Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Hamlet”

Bard Bits: A Turn of the Word


One of the major challenges faced when introducing Shakespeare to my teen students was the language barrier. They saw Shakespearean language as foreign and resisted it. Some backing away so quickly and decisively it seemed they had suddenly encountered a foul smelling creature and a speedy exit they did desire.

Admittedly I encountered my difficulties with Shakespearean turn of phrase when I first began my teaching. Having no previous o knowledge of Shakespeare beyond a 1960 something film version of Romeo and Juliet from my junior high days I struggled. This meant I needed to learn more about what made Shakespeare so Shakespeare.

My first adult immersion was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry film. It was so brilliant that I fell asleep. The fatigue of deciphering what everyone was saying wore me out. I brought this to my teaching: Shakespeare can be tiring.

Why?

David Suchet, that accomplished actor of stage and screen puts it so well:

“Speaking in rhyme is not natural to us, but it was to the Elizabethans, so we have to understand what language meant to them, and what language does not mean to us today.”

Basically, contemporary speakers get to the point, an A to B decision. Elizabethan folk wandered on their path to convey their meaning, adding subtle nuances, providing an opportunity to savor the many perspectives and dimensions the English language provides.

“Wow. She’s pretty.” To the point.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear; Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.” Romeo takes a meaningful stroll, exploring the depth of his first impression of Juliet.

Of course we don’t speak like Romeo today, but you have to admit Romeo’s speech feeds our quest for romance and delight in beauty. Shakespeare dwelt in imagery. He provided a banquet in language; he lived in time where people were used to feasting on how words created a cadence of meaning. Today’s audience lives on a diet of abbreviations and emojis tapped out in thumb.

So—my first step in getting students to appreciate Shakespeare was to allay their concern about studying Old English, about encountering a foreign language. These were main points I began with:

  • Shakespeare is not a foreign language nor even is it Old English. It is the beginning of modern English spoken in an older England.
  • Many of the words Shakespeare used are words spoken today. And the fact he made known nearly 2,000 words that are in use today is impressive. I would drop how there would be no Assassin’s Creed if Shakespeare had not invented “assassin.”

The next step was to break down passages to literary terms because Shakespeare heavily played with imagery and components. I liked Danny Devito approach:

Finally, listening to trained actors speaking the rhythm of both iambic pentameter verse phrasing prose through film clips brough the passages alive. The cadence of Shakespeare’s speech is sizzling. Words jump up and get noticed. The front truth and back truth of the idea sits up and cannot be ignored. What is being said and what is really being said makes a difference.

In this scene Mel’s Hamlet is back truth to Ophelia: “You’re working for your dad. Women try to play men, but I am on to you.” Ophelia’s front truth is “You said you loved me, why so cruel now?” There are two conversations going on here: Hamlet’s agenda and Ophelia’s agenda. And Shakespeare let his audiences (and future English classes) figure out the real meaning of the scene.

How not to do a break up

Once students get immersed in the language they begin to see how Shakespeare is talking about issues they can relate to: parental control, unrequited love, betrayal—400 years hasn’t changed much in the emotional realm, language usage a bit more, granted.

Did I convince all my students that Shakespeare can be embraced and not reviled? Of course not. However, the intention was that they would be a bit more willing and able when they encountered the Bard next time.

It is indeed “sweet sorrow” I no longer teach Shakespeare.

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: Oh, the Places He Didn’t Go


Suitcase Shakespeare

Although Shakespeare’s home stage was the Globe Theater, and his plays are set in places as far flung as Denmark, Cyprus, Verona, Egypt, and Rome, there is not much in evidence that he actually traveled to any of those places. Rick Steves’ guidebooks and travel episodes were not available, so Wm. S. did the next best when it came to creating his settings: research sprinkled with imagination.

Travel Guru Rick Steves Reveals His 10 Best Vacation Tips
Steve probably finds some of Shakespeare’s setting descriptions amusing

Then again, why not set plays in jolly old London? No doubt the fear of offending present citizens played into the scriptwriting. Or not having as much wiggle room with creative license. Plus, it’s much easier to imply unknown cultural aspects such as young marriages and sparring families as found in Romeo and Juliet or having a widower mandating the oldest daughter is married off first as stated in Taming of the Shrew. Wild flora and fauna can be invented, which is seen in The Tempest. Conquering queens and funny forest business is better placed in Athens than in England in terms of sparking the imagination (also known as “getting away with suspension of disbelief).

While there is not much Danish about Shakespeare’s Denmark in Hamlet, there is the hint of the romance of Venice in Othello, and there is definitely Roman reign in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare did stick around Britain for his histories, all those Henry plays and what have you. Perhaps it was more than inventing or embellishing cultural aspects in his plays, that encouraged Wm. S. to spin elaborate settings. Methinks the draw of experiencing a two hour traffic set in a land far from London’s teeming streets appealed to the audience.

Shakespeare was no doubt an amazing wordsmith, but he also knew how to plump up box office interest. The show must go on, and it has, hasn’t it?

Tour the Places William Shakespeare Stayed Over 400 Years Ago |  Architectural Digest
All the world’s a stage, especially the Globe Theatre

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.

Bard Bits: Hamlet/Hamnet


I have my reserve in for the new Hamnet. I am anticipating and checking my library notifications frequently. If you are unaware—

This is a fictional account of a playwright (who is supposedly not named in the story) and his 11 year old son, his only son, who dies, perhaps of the bubonic plague. Of course it got my attention. If it looks like Shakespeare, talks about Shakespeare, might shed more light about Shakespeare—gotta read it. Being a Bardinator sets one up for mandatory reading at times.

A new view of Shakespeare, perhaps?

Since I have yet to read the novel, I thought this installment of Bard Bits would focus on what others have said of the play, which is supposedly a reference to Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son, whose name is thought to have alternately been spelled Hamlet. There is ongoing academic conversation about that connection.

So-no thoughts yet on Hamnet. However, here are what some think about the titular character of the play:

A rich kid from Denmark.

—Diane Sawyer

A sad, screwed-up type of guy.

—Holden Caulfield

A half a dozen characters rolled into one.

—George Bernard Shaw

An Anglo-Saxon bore who talked too much.

—Henry Miller

What Hamlet is, before he is anything…is an authentic tragic hero who is himself a man of genius.

—Orson WellesHamlet

Hamlet doesn’t care if he bites the dust. He’s dangerous. He’s a human time bomb.

—Mel Gibson

Indeed. Hamlet is a bit of all these impressions. But beyond his perceived personality is the remaining core of who Hamlet is and the engine of the play: he is a son who has lost a father. What is notable, is the play is written by a man who lost a son. The play is about how a father and a son are both lost. Sometimes it’s a fine line between life imitating art and art reflecting life.

All quotes are from the fun and fabulous The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein. It is a treasure of a Bardinator resource.

What are your thoughts on Hamnet? No spoilers, please.

Feel free to add your two cents to thoughts on Hamlet. Having watched too many adaptations I have to push aside Mel, David, Jude and cohort before deciding on my own ideas. Above all else, I think Hamlet is a grieving young man who truly missed his father. I think Shakespeare did indeed reflect how grief wears heavy on a person in his play about how a person grapples with significant loss and how loss is absolutely a very personal experience.

Bard Bits: May


I managed to go to school without any experience with Shakespeare (yeah, how did that happen?) I can easily relate to my student’s bewilderment when we begin our drama unit. Freshmen study Romeo and Juliet, sophomores experience Julius Caesar, juniors skip Shakespeare to study American Literature (The Crucible), and depending on the teacher, students have a range of selection from an overview of the comedies to a dive into tragedy with Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, or Macbeth.

I am usually prepared for groans from my sophomores when I announce we are studying Shakespeare. “Not again!” “We did him last year.” “Shakespeare is so boring.” Instead of coming up with excuses and defending our Wily Bard of Stratford, I agree with them. This gets me some interesting looks–most def.

I do agree with my students. Shakespeare can be boring, or at least his plays were until I got the hang of them. Watching, let alone reading the plays, was painful to endure, and I felt I could never get anywhere, no matter how hard I tried. Then again, learning how to ski was painful, and I wondered if I would ever get down the mountain without a initiating a yard sale. Hmm, I should use this analogy with my students since they have grown up with a mountain in their backyard.

Here are two thoughts on Shakespeare:

“I am more easily bored with Shakespeare, and have suffered more ghastly evenings with him, than with any dramatist I know.” Peter Brook, English theatre director

“We find Shakespeare boring because we’re lazy. We’re not willing to get through the language. That’s the only barrier. If a play is performed right by those who are properly trained, after about twenty minutes you won’t be aware of the language because the human story is so strong.” –David Suchet, actor

What are your experiences with Shakespeare? Bored, frustrated, from having to endure year after year of his plays in school? Perhaps initially bored, but then the story unfolds and the words are no longer a barrier and serve as a contribution to the experience? Or maybe you grew to appreciate him with time and experience?

One of my standout memories of teaching my favorite play, Hamlet–sorry, I do mention that often, don’t I?–is after we wrapped up the unit, one student, from my regular, not AP class, stayed behind. “You know I’m going to miss discussing Hamlet, I really got to like this play.” He grew thoughtful. “I can’t discuss Shakespeare with my father.”

I never discussed Shakespeare with my father either. But I sure discuss him with my own children when I get the chance. Shakespeare boring? Not for long. Hang in there, dig in your poles, don’t cross your ski tips, and you will enjoy the thrill of going from snowplow to slalom. That applies to skiing as well.

Bard Bits: April


Honestly, you don’t look a day over 415, Bill!
1564-1616
April 23

Yup, it’s birthday time for William. He had a much bigger party six years ago when he hit the big 450. All over the world people celebrated the genius of the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

How does a person offer birthday congrats to someone who has given so much to the world in terms of literature and themed studies of human nature? Royalties, maybe. Wouldn’t that be a welcome stimulus check in the mailbox? Films, books, plays, mugs, t-shirts, buttons, toys, business names, and so much more are derived from Shakespeare. From what I have researched about his personality, I’m sure he would be amused at the adulation. He would probably discount it towards misshapen apparitions of misguided judgement.

I must offer some sort of tribute to Bill on his birthday. Hmm, how about something acknowledging my appreciation for one of his most amazing works: Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet once again. The Muppets had their say last month, now it is time for Veggie Tales to lend their muse to this timeless play of the troubled Prince of Danes or is that Danish?

https://vimeo.com/247649481?ref=em-share

Maybe you have your own ideas for a birthday tribute. I would surely appreciate hearing how you appreciate Shakespeare. Stop in the comments and have a piece of cake.

Image result for shakespeare birthday cake
Yes, you can have cake and eatheth, too.

Bard Bits: March


One month to go until we celebrate William Shakespeare’s birthday or reflect upon his death. Tough call since Shakespeare was born/died on the same day–supposedly April 23. Which way to acknowledge that auspicious day? Rejoice in his birth? Remorse of his death?

“Shakespeare. When will there come another?”
Thank Antony for the paraphrase

Shakespeare shares this notable event known as the “birthday effect” with other famous folk such as the painter Raphael (April 6), Ingrid Bergman (August 29), Grant Wood (February 13), known for the painting, American Gothic, and Corrie Ten Boom (April 15).

Image result for Shakespeare's Birthplace
Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon
Don’t mess with the Bard’s bones

Born/died in 1616, the year marks of 2020 marks the 404 for William. It is appropriate that April is designated National Poetry Month, since Shakespeare perfected the sonnet, churning out some 154 of the iambic pentameter driven contributions to poetry and reflective muse.

While most Shakespeare aficionados and fans are content with being titled as Bardolators, I have chosen Bardinator since the difference is being a bit more determined to keep returning to understand his work–yeah, it is similar to a certain movie icon who keeps up with that line of “I’ll be back.” I teach Shakespeare, I relish his genius with words, yet I don’t like all his works (especially those with pies). I do want to keep returning to understand his wit and expertise with turning a phrase. After ten plus years of teaching Hamlet to high school students I am still discovering aspects of the play that just absolutely make me jump up and down with excitement. And yes, my students do wonder how I get so involved with Shakespeare. Even the Muppets appreciate Shakespeare.

Stay tuned for more Bard Bits as his birthday approaches…

Celebrating Shakespeare


There are many aspects to April to celebrate: daffodils, warmer weather, rain instead of snow (finding the positive), poetry, and Shakespeare. No matter your feelings about Shakespeare, it is pretty cool that he died on the same day he was born: April 23.

As a way to celebrate Shakespeare’s coolness, the month of April will be dedicated to all things Shakespeare. Get ready for a range of celebratory stuff. Here’s a starter:

 

 

Yup, “To Be or Not To Be” in Klingon. Now, that’s what I call awesome.

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