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!

The Elephant In the Room: The Real Richard III

Before we continue our exploration of Shakespeare’s “Richard the Third,” I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a little time talking a little about the real Richard   Plantagenet, Duke Of Gloucester and king of England from 1483-1485. I have to get this out of the way first and foremost: although “Richard III” is classified as a history play, most of the facts in it are untrue, or severely exaggerated. In this post I will try to separate the character from the man to try and make clear what Shakespeare changed from history and why.

First, a video bio I created:

The facts are these:

-He was a real English monarch who  reigned 1483-1485.

– Richard was the younger brother of King Edward IV, and helped his brother take the crown away from King Henry VI, in a series of battles known as The Wars Of the Roses.

– The battles got their name because Richard’s family (the House Of York), used a white rose as its symbol, while King Henry’s faction used a red rose.

– Like Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, Richard was the undesputed “Warden Of the North,” in charge of crushing a potential Scottish invasion.

– In April of 1483, Richard’s brother King Edward IV died. As Lord Protector of England, Richard was entrusted to take care of the country, and Edward’s two sons (the new heirs to the throne). In late May, Richard arrested three lords on suspicion of treason while he guided the two princes to London. Within one month, the two princes were publicly declared illegitimate by the Archbishop, thus making Richard the new king.

– Sometime during Richard’s two year reign, Edward’s sons disappeared.  Many believe they were murdered and Shakespeare’s sources named James Tyrrell and Michael Forrest as the murderers, acting under King  Richard’s orders. In 1674, the skeletons of two boys believed to be the princes were discovered in the Tower Of London. The remains were interred by King Charles II. So far, nobody has confirmed if the remains belong to the princes or what happened to the young boys.

-Richard was defeated and murdered by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond at the Battle Of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. His successor founded the House Of Tudor which included Henry VIII, Mary I, Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth I.

-in 2015, historian Phillipa Langley discovered King Richard’s remains in a parking lot in Leicester

Few contemporary sources survive from Richard’s day, so it’s unknown whether Richard did kill the princes. Even more mysterious, although he did work to depose a king, oppress the Scots, and take the throne from Edward’s kids, some sources claim Richard was actually a just and good king. In the lack of facts, Richard’s legend continues to grow

Reality check

-After finding his skeleton, scientists discovered that Richard was not deformed, although he did have scoliosis. Thomas Moore added the hump, while Shakespeare added the withered arm.

– There is no physical evidence that Richard killed the two princes, and many others wanted them dead, including Henry Tudor himself!

-Richard also probably was a good king according to some contemporary accounts, as you can see in this video with Monty Python’s Terry Jones:

Why were the facts twisted?


– Remember, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, so there was no way Shakespeare or anyone else in Elizabethan England could get away with portraying him as a good king.

– Shakespeare’s main source was a history by Sir Thomas More, who was 12 at the time of Richard’s reign. More was Henry VIII’s royal chancellor, so he couldn’t afford to be nice to Richard either. More’s history set the groundwork for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a deformed monster.

The point is, people have known for centuries that Shakespeare’s Richard is no more true than the myth of Robin Hood. Even Laurence Olivier admits before his film even starts that this story has been “scorned in proof thousands of times.” Nevertheless, like Robin Hood, this story is part of the fabric of English society, and it still has value as a cautionary tale about corrupt governments, and how one man may lose his soul (and a horse) in pursuit of power and revenge.

Even today, people continue to gain power by manipulating fear, hatred, and religion, which is why we as a society need Shakespeare’s Richard. The play is so universal it was re interpreted in 2007 as “Richard III: an Arab tragedy.” Shakespeare’s Richard is so close to today’s dirty politicians that we have TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic inspired by him, (more on that later). And Richard himself is so compelling a character that centuries of great actors, cartoon characters, and even occasional rock stars have wanted to emulate him.
The lesson of the story is that a single demagogue can gain control of a corrupt system if we let him. Hitler, Saddam, Trump. It’s no accident that Olivier chose to play Richard right as the war was ending in Europe, and his popularity in that role rose exponentially after post war Britain saw the parallels between the “honey words” of Richard, which captivated England, to Hitler’s fiery rhetoric, which nearly destroyed it. The larger point through all four plays of Shakespeare’s history cycle, (not just “Richard III,”) is that greed and cruelty within one family can lead to chaos on a large scale, especially when it’s the royal family.

For more information:

Books:

  • The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey, 1951: This is the most famous book that sets down the case that Richard’s reign was maligned by history. In addition to having excellent research, it is also a compelling novel.
  • Shakespeare’s English Kings by Peter Saccio. To help students of Shakespeare separate fact from fiction, and get a sense of the lives of the men whose lives shaped Shakespeare’s history plays, Professor Saccio of Dartmouth College created a short, easy to read biography of all 10 of Shakespeare’s monarchs.

Websites:

The Richard III SocietyOfficial website of the society dedicated to preserving the memory of Richard III.

 Historic UK: Short biographies of English Monarchs

Leicester Cathedral’s Richard III Page: http://kingrichardinleicester.com See pictures and read about Richard’s final resting place, and how his remains were found, and re-interred.

Westminster Abbey- The tomb of most English kings and queens for over 1,000 years:

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals?start_rank=1 

The Witches Of Macbeth

Happy Halloween everybody!

Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.

1. Who are they?

Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?

I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.

"Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches," Théodore Chassériau, 1854.
“Macbeth and Banquo First Encounter the Witches,” Théodore Chassériau, 1854.
Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters.  This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.

What Do They Look Like?

Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.

BANQUO
What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.


MACBETH
Speak, if you can: what are you? (
Act I, Scene iii).

The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:

“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).

and

Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.

Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).

For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:

The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.

Witches and mythology

Illustration from William Blake's  "Europe a Prophecy," 1794.
Illustration from William Blake’s “Europe a Prophecy,” 1794.
1. During the reign of King James,  the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.

2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!

Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
Illustration of witches and their familiar spirits, 1647.
3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.

Hecate.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”

"The Triple Hecate," by William Blake, 1794.
“The Triple Hecate,” by William Blake, 1794.
For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).

In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.