Category Archives: Manifesto

Remember me.

Tomorrow is my comprehensive exam. I’m supposed to be spending these last few hours mentally (spiritually? emotionally?) preparing myself for the exam, so I try to think of words that can adequatey express how I feel. I pace, I lie out my clothes, set a double alar(u)m, and worry about all the things I’m bound to forget. And then I log into WordPress and the page offers, at the tick of a box, a bypass-the-line service for future visits: Remember me.

It’s possible that I’m the only person who laughs at this message, and part of me that hopes I’m not a solitary member of a lost species. When I think of that line, I laugh and think of Hamlet, ashen-faced and quaking in his boots at the words that have changed his life: how do you respond to orders to assassinate your uncle, your king?

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain.

And when I think of those kind of demands, I remind myself that spending a couple of hours talking shop probably isn’t so bad. Wish me luck!

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Can fashion prove that Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare”?

As a rule, I like to stay away from the infamous “authorship debate,” which suggests that someone else wrote the plays that we attribute to William Shakespeare. My first justification for maintaining this distance is that we’re completely lacking in evidence that would support an absolutely inarguable truth on either side, but I generally pooh-pooh the issue because nothing is going to change the fact that the plays are here today. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so I prefer to focus on the sweetness than what’s in a name.

That being said, I was enjoying a millionth re-watch of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet last night and it re-affirmed my prejudiced-but-eternally-unproven belief that the glove-maker’s boy from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote these amazing plays.

I know that some might laugh at how many times I’ll re-read a play or even re-watch a single production, but it’s amazing what you remember – those big lines – “To thine own self be true,” “Frailty, thy name is woman,” and the iconic “Alas, Poor Yorick!” – and what you overlook in anticipation of those parts, getting ready to lip-sync along with the production (oh please, like you haven’t taken joy in going along with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, so proud to have retained it verbatim from high-school memorization assignments!). It’s what we overlook that I’d like to look at today, showing how these seemingly insignificant parts might reveal deeper truths.

Let’s start with the first instance, looking at what Polonius says only a couple lines before this usually awkward courtier profoundly urges Laertes: “To thine own self be true.” Polonius, like any parent, is giving his son some last-minute advice before his return to school in Paris:

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

And they in France of the best rank and station

Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

Talk to the hand: Early Modern gloves

So Polonius likes to look good. Not surprising, and not surprising that he wants his son to preserve the family reputation abroad. Polonius speaks in aphorisms that could easily be Hallmark-card wisdom today, and although I like to think of Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers of all time, these suggestions could have even been proverbial back then. But when I think of “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” I am genuinely struck by how appropriate those words are today, and am just waiting for some French fashion house to snatch it up for their SS 2012 campaign.

 

You know who else might have used that line as a selling-tool? Perhaps a glover in the London suburbs. Shakespeare’s father was a tradesman, not a member of the landed gentry, and I think that line offers a perfect defense of his family business. The rich had to look presentable, as fashion statements in the royal court did say something about one’s character – and whose responsibility was it to ensure that when someone talked to the hand, that hand looked damn good? Papa Shakespeare.

Moving along, the line “Frailty, thy name is woman” and I have a relationship, but to sum it up in Facebook terms: “it’s complicated.” I don’t know if Shakespeare realized that he was a writer, as fellow playwright Ben Jonson put it, “not of an age but for all time,” but that quote has given my gender a bad name for centuries! That being said, there are times when I believe it. But enough about me – let’s look at what prompted Hamlet to utter such harsh words:

Frailty, thy name is woman!—

A little month, or ere those shoes were old

With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,

Like Niobe, all tears…

Interesting…we have another shout-out to the fashion world. Here, Hamlet’s thinking about the shoes that his mother Gertrude is wearing in the present (sometimes depicted as her wedding to her former brother-in-law, Claudius) and remembers when she wore them for her father’s funeral. He notes that the shoes have barely gotten any wear between the time she walked behind her first husband’s funeral procession to the time she walked down the aisle beside her second.

The thing with Shakespeare, though, is that even these tiny details, these seemingly insignificant idiosyncratic turns of phrase, are telling. Who else would think about the quality of women’s shoes? A male university student? He’d probably rather concern himself with exams or his girlfriend, the fair Ophelia.  And I get it, he’s lost his father and is mourning, but do you really think he’d remember his mother’s mourning shoes, probably hidden under petticoats? Doubtful. But who would care? Someone who’s probably well versed in the ways of fashion, in the fine crafting required of leather accoutrements: a glove-maker’s son, William Shakespeare.

Last, but certainly not the final word on the matter, let’s have a look at Shakespeare’s renowned gravedigger scene. Before I grew into my bardolatry as I know it today, I would sit in the theatre restlessly, waiting one, two, three hours to see Hamlet hold up that skull – so iconic – but really, it had no meaning to me back then. Now, I have a far greater understanding about mortality in general and have developed an even creepier fascination with the morbid, in particular. That being said, I probably wouldn’t wander around graveyards (one ramble through an Edinburgh cemetery to find the resting place of the original Tom Riddle, excluded). Hamlet did, and after starting up a banter with his local gravedigger, Hamlet asks the following question:

How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?

The Gravedigger responds:

I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die–as we have many pocky cor[p]ses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.

Hamlet:

Why he more than another?

Gravedigger:

Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

So once again, we see this concern with trade, an understanding of the finer details of leather-working that a member of the landed gentry probably wouldn’t have concerned himself with in his daily life, let alone deem worthy enough to write about in a script that would reach thousands of viewers. But a glove-maker’s son seems a bit more feasible — whether the gravedigger’s projections were accurate or not, it’s definitely the kind of morbid joke that would probably come out in the drunken table talk of … a glove-maker.

That’s all for now, folks! Let me know what you think – comment below!

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Life is too short to watch bad Shakespeare

One thing I’ve made known on this blog: I believe that the beauty of Shakespeare’s work can be found in his written words. For someone to act them out to render the best possible emotional output is genuinely not an easy task, so I do respect actors and directors for trying. That being said, if you present a production that makes me shrink in my seat, then I will leave at intermission. And that’s what I did tonight.

Only a couple weeks into my second at-least-four-year sojourn in Kingston, Ontario, I was looking forward to checking out the theatrical scene, something I didn’t really do last time ’round. Tonight’s fare was a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), performed by the King’s Town Players. I’d never seen or read it before, but the written version came strongly endorsed by a fellow bibliophile with a wicked sense of humor.

It’s not that other people didn’t enjoy the play and laugh at the humour; to the contrary, in fact. But to me, when one of the players came out, requested for the house lights to be turned on and then quizzed the viewers whether they’ve read King John (one of that handful of Shakespeare plays that don’t get taught at the secondary or early post-secondary level, and rarely get performed), I didn’t like where this was going. It was like a cheap way to assert his experience with Shakespeare as being more exhaustive than our own, giving them license to butcher the plays.

The three male actors that comprised the troupe began with Romeo and Juliet, not only dressing in drag to play the female parts (acceptable, as Shakespeare did it in his own time), but complete with shrieking falsetto voices. Let me tell you, 15 minutes with that voice was enough to make me start thinking exit strategies. After a decent Titus-as-TV-chef skit (Bone Appetite!) and a short Macbeth skit where they poked at Scottish accents (which we rarely ever see performed in modern productions) they got to Othello. Oh, Othello. After seeing how they desecrated the Juliet part, I was expecting the same man to Crip-walk out in blackface. Luckily, he came onstage with a life raft for an almost-as-stupid sketch where is his chastised by his fellow actors (in the worst acting out of embarrassment that I’ve ever seen. Full hand-on-forehead stuff, people. These days, that acting quality is mainly reserved for the Disney Channel — but I digress), who go on to explain that the boating term ‘moor’ is not the same as an African Moor. And then they rap. *Shudder*

And at some point, they’re able to fit in a joke about playing ‘hide the salami’. Shakespeare did vulgar, I get it. But he also had taste, timing, and subtlety. After that, they just had to equate the English history plays (throwing in King Lear, a tragedy – why not? He was a king!) with a football game, and then they realized they had briefly mentioned every Shakespeare play.

…Except Hamlet. At this point, the bile is already rising up in my throat. I’ve spent that delicious first-week-of-class leisure time before the essays hit making my way through Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour Hamlet. Nobody’s Hamlet will ever be the one I have in my mind, but I really enjoy this one, and have learned a lot from it. I was NOT about to watch them do Hamlet. And, to my even greater displeasure, the actors spent about five minutes pretending not to want to act out such an exalted role, once again looking to the audience for the external validation to let them butcher that, too. At that point, they let us out for intermission, and I suppose that the external validation will be noticing how many audience members stayed for part two.

They did not get my validation, that’s for sure. As I said: life is too short to watch bad Shakespeare.

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Arresting Images

The grammar school where Shakespeare learned how to say what he said

Why do I love reading Shakespeare? Why is it mandatory to read Shakespeare in most North American schools? Why has the rest of the world taken to translating Shakespeare?

I’m going to give you my answer, Reader, and will continue referring back to it through the course of this blog.

My answer: the mind-blowing interplay between what he writes about and how he writes about it.

What he writes about:

–       passion

–       love

–       jealousy

–       sex

–       friendships

–       ambition

–       betrayal

–       death

–       grief

…and so forth. These are issues that we all grapple with at some point in our lives. Shakespeare writes about issues we know, so we can sympathize with his characters and think, ‘How would I deal with this issue if it happened to me?’ and go further to empathize by comparing how we have dealt with these issues in our own pasts. The enjoyment we get out of this subject matter, therefore, is entirely narcissistic, and why not? Shakespeare writes about issues we can relate to, which should ideally make reading his work less scary to take on. He’s not reinventing the wheel. We’ve seen the wheel, driven on that wheel, gotten into the same crashes as his wheels.

What makes reading Shakespeare so scary? His wheel is going in the same direction as ours, but is constructed quite differently. It’s like driving a car in standard: you can’t imagine learning how to do it and doing it without crashing, but once you get a hang of it, you realize that driving standard brings a new grace to driving. You have a whole new control of the vehicle and, from then on, assess the roads around you thinking ‘I can tackle this road so much better in standard!’

Lost? Let me bring you back to my point, Reader. Shakespeare writes about every day issues in the most arresting way. In Shakespeare’s time, students went to school to learn Latin language and Latin literature – English literature as a genre had barely sprung its roots, so they found their amusement and mental exercises in translating these works from Latin to English and back again, each time trying to use the most arresting images and turns of phrase in the English language in order to do the original texts justice. Many people like to point out that Shakespeare was not university educated, but the fact of the matter is that he was doing these challenging exercises in elementary school. Therefore, just as in evaluating the roads as a newly-taught standard driver assessing the roads in terms of gears and clutches, Shakespeare saw the images in the world around him and chose not the easiest way to say something, but the way that would provide you with the most arresting image in your head. The image so true to life, so true to the imagination, that it brought both Queens and prostitutes, lawyers and beggars, out to see his plays.

So, Reader, if my explanation still lives you in the dark, that’s okay, because the only way you can understand what I mean is by reading these passages. As much as I love seeing Shakespeare performed dramatically, the reason why I remain a steadfast reader of the Bard is because the way he writes stops me in my tracks every time. You cannot press pause on a play (although you can with a film!), and Shakespeare deserves that time to stop and just contemplate these most amazing ways he says what he says.

Ideally, I’d like to post one of these arresting images a week, and walk you through exactly how Shakespeare takes an ordinary theme and puts it into words in such an extraordinary manner that for a moment, your mind is blown. In addition to that, I will also be posting about critics and books that have illuminated the way I see Shakespeare, along with productions, and specific actors who, through their performances, bring Shakespeare’s texts to light in ways that I had no personally conceived. The beauty of Shakespeare scholarship being such a large body of scholarship is that, while reading is private, this study is collaborative. So please feel free to post your comments, questions, objections, and so forth, and we can blaze an amazing Shakespearean discourse right here in the blogosphere!

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Another Bardolator? Really?

The Droeshout Engraving, First Folio, 1623

This blog is designed for Shakespeare scholars and non-scholars, enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. Let me explain…

The first thing would be to define my name. Look back with me, Reader, to Exodus 20:4-5, Commandment Number 2: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.

Rightfully very high up on the list considering that during Moses’s first attempt to deliver a set of rules to bind his newly-free people, they took to worshipping a golden calf. Now, at the risk of sounding iconoclastic of the most remembered faux-pas in history, we have taken, once again, to worshiping a graven image. This familiar sight is the Droeshout Engraving of Shakespeare, aka, the image on the title page of my personal bible, the First Folio. Compiled in 1623 by the last surviving members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the First Folio’s existence is our best guide to knowing what plays are genuinely Shakespeare’s. After reading most of them, I could tell that there was more to these works than entertainment. Shakespeare took the most critical and humorous look at the world around him, and wrote about it to entertain the English and fill his own pockets with enough money to buy him the title of Gentleman.

Did the man in this engraving know that his works were not only good enough to fill the seats of the Globe Theatre but were, as Ben Johnson famously said, not of an age, but for all time? That he would be the most recognized name in English literature and likely the only author who has been subject to more translations than the Harry Potter series? Who knows? What I do know is that he is the subject of my Bard-olatry.

I recently completed my MA in Shakespeare at Royal Holloway, University of London, and when I tell people that of my achievement, their reactions are split in two: the first group get nervous and say they haven’t read enough of Shakespeare’s work, but still speak of him with a mix of fear and reverence; the other group scoff at how boring they remember studying Shakespeare to be, and don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Well, Reader, I am going to use this blog to explain exactly what the fuss is about. This Bard’s (a fancy word for poet, but used as a proper name when referring to Shakespeare) words of wisdom, turns of phrase, and character construction more sympathetic than the world had ever seen before, have provided me with a guide to life, a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world around me, and I want to share that world with you. Never assume that Shakespeare’s works are too lofty or archaic to understand. We’ll work through it together. I have never made the top scoring marks in my class, but if there were a mark for enthusiasm and passion, that’s where I would shine. So enter this blog with an open mind ready to learn, and I will try to open your eyes to the genius of this writer whom I love so much.

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