Shakespeare’s London Bridge

Shakespeare's London Bridge

Shakespeare’s London Bridge image©  

September is a lovely month in London. Visits wander around in the leafy city tinged with the gold of early autumn. There are several options for crossing between the north and south banks and, standing on one bridge, one can see many others along the curve the river.

Tourists from abroad often believe Tower Bridge to be London Bridge, and indeed, several of the sources they use at home for information about London show a picture of Tower Bridge, labeled London Bridge. Visitors are then disappointed when they see the real London Bridge, a flat, low, featureless modern bridge.

The London Bridge that Shakespeare knew was very different. It was an important bridge – the only way to get from London to the other side of the river, unless you went by ferry, which was dangerous, particularly if your ferryman was so foolish as to try to pass under it, which was known as shooting the bridge. It was said that London Bridge was made for wise to pass over and fools to pass under. That was because the river had been narrowed at the site of the bridge so the pressure speeded the water up and many who tried to cross near the bridge or to pass under it were drowned.

Being the only bridge its traffic was enormous – vital for the movement of both goods and people. When Shakespeare arrived in London it was already four hundred years old and, because just about every Londoner and visitor to London had to cross it it had developed into a little city, with hundreds of shops in several buildings of all kinds, which had sprung up over the centuries. Because so many merchants wanted to enjoy the advantages of so many people using the bridge the buildings grew higher and higher, some reaching six stories, and many projected up to sixty-five feet over the river. The struts and buttresses that supported them groaned, and swayed dangerously.

One of Shakespeare’s first sights when he crossed the bridge for the first time would have been the heads of traitors displayed on poles at the Southwark end, with birds pecking at them. He would not have experienced the sense of horror that we would if we were to see that today, as the practice was as normal to Elizabethans as the sight of hamburger vendors is to us in the same place today.

The theatres on the south bank were filled to capacity every afternoon, which meant that much of the population of London made two crossings a day, during which they were able to purchase anything they wanted. London, and was Europe’s top shopping city then, as it is today, and London Bridge was the main shopping street.

Shakespeare for Better English?

The Pros and Cons of Using the Bard to Better Your Language Skills

Shakespeare is regarded as one of the most well known writers in history. His words resonate with everyone from teenagers reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream to lifetime fans who see his work performed on-stage in London. His quotes are among the most famous–and the most repeated–throughout the world, even among non-native English speakers.

But how does a passion for Shakespearean English affect your language skills if you’re a student struggling in school or college? Naturally, there are pros and cons to feeding your love of Shakespeare while trying to better your performance both in and out of the classroom.


 1) Grow your vocabulary

Reading Shakespeare requires regular use of a dictionary. No matter how expansive your vocabulary may be, it’s simply not possible to read an entire piece without occasionally–or, let’s be honest, frequently–turning to a dictionary for definitions.

2)  Learn phrases that you may be quizzed on

If you’re a student, you never know when you’ll be quizzed on the definition of a “fortnight” or asked what a “pedant” is. (You’ll want to add Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew to your reading list if those words are new to you.)

3)  Exercise your brain

Generally speaking, the majority of young adult novels don’t exactly challenge your brain. For the most part, books in this category are an easy read. Shakespeare, on the other hand, puts your brain to work and motivates you to seek additional meaning in what you’re reading.



1)  You won’t learn conversational English.

In reading Shakespeare’s works you’ll inevitably notice the repetitive use of certain words and phrases. While they may be interesting, they won’t be relevant in everyday conversations.

2)  You might start misspelling things

Shakespeare wrote in a time when what is known as modern English was in its early days. No dictionary had been published, there were few rules regarding grammar, and even the vocabulary for the language was limited. While the publications most students read today have been cleaned up, there are still many noticeable differences in how things are spelled. Specifically, traditional British English spellings with an “re” and “our” are present in words like “theatre” and “colour.” If you’re a student in the U.S. or are learning American English as a second language, you may start misspelling words after reading Shakespeare’s work.


Reading Shakespeare is a rite of passage for many students–a sign that you’re graduating from kiddie books to international literary masterpieces. If you’re having a hard time understanding Shakespearean English, or are just looking for ways to better your skills in a traditional English class, a tutoring service is a great way to get ahead. Private tutors offer support in every area of the English language, from getting through a difficult semester to learning how to be a stronger writer. And if you love helping others understand the difference between Shakespearean and modern English, you may want to consider becoming a tutor yourself!


shakespeare-better-englishDusty Fox is a full-time freelance writer who contributes to WiseIvy and the Language Trainers network. Visit the WiseIvy website to learn more about the nationwide tutoring services they offer.

Shakespeare – A London Kind Of A Guy

Shakespeare's London

The whole world, apart from Germany, has been saddened by the humiliation of the Brazilian football team at the hands of the German team.

Hosting an international sporting event is wonderful for any country or city and when its sportsmen and women deliver it becomes ecstatic. Brazilians, always ready to be ecstatic at the drop of a hat, came down to earth during this tournament and it’s not nice to see such a great people hurting in their millions.

The 2012 London Olympics pulled people in from all over the world in large numbers. It turned out to be happier for Britons than the World Cup has been for Brazilians. London 2012 was a joyous occasion, and particularly joyous for Team Britain, with so many medals.

The national English, or British, poet is, of course, William Shakespeare, and 2012 was a great year for him. As a London resident – its most famous – he was very present and hugely honoured, with several events related to his works. Young people traveled from all over the world to stay in London (easy with a hotel booking site like to participate in the various Shakespeare events andto participate in the various Shakespeare events and, altogether, 2012 was a great year for London.

Although Shakespeare is closely associated with Stratford-upon-Avon the fact is that he spent most of his adult life in London. It’s therefore very interesting that tourists can walk around Stratford and by visiting the various Shakespeare sites can experience the presence of Shakespeare there but that he eludes tourists to London. The places where he worked in London are all built over and, apart from a very few narrow streets on the south bank where he may have walked, we can’t really find him in London.

Scholars now know about some of the places where he lived in London but they are bombed and rebuilt-over places that cannot offer the atmosphere that Stratford can, where we can see the actual house where he was born and the cottage where he wooed the woman who was to become his wife.

But Shakespeare’s flame still burns brightly in London and it is there, in the world’s greatest city – the world’s top tourist destination – that he still rules as the world’s greatest poet. Visitors to London have a huge choice of performances of his plays, staged in a variety of theatres. Also, there are many patches of Elizabethan London that can still be seen, untouched, where visitors can soak up the atmosphere of the poet’s era.

Those that decide the venues of the World Cup tournament may one day grant that honour to England. It will be a long time from now but we can be sure that William Shakespeare will again play an important part in the festivities and that the world will descend upon London again to enjoy both the football and the bard.

William Shakespeare Day

shakespeare-planeThere is a campaign afoot in the UK to introduce a Shakespeare Day into the calendar. Some campaigners go as far as to suggest an annual holiday.

It’s a great idea to have a Shakespeare Day. But a holiday? That surely couldn’t happen in the UK where the holiday calendar is fixed, and no holidays are named after people (unlike some countries which honour their heroes with a public holiday, such as Nelson Mandela Day in South Africa.)

So although a Shakespeare Day could be created it would likely not offer a day off work. Those celebrating it would have to do that in their own time. It needn’t be official, it could just be done by unofficial proclamation, like Burns Night, in honour of another British writer, Robert Burns. Burns Night has become so popular that it’s celebrated globally with haggis and whiskey (and is particularly popular in Russia!). Perhaps there could be a global Shakespeare Night with roast beef and ale.

The UK airline, Easyjet, is adopting a high profile in this campaign – quite literally. They have entered the Guinness Book of Records for the highest theatrical performance. On Shakespeare’s 450th birthday last month they loaded an acting group on board a plane and made a special flight with invited guests from Gatwick Airport, London, to Verona, Italy. The troupe performed an hour-long medley of Shakespearean drama at the front of the aircraft, whose fuselage had Shakespeare’s image painted on it.

The UK participates enthusiastically in any number of awareness days and weeks (World Refugee Day, Drowning Prevention Week, World Blood Donor Day, Elder Abuse Awareness Day to name a few), so why not a William Shakespeare Day?

Good idea but not necessary – the world is very aware of the Bard. And his birthday is celebrated around the world every year with special performances and other events… so in a sense there already is a William Shakespeare Day.

Speaking Shakespeare’s English

Did you know that you talk Shakespeare’s language every day? Even if you had never heard of him, which is unlikely, you would use phrases coined by him in most conversations you have with friends or family.

Let’s take two friends having a conversation. One is very sad as she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. The conversation might go something like this:

‘He just left: all of a sudden. Without rhyme or reason.’

‘Well, good riddance, I say.’

‘I know. I was living in a fool’s paradise.’

‘The world’s your oyster now.’

‘But he’s made a laughing stock of me.’

‘I say again, good riddance. He was eating you out of house and home, for one thing. You should have sent him packing long ago.’

‘Just gone: in the twinkling of an eye.’

‘Well, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. He was enough to set one’s teeth on edge.’

‘Thanks. You’re a tower of strength. A heart of gold.’

‘You really are a sorry sight.’

‘I know, I haven’t slept a wink.’

‘What did you see in him? It’s Greek to me.’

‘Well, you know. Love is blind.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘I don’t know. He’s vanished into thin air.’


That may be everyday language, but the incredible thing is that almost all the phrases were introduced to the English language by Shakespeare.

Happy 450th Birthday William Shakespeare! #shakespeare450

Bday_shakespearHappy birthday William Shakespeare! #shakespeare450. Four hundred and fifty. May you have many many more.

As we look back on the four and a half centuries since Shakespeare was born we cannot but be overwhelmed by the influence he had on the world – in so many ways. Philosophically, poetically, linguistically and even, yes, morally – when you consider the meanings of his stories – he was unparalleled.

But in 1564, the year the baby William was launched into the world, there were other giants already here. Queen Elizabeth 1 was about to mount the throne of England. As monarchs go she was pretty influential. And on the day Shakespeare was born her great mariner, Francis Drake, 22, was on his first voyage to the Americas, sailing with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, on one of the fleet of ships owned by the Hawkins family of Plymouth.

One of the most famous Europeans who ever lived died during that year. Martin Luther transformed the world but he was not a very nice man so we will move on to John Calvin, who died almost exactly a month after Shakespeare was born.  But it’s far more pleasant to think about another Englishman, Christopher Marlowe, and the Italian Galileo, both born in the same year as Shakespeare and who had a more positive effect on the world than the two religious reformers.

And while the three mothers were nursing their babies, never thinking about what giants those cute little boys were to become, another writer, the young Cervantes, was labouring away, about to publish his first fiction, La Gitanilla. No doubt he was already thinking about the great work that was to lead the way in fiction writing. That great work to come even influenced Shakespeare, as the English playwright wrote a play, Cardenio, based on an episode in Don Quixote. Cervantes’ great book had already been translated into English and it has become, along with Shakespeare’s plays and the books of the Bible, one of the most translated books in history. Sadly, Cardenio was lost.

Also, the world was growing fast when Shakespeare and his fellow little giants were being born. The voyages of discovery were pushing the borders of geography and thought and imagination further every day. In 1654 the French Huguenot explorer, Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere sailed from France to establish Fort Caroline, now Jacksonville, in America. Meanwhile, voyages round the Cape at the tip of Africa were becoming routine, as a means of most efficiently carrying out the spice trade with India. In 1564 an account of the shipwreck of the São Bento near the Great Fish River in the East Cape, South Africa, by mariner Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo was published in Portugal. It is the oldest book dealing exclusively with events on South African soil.

Shakespeare was born into a world where some of the greatest works of art imaginable in Western cultural history were being made with paintbrushes and chisels: Michelangelo died a month after Shakespeare was born.

And that leads one to think about painting, drawing, sculpting and writing technology. One of the stock images of Shakespeare is that of the bard with a long quill pen and a large bottle of ink. Scholars do not doubt that he did write like that, but how many people know that the humble pencil was invented in the year in which he was born? Yes, the pencil almost as we know it today, in 1564 was invented when a huge graphite mine was discovered in England. The pure graphite was sawn into sheets and then cut into narrow square rods. The graphite rods were inserted into hand-carved wooden holders to make pencils. They were called lead pencils by mistake – at the time, graphite was called black lead or plumbago, from the Greek word for lead. The name ‘lead pencil’ has, like Shakespeare’s plays, been with us for more than four centuries.

And so, Shakespeare, happy birthday. For you’re a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny.

Shakespeare Baby Names For Girls

Looking for some inspiration from Shakespeare for baby names for girls? Shakespeare used 75 women’s names in his 35 plays, naming kings, jesters, heroes and warriors…so something for every personality type! Read the full list of Shakespeare baby names for girls below:

  • Adrian – (Coriolanus, The Tempest)
  • Adriana – (The Comedy of Errors)
  • Albany – (King Lear)
  • Alexas – (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Alice – (Henry V)
  • Aliena – (As You Like It)
  • Anne – (Henry VIII, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III)
  • Ariel – (The Tempest)
  • Audrey – (As You Like It)
  • Beatrice – (Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Bianca – (The Taming of the Shrew, Othello)
  • Calpurnia – (Julius Caesar)
  • Cassandra – (Troilus and Cressida)
  • Celia – (As You Like It)
  • Ceres – (The Tempest)
  • Cleopatra – (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Cordelia – (King Lear)
  • Cressida – (Troilus and Cressida)
  • Cymbeline – (Cymbeline)
  • Desdemona – (Othello)
  • Diana – (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Dion – (The Winter’s Tale)
  • Dionyza – (Pericles)
  • Dolabella – (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Dorcas – (The Winter’s Tale)
  • Eleanor – (King John)
  • Elizabeth – (Henry VIII, 3 Henry VI/Richard III)
  • Emilia – (The Comedy of Errors, The Winter’s Tale, Othello, The Two Noble Kinsmen)
  • Gertrude – (Hamlet)
  • Helen – (Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Helena – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • Hermia – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • Hermione – (The Winter’s Tale)
  • Hero – (Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Imogen – (Cymbeline)
  • Iris – (The Tempest)
  • Isabel – (Richard II, Henry V)
  • Isabella – (Measure for Measure)
  • Isidore – (Timon of Athens)
  • Jessica – (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Julia – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
  • Juliet – (Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure)
  • Juno – (The Tempest)
  • Jupiter – (Cymbeline)
  • Katharine – (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henry V)
  • Katherina – (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • Katherine – (Henry VIII)
  • Lavinia – (Titus Andronicus)
  • Leonine – (Pericles)
  • Luce – (The Comedy of Errors)
  • Luciana – (The Comedy of Errors)
  • Margaret – ( 1/2/3 Henry VI/Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Margery – (2 Henry VI)
  • Maria – (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night)
  • Mariana – (All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure)
  • Marina – (Pericles)
  • Miranda – (The Tempest)
  • Morgan – (Cymbeline)
  • Octavia – (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Olivia – (Twelfth Night)
  • Ophelia – (Hamlet)
  • Paulina – (The Winter’s Tale)
  • Phebe – (As You Like It)
  • Portia – (The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar)
  • Regan – (King Lear)
  • Robin – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • Rosalind – (As You Like It)
  • Rosaline – (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
  • Silvia – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
  • Tamora – (Titus Andronicus)
  • Titania – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • Ursula – (Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Valentine – (Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night)
  • Valeria – (Coriolanus)
  • Viola – (Twelfth Night)


Having a boy? Check out our list of Shakespeare baby names for boys.

Shakespeare Baby Names For Boys

Looking for some inspiration from Shakespeare for baby names for boys? Shakespeare used 125 men’s names in his 35 plays, naming kings, jesters, heroes and warriors… so something for every personality type! Read the full list of Shakespeare baby names for boys below:

Aaron – (Titus Andronicus)
Abram – (Romeo and Juliet)
Achilles – (Troilus and Cressida)
Adam – (As You Like It)
Adrian – (Coriolanus, The Tempest)
Ajax – (Troilus and Cressida)
Albany – (King Lear)
Alexander – (Troilus and Cressida)
Alexas – (Antony and Cleopatra)
Alonso – (The Tempest)
Angelo – (The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure)
Antonio – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing)
Aragon – (The Merchant of Venice)
Arthur – (King John)
Balthasar – (The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing)
Barnardo – (Hamlet)
Bartholomew – (The Taming of the Shrew)
Benedick – (Much Ado About Nothing)
Benvolio – (Romeo and Juliet)
Berri – (Henry V)
Bertram – (All’s Well That Ends Well)
Brandon – (Henry VIII)
Caius – (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus)
Caliban – (The Tempest)
Caesar – (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra)
Camillo – (The Winter’s Tale)
Cassio – (Othello)
Cassius – (Julius Caesar)
Cato – (Julius Caesar)
Cesario – (Twelfth Night)
Charles – (As You Like It)
Cicero – (Julius Caesar)
Clarence – (Richard III, 2 Henry IV/Henry V)
Claudio – (Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure)
Claudius – (Julius Caesar)
Corin – (As You Like It)
Cornelius – (Hamlet, Cymbeline)
Curan – (King Lear)
Curtis – (The Taming of the Shrew)
Davy – (2 Henry IV)
Decius – (Julius Caesar)
Demetrius – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra)
Dennis – (As You Like It)
Derby – (Richard III)
Diomedes – (Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra)
Donalbain – (Macbeth)
Douglas – (1 Henry IV)
Duncan – (Macbeth)
Edgar – (King Lear)
Edmund – (King Lear)
Edward – (2/3 Henry VI/Richard III)
Egeon – (The Comedy of Errors)
Emmanuel – (2 Henry VI)
Fabian – (Twelfth Night)
Fenton – (Merry Wives of Windsor)
Ferdinand – (The Tempest, Love’s Labour’s Lost)
Francis – (1/2 Henry IV)
Francisco – (Hamlet, The Tempest)
Frederick – (As You Like It)
George – (2 Henry VI)
Gonzalo – (The Tempest)
Gregory – (Romeo and Juliet)
Griffith – (Henry VIII)
Hamlet – (Hamlet)
Hector – (Troilus and Cressida)
Henry – (King John, 1/2 Henry IV, Henry VIII, 1/2/3 Henry VI, Henry V)
Hubert – (King John)
Iago – (Othello)
Jamy – (Henry V)
Jaques – (As You Like It)
John – (King John)
Joseph – (The Taming of the Shrew)
Justice – (Measure for Measure)
Laertes – (Hamlet)
Lance – (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Launcelot – (The Merchant of Venice)
Lennox – (Macbeth)
Leonardo – (The Merchant of Venice)
Lincoln – (Henry VIII)
Lorenzo – (The Merchant of Venice)
Lucio – (Measure for Measure)
Lucius – (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens)
Lysander – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Macbeth – (Macbeth)
Malcolm – (Macbeth)
Marcellus – (Hamlet)
Mercutio – (Romeo and Juliet)
Michael – (2 Henry VI, 1 Henry IV)
Morgan – (Cymbeline)
Mortimer – (1 Henry VI)
Morton – (2 Henry IV)
Oberon – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Octavius – (Julius Caesar)
Oliver – (As You Like It)
Orlando – (As You Like It)
Orsino (12th Night)
Oswald – (King Lear)
Othello – (Othello)
Paris – (Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida)
Peter – (2 Henry VI, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew)
Petruchio – (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew)
Philip – (The Taming of the Shrew, King John)
Philo – (Antony and Cleopatra)
Prospero – (The Tempest)
Puck – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Reynaldo – (Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well)
Richard – (Richard II, Richard III)
Robert – (King John)
Robin – (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
Roderigo – (Othello)
Romeo – (Romeo and Juliet)
Ross – (Richard II)
Sebastian – (The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Shaw – (Richard III)
Silvius – (As You Like It)
Timon – (Timon of Athens)
Titinius – (Julius Caesar)
Toby – (Twelfth Night)
Tybalt – (Romeo and Juliet)
Ulysses – (Troilus and Cressida)
Usher – (Coriolanus)
Valentine – (Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night)
Vincentio – (Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew)
William – (As You Like It)


Having a girl? Read our list of Shakespeare baby names for girls.

The 2014 Oscars & Shakespeare

With the 2014 Academy Awards just around the corner we’ve taken a look at the Shakespeare connection to this year’s Oscar nominees. And as with most years, the connections between Hollywood’s top awards ceremony and the Bard of Avon are strong, with no less than 11 Hollywood A-listers have previous with Shakespeare on screen or stage: Lupito Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Meryl Streep, Sally Hawkins, Leonardo di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve Coogan, Christian Bale and Amy Adams.

Michael Fassbender, nominated as supporting male actor in 12 Years a Slave has just finished filming a new version of Macbeth. His colleague in 12 Years, Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor and nominee for male lead actor in the same film, had rave reviews for his portrayal of Othello at the Donmar Warehouse recently. He’s also performed on London stages in Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth. Sticking with the 12 Years cast Lupita Nyong’o earned a nomination for best female supporting actor, began her career as a student at Yale, starring in The Winter’s Tale and The Taming of the Shrew productions by the Yale School of Drama.

We all know that Leonardo DiCaprio’s most famous film is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. His nomination is for male lead actor for his brilliant performance in The Wolf of Wall Street. What is not generally known, though, is that Christian Bale, the essential Hollywood star, and tipped to win for American Hustle, cut his film teeth in two Shakespeare films: Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1988 and 1989 respectively (very young!).

Cate Blanchett, nominated for best female actor in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, has an interesting connection with Shakespeare, having played the male protagonist in a Shakespeare play, as Richard II at the 2009 Sydney Festival. And Sally Hawkins, nominated as supporting actor for Blue Jasmine, began her acting career fourteen years ago in stage performances in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2000.

It would be impossible to understate Dame Judi Dench’s association with Shakespeare, on both stage and screen over a long acting career. Her connection with both Shakespeare and the Oscars deepens with her Oscar win for best female actor in a supporting role in the film, Shakespeare in Love in 1999. And fellow Brit actor Steve Coogan is nominated this year for best adapted screenplay – Philomena. In 2008 he played the lead in Hamlet 2 – a comedic take on a sequel of The Scottish Play.

Amy Adams, red hot tip for best female actor – in American Hustle – and Merryl Streep, Oscar veteran and nominee, also for best female actor – August-Osage County – have both been involved recently in performances of the prestigious New York Shakespeare company, Shakespeare in the Park. Amy Adams was in their staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods in 2012 and Meryl Streep took part in the Park’s stage reading of Romeo and Juliet – reading Juliet to Kevin Kline’s Romeo – at the New York Shakespeare festival, also 2012.

Though Dame Helen Mirren has not made the Oscar nomination this year, she picked up  British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) Fellowship Award this year. She ended her acceptance speech with some words from The Tempest in which Shakespeare nicely sums up what life on the boards (and presumably on the silver screen) is all about: 

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

So with this in mind, best of luck to all the actors and actresses hoping to pick up an award on March 2nd!

Review of Julian Fellowes’ Romeo & Juliet 2013

Watch the official trailer for Julian Fellowes’ Romeo & Juliet:

If you were writing a film script for Romeo and Juliet there would be a great number of things you would have to consider and there would be some things you should never do. You should not write additional scenes. If you do you should not under any circumstances invent new dialogue for your characters: it is bound to look silly beside Shakespeare’s. You may cut Shakespeare’s text, however, provided you maintained the play’s overall balance.

A Shakespeare play is complex: it is never about one thing; it always has several interconnecting themes, ideas and lines of action. So when you are shortening the text to make it a reasonable length for a film be careful that you don’t lose any of those themes and lines of action. Make sure that you just trim the text so that the balance is maintained. If you are a very bad writer with little understanding of a Shakespeare text, who has somehow found him/herself commissioned to write a film script for Romeo and Juliet you are in deep trouble, particularly if you regard yourself as a good writer.

The latest film version of Romeo and Juliet, released in October 2013 was written by a British Conservative politician, Julian Fellowes – author of the popular British drama series, Downton Abbey, and also of the film Titanic. Titanic is an uninteresting Hollywood formula disaster film and Downton Abbey is a pale copy of a successful 1970s television series, Upstairs Downstairs, with the usual clichés – the  daughter running off with the chauffeur, the Duke with an American wife, the fat, widowed cook, the very powerful butler and a villain among the lesser menservants. Although it was very popular for the first two seasons, it was less popular for the third and viewers dropped off like lemmings for the fourth and, we all hope, last.

I hasten to suggest that the extreme dullness of this Romeo and Juliet is not entirely Fellowes’ fault. Every member of the creative team has to bear some responsibility for that, although one can sympathise, given that they had a fourth-rate script to work with. But there are also things that are not Julian Fellowes’ fault, such as that the actor cast as Benvolio, the wise cousin/advisor to Romeo, is all of twelve years old.

As I watched I felt sorry for the actors, who never have a chance to develop anything. Having said that, Damian Lewis as Capulet manages to shine through the dullness. I am a great fan of Lesley Manville who is always outstanding but I felt particularly sorry for her, playing the nurse, whose role was almost entirely cut, and where it was not, we had Julian Fellowes instead of Shakespeare.

What happened to the feud – the divided society – brilliantly realised at the start of Shakespeare’s text, with servants of the two houses playfully squaring up to each other before the intervention of youths of the houses cranks it up into a violent confrontation? Although it is the lump of clay that Shakespeare throws down to sculpt into a play it isn’t there in this film. What about the drama’s turning point from comedy to tragedy with Mercutio’s death? A non event.

When Julian Fellowes scraps Shakespeare’s lines and inserts his own instead we have things like Juliet saying ‘I’m warming to that.’

On the whole, with the cardboard sets and stiff movements of the young actors it looks like one of those films made by the production teams of education resources companies which were shown in classrooms as audio visual aids before Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet hit the screens, electrified audiences, and changed our vision of the play.

Zeffirelli’s film is a beautiful, careful transposition of the play to the screen. The script was written by another Italian, Franco Brusati, who had the good sense to trust Shakespeare and not think he was the better writer. The opening scene is a classic and the death of Mercutio an eye opener, now regarded as the only way it could be done. All that in the language of Shakespeare, trimmed to fit the cinema’s timescale.

The nurse’s performance is most memorable, with Zeffirelli taking the time to show the high jinks of the young people of Verona and the atmosphere of fun before everything turns sour. The scene where the nurse returns from her meeting with Romeo to tell Juliet that they are to be married is a masterpiece of performance on the part of both actors, and Brusati and Zeffirelli show it in full. It hardly exists in Julian Fellowes’ version.

Juliet is arguably Shakespeare’s strongest, most passionate female character. In this version the actor simply recites the lines, and Juliet’s most passionate speeches are not there at all. The scene where she shows superhuman courage by taking the potion that will put her into a death-like sleep has been entirely cut. And Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is unforgettable: she is beautiful, exciting and passionate. No male, in seeing the film could fail to fall in love with her.

Nino Rota’s soundtrack for the Zeffirelli film is superb, its main theme having become one of the most played pieces on instrumental classical radio stations. It is reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde love death theme: it is exquisite, rising and falling with a haunting, tragic feeling. The 2013 film’s soundtrack is written by a young musician, Zola Jesus, who appears from her many awards to be very successful in American popular music circles, but her music for this film is bland and neither says anything nor invokes any feeling.

I suggest that if you want to enter Shakespeare’s great play of teenage sexuality and tragic love through film you should watch Zeffirelli’s film. You will also get something out of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, which made a star of Leonardo DiCaprio. Here again, the text is seriously curtailed, but in a balanced way. The social divide is brilliantly portrayed with exciting gang wars, and all in all. it’s great entertainment. If you see the 2013 film without knowing the play you will think Romeo and Juliet is about nothing more than two rather shallow and stupid teenagers who, far from being passionately and desperately in love, hardly notice each other.

Why Is The ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Speech So Memorable?

to-be-or-not-to-be-speechIf you were asked to quote something from Shakespeare – just a short line or phrase – what would you quote? As you’re reading this article on a Shakespeare website you obviously have an interest in Shakespeare,  so might give any quote: your favorite line, perhaps, something beautiful evoking a mental picture or a smell, something musical or perhaps something that has special significance for you.

Ask a more random sample to quote a line of Shakespeare and what would they quote? Well, it could be ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ or ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?’ But almost everyone would say, ‘To be or not to be,’ and some would add, ‘that is the question.’ So just what is it that makes Shakespeare’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech so memorable?

I remember, many years ago, when I was an English teacher, I attended a course about reading ages in texts. The speaker had developed a theory about counting the number of syllables in the words of a given passage. He said that if one kept the number of syllables low in one’s worksheets, notes to students etc. everyone would be able to understand them. I drew his attention to the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, a soliloquy saturated in deep philosophical ideas about life and death. In spite of its monosyllabic words, how easy is it to understand?

The fact is that the language is as simple as language can get but the ideas are extremely profound. ‘To take arms against a sea of troubles,’ for example, and ‘To die, to sleep, no more, but in that sleep of death what dreams may come,’ every word but one monosyllabic, go right to the heart of human existence and the deepest dilemmas of life.

But let us go back to the first half of the line, ‘to be or not to be,’ which introduces the speech.

Actors playing Hamlet have great difficulty with that speech, and particularly with that line. It’s not that they have a problem about understanding it, it’s that they don’t know how to do it in a way that makes it sound new, as the audience knows it so well. And also, actors playing parts like Hamlet like to interpret the role and the language differently from other actors who have played the role.

But how do you say ‘to be or not to be’ differently? You can’t. It has a definite meter, a beat in which you have to come down hard on the two ‘be’s and the ‘not’in the middle. Try it and you’ll see. It’s impossible not to put a heavy stress on those words.

Look at the balance of the line. It has only four words: ‘to,’ ‘be,’ ‘or’ and ‘not.’

The line is what is known as a chiasmus because of its balance and structure, and that’s what makes it memorable. Look at this chiasmus from John F Kennedy: ‘Do not ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’  Far more complex than Shakespeare’s line but even so, having heard it one could never forget it. The first and second halves mirror each other, the second being an inversion of the first. Winston Churchill’s speeches are full of chiasma. Even when he is joking they flow: ‘All babies look like me, but then I look like all babies.’

Chiasma are always short and snappy and say a lot in their repetition of words and their balance. And so it is with Hamlet’s speech that starts ‘to be or not to be’, arguably Shakespeare’s most memorable line – in the collective conscience centuries after the words were written and performed.

“Still Dreaming” New Shakespeare Film Seeks Crowdfunding

301650_270426082986615_7128242_nThe husband and wife film-making team behind Sundance hit Shakespeare Behind Bars are working on a new Shakespeare documentary, and seeking funding.

Still Dreaming is a documentary about a group of retired Broadway entertainers who emerge from retirement to reawaken their spirits and their dreams by staging  A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This post is a quick share to any Shakespeare enthusiasts out there who may be interested in getting involved with the crowdfunding campaign for Still Dreaming. (Any amount accepted, but just $500 will get your name in the on-screen film credits!)

For better insight into the project check out this trailer:

STILL DREAMING – Trailer for the documentary film