How “Hamilton” is like a Shakespearean History Play

If you have two ears, you’re probably familiar with the Broadway Musical Hamilton. It swept the Tonys, has opened up touring productions across the country, and there’s already talk of a movie.

This historic American musical was the brainchild of writer Lin Manuel Miranda, who also originated the role of Alexander Hamilton.

The show is incredibly smart, creative, and delves into the seminal moments of American history.

What’s really exciting to me is that Hamilton also has a depth and complexity that mirrors some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, specifically the history plays.

Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote 10 plays about the lives of English kings, from the vain Richard the Second to the heroic Henry the Fifth, to the diabolical Richard the Third. Here is a list of Shakespearean history plays, with links to online study guides, listed in chronological order by reign, not publication date.

  1. King John
  2. Richard the Second
  3. Henry the Fourth, Part I
  4. Henry the Fourth, Part II
  5. Henry the Fifth
  6. Henry the Sixth , Part I
  7. Henry the Sixth , Part II
  8. Henry the Sixth , Part III
  9. Richard the Third
  10. Henry the Eighth

Are these Shakespearean history plays historically accurate by our standards? No, not by a long shot, though Shakespeare is only partially to blame for that. While Lin Manuel-Miranda had Hamilton’s own essays, his letters from friends and loved ones, and of course, every American history book at his disposal, Shakespeare’s sources were few, and mostly propaganda. They were, (to paraphrase Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin), “A series of lies, composed by winners, to excuse their hanging of the losers.”
Shakespeare’s genius however, was to turn these two-dimensional propaganda stories into three dimensional characters with which we can all identify. Miranda did the same thing in reverse- distilling his wealth of historical information into a universal story of a man’s quest for the American Dream. Hamilton went from being an immigrant, to a soldier, to a pioneer in American law, government, and finance and the musical reflects his struggle to achieve his dreams through each stage of his life. It is also a love song from America to a man who dreamed of a future for America, one not dissimilar to the ode Shakespeare wrote to his “Star of England,” Henry the Fifth. The greatest compliment I can give Miranda is to say that he created an American musical, with the scale and breadth of Shakespeare.

Part I: War and Peace

In Shakespeare’s histories, particularly the first tetracycle of plays that include Richard the Second, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard, III, there is a constant shift between war and peace, as scholar Robert Hunter observes. These plays cover the 200 year period of Wars of the Roses, and the end of the Hundred Years War. In all of these plays there are some very violent and very opportunistic young men who see war as an opportunity to rise above their stations. In war, they win glory in death, honor, respect, and status in life. However, in peacetime, they have “no delight to pass away the time,” as Richard III observes, and they struggle to survive in the political landscape of peace.

Hamilton is a man of this same mold: When we first meet him, he is a poor immigrant from the West Indies with no title or money to improve his status. He spends the first third of the musical wishing he could become a commander in the Revolutionary War, especially in the song: “My Shot”


Once Hamilton joins the revolution, his fortunes start to improve; he becomes George Washington’s aide-de-camp, becomes a war hero in the Battle of Yorktown, and marries Eliza Schyler, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America.

Hamilton in war bears similarities to Shakespearean characters like Hotspur, Richard Duke of York, and even Richard III; people who see war as a chance to either die in glory, or become honored, wealthy, and powerful.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, he fares less well once the war ends. Even though he becomes Washington’s first Secretary Of the Treasury, his success and closeness to now-President Washington makes him a walking target to his political adversaries. Even worse, his ambition and inability to compromise makes Hamilton equally vulnerable to people who see him as a loudmouth, an elitist, and a would-be demagogue who wants to control America’s finances and live like a king, similar to the way the British Prime Minister controls England’s finances.

The character Hamilton resembles most in peacetime is Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
I happen to know a lot about this character since I played him back in 2008. Wolsey controlled Henry VIII’s finances and was hated by most of Henry’s court because he was the son of a poor butcher in Essex, and became the king’s right-hand man. Just look at the faces of the people of the court in this painting of the king and Wolsey by Laslett John Pott; they are clearly jealous of Wolsey’s closeness to the king.

Potter, Laslett John, 1837-1880; The Dismissal of Cardinal Wolsey
Laslett John Pott, The Dismissal of Cardinal Wolsey, 1874 

In both plays, Washington and Henry are treated like gods- invulnerable, aloof, and completely above reproach.

In both plays, whenever anything bad happens, the legislature blames Wolsey and Hamilton, not the King or the President. Also, once Henry or Washington no longer supports their right-hand-man, each one falls from grace and is destroyed by his enemies.
Wolsey and Hamilton both fall because of their position as the financial advisor, which makes them a target to their enemies. Both are accused of using their country’s finances to enhance their personal wealth, which leads him to scandal and disgrace.

In Henry the Eighth , Wolsey is certainly guilty of conspiring to use his country’s wealth to line his own pockets- he pays the cardinals in Rome to influence their vote in the hopes that he will become the next Pope!

Pettie, John, 1839-1893; The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey
John Pettie: The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, 1869

CARDINAL WOLSEY

What should this mean?
What sudden anger’s this? how have I reap’d it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leap’d from his eyes: so looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall’d him
Then makes him nothing. I must read this paper;
I fear, the story of his anger. ‘Tis so;
This paper has undone me: ’tis the account
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends; indeed, to gain the popedom,
And fee my friends in Rome. O negligence!
Fit for a fool to fall by: what cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the king? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again. What’s this? ‘To the Pope!’
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to’s holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall

Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more. Henry the Eighth Act III, Scene ii.

Again, though Wolsey is guilty, like Hamilton he also used his financial genius to bring England into a new age of prosperity after centuries of war. The Tudors were some of the richest and most powerful monarchs in British history, and Wolsey helped establish their dynasty, but thanks to his enemies, he is turned out of court in disgrace:

O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. Henry VIII, Act III, Scene ii.

Hamilton is also accused of embezzling his wealth by his enemies, including James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson


Hamilton’s enemies argue that his banking system benefits New York, where Hamilton was part of the House Of Representatives, as well as the Constitutional Convention. The main difference between Wolsey and Hamilton is that he didn’t embezzle America’s money, he is actually guilty of a far worse sin- adultery. Hamilton is accused of having an affair, and embezzling funds to keep it quiet, which he denies in a spectacular fashion:

In both plays, the moment where the main character begins to fall is dramatized in a stirring, metaphor-rich soliloquy. Wolsey compares himself to the Sun, who, once he reaches the zenith of the sky, has nowhere to go but down to the west, and set into night.

Hamilton compares his situation to being in the eye of a hurricane, a particularly apt metaphor, since the real Alexander Hamilton’s house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1772. In addition, Lin Manuel Miranda‘s parents come from Puerto Rico an island that has, (and continues to be,) ravaged by hurricanes.

In the song, “Hurricane,” Hamilton remembers that when he lost everything as a boy in 1772, he beat the hurricane by writing a letter which was published in the newspaper, and inspired so much pity that the residents of the island raised enough money to send Alexander to America.


Later in the song, Hamilton decides to try to soothe the political hurricane that has engulfed him by writing a pamphlet, admitting the affair, but denying any embezzlement. Eventually the scandal destroys Hamilton’s career, but it doesn’t destroy his life; for that we have to look at the Shakespearean rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Part II- The Duel: Hamilton and Burr V Henry and Hotspur.
Aaron Burr and Hamilton keep meeting at important moments in the show, as if their fates are intertwined like gods in some kind of Greek tragedy.

Hamilton and Burr appear as polar opposites in the musical. Hamilton is fiery, opinionated, uncompromising, and highly principled. He ruffles feathers, but his supporters know where he stands. Burr is the opposite. He keeps his views to himself, and waits for the most opportune time to act on anything. Throughout the play, Hamilton and Burr hate and admire different things about each other. Hamilton admits that Burr’s cool practicality helps him to practice the law and succeed in politics, while Burr admires Hamilton’s energy and his ability to work and write as if his life depends on it, especially in the song “The Room Where It Happens.”


After Hamilton endorses Jefferson in the election of 1800, Burr loses the race, and the job of Vice President. In the musical, he blames Hamilton, and their grievance grows into a deadly conflict.


The rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr mirrors many characters in Shakespeare, but the two I want to focus on here are Hotspur and Prince Hal from Henry the Fourth Part One

As this video from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows, these two combatants meet only once in the play, but they are constantly compared to each other by the other characters, who talk about them as if they were twins, (they even have the same first name)! Even the king remarks that his son could have been switched at birth with Hotspur.

Prince Henry (known as Hal in the play), is the heir to the throne. Like Burr in Hamilton, Hal is methodical, cool, keeps his feelings to himself, and is known by some as a Machiavellian politician. Hotspur, (or Henry Percy), is his opposite. Like Hamilton he is fiery, eloquent, and not afraid to die for his cause, which in Hotspur’s case is to supplant the royal family and correct what he believes is an unjust usurpation by Hal’s father, King Henry the Fourth.

In the scene below, the two men seem hungry to not only kill one another, but to win honor and fame as the man who killed the valiant Henry. Whether it’s Henry Percy, or Prince Henry who will die, is something they can only find out by dueling to the death.

HOTSPUR

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.

PRINCE HENRY

Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.

HOTSPUR

My name is Harry Percy.

PRINCE HENRY

Why, then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.

HOTSPUR

Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come
To end the one of us; and would to God
Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!

PRINCE HENRY

I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee;
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.

HOTSPUR

I can no longer brook thy vanities.

They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls

HOTSPUR

O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for– Dies. 

Hamilton’s duel is also a matter of honor; Alexander wants to defend his statements against Burr, while Burr wants to stop Hamilton from frustrating his political career. Here is how their duel plays out in the musical Hamilton:


Just like Burr, Prince Hal feels remorse after killing his worthy adversary.

PRINCE HENRY

For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I’ll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave. Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene iv.

III. The Times

Yorktown battlefield plaqueIn both Hamilton and all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the characters know that they are living during important events and their actions will become part of the history of their country, and none more than Washington. In the song, “History has its eyes on you,” he warns Hamilton that, try as one might, a man’s history and destiny is to some extent, out of his control, which echoes one of King Henry the Fourth’s most bleak realizations:

Henry IV. O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and die. Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene i.

Washington is keenly aware of his legacy and does his best to protect it. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV,the king also lies awake trying to figure out how to deal with the problems of his kingdom, which is why Shakespeare gives him the famous line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Likewise, Richard II, makes a famous speech where he mentions how many kings have a gruesome legacy of dying violently:

As we see the whole story of Hamilton’s life progresses, his fate changes constantly and his legacy shifts in every scene of the show: immigrant, war-hero, celebrated writer, Secretary of the Treasury, but then, once he published The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton went from famous to infamous. After After Burr murdered him in the duel, Hamilton might have been utterly forgotten, in spite of all his great accomplishments. This is a key theme in all history and tragedies, the universal desire of every man to transcend mortality by trying to create a lasting legacy for himself.

The women who tell the story


Fortunately for Hamilton, the women of his story also help to preserve it. Historically, most of Hamilton’s archives were preserved by his wife Eliza Schyler, and she and her sisters help shape the story from the beginning to the end of the show. Hamilton’s sister in law Angelica sets up this theme by literally rewinding the scene of her first meeting with Alexander, and then retells how she and Hamilton met from her own point of view.

Once Eliza decides to marry Hamilton, she asks to “be part of the narrative.” She knows she married a important man and that his life will someday become part of American history. Eliza wants to be a part of that historic narrative.

When Hamilton commits adultery and writes the Reynolds pamphlet though, Eliza is so hurt and scandalized that she rescinds her requests. In the song “Burn,” she destroys her love letters from before the affair, and all correspondence she had with Alexander when he revealed it. Lin Manuel Miranda explained that he wrote the song this way because no records during this period survived, so he invents the notion of Eliza destroying them as a dramatic device, to heighten her estrangement from her husband. Though this is a contrivance, it does re-enforce how, when part of the story is lost, it twists and destroys part of our impression of a person. Henry Tudor went to great lengths to destroy the legacy of his predecessor Richard the Third, and literally repainted him as a deformed tyrant, which haunts Richard’s legacy to this day.


At the end of the play though, Eliza changes her mind yet again, as the final song I placed earlier shows, Eliza spends the last 50 years of her life to preserving and protecting her husband’s name, as well as Washington, all the founding fathers, and children who can grow up knowing that story at her orphanage. This song illustrates clearly that in the end, a man’s story is defined by the people who tell it, and Hamilton is fortunate to have such a creative, energetic and talented writer/ actor in Lin Manuel Miranda, and the cast of Hamilton, to preserve the story in such a Shakespearean way.

Bravo.

img_4003

Educational links related to Hamilton:

Books

downloadHamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter. A complete libretto of the show, with notes on its creative conception. download (1)

download (2)Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. This is the book that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to create the show. It is a stirring, well-researched historical biography.

TV: 

“Hamilton’s America” PBS Program. Originally Aired 2016. Official Webpage: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/hamiltons-america/ You can watch the full documentary here: http://www.tpt.org/hamiltons-america/

Web: 

Biography. Com- Alexander Hamilton:https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.biography.com/.amp/people/alexander-hamilton-9326481

Founders Online: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Columbia University, accessed 11/12/17 from https://founders.archives.gov/about/Hamilton 

House Of Representatives Biography: Alexander Hamilton- IIhttp://history.house.gov/People/Listing/H/HAMILTON,-Alexander-(H000101)/

Resources on Shakespeare’s History Plays:

Books

  1. Shakespeare English Kings by Peter Saccio. Published Apr. 2000. Preview available: https://books.google.com/books?id=ATHBz3aaGn4C 
  2. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. Available online at https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_Our_Contemporary.html?id=QIrdQfCMnfQC  
  3. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
    The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
  4. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by
  5. Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding Published: 16 Jan 2013. 77ace26dfdee4259bf48d6eed1a59d57

  6. Will In the World
    Will In the World by Robert Greenblatt
  7. Will In the World by Prof. Steven Greenblatt, Harvard University. September 17, 2004. Preview available https://www.amazon.com/Will-World-How-Shakespeare-Became/dp/1847922961TV

henries.HP_.CarouselScreens-480x270Shakespeare Uncovered: Henry the Fourth. Originally Aired February 1, 2013. Available at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/episodes/

Websites

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Quick Shout Out: Drunk Shakespeare

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.

Why Everyone Should Read (Or Teach) “The Merchant Of Venice.”

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.

img_5431Al 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.

robert-alexander-hillingford-the-three-caskets--the-merchant-of-venice,-act-iii,-scene-ii
Robert Alexander-Hillingford: The Three Caskets, The Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Sceneii
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.

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Maurycy Gottlieb: “Shylock and Jessica,” 1876
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.

Artwork: For a wonderful selection of pictures of Portia, please visit: http://themerchantofveniceportia.weebly.com/fair-portias-counterfeit.html 

Elizabeth Shuh: “Merchant Of Venice.” Reprinted with permission from Immortal Longings.com
Portrait of Edmund Keene as Shylock, circa 1815
Portrait of Jessica by Luke Fildes, 1888
Music: Where is fancy bred?

Resources

  1. Schmoop.com Summary of The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.shmoop.com/merchant-of-venice/summary.htmlhttps://www.shmoop.com/merchant-of-venice/summary.html
  2. Shakespearehelp.com- lesson plans for teachers on The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.shakespearehelp.com/the-merchant-of-venice-lesson-plans/
  3. Teaching English.org: Lesson Plans for Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/Mercy%20in%20Shakespeare’s%20The%20Merchant%20of%20Venice%20Lesson%20Plan.pdf
  4. Thug Notes: Merchant Of Venice (explicit language) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw9q2P2N028
  5. Varsity Tutors: Merchant Of Venicehttps://www.varsitytutors.com/englishteacher/merchant
  6. Intermediate Worksheets: Merchant Of Venice: http://www.macmillanreaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/The-Merchant-of-Venice-Worksheet.pdf
  7. Prestwick House: Worksheets for Students: Merchant Of Venice: https://www.prestwickhouse.com/samples/200958.pdf
  8. Shakespeare In the Schools: The Merchant Of Venice- Evaluating Values:  https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ca3e6c02-0eb6-436f-b605-f741673dd399/evaluating-values-merchant-of-venice/https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ca3e6c02-0eb6-436f-b605-f741673dd399/evaluating-values-merchant-of-venice/
  9. Internet Shakespeare Editions: The Merchant Of Venice- http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/m/lifetimes/plays/the%20merchant%20of%20venice/
  10. RSC Production History: The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-merchant-of-venice/about-the-play/stage-history

Trump Family Attacks Shakespeare- Julius Caesar Protest

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. 

Deposition by Augustine Phillips (one of Shakespeare’s actors), pleading that his company was innocent of treason.

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-

An Obama-like Caesar is murdered in The Acting Company’s 2012 production of “Caesar”

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.

https://youtu.be/Y7BtKlGGFKs

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. 

References

What depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump really means – CBS News

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/530037/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/theater/julius-caesar-shakespeare-donald-trump.amp.html

https://apple.news/AW6FmlDY3TEe4C97AG7UI4Q

Ted Nugent once said Obama should ‘suck on my machine gun.’ Now he wants to tone down ‘hateful rhetoric.’
– The Washington Post

View story at Medium.com

https://apple.news/AE9eeH-L6TxeY1qJwq4Ur8w

How Donald Trump Is Like Richard III

Last April, a NY post article called “The Bard’s Ballot,” compared the republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to Bottom the Weaver from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I found the comparison amusing, but sadly misguided. Trump isn’t a foolish actor trying to play Fairy king, he’s a conniving, evil bully who has slaughtered his opponents and is poised to take all the power in this country. There is only one character in the cannon who matches this level of cruelty: the hunchbacked cripple Richard III.

As you know, I’ve written about this before, but even I felt hesitant to compare Trump to the most vile of Shakespeare’s villains but frankly, if the hump fits, wear it.

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Looks like a villain to me. Looks like Dr. Evil, playing with his “lasers.”
How did this happen? How did we as a country get here? To try and solve this question, let’s take a lesson from Shakespeare. What follows is an analysis of the careers of both Trump, and Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester. For both men I’ll try to report chronologically through the play and through the primary to the election. For you teachers, this is a good way to explore the plot of Richard III, and you might want to adapt this post as a project for your students.

But first, a short disclaimer- I use the name “Shakespeare’s Richard” because I want to be clear that I’m talking about the character and not the historical king, who, as I discussed in a previous post, bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s iconic villain.

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Richard/ Donald Trump. Acts and Scenes taken from Open Source Shakespeare.com

Comparisons
Before both men were nominated to their positions of power, everyone thought they were a joke. Trump’s Orange face, ridiculous combover, and obvious lack of experience made news pundits literally laugh out loud when people even suggested he’d be the nominee.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s Richard got plenty of jeers himself because of his hump, bad limp and tiny hands, (sorry I mean withered arm). The first time he speaks in Henry VI, Part II, Act V, Scene one, Lord Clifford (a Lancastrian) just tells him to shut up:

Lord Clifford. Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!

In both cases, it proved dangerous to ignore the man, because it gave him a chance to slaughter everybody- In Act 1, Richard gets his brother Clarence arrested for treason. Then in Act III he arrests Lord  Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn, chops off Lord Hastings’s head, and secretly has his own nephews murdered.

Trump’s kind of murder is more an assassination of character- he accused Ted Cruz of being Canadian, attacked Marco Rubio’s  sweatiness, and relentlessly attacked everything about Carly Fiorina from her business record, to her appearance. Which brings me to my next point about Trump/ Shakespeare’s Richard:

Slide07Both Blame all the country’s problems on women– Richard knew that the only way to get away with killing his opponents was to blame his murders on someone else, someone whom the nobles hated even worse than himself. His brother the king married Elizabeth Woodville, a poor widow who had no political influence. The nobles hated her for “cheapening” the English monarchy. Even worse, Elizabeth made  her brother Anthony into Lord Rivers and her son the Marquess of Dorset. Richard blames them for his brother’s death and has them sent to prison and execution. He even blames the queen king herself for his deformed arm, in a plot to get one of her supporters executed.

Trump’s feuds with Rosie O’Donnell, his overtly sexist remarks against female reporters, and of course, his infamous claim that Hillary Clinton is the co-founder of ISIS and that her legacy is one of death, destruction, and weakness, demonstrate his mysogynist, scorched-earth rhetoric when dealing with the first female presidential nominee.

Another parallel is that Shakespeare’s Richard is particularly nasty when attacking people’s sexual history. Just like Bill Clinton, King Edward IV had a widely publicized affair with a woman, which damaged his reputation.  Richard curses  Jane Shore, Edward’s mistress as a witch and blames her for the King’s death, (when actually Richard had a greater hand in it). Smearing his brother as an adulterer helps Richard establish himself as a pious, humble king in Act III. In the clip above, you see Richard accepting the crown dressed as a monk, complete with rosary and a prayer book in his hand. Trump mirrored this kind of hypocrisy when he attempted to attack Bill Clinton’s infidelity with Monica Lewinsky, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with Hillary’s campaign. In addition, it’s been well documented that Trump has been married four times, and cheated on his first wife with the woman who would become his second.

Both Men Stir Up deep Hatred and Animosity– As I mentioned in my previous Trump post, Trump has basically made his campaign on promising to deport immigrants and refuse Muslims into this country, which means he has created a power base of highly xenophobic people who have even resorted to violence in his campaign rallies.

Shakespeare’s Richard is just as vile. Not only does he get the nobles to support him because they’d rather see him on the throne than Elizabeth’s children, at the end of the play, he uses some extremely xenophobic remarks against his enemy Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Henry was living in France for most of his life, and his army was mostly composed of Welshmen, which Richard exploits by condemning them all as foreigners.

Notice how at the end of the speech, Richard (in true Trump fashion), warns his followers that if they don’t destroy Richmond’s followers, (whom he calls ‘Bretons’), that they will rape the Englishmen’s wives and daughters, sound familiar?

In Order To Win, Both Men Have A Powerful mouthpiece- BUCKINGHAM V Surrogates

To convince the English people to reject King Edward’s sons as bastards, Richard enlists the help of the Duke Of Buckigham, an oily politician if ever there was one and a cunning orator. Basically, Buckingham is Richard’s campaign manager.

To get the nobles to support Shakespeare’s Richard, first Buckingham gets Will Catesby to spy on Lord Hastings, to see if he’ll side with Richard or the prince. When Hastings turns out to be indifferent, Richard calls on the Privy Council to chop off his head. Hmm, who else has asked his supporters to assassinate his opponent?


Then Buckingham stages a campaign rally to try and get the citizens to support Richard, and this leads me to the most bizarre example of life-imitates Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.

Both Richard and Trump paid people to support him:

According to the Hollywood Reporter, back on June 12th, 2016, Trump paid a bunch of actors to cheer at one of his campaign rallies. This was one of the most embarrassing dirty tricks of the Trump campaign (so far), and amazingly, it worked! But then again, it worked for Richard as well:

In Act III, scene 7, Buckingham plants a bunch of people in a crowd during a speech where he declares the prince illegitimate, and demands “All they that love their county’s good say: “God save Richard, England’s worthy king.”

  • Duke of Buckingham. I bid them that did love their country’s good
    Cry ‘God save Richard, England’s royal king!’
  • Duke of Buckingham. No, so God help me, they spake not a word; 2225
    But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
    Gazed each on other, and look’d deadly pale.
    Which when I saw, I reprehended them;
    And ask’d the mayor what meant this wilful silence:
    His answer was, the people were not wont 2230
    To be spoke to but by the recorder.
    Then he was urged to tell my tale again,
    ‘Thus saith the duke, thus hath the duke inferr’d;’
    But nothing spake in warrant from himself.
    When he had done, some followers of mine own, 2235
    At the lower end of the hall, hurl’d up their caps,
    And some ten voices cried ‘God save King Richard!’
    And thus I took the vantage of those few,
    ‘Thanks, gentle citizens and friends,’ quoth I;
    ‘This general applause and loving shout 2240
    Argues your wisdoms and your love to Richard:’
    And even here brake off, and came away.

Notice in line 2235, Buckingham makes it clear that the only people who call out to Richard are Buckingham’s followers, not members of the general public. Also note earlier where he has to speak for Richard second hand, like a modern Trump surrogate. It seems almost comic that Trump borrowed such a text-book piece of political villainy.

After the fake rally for Richard, Buckingham brings a group of citizens to Baynard’s Castle in order to”beg” Richard to accept the crown. As you saw in The Hollow Crown clip earlier, while Richard plays monk, Buckingham plays concerned citizen, trying to keep the “bastard” son of a letcheous king from disgracing the country by putting the “humble” Richard on the throne.

Trump has many people whose sole job is to lie about everything he says and does, from his campaign manager, ( who, by the way, believes that the reason women are raped is they aren’t as strong as men), to his campaign surrogates who try to twist and spin every racist, sexist, and downright ludicrous thing Trump says:

Richard/ Buckingham’s fall: 

The first three acts of Richard III are an upward climb for the title character, but then in Act IV, when Richard orders the murder of King Edward’s son, he slowly loses his supporters, including Buckingham. You’ll see in this scene from Act IV, Scene ii, once Richard is crowned, he is instantly faced with a multitude of threats to his power, leading him to murder his nephews and try to marry his own niece. Meanwhile, after Buckingham leaves King Richard, he is found, captured, and has his head chopped off.

Trump may be on a downward spiral already. True, he didn’t murder children, (although he does apparently hate babies). In the past three weeks, he slandered the family of a war veteran, declared that his opponent is the founder of ISIS, and is losing in almost every major poll. Also, his own Buckingham, his campaign manager Paul Manafort, got his head on the block by being forced to resign from Trump’s campaign. Manafort has a long history of getting money from people like Vladimir Putin, which raises suspicion that he might have been involved in the Russian hacking of the DNC emails. Even worse for Trump, he now knows that his immigration policy won’t work and won’t appeal to the majority of Americans, and is now promising to do nothing different from Obama, despite the months he spent promising to kick out as many undocumented minorities and Muslims as possible. Voters do not tolerate flip-flopping candidates, and this back pedaling could seem like a fatal weakness.

The aftermath/ the Future?:
Shakespeare’s Richard was a cruel tyrant who led the country into a civil war and spent all his time trying to keep the crown on his head. His allies deserted him, and he was left crying for a horse before he was eventually defeated… by a woman! Queen Elizabeth Woodville resisted Richard’s demands to give him her daughter to him in marriage, and instead gave  Henry Tudor her consent to marry the young princess (who was also named Elizabeth). The marriage legitimized Henry as heir to the throne.

Henry then challenged Richard to battle and defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth field, then took the throne as King Henry VII. His dynasty led England to the greatest period of peace and prosperity in its history, with a woman on the throne who was also called Elizabeth.

Let’s hope the election plays out as well as Shakespeare’s Richard III, just as Trump’s ominous rise to power has mirrored Shakespeare’s Richard’s infamous career.

Sleep No More Review

This was without a doubt, the most incredible theater experience I’ve ever had. It was scary, interactive, exciting, clever, sexy, and even a little disturbing, but without a doubt it was incredible, original, and true Shakespearean theater.

Before you read the review though, a word of caution-

WARNING: this is a production where, the less you know about it, the better your experience will be. I will provide a basic outline of the production, and give you an insight into what I experienced, but I would urge you to see the show yourself without any preconceptions, so if you want to keep the mystery going that surrounds this production, I suggest you stop reading…

RIGHT

NOW.

Alright, if you’ve chosen to keep reading, that means you want to know more, so more I shall give you. Going from the general to the specific, I’m going to talk a bit about what the show is, then describe the experience a bit, and then offer some tips for people who have never gone before.

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Sleep No More is not the traditional kind of theater- there is no proscenium, no stage, no seats, and only one platform. It’s what theater teachers like my wife call “Experiential Theater.” The way she explains it, it’s theater that exists as an event. Rather than sitting and watching, you actively follow the action and you can get so close to the actors you can, (and sometimes will), touch them.

The play was conceived by an English company called Punchdrunk Theater Company, who took over an old 6 story warehouse on West 27th Street in New York City, and turned it into a fictional hotel/bar called the “McKittrick Hotel.” The play, (which is done entirely without dialogue), is a re-imagination of both Macbeth, and the novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, set in the 1930s. The audience is admitted on the ground floor and are permitted to go freely through the 6 floor set and watch the actors perform. Different actors perform on different floors and interact with other actors at different times, and the audience may watch any scene or actor they wish.

The title of the play comes from this passage from Macbeth:

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The Experience

As I said before, this a very freeing and very active kind of theater. The only division between you and the actors is that you will wear a face mask. Your role is basically to be an anonymous spectator at an event that unfolds before you, an event full of madness, sex, murder, and mayhem. I would describe it as sort of like living in the strange orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, or that scene in The Shining where Shelly Duvall runs through rooms of the hotel and keeps seeing bizarre sights.

From the moment you enter the incredibly detailed hotel, you know you are in a place that was dangerous, dark, and chaotic. You wonder if the people are crazy, or if the building itself is crazy.

As an audience member, you set the pace of your experience as you wonder through the hotels’ infirmary, library, parlor, bath, ballroom, balcony, patio, and dark forest (masterfully designed by Alexandria Challer). Eventually the actors will find you and you choose whether to follow them or wait for something else to come along. When I first entered the hotel, I spent a few minutes looking at the set- reading a hotel guest list, or examining a jar in the pantry, or staring at animal carcasses in the trophy room.  Eventually  though, I found a story unfold before me, and I rushed to follow it.

Because none of the actors talk, this play is not Macbeth, unless you want it to be, it is not Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, unless you want it to be. YOU determine what your experience is. The great, (and famously crazy) theater theorist Antonin Artaud once said, “Text is a prison.” If that’s true, then Sleep No More has set its actors free: their movements convey the story through mime, ballet, gestures, and occasional words. This freedom from the restrictions of text means that it’s up to you to truly piece a story together, and you will find that story can alter, change, and sometimes disappear into mist.

How is This Story Macbeth? (Spoilers Ahead)

One of the most common complaints I read online from people who saw the show is that they didn’t understand the connection between Sleep No More and Macbeth. I don’t want to give too much away because I feel that part of the fun in this production is trying to figure out the connection yourself, but I will provide you with a few scenes to look for, to give you some clues on how to connect this physical theater piece with Shakespeare’s play:

Scenes to look for:

  1. In the bedchamber on the 3rd floor, there is a bathtub on a small platform. On the steps leading up to the tub I saw a letter that contains this text from Shakespeare:

They met me in the day of success: and I have
learned by the perfectest report, they have more in
them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire
to question them further, they made themselves air,
into which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in
the wonder of it, came missives from the king, who
all-hailed me ‘Thane of Cawdor;’ by which title,
before, these weird sisters saluted me, and referred
me to the coming on of time, with ‘Hail, king that
shalt be!’ This have I thought good to deliver
thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou
mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being
ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it
to thy heart, and farewell.

Macbeth

This was the first definite evidence I had that the performance was inspired by Shakespeare besides the title of the play. A woman in a beautiful ball gown entered and read the note, pacing the whole time. Suddenly a handsome, red headed man came in. Like the Macbeths in Shakespeare, the body language between these two was hot and fierce; at times passionate and sexual, at times violent and animalistic. Lady Macbeth uses her body and her caresses to tempt her husband to murder, as the one in Shakespeare seduces him with her words. He trembles, turns away, brushes her off. Then, when she persists they struggle- clawing and slapping, even throwing each other across the bed, but in the end, exhausted, he slumps. She, victorious, leaves the room, looking like a queen already.

2. Alone in his room, Macbeth contemplates his dire murder. He leaves the warmth of the bedchamber and enters a dark, moon-lit forrest with a few gravestones. I followed him out into the forrest, knowing that what he does now will probably be an interpretation of Macbeth’s two most famous soliloquies: “If It Were Done When Tis Done” (Act I, Scene vii), and the famous Dagger Speech from Act II, Scene ii. Since the actor didn’t talk, he had to convey Macbeth’s inner torture with his body. I saw him going up to a statue of the Virgin Mary, beating his fists and chest against the hard stone. It was clear to me that this symbolized Macbeth’s struggle between morality and desire. He staggered away from the statue and stopped at a stone pathway that led back to the bedroom. Macbeth then put his hands on the stones, lifted his body up pull-up like, and kicked his legs in a futile attempt of motion. I immediately thought of Macbeth’s line:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth I,vii).

It was clear that the actor was showing how Macbeth cannot bring himself to kill, yet is too ambitious to let go of the desire to kill and this is what manifested in his tortured body. He then turned toward me and the other audience members and I saw his expression change. He looked around, worried, even frightened, as if he saw something he couldn’t believe. It wasn’t clear to me at first, but now I’m pretty sure that he was looking at the dagger from his famous soliloquy, and it was US. He ran from the forrest, and we charged after him like a swarm of angry bees! We found him in a corridor on the 2nd floor, where he again hoisted his body up against an old fireplace, inverting himself with his legs sticking up, and his head below, like an upside down cross. He then stretched his hands out and waved them frantically. Two frightened audience members took them and helped him hoist himself down. When Macbeth got to his feet, he proceeded to a darkly lit chamber where another man lay sleeping…

3. In a small bar on the 1st floor, I saw Macbeth with two women and one man. They all wore black lipstick and had crazed and hungry looks in their eyes. The music sped up to a crazed pace and the movements erupted into a terrifying orgy of sights and sounds. A strobe light pulsed showing me glimpses of the frightening spectacle, which included the two women stripping their clothes, the man putting on the head of a goat, and one of the women pulling out an infant covered with blood, and holding it in triumph over Macbeth’s head. At this moment I realized that these gruesome creatures must be the witches, and that they were foretelling Macbeth’s destiny as they do in Act IV. They also brought out a tree, which signified the prophesy that Macbeth will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood walks to Dunsinane Hill. To be honest, I don’t remember much after that, I was probably still in shock!

4. Back in the forrest, I encountered a small brick structure that looked like a tower, with a woman looking out of it expectantly. She beckoned me to come inside. When I did, I saw that she was dressed in a nurses’ uniform, and she was looking at a doctor with concern. Inside the tower was a small operating room with a circular table in the center, and two rows of seats above it. The doctor was injecting some kind of drug into his arm, which made it twitch in spasms. The two of them walked into the forrest and through a door into a room that looked like a small train station with platforms and travel posters on the walls. Lady Macbeth was there, wondering aimlessly. I instantly identified this moment as the famous sleepwalking scene, where Lady Macbeth contemplates the crimes to which she has become accessory. Usually the actress conveys her guilt by washing imaginary blood off her hands, but in this case she chose to interact with people, specifically, ME. She held out her hands to me, I took them. She looked into my eyes with a haunted look on her face. Then she whispered in my ear: “The thane of Fife had a wife, and she was beautiful.” I could see that this woman felt alone and afraid, with no one to talk to. She was no longer the powerful figure throwing her husband across the bed. This was what had driven her mad, and her madness allowed her to see me and the rest of us in the audience. She looked upon us with looks of disgust and terror, as if we were the ghosts of the people she killed, and ran away somewhere we couldn’t follow. We never saw her again (until the ghostly finale).

Those were just a few pieces that I witnessed. I won’t give away how it ended, but I will tell you that the show ended in a dining room on a tableau that reminded me of a cross between Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and the banquet scene of Macbeth. 

When I talked to my wife, (who also came to the show, but was in a different audience group from me), she told me that there were many other scenes that were clearly inspired by Rebecca; she encountered a woman that she figured out was the ghoulish housekeeper Ms Danvers. She also had an intense meeting with the long-suffering Mrs. DeWinter, who gave her a locket and told her to keep it always. Finally, my wife revealed to me the startling fact that (Spoiler Alert), the same woman who plays the infamous Rebecca, dressed in a red flowing gown, also becomes Hecate, the goddess of black magic in Macbeth!

These performances are athletic, well thought-out, and incredibly nuanced. If you take some time to familiarize yourself with the stories of Macbeth and Rebecca, you can understand how the actors are interpreting the stories through dance, mime, and interactions with the set, props, and occasionally, the audience themselves.

I’d now like to conclude this review with my own pieces of advice for those of you who choose to see the show:

  1. Yes, wear comfy shoes. Almost everyone will tell you to bring comfortable shoes and they’re right- if you don’t want to lose the thread of a story, you have to be quick. Macbeth in particular is fast and nimble as a tiger, and you have to run fast to keep up with him.
  2. Find a person that interests you. I think some people make the mistake of staying in one place too long and ignoring the actors. This is physical theater, so try to find an actor to follow.
  3. Pretend you are a ghost if it helps Remember, murder and insanity are here, and you have a chance to see what it looks like and how it moves. Look right into the actor’s eyes and embrace your power to haunt these lost souls. Don’t be afraid to get close to them, and stay there as long as possible.
  4. If you do read Macbeth or Rebecca beforehand, it can be useful to memorize a few lines or moments and look for them in the performance. I can tell you for a fact that these actors meticulously planned their performances to give physical life to these two great works of literature. Look for a gesture, a glance, or a prop that jogs your memory and puts you into this hybrid world of Shakespeare and Du Maurier.
  5. The actors can sense if you are interested in interacting with them. If you seem scared or apprehensive, they will respect your space and not get close to you, but if you show them you are brave enough, they will extend a hand, or come toward you and give you a theater experience you will never forget.
  6. Leave your loved ones behind. Nothing was more fun to me than talking about my experience with my wife after the show and piecing our nights together. Even though the same show was going on the whole time, we saw different people, to different rooms, and had very different reactions.
  7. If an actor disappears, don’t wait for them. Sometimes you’ll follow an actorrl and they’ll duck into a corridor, or go behind a locked door, or a sentinel in a black mask will block your path. Now the story is over, and you are alone. Now you must choose again where to go, and try and uncover the sense of this horror.
  8. If you get to go to the 6th floor, consider yourself very lucky. Only a few people get to see it. My wife said she saw one person go up there. He was on an elevator with a small group. As they reached the top floor, a hotel porter let him off, then extended an arm, to indicate no one else would be admitted. Even the man’s girlfriend was blocked by the porter, who then explained, “This experience is best undertaken, alone.”

Well, I hope this whetted your appetite somewhat. Like I said this show is incredible, and very different from the kind of theater we generally think of, and that’s what makes it engaging and exciting. However, there is violence, nudity, and gruesome imagery onstage so it is definitely not for children. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the Sleep No More website: www.sleepnomore.com/

Until next time,

Sleep Well.