Friday, January 6, 2017

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at UNWSP

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Dir. Daniel McLaughlin. Perf. Dawson, Michael, and Tommy. By Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. University of Northwestern—St. Paul Department of Theatre. St. Paul, Minnesota, 12-21 January 2017.

In just a week, the Department of Theatre will open its production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). If you're anywhere in the area, I urge you to come see it.

I've seen the Reduced Shakespeare Company's DVD of the farcical romp through the works of Shakespeare, and it's quite good—but there's something about a local and live production of the show that is immensely appealing.

Here's the trailer they put together. It features a Shakespeare scholar who doesn't quite grasp the intention of the play:

I'm also informed that some version of the following biographical notes will make their way into the program. Clearly, this show is unmissable.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616, closed Sundays) is not only one of the greatest dramatists of all time, he was also one of the most productive. He wrote between thirty-seven and thirty-nine plays, including these masterpieces: Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Moby Dick, Macbeth, Huckleberry Finn, Richard III, Richard IV (The Revenge), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He also wrote two lengthy dramatic poems, 154 sonnets, two cookbooks, and a guide to haunted apartments in Sheboygan. 
In his work, Shakespeare asks the enduring questions about what it means to be human: How does it feel to be betrayed? To fall in love? To lose your keys? To be hungry? To wake up convinced that you just missed the big exam? He speaks eloquently, having his characters explain in their own words what it’s like to have the universal experiences we all encounter every day: being jealous, feeling old, and being tempted by witches to kill the king of Scotland and seize the Scottish crown. 
As you watch the performance, pay particular attention to the most memorable figures in all of Shakespeare. You’ll find Othello, Prince of Denmark rubbing shoulders with the Two Merry Gentlemen of Windsor. Romeo and Juliet will go on a double date with Antony and Cleopatra. Characters from Much Ado About a Midsummer Night’s Dream will vie for your attention with those from The Taming of King Lear. The two parts of Henry IV will be compiled into the one part of Henry VIII. And when Ophelia starts heading toward the water, we’ll all yell, “Julius! Seize her!” 
Shakespeare is an author for the ages, and his works can be the study of a lifetime. We can’t give you a lifetime, but we can provide The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). And now, as Hamlet says, “Look where my abridgement comes!” (Hamlet, II.ii.127).

Come see the show if you can! I think we'll all have a very good time.

Note: Here's a blog-native version of the video above—just in case the link above goes sour.


Links: The Production at UNWSP.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Note: Something Rotten

Grantz, Alan. Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery. New York: Dial Books, 2007.

Every other year, I teach a course entitled "Modern Shakespearean Fiction." And during the alternate years, I try to keep up with the wealth of material produced in that genre. I'm gearing up to teach it again, and I find that I'm a bit behindhand—again—with my reading. But I'm catching up.

For example, I just finished reading Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery, a young adult recasting of Hamlet. Although I was a bit skeptical at first, the book gradually drew me in. It's presented more as a mystery—who killed the Hamlet analogue's dad and how and why?—than a tragedy, and I gradually came to like our protagonist / narrator, who is none other than Horatio.

Every other character in the book gets a different name: Hamilton (fans of the musical would approve), Olivia, Larry (Olivia's brother),  and Paul (their dad). We also have Bernard and Frank, the security guards, and Rosco and Gilbert, Hamilton's fourth-grade acquaintances. Hamilton's dad's name is Rex; his uncle / stepdad's name is Claude; his mom's name is Trudy. Just as a side note, Horatio has sisters named Desdemona and Juliet

In addition, Horatio and Hamilton (last name Prince—forgot to mention that before) go to a private boarding school called Wittenberg. The Elsinore Paper Plant is polluting the Elsinore river, which runs through Denmark, Tennessee.

Mostly, then, it's a straightforward retelling of Hamlet, but there are some fascinating diversions from Shakespeare's plot. I won't provide too many spoilers, but I will say that Horatio falls for Olivia, which complicates matters.

The two main things this novel has going for it are its narrator (the point of view of Horatio is a good one to have, and he's a likable smart aleck) and its self-awareness. The play-within-the-play in this novel isn't The Murder of Gonzalo. It's a local amateur theatre production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And Rosco and Gilbert relax at one point by watching Strange Brew.

One nice touch comes in a voicemail message from Horatio's mom:
"What a piece of work is man [sic]!" My mom. The English lit. professor. "How nobel in reason. How infinite in faculty. In form an moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god." And yet you can't be bothered to call your mother when you get to Hamilton's house? I will assume you are bleeding to death on the roadside in a twisted hulk of metal until you phone. (90-91)
But my favorite part is the self-reflexivity, as in the lead-up to the "entrapment by drama" scene:
Unfortunately, the pirates didn't attack until act three. The play roughly followed the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, focusing on the minor characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Personally, I'm a little tired of every author without a bright idea of his own putting a modern spin on a "classic," but I was a big fan of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Apparently Hamilton wasn't. He drove me nuts the whole play. (129-30)
This self-awareness takes the edge off what might otherwise be too pretentious.

All in all, Something Rotten is an enjoyable novel with a particularly enjoyable narrator. And that's a good thing—because there's another Horatio Wilkes mystery on my shelf: Something Wicked.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Shakespeare in Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

Bachman, Richard (pseudonym of Stephen King). The Running Man. New York: Signet, 1982.

I haven't read a lot of Stephen King. It took me a while, in fact, to realize that one of the great films of my youth—1986's Stand By Me—was based on a Stephen King novella (The Body, for those of you keeping track).

How did I learn that?

From a student.

I wonder if students are aware of how much their professors learn from them. If they ever found out, they might start charging us tuition!

As you can imagine, it took me a while to learn that Richard Bachman was Stephen King. And it took me even longer to realize that the novel The Running Man was decidedly different from that great film of a little later in my youth—1987's The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I read The Running Man this semester, and I noted something very Shakespearean about it. First, King wrote very dark novels—dark even for him—under that sobriquet. I imagine Shakespeare might have published Timon of Athens or even Titus Andronicus under the pen name Richard Bachman if the times would have allowed it. He could have explored more pessimistic ideas under a name that wouldn't sully the comedic gold brand name of Shakespeare that way.

Second, there seemed to be a reference to Macbeth about two-thirds of the way through the novel. Richards (our protagonist, who is running for his life) is helped by a man named Elton who is injured and who bleeds copiously in the driver's seat of his car. Here's the passage (sensitive readers may wish to skip the rest of this post):

"Ah," I hear you say. "Ah, but that isn't necessarily a reference to Shakespeare. We see the similarity between that and Lady Macbeth's line 'Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?' (V.i.34-40), but it's not the same."

I hear your cries—and I admire your ability to cite so accurately by Act, scene, and line number from the Riverside edition. But a passage later in the novel is even closer to the original quotation:

King, writing a dark novel under a pseudonym, alludes to (and very nearly quotes from) one of Shakespeare's darkest tragedies to explore that darkness.

Links: The Film, which probably does not have any Shakespeare—though I haven't re-watched it—at IMDB.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Shakespeare in Mansfield Park

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Mansfield Park was another novel I read with an eye to Shakespeare.

A scene some way into the novel is remarkably similar to a scene quite early in Little Women. Our younger protagonists are planning to put on a play, Tom insisting that it would be fine while Edmund thinks it is a bad idea:
“By Jove! this won’t do,” cried Tom, throwing himself into a chair with a hearty laugh. “To be sure, my dear mother, your anxiety—I was unlucky there.”

“What is the matter?” asked her ladyship, in the heavy tone of one half-roused; “I was not asleep.”

“Oh dear, no, ma’am, nobody suspected you! Well, Edmund,” he continued, returning to the former subject, posture, and voice, as soon as Lady Bertram began to nod again, “but this I will maintain, that we shall be doing no harm.”

“I cannot agree with you; I am convinced that my father would totally disapprove it.”

“And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.”

“It was a very different thing. You must see the difference yourself. My father wished us, as schoolboys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.”
Later, Fanny, steadfast and true to the morals of the manor, unwaveringly advises against it.

The line "How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d, in this very room, for his amusement?" reminds me of an exchange from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Cassius begins the exchange, marveling at the fame that is now theirs for all time:
                          How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown! (III.i.111-13)
Brutus responds with equal optimism:
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis [lies] along
No worthier than the dust!  (III.i.114-16)
They're both right, and it's a wonderfully self-reflexive moment within the play. Mansfield Park adds to the layers of metatheacricality by being one of the places where the lofty scene is acted over.

[As a side note, the line about Norval refers to John Home's Douglas, a 1756 Scottish tragedy.]

Let me give you the scene quoted above in greater context (click on the image below to enlarge it):

Shakespeare is mentioned a few times in Mansfield Park. Astonishingly, speeches from Henry VIII move Fanny very much:

In one of the last references to Shakespeare in the novel, his work forms at least one point of common ground between two otherwise dissimilar people. Could love of Shakespeare spark true love between polar opposites?

The lesson for us all is, I believe, that we should read more Austen—and that doing so will make us read more Shakespeare. And I think even Mrs. Norris would agree with that! 

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Shakespeare in Little Women

Alcott, Louisa May. The Annotated Little Women. Ed. John Matteson. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.

I've read broadly this semester, largely in helping our senior English majors with their Senior Thesis Projects (also called Capstone Projects).

As always, I've kept my eyes peeled for Shakespeare.

In Little Women, it didn't take long to find. In the first chapter, the little women are planning to put on a dramatic performance, and Jo wants to do it up right, responding pseudo-modestly to an exclamation by Beth:
"I don't see how you can write and act such splendid things, Jo. You're a regular Shakespeare!" exclaimed Beth, who firmly believed that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in all things. 
"Not quite," replied Jo modestly. "I do think The Witch's Curse, an Operatic Tragedy is rather a nice thing; but I'd like to try Macbeth, if we only had a trapdoor for Banquo. I always wanted to do the killing part. 'Is that a dagger that I see before me?'" muttered Jo, rolling her eyes and clutching at the air, as she had seen a famous tragedian do.

"No, it's the toasting fork, with Mother's shoe on it instead of the bread. Beth's stage-struck!" cried Meg, and the rehearsal ended in a general burst of laughter.
That's all quite delightful, but I wanted to provide a bit of "value-added" content, so let me point you toward a new release this year by W. W. Norton: The Annotated Little Women. It's quite a delightful work, and it helps contextualize and explain a lot of the book. Here's the run-up to the scene I just quoted:

With the annotations, we're able to learn that Alcott herself saw Edwin Forrest play Macbeth—and that she was not impressed.

Now it's off to the film versions to see how much Shakespeare we can find there!

Click below to purchase the book from
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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2016 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest