Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the category “Shakespeare”

Bard Bits: Oh, For Reading Out Loud


Today’s audiences talk about seeing a movie. And we are very much a visually oriented culture. Yet, in Shakespeare’s day audiences would say they were going to hear a play because language was such an integral aspect of their culture.

Shakespeare knew this, of course, which is why he wrote his plays with rhyme, rhythm, homonyms, laced with ambiguity. He wanted his audience to hear the auditory beauty of language.

Pen in hand the Bard does ponder

Modern audiences are more accustomed (or have grown more accustomed to) sound bites—quick bits of communication. No wonder eye rolls and twitches are commonalities when someone mentions Shakespeare—we are no longer used to the longer, more developed portents of language. We want quick and easy auditory digestion instead of the languid delight of a language banquet. ‘Tis a shame, yet supping upon a Shakespeare play is possible with a bit of effort.

Shakespearean plays are written to be heard and the Stratford-Upon-Avon wordsmith created the means to better enjoy his words by employing the following:

1. Read the lines with deliberation and emphasis. For example, Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” does better with a slow pronounced repetition to emulate the tedious monotony of life.

2. Use punctuation as a guide by reading to the end stop rather to the end of the line it gives more meaning to the lines. This is known as enjambment, where the line overflows into the next line, much like a waterfall cascades flow smoothly creating movement. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet pours out her emotions for Romeo in one rolling, passionate wave:

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Reading this passage out loud, carrying one line over into the next enhances Juliet’s feelings for her Romeo.

3. Be aware of accented words, pronouncing them with an extra syllable. For example “perfume’d would be three syllables, not two. Shakespeare would have done this to enhance the meter or rhythm of the line. Plus, it has the bonus of sounding fancier.

4. Know that Shakespeare presented his words with intention to paint pictures (no access to CGI) with verbal cues to ignite his audience’s imagination. He needed his words to create imagery since scenery and props were minimal on the Elizabethan stage. For example, when Juliet says, “It was the nightingale, and not the lark,/ That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear,” she is in her wedding bed with Romeo—she is no doubt as close to him as her heartbeat.

Reading Shakespeare can be an enriching, delightful experience when his words are read out loud with considerate digestion.

Bard Bits: Will’s Politics


Shakespeare’s stated politics are not overtly known; however, some ideas can be gathered from his plays with some sleuthing, and a small bit of supposition.

For instance, his thoughts on the ruling class come through as somewhat mocking in the Henry plays, with the heir apparent, Henry IV, carousing with rowdies and hanging out in taverns, while portraying King Lear as being irresponsible with his power by dividing it before he is done with the throne (and see where that got him). Then again, Henry and Lear did end up redeeming themselves, but at high cost: loss of friendship, loss of loved ones, and even loss of sanity.

image: folder.edu

Shakespeare also mocks hardened, pompous rulers evidenced in Richard III, Coriolanus, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, and even The Tempest. It’s true he does his fair share of mocking commoners, with Bottom as the poster boy of ridiculous in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Then, is he considered a proponent of politics or simply an observer of human nature?

During Shakespeare’s reign on the stage he served Queen Elizabeth I and King James. He came close to sharing a cell with the Essex instigators against the queen when they requested Richard II be played out for the deposition scene. The Bard escaped judgement. The Earl did not. Footnote: the 1597 version omitted the abdication scene.

Shakespeare knew not to bite the hand that paid him, which accounts why his portrayal of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, is toned down. What he thought of King Henry privately did not necessarily make it to the stage, and the history books are mute on William’s opinions on the monarchs beyond his plays.

Several of his plays deal with seizing the crown or regicide, sometimes the two being combined. This could be interpreted two ways. One way is that Shakespeare is emphasizing how chaos erupts when the ruler is violently taken–see Julius Caesar. The second way could be postulating that he understood how his fellow common folk were sometimes tired of their rulers and it was time for a change. The stage allowed for historical reenactment with artistic license–give the paying crowd what they want.

It looks like Shakespeare played both sides by pleasing the monarchy (thus protecting his life), and pleasing the audience (thus protecting his income).

Sounds like Shakespeare could have run for office himself.

image: AZ quotes

Then again he was smart enough to use the stage to present his politics in the guise of entertainment, and aren’t the majority of politicians merely players?

Bard Bits: Belated Birthday


I was fully aware of Shakespeare’s birthday last Saturday. In fact, I duly noted the event by checking out the Globe Theater’s production of Julius Caesar.

2015 version at the New Globe

I also noted that the library has added to its collection a variety of Shakespeare productions. A present of presentations.

In May my sophomore students will begin their unit in studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. My teaching approach is to include a bit of historical background in order for them to understand why:

a)Shakespeare wrote the play (Queen Elizabeth I had no named heir and the kingdom could be thrown into chaos)
b)the main character dies in the third act (is Caesar the main character?)

Prior to the Globe’s 2015 production the only available version was Charlton Heston’s epic film where Jason Robards plays an overly stoic Brutus. Even I dreaded the Julius Caesar unit having to show this verson

Then along came the Globe’s filmed HD production. Whew! Students were able to experience watching the play as a live audience watched the play. Seeing the audience participation absolutely helps students in better understanding Shakespeare’s lines. Until the Globe’s production, it was difficult for students to understand that the tragedy of Julius Caesar was imbued with humor. My students realized that they could laugh even though tragedy was prevalent and Shakespeare intended his audience to laugh to break the tension. He knew how to sell tickets. His plays have plenty of the mainstays found in Elizabethan life: life/death, love/hate, food/sexual repartee and humor in the face of the tragic.

The Globe’s version has the traditional opening of Marcellus and Flavius chastising the plebeians for celebrating Julius Caesar’s triumph and the actors play up the punnery and rivalry between the classes quite well by interacting with the audience. Billy Bard would no doubt be pleased.

From the lively opening the play revolves around the conspiracy towards Caesar. And this Caesar has a bit of acerbic wit. He knows how to lance his speech with tone when presenting his lines.

This Caesar knows how to roll out the wit when needed

The usually dour Brutus even gets a laugh when reading the fake news that Cassius slips into his windowsill.

Nothing breaks the tension like a clog tapping poet when Cassius and Brutus are at odds while camped at Sardis.

What’s really noteworthy about this production is that the actors were Elizabethan garb under their togas. This provides more authenticity as they are dressed more in the style found in Shakespeare’s day.

Bromance squabbles are awkward

Overall, a thumbs up production.

Happy belated birthday, Shakespeare.

Bard Bits: Shakespeare Is For Everyone? (That is the question…)


As an AP English teacher, Shakespeare is naturally part of the curriculum and it’s expected my students adore the Avon man as much as I do. Not usually the case. As for my regular sophomores? The groans when we approach Julius Caesar can discouraging. Yet, it is often in how Shakespeare is taught that makes a difference. This is a separate topic. The main topic is the assumption that Shakespeare is for everyone and they are going to like it. That’s like saying exercising is for everyone. It should be, but face it, not everyone embraces a push-up or a run around the block. Some like the idea of exercising and others have tried it, and many let others revel in it. So it goes with Shakespeare.

AUSTIN TICHENOR is the creator of The Shakespereance; co-artistic director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He contributed a thought-provoking article about Shakespeare. Here is the gist of his rhetorical stance:

Is Shakespeare for everyone? Of course he is! Absolutely!

I just wish people would stop saying it.

In Shakespeare’s day, his plays — and plays by others, and theater generally — really were for everyone. All levels of society congregated to see and hear plays in performance, to share gossip and news, and to rub literal and metaphorical elbows. Not just a source for entertainment, Shakespeare’s theater was the internet of its day.

But beginning in the 19th century, theater (and opera and symphonies) became co-opted by the upper class who wanted to keep socially — often meaning ethnically and economically — “unacceptable” people out of the theater, turning what was originally popular culture into “high” culture and using the arts as a tool of status and exclusion.

Worse, as a by-product of imperialism, Shakespeare was imposed on non-English speakers in different countries, held up as the best playwright in the world with the understanding that only by learning his plays and accepting his greatness — and, by extension, the greatness of the English language and Anglo-European culture — could one become truly civilized.

So I get it: “Shakespeare is for everyone” is an important correction, a reminder that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be popular entertainments, designed to appeal to everyone from the groundlings to the nobility.

But I worry that “Shakespeare is for everyone” nowadays feels less like a promise and more like a threat; the implication being that if you don’t like him, there’s something wrong with you..

Because the truth is, Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that it is. Nothing is for everyone: Personally, I don’t like opera, baseball, or video games, and in London at the turn of the 17th century, there were tens of thousands of people who undoubtedly preferred to skip another one of Shakespeare’s epics and head to the bear-baiting pits instead.

So what’s the alternative? I prefer saying “Shakespeare is for anyone who wants him.” For many reasons (i.e., the comedies aren’t funny, the language is incomprehensible, the kings and their nobles are confusing, the references archaic), Shakespeare is demonstrably not for everyone. And that’s okay. But I’ll argue till my dying day that he can and should be made available to anyone who wants him, with many different entry points for people of all levels and interests, whether they be live productions, fascinating lectures, compelling museum exhibitions, excellent films and videos, or even, dare I suggest, pop-up books. One of the first steps in appreciating Shakespeare, it seems to me, is being honest about his output, for we can only truly appreciate his greatness by being discerning enough to recognize the parts that don’t measure up, and understanding that no matter what we do, he still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Bard Bits: Being a Bad Be


Be the best you can be

Even if you are not familiar with Hamlet you are probably aware of Hamlet’s anguished soliloquy of questioning his existence. It’s such a well-known speech that it is almost a cliché. It’s ripe for parody.

A “B” by any other name…

However, there is a wee bit of scholarly doubt if the “To Be” speech that is proffered in plays is the “To Be” that Shakespeare intended. The problem being (yes, a bit of play on the play’s speech) is that Shakespeare’s plays were published without him having proofed the final copy, and most of his plays were published after his death. That’s another post.

When his plays were sent to the printer, they might have been copies taken from someone’s memory, such as an actor or an audience member—accuracy wasn’t exactly sound. These manuscripts came in three forms: good (from the theatre company and with permission), bad (someone’s recall), and dubious (another version of recall, but even worse in content).

The printer would create “quartos,” which were pages folded twice to create four leaves, or eight pages. Scholars have divided the available found quartos in “good” and “bad.”

Bad quartos have no authority and the manuscript content is suspect. Here is an example of a “bad” quarto line:

To be, or not to be, Ay, there’s the point,

To Die, to sleepe, is that all? Ay all:

No, to sleep to dreame, I marry there it goes.

Compared with the standard, recognized lines:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die to sleep–

Some scholarly squabbles exist concerning if “bad” quartos are really all that bad.. The lines might have been rough drafts and since Shakespeare isn’t about for consultation, it’s suggested to leave the matter be.

Bard Bits: Overcoming Shakespism


Up until teaching Shakespeare to my high school English students, my exposure and awareness of Stratford Upon Avon’s poet/playwright had been limited to the usual reference of Romeo and Juliet being a play about two teenagers who have a tragic romance. I saw it as a film in junior high. It was rated “M” for mature audiences (being a 13 year old counted as mature then). Certain scenes were embarrassing and I doubt we were mature enough to handle the morning after flesh flash of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Plus, I had a really difficult time understanding what they were saying—were they speaking English?

That was then and this is now. At present I’m the resident Bardinator at school, being the advisor of the Students for Shakespeare Club and being known for my Shakespeare zeal. We’ve brought Shakesperience to the high school several times, I’ve helped with our own drama club’s version of Romeo and Juliet, designing sets and watching my son contribute his thespian skills, and I do my best to engage and interest students to embrace Shakespeare, nudging past groans when studying his works. My appreciation for Shakespeare has nudged me to leave my usual homebody mode to travel cross country to Washington DC to attend Folger’s week long Hamlet academy. I’ve gone beyond the usual Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar school curriculum offerings and have introduced students to Othello, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and provided background Bard Bits.

How and why did I go from a Shakespeare illiterate to Shakespeare informed?

First of all, I had to overcome the language barrier. Reading Shakespeare wasn’t working so well. Watching well-produced film adaptations, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry IV helped tremendously. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read.

Secondly, the more I taught Shakespeare (teaching the same material year after year does have an upside), the more I understood what I was teaching. And if I understand what I’m teaching I can teach the material better to my students.

Beyond teaching the plays, I began reading about the man who wrote them. Since there is so little solid biographical information about Shakespeare, I began researching and became more and more intrigued. Who was this guy and did he really write all these plays and what was theatre like in Renaissance England led to other aspects such as learning more about Queen Elizabeth I and other aspects of that time period.

And I branched out to other plays, learning all about one play before committing to another. The benefit being that Shakespeare’s language was no longer puzzling to my ear, it had become a melody of written expression.

My dream curriculum is to teach a course that is all Shakespeare. We would of course study selected plays and sonnets, but also play Bard Bingo (it’s fun, really), create Flash Mob scenes for the community (field trip!), stage fight (sword fights and Hamlet are a natural), and put on a Shakespeare night for the school—best scenes talent show. I think I would call the course, “Shakespeare Then and Now” or maybe “Shakespeare—the Undiscovered Country.” At least a dozen students would need to sign up to make it a go, then again it could become so popular two sections (or more) would be required as Shakespism transforms into Shakesthusiasm.

I can hope.

Do you suffer from Shakespism or are you a Bardinator or maybe somewhere in between.

National Poetry Month: Shakespeare’s Birthday!


Bard Bits: Going Global


Shakespeare and crew pulled a fast one on their landlord. After a disagreement about their lease, they dismantled the theatre and ferried it across the Thames, then they rebuilt it Southwark. Although there were nine theaters operating, people tended to choose Shakespeare’s, The Globe. The transplanted Globe shared its new digs with distinctive neighbors such as bear bait pits, prostitutes, pimps, pubs, taverns, pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers. The swanks still came to theatre though, but it’s doubtful they mingled with Southwark regulars in the cheap seats.

Besides the fast getaway, The Globe has other fascinating facts:

  • It was an open-air theatre that held about three thousand spectators.
  • Performances were given every day except Sunday. Plays ran from 2pm to 5pm so the sunlight would not be a hindrance to the audience or the players.
  • The city fathers thought playgoing was immoral and did not allow the theatres to advertise. The Globe did not advertise intentionally, but they did raise a flag at 2 pm to let everyone know the play was about to start.
  • People paid their admission by dropping their money into a box at the entrance (ahem–the box office). People could sit on cushions under the timber roofs, or stand in the open-air courtyard elbow-to-elbow or even the sit upon the stage, if among the exclusive patrons.
  • Vendors sold patrons beer, water, oranges, nuts, gingerbread, and apples. Hazelnuts were apparently the equivalent of Raisinets. Occasionally the patrons would toss them at the actors.
  • With no restrooms or intermissions or the tendency for Elizabethans to not bathe, the theatre atmosphere tended to be somewhat aromatic.
Shakespeare's Globe - Wikipedia
The New Globe
  • Actors, not producers or directors, controlled the play.
  • Scenery and props were minimal. Shakespeare described the setting through his words. Lines such as, “Soft, what light through yonder window breaks” let the audience know where they were and what time of day it was.
  • Women were forbidden to be on the stage. Young adolescent boys played the roles of girls, while older men painted their faces and spoke with a falsetto to play women.
  • Actors learned their parts in about a week. A lead actor might have to learn about 800 lines a day. Over a three year period a lead actor could have learned enough lines to play over seventy roles.
New Globe Theatre | Globe theater, London tours, London
The Globe Inside
  • Elizabethans were a tough crowd. They demanded fresh and new. In a six-month season a single company might give 150 performances of 30 different plays. Some plays lasted one performance, while others had a long run of six months.
  • Playhouses were sponsored by a patron, a nobleman, who willingly lent their names and financial support to the their acting troupe. Shakespeare’s company managed to become the premier company of London by becoming the King’s men, by way of James I.
  • No royalty payments for Shakespeare, since he did not own the plays, as they belonged to the acting company. Shakespeare was part owner of the Globe and shared in the box office. He made enough money to retire well in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1610.
  • The Globe burnt down in 1613 during the first night performance of Henry VIII when the prop cannon exploded. No lives lost, just some burnt breeches.
  • With some Puritan pressure the Parliament shut down the theatres in 1642.
  • However, in 1997 the New Globe opened and Shakespeare’s plays have happily been available to everyone to view without pressure of being closed down from special interest groups.
A Shakespearian Theatre and the new Globe

Bard Bits: Hello to the Hollow Crown


As much as I appreciate Shakespeare, I’m not keen on his historical plays. Maybe one has to be British to embrace the life and times of former sovereigns. Then again I’m not favored towards American leaders foregoing productions about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the crew. Lincoln, I would probably watch.

And so, hearing there is a contemporary production of the Richards and the Henrys featuring favorite actors ranging from David Suchet to Jeremy Irons to Tom Huddleston to Ben Whishaw, I am intrigued and ready to binge some Bard.

These Three Kings…Wow

Richard II features Ben Whishaw and he cavorts with the style and aplomb of a rock star. Production notes indicate Michael Jackson was suggested inspiration. Whishaw deservedly earned his accolades for his performance as he drifts between petulance and dedicated sovereignty. The cinematography rivals that of big screen artistry, bringing a dimension to the play that a stage production never could. An absolutely riveting introduction to the series.

Next up is Prince Hal played by Tom Hiddleston, around the time he began his Avengers role as Loki. Hiddleston brings the winsome bad boy pluck that he channels in Loki to the role of heir apparent. He cavorts in taverns with thieves and prostitutes instead of winning fame and glory on the battlefield. Hal gives his dad King Henry IV, played exceedingly well by Jeremy Irons, ulcers of shame.

Part One focuses on how Prince Hal is slumming around with Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s more endearing anti-heroes played with vamp and veer by Simon Russell Beal. A notoriously likable scoundrel, Falstaff nearly ruins Prince Hal, who fortunately realizes he needs to shed the scalawag before he becomes king.

Part Two witnesses the coming of age of a wayward son into prince realizing his duties to crown and country. Stellar performances from all. Tom Hiddleston’s rejection of Falstaff is especially noteworthy as he coldly belays the sly knight’s claim upon him, breaking the old man’s heart, while stepping up to the role of honor required of him.

Henry V fortunately continues with Tom Hiddleston as king. Viewers see his growth as an impetuous swaggering tavern trawler to a victorious warrior whose Crispin Day speech incites tears as it is lovingly and personally delivered to individual soldiers under his command. This king can shout when he has to but can also project tenderness and caring to a peasant conscripted to fighting a war he does not comprehend. His death as a ruler came much too soon.

Each segment features a different director which brings a freshness and varying perspective to each play. The only hindrance is the lack of continuity of actors from part one to part two since Rory Kinnear is very different from Jeremy Irons in looks and acting style, as king, as are the other characters. It was indeed a bonus to have Hiddleston continue as Henry V.

Once again it is proven that Shakespeare is not of an age but for all time as this production proves the Bard is far from boring.

Shakespeare and Thanksgiving


Shakespeare didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, at least in the modern day sense, but he did know how to give thanks most eloquently:

42 Uplifting Thanksgiving Quotes to Share With the Whole Dinner Table | Thanksgiving  quotes, Instagram captions, Shakespeare quotes
William Shakespeare Archives - Thank You Quotes
Shakespeare Quotes On Thankfulness. QuotesGram
Shakespeare Quotes For Thanksgiving — Good Tickle Brain
Check out Mya’s amazing Shakespeare website!

I express my own thanks. It will be a quiet Thanksgiving, yet there is a joyful noise within my heart that as difficult as this year has been it has been one in which I appreciate how much I can count on the Lord to be my light on those dark days.

May the joy of thanks be a member at your table this year, for there is always something to be thankful for.

Take care–

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