Wednesday, April 23, 2014

450 Years of Shakespeare! (Probably)

Happy Birthday, Willie S! Today is the 450th birthday of the bard himself, William Shakespeare. (Probably. We know he was baptized on April 26th, so we celebrate his birthday today.)

I’ve  been reflecting a lot lately on William Shakespeare, obviously. That’s been the theme of the month: The way this one writer has influenced countless writers that have come after him, the way that his work has been dissected and redissected, and how new information about his life is constantly changing the face of not only what we know about him, but the worlds that he left for us. This man is still changing the way we look at the world.

But what if it’s a little bit less than that?

Here’s what we know about William Shakespeare: he was a writer back in a time when writing and acting wasn’t that honorable of a profession. Some actor’s mothers would tell their Elizabethan-era bridge clubs that their actor-sons were thieves, but the best thieves on the blocks. Shakespeare didn’t really have to go through with this: he was pretty wealthy, invested his money wisely, and was a pretty well-known writer. We know he was popular - popular enough that 450 years later people are still mangling his works and he’s being studied not only by scholars but in high schools.

Take a moment to think about that. It’s one thing for Johnny Professor to study Mr. Obscure Writer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of like he was some kind of Literary Hipster, but Shakespeare is pretty much studied by High School students. Romeo and Juliet has been turned into kids’s movies. (Minus the whole “death” thing.) That means that Shakespeare, writing 450  years ago in a language that was actually considered lower class at the time, is important and known enough to be studied in basic scholarship... 

But what if William Shakespeare just wrote for that reason... to write?

I’m not saying to just make money. He didn’t necessarily need it. We know he didn’t write to create brave new worlds (see what I did there?). Most of his work was largely reboots of previous franchises. But what if he was just writing to say something for himself, and left it there?

I like that interpretation of his work. Because then it makes his work more accessible to everyone. Think about it, we no longer have this great writer on a pedestal. We no longer have this writer who’s fame and work is no longer achievable by us, the great unwashed masses. We have a guy. A guy that just wanted to write. A guy that had something to say, and said it the best way he knew how: by just writing. By making his statement, and moving on. By writing his words down, making sure they get out there, and then leaving the rest up for interpretation for us.

Remember what I said before: William Shakespeare is studied in High School. He’s important enough to ensure that everyone must learn about him. And there’s no evidence that this is what he wanted out of life. It’s what we, the people who read his work chose for him. And it makes  his level of writing an achievable goal. 

That’s the lesson I think we should all explore today, on William Shakespeare’s Birthday. I am asking all of you who read this today not to concentrate on William Shakespeare, the man today, I think you should focus on William Shakespeare and his accomplishment, and ask yourself, “why can’t I accomplish that?” Because there’s really no reason why we can’t achieve that. Profession sucks? Be the best you can in it. Want to write something but something similar was already written? Write it anyway. Have a point to make? Just make it. Leave the writing, art, or work there for people to interpret. 

And that’s what you should be taking away from William Shakespeare. Not even necessarily his writing. But the accomplishments that are inside us all. 

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Women-Hatin' Shakespeare Club

Yesterday I talked about why it’s perfectly acceptable to hate Shakespeare in a partial response to a Buzzfeed collection of words that attempted to make up a coherent argument against the Bard that was totally not trying to be controversial during his 450th birthday. Totally. I didn’t address the two arguments in the article, but rather talked about why it’s ok to hate Shakespeare.

The first of the arguments, “Shakespeare hated women.” Let’s talk about that for a little bit.

Back when Shakespeare was writing, women weren’t exactly viewed as equal to men. Women were a lower class, and couldn’t hold certain jobs, for instance, being able to act in the theatre. So, these women parts that Shakespeare wrote were actually played by boys - boys without beards which was actually a legit career back then.

Fun idea: Think about Twelfth Night for a minute. That means this play, which is about a woman pretending she’s a man, is actually a man playing a woman pretending to be a man. It’s hilarious.

Anyway, it’s difficult to blame Shakespeare for writing women as “weak” during a time when 1) his entire cast were men and 2) the attitude of the time was that women were, in fact, “weak.” Thankfully, we know better now and we have Gina Carano kicking some major Channing Tatum butt in Haywire

But here’s the thing, remember a little play called Hamlet that dealt with a lot of father/son issues and featured two female characters, one was pretty much useless until she accidentally killed herself, and the other one was driven crazy because Hamlet didn’t love her? See, it’s believed that Hamlet was written right after the death of Hamnet... Shakespeare’ son. The whole play is believed to be written to help Shakespeare deal with the death of his son, and the father/son issues contained within.

Let’s look at which plays were written after Hamlet, shall we? King Lear. Macbeth. Coriolanus. The Tempest. Twelfth Night (performed right before Hamlet, not published until AFTER Hamlet). Oh look, all plays with strong females in them. 

King Lear has a foolish father giving away his land to his daughters, who then start a war, equals among their husbands. Not only does it feature three strong female leads, but the weakest character, the most doddering, is an old man. 

Macbeth... seriously I need to point out the strong female character in Macbeth? Really? Lady Macbeth is played as “evil”, yes, but she’s ambitious. She doesn’t want Macbeth to be king, SHE wants to be king. She’s one of the strongest female characters in literature, never mind Shakespeare.

Coriolanus is mostly manipulated by his mother. The mother/son dynamic drives a lot of this play. It’s not until he leaves his mother that he runs right into the arms of the enemy, where’s he’s then manipulated by them.

Twelfth Night features a woman who just wants to help a lovelorn Duke. Of course, the duke does ask that she not put on female clothes at the end, so that may be a completely different story...

These are just examples.

Following the death of his son, it’s believed that Shakespeare focused on writing strong female characters to set a good example for his daughter, Judith. He wanted to create a better world for her. 

When exploring Shakespeare, or any writing, sometimes we tend to forget that there’s often a story behind what they are writing. Many writers, Shakespeare included, didn’t just write random things. They wrote about what was going on their life. I know I do it with this blog, even if it’s hidden. But there was a marked shift in the women in Shakespeare’s pieces following the death of his son. 

So, before declaring that Shakespeare hated women based on one, most likely satirical play, maybe it’s best to explore other things that he has written.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why I Hate Shakespeare

Recently, Buzzfeed took time from posting captions to GIF’s and tricking you to clicking on them to post a real live, written article about “Why [The writer] hates Shakespeare” in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday. I’m a Shakespeare fan, but I decided to click on it because... well, I’m a Shakespeare fan. A real fan doesn’t blindly follow their devotion into the abyss, they should study their subjects, understand it, and be able to talk intelligently about it, even the flaws. 

For instance, look at Firefly, the space-western I talk about quite frequently. I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s awesomeness can’t be comprehended by everyone, and as a result some people don’t understand it. Joss Whedon probably should have made it less awesome. But, we can’t all be perfect.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, if you’re going to talk about something, you should be able to talk about it intelligently. Even if you hate it. I dislike Twilight. I can tell you specifically why I hate Twilight without being on the bandwagon of “It’s popular so I hate it” that seems to take up most of the conversation around it. For instance, I actually read the books, so I know why I don’t.

The writer of this particular article seems to have read exactly two Shakespearean works, and didn’t really seem to spend any time trying to understand them. One of them being the misogyny associated with Taming of the Shrew (which is under debate) and the other being Hamlet, which apparently the writer took very little time to understand, just realized that they didn’t like it.

Quick programming note: Bad Shakespeare does not link to blogs or articles trying to be controversial and wanting clicks, posting why you hate Shakespeare during the month that the literary world is celebrating his 450th birthday is a prime example of that. If you’d like to find it, direct your Google to “Why I hate Shakespeare Buzzfeed”. Or, if you use Bing, search “How to set Google as my default search engine”, set that up, then Google the above phrase.

The thing is, there are plenty of reasons to hate Shakespeare beyond, “I didn’t understand it.” 

Part of the problem with teaching Shakespeare is that too many teachers don’t teach how to understand Shakespeare. For one, I’m a firm believer that Shakespeare shouldn’t be read at first.

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa??” You say.

Shakespeare wrote plays. I’ve made this point before. Do you want to read Die Hard: The Script or watch Bruce Willis kick terrorists out windows in Die Hard: The Movie? how is William Shakespeare, who wrote plays, any different? Yes, it’s important to understand his language. Yes, after watching Bruce Willis go all Bruce Willis on Alan Rickman you may want to study the important language he used during it, including what is meant by “Yippie Kay Yay...” but first, it’s important to watch what happened.

There’s also the fact that we don’t even know if Shakespeare was the best writer of his time. There’s a gentleman you may have heard of when Shakespeare is referenced named “Henslowe.” This dude was basically the box office report of his time. What he did was record what plays were popular, like this new one about a guy who cooks the guys who raped his daughters into a pie and made their mother eat it, and then said, “hey, it’s popular!” and the plays survived. Plays that were less popular, like the one about a space western, may not have survived quite as long, and there’s a chance we don’t know about it. 

Seriously, Joss, you control the top grossing movies, ever. Take five minutes to make a new Firefly movie.

Moving on.

So Shakespeare was popular. That’s why we still know about it. Now, anyone who has studied his language and writers of that time do know that he was a good writer in the way he turned a phrase. But that takes further understanding. So, why don’t we convey this when teaching Shakespeare? Just because he’s popular, do we have any evidence that he was any good?

Another reason to hate Shakespeare is because he stole just about everything he wrote. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello... these were all based on histories that he fictionalized, plays written by other writers, or popular stories of the day. You know how we all complain about reboots and sequels? Yeah, look at our boy Shakespeare. Fun fact: The story that Midsummer Nights’ Dream was based on ended with a gay marriage, Shakespeare wrote it out of the ending of his play.

In fact, evidence is that Shakespeare only wrote one completely original play, The Tempest, which is said to be written about why he no longer feels relevant in the ever changing world.

You should also hate Shakespeare because he was a formulaic writer. A lot of things he writes show up in other plays, mostly his comedies. Mistaken identity, love triangles, smart fools, comedic rich people, bumbling servants show up in most of his comedies. Check out the Reduced Shakespeare Company who did a great bit on this, combining pretty much all of his comedies. 

There are plenty of reasons to hate Shakespeare beyond “the language is hard” and “wow he hated women in that one play.” (More on Judith Shakespeare tomorrow.) Yes, it’s perfectly ok to hate Shakespeare. It’s ok to hate Shakespeare and not know much about it. The thing is, if you’re going to hate Shakespeare AND write an article about it, then I would highly recommend being able to speak about it in an intelligent fashion. I just gave you a few reasons explore right there.

But it’s never ok to hate Firefly

Friday, April 11, 2014

SOA Fridays: It's Hamlet, but with more Leather

Recently, I explored the world of Breaking Bad. The fact that I felt because of the symbolism, the characters, and plot, not only was it literature but it had a Shakespearean bent. Of all the posts I’ve written on this website, that was the most visited, and something I’m proud of. 

It’s important to keep in mind that while exploring that, there was no direct parallel to any of the bard’s works. There were some things we could compare, but Vince Gilligan, the writer of Breaking Bad, at no point said, “Walter White represents Macbeth.” It just sort of turned out this way.

A few people pointed me to a show I hadn’t watched before called Sons of Anarchy, which is a Hamlet story. In this event, yes, the show is exactly that... the story of Hamlet, with some parallel characters, themes, etc. So I decided to give it the same treatment that I gave to Breaking Bad, and I’m going to start during this, the celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday.

Welcome to the first installment of Sons of Anarchy Fridays, here on Bad Shakespeare.

If you would ask anyone what the most adapted Shakespearean work was, you’d probably come down to two answers: Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. The label “Romeo and Juliet in a...” gets thrown around a LOT, and is essentially used to describe any story that features two star crossed lovers, (or parents who hate each other. Or rival gangs. Or rival monster groups. Or... you get the idea.) while ignoring the deeper themes of death, life, mistaken identity, and war. But for true adaptations that try to capture the theme, that would have to be Hamlet

It makes sense, too, believed to be written following the death of his own son, Hamlet explores a father/son relationship as well as the ideas of loyalty, family, revenge, madness, action vs inaction, fate, ghosts...

So Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy (SOA) said, hey, let’s set it all in a biker gang!

SOA tells the story of Jax Teller, the Vice President of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (SAMCRO or Sam Crow). As the story opens, his junkie ex-wife prematurely gives birth to his son, Abel, and he finds a storage unit containing the diaries of his father, John Teller. SAMCRO has been in the gun running business and generally owns the town of Charming, California (including having a complicated relationship with the law... sort of love/hate.) and the diaries indicate that this isn’t what his father wanted. But more on that as we go along.

Running the club is Jax’s Uncle-father, Clay Morrow, who was John’s best friend, and now married to Jax’s mother following the death of John, Gemma. So yeah, there’s your Hamlet/father connection right there. There are other characters as well, including Clay’s right hand man Tig, middle of the road Bobby Elvis, Not quite a member Half-Sack, Horatio stand-in Opie, Club co-founder Piney, Juice, and Chibbs, all plaing very specific roles. There’s also Tara, the doctor who left Charming, and is the main love interest. 

Let me start out by saying that this show is incredibly violent. Not Titus Andronicus violent mind you, but you are dealing with a biker gang. One of the things that always amuses me when looking at things like this and Breaking Bad are the little ways the writer gets you to look at something like a violent biker gang and say, “hey... these are the good guys... I want them to win!” But we will explore this as well, and the brilliant way it is done. 

Now, this is a Hamlet story, so it’s important that we remember what that means. We are talking about a story that has Hamlet-type elements, in this case a strong focus on father/son relationships as well as revenge, death, and a few other themes. This isn’t a shot for shot remake of Hamlet with people wearing biker helmets and getting into turf wars. This has elements of Hamlet in it, the most obvious being the mother marrying the “brother” type situation and the prince/VP/cool biker dude. (Who is referred to as a prince several times.)

Take Gemma for instance, which we are going to explore. Gemma is clearly the Gertrude character, the mother of the hero who married his “brother”. However, while Shakespeare never really answered that question, “What did Gertrude know?” Gemma clearly knows just about everything, and manipulates everything behind the scenes, just like Volumnia in Coriolanus. Fine, just like that one chick in the scottish play. You happy now?

I mentioned earlier that one of the the things that’s so great with some of Shakespeare’s works is the ability to set them in just about any time. Some of them. Some of those themes are universal. Hamlet is one of those stories that has a timeless appeal to it. Father/son issues will remain a good story narrative until the end of time. When I started SOA, I was curious as to how that would play out, and it has been an interesting ride. I’m looking forward to exploring more of it as the show continues (for me, at least, I’m only up to Season 4, I hope to be up to season 6 by the time I write the next Sons of Anarchy post next Friday.) 

I look forward to exploring this show as a Hamlet narrative, and thus justifying why you should be watching it instead of doing your homework. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Anybody Want a Piece of Pie?

I was going to insert a Hannibal joke here, but I'm better than that. Actual screenshot from the film.

There’s a part very early in the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love with William Shakespeare is talking to a street urchin playing with mice named John Webster. While they’re talking, John Webster mentions that he really enjoyed one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, Titus Andronicus

This is a little in-joke in the world of Theatre. John Webster is a famous Jacobean playwright known for his extremely bloody and violent plays... and thus probably would enjoy something like Titus Andronicus. And the Saw movies. He’d find those hilarious.

For the past two days I have talked about Shakespearean adaptations that have taken plays and updated them for modern audiences, which included the dialogue. Today I’m going to talk about one of the more disturbing Shakespearean plays that was adapted, none of the dialogue changed and took full advantage of “adaptation” part of  William Shakespeare. 

Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Julie Taymor takes the idea of an adaptation and runs with it, while using the dialogue from the original play and creating a world where this play can actually exist.

I’ve discussed Titus Andronicus several times on this blog, but never really took the time to talk about what it was all about. They’re from New Jersey and were formed in 2005 who’s first album, The Airing of Grievances... wait. Nope, that’s the band. My bad.

Titus Andronicus was one of William Shakespeare’s first plays, and it’s believed that it was written to capitalize on the popularity of bloody revenge plays. It is actually one of his bloodiest and most graphically violent plays with most of the blood and gore happening on stage. That’s saying something coming from a man that killed a kid in one play, and then randomly had another character killed off stage by a bear. It was popular in it’s day, then it lost popularity as people lost a taste of graphic violence, but has started to earn back respect thanks to works like Titus

The play is a revenge cycle about a fictional general named Titus Andronicus (because duh, but he did fool us with the whole Ciaus Marius/Coriolanus thing) who seeks revenge against Tamora, Queen of the Goths during the latter days of the Roman Empire. The Emperor has died and his two sons are fighting for the throne, when Titus comes home with prisoners, including Tamora and her three sons. You see, despite the fact that the Emperor had kids, everyone wants Titus to be the new Emperor. He refuses and kills one of Tamora’s kids, then refuses the throne. Later, one of the Emperor’s kids, Saturninus marries Tamora, despite the fact that he said he wanted to marry Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. She had been engaged to the other son Bassianus, and wanted to refuse, so everyone gets accused of treason, and it’s Tamora who says to pardon them all.

Later, Aaron, Tamora’s son and secret lover (yep.) convinces his brothers to go kill Bassianus, then rape Lavinia, cutting off her hands and her tongue. 

Did I mention this play had strong, graphic violence? and that Julie Taymore doesn’t shy away from it? Good. Because she doesn’t

Where was I? Aaron the secret son/lover frames Titus’ kids for the killing, and the rape, Tamora gives birth to Aaron’s kid (Aaron kills the nurse who delivered the infant) Titus pretends to go insane, then Tamora and the two sons who raped Lavina dress up as ghosts to play into his madness. Turns out he was faking the madness thing (like Hamlet!) , kills the sons, bakes them into a pie and serves it to Tamora, then Titus kills his own daughter. Titus kills Tamora, Saturnius kills Titus, then Lucius (Titus’ oldest kid) kills Saturnius and is named Emperor, mostly because everyone else is dead (Or all up in chalk, as Thug Notes would say.) Aaron is then buried alive up to his neck and left to starve to death, giving one of the best/most disturbing speeches in Shakespearean history where he laments that he just wishes he could have done more evil. (This is where Shakespeare leaves us. In Julie Taymor’s version, Lucius adopts the infant son of Aaron and Tamora. Well. The movie. In the play she originally directed, he dies too because why not?)

Titus pretty much follows this, but Titus gets to wear a pretty rockin’ chef’s outfit while serving up the pies.

Like I said, this is a pretty disturbing play, and there’s a reason you hear about Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear, and not about this one when talking about tragedies. Your other fun detail about this is that while Shakespeare’s other works about Rome, such as: Julius Caesar, Corolanius, and Anthony and Cleopatra, this is not based at least partly on a real Emperor, nor does it specify a time other than “The End of the Roman Empire.” Julie Taymor really plays with this timelessness aspect, and it works in setting a believable play that takes place in a real world, but doesn’t.

Titus has no real sense of time. Swords are used next to pistols. Microphones are used to talk to groups of people in togas. Motorcycles and horses. It works because this play is so dis jointed, so many strange things happen in it, this sort of leads everyone into a fantastical land where you can’t question it. Rome was brutal. Not serving your enemy’s kids a pie brutal. (Or maybe it was. We need to be in the right mindset to accept it, though. The soundtrack can go back and forth between epic and Jazzy. This movie makes everything feel out of place.

Which I feel, is necessary for a play like this. Nothing is in it’s place. Remember, I talk often about the fact that while we revere a lot of Shakespeare’s work, a lot of what he does is parody, including parody styles of the time. The Bloody Revenge Tragedy was extremely popular back in his day. This isn’t just a Bloody Revenge Tragedy. This is THE BLOODY REVENGE TRAGEDY. Julie Taymore, through her use of anachronisms and direction, plays on the idea that maybe this was a parody of revenge tragedies of the day. There’s only so much you can inject into a play where one of the main characters just wishes he could do more evil.

Unlike the other two movies I’ve talked about, this one did not do too well int he box office or with critics. O was at least liked by critics. Ten Things I hate About You is a beloved movie I’m going to go watch again right now. But this isn’t an easy movie to watch, not by any stretch of the imagination. I would recommend true fans of Shakespeare to check it out at some point. And if you’re going to watch a version of Titus Andronicus, make it this one. I’m a huge mark for Patrick Stewart, so I love his version of Macbeth. Joss Whedon could sneeze into a napkin and I’d watch it, so I love Much Ado About Nothing directed by him and starring his friends. But if I’m being 100% honest with you, this is probably one of the best Shakespearean adaptations out there. Not just because of a focus on the text, but because it is able to transform a story that is bloody and violent into something the author wanted. Remember how I talked about digging deep, looking past what the play “is about” and figuring out what the play is about? Julie Taymor nails it. Repeatedly. With her version of Titus Andronicus. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ten Things I Hate About You

This happened.

Yesterday, I wrote about Othello and how O failed to capture some of the deeper, darker elements of the play. I talked about how Othello is a fairly easy one to adapt to modern audiences, because of that big racial issue that’s front and center. Now it’s time to talk about one that’s a little more difficult to adapt.

Taming of the Shrew.

That’s right, kids, we’ve finally reached the point in this blog where I talk about 10 Things I Hate About You

But first, come over here and let’s talk for a minute. Taming of the Shrew is one of the more... let’s say problematic plays that William Shakespeare has written. The entire play is actually a play within a play, being performed for a drunk everyone is trying to convince is a nobleman for some reason, and it focuses on the courtship between Petruchio and Katherina. Katherina is the titular “Shrew”, which is something I wouldn’t recommend you call a woman, ever. The reason Petruchio is attempting to tame this particular shrew is at the behest of Hortensio (who spends much of his time disguised as a tutor... don’t ask) because Hortensio wants to get with Bianca, Katherina’s sister. You see, Bianca can’t get married until her older sister is married because of reasons. (Essentially their father forbade it. Like I said, not the most progressive of plays.) And eventually, plot, plot, plot, Petruchio psychologically tortures Katherina into marrying him. And they lived happily ever after.

So you can see what this one doesn’t lend itself to modern adaptions as easily.

(Quick note: It’s important to note that some readings of this, because of the first scene with Christopher Sly, tend to focus on the idea that this is a farce, not meant to be taken seriously. As with any good chance to get offended, most people ignore this reading.)

10 Things I hate About you updates this to 1999, before the world of selfies, twitter, and before Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a powerhouse actor/director. It has the same dealio - Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) wants to date Cameron (JGL) but can’t because her father forbids her to date before her sister (because reasons) so Cameron gets Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to woo or “tame” Kat. (Julia Stiles, also of O fame. but this was made before O. Just go with it.) 

Quick note: The movie leaves out the Christopher Sly stuff, thus not making this a play within a play. Or a play within a movie. Whatever. People say Hamlet is complicated, it really has nothing on this play.

So, why does 10 Things I Hate about You, based on a play with mostly outdated concepts succeed while O, a slam dunk (see what I did there?) exploration of race and privilege manage to fail. (At least for me. Keep in mind that these are opinions, not binding rules.)

For me, personally, because 10 Things I Hate About You dug deeper into the play. O just seemed to look at the surface: “Look everyone, it’s Othello! Racism! Now lets head to the wrap party.”

Yes, Taming of the Shrew has a pretty clear message, that being roughly, “men are awesome! Women, you should listen to them more.” Remember that Christopher Sly framing device I keep talking about and how it can change the entire meaning of the play? Essentially, Christopher Sly is a poor drunkard, and the play is being put on for his benefit... because he’s in a loveless marriage with a woman who bullies him. But in it’s heart it’s a meant to be a comedy, not a deep social message on how all women should break and serve their men. 

10 Things doesn’t shy away from the fact that this is a comedy, not serious. Look at Kat, played by Julia Stiles, She’s not a stereotypical “shrew” she’s an “edgy outsider” and we know because she makes sure to tell us every couple of minutes with something she does, says, or the way she acts. We also know that Heath Ledger is the cool guy who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks, because hey, he’ll also let us know every few minutes.

Essentially you have a movie that doesn’t take itself to seriously because the writers, directors, and everyone took the time to realize that the source material is kind of the same - it plays almost like a parody. 

The thing is, Shakespeare loved to parody his work, and the works of others. Look at Much Ado about Nothing, or the ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

10 Things got this, and played around with the idea that the whole thing isn’t necessarily a long statement on what the author thinks about women... it’s a parody, played in it’s original version for a fool who is absent in this version. None of that matters, all that matters is the cute story, and maybe sometimes we don’t have to dig ourselves too deep to find out what when we want to enjoy ourselves. It’s also important to remember the title, 10 Things I Hate About You, comes from Kat’s poem at the end, reminding us that while she may end up with the hunky lead, she still doesn’t give up that much of herself. 

It’s important to remember that when adapting Shakespearean works, you don’t always have to adjust for time period, but you do have to do more than skim the surface. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Shakespeare's Adaptations: O

This week we are looking at adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work’s that have appeared on the big screen (or in the case of one, on the little but increasingly getting bigger screen.) 

Shakespeare’s works have been modernized, reimagined, rebooted, sequelized, blended, comic-booked, sci-fied, and been redone in so many different ways, sometimes it’s difficult to keep track. Some of them are obvious, like anything that takes his iambic pentameter word for work. Some are stealth, like the Lion King which tricks everyone into watching Hamlet through the eyes of a cute lion that totally wouldn’t have a meerkat or a warthog for lunch. 

Why are his works done and redone in this way? The magic word here is themes.  Shakespeare’s themes are universal, even today. So, even though Hamlet is set in a castle back when being set in a castle was normal, the story of betrayal and father/son relationships is recognizable even today. Or The Tempest, which on the surface is about a magic island where weird stuff happens, but is about a father letting go of his daughter and finding himself not needed in the world. (But more on Judith Shakespeare later.) Or even Titus Andronicus, where... you know what, the deeper themes of honor certainly hold a place in life today but... ew. Just... ew. 

Today, I’m actually going to talk about my least favorite Shakespeare adaptation, because I’m a little rah-rah Shakespeare this month, and I want to let you know that I can look at things in a critical eye. Today I’m going to talk about O, an adaptation of Othello set in a boarding school in 1999. (It came out a few years later due to the Columbine Massacre.) 

Othello is the story of well.. Othello a Moor in Venice back when Moors didn’t happen to be very common in Venice. O shifts the story to a boarding school where the one black basketball player is Odin James or “OJ” (sigh) played by Mekhi Phifer. Everything else is there, Hugo played by Josh Hartnett as the scheming, steroid using coach’s kid who wants to take down OJ (Iago.) Julia Stiles plays Desi, the barely recognizable Desdemona character that is WAY too strong and proud to be an analogue for the Shakespeare character. (maybe the director didn’t remember that she has to let herself be killed by Othello/OJ. Other note, I’m going to stop calling him OJ, because it’s stupid, and the writers who put his name down as OJ are stupid.) 

There’s also the Duke of Venice as “Duke” the basketball coach, Roderigo is Roger, Cassio is the creatively retitled Michael Casio, and Emilia is Emily, rounding out the characters.

Adapting Othello is a tricky feat. It’s a very popular play to adapt because the themes of race are still relatable today. Othello, because of his race, is a mysterious figure to the people of Venice, who for the most part don’t care about it because he manages to get the job done on the battlefield. The problem is that when people adapt Othello, they tend to focus solely on race, when the play has about fifty billion other moving parts.  That was the problem with O. Essentially they put a black student at a mostly white prep-school, show that he’s really good at basketball, and then play up the racial/jealousy angle while trying to keep it as modern as possible. There are three main problems that I didn’t like with this adaptation. (With bonus fourth reason!) 

The first is Hugo as Iago. Iago, is one of my favorite Shakespearean characters. Mostly he gets painted as “racist” because he goes up against Othello, and that’s the easiest way to portray him. He also gets labeled as “liar” because... well, he’s been known to stretch the truth a lot. However, Iago really cares little about race, and he’s really a very honest character. He doesn’t lie to the audience at all, and he wants Othello out of the way because not only does he not trust him, but he believes that’s what’s best for the army. Also rare for Shakespearean villains, he doesn’t do much of the killing himself. Remember, Othello kills Desdemona. (This is an interesting side note.) 

Hugo, here, has been relegated to the spoiled rich kid who takes drugs, isn’t as good as he thinks he is, and extremely selfish wanting the job of best basketball player ever solely for himself. He also has the bonus fourth reason I don’t like this adaptation of sitting in a classroom while an English teacher talks about Shakespeare, and he whispers, “I thought he just made movies now.” Why? Why would you do that, writers?

Secondly is Desi. I have no problem with Julia Stiles for the most part, and tomorrow we’re going to explore her in comedy, but everything about this character was wrong. Look, I realize that in the early part of his career, writing women wasn’t William Shakespeare’s strong point. (Again, more on Judith Shakespeare later.) But Desdemona wasn’t a strong character. She was defined by her relationship with Othello, and she was defined by her feelings toward him. At the end of the play, while being strangled by him, she accepts her fate. Desi, in this, fights him every step of the way. She challenges him. She is a strong character here. There’s nothing wrong with strong characters - none. But Desdemona herself is NOT a character that is strong enough to fight him. Plus, you take away the fact that they’re married, and here you have someone who should have broken up with him and left him around the time he accused her of cheating on him. Again - not in the play as everything was very hush-hush behind the scenes implied. 

There’s also the death scene in general, where they have a nice conversation before O strangles her, when the whole point of the scene is O’s cowardice in dealing with her, and approaching her at night.

Finally, the issue of race in the movie is what takes me out of it. The easy way out of Othello is to play up the race factor, as I’ve mentioned before. While important, it’s not the only reason. Iago uses race as a factor, but he does not only hammer away at the issues in front of us. O wants us to only think of race as the reason that Hugo wants to be rid of him. The final speech... his famous, “It is the cause...” speech is relegated to a passionate display of how they shouldn’t use race to judge Odin before he kills himself. None of the other factors are easily there... jealousy. Othello’s often mentioned past. Nope. Just drugs, basketball, and the rich white kids ganging up on the black kid.

This is an example, to me, of taking a Shakespearean work and not doing the work needed to really pull what is important out of it, or just pulling something superficial out of it. There are adaptations where both Othello and Iago are Moors, which then shifts the focus onto Iago’s sense of entitlement. There was a race flipped version a few years ago starring Patrick Stewart as Othello. These picked up on the different themes running around these plays, not just, “ok, here’s one about race, let’s just do that.” It’s important to remember when adapting this, or any other play, to really dig down deep into what it all means.

Friday, April 4, 2014

William Shakespeare vs. The Pirates!

Time for a Bad Shakespeare 450 Friday Fun Fact! Well, fun if you like Shakespeare. Otherwise it’s probably just a fact. Either way, here you go.

There is some debate on whether or not William Shakespeare was “real.” There are several theories, including the Oxfordian theory that states his works were written by the Earl of Oxford (and the subject of the movie Anonymous) and the Marlovian Theory that states that his works were written by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare.

I’m going to save everyone some time, if you bring these theories up to legitimate scholars of Shakespeare, they’re going to spend a while debunking them, mostly because they’re not true. Seriously. Don’t do it. You’ll find a lot of sub-groups (and a million other theories) but he was a real person, and most evidence pointed to the fact that yes, he wrote many of his own works.

Time for the shocking reveal. The writer of many of William Shakespeare’s works is.. William Shakespeare. Yes, there is evidence that he collaborated with dramatists in some of his works such as Titus Andronicus and Henry VI. There’s evidence that many of his works are based on other works, or as we call them today, “reboots.” And there’s evidence that some of his works were re-written, like Macbeth, which makes sense since everyone said it was cursed.

Why do people still question if William Shakespeare wrote his works, despite the fact that there’s a lot of evidence that he didn’t. There are many reasons, I’m going to just outline a few.

-Piracy. Pirates ran rampant back in ye olde England. I don’t just mean the cool, Johnny Depp, Shiver-me-timbers, time. Actors, which were once considered lower than thieves, would work in troupes. Sometimes, local actors would be hired if there weren’t enough parts of the troupe. Those actors, not being paid much and not being respected, would often run to book publishers and say, “Hey, I just got the script for the new Shakespeare” and recite parts of it, or parts they could remember, resulting in a few different versions. William Shakespeare didn’t write too much down, didn’t give it to actors, and didn’t even publish anything for years and years. Of course, publishing wasn’t easy back then because...

-William Shakespeare didn’t have an easy name to spell on early printing presses. Yes, William was easy. Look at all those straight lines. But then he had to mess it up with the last name “Shakespeare. See that “e” followed by that “s”. Those two letters weren’t easy to put together, so when it was published, usually by pirates, they would leave off the “e”, thus leading people to believe that he didn’t know how to spell his own name. Of course he did. Which leads me to...

-The mistaken belief that William Shakespeare was an uneducated, penniless, actor. Actually he was kind of rich. And he left none of it to his wife, Anne Hathaway. Not Catwoman. But that would make the story more awesome, so if you want to believe William Shakespeare hung out with Catwoman, please feel free. We all like to believe the first part because again, back then actors weren’t exactly treated like treat them now. Also, the “uneducated, penniless” part is used to ask, “How did he know how all these kings live?”. Because he was smart and he did research. Remember, Shakespeare stole... um, “rebooted” everything he wrote, except for possibly his last play.

So the next time you’re out at the bar and the question comes up of Shakespeare’s authorship, you have three handy little facts to dispute the person making those claims, and win over the girl/guy you’re trying to impress. 

You’re welcome.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Shakespeare's Super Soliders

Tomorrow (or tonight for lucky people like me that have a ticket) the world will be amazed/astounded/nitpicking/hating/overanalyzing/generally mehing the newest superhero movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. a.k.a Captain America: Those of us who read the comics already know who the Winter Soldier totally is, prepare to have your mind blown. 

As much as the armchair commenters that have to write and go on the news a whole bunch because they need content like to constantly complain about how we’re being overrun with this new fangled phenomenon of Superhero movies, the fact is we’ve been interested in Superheroes since we first thought of stories. Wasn’t Hercules just Superman in a toga? Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel were early Spanish and English versions of Batman. Our early warriors were all people who could do amazing things, from Beowulf slaying Grendel to King Leondius holding off an army of 10,000 with only 300 soldiers. (And was turned into a superhero comic/movie/action-fest.)  And without the fancy car, I guess. We’ve always been obsessed with people who can do those special things we wish we could do.

What makes Captain America so interesting is that he’s not just a superhero, injected with a Super Serum that makes him super (that’s a little redundant...) but he’s also a solider, which sort of makes him unique amongst the heroes of today. Superman is just a guy who was on the right planet at the right time. The Hulk is someone that needs to learn the importance of using “lead” and “radiation suits” when testing “nuclear bombs.” Even those that chose to take up the mantle of hero, like Batman and Iron man, are driven by some kind of tragedy that causes them to take up the mantle of hero. 

The fact that Captain America is a soldier is important. 

You know who else was obsessed with the idea of the soldier superhero? William Shakespeare. (The name of the series is Shakespeare 450. Where did you think I was going with this?)

William Shakespeare seemed to have a respect for soldiers, even if they ended up with some kind of tragic downfall. Keep in mind the tragic flaw is a pretty big reason a lot of heroes end up falling in tragedies, even today. Walter White was free and clear until his pride stepped in. So giving these superheroes tragic flaws are just part of the job, and not so much a comment on heroes. 

Yesterday I talked about Caius Marius, who went out and won a war, pretty much by himself in Coriolanus. Here was have a prime example of a super-soldier, loyal to a fault, willing to throw himself on the line not even for a cause or his hometown, but because he has a need to fight. (When asked to be domesticated, he runs to the front line to join the enemy!) His mother suggests that he shows off his scars to show how great a warrior he is.

There’s also everyone’s favorite general, Othello. He has almost magical powers. No, really, one of the charges leveled against him is that he managed to bewitch everyone into believing him. (Given the absence of witches, fairies, and wizards in this play, he probably didn’t. Shakespeare never had a problem using those.) Some people lived in fear of these magic powers to the point that they tried to kill him. But remember, before that he was a general loved, despite the fact that he was a Moor, living in Venice, which at that time didn’t go over to well. The fact that he was able to rise to such a power was... super! (I went there. Deal with it.)

Let’s not forget Macbeth, the cursed Scottish King. Again we have an example of a guy who does his best. When he meets the witches, he’s coming home from a successful battle. Let’s face it, he’s not the most heroic of Shakespeare’s characters, what with the murdering children and all, but he managed to work up a plot to kill a king, any of his supporters, and rise to power. Now there is some debate on whether he could have done this without murdering the king, but Macbeth is also a great Frankenstein story... the story of someone who is created, pushed into power, and then everyone wonders why it went south so quickly. But he makes the list because of his ability to lead an army, by force if needed. I’m also putting MacDuff on here, simply because when push came to shove it was MacDuff that commanded an army that destroyed the other guy, because he’s that awesome. 

Lastly, I’m going to put on there Sir John Falstaff, the Fat Knight. Not really “super” at first, until you get to his death in Henry V, and you realize just how much influence the funny dude had on the King. They were estranged at the end, but he is felt so much in a play he’s not even in, it’s uncanny. 

There are many other examples (such as Henry in Henry V.. that’s where we get the famous “St. Crispin’s Day Speech”) but I wanted to highlight these, because I believe them to be the most superheroic of all the soldier’s in Shakespeare’s play. They may not have done anything fancy like throw a shield, but they are pretty important as we look at Super-Soldiers in history.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tom Hiddleston: Charismatic Bad Guy

Recently, I went to go see Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Theatre, specifically in the Sydney Harman Hall, where I once made it through an entire tribute to Michael Kahn, including meeting the man, without once dropping to my knees and yelling, “KAAAAAHHHHNNNNN!!” at the top of my lungs. I’m pretty proud of myself for that. 

This particular production was part of National Theatre Live, where it broadcast a recent production of the play from the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London’s West End, and starred Tom Hiddleston, probably best known for managing to out-handsome the main character in Thor, and Mark Gatiss of Sherlock’s Brother fame. It was a pretty cool production.

For those of you who don’t know Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, and the last one set in Rome. It’s about a general named Caius Marcius, who’s this really cool general, but the common folk hate him. Which is ok, because he hates the common folk, so it’s mutual. He gets word that there’s a Volscian Army about to go fight Rome, so he goes and fights, personally taking down (but not killing) the leader of the Volscian Army. Later, he’s told by his mother (and man... does this guy have some mommy issues) that he should show off his scars, then run for what amounts to a pretty high political office. Fresh off his victory he easily wins the support of politicians who wish to glom on to a war hero (my, how times have changed) and then eventually starts to win over the people, but naturally two other politicians who hate him get in the way. Caius speaks loudly against popular rule, he’s condemned as a traitor, then he goes and finds the General of the Volscian Army that he recently defeated and joins up with them. Because he wants to fight. Rome, realizing there’s a problem with this great general joining their enemies, tries to persuade Caius to come back, eventually settling on sending his mother to go find him and tell him to come home. Eventually, Caius decides to make peace, and in true Shakespeare fashion, once he learns his lesson he’s brutally murdered by the Volscian General he spared earlier.

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more well-known plays. The main character Caius who later gets the nickname “Coriolanus” doesn’t spend a whole lot of time giving reasons for what he does to the audience, he spends a lot of his time “doing” which I find interesting. However, after discovering it, Coriolanus has become one of my very favorite Shakespearean plays, and it’s lead one of my very favorite characters, in probably just about anything.

I mentioned in my very brief review that doesn’t do the play any justice, that Coriolanus is a general, and has a complicated relationship with is mother. One that would probably make Norman Bates take a step back and say, “whoa. Let’s calm down a little bit...” She spends most of his life convincing him to be a great fighter, general, and overall hero, and he does it. He almost becomes a robot, unwilling or unable to think of anything else. Indeed, his tragic flaw is that he’s so focused on this one thing that once he gets it, he can’t move on. When asked to be a spokesman for the people, he can’t fathom speaking for people so below him. Rather, he wants to fight so badly he goes an joins his enemies because that’s what he’s been trained to do.

I wanted to bring up this play, other than the fact that watching it from the Donmar was an awesome experience, and I had an awesome friend to share it with (quick sidenote: get an awesome friend to share Shakespeare stuff with. Makes the experience so much better) because I can relate to the character of Coriolanus so readily.

No. Not the mother issues. She reads this blog regularly. Hi, Mom! And I don’t want anyone to mistake what I’m saying.

Coriolanus is a man who’s pushed his whole life to be one thing. He gets pushed to the point, and expectations get piled on him so high that when he’s asked to go in another direction, it’s really easy for him to be tricked into throwing it all away, and then running back to what he was good at... because he’s constantly told that’s all he was good at. I think too often we all fall into this Coriolanus trap. We all decide at one point or another that we’re “good at something” or “not good at something” and fall into familiar roles. In Coriolanus’ case, it was so extreme that he just wanted to be a general, it didn’t matter that he was now going to be a general for the army he just defeated, and he was going to go off and fight his friends. Essentially, Coriolanus was a monster, created by his situation, and then everyone was baffled when the monster turned on them. 

But for how many of us, how many times to we get stuck in positions where we are told we need to be a certain way, then do it, and are unwilling to take a risk that we just might suck at something? We’re all told: “You’d be great at this” or “you’re such a great XXXX” and then we don’t leave, because we’re being told by people that we need to stick out what’s familiar instead of trying to pull together what’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable? I know I feel like that. It’s one of the reasons I went so far into my teacher training: because I believed I wouldn’t be any good at the thing I really wanted to do. And I suffered for it. Big time. 

Coriolanus is a complex character, but one that flies under the radar. He doesn’t have the fame of Hamlet, nor the flashy race-based issues that can be applied today that Othello does. He’s not really manipulated by his wife like Macbeth, nor does he have the sheer foolishness of Lear. No, most of his story is told off the page, and we get a quick glimpse into what happens when an entire life leads up to a moment, then he’s told to change. He believes he’s superior to everyone. And that deeply affects him, because when he’s told to humble himself, he just can’t do it. Oh, there are conspirators... Rome always seems to have them. But that’s what I like about him. He’s a man who’s trapped by his own self. And I don’t think we realize just how often we all get trapped by own our selves, we get in our own way. Coriolanus wanted to be a great man, and returned from war a great man. 

It’s easy to point to a tragic flaw in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes. And we will often do that, and then it’s easy to judge. The thing about Coriolanus is that he was failed. He was failed by people around him who were supposed to help. 

What I relate to about this character is the fact that he was trapped. He was trapped by his sense of self, and who he was. He walks into the play knowing who he is. He spends half the play knowing who he is. The problem comes when he stops being who he is, and then tries to be something else for everyone else, because they all say “that’s what you should do.” I think its important that we all go back to that one idea that we are true to ourselves. 

Whew. Got a little preachy at the end. I promise they won’t all be like this!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No, These Fools Are Not to be Pitied...

Happy April Fools, Day, everyone. For most people, it’s a day of pranking, jokes, and changing the font on your website so everyone knows how whimsical you are. For those of us that pull pranks professionally, such as hiding little pictures of Paula Deen around someone’s office or slowing moving two parallel desks closer together, we tend to avoid days like this because it’s too commercialized.

Today for Bad Shakespeare 450, I do want to talk about fools, though. Specifically, Shakespeare’s fools. William Shakespeare LOVED his fools. Like most writers during his time period, he wrote for a specific acting troupe, one that had actors that liked to play “the romantic lead” or “the guy that goes all crazy and kills himself.” Presumably. 

But, Shakespeare DID have a clown on staff, by the name of William Kempe, who was Shakespeare’s resident “fool.” It is believed that William Shakespeare wrote many of his foolish parts specifically to ensure that Kempe was employed with him. Which would make sense, since Kempe was part of Shakespeare’s troupe, as far as we know.

The thing was, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, he enjoyed having the fool be the smartest guy in the room, and left the buffooning to the important people in the play. 

For instance, Twelfth Night featured a fool named Feste, who was often called upon to sing songs. Of course, Feste is the only character that figures out early on that this strangely feminine boy that has come to hang out with the Duke is, in fact, a woman in disguise. (And in Shakespeare’s day would have been a boy, playing a girl, pretending to be a boy, and would have been hilarious.) Most of the comedy lines were given over to Malvolio, a Puritan and Steward of the House that keeps screaming for revenge for slights against him. Fun little role reversal there.

Then there’s one of the most famous fools of all, King Lear’s Fool. While King Lear is essentially letting his kingdom come crashing down around him by diving it three ways amongst his daughters, it’s his fool who is constantly trying to get him to think straight. He provides the most commentary about what is going on, and he does so without fear, despite the fact that no one else will do so.

There’s my favorite pair of fools, The Gravediggers in Hamlet. They get some of the funniest lines in the play, all while digging a grave for Ophelia who at this point has killed herself. They provide the commentary as to what is going on, and they have a brief, quick, wordplay with a character who up until this point has been kind of dour and full of self reflection.

Why did Shakespeare choose to make the fool such an insightful character? Part of it was the same reason we like Jon Stewart or Jimmy Fallon... they can get away with saying things that we can’t. They can get away with saying a truth that we either don’t want to hear or would get us into trouble. Fools are often looked down upon because there is a myth that they aren’t smart, or because of the “stupid” things they say, when in reality they have to be the smartest people in the room, and at times the most insightful because how else are they going to figure out what is going on. Plus, when you have a jester or a comedian in a room, you tend to let your guard down a little.

Remember that next time you’re alone in a room with Jimmy Fallon.