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Creative Casting of Revenge Tragedy: “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Game of Thrones”

One of Shakespeare’s earliest revenge tragedies is Romeo and Juliet. I’m a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and was looking forward to seeing if Sir Kenneth Branagh could top it with his most recent stage production. I saw the play as-live through Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and was really pleased with the way it was adapted to the setting of 1950’s Italy, complete with monumental hand gestures and Sophia Loren looks. The cast included the timeless Sir Derek Jacobi as the oldest performing Mercutio on record, Lily James continuing her ingénue streak as Juliet, and Richard Madden, formerly Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, performing on a twisted ankle as the simultaneously bright-and-teary-eyed Romeo.


On top of the exciting casting of the main characters, I was extra impressed to see that women were cast as traditionally male characters, like the thugs Sampson and Gregory, and a servant of the Capulets, named Peter. Peter delivers one of my favourite lines in the play. Unaware that she is speaking to the enemy of her master, she tells Romeo of a party being held by Capulet: “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.” I love the imagery of that line: the violence of the crushing, the bloody splatter of squished grapes, and the destroyed cup, discarded and forgotten in the festive ruckus of the masquerade. Despite the violence of this image and the invitation’s deliberate exclusion of the Montagues, Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to be violent towards Romeo when he appears at the party and ogles Juliet. Capulet admonishes Tybalt:


Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone;
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth:
I would not for the wealth of all the town
Here in my house do him disparagement:
Therefore be patient, take no note of him:
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.


Despite the fact that the Montagues are his enemy, Capulet refuses to “here in my house do him disparagement”: he forbids violence against a guest in his home, no matter who that guest is. Capulet escalates in rage not at Romeo’s attendance, but at the insult of Tybalt’s intended violence. Capulet’s response immediately brings to mind the concept of “Guest Right,” which entitles any guest who shares the bread and salt of their host to their host’s protection while under that roof. This is a topic that keeps coming up in my favourite show: Game of Thrones. Like any living, breathing person right now, I’m pretty obsessed with it. This season, the show’s violence has escalated to Shakespearean proportions. In order to avoid ruining it for those of us who aren’t caught up, I’d like to talk about Shakespearean resonances with a revenge scene from much earlier in the show: The Red Wedding.


SPOILER ALERT: Stop now if you don’t know what The Red Wedding is and don’t want to read spoilers!


The Wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey is meant to consolidate the treaty between House Stark (represented by the King in the North) and House Frey, who control an tactically-important river crossing in the fictional setting of Westeros. The Wedding was meant to be between Walder Frey’s daughter and the King in the North, but King Robb meets someone young and beautiful during the War of Five Kings (the book and show marry him to two different characters), and can no longer fulfill his promise to Frey. Father of the bride-to-be Walder pretends to forgive Robb for his breach in their agreement, and feeds the King the bread and salt that signify the Freys’ protection.


Robb Stark and his wife Talisa on Game of Thrones


Frey, however, is fed up with not being taken seriously by his allies, and forges an unholy alliance with the enemy Lannister faction, as well as a trusted soldier from within Robb’s own ranks. After the most important members of Stark’s army are seated around Walder’s table and are listening to the cacophonous wedding music performed by disguised members of House Frey, the “musicians” pull their weapons out from the instruments and bloodshed ensues. Robb dies. His mother dies. His pet direwolf dies. Many loyal members of his army die. They trusted Walder Frey because of Guest Right, and died for it.


Robb crying over his wife’s lifeless body during The Red Wedding

So how does this tie back to Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet? Because Richard Madden plays Robb Stark and Romeo. By considering the “creative casting” behind Branagh’s production, we can think more deeply about the topic of revenge: when is revenge just and what constitutes a low blow? Who deserves revenge and when is an avenger in the wrong? Richard Madden may change his accent and cut his hair, but both of his characters fall in love with women that they shouldn’t. Their impulsive marriages come at the cost of their lives, and the lives of those they love. Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to “make a mutiny among my guests” at the feast, but Tybalt finds another opportunity to attack Romeo, leaving behind the bodies of Mercutio, Tybalt himself, and Lady Montague, who dies of her grief when her son is banished from Verona.


Romeo crying over Juliet’s lifeless body in Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

Tragedy is defined by the number of dead bodies onstage at the end of a play. Revenge is the impulse to kill, and revenge tragedy is when the impulse to kill ultimately kills the killer, as well. By thinking about revenge on TV today, we can reflect on those beautiful little details that Shakespeare left behind for us. By reflecting upon the issues that Shakespeare brought up in his revenge tragedies, we can gain a greater appropriation for the politics and drama that we continue to consume today.


Mercutio and Tybalt: casualties of revenge tragedy





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Getting ready the the SAA and Celebrating hendiadys!

So it will come to nobody’s surprise that I’m exceptionally excited for the Shakespeare Association of America conference that’s taking place in my hometown, Toronto, later this week. I’m looking forward to using the hashtag, #shakeass13. I’m looking forward to meeting other people who care about what I care about and want to talk about it with no shame or self-deprecation. I also am ready to learn more about Shakespeare, more about how to talk about his work, and get a rush of creative energy that I can put into my dissertation, which I have really started to enjoy working on, and hope never to have it feel like a burden. Like any cat owner who hears the endless thunking sound of a cat’s head hitting a closed door, I like to think of it as another baby that I can nurture.


So in the spirit of nurturing that baby with gusto, I decided to brush some of the dust off my Shakesmarts. I was thinking about Hamlet, not the person but the play, and rather uncle/father Claudius. I was thinking about what makes him so great and I forgot the word, and frantically emailed a friend in England to ask him what that word is…his signature rhetorical device and he reminded me : hendiadys! What an excellent word! Say it out loud! It sounds like a mountain range somewhere!

But what does he do? How does he use it? Claudius is a diplomat, which means that he understands the necessity for verbal economy, and tries to add that extra bit of detail, complexity, irony, sincerity…into that sentence.


Take, for example: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son–“, he manages to link the two with that and, but also using that little ampersand to divide two things that aren’t one and the same. He embodies Facebook’s need for “It’s complicated” relationship statuses, as we can also see when he sums up the opening plot of the play in these two lines of hendiadys:

“With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,

With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage…”

Wonderful. I love it. Here he adds an extra iamb for effect, but for the most part, Shakespeare fits these almost Mr. Collins-like additions into the iambic pentameter that his stage royalty speak. Claudius, of course, makes a big mistake in this sarcastically “gentle and unforc’d accord of Hamlet”, who then stays home from university long enough to kill his stepdad. Bad call, Claudius. Bad call.

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Did Shakespeare smoke weed? Who cares?!

The best and worst thing about the dearth of information we have about Shakespeare’s life is that it leaves it open to conjecture. Did you know that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else? Did you know that Shakespeare was gay?  — classic questions that just cannot be answered unless Sam takes a Quantum Leap and finds out for us, firsthand. That’s what a bunch of South African paleontologists intend to do.

The article begins with the standard Hamlet joke: “To dig… or not to dig? That’s the latest question” – eye roll, please. Oh, the internet. It teaches us new things every day, yet the unlimited space available allows for trite rubbish like that be published.

'Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?'

At first, I thought that they were going to exhume his body from its place deep beneath Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was really annoyed about this, and gave my dear friend and partner in pedagogical crime, Miss Leah Dacks, a complete, profanity-filled lecture on this topic, mainly harping on the fact that a body buried nearly 400 years ago and covered in concrete probably wouldn’t come out so neatly. In a moment of silence-inducing, gravedigger-like wisdom, she assured me: “I’m sure his coffin is just as intact as the day before it was built.”

Luckily, it turns out that they’ve taken heed of Shakespeare’s epitaph: “Bleste be the man that spares thes stones / And curst be he that moves my bones.” Good call, fellas. Apparently, they intend to “perform a forensic analysis by digitally scanning the playwright’s bones, then ‘rendering a 3-D image reconstruction’.”

But what on earth could they be looking for? For starters, they’re going to take some DNA samples to confirm the Bard’s age, cause of death, and gender. Number one: who cares how old he was? Yes, the life expectancy was shorter back then. Move on. Cause of death? What kind of closure is that going to achieve? Could he have died of the plague? Possibly. Venereal disease? Of course. Cancer? Maybe. If it hadn’t been this, would he be alive today? …exactly. Shakespeare retired before he died – he gave the public as much or as little of his work as he chose. Even without exhuming his body, we keep his memory alive today in a way that even the biggest egomaniacs would appreciate: every once in a while we get musicians and movie stars who are conceived as “bigger than Elvis” or “bigger than the Beatles” – so far, nobody’s gotten quite as big as the Bard.

Gweneth Paltrow playing Viola de Lesseps, disguised as Thomas Kent

And what about gender? Let’s not get all Shakespeare in Love on ourselves. It’s embarrassing, really. Are we not liberated enough to respect particular men for being great men? Feminism is important but feminism with blinders is ignorance: Shakespeare was way ahead of his time in terms of his feminist, nay, egalitarian values, but he had share his chauvinist moments, too.

Anyhow, what’s giving this study the most publicity is that they plan to check if the Bard smoked weed. That’s right. Mary Jane, Dope, pot, sweet sweet cheeba. What inspired this grave-robbing? Apparently, in 2001, one of the members of the team found several 17th-century smoking pipes in the garden of Shakespeare’s home. The pipes revealed “traces of cocaine, cannabis and a hallucinogen derived from nutmeg.” …So that means they were his?

People look to Shakespeare’s writing for further evidence. There’s Othello’s line for starters: “O thou weed who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet that the senses ache at thee,” and then there’s Sonnet 76:

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

Okay, so people assume that Shakespeare was one of those people who believes in herbal-induced literary inspiration. It wouldn’t be surprising but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

Can you inhale inspiration?

For those of you who are a bit fuzzy about how to appropriately use the term “anachronism,” this is the perfect example. We think of artists smoking weed and deriving inspiration today: Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, even Lady Gaga – but that doesn’t mean that people four hundred years ago did the same. Applying what is socially accepted or recognized as truth today to events of 400 years ago doesn’t always result in a perfect fit. It would be ignoring a whole handful of factors that provide an entirely different context to what we’re looking at. First off, just because we call it ‘weed’ today doesn’t mean that it was called ‘weed’ back then. Shakespeare lived in England. It’s a very, very wet country: there are plenty of weeds. We can’t expect him to have been thinking about what comes into our heads when we hear “weed” today. Number two: different plants were used as stimulants back then, and just because essences of marijuana and opium were in the pipes doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was planning to mellow out to some [nonexistent] reggae music and chowin’ down on pizza pops [also, unfortunately, nonexistent in the Bard’s time]. Nonetheless, the articles about this study are usually accompanied with a carefully chosen picture of the Bard rocking a ‘do that looks to be inspired by the Seth Rogen Jew-fro.

Pass the Cheetos, mate

This paleontologist suggests: “If we find grooves between the canine and the incisor, that will tell us if he was chewing on a pipe as well as smoking.” This is what you’re spending public funds on? Please. I care about arts education as much as the next Shakespeare scholar, but how is this going to benefit the nation’s youth? Do you want Stratford to become the Diaspora of Amsterdam, just months before the London Olympics? I’m just waiting for all the new strains to pop up – A Midsummer Night’s Weed, Much Ado About Chronic, and Coriolanus Kush.

Long story short: why do we care if Shakespeare smoked weed? I know people will continue to disagree with me on this topic, but I think it’s just as useless as the authorship debate. Why must we try to take such an out-freaking-standing playwright down a peg or two? Why are we trying to undersell the potential talent of our species?

…Or are we putting pot smokers on a pedestal? Are we doing the “smoking pot makes you more creative” thing? Because if so, the next formal line of reasoning is to consider that Shakespeare was a business man – he wore all the hats in Early Modern Drama field: he wrote, he acted and he was a shareholder in his theatre company. So now we’re saying that, to be highly productive human beings, nay, contributors to the cultural fabric of society, it’s preferable to smoke weed “because Shakespeare did it”?

What if these paleontologists do their thing and find out that, indeed, Shakespeare did die of the clap (he probably did)? Will this finding inspire a whole new demographic to practice safer sex? I can hear all those parents now: “Son, if you forget to wear a condom on prom night, you’ll wind up like William Shakespeare?” – that oughta scare ‘em straight.




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Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey, dir. Sam Mendes (!!!)

Who is a very happy girl today? That’s right, me! As per my last post, things in my personal life took a pretty nasty turn right around the Bard’s birthday, but I really needed to “cast my nighted colour off” and, in the words of someone that probably wasn’t Shakespeare, “keep on truckin’.”

I find that the best way to pick oneself up from really bad news is to get some exceptionally good news. I was lucky enough to get some in the form of an invitation to speak at a conference in Cambridge in September. Cambridge! I’ve never been and am over the moon to be able to go. Seriously. When I found out, I must have been jumping high enough to get to the moon, or at very least Cloud 9.

First and foremost, I’m just so overjoyed to have the honour to stand on a soapbox for 20 minutes and get to talk about two of my favorite subjects: Titus Andronicus and food! Mmmm….meatpie! What is also keeping me up at night is the chance to reunite with some very special friends and see some outstanding, once-in-a-lifetime kind of theatre. Pièce de résistance? Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes, who is reunited with the man playing “bottled spider” himself: Kevin freakin’ Spacey.

It all started a few months ago when my very charming friend, the wonderful Pete Mason, put a shout-out on Facebook to ask if anyone wanted to see it with him. I was dying to, and felt really crummy that I was missing out on such an outstanding opportunity. Precious short moments after I got into the conference, I was messaging him, desperately hoping that he hadn’t already made plans and bought tickets. I was in luck that he was available, but we had a very small window of time in which I could see the play: closing night, to be exact. So Pete called, and I got woken up to the most hilarious anecdote that I’d like to share with you right now…

Pete calls the number, because this is such a hot ticket that tickets for most showings aren’t even offered online. The fellow on the phone tells him “we only have single seats left, and they’re all restricted view.” At this point in reading his message, I’m biting my nails. Pete asks, “For which days?”, to which the man on the phone responds, “All of them.” Pete calls this a “tragedy of fittingly Shakespearean proportions,” but luckily, there’s more to this message: “You’re not under 25, are you?” Yes! Yes we are!!! What does this mean???

Thanks to a kind donation from steel magnate Aditya Mittal, there are 100 seats available for the under 25s at just £12 each for every performance of the Old Vic's forthcoming productions.

It means that the English are fantastic! Despite all the cuts to arts funding since the beginning of the accursed “credit crunch,” the powers that be are still so concerned with the cultural upbringing of their youth that they have special seats reserved for us at theatres. Where exactly? Front row. For how much? Well, they’re normally £42.50, which is a bargain if you ask me: I’ve had worse seats to worse plays in North America and the tickets have cost a whole lot more. But we’re not paying £42.50. We’re paying £12 to sit at spitting distance from Kevin Spacey. I hope that one day, there will be a whole blog post devoted to being spit on by Kevin Spacey. God bless the English and their determination to stand behind their theatre. They have made me a very, very happy girl.


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New Year’s Resolution coming to life!

I told myself that it was necessary to get back to blogging and my dearest neighbour Leigh Ann must have felt my need for inspiration, because she got me a lovely Christmas gift: Becoming Shakespeare, by Jack Lynch (and thanks to my mother for the slightly less p.c. Chanukah gift, Filthy Shakespeare).

I’m about a third way in, but no judgies on the slow reading: a faction of the Oxford Austen texts on my desk are sneering at the Cambridge Shakespeares on my bookshelf! What I mean to say is that it’s nice to take a night off from course work and get back in touch with why I’m here.

I see a lot of myself in Lynch, or at least his narrative persona (as I tell my undergrads to clarify, especially when talking about Shakespeare). Lynch is the kind of guy who loves to talk about those who love to talk about Shakespeare! … that, and a delight in purveying tales of juicy scandal, drunken debauchery and venereal disease (is there any other kind?).

Becoming Shakespeare serves as a great rundown of Shakespearean theatre history. It offers a little bit of everything and I didn’t feel that scholar’s urge to take notes (a lie as soon as I wrote it: I had to put the book down due to a surge of inspiration to get back to my blog), because I know that Lynch’s website offers amazing resources that can elaborate on any element of the Shakespearean history he discussed in the book. It might not be time travel in any realistic sense, but it’s escape enough for a school night in frosty Kingston. 😀

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