses a Caesar that resembles this president, gotten such a big reaction? Part of the issue admittedly is the timing. The protest specifically mentions the attempted murder of a GOP senator, which happened last week. It is only natural that, given this recent threat of violence, some would fear that this production might incite others to violence. Yet, as I said before, a thorough analysis of the play shows that it does not condone violence against a political leader.
Additionally, given today’s divisive political environment, it is understandable why an audience of right wing protesters might be concerned about this scene in which Caesar is murdered on stage. They may vey well think the play is wish fulfillment for those on the left, who might enjoy watching the bloody assassination of someone who is vey unpopular right now. However, let me emphatically point out that first of all, no one on the left has endorsed violence against Trump. If you look at the backlash to Kathy Griffin’s picture of herself holding a bloody makeshift Trump head, you can see that no one left or right has endorsed support for such a treasonous un-American act. Secondly, with regards to Caesar, the play’s message is actually nonviolent. When Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, it starts a violent uprising that leads to anarchy. Precisely the outcome the two Roman senators hoped to avoid. Seeing their designs fail which certainly discourage anyone attempting violence against a sitting authority figure.
Perhaps the best way I can prove this point is to remind everyone that Shakespeare himself lived in a monarchy. His theatre was strictly controlled by the government. If anyone in 1599 believed that Julius Caesar seemed to support the killing of queen Elizabeth, the play would have been burned and Shakespeare and his whole company would have been arrested and hanged.
Also, people have criticized the murder of Caesar as “too realistic,” again believing that the gore is intended to glorify violence. In reality the violence of the murder is intended to incite revulsion and disgust. Look at Mark Antony’s reaction when he shows Caesar’s body to the crowd. https://youtu.be/tRceRJAz6_Q
I frankly think that the main reason why this production is getting bad press is because it’s a portrayal of President Trump, not Obama, not the historical Caesar, not Hitler, not even Trump before he was president, but the current president, that a group of people elected, and who believe support their values.
I believe that the main reason Trump’s supporters are angry at this production is they feel an attack on him is an attack on them. The president’s supporters have shown repeatedly that they are willing to overlook almost anything to show their support of him. And I imagine that they have no desire to see him as an autocrat and dictator, let alone entertain the notion that he might ever be taken down by his opponents.
The irony is that the real Caesar was a man of the people who died because his opponents thought he was an autocrat. The real Caesar helped create the modern calendar, gave money to the entire city, and according to Marc Antony, “When the poor hath cried, Caesar hath wept.” Trump is the exact opposite; he is a self-centered con artist who pretends to be a man of the people. As I predicted, after his inauguration, he has vowed to cut taxes on businesses like his, he put his family in positions of power, used diplomatic meetings and press conferences to sell his products, and obstructed justice when his FBI director tried to investigate him. With this in mind, it seems bizarre to claim that this production is designed to ridicule the right, since Trump is neither Julius Caesar, nor is he an embodiment of the political right. He only stands for his own interests. Therefore an attack on Trump is not an attack on conservative values.
So to go back to the beginning point, “When does art become political speech?” I would argue art always becomes political when it comments about our world, and this quality of art is essential for our society to function. We need a healthy dose of satire and critical thinking, and art can provide it to us. However, there is a difference between disagreeing with a play and openly shunning it onstage.
To address Mr. Trump’s second question, art doesn’t change things, people change things, so we need to temper our reactions, including to art pieces like Julius Caesar. Remember, Caesar only died because people said he wanted to be king. Cinna the poet died because the mob said he should. This play warns us all to be careful and remain critical thinkers, or mob rule will result.
What depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump really means – CBS News