What to Get A Shakespeare Nerd For Christmas

Merry Christmas Eve Eve. If you’re reading this as I post it, there’s a Shakespearean nerd in your life and your wits are about to turn trying to find a gift. I’ve already written about printed editions of Shakespeare and educational apps, so you can consult those if that’s what you are looking for. Now I’m covering the kinds of stuff that die hard Shakespeare fans will kill a king and marry with his brother for, basically nerdy swag that no Shakespearean fanatics should be without!

img_0615-1For anyone: Immortal Longings.com- This company is very special to me. If you’ve seen any of my Play Of the Month posts, you’ve seen the gorgeous artwork for Shakespeare’s plays by the artist Elizabeth Schuch. Not only do I love her work, my wife and I put her prints on the decor for our wedding day, and wrapped some of my presents in wrapping paper with her designs on it. If you go to her website, she sells Shakespearean art printed on and inspired by Shakespeare’s plays on everything from tapestries to clothes to iPhone cases. I highly recommend checking her work out, and patronizing it as much as possible: https://society6.com/immortallongings/s?q=popular+framed-prints 


I also want to give a shout out to the website Good Tickle Brain, a weekly Shakespearean comic that satirizes the Bard’s work with love. I feel the best way to introduce anyone, young or old to Shakespeare is through a healthy dose of satire and parody. Mya Gosling loves Shakespeare and it comes through in her simple, funny retellings of his plays. If you go to their shop (spelled Shoppe to appeal to nerds like me), you can get some of her comic books, funny T-shirts, and a few educational posters for teachers too: https://goodticklebrain.com/shoppe/

Bard Game


  1. The Bard game This is the Monopoly for Shakespeare Nerds- each player pretends to be a theater manager putting on plays in real locations where Shakespeare’s company toured during his lifetime. You make money by reciting speeches or improvising one in the Shakespearean style, or by answering Shakespearean trivia questions. A must-have for any Twelfth Night Party! Review of the game: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12372/shakespeare-bard-game https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12372/shakespeare-bard-game 
  2. Bards Dispense ProfanityBards against humanityMost people know the raunchy card game where you try to encapsulate a disgusting word or phrase with a description written on your card. Well, there’s a Shakespeare version too! It makes sense that someone made a card game inspired by the king of the Elizabethan put-downs, (and the inventor of one or two modern curse words!)
  3. Wine 🍷 Though I was unable to find actual wine with Shakespeare’s name on it, practically every other part of the wine drinking experience has been branded with Shakespeare- wine bags, glasses, corks and bottle stoppers, and even whole bars! If you spend a few minutes looking online, you can find tons of Shakespearean wine merch. By the way, here’s a convenient list of quotes Shakespeare wrote about alcohol: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/shakespearedrinking.html 
  4. T shirts 👕 https://www.redbubble.com/shop/shakespeare+t-shirts

Stocking stuffers

  1. Pen and ink There’s a lot of good versions of pen and ink with Shakespeare’s name on them. Imagine the fun you can have writing sonnets with your own Shakespearean pen and ink!
  2. Shakespearean Comic Books. I’ve written reviews about some of these books and I’m very impressed by the artwork and the clever adaptations. Click here to read my review of the Romeo and Juliet Comic.


    1. Pop-Up Shakespeare by the writers of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I’m a huge fan of The Reduced Shakespeare Company and they have created an amazing new popup book for kids of the entire Shakespearean cannon!
    1. Finger puppetsShakespearean finger puppets A great way to engage kids with Shakespeare is to act out abbreviated versions of the plays, and I think this is a great medium with which to do it! 
    1. William Shakespeare and The Globe book 📖This was one of my favorite books growing up. It tells the story of Shakespeare’s life and work, with special attention to the creation of the Globe Theater in 1599. It’s gorgeously illustrated and a great read for kids!
    1. Barbie and Ken as Romeo and Juliet. Ok, so this is a bit of a stretch, but hey, I’d get it for my daughter. R&J Barbie
    1. MND Board BookBoard books 📖 Yes, even toddlers can get into Shakespeare. I actually read this to my daughter a lot. It’s not the story of the play, but it does introduce some of the characters and famous lines which can help a child to become familiar with Shakespeare.
    1. King Of Shadows
    1. Cover of “King Of Shadows,” an excellent Young adult novel for anyone who loves Shakespeare.
    1. King 👑 Of shadows (Ages 8-12) This is an excellent young adult novel that teaches a lot about Shakespeare’s theater and the time period in which he lived. For a complete review, click here: 

So there are some gift ideas for the Shakespeare nerd in your life. Merry Christmas!


How to Create A Garden Inspired By Shakespeare

Nearly 30 scenes in Shakespeare’s plays take place in a garden, and his characters mention weeds, trees, flowers and herbs and their properties, both medicinal and just beautiful. Ever since this 1906 book of the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, great cities and private garden groups have created gardens that honor the fertile imagination of The Bard Of Avon. There are 33 of these Shakespeare gardens worldwide, in cities like New York, Barcelona, and of course, Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford Upon Avon.

Shakespearean Garden At Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Here is a good guide for how you can create a Shakespeare Garden of your own:


Here’s an excellent guide to the plants mentioned in the plays: https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2601

Finally, here are two of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes about plants and flowers- a speech from Ophelia in Hamlet and the Gardeners scene from Richard II:


There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,

love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.


A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.


There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue

for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it

herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with

a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you

some violets, but they withered all when my father

died: they say he made a good end,–


For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.


Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,

She turns to favour and to prettiness.

Hamlet Act IV, Scene ii.

Ophelia by W. Waterhouse


HC Selous Illustration For Richard the Second, circa 1864. Source: https://shakespeareillustration.org/king-richard-ii-3/hcselouskrii11/#main

Gardener. Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,

▪ Which, like unruly children, make their sire

▪ Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight: 1895

▪ Give some supportance to the bending twigs.

▪ Go thou, and like an executioner,

▪ Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,

▪ That look too lofty in our commonwealth:

▪ All must be even in our government. 1900

▪ You thus employ’d, I will go root away

▪ The noisome weeds, which without profit suck

▪ The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Servant. Why should we in the compass of a pale

▪ Keep law and form and due proportion, 1905

▪ Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,

▪ When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

▪ Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,

▪ Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,

▪ Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs 1910

▪ Swarming with caterpillars?

Gardener. Hold thy peace:

▪ He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring

▪ Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:

▪ The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter, 1915

▪ That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,

▪ Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke,

▪ I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.

Servant. What, are they dead?

Gardener. They are; and Bolingbroke 1920

▪ Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it

▪ That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

▪ As we this garden! We at time of year

▪ Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,

▪ Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood, 1925

▪ With too much riches it confound itself:

▪ Had he done so to great and growing men,

▪ They might have lived to bear and he to taste

▪ Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches

▪ We lop away, that bearing boughs may live: 1930

▪ Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,

▪ Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Servant. What, think you then the king shall be deposed?

Gardener. Depress’d he is already, and deposed

▪ ‘Tis doubt he will be: letters came last night 1935

▪ To a dear friend of the good Duke of York’s,

▪ That tell black tidings.

Queen. O, I am press’d to death through want of speaking!

▪ [Coming forward]

▪ Thou, old Adam’s likeness, set to dress this garden, 1940

▪ How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?

▪ What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee

▪ To make a second fall of cursed man?

▪ Why dost thou say King Richard is deposed?

▪ Darest thou, thou little better thing than earth, 1945

▪ Divine his downfall? Say, where, when, and how,

▪ Camest thou by this ill tidings? speak, thou wretch.

Gardener. Pardon me, madam: little joy have I

▪ To breathe this news; yet what I say is true.

▪ King Richard, he is in the mighty hold 1950

▪ Of Bolingbroke: their fortunes both are weigh’d:

▪ In your lord’s scale is nothing but himself,

▪ And some few vanities that make him light;

▪ But in the balance of great Bolingbroke,

▪ Besides himself, are all the English peers, 1955

▪ And with that odds he weighs King Richard down.

▪ Post you to London, and you will find it so;

▪ I speak no more than every one doth know.

Queen. Nimble mischance, that art so light of foot,

▪ Doth not thy embassage belong to me, 1960

▪ And am I last that knows it? O, thou think’st

▪ To serve me last, that I may longest keep

▪ Thy sorrow in my breast. Come, ladies, go,

▪ To meet at London London’s king in woe.

▪ What, was I born to this, that my sad look 1965

▪ Should grace the triumph of great Bolingbroke?

▪ Gardener, for telling me these news of woe,

▪ Pray God the plants thou graft’st may never grow.

[Exeunt QUEEN and Ladies]

Gardener. Poor queen! so that thy state might be no worse, 1970

▪ I would my skill were subject to thy curse.

▪ Here did she fall a tear; here in this place

▪ I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace:

▪ Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen,

▪ In the remembrance of a weeping queen. 1975

Richard the Second, Act III, Scene iv.

The mystery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 

We’ve discussed a little bit about how to create sonnets, now let’s talk about the creator of 154 of the greatest sonnets the world has ever known. 
The sonnets are some of the most mysterious pieces of writing Shakespeare ever created. We don’t know when he wrote them, we don’t really know in what order he wrote them, we don’t know for whom he wrote them, and we certainly don’t know whom they are about. That hasn’t stopped many conspiracy theorists and many, many, many, writers from coming up with imaginative stories about these often tantalizing and mysterious pieces of writing.

the only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare sonnets is that they were first published in 1609, as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Never Before Imprinted.” A lot of scholars believe that the sonnets were actually published without Shakespeare’s permission. The main evidence for this comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Meres who referred to them as Shakespeare sonnets “distributed by his among his friends.” Scholars theorize that someone got a hold of these poems that Shakespeare meant to keep private, and published them without his consent or even his knowledge. All we know for a fact is that some of them already existed before 1609.

The Mysterious Young Man.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Scholar Steven Greenblatt in his wonderful book Will In the World, presents a more straightforward theory about where the sonnets came from: Shakespeare wrote them for some quick cash. As a writer, Shakespeare couldn’t always rely on the theater to make a living, especially since the theaters were often closed during times of plague, and religious holidays.

Greenblatt believes that in order to pay his bills in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare wrote poetry for Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. We know that The Bard dedicated two long poems to Southampton, Venus and Adonis, and TheRape Of Lucreece and the language Shakespeare uses on the dedication is very personal, even slightly flirty. Greenblatt believes that most if not all of the early sonnets were also written for Southampton.  Greenblatt points out that Wriothesley was expected to get married and produce an heir, but he was in his late 20s and had not yet chosen a wife.

Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare was hired by someone in the Southampton family to write a series of love poems that would encourage the Earl to hurry up and get hitched. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets refer to a young, good looking blonde- haired man who has tragically remained single.

This theory works for most, but not all of the early sonnets Sonnet 33 seems to refer to a dead child. Many scholars believe that this sonnet was composed specifically for the death of Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of just eight years old. Obviously since Hamnet is so similar to Hamlet, Shakespeare might have given him a much more fitting tribute a few years later.

My favorite interpretation of the young man of the sonnets comes from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Since the love expressed in the sonnets between the speaker and the Fair Young Man seems to be somewhat sexual in nature, it kind of lends itself to the notion that Shakespeare might’ve been homosexual. What I find amusing is that in the film, since his lady love is his disguised as a boy, ( like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines ), the film answers the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or straight by having the young Shakespeare fall in love with a blonde woman disguised as a male actor, In the scene below, Shakespeare watches his mistress perform in disguise as Romeo, then dedicates a sonnet to her, while still referring to her as male in the sonnet! https://youtu.be/xpyTl3OMWrU

The DarkLady 

In the next group of sonnets, the speaker refers to a woman that the speaker calls his mistress. We have no clues from the sonnets as to who she might be, except that her skin is dark. Many many people have wondered who this young woman might be. My favorite theory comes from scholar Michael Wood in his documentary In Search Of Shakespeare. Wood theorizes that it might’ve been in Emilia Lanier, who was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. One of her descendants, Peter Bassano, has put forth the notion that Shakespeare could have been involved with Mrs. Lanier.

Of course, it also seems likely that The Dark Lady just could’ve been a literary exercise for Shakespeare, who was also writing Anthony and Cleopatra at the time. https://youtu.be/u0W9v9jVp04

Other candidates for The Dark Lady have included the mother of celebrated 18th century playwright and actor, William Davenant. Sir William himself claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and his parent’s tavern is midway between Stratford and London, so it’s not entirely impossible that Shakespeare at least knew the boy’s mother. The apocryphal story comes from John Audley’s biography of Shakespeare from 1693. Here is what he says about Shakespeare and Davenant:

Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house [the Crown] in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected… Now Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends–e.g. Sam Butler, author of Hudibras, etc., say, that it seemed to him that he writ with the very spirit that did Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a Whore.[2]

My favorite interpretation of the Dark Lady Myth comes from Doctor Who, in an episode called The Shakespeare Code where The Doctor s companion Martha Jones, (who is black), meet Shakespeare and he immediately is smitten with her.

It is supremely naïve to assume that anybody can pin down a definitive Dark Lady. Adultery was just a serious back then as it is now, and admitting to it, even in a play or poem would have been suicide for Shakespeare, which is why the sonnets are vague enough so that they never conclusively point to any specific party, which helps keep this tantalizing mystery alive to this day.





Shakespeare Review: My Shakespeare

On this page, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing. This post will introduce you to an incredible documentary, and in my view one of the best ways to encourage, excite, and challenge young people reading Romeo and Juliet Aptly titled, it is called, My Shakespeare.

  1. Name:My Shakespeare
  2. Year: 2004
  3. Director: Michael Waldman
  4. Ages:PG for frank discussions of violence, and occasional suggestive language.
  5. Media:Full length documentary, (available on Amazon and Netflix DVD)
  6. Recommendation: I’d recommend this to high school and college students, as well as all theater teachers and practitioners. A word of caution though- nearly everyone in the documentary speaks with various British accents (from posh London to poor Harlesden), and thus if you think your class might not be able to understand foreign accents, you might want a different version, or put on the subtitles.
  7. Premise: Director Patterson Joseph is a man on a mission- to prove that the people in his home town, (the poor, violence-ridden town of Harlesden England), that these same people can and will put on a production of Romeo and Juliet, in just four weeks. The cast has never acted before, and Patterson sometimes has to drag them kicking and screaming into rehearsals, but eventually they all learn that putting on a Shakespeare play can become an extremely personal experience. In the beginning, they are attempting Shakespeare, but by the end they live it. In between the action, there are interviews with Baz Luhrman, the celebrated director of the Leonardo Dicaprio film version of Romeo and Juliet back in 1996. Baz serves as a sort of chorus, explaining some of the challenges a director like Patterson will inevitably face as he and his actors bring the play to life.
  8. Repeated Ideas That Run Through the Documentary:
    1. You can do this- you can act, you can understand Shakespeare, you can finish something, you can show emotions, and you can direct.
    2. Shakespeare is able to tell stories that appeal to everyone, and here’s the proof.
    3. The best way to understand Shakespeare is to get on your feet and do it.
  9. Moments to watch for: Before I list my favorite moments in the documentary, I’d like to list the theatrical process by which Patterson and his company put on Romeo and Juliet. 
    • The Process Of Creating Romeo and Juliet:
      1. Auditions/ Improv Games (4 weeks to go)
      2. Table Work, where the actors read the script and talk about their characters.
      3. Paraphrasing the script and improv (9 days to go)
      4. Stage combat Rehearsals- prepping the fights.
      5. Opening Scene rehearsal on a basketball court.
      6. Vocal Rehearsal
      7. The Emotion Workshop (8 days to go) The actors try to tap into their own emotions to try and bring some real feelings into their parts.
      8. Death Scene Rehearsal in a Graveyard!
      9. Last minute changes (5 days to go)
      10. Globe theater rehearsal
      11. Nighttime Balcony Scene Rehearsal at the aptly named, “Shakespeare Road.”
      12. Tech Rehearsal at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts.
      13. Speed Through Rehearsal/ The final rehearsal (1 day to go)
      14. Performance at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art
    • Now a look at some of my favorite parts of the documentary.
    1. The audition/ casting scene- In this scene you watch the future cast members explore the story of the play through improvisation, then you see their background through a series of headshots and dossiers. The whole cast is more diverse than any West End production: black, white, Christian, Muslim, young people and old people. Patterson’s casting choices alone makes this production fresh and relevant to our shrinking little world. A few cast members are refugees that came to England because of their countries’ own family feuds in Somalia and Afghanistan. Even more striking, Romeo and Juliet are very young- 18 and 22 respectively, which gives their love scenes an amazing truth and honesty. At first they think they have nothing in common with their characters, but in reality they have even more in common than most of us who read Romeo and Juliet.
    2. The table work scene where the cast learns about their characters You see Mustafa as Mercutio learn that Shakespeare can be funny, you see Jonathan as Romeo learn that some of Shakspeare’s words are still used today, and you see Muska just start to flirt with the idea of playing Juliet.
    3. Jonathan’s Story- Unlike most actors who have played Romeo, Jonathan Thomas has been in a real fight, and he describes it in brutal detail, even showing the scars he got from his stab wounds. Hearing his story gives his performance a truth and poignancy that I’ve never seen in any other version.
    4. The Balcony Scene Rehearsals- In this documentary the two leads perform the scene many times, in rehearsal where they talk about how hard it is to play love realistically, in Shakespeare’s Globe, where they see how it was done in Shakespeare’s day, in a modern balcony back in Harlesden, (on the appropriately named “Shakespeare Road,” and at last in the final performance. Few documentaries show just how hard it is to do a Shakespearean scene, particularly if it’s famous, and how many different ways a director and a pair of talented actors can play it and find new things each and every time.
    5. The scene where Patterson lets one of the actors go. Everyone in this production has to overcome obstacles, even the director; when one of his actors fails to perform, he simply has to drop the axe and recast one of his lead roles. Theater is hard work, and just like any job, the director has to take control and do what is necessary to make sure that the production is a success.
    6. Rehearsal at the Globe Theater On one very special day, the actors step onto the stage of the reconstructed Globe, and take a few tentative steps into the 1500s. Once in the space, they take to it like fish to water, playing with the audience, playing with projection, and their lines are infused with a special kind of energy that only arises from the boards of an Elizabethan stage. I found it interesting that when Jonathan was talking to Mark Rylance, the artistic director of the Globe, he asks what kind of man Shakespeare was, because he’s starting to see Shakespeare as a peer!
  1. My reaction: This documentary gives me hope every time I see it. Over and over again Patterson instills in his cast the idea of “Yes, you can,” yes, these people can understand Shakespeare, yes they can learn their lines, yes they can act, yes they can do something intelligent, and moving, and honest, and beautiful and what better play to bring that message across than Romeo and Juliet, which is full of youthful energy and excitement. My only complaint is the interviews with Baz Luhrman don’t really add much to the documentary side of things; Luhrman was really only there for name recognition, and he certainly knows less about Shakespeare than the RSC veteran Patterson. Nevertheless, the whole documentary Is nothing short of inspiring from beginning to end.
  2. Notable cast members
  1. Muska Khpal as Juliet. An 18 year- old Afghan refugee who came to England in 1996, without even speaking English, now playing one of the greatest characters in English literature! Like Juliet herself, Muska has very strict parents (who didn’t approve of her playing the part), and is at first is extremely shy towards Romeo, toward the play, and even the director, but when you hear her talk about her dream to return to Afghanistan and become a doctor, you can sense Juliet’s strength and independence.
  2. Jonathan Taylor 22 year-old Jonathan is a very charismatic and intelligent young man. After this production he became a professional actor. He speaks articulately about the experience of acting for the first time, reading Shakespeare for the first time, and even his own experiences with love and violence on the streets of Harlesden. He is also very talented and speaks the lines with an effortless panache. I found myself rooting for him the whole time, and the fact that I got to see this production spark his interest in acting and then to see him change and grow was truly inspiring.
  3. Mustafa as Mercutio Tiny, sparkle eyed Somali refugee. He is truly Mercurial- he frequently jokes and kids with the cast, yet at the same time, he is deathly serious when he talks about his life in Somalia- seeing people die in front of him. When he dies onstage, you know his performance is drawn from some real world experience.
  1. Grade: 5 Shakespeare globes.

Another Review: Films Media Group – “My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet for a New Generation:” http://www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=20674&r=

Interview with the director, Joseph Patterson: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/jul/01/shakespeare-and-me-paterson-joseph-julius-caesar

Where Did This Play Come From?

Poster for a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” that I worked on in 2012.

When I say that the story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless, I mean that the story’s roots go back almost to the beginnings of time. According to Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the desire for love is inexplicably tied to the desires for creation, and destruction. These contradictory forces live deep in the human psyche, which explains why stories of doomed love have been re-interpreted throughout history. What follows is a short history of the stories that inspired Shakespeare, so you can see how this archetypal story has evolved into the one we still read today.

Ancient Sources

When Shakespeare was going to school in the late 1560s, Elizabethan boys were expected to read ancient Greek and Roman writers, who wrote many of the classical love stories listed below. We know that Shakespeare remembered of all these stories because he gives a brief homage to them in Ac II, Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet:


Now is he [Romeo] for the numbers
that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a
kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to
be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;
Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey
eye or so, but not to the purpose.

Mercutio’s opinion of these old love stories is that they are based on a false concept of true love, when in fact, love for Mercutio is merely lust and obsession.

Hero and Leander

Leander swimming across the Hellespont. Detail from a painting by Bernard Picart.

          • Author– Unknown (traditional Greek Myth)
          • Date Of Composition 1400- 300 BC (approx)
          • Plot– Hero, a prophetess of Aphrodite loves Leander, a young man from the other side of her temple across a river called the Hellespond. As a priestess, Hero is supposed to remain a virgin, but Leander convinces her to make love to him, and visits her several times by swimming across the Hellespond. Their affair comes to a tragic end when on one stormy night, Leander is overcome by the waves and drowns on his journey to be with his beloved Hero. Consumed with grief, Hero throws herself off the temple tower to be with him.
          • Moral– love (or at least lust), destroys and kills.

The Iliad

        • Author– Homer
        • Date Of Composition 800 BC (approx)
        • Plot– Paris, the prince of Troy abducts and ravishes Helen, the queen of Sparta in Greece, leading to a 10 year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. This war divides everyone in both countries, even the gods, leading to the question of whether love is more important to loyalty to one’s country or family.
        • Moral– Ambiguous- The Greeks fight the Trojans bravely, but only to destroy Troy. Whereas the Trojans are often more sympathetic than the Greeks, but their decision to protect Paris and Helen’s adulterous affair is very unwise. The characters in this story strive to answer the question of what is the most important thing in life- desire for power, fame, to protect one’s home, or love?

Tristan and Isolde

        • Authors– Various, including the French bards Thomas and Beroul
        • Date of Composition– somewhere around the 12th century AD.
        • Plot– Similar to the Trojan War story, but in a medieval context: a young English knight named Tristan meets the heroine, a princess from Ireland, who is engaged to his country’s king. Their passion is instant and fiery, (sometimes it is the result of a love potion they accidentally drank), but it also forces them to make a terrible choice- If Tristan carries off Isolde, he will be disobeying his king, destroying a peaceful alliance, and forcing England and Ireland to go to war. However, it is clear from the beginning that Isolde does not love the one-eyed English king, and  if she marries him, Isolde will be miserable her whole life. Tristan fights gallantly to protect both Isolde and her honor and it puts Tristan, the king, and Isolde into a torturous love triangle, which usually ends with Tristan and the king fighting to the death.
        • Morals
          1. Arranged marriages ruin everything,
          2. love is like a drug,
          3. “Bros before, [you know-what].”
        • Note– This story was also the root of the story of Lancelot in the Arthur myths. In the version created by Thomas Mallory in the 15th century, Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guineveere, and betrays King Arthur, whom he loves like a father. Lancelot’s adultery eventually destroys the fellowship of the Round Table, and allows Arthur’s wicked bastard son Mordred to kill Arthur and ruin Camelot.

Renaissance Sources

Here is a brief timeline of the narrative sources dating from 1530-1580 that Shakespeare used to create his own masterpiece. As you can see, they differ considerably from the ancient sources in plot, and overall morals.

Timeline Of the Narrative Sources of Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Giulietta

Da Porto's Novel "Newly found story of two noble lovers"-1530

        • Author– Luigi Da Porto in his novel Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (“Newly found story of two noble lovers”
        • Date of Composition- 1530
        • Background– Da Porto was a soldier and a brilliant story writer. Some claim that he based his tale on an earlier story, while some claim he based it on his falling in love with a girl at a masked ball. In any case, Da Porto was the first to set the story in Verona, created the characters of Mercutio and Benvolio, and also the first author to change the context of the story into two warring households, rather than great empires or kingdoms. This small change helps the audience sympathize with the lovers more, since they are not guilty of treason or adultery.
        • Plot– Two noble houses, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti are at war. The hero  Romeo meets Giulietta at a Carnival ball, which makes him forget about an unrequited love he has for an unnamed girl (the name Rosalind is Shakespeare’s invention).  The two lovers have several liasons over a much longer period than in Shakespeare’s play at Guilietta’s chamber window. Also, although they are married in secret and Romeo is banished just as in Shakespeare’s version, the character he kills is not related to Guilietta. However, the plot device of the sleeping potion and  Romeo’s suicide is also consistent with Shakespeare’s version of the story.

Romeus and Juliet

Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet

        • Author– Matteo Bandello’s in his story Novelle,
          (translated into English) by Arthur Brooke in 1587.
        • Date of Composition– 1554, (translated in 1562, re-printed 1587)
        • Background– Bandello adapted Da Porto’s version of the story and developed the supporting characters, adding The Nurse, the Friar and the Apothecary, and developing Benvolio (without giving him a name).
        • Plot– This plot is almost exactly the same as Shakespeare’s play,but it does reveal some narrative details that Shakespeare omits. Bandello’s poem reveals the origin of the Capulet/ Monegue feud, as well as the ultimate fates of the surviving characters.
        • Moral– Like many other interpretations, the author (or at least the translator) seem to be struggling with the Christian taboo of premarital sex, which to some extent condemns the protagonists. In the English translation by Arthur Brooke, the Preface makes it very clear that Brooke is not condoning Romeus’ premarital sex or his blatant disregard for his parents’ authority. Brooke claims that the story is intended to show the actions of bad people being punished for their actions:

The good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. To this good end serve all ill ends of ill beginnings. And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust – (Brooke, Romeus and Juliet )

    • On the other hand, at the end of the poem, Bandello describes Romeus and Juliet’s love (or at least Brooke’s translation), as: “so perfect, sound, and so approvéd love,” which suggests that the author at least approve of the lover’s actions. One can almost imagine Italian passion fighting with English morality in the dueling pens of Brooke and Bandello. It was up to Shakespeare to try and resolve this conflict in his own version.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet 1st Quarto.

      • Author– William Shakespeare
      • Date of Composition 1593 (approximately)
      • Plot– One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare’s play is that he develops the characters of Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence, but deliberately omits certain plot elements such as why the feud began between the Capulets and Montegues, and what happened to The Apothecary, Nurse, and Friar Lawrence after the Prince found out about the lovers’ suicides. This effectively makes the Capulet/Montegue feud seem pointless, which allows the audience to focus more on the lovers. On the other hand, Shakespeare also compresses the time Romeo and Juliet know each other from 9 months as in Brooke’s version to 5 days, making the love affair seem even more rash. These changes in plot make the story much less a morality tale about morally wrong love, and more about the war between creative and destructive love that play in the human psyche.
        • Moral– As we’ve seen, most interpretations of the story condemn the lovers as rash, foolish, and adulterous. Shakespeare refuses to condemn or condone. That is Shakespeare’s great gift for storytelling- he doesn’t give us clear answers because he knows life is more complicated than that. He merely provides two sides of an issue and lets the reader sort it out for themselves.

How did Shakespeare get away with ripping off material this old? You’d think that, since every English schoolboy knew this story for over 1000 years, nobody would see this play since there would be no surprises. The answer is that Shakespeare writes primarily for characters, not plot. He infuses old characters like Romeo and Juliet with a new language that makes them more complete, more modern, and more timeless. That’s why stories like R&J, which was already known to Shakespeare’s audiences, are still entertaining and compelling, even after you read it 100 times, and see hundreds of different productions.

I hope this short history of the sources of Romeo and Juliet allows you to ponder the complex theories behind love and lust that authors have struggled to explain in the history of this story. Each age debates the values of love and whether it’s worth fighting or dying or killing for. Perhaps the best thing about Shakespeare’s version is that it tries to provide the most complete summary of the question, without giving us an answer, allowing us to marvel at how complex it is.

Thanks For Reading!

Shakespearean Student

Fun Posts about Friar Lawrence from our Friends at “Zounds, Alack, and By My Troth.”

I love it every time I come across some Shakespearean humor. One of the ideas I keep coming back to in “Romeo and Juliet,” is how close the play comes to being a comedy- it has two lovers, a funny nurse, a wisecracking friend, if people didn’t die it could be a sitcom. Even more ridiculous is the clichéd comic device of having people fake their own deaths, which Shakespeare does again in his comedy Much Ado About Nothing. So here is a humorous take on the old friar, and his go-to advice:

Web comic strip from “Zounds, Alack and By My Troth,” Used with permission.


Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Have To Read This Play” Part III

Here is the last post on my series of 3 which examines the importance question of why should we read or see this play? In the last post I argued that, although the play is sometimes billed as a moral story, the characters engage in really reprehensible behavior- premarital sex, muder, and whining about their teenage problems. So the question is, if the play isn’t a moral parable, what can we gain from reading it?

Reason # 3- The Play Shows Truths About

the Human Condition.

  • Richard Dadd, Sketch for the Passions. Love (1853)

    Even though the play’s characters frequently do rash and sometimes foolish things, this only serves to make them more complex and realistic. The truth is, we all do foolish things when in love, and they all dramatically effect our lives, (sometimes for better or for worse).

The point is that the qualities we demonstrate when we’re in love, reveal who we truly are. Romeo is foolish, obsessed with his lover, sometimes selfish, and hot-blooded. He is also tender, caring, utterly without deceit or pretense, and committed to his beloved at any cost.

  • I believe this is why we really need to keep reading and watching this play. As Judy Dench said in the film “Shakespeare In Love,” the play shows the very truth and nature of love, not just the budding romances or passionate affairs, but dark obsessions, painful separations, family bonds, and even, “glooming peace,” as the Prince says at the end of the play. Shakespeare shows them all, not judging one to be better or worse, but demonstrating the feelings and the actions that arise in reaction to the powerful force of love.

Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet (1884)

So when you read this play, try to look beyond the peculiar language, the old-fashioned type and the flowery poetry. Inside you might see a reflection of yourself, what Shakespeare called, “the mirror up to nature.”

Thanks for Reading,

-Shakespearean Student

Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Read This Play?” (Part II of 3)

Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Read This Play?” (Part II of 3)

Posted on August 23, 2012 by Open Air Shakespeare NRV

Hello loyal subscribers and first time readers!

On Tuesday I posted an article about why schools are required to read “Romeo and Juliet.” I’d like to continue with another answer that is not quite as good, but has shaped the course of the play’s history.

Romeo and Juliet: Why Do We Have To Read This Play?

Answer # 2: We still read it because at one time, Romeo and Juliet was considered to be good for ‘moral instruction.’

In the 1770s, Shakespeare’s plays were read aloud, not as dramatic literature, but moral lectures to teach people about jealousy or love or ambition (Source: This American Life). Shakespeare was considered by many to be “The best judge of human nature,” as the dedication page says on the 1753 edition of Romeo and Juliet. This 18th century concept continued into the 19th, as evidenced in this painting, The Reconciliation Of the Capulets and Montegues, 1854.

“The Reconciliation of the Capulets and Montegues ” by Frederick Leighton, 1856.

Notice how in this picture, we see Romeo and Juliet as the lightest objects in the play, while their parents are directly center, holding hands. The “glooming peace” starts with the window, reflects off the dead lovers, and inspires the parents.

To readers and playgoers in the genteel age of the 18th and 19th centuries, Romeo and Juliet seem to champion love and peaceful co-existence, making the play seems to be a good play to teach young people. There is evidence in the play that supports this idea that Shakespeare was judging the youthful Romeo and Juliet to be morally superior to their parents. Shakespeare describes their parent’s hate as a canker or a parasite, sucking the life out of a flower, the feud has infected so much of Romeo and Juliet’s world, that it makes it impossible for their love to take root. In response, the young fight with their peaceful love to save the destructive world that their parents have created, and die as a sacrifice to true love. Looking at it this way, Romeo and Juliet take on a Christ-like status, dying to redeem their parent’s sins, which certainly would have appealed to the predominantly Christian audiences of the 18th and 19th centuries.

This approach does have its problems though:

  • Problem #2: The Language is FILTHY! When people like David Garrick adapted Romeo and Juliet, he cut all of Sampson and Gregory’s dirty jokes, and most of Mercutio’s. Even audiences today might be shocked to learn that one passage in Romeo and Juliet is still considered by modern standards to be PG-13:Problem #1: Although he dies nobly, Romeo also engages in many immoral behaviors, including his attempts to seduce Rosalind at the start of the play, his hot-blooded murder of Tybalt, and his purchase of illegal drugs from the Apothecary.
  • Mercutio:
    • Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
      And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
      As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
      Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
      An open a**, thou a poperin pear!

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

I won’t go into what Mercutio is actually talking about when he mentions the pear-like medlars, which women used to joke about when they were alone. Suffice it to say that if you ever believed that Shakespeare ennobles us because he only speaks in proper, age-appropriate language, I can only say that you are:

  • Problem #3: Nobody ever thinks in this play!
Claire Danes from “Romeo and Juliet” (1996) holds a gun to her head, and threatens suicide rather than marrying Paris.
Claire Danes from “Romeo and Juliet” (1996) holds a gun to her head, and threatens suicide rather than marrying Paris.
    •  Even though their parent’s feud is morally wrong, neither Romeo nor Juliet try to deal with it in a lasting, practical way, but instead try to run away from the problem. As Peter Saccio says in his lecture on Shakespearean tragedy, this approach is highly flawed: “Romeo and Juliet cannot live outside the social strata that their parents have created,” which means that they can’t run away forever or their lives will literally waste away. However lovely Romeo and Juliet’s  love is, it blinds their judgement too.
    • Even Friar Lawrence acts rashly as this wonderful video demonstrates:
  • Problem #4: The parents, (especially Lord Capulet), are also terrible moral figures-
  • As you can see in this lovely video from the BBC, Capulet attempts to fix his daughter up with an arranged marriage to manipulate the Prince to favor the Capulets. When Juliet refuses, Capulet reacts violently and threatens to disown her and hit her. Hardly an example of proper fatherly devotion.

Looking at all these examples, one could make the argument that Romeo and Juliet is a better example of immoral behavior. One could even argue that the tragic death of the two lovers was just the natural consequence of  their hasty, overly passionate affair.

As dubious as the morals in this play are, they can and have been used to construct several moral arguments, such as arguments against  pre-marrital sex,  or  arguments to pursue peace, or arguments for young people to be wiser in relationships. Each one is legitimate and Shakespeare gives each one its time to shine.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for Part III!

-Shakespeare Guru