Shall I Compare Thee…To A Toddler?

There’s nothing wrong with starting on Shakespeare young… but reciting a Shakespeare sonnet word-for-word at the age of two? Check out this little guy reciting Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet – number 18, “Shall I Compare Thee To Summer’s Day?”. Pretty incredible stuff!

 

What’s the best thing you could recite when you were two years old? I’m not sure we were even speaking at that point!

 

 

Photo of the “Shall I compare thee” reciting toddler star:

The toddling Shakespeare buff

How Shakespeare Became Hooked on Theatre

Will Kempe

William Shakespeare was nine years old when the first theatre in England was opened. The idea of a dedicated building for the performance of plays was conceived as late as 1576, when James Burbage, the father of Shakespeare’s future acting colleague, Richard Burbage, built a theatre in Shoreditch, London, which he called ‘The Theatre.’

These days theatres are very common, and there is hardly a town in the world that doesn’t have at least one theatre. Even countries ruled by the most repressive regimes have theatres in their towns. They range from tiny, converted back rooms in pubs, through open air venues, to huge arenas where great extravaganzas can be staged. We have all attended at least one, whether it’s in our local neighbourhood, run by an amateur drama club or one of our town’s established theatres. Perhaps we’ve even enjoyed something like a gig at Wembley Arena.

When Shakespeare was a child he would have attended performances by the traveling players who wandered around, attracting audiences, performing in castles, the houses of wealthy patrons, on wagons, in market places and in other available open spaces. The most common venue was the courtyard of an inn, where the whole population of the village or town, regardless of class, could enjoy the performance.

To say that the troupes of players just wandered about performing is not strictly true, however, because they were subject to strict censorship. Actors tended to be free and easy people, often political dissidents with strong views on the way they were being governed, just as actors are today. And playwrights, too, have always used their skills and the opportunity of  an audience to publicise their social views through satire. Theatrical groups therefore had to be licensed, and they would lose their licence at best, or players might land up in gaol, or, at worst, lose their heads if they stepped out of line. Wealthy or well connected patrons had to take responsibility for the political good behaviour of the players.

Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a leading civic figure in Stratford – an alderman and at one stage the elected mayor – and performances by visiting acting groups would have been one of his responsibilities. That duty by his father was probably the key to young William’s connection with the theatre and acting – the boy will have attended several performances, and he was in a position to meet and talk to the actors.  We know that Shakespeare went off to London to be an actor as soon as he had the opportunity as a young adult. Perhaps he had harboured that ambition throughout his childhood.

It is known that one of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Will Kempe, had been a member of an acting group and we know that he had performed in Stratford. It’s likely that Shakespeare knew him and thought of him as a contact when he decided to go off to London. In 1587, two years after the birth of his twins, Judith and Hamnet, he set off and we know what happened after that. It’s likely that he met up with Will Kempe because during the following years they became close colleagues and, indeed, it’s almost certain that Shakespeare created his major comic roles with Will Kempe in mind.

Although we know nothing directly about Shakespeare as a child growing up in Stratford, the circumstantial evidence for his contact with the theatre and the opportunity he had, through his father, and his better than casual experience of the actors and performances is compelling.

Shakespeare and the Absurd

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. It refers to the political and sexual corruption that surrounds Hamlet at the court of Elsinore. Humourist blogger Marc C Miller tells us that he’s found Shakespeare’s source for that – an old sardine dumping ground near the castle. He says that he has evidence that Shakespeare visited Denmark shortly before writing Hamlet and that he made a note of the sardine dumping ground in his journal. Of course that’s nonsense – Shakespeare never kept a journal, and if he did it hasn’t survived. We also know that Shakespeare never visited Denmark.

Mr Miller says his next challenge is to look for the big apple from which New York takes its nickname!

It’s all a lot of fun.

Shakespeare – The Smutty Translations

When I was at school, a long long time ago, an all boys’ school, we had a lot of fun in English by nudging each other and giggling behind our books whenever a word or phrase appeared that suggested anything sexual at all.

 

Things like ‘He tossed and turned all night’ and ‘the soldiers were shooting all over the place’ caused a lot of hilarity. When I was fourteen we had a brilliant English teacher, Mr Pearson, who introduced us to the idea that Shakespeare was decidedly smutty: within his language was a wealth of double entendres. Something that has always stayed with me is one of Hamlet’s observations on life: ‘There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’ Mr Pearson joined in our nudge-nudge game by suggesting that he was referring to circumcision.

 

This piece on “What Shakespeare really met” carries on that tradition with some super-smutty Shakespeare translations including masturbation, lap dancers and sister-loving!

Our Big Brother William Shakespeare

One question that will never be on any quizmaster’s list is ‘Who was Shakespeare?’ The reason is that it’s too easy. It’s like the question ‘What is the usual accompaniment in England to deep fried, battered fish?’ If you don’t know the answer then you’ve never been in England. And yet the 2007 winner of the Big Brother reality show is the English BrianPreview Belo would not be able to answer that question. When he emerged from the house the show’s presenter, Davina McCall, interviewed him. During that interview he claimed that he’d never heard of Shakespeare. It’s difficult to believe because he was born and raised in England. He would have gone to an English school where Shakespeare is on the curriculum of all secondary schools. However, on reviewing scenes from the show where he appears, one can see that it just may be possible.

In the current Celebrity Big Brother, the archetypical ‘Essex girl,’ Amy Childs, was given the task of dropping some Shakespeare quotes into her conversations with other housemates. The Big Brother directors were, of course, delivering one of their expected portions of racist and sexist entertainment by pointing to the stock type of Essex girl and making fun of her. She did it well, although she later commented in the diary room that she hadn’t had a clue about what she was saying,

An English lecturer at the University of Wales Institute, Mr Eric Hadley, has been using Big Brother as a way of exploring Twelfth Night. One of the most notorious housemates, ‘Nasty Nick’ is Malvolio, the puritanical steward in Olivia’s house. Mr Hadley sees that household as a Big Brother house, with all the occupants quarrelling, conniving, playing mind games, devising practical jokes and coupling up.

Big Brother’s nightly edited digests are dramatic with their careful selections carved into dramatic narratives. And they are full of theatre. The show also does whatever it can to involve its mass audience with voting for evictions and with its spin-off shows, to which the audience can phone or text their messages. There is little of that in today’s theatres but in Shakespeare’s time one of the great things about a performance was just that – a lot of audience involvement – people shouting out, throwing oranges at the actors, and so on.

We tend to see Shakespeare as high culture, but in Elizabethan and Jacobean times the plays and their performances were very much imbedded in popular culture, just as Big Brother is today. One of the great attractions of Shakespeare’s plays is that they portray the common people and their concerns so accurately and entertainingly. And the universal themes of the plays were the concern of all. Beneath the direct appeal to the mindless that Big Brother deals with there are the universal themes that audiences identify with – not in the tasks and events that the producers provide for the contestants but in the housemates’ human reaction to those things.

Shakespeare and the Teenage Girl

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

It’s always said that there’s something for everyone in Shakespeare’s plays. But if you are an American teenage girl you may have to be convinced of that. Juliet in Romeo and Juliet is a thirteen-year-old, almost fourteen, so she’s a character you can compare yourself with.

When Romeo gatecrashes her father’s party he chats her up and she falls for him immediately, with a passion that an adult could never feel. Look at the way she goes about finding out who he is. It’s obsessive. By the time she discovers that she could never develop anything with him because he’s a Montague it’s too late. He’s what she wants and she’s going to go for it. When he appears in the orchard beneath her balcony she defies everything she’s been taught, everything she’s been sheltered from, everything her parents stand for. It’s her moment and her instincts and passions prevail.

Look at her confusion, her conflict between what she knows she should do and what she wants. She tells Romeo to go, then to come back, to make a vow to her, not to make a vow, and forgets why she’s called him back. After knowing him for just a few minutes she proposes marriage. Only a teenage girl’s passion could go there. Look at her anguish while waiting for her nurse to come back with Romeo’s answer and her impatience with the nurse, who is teasing her. All she single-mindedly wants is Romeo’s answer. Think about your impatience and frustration with adults. Look at that scene (Act II scene 5) and see whether you recognise yourself. The impatience, frustration and anger that you often feel is accurately and definitively depicted in that scene.

Your family is there when you need them but your family is also your greatest enemy. As a teenage girl rebelling against your parents is part of the deal. How do they respond? Juliet lived in a very different time, in which the daughters of wealthy or noble families were regarded as commodities that could be exchanged for money or influence. How brave are you when defying your parents? In Juliet’s time you would have had to be very brave, but teenage girls haven’t changed – they are strong-willed and they want what they want, particularly when love enters into the equation. When Juliet’s father tells her that she has to marry Paris she defies him openly. He curses at her, he threatens her, he even strikes her. That won’t happen to you because parents these days are more tolerant of teenagers because they know how strongly they feel about things. But whatever your father says, like Juliet, you will remain inwardly defiant and you will find ways of getting what you want. And if you are in love you will go to any lengths. Juliet is prepared to risk everything.

When Romeo and Juliet first talk at the party she immediately fancies him and she flirts outrageously with him. Look at that scene (Act I scene 5). Is that you? They even kiss each other, lingering over it. She tells him he’s a good kisser. You may not go that far, but then again you may. You are capable of such passion. Shakespeare knows that and he’s writing about a teenage girl with a strong will and personality. She may be confused but that’s because of the conflict between what she’s allowed to have and what she wants to have. Like you.

Juliet is never complete until she is with Romeo, just wanting to be with him, holding him and never letting go. Wile she is waiting for him she wants the sun to go faster (‘Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds,’ Act III scene 2). How we grown-ups would love to feel that again!

There is so much more of you in Juliet. If you haven’t yet read the play you should do so.

Shakespeare and St Mark

Who was the most influential literary writer in our Western Culture? The mind springs immediately to Shakespeare. But there was a far more influential writer, who produced only one surviving book. He’s an anonymous writer but he wrote the Gospel of St Mark some fifteen hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. We don’t know who he was but we know that he wrote his book in the eastern region of the Roman Empire, probably Antioch, between 70 and 75 CE.

Hamlet is performed thousands of times globally throughout the year and although the Passion of Christ wasn’t written for performance on the stage it is also performed globally at Easter, in theatres, village squares and churches, with musical versions, like oratorios, in concert venues.

The similarities between the final scenes of the two dramas is striking and although it would be easy to say that the Hamlet scene is influenced by the Christian story it’s probably more true to see them both as having been written by masters of tragic drama, two writers with the same instinct for dramatic and theatrical effects.

Shakespeare’s influence is due to his large body of works, all of them profound, moving, memorable and convincing in their portrayal of the human experience. Mark’s influence is based on the fact that his book has come to be regarded as the Word of God. The book was the first written of the gospels and Mark was therefore the creator of the character, Jesus of Nazareth – created in the sense of his being a dramatic character rather than just the vague notion of a resurrected god-man. And the book is also profound and moving and a convincing portrayal of human experience.

Throughout Shakespeare’s play Hamlet struggles with the big task he has in front of him – to avenge the murder of his father. He encounters attempts to trap him, to kill him and to neutralise the threat that he poses. He’s surrounded by hypocrisy and corruption. It’s exactly the same with Jesus and in Mark’s Gospel Jesus manoeuvres himself through traps and attempts to kill him. As the final scene of Hamlet approaches the hero realises that he can do nothing – that the evil and corruption will destroy itself around him. All he has to do is face it and maintain his nerve. Various traps are set for him and as the final scene progresses all those who have laid traps for him fall into them themselves. He tells his friend, Horatio, ‘readiness is all.’ He dies in that scene but by being the still point at the centre of the whirling corruption he destroys it and it collapses around him.

One could say that it’s a Christian theme and, indeed, Mark’s theme is very similar. After avoiding all the efforts on the part of the priests and Pharisees to trap him into committing blasphemy by referring to himself as the Son of God or the Messiah, which he avoids, once he’s completed his mission and is standing before the Chief Priest he is ready. The witnesses are unreliable and a conviction is doubtful but then the Chief Priest asks him whether he’s the anointed one and he says, ‘I am.’ His enemies are them able to persuade Pontius Pilate to condemn him to crucifixion. Apart from that admission he is silent throughout, even when they scourge him and fix him to a cross. The only other words he utters are a quotation from Psalm 22, the desperate cry ‘My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?’ He dies and at that moment the veil of the temple is split in two, symbolising the destruction of the wicked establishment. Like Hamlet he has been the silence at the centre of the whirling corruption around him. Like Hamlet he hasn’t had to do anything – his enemies have destroyed themselves.

Those scenes, the trial and the crucifixion are probably the most moving and theatrical scenes in all Western drama, rivalled only by scenes that are to be found in the plays of Shakespeare. Both writers were what we might call great writers, with Shakespeare having the edge on him because he repeated that level of success so many times,  but because Mark is the most important book of the New Testament we can say that he was the more influential writer.

Shakespeare and Electronic Technology

An interesting challenge to readers may be to ask them to think of any life situation that Shakespeare didn’t write about. There are so many things in modern life that haven’t changed since his time: we still have wars and dictatorships, colonial oppression, slavery, military coups, and religious persecution. We have what seems to be the modern phenomenon of terrorism but plays like Coriolanus touch on that too.

Those human situations don’t ever change and unfortunately such things will be with us as long as the human race survives.

But what might Shakespeare have done if he’d had modern technology at his disposal? If you visit the reconstruction of his study at the Shakespeare Birthplace museum in Stratford upon Avon you will see his library – a few books on a shelf. Among them are North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of the Noble Romans, which he used as source material for his Roman plays; and Holinshed’s  Chronicles, which provided him with the information he needed for his history plays.

Imagine, though, if he’d had an iPod Touch, defined in Wikipedia as a portable media player, personal digital assistant and Wi-Fi mobile platform.  That would have enabled him to research any subject in the world just by touching and moving his finger around the screen. He would have been able to go far beyond the sources of the two major strands of his plays. But would we then have had all the great Roman and the great history plays? Perhaps not, but perhaps we would have had some even better plays. For example, he was interested in musical plays, or masques, as they were called in his time, like The Tempest. He would have been able to use an app in the iPod Touch to write all kinds of music.

We will never know, of course, and the idea of such technology in Shakespeare’s time is absurd, but with a man of his genius, who knows what we might have had from him if he had been living and writing in our time?

Shakespeare the Time Traveler

What would Shakespeare make of our modern world? If he were suddenly to appear in London as a time traveler to the future he would find himself in the middle of a street crowd. The London of his time had a population of about twenty thousand but here he would see that number of people in one street. And in all sorts of ways they would look different.

He would wonder what this was, but being Shakespeare, and knowing he was in the future, he would soon work out that it was a building. But nevertheless, it would stretch his imagination as to its use.

Perhaps he would make for some place he knew and, there on the Southbank he would find something recognisable. He would be a bit puzzled because although it’s called the Globe Theatre it doesn’t look quite right. And also, it’s in the wrong place. It’s near to where his theatre was but not in the same spot.

But then he would go inside, and once he had got through the gleaming carpeted, chrome-filled reception area with its ticket office and postcards he would find himself in a space that he might recognise.

He might decide to take a trip to Stratford. It would be hard to find a horse that he woujld be allowed to ride all that way but this is how he would have remembered the journey.

He would have to find another means of transport. He would find the train ride terrifying, of course. Its speed would be something quite difficult to deal with as he watched the countryside flash by. If he looked up at the sky he might see something like this. What would he be thinking?

Then he would arrive at the station, the kind of place even he couldn’t have imagined in his home town.

Shakespeare loved music. However, to listen to it one had to be in the same place as the musicians and music was only available as a live performance. He would undoubtedly see several people with this contraption, dancing as though there was music playing. If you told him they were indeed listening to music he wouldn’t understand. And if you told him that there may be thousands of songs in that little box and that the music was only in their ears he would most certainly want to have a go. Can you imagine Shakespeare with earphones in his ears, listening to an ipod? And dancing in the street?

Shakespeare’s plays are full of images of the moon, and he always seemed aware of the earth as a small round ball but no doubt it wouldn’t be long before he came across a poster something like this – a picture of Earth taken from the moon. It’s mind-boggling, even for us!

As he walked along the bank of the Avon, perhaps the weather was good, and he might think back fondly of his leisure hours with other young people. No matter how hot it was no Elizabethan would have revealed naked flesh – limbs were always covered in public. This is what he might see on the river. I hope he would like it.

   

By now he might be itching to put something down on paper. He would have quite a hard time finding a quill. If he were to find himself stuck in the twenty-first century. he would soon discover that this is probably the best instrument for writing and no doubt he would soon master it.

Shakespeare The Teenage Lover

Romeo & Juliet

Writers often use their own lives as a resource for their creative work. Some take events in their lives to build their fictional scenes: others relive the emotions of things that happen to them and build entirely new events around those emotions.

Scholars have tried to match Shakespeare’s work to his life. In the case of a writer like Shakespeare who creates situations and characters that are so numerous and wide-ranging, it’s almost impossible to do. He writes with ease about kings and beggars; males and females, youth and old age, nobility and commoners. His plays are set in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt; Renaissance Italy, Mediaeval England, Scotland, Denmark  and France, and the England of his time. No-one could have such diverse personal experience. The events in the plays spring from the creative mind of this great genius but where do the emotions come from?

Take one of his early plays, Romeo and Juliet, which he wrote when he was in his twenties. It deals with, among other things, teenage sexuality and forbidden love. We know little about Shakespeare’s life but one of the things we do know is that Shakespeare married at eighteen and his bride, Anne Hathaway, was pregnant.

Both William and Anne came from socially respectable families. Anne’s family were farmers and William’s were skilled artisans. His father was an alderman in Stratford and therefore a man of rank in the town. Premarital pregnancy was unacceptable in those circles. We know nothing more than that William made Anne pregnant when he was seventeen and that therefore, like Romeo, he was involved in an unacceptable love affair. Whatever emotions and feelings that relationship may have created is something we will never know. Could it be, though, that it was that experience that helped Shakespeare in his vivid portrayal of the star-crossed lovers and their anguished plight?

A writer who has such emotional intensity in his works must have experienced those emotions in some form in order to have written about them. Boiling it down to basic emotions – sexual passion, fear, envy, compassion, love, hatred – which he would have experienced in the course of living, just as the rest of us do, it’s clear that Shakespeare had the capacity to squeeze the most out of every experience. That’s one of the things that makes him such a good writer.