Archive for the 'Hamlet' Category

Welcome Celebrities!

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

If you are one of the passengers from the Celebrity Shakespeare & Scandinavia Cruise, welcome! As promised, I am posting digital copies of the handouts from my talks, so if you missed one or didn’t get a handout, you can find everything here.

My first talk was on Hamlet. You can download the handout here. You can also read more of my posts about Hamlet at the category link here.

My second talk was on Shakespeare’s Use of Language. You can download the handout here. You can also read more of my posts about poetry at the category link here.

My third talk was on Shakespeare’s History. During the talk, I referred to a series of eight family trees that I compiled to go along with Shakespeare’s history plays. I used the first and the eighth of these as a handout for the talk. You can find all eight family trees here.

My talk today will be on Shakespeare’s Science. You can download the handout here. You can also read more of my posts following up on references from Shakespeare’s plays at the category link for the Shakespeare Follow-Up here.



Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Today I went to Kronborg Castle in Helsingor, the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare’s Elsinore.

Now, the castle itself, in all honesty, has very little to do with Shakespeare. First of all, Hamlet is fictional, so there’s no sense of this is where this happened or anything of the like. Also, Shakespeare never visited Denmark, so you can’t even say that this is the room where Shakespeare envisioned a certain scene or other. What’s more, the castle itself was based on a stronghold built in the 1420’s, and renovated into a Renaissance castle in the late 16th century. So, it wouldn’t even have existed during Hamlet’s time.

None of this matters, of course, when you visit the castle. Hamlet is real and this is where the events took place. You can see the bedchambers, the banquet tables, and the giant tapestries hanging in the hallways. This most excellent canopy hangs in my lady’s chamber, and you can breathe in the history, even if it never actually happened.

Shakespeare is celebrated in the castle quite a bit. There are performances of Hamlet given regularly at the castle, and there is even an exhibition of all of the various actors who have played Hamlet over the years. There is also an excellent gift shop where you can get the standard Shakespeare merchandise, but with an extra note of authenticity. Yes, it’s a mock-quill pen, but it’s from Elsinore. I say this without irony; I picked up an excellent coffee mug.

No doubt, when I look back on this trip, it will be the castle that stands out as the centerpiece of the experience. Next, we shall be welcomed back to Denmark as we visit Copenhagen.

Sea Change

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

The cruise is now nearing the half-way mark. Because we spent our first full day at sea, I’ve already given three of my four talks on Shakespeare. I’ll post more details about those in a later thread.

I’m having a lot of fun. Everyone has been so nice to me and very appreciative of the talks. Fellow passengers will come over to me and start conversations about Shakespeare, which has been the best part. There has also been other Shakespeare-related entertainment. The cruise had asked me to select four appropriately-themed movies, and their screenings have been additional opportunities to engage with the Shakespeare fans on the ship. For those interested, I chose the following movies:

    Richard III (1995) with Ian McKellen and Annette Bening
    Much Ado about Nothing (1993) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson
    Macbeth (2015) with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard
    Shakespeare in Love (1998) with Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow

There is also a group of three talented actors who are performing scenes from Shakespeare throughout the ship. These scenes are popular among the passengers, and they make the theme of the cruise more ubiquitous.

And, oh yeah, in addition to all of the Shakespeare stuff, I’m also on a cruise. The lifestyle keeps you quite busy and very well fed. The staff is almost as big as the passenger manifest, and they are highly professional and courteous. This is my first cruise, so the experience is somewhat of a sea change for me.

I also had a chance to visit Oslo, where we stopped for two days. I went to go see the Nobel Peace Museum, which had a thought-provoking exhibit about the targets that are used in the military of different countries around the world. They also have an exhibit showing the various people who have won Nobel Peace Prizes though the years.

Our next stop is Helsingor, the real-life setting of Hamlet, though Shakespeare referred to it by the Anglicized version of the name: Elsinore. I’ll be escorting a shore excursion to provide some Hamlet perspective on the trip. But I’ve never been there myself, so it should be a great trip for me as well. I’ll keep you posted.

To Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

Another April 23 is now upon us. Each year, on this day, we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, acknowledging occasionally that he also died on this date. But as this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, focus has shifted to the more morbid milestone. And since it was Shakespeare who taught us, in many ways, what it means to us as humans to face our mortality, it seems only fitting to celebrate his legacy on the anniversary of his death.

Celebrity Cruises is marking the occasion with a ten-day Shakespeare-themed cruise, and they have invited me to serve as the resident expert on all things Shakespearean. I’ll be giving a series of four talks onboard the ship, moderating a round-table discussion, and escorting a shore excursion to Kronberg Castle, the real-life inspiration for Hamlet’s Elsinore.

Naturally, I’m extremely excited about the opportunity. I’m not generally one to seek out opportunities to travel, but the chance to geek out on Shakespeare for ten days with some like-minded fellow passengers will be a unique experience. And so, I am resurrecting the blog, so I have a place to chronicle my journey.

I’m writing this from London, and the cruise will embark this evening from Southampton. We will be visiting Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, ending up in Amsterdam on May 2. I’ll post updates here when I can. For example, here is a picture of me at the British Museum last night.

I’ll post more updates when time allows. Till then, unto Southampton do we shift our scene.

Teach Along with the Frozen Soundtrack

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

So, you want to teach your students about literary devices, but they’re too preoccupied with the music from Disney’s Frozen? If so, this post is for you.

The Frozen soundtrack is actually full of literary, poetic, and rhetorical devices that you can point out for students, or have them find for you. Join me as I throw open the gates of Arendelle so that I may unlock its secrets and exploit its riches. (Did I say that out loud?)

“Frozen Heart”

This song introduces a number of motifs in the movie, including ice, snow, and the heart (frozen or otherwise). The lyrics use vibrant imagery throughout, and help establish the Nordic setting of the movie. Within the lyrics, anaphora is used as a device (“strike for love and strike for fear”), and there is a string of bold adjectives that form an asyndeton (Beautiful! Powerful! Dangerous! Cold!).

“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”

It doesn’t have to be a snowman, because the snowman is a symbol for the bond between the sisters formed during childhood play. The song passes over long periods of time, forming an ellipsis. The lyrics make good use of alliteration, and there’s even an allusion to Joan of Arc. The lyrics say “Tick Tock,” which would be onomatopoeia, though in the movie, Anna clicks her tongue to simulate the sound.

“For the First Time in Forever”

The title is a great example of hyperbole, and the song foreshadows later events in that it explains why Anna is so quick to want to marry Hans. “Stuff some chocolate in my face” is metonymy. There is an intertextual moment when Anna passes Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled. There is also a juxtaposition at the end when she sings that nothing’s in her way before running smack into a horse.

“Love Is an Open Door”

The title is a great example of a metaphor. “Can I just say something crazy?” is actually a rhetorical question. The lyrics make a lot of use of repetition, both with Anna and Hans repeating each other and themselves. But they also have shared lines. (The link is to the Macbeths finishing each other’s sandwiches at lines 21-24.) There is also some good Tier II vocabulary in this song, if you were looking for some.

“Let It Go”

The song can easily be taken as an allegory, but for what will vary by audience member. The lyrics are filled with antithesis and rhyme (both internal rhyme and end rhyme). There are also some clear similes in the text. “The cold never bothered me anyway” is litotes, a rhetorical understatement. Also… Damn, Idina Menzel can sing. That’s not a literary device or anything, but damn!

“Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People”

Kristof uses personification to sing Sven’s part of the song, though in the movie it is clear that Sven is completely aware that its his part and what the lyrics are going to be. The movie uses the song to characterize Kristof as being less comfortable around other people. The song itself is doggerel verse that uses polysyndeton and epistrophe (“people will beat you and curse you and cheat you”).

“In Summer”

This is a perfect example of dramatic irony, in that the audience knows something that Olaf does not. A singing snowman is an example of anthropomorphism. The lyrics play around with oxymoron, and employ some puns. There is also an implied rhyme when Olaf says “happy snowman” when he clearly was going to say “puddle.” (The link is to a similar moment when Hamlet declines the rhyme “ass” at line 216.)

“For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”

There is a lot of intratextuality here, not just with the callback to “For the First Time in Forever” but to several other songs in the soundtrack. The sisters sing in counterpoint, highlighting one of the movie’s central conflicts. The song begins with a flashback. And there is situational irony, as Elsa sends Anna away in an attempt to protect her, and in doing so, causes her a life-threatening injury.

“Fixer Upper”

The trolls employ an analogy in describing Kristof with a term of real-estate jargon, which is itself a euphemism. The list of Kristof’s faults is a form of proslepsis, as the trolls are listing faults they think Anna should overlook, while introducing new ones she might not be aware of. The song also highlights one of the major themes of the movie: that love has the power to heal each of us.

Shakespeare Anagram: Hamlet

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

From Hamlet:

I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do ’t.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Today, this oddest dilatory hiatus now ends.

Know I again shall devise witty things to vent on each month.

Shakespeare Anagram: Hamlet

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

In honor of Twitter’s IPO this week…

From Hamlet:

Brevity is the soul of wit

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Oh, Twitter’s live? If so, buy!

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Insanity Defense

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Towards the end of Hamlet, Hamlet meets Laertes for a sword-fight. It’s supposed to be just an exhibition, but Laertes secretly intends to kill Hamlet for real. Hamlet has killed Laertes’s father, an act which has also led to the death of Laertes’s sister. Wanting to clear the air before the friendly sporting match begins, Hamlet offers the following words of contrition:

Give me your pardon, sir; I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon ’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was ’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.

Worst. Apology. Ever.

And the egregiousness of the non-apology is compounded by the fact that we, the audience, know that Hamlet was only faking his madness in the first place.

Still, the idea that a person might be absolved of responsibility for a crime due to insanity seems like an awfully enlightened concept to be showing up in an early 17th century play. Was Shakespeare playing around with some concepts that were ahead of his time, or was the insanity defense already part of contemporary jurisprudence? This looks like a job for the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

The idea of intent as a legal concept goes as far back as law itself, as it is described in some detail in The Code of Hammurabi. The Latin term for “not of sound mind” is non compos mentis, and the ancient Romans did indeed recognize it as a valid defense. The idea was also not foreign to Shakespeare’s England. According to Barbara Kirwan:

The concept that certain mental disorders might relieve a person of responsibility for criminal conduct was first recognized as a defense in 1275 by English common law. Starting in the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), a criminal could be found insane if his defenders could demonstrate that his mental abilities were no greater than those of a “wild beast.”

So Shakespeare certainly did not invent the concept. However, most of the evolution of the insanity defense has happened since the time of Shakespeare’s death.

In 1843, Daniel M’Naughton was acquitted of a murder charge by an English jury on the ground of insanity. During the process, the House of Lords had asked a panel of judges a series of questions, later known as the M’Naughton Rules, that would become a benchmark for making these kinds of judgements in the future.

Here in the United States, the standards for determining the validity of an insanity plea vary by state, and a few states don’t recognize it at all. Charles Guiteau pleaded insanity in his trial for assassinating President Garfield, but was found guilty and hanged. John Hinkley, however, was acquitted for shooting President Reagan by reason of insanity. This led to a public outcry, and the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it more difficult to mount such a defense.

Whether you agree with the insanity defense or not, it isn’t hard to understand the public’s reaction. Just imagine Hinckley using Hamlet’s words in his own defense:

Was ’t Hinkley wrong’d Reagan? Never Hinkley:
If Hinkley from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Reagan,
Then Hinkley does it not; Hinkley denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hinkley is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hinkley’s enemy.

Infuriating, right? And in our current era of school shootings and random bombings, we find ourselves facing a wide array of criminals who establish themselves as undeniably insane simply by doing the thing they are on trial for. But how can that possibly be a reasonable standard for acquittal?

So obviously, this is something we’re still struggling with. But going as far back as antiquity, the law has always recognized that there were legitimate times when a person should be absolved of a crime on the grounds of insanity. Shakespeare articulates the reasoning behind it with great clarity, but subsequent cases and conversations have muddied that clarity considerably.

Video: Henry IV, Part 2 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Welcome the third of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays. The first two reviews covered Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 2, which I watched on DVD, but is also available for live streaming on the PBS website.

Let me start by saying that this was an amazing production. I felt that same exhiliarating rush of Shakespeare I felt watching Richard II. Henry IV, Part 2 is a wonderful play, and it was realized wonderfully here. But before I go on, I should issue a word of caution. If you’re unfamiliar with this play, you should probably see it before reading my review, as I will give away a few plot elements that are much better experienced in the theatrical moment. So, beware: spoilers ahead!

And it’s understandable if you’re not familiar with the play. You don’t often see stand-alone productions of it, possibly because of the stigma associated with “Part 2” which, The Godfather excepted, rarely bodes well. But, Hollow Crown title cards and DVD packaging notwithstanding, these are two different plays, not two parts of the same play. Henry IV, Part 2 is a darker and more serious play than its predecessor, and about as underrated as Shakespeare’s works get.

In his very best plays, Shakespeare shows his skill as a dramatist in the composition of his scenes. Each scene has a rising and falling action, conflict and resolution, and internal cohesion. Each could stand alone as an entertaining mini-play, even as he advances his plot and character development for the work as a whole. Hamlet and King Lear are particularly striking examples of this. Watch a good performance of any one scene and you might allow yourself temporarily to believe it’s the most important scene of the play. The result of this is that, if you don’t know the play very well, you are captivated by the dramatic tension and unexpected development of each scene and are able to stay in the moment for a long period of time. And if you do already know the play, you hang in anticipation for your favorite moments.

Henry IV, Part 2 is a cohesive dramatic work that tells a single story. But it is also a collection of incredibly entertaining scenes and powerful individual moments. And if you know what they are, you might find yourself as a kid on a roller coaster you’ve been on a hundred times. You know exactly where the dips and spins are coming, but that knowledge does nothing to diminish your anticipation and enjoyment. If that’s you, you won’t be disappointed by the version presented in The Hollow Crown. (If it’s not you, then even better, but stop reading now!) The direction is much sharper than it was in Part 1, and all of those lovely moments are clearly articulated and in many cases given new life.

Take, for example, the scene in which Hal and Poins spy on Falstaff talking to Doll Tearsheet. Shakespeare set this scene in a crowded tavern, with characters entering and exiting throughout. The Hollow Crown sets the scene in a more private room, where Falstaff and Doll can get more intimate. Instead of entering disguised, Hal and Poins are hidden, adding a sinister feel to the scene that wasn’t there before. And when Hal finally calls out Falstaff for his behavior, his tone is stern and cold. This foreshadows the later rejection scene beautifully. Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff) fills the iconic role with boisterous joy once again, but now tinged with just the right amount of sentimentality. Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly) and Maxine Peake (Doll Tearsheet) add considerably to the comic energy of the scene.

I’m a big fan of the king’s insomnia speech, and Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) delivers. Most of the speech was presented in very wide shots, with the king as a tiny figure overwhelmed by very large spaces decked with the ornate trappings of royalty. I think it was a strong choice, though I would have liked to have seen the actor’s face a bit more. But the speech wasn’t done in voice-over, so I can’t really complain too much. And we get to see Irons very much up close and personal in his final scene with Tom Hiddleston (Hal). This is what I would call the deathbed scene, but the king leaves his bed here. They move to the throne room, which allows director Richard Eyre the opportunity to play with vertical levels and royal symbolism galore.

It’s at this point that Shakespeare fans are ready for the rejection scene. Quite possibly, it is the most memorable scene in the play, and it is often described as the saddest scene in Shakespeare. But too often overlooked is the other side of the equation: the new king embracing the policeman who chased him down in his youth. Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Chief Justice) gives a masterful performance throughout the play, but nowhere better than in this scene. He bravely looks the new king in the eye and mounts a righteous defense of his actions and duty, even as his body betrays him by gently quaking in fear. To me, this is no less powerful a moment in the play than Falstaff’s rejection.

That being said, Falstaff’s rejection was quite powerful as well. When Shakespeare’s done right, there’s nothing else like it, and this is Shakespeare done right.

One more play to go, my friends. Once more into the breach…