Archives For Shakespeare

On a positive note, there is a new TV show ( creator: Craig Pearce) about William Shakespeare. The star,Laurie Davidson, is a casting choice who will make women swoon.

On the other hand, there will be purist English professors who will be cringing over a number of anachronisms they believe will need correcting.

Maybe why the series is simply titled Will...because there will be English teachers who will insist on separating facts from fiction.

I suggest, however, that students will remember more if they do the background research.

For example:

  • they will need to understand why Alice Burbage (for real) would have every reason to say Yes, I am that most useless of creatures: an educated woman!”.but would never have spoken this aloud;
  • they will need to discover that Elizabethan audiences, while quite raucous, did not sport brightly dyed mohawks, and there is little evidence of iambic pentameter rap battles in taverns;
  • they will need to appreciate Kit Marlowe’s place in literature;
  • they will need to consider why a character Shakespeare  might hide his Roman Catholic background in Elizabethan England.

What the series seems to get right is the tension created during religious purges throughout Elizabeth I’s reign. Students could do some quick research into those hostilities that were initiated by her father, Henry VIII in challenging the Roman Catholic Church. The TV series features gruesome scenes of torturing Catholics by (historically accurate) Richard Topcliffe that are hard to watch. His sadistic turn, even on the small screen, gives support to a description that he was one “whose inhuman cruelty is so great, as he will not spare to extend any torture whatsoever.”

Another right set of moments (Episode 3) center on our accepted understanding that most plot lines of Shakespeare’s plays are “borrowed” from other sources. For example, it is known that Romeo and Juliet is lifted in large part from a poem by Arthur Brooke (1562) titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet. The conceit that Will collects lines on his strolls through London’s streets for later use in plays is similar to how Tom Stoppard presented Shakespeare’s style of playwriting in the Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love. But Will’s producers who try to involve Alice as a collaborator may be taking their playwriting enterprise a (London) bridge too far.

Other accurate moments from the series opener are devoted to watching a tense dynamic between playwright and actor. In one scene, famed actor Richard Burbage, played by Mattias Inwoodhams it up during lines from an early production of Edward III;  he overplays lines about the futility of war as pickup lines for an attractive theatre-goer. In another scene, an out-of-control actor on stage escalates manically lewd behavior and moons the audience for laughs. Such exploitation by actors at the cost of a play’s meaning gives more support to why the real Shakespeare penned these lines for Hamlet:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines.”(3.2.1-4)

If teachers can see their way past the anachronisms, they may agree that  Will can help students visualize a dangerous London, its alleyways teaming with treachery.

Treachery is a Shakespeare trademark, according to Harvard scholar  in his essay in The New Yorker Magazine (July 10/17, 2017 issue) Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia. In the essay, Greenblatt compares his own life experiences with the fear of the “other” or outsider that is present in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Dangerous topics like xenophobia or plotting against the king, Greenblatt notes, are how Shakespeare “awakens” audiences to better understanding. Sounding much like the producers of Will, Greenblatt provides an allusion to King Lear,

“At a time when alehouses and inns were full of spies trolling for subversive comments,this is a playwright who could depict on the public stage a twisted sociopath lying his way to supreme authority.”

Greenblatt continues to note Shakespeare’s temerity, again referencing plot points from King Lear:

“This is a playwright who could have a character stand up and declare to the spectators that ‘a dog’s obeyed in office’.”

and then

“This is a playwright who could approvingly depict a servant mortally wounding the realm’s ruler in order to stop him from torturing a prisoner in the name of national security.”

Shakespeare, Greenblatt argues, had the audacity to produce such acts of treachery onstage in order to place us in a different point of view, a view that “offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.”

In contrast, the producers of Will, keep the treachery off the stage and onto the streets.

Whether Will lasts as a TV series or ends before the season’s summer sun sets will be determined by ratings; Will currently has the distinction of being the lowest-rated TNT drama series premiere.

Will Will continue to be or not to be? That is a question.

Every school year, students in hundreds of freshman English classes nationwide read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

They are learning about meter and experiencing the rhythmic patterns of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter:

  • Ten syllables in each line
  • Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
  • The rhythm in each line sounds like:
    ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM

In the play, the pattern of  iambic pentameter sounds like:

Juliet: o NOW be GONE, more LIGHT and LIGHT it GROWS
Romeo: More LIGHT and LIGHT, more DARK and DARK our WOES

Studying the meter of Shakespeare’s poetry in English class is akin to practicing the Common Core Mathematical Practice (MP7) which asks students to “look closely to discern a pattern or structure.”

Students can find language patterns everywhere.

Now, some freshmen English classes might be reading Romeo and Juliet during the week of Valentine’s. They might already be familiar with some of the iconic images of the holiday: roses, Cupids, or those candy conversation hearts.

But did they notice that the conversation hearts associated with Valentine’s Day have a specific pattern?

According to Necco, the maker of the candies, the pattern to the conversation heart: five letters on the top line, and four on the shorter line:

 

cartoon-heart

Necco, or the New England Confectionery Company, has produced candy conversation hearts since 1901, and the flavors traditionally include: Lemon, Apple, Blue Raspberry, Strawberry, Grape and Orange.

While the language on the conversation hearts are no substitute for Shakespeare’s genius, they can be helpful when “sometimes you don’t have the words to express your feelings.” Every year from February to January, Necco produces almost 100,000 pounds or 8 billion pieces of sugary sentiment. There are hundreds of suggestions submitted each year to the company with new sayings. Many of these are sayings that reflect cultural shifts: From “Call me”, “Email me”, or “Fax me”, to “Tweet Me.”

Asking students in classes that are studying Romeo and Juliet to create new conversation hearts to accompany the play could be a fun assessment, especially on Valentine’s Day!

The standard pattern of these conversation hearts could be used as a way for students to summarize several of Shakespeare’s speeches.

For the line:

  • But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (2.2.1-3)
  • Conversation heart summary: Romeo to Juliet: You’re a Sun

For the line:

  • ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; (2.2. 38)
  • Conversation heart summary: Juliet to Romeo: Enemy Mine

Students could also use the conversation hearts as a way for students label characters:

  • Tybalt: Angry Ally
  • Mercutio: Amigo Poet

Students could also try other patterns on the conversation hearts such as:

  • six letters on top line, three letters on the bottom line;
  • four letters on the top line, five letters on the bottom line;
  • Punctuation could be used as well.

Students could string the phrases from a few conversation hearts together to create a new line of sweet poetry. In that case, they might choose to include the most popular conversation heart, “Marry Me”…which is more positive for celebrating the Valentine’s holiday than than the more tragic “Kiss-I Die!”

There is a comedian whose improvisation routine includes asking “What if?” questions using Google search engine. Audience members call out a letter, the comedian enters “What if+ letter” in the search bar, he reads the first topic(s) that pop up, and then he jokes about that topic.

In honor of Shakespeare’s 400th, here is a try at the same routine (without the jokes) taken on (4/9/16)

Top 5 Google Search Results:

“What if Shakespeare…?”

#1. Shakespearean What-Ifs — Good Tickle Brain

 This first entry to pop-up features the mini-comics of  Mya, artist and librarian who was introduced to Shakespeare at  eight or nine years old, and has been addicted ever since. She drew the first Shakespearean What-If in five hours for Mini-Comics Day at the University of Michigan Art, Architecture and Engineering Library.Screenshot 2016-04-09 08.47.35

Her “What ifs…” feature alternate Shakespearean timelines that “…hinge on a single moment when Tragedies could so easily become comedies, and comedies could so easily end in tears.”
Here’s a look at some alternate Shakespearean timelines that she offers for print:

If you are so inclined, feel free to download the Hamlet PDF and print them out full size (no scaling to fit page, thank you) Also Julius Caesar and Macbeth.


#2. Quote by Gayle Forman: “But what if Shakespeare― 

 “But what if Shakespeare― and Hamlet― were asking the wrong question? What if the real question is not whether to be, but how to be?” (1).Just one day

The second pop-up was a quote by Gayle Forman who is also writer, a writer that does not have to be assigned to read in high school. Young adults made her novel If I Stay a best-seller. She also wrote the novel Just One Day, in which the protagonist Allyson Healey’s post-graduation trip to Europe changes her life, She makes an uncharacteristically unpredictable decision to stay with Willem, a Shakespearean actor. The quote above opens the novel.

Forman’s bio on her website lists 13 interesting facts; here are three:
  • When I was little I wanted to grow up to be the sun. I was devastated to learn this was not a career option.
  • I bombed my SATs. I still did okay in life.
  • As a teen, I was so obsessed with Molly Ringwald that I started biting my lip like she did and now I have a permanent scar. And this is why I am a YA author.

 


#3. If Shakespeare Had a Sister

To be honest, Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, one that centered on how Shakespeare’s gender allowed him to become the great dramatist, occupied both #3 and #4 positions in the “What if Shakespeare?” search.
Woolf ‘s essay suggests that if Shakespeare had a sister, one who also was brilliant playwright, she would not have had the same opportunities to write and to stage plays,. Furthermore, she would be driven mad and would have died in obscurity. Woolf imagines this sister-Judith- who as a child,
“…picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”
Rather than marry, young Judith would run away from home, seeking drama,like her brother William, to express her genius:
“She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face.”
Judith would meet a far different fate than her brother. Woolf suggests,
“that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

In her essay Woolf’s mourns not only the fictional Judith, but also the unheard voices of real women writers throughout history who suffered similar fates.

 


#4. What if… we didn’t have Shakespeare – Prospect Magazine

The subtitle of this article by Justina Crabtree Could Christopher Marlowe have equalled Shakespeare’s achievement? is a commentary on the budding genius of playwright Marlowe before his untimely end in a knife fight in a bar. Crabtree poses the question as to whether Marlowe might have had the same impact on language as Shakespeare did:

“Without [Shakespeare] him, nobody would “melt into thin air” (The Tempest), nor would there be “method in our madness” (Hamlet). We’d never be “in a pickle” (The Tempest), nor would we ever be a “laughing stock” (The Merry Wives of Windsor). Things would never go “full circle” (King Lear), or be achieved in “one fell swoop” (Macbeth).”

Furthermore, Crabtree ponders if Marlowe had the potential to match Shakespeare’s characters, those “truly rich, three-dimensional characters” which were a “progression away from the Medieval morality tradition.”

 


anonymousThis   or response –not a review- by Stephen Marche on Roland Emmerich’s film, Anonymous (2011) laments how the central question in the film, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” was so poorly presented. As a professor who had taught Shakespeare in the past, Marche admitted that he is no film critic, but he is a critic of the flawed position that credited Edward de Vere as the real author of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, etc:
“And if you take “Anonymous” as just a movie, it may not even be that bad. I couldn’t possibly judge, because I was apoplectically stuttering about the inconsistencies…”
Marche is convinced that Emmerich’s film will drive students to challenge Shakespeare’s authenticity and sympathizes with the Shakespeare scholars who will be driven crazy with ridiculous speculations. As for Marche? He has no doubt about Shakespeare:
“So, enough. It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare. Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible.”

While I had thought five entries would be enough, the #6 entry is too good not to share

#6. What if Shakespeare wrote Star Wars? “Alas, poor … 

 What if William Shakespeare took a crack at Star Wars? Just imagine the classic Wookie and R2-D2 chess scene re-written as a Greek chorus.
Well, you do not have to imagine, because there is stirring in the Force, a new series of the Star Wars trilogies by Ian Doescher. An example?

Star Wars HamletLUKE Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too? 5
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.

The tagline? Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.
Watching a HD live broadcast of a Shakespeare play is a surprisingly intimate experience, even on the big movie screen. The camera zooms in and out capturing the details on set pieces, on costumes, and on the facial expressions of the actors, even capturing a wrinkle or two.
There was a wrinkle or two in the audience as well watching the encore screening of London’s National Theatre production of Hamlet last Thursday night in Fairfield, Connecticut. National Theatre Live is the “groundbreaking initiative to broadcast theatre live from the stage to cinemas around the world,” via satellite to over 2000 venues in more than 40 countries.
Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet

Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet

The live and encore screenings of Hamlet allowed audiences in the United States access to one of the hottest tickets in London this season.  The reason? Benedict Cumberbatch was playing the title role. Cumberbatch has made a name for himself in the PBS series  Sherlock (2010) and in The Imitation Game (2014) which earned him a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

At 39 years old, Cumberbatch played a bellicose, mid-aged Hamlet.
But while  Cumberbatch was the reason for the crowd, this audience had more in common with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. While the character of Gertrude could have been a child bride (12-15 years old), the youngest she could be is in her early 30s.
Hamlet is at minimum 12-16 years old, an age indicated in the Q1 or “First Quarto” the short early text of the play. The Gravedigger provides information that Yorick’s skull has been in the ground a dozen years since old Hamlet overcame Fortinbras, and that Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.
But in a later version of the text (Q2)  the Gravedigger says that he has been in his profession since the day that Hamlet’s father defeated Old Fortinbras, on “the very day that young Hamlet was born.” He later adds that “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.”That would mean that Hamlet could be at minimum 30 years old, placing Gertrude at over 60 years old.
Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude

Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude

In this production, Gertrude was played by the actress Anastasia Hille as a woman in her late 50s. 10 years older than her co-star Cumberbatch, Hille was regal in each scene, graceful and lithe, her muscle tone noticeable in a brief appearance in a satin undergarment.

The audience clearly enjoyed the broadcast, hinting at familiarity with each scene. There was appreciation for some of the comic staging by the director Lyndsey Turner, including the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with military play toys as set pieces.
By Act III, there was an detectable level of anticipation for the closet scene, the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius hiding behind the arras. From Hamlet’s entrance, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” the audience seemed to tighten, eager to hear how these two would play the scene: he the accuser and she the astonished.
As scripted, Polonius had no sooner hit the floor then Hamlet turned to accuse his mother of murder:
“…a bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.” (III.iv.27-28)
HD cameras closed in on Hille’s astonished Gertrude looking past the bleeding body on the floor and deeply into her son’s face for answers. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet continued in a frenzy, pointing to a portrait of his father on the wall and to the reproduction of his Uncle Claudius’s face on a cheap souvenir commemorative plate:
“Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.”(III.iv.54-55)
The tension from this exchange was palpable as Hamlet’s accusation spilled out into the air;
“….Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment:”(III.iv.67-70)
Translation? “Mom, you can’t possibly be swept off your feet–or make decisions based on sexual passion-you are too old!”
 
Audience response was immediate…a round of snorts and chuckles, that gave way to a few loud guffaws. This over 60 crowd, with its disproportionately high number of females in the audience, was having none of son Hamlet’s logic:
A mother’s heydey? Not over.
Gertrude tame? No way.
“What Hamlet doesn’t know,” they sniggered, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Was it the venue that let them feel more free to laugh?  Was it their way to express comfort with their sexuality? A response from a culture that celebrates “cougars” ? A reaction from the regular dose of TV ads promoting Viagra… for both sexes? I was struck at how this particular audience interpreted the line, disrupting the dramatic tension in so public a manner.
Their interruption was brief. Whatever empowered their response soon passed, and upon the entrance of the Ghost, the audience quieted.  The play continued without interruption, and by the end of Act V, the stage was littered with bodies.
This Hamlet in HD beamed by satellite to audiences around the world did not lose any of the emotional impact, and proves that regardless of how the production is presented, Shakespeare’s statement that “the play is the thing” is true for audiences. The National Theatre Live experience shared with aging baby boomers proves that who is in the audience matters as well.

Shakespeare would be 450 years old this year, April 2014. To celebrate this milestone the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust has a number of activities scheduled including performances and parades in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon the weekend of April 26/27:

Screenshot 2014-04-22 08.35.28

The birthday weekend brings together performers, artists, the local community and ambassadors from around the world in a vibrant celebration of the life and works of William Shakespeare. During the two day event, the town’s streets overflow with music, pageantry and drama and you are invited to enjoy a packed programme of special activities and great days out at the five Shakespeare houses.

Whatever activities they plan, I am sure Shakespeare would be honored to be the cause of merry-making and revelry. He would love to the be the cause of festivity; he would enjoy a celebratory bash. But the committee planning the events has been careful not to use the word “party.” That word would confuse Shakespeare because for all of his prowess as a dramatist and poet, Shakespeare does not know the word “party.”

In penning 37 plays and 154 sonnets Shakespeare is credited with contributing an estimated 1,700 words to the English language. In his verse, he used six different meanings to the word party. Using the Shakespeare Navigator, owned by Philip Weller, I researched how the word “party” was used in Shakespeare’s works:

party (n.) 1 side, faction, camp
party (n.) 2 litigant, disputant, side
party (n.) 3 side, part, function
party (n.) 4 participant, accessory, supporter
party (n.) 5 person, fellow
party (n.) 6 side, position, viewpoint

Note: none of these means “celebration.”

Perhaps this is not so much of a surprise since the word “party” as a noun was not used as an occasion for celebration until 1716, a century after Shakespeare’s death. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the first use of “party” as:

Sense of “gathering for social pleasure” is first found 1716, from general sense of persons gathered together (originally for some specific purpose, such as dinner party, hunting party).

“To Party,” the verb derived from the noun was not added until the Roaring 20’s”

“have a good time,” 1922, from party (n.)

Shakespeare was acquainted with the word “birthday” since it had been in use for at least two hundred years before he was writing:

birthday (n.) late 14c., from Old English byrddæg, “anniversary celebration of someone’s birth” (at first usually a king or saint); see birth (n.) + day. Meaning “day on which one is born” is from 1570s. 

He does note “birthdays” in plays:

Antony and Cleopatra: AC III.xiii.184.2 It is my birthday.
Julius Caesar: JC V.i.71 This is my birthday; 
Pericles: Per II.i.109 is It is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come
The Two Noble Kinsmen: TNK II.iv.36 You have honoured her fair birthday with your virtues,

Still Shakespeare chose other ways of expressing birth, as evidence by a particularly sad admission from Beatrice in Much Ado abut Nothing about the death of her mother in childbirth:

BEATRICE
334   No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there
335   was a star danced, and under that was I born. (2.1)

So, members of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, have a wonderful gala. Have a fabulous social gathering.  Celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, but please, do not party. 

Shakespeare does not know “party” that way.

There are several reasons the short discourse between Hamlet and a captain from Fortinbras’s army at the end of Act Four has become my favorite scene in the play Hamlet. There are 22 lines spoken between the Captain and Hamlet, but they contain questions about military service that reverberate today. Shakespeare’s fascination with the role of the soldier in society is evident in many of his plays, but rarely does he spotlight such blunt conversation between a character from the military and a member of the royal class.

In the following quick analysis of the scene, Hamlet is being packaged off to England accompanied by the hapless duo Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even though he is Prince of Denmark, Hamlet can do nothing but witness what is happening; his Uncle Claudius is in charge of the kingdom.

hamlet96-4-4-1

Act IV. scene iv from Branagh’s “Hamlet”

Hamlet opens the exchange by asking the Captain what army is marching across Denmark.

HAMLET
Good sir, whose powers are these?
Captain
They are of Norway, sir.
HAMLET
How purposed, sir, I pray you?
Captain
Against some part of Poland.

To all observers, Fortinbras’s march through Denmark to Poland with an army is a potential threat to Denmark. Hamlet’s father had killed Fortinbras’s father in battle, and Fortinbras is one of the three sons looking to avenge a father in this tragedy.

HAMLET
Who commands them, sir?
Captain
The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.
HAMLET
Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?

Hamlet is able to gather information as to Fortinbras’s intent, or at least the Captain’s orders. When the Captain speaks “truly,” he is unaware he is addressing royalty:

Captain
Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

Here then, the Captain explains the soldier’s paradox. He has enlisted in the military, and in the military, he follows orders. The Captain knows the  “little patch of ground” is worthless to him personally, “To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it…” That same land, however, has value to those who command the army, to those who engage in kingdom building, and to those who care for, “no profit but the name.” All land is valuable to those who desire to expand their holdings. Yet  that same land is as valuable to those who own it, and Hamlet learns from the Captain that the Poles have dug in, preparing for Fortinbras’s coming attack:

HAMLET
Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
Captain
Yes, it is already garrison’d.

Shakespeare uses Fortinbras’s “man of action” to contrast Hamlet’s “man of thought” throughout the play. While Hamlet spends almost four acts fuming over his Uncle Claudius, Fortinbras amasses an army to claim or to regain land lost by his father. Of course the Poles will be defending their homeland, an understandable reason to risk their lives, but the Norwegian soldiers are not being attacked; they are the attackers. Hamlet’s last words to the Captain shows him considering an unnecessary war that will cost many soldiers lives:

HAMLET
Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
Captain
God be wi’ you, sir.
Exit

In the soliloquy that follows, Hamlet wonders why soldiers would enlist in such a venture when they risk their lives for an unknown cause:

“…for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?”

In offering this soliloquy, Shakespeare poses a universal question: Why does anyone become a soldier?

As the mother of two active duty Marine Corps officers, I think about this same question. I think about this question knowing that only .5% of Americans serve in today’s military as compared to 12% in World War II.

Shakespeare asks what “a fantasy and trick of fame” drives men and women to enlist and follow orders. Certainly full employment is a draw to the profession, but a military that enlists only for money is akin to a military of mercenaries. A report by the US Department of Defense issued by the American Forces Press Service points to another reason, that military service is a family tradition. In a 2011 survey, “79% percent of veterans surveyed reported that an immediate family member is serving or has served in the military. That compares to 61 percent among the civilian respondents.”

New York Times editorial (5/26/2013) Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart by Karl W. Eikenberry and David Kennedy, also points out the growing disconnect between the general population and those who serve. Eikenberry is a retired Lieutenant General and former United States commander in Afghanistan (2009-2001); Kennedy is an emeritus professor of history at Stanford. They discuss family legacy as the reason young men and women enlist:

“So many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a “family business.” Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged.”

I often hear praise heaped upon my sons because sometimes they are the only direct connection to the military for friends and associates. My extended family includes brothers, nephews, and brothers-in-laws who have also served in some branch of service. We could be part of the military caste that understands the concerns of Eikenberry and Kennedy who recount a maxim of George Washington:

“The  [US Military] all-volunteer force may be the most lethal and professional force in history, but it makes a mockery of George Washington’s maxim: When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen. Somehow, soldier and citizen must once again be brought to stand side by side.”

Shakespeare presents the plight of the soldier to an audience of citizens by having the Captain speak to the “citizen” Hamlet. As the Captain bluntly assesses the coming attack, Shakespeare creates empathy for the soldier from the citizens who hear him speak. They hear Hamlet “humbled” in his thanks. In this short scene, Shakespeare illustrates the importance of Washington’s maxim: the citizen must stand with the soldier.

There is, however, another reason this scene from Hamlet has a special significance for me. My older son served his first tour (of three) in Afghanistan in 2011. In our mail one day was a small cardboard box top from an MRE box that he had used as a postcard. He indicated he was doing well, healthy and well-fed, and he asked us to thank those who had sent packages to him. He had carefully printed as much as he could on the box top, as if his writing would be sufficient to assure us of his safety. He signed off with his scrawly signature, but at the bottom of the card in a tiny line of postscript he had penned the quote:

“We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.”

 

The 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.

These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.

Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.

Moreover, watching the different versions meets the Common Core State Standard:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.7
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare)

This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.

For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed  selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

The scenario of film clips went in this order:

Act I; scene i: The “Who’s there?” opening:

  • Branagh (Note: Jack Lemmon as Marcello is woefully miscast)
  • BBC (Patrick Stewart plays both Ghost and Claudius)
  • Olivier (students thought the graphics and set were amazing for 1948)

Act I; scene v: In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet. I started with Zefferelli, and then moved to the Branagh version.  I added two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the 1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor. To have a sense, here are some clips to compare of the Ghost meeting Hamlet:

Kenneth Branagh
Grigori Kozintsev

Alexander Fodor

I had asked the students to consider the origin of the Ghost-from Heaven (“spirit of health”), from Purgatory (“till my sins were purged”), or Hell (“goblin damned”). Where did they believe the Ghost originated? After watching the clips, they decided:

  • Zefferelli: Heaven or Purgatory (“The ghost looks so sad..”)
  • Branagh: Hell (“there’s fire coming out of the ground! it’s Hell unlashed,” said one.)
  • Hallmark: Hell (“there is a hand that comes from the ground!” “He’s wounded by the Ghost!”)
  • Fodor: Hell (“That’s an abusive dad!”)
  • Grigori Kozintsev: Hell or Purgatory (“Darth Vadar!”)

Act III; scene iv: The students also watched the stabbing of Polonius in Gertrude’s bedchamber where Zefferelli’s version veers into a disturbing Oedipal psychoanalysis akin to Olivier’s version. Students compared that version with the more toned down version from Branagh before moving onto Act IV.

Finally, when we arrived at Act V; scene ii, I lined up the five different versions moving between the Smartboard and a small projector. This year, I followed this order and have summarized the student responses:

  1. Starting with Zefferelli’s authentic combat, Hamlet is both clown and avenger. The three bouts are elaborate and full of suspense; my students were amazed at the hand-to-hand combat that would have been for “entertainment.” Glenn Close’s Gertrude dies in pain with wonderful contortions, and one student noted hearing “a satisfying “crunch” when Claudius is finally stabbed. As the camera pulls away, four bodies litter the stage, and the “rest is silence.”
  2. Branagh wisely kept Fortinbras in the play (all four hours of it!) using the setting of Blenheim Palace in England, which could serve as a substitute for the Russian Winter Palace of the Tsars in his Marxist take on the play. The students did not care for the elaborate staging in the death of Claudius who is “fed” poison after he has been lanced by a foil and crushed by a falling chandelier. They did, however, give “thumbs up” to the editing which juxtaposes the combat between Laertes and Hamlet with the invasion of the palace by Fortinbras. One of the open-ended questions I had asked was to choose “Fortinbras or Hamlet: The soldier or the scholar?” This film put most student squarely in Fortinbras’s corner as the man of action.
  3. The BBC version switches between security camera feed and with a single-camera setup giving the impression that the action recorded will be later viewed in some criminal investigation. Patrick Stewart returned to the BBC as Claudius where played the same role in 1980 with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. In the final scene, confronted by Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius takes the cup and with a resigned shrug, drinks the remaining poison and falls dead a few inches from his beloved queen. My students thought this version was hilarious, a dark and cynical twist on justice.
  4. The Almereyda version suggests that Gertrude, played by Diane Venora, willingly drinks from the cup in order to protect Hamlet and that Laertes played by Liev Schreiber is not Claudius’s dupe. As Hamlet remarks to Laertes, “You do but dally. I pray you, pass with your best violence,” Schreiber’s brutish and vengeful son of Polonius stands up with a concealed weapon and, in the scuffle that follows, shoots Hamlet in the abdomen before being wounded in the same way himself. My students reacted in shock:”didn’t see that coming!”  Once avenged, Schreiber’s next act is one of brotherhood towards Hamlet as he hands the weapon off for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Viewers should note that Horatio has something useful to do in this version, as he holds the dying Hamlet upright to hunt Claudius.  

Watching these four Hamlets die took all the time we had in our block schedule (80 minutes). A few more minutes, and I could have offered a fifth? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal.  There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”

Die again, Hamlet, please, die again.

Yesterday, I took a group of 11th and 12th grade on a field trip to Yale Repertory Theatre to see These Paper Bullets, a “modish remake” of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. We arrived early enough to have a little time before the show to stroll the sidewalks of Yale/New Haven and grab a cup of coffee before filing into the University Theatre. The weather cooperated for the first time this year, a bright warming sun made the wait before the show a pleasurable experience.

Talkback with the actors at Yale Repertory 4/3/14

Talkback with the actors at Yale Repertory 4/3/14

The comedy was adapted by Rolin Jones, with original songs by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. The production, offered as part of the Will Power! program, was high spirited fun, featuring live music from the stage and digital projections engulfing the audience.

We remained after the curtain call for the “talkback” with the actors and crew, an experience that always provides my students the most authentic look at the theatre profession. When a student from the audience asked how long it took the cast to memorize lines for the play, actress Liz Wisan made every English and Drama teacher’s heart happy by responding, “Before you can memorize, you have to know the meaning of the words…to understand what the author says …and you must see through the character’s eyes.” She had no need for Common Core or curriculum guides to express her deep appreciation for author’s craft.

After the talkback, we stopped for pizza (this was New Haven, after all) and the students chattered about the play. “Best show ever!” was their collective response, and I agreed.

This was a great field trip, one the students will remember.

Certainly, the educational institution known as the field trip presents any teacher with one of education’s most complex dilemmas: it can be both fraught with peril and, at the same time, infinitely rewarding.  In taking a field trip students are removed from the safe confines of the school building to participate in a volatile mix of authenticity and liability. The only guarantee of success is that while students will forget homework, lessons, and classroom rules, students will always remember going on a field trip.

There are teachers who hate field trips, which can be difficult to organize. There is a laundry list of possible disasters associated with field trips:

  • Final expense could mean that some students may be excluded or choose not to be included;
  • Bad weather cancels activities or negatively impacts trip;
  • Students could be injured;
  • Students could get lost;
  • Busses could break down.

In addition, field trips disrupt class schedules, and even though students are told in advance that they are to complete any work they miss in class due to a field trip, they rarely do. For all these reasons, field trips are sometimes limited in number in a school year. This limit is unfortunate because any field trip is a powerful educational tool.

Field trips are what students remember.

This morning, the entire eighth grade left for a day trip to NYC. The students were scheduled to visit Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the aircraft carrier Intrepid. However, they were not so fortunate as we had been only 24 hours earlier. The weather was dismal, and a light rain kept the temperatures chilly. Oh, and one of the buses broke down; something about a wheel falling off.

On a positive note, students used social media to keep their parents and friends updated on their 3.5 hour delay. Just before midnight, their organizing teacher posted, “They [students] were well-mannered, patient, resilient, and cooperative.”

Their trip was a great field trip, too; one the students will remember.

theatre-stage-81d434 copyShakespeare’s sonnets are little one-act plays.
I learned this one year when I was teaching drama to grades 9-12 and I discovered Will and WhimsySixteen Dramatically Illustrated Sonnets of Shakespeare by Alan Haehnel. The short comic/poignant skits in the collection are an excellent way for middle school and high school students to be exposed to the Bard’s 154 poems.
Consequently, when I began the study of sonnets with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, I thought they might benefit from a similar technique. In addition, I considered that this could be an opportunity for them to write a narrative as required by the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

“Imagine a character in each sonnet is talking to you,” I explained, “you need to synthesize the ideas from the poem, and write that character’s story.”

Then, I handed out copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

On the bottom of the page I restated one simple direction, “Write the narrative.”

The results were unexpected. While my students are good at analyzing poems, I was unaware that a number of them are born storytellers. In their retellings, they captured the spirit, and sometimes the exact language, of the poem. They found ways to expand on the isolation and alienation of the speaker and incorporate the shift in the speaker’s attitude from despair to one of acceptance.

For example, Melissa used a pivotal moment in the lives of high school students…asking someone to go to the prom:

After weeks of preparation and endless nerves the day has come to ask her to come to prom with me!
I wrote her a poem listing all the things I liked about her and read it to her under the starlight sky just at sunset.
I ended the poem with “thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings.”
My nerves ran through my body and I felt like I was going to pass out.
YES! SHE SAID YES!
I take her off to dinner and we planned for the night of prom. My dreams have come true! I am going to my senior prom with the girl of my dreams!

In contrast, Makayla began her narrative from the point of view of a frighteningly depressed teenager who observes others in a community park. The young girl’s attention is eventually drawn to one elderly couple, and their tenderness towards each other brings about an “epiphany,” a realization:

I inhale a summer thriving breathe and release the darkness out of my body. I turn to walk down the once sullen Earth path now as a gateway to sweet heaven’s gate. I take my phone out of the bag and dial my boyfriend’s number to make things right and explain myself to him. I pass the two elderly couple and smile.
In return I get a friendly, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” and I respond, “Yes, yes ,it truly is, and I won’t beweep it again.”
As I near the running children, I pulled my bag off my shoulder and slipped it into a nearby trashcan. It’s time to change my state with kings.

Emma’s chose to use the point-of-view of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in this poignant tale:

He doesn’t know that me is right underneath all of this forgotten memory. I’m right here, but I don’t know who I am. I bury my face in my wrinkled hands and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. I can’t change. Curse my fate.
When I look up he’s standing over me. “Your appointment is at four.”
I swear I didn’t know. When I searched his face for recognition, I knew that he did not see me. He doesn’t know who I am and neither do I. He doesn’t understand that I can’t control my fate. But I am not my forgotten memory, I am his wife. That much, I know.

Finally, Jen’s story was humorous, told from the perspective of a jilted bride:

I’m sitting alone on altar steps in my once-worn Vera Wang wedding dress that’s as deflated now as I feel. My supposed-to-be husband left me for some California-toned, bottle-blond chick bustier than Dolly Parton. (Curses her and her awesome figure. I swear she was created by Russian scientists.) I all alone beweep my outcast state….

….That son-of-a-bitch should not be in my thoughts right now. Well, maybe he should considering he was a 10 thousand dollar mistake. Dammit I looked good in that dress.
Sullen Earth, why me?

What started out as an educated guess for an assignment on my part has yielded great results. Moreover, my students have written narratives based on  “this man’s art.”

“We loved writing these,” was their collective response.
Of course they did….hard to go wrong with Shakespeare as their mentor.

Continue Reading…

Shakepeare winkingPlanning on teaching literature in high school? I suggest a brush up on literary pitfalls….and work on developing a sense of humor because sooner or later, a student, (usually a boy) will come upon one of the following words in some great work of literature:

Screw.
Bang
Bosom.
Laid.
Nuts.

In context, these words have been carefully chosen by an author to express some lofty ideal.  Yet, to that student who is looking for any way to make the class more entertaining, these words can mean something else entirely.

No author has been more successful in creating linguistic traps than Shakespeare. There are the overt references, such as Lady Macbeth’s startling announcement to “Unsex me here..!” (I.5) in preparation to assassinate the visiting King Duncan.  There are the more subtle problems with the “hoary-headed frosts” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Romeo and Juliet offers the most opportunity for student sniggering.

From the opening scuffle where, “My naked weapon is out”, a teacher must negotiate students through Lord Capulet’s Give me my long sword, ho“,  Mercutio’s  teasing  “Prick love for pricking,” or the Nurse’s explanation that Juliet “shall bear the burden soon at night.

“Is Shakespeare always this dirty?” I see the quizzical looks on their faces.
“Your parents are okay with this,” I reassure them, “Besides, this is required reading.”

The Bard does not have a monopoly on creating awkward moments with language in class. Students are capable of creating discomfort, intentionally or not.

Years ago, I taught an Animal Farm unit and delivered a lesson on George Orwell’s characters and their historical counterparts. I explained that Napoleon was Stalin, the dogs were his secret police, and Snowball was Trotsky. I mentioned in passing that Trotsky was considered an insurrectionist, and I paused to let the information sink in. Instead I heard the distinct sound of giggling from several of the boys in the back of the room.

“What is so funny?”I demanded.
“Nothing,” they stammered.
I should have stopped there, but I moved in to clarify.
“What do you think I said? Do you know what an insurrectionist is?”

There was a pause…
“When… it… goes down?” blurted out one of the offenders.

“No,” I was indignant…not to be stopped. “No, I said’ insurrection’…what did you think I …..”
Then it hit me.
Erection.
I doubled back.
“It’s someone who is trying to start an uprising…..”
That explanation was drowned out with guffaws.
Did I mention that a very good sense of humor is needed in with sophomores?

This past fall, I had posted charts around the rooms with questions associated with Oliver Twist.
As the students moved around the room I noticed students giggling when they got to one of the charts.
“Why would someone lie?” was the heading on the chart.
“To get laid,” was scribbled in small print.
I recognized that print.
That print belonged to Mitch. Mitch who stood all of 4’2″ and was 90 lbs, soaking wet.

Everyone had seen it, so I needed to address the problem quickly.
“Mitch,” I demanded, “is that an appropriate thing to write?”

“Sure, Ms. B,” he replied casually,”I could lie and say I’m dying…Like in the movie 50/50.
I had to admit he was using logic…to say nothing of his confidence.
He still erased the comment.

Next week, I plan to use an Advanced Placement Literature multiple choice prompt from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as practice for the upcoming AP exam.  I was rereading the passage to check its length and the matching questions when I came upon the line, “She began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

Oh, Jane. That’s going to definitely cause a stir!