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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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.

img_5433
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

Shakespeare’s Perfect Halloween Play

With just a few days left until Halloween, many of us will be anxious to put the candy bowl away, dim the lights, and watch a scary movie. I’d like to recommend my pic for the single best Shakespeare play for Halloween, and you might be surprised to learn which one it is:

It’s not Macbeth, despite its ghosts and witches, it’s not Hamlet, though it has a famous scene in a graveyard. In my opinion, the scariest, most horrific, most disturbing Shakespearean play is the ancient Roman revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus!

Titus Who?

Titus is the most violent, most outrageous play in the Shakespearean cannon and features murder, mutilation, cannibalism, (and even featured the first recorded trick or treating). It was also his first tragedy ever, written around 1590. Back in this period, Shakespeare’s theater was also the site of public executions and blood sports like Bear-baiting, so Shakespeare knew that gore sells. He also knew that people were reading the bloody tragedies of the Roman poet Seneca, so he created a play that out-does the Roman master of bloody violence!

So why have you not heard of it?

  • Too violent for school For most people, their first encounters with Shakespeare is in the classroom, and because of the violence in this play it’s definitely not appropriate for high school. The most famous atrocity in the play happens to Titus’ daughter, who is raped offstage. Then, to keep her from incriminating the men who raped her, the rapists cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Quite a departure from the “Honey tongued” Shakespeare we see in the comedies and sonnets.
  • It’s vulgar: T.S. Eliot declared that Titus Andronicus is “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” For people who expect Shakespeare to be poetic and romantic, this play is a sad dissapointment.
  • It’s Over the top- People don’t just die in this play, they get butchered horror movie style! Some get stabbed and thrown in a pit, some get their limbs chopped off, one character is buried alive! Many scholars say that after one atrocity after another, the only way you can react to the horror onstage is to laugh. Look at this scene where the villain of the play, Aaron the Moor, confesses to a laundry list of hideous atrocities which he did just for the pleasure of being evil:

Scholars often compare the dark comedy of Titus to the films of Quentin Tarantino, who will murder his characters in grotesque, but funny ways. I won’t even give away the surprise ending where Titus and his daughter gets their revenge, but let’s just say that they would certainly agree with Tarantino that revenge is a dish, best served cold!

  • It might be racist As I mentioned in the clip above, the main villain of the play is a black man. Aaron, like Richard III is completely evil and unapologetic about it.  When I was studying Shakespeare in college, James Earl Jones, (Darth Vader himself) came to my school to talk about Shakespeare’s racially diverse characters. He argued though that nobody treats Aaron any differently until they learn about his heinous crimes and that the person who seems to hate Aaron’s blackness the most is himself. Look at this passage and see if you agree:

AARON

I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand

Look by and by to have thy sons with thee.
Aside Their heads, I mean.

O, how this villany
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace.
Aaron will have his soul black like his face (Titus, Act III, Scene 1).

Now the question to ask about Aaron and most of Shakespeare’s villains, is are they bad because they’re different (different race, differently abled, illegitimate birth), or did they become bad from people treating them badly?

Serious note– Even though productions often dramatize the violence and rape in Titus as over-the-top black comedy, this kind of rape and violence happens in real life, every day, particularly violence against women like Lavinia. One reason why this play is gaining popularity is sadly, that this kind of violence is more common in our current society with the shocking number of rapes committed in this country (1 in 5 women, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center), and the brutal murders in this play suggest many real-life atrocities such as Abu ghraib,

Plot summary and more at Schmoop.com

More at http://www.gradesaver.com/titus-andronicus/study-guide/summary

Review of Julie Taymor’s Titus

If you can’t get to the theater this Halloween and want to watch a production of Titus, you’re in luck: In 1999, Julie Taymor, famed director of the Broadway production of The Lion King, directed a film adaptation of Titus which I consider the single greatest Shakespearean film of all time. The movie captures the grotesque comedy of the play, while also visually showing the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. It also doesn’t get hung up on historical accuracy just because the play is set in Rome. Best of all, the cast in incredible: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Langue, Alan Cumming, Harry Lennox and more. This cast knows how to do Shakespeare for the movies and their work shows in every scene. Interesting side note: Hopkins actually considered making this movie the last movie of his career, which explains his amazing glee and energy in the role of Titus. Below is a nice in-depth analysis of the film

Another good review comes from the French Shakespeare Society: https://shakespeare.revues.org/1558

And finally, a review from Roger Ebert: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/titus-2000

So that’s my two cents on Titus Andronicus. Happy Halloween everybody!

Crafting A Character: Macbeth

Me and the cast of “Macbeth,” 2009.

Back in 2009, I had the opportunity to play the lead in a touring production of “Macbeth.” It was the first time I’d ever played a titular Shakespearean character and I was really excited to play this part. I feel that playing one of these parts gives you an insight into the character that no other research can, so I’d like to share the steps of my process, with some pictures and videos from other famous Macbeths to give you an idea of what I learned.

 

  1. The Auditions-
    1. As I said in one of my earliest posts, if you’re auditioning for a Shakespeare play, Read the whole play, not just a monologue book. Monologue books won’t give you a sense of the whole story and you’ll miss a lot of details about who your character is by not hearing what he/she says, and what other people say about him/her. Fortunately for me, I first read the play when I was 17 and remembered the story pretty well. Unfortunately, my first reading of the part was a disaster. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth didn’t feel like a part I could play; he seemed like this huge Scottish warrior who everyone loved until he turned into a psycho killer. I’m not a warrior, not a psycho, and (like most actors), often feel a lot of doubt and loneliness about my self. Ironically, that was what helped me get into the heart of the character!
    2. Figure out what’s the hard part. When directors cast, they need to make sure you can handle the part. If your character has to sing, you better be able to carry a tune. If your character needs to be able to contort into a pretzel and talk to dolphins, he or she will probably make that part of the audition. My advice to anyone auditioning for a specific part in a play (Shakespeare or not), is to think like a director and try and figure out what the hardest thing that your character will have to do, and try to prepare for that. For me, the hardest part of playing Macbeth, was the famous Dagger Speech.
    3. Perform your monologue for someone first. I was fortunate that while I was prepping for the audition, the great Shakespearean director Rob Claire was doing a workshop and he helped me work on Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act I, where he decides whether or not to murder Duncan.
  2. Table work

Table work is the point in the process where the actors sit around and read the play, trying to get an idea of the character’s journey from beginning to end. To me is the most exciting time in rehearsals because it’s just the actor and Shakespeare’s words- you can imagine how the play will go, discover how the lines make you feel, and form a bond with your character and fellow actors.

Me and my Lady Macbeth, Katie Crandol.
Me and my Lady Macbeth, Katie Crandol.

Macbeth’s Motive- During the table read, I decided on Macbeth’s motivation: to prove himself to his wife. In the play, Lady Macbeth frequently criticizes him and seems to define true manhood as taking what you want, regardless of fear or ethics. Take a look at this horrific passage where she first critiques Macbeth’s manhood, then says she would rather bash her baby’s head in rather than give up on murdering the king!

 

MACBETH

Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH

What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

MACBETH

If we should fail?

LADY MACBETH

We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii).

One interesting contradiction in the play, although Lady M mentions that she’s nursed a baby, later on in the play Macduff says that Macbeth has no children. I therefore decided that Lady Macbeth has lost a child, and this has caused unimaginable pain for the couple. Therefore, Macbeth is willing to do anything to win his wife’s affection again, even murder.

5136_1180294546018_2683021_n

Study the verse– Another point I’d advise when you’re doing table work is pay attention to Shakespeare’s verse because it provides clues to help you keep your hand on the pulse of your character. Just like a heartbeat, when a line of verse changes or fragments it usually signals an emotional or mental change in the character. Here is a quick analysis of the verse in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Click here to find some great books about how to study Shakespeare’s verse.

  • Voice and Body

Mackers poseWhen creating any character, you have to decide how (s)he walks and talks. Most Macbeth’s I’ve seen are big, heroic guys, and I’m not big and imposing. I talked to one of my mentors at American Shakespeare Center and he suggested that maybe Macbeth has a bit of a Napoleonic Complex. This made a lot of sense to me. I thought about how Macbeth gets honored at the beginning of the play; what if he just got lucky killing the Norwegians? What if deep down, he doesn’t feel he deserves to be honored just for killing in war? That kind of self hatred and desire for approval could easily lead to violent behavior. I therefore based my physical choices on alternately shrinking and sulking when Macbeth feels low, and trying very hard to look big and imposing for the rest of the play.

  1. I worked on my arms for the sword work and my back because I believe that’s where Macbeth caries himself. When I wanted to appear like a king I would stand straight and puff out my chest, however in moments like the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, I shrank and turned my head away.
  2. I didn’t try to do a voice for Macbeth, I just tried to let my voice go through the changes. When Macbeth is paranoid or afraid, my voice went up, when he feels in control, I kept it at a low, strong register.
  3. The one time I shouted was at the end, when Macduff demands that
    I prepare to fight Macduff.
    I prepare to fight Macduff.

    Macbeth surrender. I snarled and barked the line: “I WILL NOT YIELD!” At the end of the play, when Macbeth gets to fight Macduff, I feel he finally feels brave and strong, challenging Macduff even though he knows he will lose. At last he can feel like a valliant hero, even though everyone else sees him as a villain. I gleefully assumed a fighting stance and put all the power in my body into my limbs, ready to attack!

    1. The Speeches. All of Shakespeare’s great characters have fabulous speeches that allow the audience to peer into their hearts. With Macbeth, we see a good man’s journey into becoming a demented, paranoid tyrant through the following speeches.
      1. I contemplate murder in Act I, scene vii.
        I contemplate murder in Act I, scene vii.

        “If It Were Done,” Act I, Scene vii. This speech was my favorite. It’s basically Macbeth’s version of “To Be Or Not To Be.” In both speeches, the character is contemplating murder, without saying the word “murder.” This is the “IT” Macbeth refers to; killing the king to get his crown. Macbeth is tortured by his ambition and his desire, and you get to see him wrack his brain and body over what to do. Below is Sir Ian McKellen’s interpretation of the speech in a 1979 RSC production.

      2. The Dagger Speech Act II, Scene i. The night of the murder,
        Macbeth stands alone during the Dagger Speech, Act II, scene i
        Macbeth stands alone during the Dagger Speech, Act II, scene i

        Macbeth sees a bloody dagger that points his way to the king. It’s up to the actor to determine where and what the dagger is: if it is the Witches’ magic, his own psychosis, or a hellish prophesy. Does Macbeth love or fear the dagger? Does it stay in one place or move? Answering these questions and keeping track of the answers makes the speech very hard to do. Here is Sir Antony Sher’s kinetic and frantic version of the Dagger Speech:

 

  1. 5136_1180295466041_8211516_n“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” Act V, Scene v. This speech is often quoted out of context, given that it has a nearly perfect metaphor for the futility of life: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage… it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Since this is the most famous speech in the play, I had to do something different than other Macbeths. What many people forget is that Macbeth says all this when he’s trying to command his army, and gets word that his wife is dead.


I chose to play the speech as a fight within Macbeth to not give into despair. At first he’s furious when he hears the news; he didn’t need this news, especially not today! He tries to suppress his grief, delaying it until tomorrow, but he can’t; now that he knows his wife is dead, his life seems completely pointless, including the battle he was trying to fight. I then gave Macbeth an epithany near the end of the speech: If life is pointless, fighting a battle and dying would be a glorious way to end it! Why not die, after all, life is just “a tale told by an idiot?” At last, Macbeth has a reason to fight again, and he concludes the speech as a call to his soldiers to fight without fear of death. Now, you may disagree with my interpretation, but the point is that it’s mine. I wasn’t trying to imitate Antony Sher, or Laurence Olivier, or Patrick Stewart when they played the part. I was doing my Macbeth, and that’s what made it worth watching.

  1. I also drew some inspiration from this video where Ian McKellen analyzes the imagery and ideas within this speech:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGbZCgHQ9m8

 

I hope you enjoyed this look into the process of creating this complex and fascinating character. If you’ve played this character before, leave me a comment about your interpretation, or tell me which Macbeth you liked best and why. Finally, below are links to two full-length productions of Macbeth for your viewing pleasure.

The full Ian McKellen production of Macbeth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpKWWK0Pj34

 

BBC Macbeth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0LrdOa7uZQ

 

A Few More Updates

Hi folks!

I’ve now finished my work on Romeo and Juliet, and this October, I’m taking a little time to talk about two of Shakespeare’s spookiest plays- Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Right now, the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on a very inventive production of the play, and I’d like to talk a little about this interpretation. You can read about it here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/9317659/Julius-Caesar-Royal-Shakespeare-Theatre-Stratford-upon-Avon-review.html 

You can read my analysis of Julius Caesar here.

Here are some posts I’ve got waiting in the wings:

  1. A spooky Shakespeare Stories related to Julius Caesar, and the assassination of President Lincoln!
  2. Analysis of the speeches in Julius Caesar (podcast, hopefully).
  3. Play of the Month for Macbeth.
  4. Explanation of the curse of Macbeth.
  5. Review of “Haunt Me Still,” the sequel to “Interred WIth Their Bones” by Jennifer Lee Carrel.

Stay tuned!

A Few Quick Updates

Hi everyone!

I know it’s been a while, but I’ve been moving into my new place so it’s been hard to find time for blogging. Anyway, some exciting Shakespeare news out in cyberspace, and I’d like to report on some of the ones that make me really excited!

    1. Sir Kenneth Branaugh, Shakespearean actor, director, and founder of the Renaissance Theater company, is putting on a series of productions, including a production of “The Winter’s Tale” with…. DAME JUDY DENCH! This production will be broadcast in theaters around the country, look for theaters in your area! Here is the official trailer:https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/culture/video/2015/sep/10/kenneth-branaghs-the-winters-tale-watch-the-trailer-video

    2. There is a new movie version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” coming out in the next few months, starring Michael Fassbender (now he and Ian McKellen have shared 2 big film roles!) 
    3. 60 minute Shakespeare
      Title pages of books in the 60 Second Shakespeare series.

      For teachers, there are now condensed versions of Shakespeare plays that might be easier for some students to read: http://www.fivestarpublications.com/shakespeare/sixty.html 

    4. You might have heard of this trend of actors speaking lyrics to pop songs like Shakespearean actors. I’d like to say that, for the record, most good Shakespearean actors know not to talk like prissy weirdos, but that this is absolutely hilarious, especially the one for Gangam Style! http://mashable.com/2015/09/24/15-second-shakespeare/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link#a6zKE_iemmqn 

Ok, that’s it for now. Tune in for a new podcast, new play of the month, and some new reviews.

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