How “Hamilton” is like a Shakespearean History Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part I: War and Peace

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CARDINAL WOLSEY

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

HOTSPUR

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.

PRINCE HENRY

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

HOTSPUR

My name is Harry Percy.

PRINCE HENRY

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

HOTSPUR

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

PRINCE HENRY

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

HOTSPUR

I can no longer brook thy vanities.

They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls

HOTSPUR

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

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


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

PRINCE HENRY

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

III. The Times

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

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

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

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

The women who tell the story


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

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

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


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

Bravo.

img_4003

Educational links related to Hamilton:

Books

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

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

TV: 

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

Web: 

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

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

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

Resources on Shakespeare’s History Plays:

Books

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

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

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

Websites

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Quick Shout Out: Drunk Shakespeare

A recent trend going around Shakespearean theatres is the new trend of putting on a production of Shakespeare’s plays, with at least one of the actors drunk for the majority of the performance! There is a Drunk Shakespeare company in New York, and the trend has started spreading to other theaters, so I resolved to check it out for myself! I can only speak for this particular production, but I can say pretty confidently, if you get a chance to see a Drunk Shakespeare, do it! I was expecting a hilarious train wreck, but what I got was a great time!

This production of Drunken Hamlet was mounted by the thespians at Weary Arts Group in York Pennsylvania.

Unlike Drunk Shakespeare in NYC, the entire cast takes shots while performing. They lose their lines, make drinking part of the stage business, and the audience is encouraged to throw flowers at the cast at any point of the show, which means, (you guessed it), “more shots!”

With the amount of effort that it takes to memorize a Shakespeare play, the inebriated cast often can’t remember the Iambic pentameter but, rather than bringing the show to a halt, the ad-libs and bawdiness they bring as they curse and giggle back to their lines is all part of the fun. I remember one moment where Claudius actually talked about the Disney Movie “The Lion King,” calling the villainous lion Scar the hero of the cartoon for murdering his brother and marrying his sister-in-law. This blend of authentic literature and bawdy adult silliness reminds me of the popular Comedy Central Show “Drunk History,” in that sometimes the actors speak the dialogue, sometimes they make funny ad-libs and sometimes they just drunkenly slur and giggle their way through the play.

Furthermore, the audience was encouraged by the director to become part of the experience- we were asked to boo characters we don’t like, to talk to the actors,basically to react without any standards of politeness or decorum! I actually got a big laugh when, as Claudius gave the famous couplet: “It shall be so. Madness in great ones must not unmatched go,” and I shouted back, “Tell that to Donald Trump!” In all modesty, the six pack of pumpkin beer probably sharpened my wit.

I’ve read that, due to the filth in the rivers and lakes in London, alcohol was an essential part of the diet for most people in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare himself might have died from a fever he contracted after having too much to drink in The Mermaid Tavern in April of 1616. It’s also true that Elizabethan audiences regularly drank and yelled at the actors onstage. With this in mind, Drunk Shakespeare does have a small spirit of authenticity about it, and that energy really helped me enjoy the play.

My only major complaint about the show was that Hamlet doesn’t lend itself to Drunk Shakespeare as well as other plays. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare wrote the play because he was tired of trying to appeal to the drunk groundlings, and wanted to appeal to a more refined and upper class clientele. Hamlet himself says these groundlings are: “For the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.”

However, I’m glad I gave this kind of grounding theater a try, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a good time with some irreverent Shakespeare.

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

I am disgusted by the recent violence in Charlottesville VA. The fact that in 2017, White supremacists threatened, hurt, and killed innocent Americans is despicable and truly disheartening. I won’t go into my political views here since this tragedy transcends politics and forces everyone in this country to re-examine who we are and what we stand for as a people, and do our part to help prevent this kind of mindless hatred.

I’m not a politician, I’m not a policeman. My area of expertise is Shakespeare, so I am going to try to make a case for why the study of Shakespeare can help people, (especially young people), learn about the world, examine new points of view, and try to improve the world.  I will then add a list of resources for teachers and students to deepen your understanding of the play.

My first argument for the play is that Merchant has two of the best speeches about intolerance ever written.

      You’ve probably heard of this speech, (spoken by the Jewish moneylender Shylock), and I’m also well aware of the fact that, in context, it is not entirely about peaceful coexistence and tolerance, but it nevertheless establishes Shakespeare’s argument that condemns bigotry and violence, particularly against Jews:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. Merchant, Act III, Scene i.

img_5431Al Pacino when he did this speech said that it has the eloquence and power of Dr. Martin Luther King. Patrick Stewart initially had the same reaction, but later realized that Shylock turns midway through and the speech becomes a justification for revenge. What’s clever here is that Shakespeare manages to give Shylock two good arguments against bigotry; by emphasizing how Jews are no different than any other racial or religious group, and also warning that oppressing a people will only result in more retribution and pain on both sides. This is what he means when he says: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.” We’re seeing this sort of reaction right now with the recent surge of violence by both white supremacists and the Antifa; without tolerance and common decency, chaos and bloodshed reins.

Another speech, much less well-known, is this speech of the Prince Of Morocco, one of Shakespeare’s only black characters. The speech below is the first time he speaks while attempting to woo the heroine Portia:

Prince of Morocco. Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene i.

People often forget that this speech condemns pre-judging a person based on the color of their skin. Morocco tells Portia, (who in all probability has never seen a black man before), to not judge him by his appearance. His tone is gentle, but it is not apologetic. He says he won’t change his skin color for anything, (except maybe if it would win her heart). The Prince is a dignified and proud representative of his country and his race.

My second argument for reading or teaching this play is that it reveals how bigotry and racism is usually tied to money and profit. In Act IV, Scene i, Shylock points out the hypocrisy of his Christian brethren in keeping slaves, which they justify by saying that they are not people, but property:

  • Shylock. You have among you many a purchased slave, Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts, Because you bought them: shall I say to you, Let them be free, marry them to your heirs? Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds Be made as soft as yours and let their palates Be season’d with such viands? You will answer ‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you: The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law! There is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it? Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.

Shylock turns this hypocrisy back on the Christians by saying basically, “How can you call me and human when you  debase and subjugate your fellow creatures?” The answer to both questions of course, is that it is economically convenient. Shylock earns his money by lending money at interest, and threatens dear penalties if not repaid on time. Similarly, the Christians revile Shylock because their religious practices forbid them from lending money, so they have to go to him instead of other Christians. We see echoes of this unfortunate tendency today: the white supremacists in Charlottesville were chanting: “Jews will not replace us,” which clearly exposes their fear of losing political and economic influence to minorities. In addition, our country has refused countless immigrants from poor, war-torn countries which we justify to ourselves by saying the cost of letting them in is too great.

The play’s comic sub-plot also has many lessons for today’s world. The hero Bassanio undergoes  dramatic transformation from a spoiled prodigal son to enlightened married man. At the play’s beginning, he has a close friendship with the merchant Antonio, that might be played as a one sided homosexual relationship. Antonio is very affectionate to Bassanio, and lends him a large amount of money without any expectation of repayment, which has sometimes been interpreted as a hinting of Antonio’s unrequited love for Bassanio. Though Basanio doesn’t reciprocate any romantic feelings,  he eventually saves Antonio’s life, and at least tries to repay him for his kindness.

robert-alexander-hillingford-the-three-caskets--the-merchant-of-venice,-act-iii,-scene-ii
Robert Alexander-Hillingford: The Three Caskets, The Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Sceneii
Bassanio also takes a very feminist attitude towards the play’s heroine Portia- he understands that being married means making your spouse a partner, and giving her an equal say. At the beginning of the play, he sails to an island called Belmont, to try to win Portia’s hand, by correctly solving a riddle. You may have heard of the three caskets, gold, silver, and lead. If Bassanio guesses right, he wins Portia and her fortune. Bassanio chooses the correct casket, but halts afterwards, and does something unexpected; he asks Portia herself if she wants to marry him. He doesn’t treat her as his prize, and throughout the play asks her opinion, and her permission before he acts, just as a good husband should.

Fair lady, by your leave;
I come by note, to give and to receive.
Like one of two contending in a prize,
That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether these pearls of praise be his or no;
So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;
As doubtful whether what I see be true,
Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Scene ii

I would argue that, although Portia is a far more important character, Bassanio is the moral center of the play. He is the only person who treats Shylock like a human being, by trying to reason with him and pay Antonio’s debt, instead of spitting in Shylock’s face like Antonio, or forcing him to convert like the characters at the end of the play. Bassanio also is one of the only characters who call Shylock by name, everyone else just calls him “Jew.” Thus, audiences and students can learn from this kind of person; the kind of person Christ said could be saved and become a true Christian, because he acknowledges his sins and tries to correct them. Bassanio is the prodigal son in this play, and we benefit from the parable of his life.

 By contrast, some of the other characters, Christian and Jewish, are examples of the kind of morality that we all wish to discourage in our children, and society in general. Though they are outwardly pious, the Christians like Antonio and Portia, are capable of vindictive, cruel, and definitely impious behavior. Portia, (probably due to her sheltered life on Belmont), can be deeply racist and prejudicial. She is prejudiced against the Prince of Morocco because of his race, hoping that “All of his complexion,” will fail to win her love. In addition, when she poses as a judge presiding over the court case between Antonio and Shylock, she throws vengeance at Shylock, even though she barely knows either of them. She strips Shylock of his property and nearly gets him sentenced to death, even though she preaches mercy to him in her most famous speech. If you look at the contrast between her words and actions, she is a deeply hypocritical person. Shakespeare shows how toxic it can be to raise a child in an isolated environment.  Portia’s isolation makes it harder for Portia to relate to and understand different types of people, and it planted her predjudices within her heart.

Antonio for his part, seems to define himself by how “un-Jewish” he is, believing that generosity and mercy are anathema to all Jews, particularly when Shylock confronts Antonio in the courtroom:

I pray you, think you question with the Jew:
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard,
As seek to soften that—than which what’s harder?—
His Jewish heart: therefore, I do beseech you,
Make no more offers, use no farther means, Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.

Although Jesus preached loving ones neighbor, and being the Good Samaritan to other religions, Antonio seems to think that being a true Christian, means being Anti-Jew. He is a counter example of piety that audiences and students can learn to mollify and avoid within themselves.

My final example of religious counter examples, Shylock himself, shows how prejudice can destroy a man if he lets it. At the beginning of the play, Shylock has had to endure losing his wife, having Antonio spit on him, mock him, encourage his enemies, and call him a host of dehuminizing names. That’s not even taking into account the horrible Venetian ghettos of the 1590s, in which Shylock would have been forced to live were he a real Venetian Jew. One quote that helps explain his behavior comes from Henry Norman Hudson in 1882:

[In Shylock] “we see the remains of a great and noble nature, out of which all the genial sap of humanity has been pressed by accumulated injuries.” – Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, H. N. Hudson, Ginn and Company, Boston, p. 291. “

Scholars and actors have emphasized ever since the end of the Second World War, that, although Shylock is still guilty of reprehensible acts, his cruelty is a reaction to the cruelty he has had to endure, or as he puts it: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.

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

Trump Family Attacks Shakespeare- Julius Caesar Protest

Donald Trump Jr tweeted two questions after the Julius Caesar play protest I posted over the weekend:

“When does art become political speech, and does it change things?”

 I would like to try to answer these questions and by doing so, see if I can explain this fascinating moment in Shakespearean performance history.

Though this production raised new questions about art, and has raised passion from many people, it is not as radical as the protesters might think. Here is a list of historical points of reference to show you the many similarities between this protest and others throughout the history of Shakespearean performance:
1. This is not the first time a Shakespeare play has been seen as a spur to violence: In February of 1601, The Earl of Essex commissioned Shakespeare’s company to perform a scene of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second one day before he attempted to overthrow queen Elizabeth, and make himself head of the English government. 

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

Shakespeare’s company was exonerated, but Essex himself was tried convicted, and executed for high treason. Similarly, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, he had previously performed in Julius Caesar, and reportedly complained, (while on the run from the law),  that “I am being hunted for what Brutus did so freely” 

Source: New York Times Review. Now in both cases it is worth noting that Shakespeare’s company was not responsible for the death of a political figure, it was the people who interpreted his work that bear the responsibility themselves.

2. This play is also not the first time a director has portrayed Caesar as a contemporary president-

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

As many people have pointed out, in 2012 The Acting Company put on a production of Caesar with an Obama-esque version of the title character. No protests came from the left or right, though Caesar died in the exact same way- bloodily stabbed onstage. I would argue that these shows demonstrate that portraying Caesar as a contemporary figure does not itself incite violence. The audience knows that the  figure of Caesar is simply meant as a link between Shakespeare and contemporary politics. This is how the director Oskar Eustis of the Shakespeare in the Park production defended himself against criticism of his staging: https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/theater/donald-trump-julius-caesar-oskar-eustis.amp.html

I frankly also find the disproportionate reaction to these two Caesars rather insulting. When Obama was in office, he got plenty of negative criticism that sometimes extended to threats of violence. If you click here you can see a threat by country music singer Ted Nugent who threatens to shoot the president with a machine gun. The double standard that threatening a president on the left has no consequences, but threatening a Republican president is worthy of scorn, derision, and its backers pulling their support, deeply hypocritical.

3. Thirdly, this is not the first time a Shakespeare play has depicted Trump negatively. If you look at the comments of my Trump villain post, a director mentioned his production of Henry the Sixth Part Two, in which an actor portrayed the character Jack Cade as Trump. Like Caesar, Cade also murdered in the course of the play. Clearly, portraying Donal Trump as a Shakespearean character is not what is unique here.

4. Though it is certainly true that the play depicts violence and the overthrow of a regime, it doesn’t endorse violence, and is not intended to glorify the murder of a president or even a demagogue like Caesar. As I will later discuss, this play can’t be an  endorsement of violence, since everyone who commits violence is duly punished.

So why has this particular production, that uses a Caesar that resembles this president, gotten such a big reaction? Part of the issue admittedly is the timing. The protest specifically mentions the attempted murder of a GOP senator, which happened last week. It is only natural that, given this recent threat of violence, some would fear that this production might incite others to violence. Yet, as I said before, a thorough analysis of the play shows that it does not condone violence against a political leader.

Additionally, given today’s divisive political environment, it is understandable why an audience of right wing protesters might be concerned about this scene in which Caesar is murdered on stage. They may vey well think the play is wish fulfillment for those  on the left, who might enjoy watching the bloody assassination of someone who is vey unpopular right now. However, let me emphatically point out that first of all, no one on the left has endorsed violence against Trump. If you look at the backlash to Kathy Griffin’s picture of herself holding a bloody makeshift Trump head, you can see that no one left or right has endorsed support for such a treasonous un-American act. Secondly, with regards to Caesar, the  play’s message is actually nonviolent. When Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, it starts a violent uprising that leads to anarchy. Precisely the outcome the two Roman senators hoped to avoid. Seeing their designs fail which certainly discourage anyone attempting violence against a sitting authority figure. 

Perhaps the best way I can prove this point is to remind everyone that Shakespeare himself lived in a monarchy. His theatre was strictly controlled by the government. If anyone in 1599 believed that Julius Caesar seemed to support the killing of queen Elizabeth, the play would have been burned and Shakespeare and his whole company would have been arrested and hanged.

https://youtu.be/Y7BtKlGGFKs

Also, people have criticized the murder of Caesar as “too realistic,” again believing that the gore is intended to glorify violence. In reality the violence of the murder is intended to incite revulsion and disgust. Look at Mark Antony’s reaction when he shows Caesar’s body to the crowd. https://youtu.be/tRceRJAz6_Q

I frankly think that the main reason why this production is getting bad press is  because it’s a portrayal of President Trump, not Obama, not the historical Caesar, not Hitler, not even Trump before he was president, but the current president, that a group of people elected, and who believe support their values.

I believe that the main reason Trump’s  supporters are angry at this production is they feel an attack on him is an attack on them. The president’s supporters have shown repeatedly that they are willing to overlook almost anything to show their support of him. And I imagine that they have no desire to see him as an autocrat and dictator, let alone entertain the notion that he might ever be taken down by his opponents. 

The irony is that the real Caesar was a man of the people who died because his opponents thought he was an autocrat. The real Caesar helped create the modern calendar, gave money to the entire city, and according to Marc Antony, “When the poor hath cried, Caesar hath wept.” Trump is the exact opposite; he is a self-centered con artist who pretends to be a man of the people. As I predicted, after his inauguration, he has vowed to cut taxes on businesses like his, he put his family in positions of power, used diplomatic meetings and press conferences to sell his products, and obstructed justice when his FBI director tried to investigate him. With this in mind, it seems bizarre to claim that this production is designed to ridicule the right, since Trump is neither Julius Caesar, nor is he an embodiment of the political right. He only stands for his own interests. Therefore an attack on Trump is not an attack on conservative values. 

So to go back to the beginning point, “When does art become political speech?” I would argue art always becomes political when it comments about our world, and this quality of art is essential for our society to function. We need a healthy dose of satire and critical thinking, and art can provide it to us. However, there is a difference between disagreeing with a play and openly shunning it onstage.

To address Mr. Trump’s second question, art  doesn’t change things, people change things, so we need to temper our reactions, including to art pieces like Julius Caesar. Remember, Caesar only died because people said he wanted to be king. Cinna the poet died because the mob said he should. This play warns us all to be careful and remain critical thinkers, or mob rule will result. 

References

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

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

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

https://apple.news/AW6FmlDY3TEe4C97AG7UI4Q

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

View story at Medium.com

https://apple.news/AE9eeH-L6TxeY1qJwq4Ur8w

How To Write Romantic Poetry Like Shakespeare 

Since this is national poetry month, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s poetry.  Shakespeare wrote 154 short love poems called sonnets. What follows is kind of a do-it-yourself poetry manual that would be great if you want to write a poem for a spouse or a loved one for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day or any other time, to show that you care. Sonnet writing has been a time honored tradition for showing the people we care about just how much they mean to us.
If you’ve never written a sonnet , don’t worry, the kind of sonnet Shakespeare wrote is pretty easy to write, and it follows just a few simple rules. I don’t want to lie; it takes a lot of patience and thought to craft a sonnet, but the rules are easy to follow. So let’s get to it!

 

analyzing-sonnet-011.jpgWhat Is A Sonnet? A sonnet is a short poem that’s only 14 lines long, written in what is called Iambic Pentameter, Shakespeare’s preferred form of poetry. I’ve written before about Iambic Pentameter, but just to be clear it’s a 10 syllable line that goes da-Dum- daDum-da-Dum-daDum-daDum. So all you need is 14 lines that follow a particular rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that in the sonnet above, every other line rhymes except the end. This is called an ABAB rhyme pattern, and it is the trickiest thing about writing a sonnet. One reason Shakespeare has this rhyme pattern is to draw your attention to the last two lines, then draw the sonnet to a close with the simpler rhyme of the couplet.

Sonnet Form A sonnet’s 14 lines are arranged into three short groups or quatrains which are four lines long. Usually around line 9, there is a kind of “turn” or change in the direction of the argument, like at line 9 in Sonnet 8 above, where Shakespeare stops talking about summer, and starts talking about the person to whom he’s writing. If it helps, you can think of this as the “But…” part of the sonnet, because it’s the part where he changes the argument using the word “but,” (and what a but it is). The sonnet then concludes with two rhymed lines of Iambic called a rhymed couplet. These last two lines are a way of wrapping up the main idea of the poem in a short, catchy way.

Step by step Tips and Tricks:

  1. Start by planning out your sonnet.

It’s often useful to consider your sonnet like a speech or a short argument. The three quatrains give you a chance to come up with an idea, then develop the idea, and then come to a conclusion, much like any other form of persuasive writing that you might’ve had to do for English class. For example, Sonnet 8 pictured above, (one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets), begins with the question: “Shall I compare the to a summers day?” He then goes to flatter the person he’s writing about by talking about how much better they are than a summers day, saying that actual summers are too windy and too hot, and the flowers of the summer are all too brief. By contrast, Shakespeare argues that the  subject of the sonnet has beauty that will last forever, particularly if that person goes on to have children. This is the form that Shakespeare sonnets often take and I would advise you to try and make your sonnet into a clear argument.

Example Of Sonnet Writing:  Since Mother’s Day is coming up, if you wanted to write about the mother of your child, and thank her for her for being there for your child, you might want to structure your sonnet by using the three stanzas to express three simple ideas like:

1. Thank you for being the mother of our child(ren) 

2. A specific time she did something awesome for your child (give examples!)

3. Thank you from you, me, and our child(ren).

Tip 2: Plan Out The Rhyming Couplet: As I mentioned before, the last two lines of every sonnet are called a rhyming couplet; two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme together and help conclude the sonnet. Just like a English paper, a good conclusion is very important, which is why it’s it’s often useful to work on this these two lines first before you get into writing the meat of your sonnet. For example, here’s a couplet I wrote about preparing breakfast in bed and doing chores for one’s wife on Mother’s Day.

All chores this day will I do in thy stead

Commence I shall with breakfast in thy bed!

Tip 3: Writing Poetry  Now that you have the ideas you want to express now comes the hard part: putting them into poetry. I often find it helps to just get a piece of paper, write as much as possible to express the three ideas in your sonnet in prose, then get down to translating your ideas into iambic pentameter.

Quick Tips to help you along:

  1. Make sure the important words are on the right beats. Remember, in a normal Iambic line, every other beat (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are emphasized. This means the important words/ sylables need to be on those beats. You might have to invert the order of a word or two to keep those beats clear. like I did in my couplet when I wrote “will I do” instead of “I will do”
  2. You don’t have to use iambic in every line. Shakespeare was never a slave to a particular verse form, and a whole poem in iambic pentameter can sound a little dull sometimes. This is why, if you really want to, you can change a line or two to emphasize different beats
    • Trochees A clever way to wake up your audience is to start off with a few regular iambic pentameter lines, and then change it to a line where the first beat is the one that’s important. Like a dance or song that suddenly changes tempo, this creates a sense of excitement in the reader.
    • Spondees Sometimes you can emphasize two syllables at the same time, as Shakespeare does in lines 1 and 3 of Sonnet 8. You wouldn’t pronounce “Shall I” as “SHALL I or shall I,” and the phrase “rough winds” demands that both words are important, so Shakespeare is clearly changing the verse a little just to make the poetry more interesting.
    • For More information on other types of Meter, read Sam Rame’s Literary Analysis Blog: http://samrames.blogspot.com/2013/03/william-shakespeares-sonnet-60-like-as.html

Tip 4: Use Literary Devices: I find Shakespeare very often tried to express an idea by using metaphor and allusion to create images in the listeners mind. Sonnet 8 which we’ve been discussing, is structured around creating a contrast between the speaker and a pretty day in summer. You can do this kind of flattering comparison yourself, but, as we’ve seen, it’s often useful to put a “but” in the argument around line 9, to make it clear that you love the person more than for example a warm summer day. Imagine getting a sonnet that claims that someone loves you more than ice cream!

Sometimes Shakespeare uses contradictory images in his poetry for dramatic effect. Romeo often and talks about “Oh brawling love, O loving hate”. He uses this to express the wildness of his passion. This is called antithesis, and it’s very useful when you want to add a little spice to your poetry. Try comparing your beloved to both ice and fire!
Alliteration and assonance: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for the theater not for people reading in the book this is why he often plays with words that sound a particular way and worked very hard to come up with sounds that would grab a listeners attention rather than readers. When a word when several words start the same letter it creates a sense of order and gets the readers attention. Assonance is when consonants are repeated within the middle of a line.

Useful Websites when you’re working

  • Rhymezone.com– a convenient online rhyming dictionary
  • Thesaurus.com– useful if you need another word that fits into iambic better.
  • Kotsheet.com- a website for teachers with lots of useful worksheets to help you organize your sonnet. Useful for writing or teaching sonnets!

I hope this post was helpful. If you have any questions, please comment, or email me in the “Ask the Shakespeare Guru” page. If you write any sonnets yourself and wish to share them on this site, let me know and I’ll gladly re-post them!

Till Next Time,

-The Shakespearean Student.

References

  1. The Sonnets Edited by Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  2. Shakespeare’s Wordcraft  by Scott Kaiser. Limelight Editions, 2007. Free preview here: https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_s_Wordcraft.html?id=IdVuj0IY2ekC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false 
  3. Literary Devices.net: https://literarydevices.net/
  4. Cummings Study Guide: https://cummingsstudyguides.net/xSonnets.html

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!

Creating A Character: Richard III

In 2011, I wrote a graduate thesis about some of the challenges of playing Shakespeare’s Richard III, specifically those related to playing his deformity. What follows in this post is an adaptation of the presentation I gave at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, in Staunton Virginia. I gave this presentation with the help of my actors, Matt Carter, Jemma Levy, Amanda Noel Allen, and David Santangello. I also interviewed live onstage, one of the ASC’s greatest actors John Harrell and his director Thadd McQuade, about a unique production of Richard that he performed for the company back in 2002. What follows is the script I wrote for the presentation, as well as the video and Powepoint slides I projected for the audience, to help you see my work in performance. You can also consult a website I designed for the ASC’s production of Henry VI, Part III, where Richard was played by actor Ben Curns.


PRESENTATION SCRIPT 

MATT CARTER:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
Applause, he sits on one of the gallant stools.

 

Section 1: Introduction

Slide01 

PAUL:

Many of you recognize those famous lines from the opening soliloquy of Richard III, ably delivered by Matt Carter. Did you notice the ways Matt was moving and the qualities of his voice? Tonight, my actors and I will show you some of the choices actors have made in playing the deformity of Richard III. Deformity and Richard are so closely linked that I would argue that it is the central driving force of the character. The different performances we will discuss show changes in views on deformity, as well as changing theories on the actor’s craft.

Every actor is interested in the human body, every actor is interested in how the mind and body work together, and most importantly, how to present the mind and body of a character to an audience in a clear and articulate way. No matter how the actor decides to represent it, Richard’s deformity of mind and body are essential to the understanding of the character. In his first soliloquy, in the play Henry the Sixth, Part III, he expresses a deep pain, sorrow and bitterness at being denied a normal body. As Jemma delivers this speech, ask yourself- do you pity him? Does this man have a reason to be angry?

JEMMA LEVY:

Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;
To make an enviousmountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought! 

Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.

PAUL:

In this speech, like the previous one, Richard expresses the belief that his deformity was a curse, laid on by his mother. During the Renaissance, people believed that deformity was a mark of evil and a sign of being cursed by God. Like the Mark of Cain in the Bible, Richard’s deformity signifies that he was “determined,” (presumably by God), to prove a villain.” The deformity also gives Richard psychological motivation. Lacking a normal body, Richard is hungry for revenge, and in search of something to elevate himself above more fortunate people- power.


Section 2: Burbage

PAUL: The first Richard was almost certainly Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s star actor. Burbage was associated with the role long after his death.

 

DAVID SANTAGELLO:

A funerall Elegy on the death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage:

Who died on Saturday in Lent, the 13th of March 1618′

No more young Hamlet though but scant of breath

Shall cry revenge for his dear father’s death:

Edward shall lack a representative,

And Crookback, as befits, shall cease to live.”

PAUL:

Unfortunately, we have no information on how Burbage played the deformity, but we have one clue as to how his performance might have been received, in the form of an apocryphal story from the diary of law student John Manningham, on 13 March 1602:

 

AMANDA:

Upon a time when [Richard] Burbage played Richard III,

There was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play,

She appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III.

Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came.

The message being brought that Richard III was at the door,

Shakespeare caused return to be made that ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’


Slide02 

PAUL:

Although this story is apocryphal, it does hit upon other features of Richard’s deformity- his supreme confidence, and his beast-like sexuality.  Scholars have pointed out that Richard’s lack of scruples, (the result of being born deformed), makes him completely focused and confident. Likewise, his non-conformity to traditional standards of beauty could also be seen as a rebellion against societal norms, and thus, a strange aphrodisiac. This dark creature, without a recognizable human shape, manages to exert a dark pull on the audience.

Section 3: Cibber

Slide03

Surprisingly, for nearly 300 years, portrayals of Richard III have been heavily influenced by an obscure author who was not even Shakespeare’s contemporary

During the Restoration of theater in the 17th century Shakespeare’s plays were largely out of fashion, condemned by critics as “too vulgar for this refined age,” and playwrights began to rewrite and adapt them. The most successful adaptation of Richard the Third, came from poet-laureate Colley Cibber in 1671. Cibber’s text interpreted the story as one man’s evil rise to the crown, not the culminating story of the Wars of The Roses. Cibber cut most of the history involved.  He condensed scenes, omitted others, and gave Richard 10% more of the dialogue, then Shakespeare. Cibber’s text also re-emphasizes the importance of deformity to Richard’s character- adding 8 more uses of the words “deformed,” or “ugly.” To further the point, Cibber inserted text from other Shakespeare plays that speak about Richard’s deformity, such as the Henry VI speech spoken earlier. Cibber freely cut-and pasted from Shakespeare’s histories, which can be demonstrated in this speech where the Lady Anne mourns for the death of Henry the Sixth, using lines written by Shakespeare for the funeral of King Henry the Fifth:

AMANDA:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your firey tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!

O be accursed, the hand that shed his blood

Accursed the head that had the heart to do it!
If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the life of him
As I am made by Edward’s death and thine!

PAUL:

Cibber also wrote his own speeches for Richard, such as this one where Richard resolves to woo Lady Anne in spite of his deformity:

 

JOHN HARRELL:

But see! My love appears. Look where she shines

Through her dark veil of rainy sorrows

Tis true, my form perhaps may little move her;

But I’ve a tongue shall wheedle with the devil.

PAUL: Cibber’s text was extremely popular with actors because it raised Richard’s importance to a star role. Actors such as David Garrick made their debut as Cibber’s Richard, and some of Cibber’s editorital choices still survive in the two movie versions of Richard by Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier.

13188-15979IanMcKellen

Section 4: Olivier

Olivier, in the 20th century was considered the definitive Richard. In his film version he emphasizes Richard’s evil and deceptive nature. He uses the character’s physical disabilities (as well as various cinematic techniques) to reveal his moral depravity.Slide04

  • The Crown of England- the tremolos and the large crown that appears in the beginning, middle, and end of the film. Homage to Cibber.
  • CINEMATIC USE OF DEFORMITY
  • Long camera angles as he limps away, exposing hump and limp
  • Shadowy silhouette
  • In this shot, Richard slinks away from the camera, leaving his bizarre silhouette to unfurl like a snakeSlide06
  • In this shot, Richard bends over to whisper evil thoughts into the king’s ear.
  • Finally, in this shot, we see the shadow of Richard’s head, as he stares into the cell of his brother Clarence, as he plans his murder. We see through this shot, Richard looms as a great evil presence.

Section 5: Sher

Slide07After Olivier, actors abandoned the approach of making Richard into a monster, and favored a more human, natural approach.

The role of Richard III however, presents unique challenges for actors attempting to do this; they are attempting to do something un-natural by playing a deformity that they do not actually have. Thus they are attempting to play something “un-natural” within the precepts of naturalistic acting.. Antony Sher’s massive preparation for the role, using Method acting techniques, included both a thorough research into the physical effects of real disability, and a deep examination of its psychological effects.Slide08

  • Used Method acting techniques to create the role:
    • Real-life experience- Crutches came from his own real injury.
    • Research into physical deformity.
    • Textual Research
    • Image Research. He used Margaret’s text to create a visual design for his character, a bottled spider.
    • Psychoanalysis- brought Shakespeare’s text to a real psychiatrist to “put Richard on the couch.”
  • Sher’s technique led him to go into a deep, psychological probing of Richard’s mind. He viewed the deformity as a source of deep pain, through which we can identify with Richard as a human being.
  • Listen to how David, applying Method-inspired text analysis, conveys Richard’s human emotions.

DAVID:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

 

PAUL: Sher’s massive preparation for the role represent the limits that an able bodied actor could go to portray a disability he himself did not have.


Section 6: From Sher to HarrellSlide09

  • Sher’s Richard created an unexpected backlash from disabled community.
  • One response to this: a number of Richards played by disabled actors.
  • Henry Holden in 2007. Like Sher, on crutches, only he needed them.
  • Peter Dinklage played the role with none of the traditional deformities.
  • His size was a kind of disability, as it literally hindered him from taking the crown
    • He was tangled in his robes,
    • Couldn’t reach the throne.
  • Critics writing about the performance claimed watching him was more real. You weren’t watching a performance, you watched a real man, with a real struggle.
  • Another response is approaching the deformity from a more stylized perspective.
  • This was the approach favored by Thadd McQuade.Slide11
  • The essence of this performance was watching a man struggle through life trying to overcome obstacles and find a place for himself in the world, a struggle that is the essence of all tragedy.

Section 7: 10 minute interview with Thadd and John.Slide12Both– Explain the way you chose to represent deformity (bowling ball) and why.

  • John- I got an email from actor JP Schiedler, (who was in the production) who said “ As I recall John was very interested in working inside of some form of restriction which forced his body to adapt, struggle and physically change how he could deal with the world around him which the ball did.” If this is true, I’d like you to talk about this idea- why was it important for you to have something that restricted you? I want to get an idea of how you saw the physicality of Richard and how it is important to the character.
  • Thadd, when I interviewed you, you mentioned that doing the play naturalistically can actually be off-putting because an able-bodied actor will never completely pull off the deformity. I want you to repeat some of that to explain the virtues of a more presentational Richard.
  • Both- How did your techniques contribute to a better understanding of the play for the audience?

Conclusion: Richard’s deformities and disabilities are both physical and psychological. They are the driving force in his life. Portraying Richard’s deformity is a microcosm of the challenges that face all actors: making choices of how to explore the mind and body of a character. Watching an actor take on the challenge of portraying this man’s struggles. This struggle is the essence of tragedy and watching an actor take on the challenge of creates powerful and poignant theatre.