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 

Shakespeare Spooky Story #3: The Witch’s Sabbath!

This story is my own invention, but it is based on historical fact and some ideas that could be inferred from Shakespeare’s life and career, composed for Friday the 13th, 2015. I hope you enjoy it.

November, 1603.

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The bell tolled in St. Paul’s Churchyard, stopping the bustling crowd in their tracks. A solemn wind blew through the crowd, like there was some dark magic in the air. Though the old queen had died months ago, all god-fearing Englishmen were still in mourning for her death, and spared a thought for the virgin queen as they passed out the long nave of the church into the yard. William Shakespeare was in mourning as well, but  not for the queen; he was worried about the future of his company; without the queen’s sanction and protection, the theaters might be closed for good this time, (not one of these Newsmongers who gossiped at Paul’s Walk seemed to know how the young King James would take to plays and theater. The young man had had a life more dramatic than anything Will hat put to parchment- mother executed, father murdered, fighting off plots and murder attempts his whole life. “They say his mother’s head whispered a prayer when it was cut off” one of the gossips had told Will. “I heard talk his father was killed by cannon,” another whispered.” Shakespeare began to think of his old play Henry the Fourth, where he himself played the character of Rumor, who spoke with a million tongues, and not one of them true. Suddenly, from over the Bard’s left shoulder, came a slow deep voice that overpowered all the rest: “I heard t’other day the king fears being killed by witchcraft.” The voice came from one of the booksellers in the square.

Woodcut from the witch trial of 1597, in which witches supposedly tried to drown King James I.
Woodcut from the witch trial of 1597, in which witches supposedly tried to drown King James I.

As a writer, Shakespeare often came to St. Paul’s to buy books from the stalls at Paul’s Churchyard. He knew many of the booksellers by name, but he’d never seen this one before. His chest and arms were big as an ale barrow and his beard was grizzled and split into two forks, but what the poet marked in the man most was his piercing eyes- ones that stared at him like fire from an oily taper- quick and dancing, with an excitement as fiery as his own. “Tis true, the king were nearly shipwrecked  as a boy by a coven of witches. 13 there were, always 13. They gathered on Fridays for their cursed Witches’ Sabbaths, and summoned up storms to sink the royal barge. The elder witch spoke to the King at Holy Rood house and told his majesty prophesies. She knew all the privy conversations he had with his wife, though she’d never seen him before! His majesty gasped in wonder and had her hanged and burned.” “Fine tale, said the playwright.” “Aye,” said the fire-eyed seller, but the king fears most of all the Wyrd Sisters, who foretold the deaths of his ancestors at the hands of King Macbeth.”

Shakespeare began to smell a devise- to appease the king, he would write a play honoring James’ noble ancestors and condemning this Macbeth as a villain. Shakespeare knew this kind of historical flattery would work; his tragedy of King Richard III had been a great success and the old queen had made him a courtier soon afterwards. Now he just needed to get his hands on some Scottish history to concoct a new play for the King. “Have you a copy of the Chronicles of England and Scotland?” “Nay, me press be not ready yet for the latest edition. But the best story of King Macbeth is an ancient tome written by the Elder Witch herself. Few have seen it, and fewer live to tell its secrets. If ye travel to Scotland, look for the book in the hands of a woman with hair red as flame, and eyes sea-storm blue.” Shakespeare thanked the man, wrapped himself in his cloak, and left the shop in a huff. The bookseller pondered the poet and smiled: “Wicked flame from wicked smoke. Envy burns black beneath thy cloak.”

Holyrood House or "Holy Cross Palace" as it looked in Shakespeare's day from Calton Hill in Edinburgh.
Holyrood House or “Holy Cross Palace” as it looked in Shakespeare’s day from Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Over the Christmas holiday, Shakespeare’s company received a summons to court to perform some entertainments before the new King! The Chamberlain’s Men were delighted and Will was quite relieved. The King ordered the players to perform at Holy Rood house in Edinburgh, as his court was still in procession from Scotland to England. “Masters,” Will shouted, “Let us give the new king a taste of our quality, and may he pay handsomely for it!” Will and the other shareholders in the company decided on a series of plays to perform for the king, and began the journey to the wilds of Scotland. On Christmas morning they set up their temporary Tiring house within the great banquet hall for the performance, placing props and costumes behind a series of tapestries.

At suppertime the chamberlain gave word to light the candles within the hall, and signal the actors to perform the play, which Will had selected as King Henry the Fourth; a clever choice by Will since it depicted an old king passing the crown to a young and energetic monarch. As the king and courtiers processed, Will spied through the tapestry a haunted looking young woman at King James’ elbow, dressed in courtly gowns with a green veil on her head. The chamberlain directed everyone to their seats and announced the start of the play. To Will’s annoyance, he addressed the company “Mr. Shaxberd and company,” but there was no time to be annoyed or intrigued. “The play’s the thing,” Will muttered, and took his place backstage.

End of Part I.

Part II

The performance was a terrific success! The king himself applauded and promised to patronize the entire company. All of Will’s dreams seemed to be coming true! That night, as he and the other players were packing their belongings into a wagon and preparing to leave the castle in search of a nice, cheap inn for the night, a pale breathless messenger arrived and informed Will that the King wished to meet with him to commission work for their next court performance. Will dutifully walked back up the battlements and entered the castle.

"The Murder of David Rizzio" by William Allen, 1883.
“The Murder of David Rizzio” by William Allen, 1883.

The servant directed him, not back into the ante-chamber of the Great Hall, but up one of the staircases on the North East tower. This tower housed the royal bed chambers! What on Earth was a mere poet from Stratford doing up here? The servant’s candle cast strange shapes upon the walls and the flame blazed upward like some bronze blade. Shakespeare knew from the gossips that the King’s mother had watched her lover David Rizzio be murdered in this very tower- he was stabbed 56 times by jealous Scottish nobles who wished to marry the queen and take the throne. Gruesome images flickered in the poet’s mind. At last, they came to an archway with four adjacent chambers. Three were heavily guarded by English soldiers with halberds but the fourth was unprotected. Slowly, ever so slowly Shakespeare nodded to the servant, and stalked along the pathway. Before he could nock, the door swung open. Pausing a little, The Bard stepped inside.

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The room looked like a mix between a library and a crypt with a cold stone wall, a small altarpiece that looked barely used, and several oak bookcases piled high to the ceiling. Once the playwright entered the room, the door shut without warning. He couldn’t see who shut it and the shock put something cold in his blood. Shakespeare’s eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room.Moonlight gave the place a silvery glow, until a shadow came out of the darkness and revealed itself as a woman’s face. Shakespeare could barely make out her features but it was clearly the woman he’d seen in the procession. The Moon made her red tresses shimmer and gleam, as if she were a fairy from one of the dark pools of legend. “I am Princess Elizabeth,” she replied in a voice that seemed more solemn than proud of her royal title. Recovering from his initial shock, the poet bowed low and counterfited his best courtier’s smile. “I am Master Will Shakespeare, at your service.”

“I know who you are. They call you the Bard of Avon. You’ve written sad stories of the deaths of kings, and woven yarns of the fairy queen,” the princess said in a hollow voice that chilled the poet to the core. “When I was little,” said the princess warming slightly, “My mother spoke of how Irish Bards could change their forms, and speak with the spirits of the dead. Sometimes they even outmatched witches who danced with the devil on Friday nights. You seek my family’s patronage?” “Yes”, said Shakespeare tentatively, “And may I prove worthy of such an honor.” “Beware your ambitions,” Elizabeth went on.

“My family has been torn apart by ambitious men. You know I take it that the chamber we stand in was where my grandmother watched her servant die. She lost the crown, and never saw her son again. Death stalks ambition in Scotland. Some say the Devil tempts men to dance with him on nights like this, and signs their name in his book. My ancestor Malcolm fought armies from Hell to keep his crown.” “From King Macbeth,” replied Shakespeare, (his breath finally returned). “I am the keeper of a history of that damned king, but I will not share it with anyone. He sold his soul to a witch to get the crown, and his book is full of spells that curse the reader. I brought you here so that you can lift our family’s curse with your writing. When you get my father’s patronage, do not feed his fears with stories of witches and prophesies or the curse will envelop the throne. Heed my warning, and do not look for the story of King Macbeth.”

As mysteriously as it had closed, the door opened again. The Bard bowed politely and left the chamber. As he left, he saw the Princess kneeling at the shrine at the corner of the room, eyes closed and meloncholy.

End of Part II.

Stay tuned for the final chapter tonight.

Happy Friday the 13th!