Archive for the 'History' 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.


Day 7: Copenhagen

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

The activities on and off the ship have been keeping me pleasantly busy, but I did want to check in about our shore excursion yesterday. I’ve been traveling with my friend Richard (known to Shakespeare Teacher readers as Bronx Richie). Yesterday, our ship docked in Copenhagen, and we took the day to visit the city.

First, we went to the Tycho Brahe Planetarium. Brahe is a big deal here, and we enjoyed the science museum that bears his name. We also hit the National Museum of Denmark, which boasts a wide range of impressive artifacts from time periods across history, whether it was coins from the Bronze Age, medieval weapons, gold-plated clocks owned by kings, propaganda posters from the occupation, or memorabilia from when the Beatles visited in 1964. It was a lot of fun, and one of the highlights of the trip.

We also took in some of the sites that Copenhagen has to offer from Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park, to Nyhavn, a harbor-front row of coffee shops and restaurants where you can dine among the boats, musicians, and fellow tourists.

It’s hard to believe the trip will be ending soon. I’ve had months to look forward to it, and now it will be over in a few days. It’s a good reminder to make the most of what’s left. I’ll check back in when time allows.

Farvel for now!


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.

Shakespeare Anagram: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Inspired by recent discoveries

From Love’s Labour’s Lost:

The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Somerset Y-chromosome not even King Richard Three’s.

Cue the funk.



Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In which I defend the honor of the Queen…

The DNA reports are in, and the skeleton they found in that Leicester parking lot is now confirmed to be that of King Richard III. Analysis also shows he had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Somewhat overshadowing the exciting news is a discovery that came from the research team’s comparing the old king’s DNA to that of his present-day relatives. It turns out that there is a break somewhere in the male-line continuity of the Y-chromosome, the collection of genes that are only passed from father to son, suggesting a false paternity event somewhere in the timeline.

The news media, with its trademark restraint, has jumped all over this, trumpeting that the already much-maligned Richard has infidelity in his family tree, with some even suggesting that this means that the Queen may not even be the legitimate heir to the throne anymore.

Okay, let’s all take a breath now. Her Majesty’s reign is in no danger here.

I spent a lot of time this past summer with my nose buried in the Plantagenet family tree, and may be able to add a modicum of perspective.

You can read the science team’s original report here, but a brief summary should suffice. Richard III and his distant cousin Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort are both direct male-line descendants of King Edward III. The Duke has five male-line descendants alive today who agreed to participate in the study, and four of them share the same Y-chromosome, presumably inherited from Beaufort. The one who doesn’t suggests a false paternity event (or “cuckolding” in the parlance) at some point along the way, but that’s not the infidelity that made the headlines. Richard III’s Y-chromosome also doesn’t match the Duke’s, which means that at least one of them is not actually a male-line descendant of Edward III.

Okay, so that’s pretty saucy news in itself. But it’s an overreach to drag Queen Elizabeth II into this story for several reasons.

First of all, what is the probability that the break in paternity is even in Elizabeth’s line? Here is the family tree for the relevant players (scroll down to the “Geneology of the Y chromosome lineage” graphic). It shows fifteen paternal links between Edward III and Beaufort, and only four between Edward III and Richard III. Assuming only one false paternity (which is all that’s been established here) and that all paternity events are equally likely to be false, the odds are 15:4 in favor of Beaufort being the non-heir rather than Richard. Also, if Richard III’s own parentage is the false one, it doesn’t affect Elizabeth, as she is descended from Richard’s older brother King Edward IV. So the odds of the break even being in Elizabeth’s lineage is 16:3 against or just under 16%.

Still, a 16% chance the Queen is illegitimate would indeed be headline-worthy, but let’s examine this claim more closely. Here it may be helpful to refer to the family tree I put together for Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In the column all the way to the right, close to the center of the column, you can find Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. This is the future King Henry VII. Five slots down, you can find Elizabeth of York.

Henry and Elizabeth will wed, and their offspring will include King Henry VIII and his sister Margaret Tudor. If you look one column to the left, all the way at the bottom, you will see Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester. This is the future King Richard III. From here on, I will use “Richard Plantagenet” to refer to his father, the Duke of York, who is also on the chart.

Queen Elizabeth II is descended from Margaret Tudor, which means that she is a descendant of Richard III’s brother Edward IV. Edward became king as a result of the Wars of the Roses, which were fought between the houses of York and Lancaster. His claim comes from his father, Richard Plantagenet.

Richard Plantagenet does indeed inherit his surname from his paternal lineage through the York line, being the grandson of Edmund of Langley, the First Duke of York. However, Richard Plantagenet stakes his claim to the throne from his mother’s side, as Anne Mortimer is descended from Edmund of Langley’s older brother, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. What’s more, Richard Plantagenet’s wife, Cecily Neville, who is mother to Edward IV and Richard III, is the granddaughter of John of Gaunt, who is also an older brother to Edmund of Langley (though younger than Lionel, Duke of Clarence). Henry VII is also descended from John of Gaunt.

What all of this means is that even if the Y-chromosomal break is in the 16% that would make Richard Plantagenet illegitimate, it would not affect Edward IV’s claim to the throne. It would therefore not affect Margaret Tudor’s legitimacy, nor would it affect the current monarch.

More to the point, it’s been almost one thousand years since William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings, beginning the dynasty of which Queen Elizabeth II is the current representative. What else don’t we know? It seems very unlikely that, were a complete set of the genetic data magically available to us, Elizabeth would emerge as the clear genealogical winner. Not only do we have a millennium of regal shenanigans to wrangle with, but there is also the human element to consider. A lot of the lineage disputes from the past have been settled by people’s decisions and actions: who had political power, who was a bastard, who won a war, who was the right or wrong religion, etc. The question of whether women could inherit the crown changed the equation at several crucial junctures, so applying a single standard throughout English history would certainly change the outcome.

The bottom line is that we basically don’t know anything about anything, and we certainly don’t know much more today than we did yesterday. Queen Elizabeth shouldn’t start packing her bags based on this new revelation.

UPDATE: In the post, I claim the odds of the false paternity event being in the Queen’s lineage is 16:3 against. However, she is also descended from two other candidates: John of Gaunt and his son John Beaufort, the Earl of Somerset. So the odds of the break being in her ancestry would actually be 14:5 against. But she doesn’t derive her claim to the throne through this line either, so the rest of the argument still stands. See the comments for a clearer explanation.

Shakespeare Anagram: Julius Caesar

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

From Julius Caesar:

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Hot-headed Republicans, who re-won the Senate, loathe any intolerable snub from the enemy.

An unrepentant Obama shows the order, risks a shutdown.

Oh, wow.

Shakespeare Anagram: Henry V

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

From Henry V:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

So, the GOP usurpers toss a mutiny, regain thin Senate lead.

Okay, fine. Let’s do this thing.

Family Trees for Shakespeare’s Histories

Friday, September 19th, 2014

My monthly Shakespeare reading group is gearing up to do the history plays. For the next eight months, starting this Sunday, we’re going to be working our way through the two tetralogies.

Shakespeare, working in the late sixteenth century, was writing about his own country’s history spanning most of the fifteenth century. He could assume his audience was familiar with the stories and the characters to some degree. Our perspective, over four hundred years later and in another country, does not provide the same level of context.

Imagine we were watching a play about the American Civil War and characters made various passing references to “the president,” “Lincoln,” and “Honest Abe.” We would understand these are all the same person, no explanation needed. But someone unfamiliar with our history might get confused. In Shakespeare’s histories, characters refer to each other by last name, nickname, and title interchangeably, and their iconic status in English memory requires very little exposition. When we do actually get a first name, it’s usually one of the same six or seven names recycled endlessly throughout the generations, relying again on context for specificity.

Thus, in order to facilitate the readings, I have created a family tree for the Plantagenets that spans all eight plays. For each play, I have put together a version of the tree that shows the current state of the family as the action begins. It shows who’s living, who’s dead, who’s related to whom, who is actually in the play, and what names might be used to reference them. What’s more, it all fits on one page, so it makes a convenient handout for a reading.

It was quite a project, but now that I’m finished, it’s my pleasure to share the results with the Shakespeare Teacher community:

Whether these charts end up providing more clarity or only more confusion will remain to be seen. I’ll be field testing them with my group and may find a need to do a rewrite in eight months time. If anyone out there sees anything seriously wrong or just has a helpful suggestion, please leave a note in the comments so I can address it in the next round of revisions.

A few notes may be helpful. A shaded box means that the character is dead before the play begins. A bold-faced box means that the character appears in the current play. Each space represents the same character across all eight plays, but there are two characters (Anne Mortimer and Isabella Neville) that are duplicated on the chart because they married across family lines. These are represented by circled numbers.

For the most part, Shakespeare sticks with history as far as the genealogy and chronology are concerned, but where he breaks with history, I generally went with Shakespeare’s version. I did this because the purpose of the chart was to make the readings easier. So if Shakespeare, for example, refers to a character by a title he technically didn’t have yet, I used that title on my chart.

One major exception to this is the case of Edmund Mortimer. Historically, there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer in this story: Sir Edmund Mortimer, and his nephew Edmund, Earl of March. An Edmund Mortimer appears in Henry IV, Part One and an Edmund Mortimer appears in Henry VI, Part One. It appears that Shakespeare has conflated the two men into a single character, as he ascribes to the character biographical details from both men in both plays. I went with the more historically appropriate choice to put Sir Edmund in 1H4 and the Earl of March in 1H6, but you should know that when using these charts with those plays.

A lot of the information in these charts were taken from the plays themselves. But the charts also include a lot of historical information, and for that, I used other sources. I took advantage of the excellent genealogical tables in The Riverside Shakespeare (G. Blakemore Evans, ed.) as well as the Arden editions of Henry V (T.W. Craik, ed.) and Henry VI, Part Three (John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, eds.). I found The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays (Michael Hattaway, ed.) very helpful. I also consulted the official website of the British Monarchy, as well as other online sources as needed.


Shakespeare Follow-Up: America

Friday, July 4th, 2014

In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, while visiting Ephesus, are quite surprised that two women have claimed them as husbands. In actuality, they are the wives of the Syracusians’ long-lost twins, but our travelers don’t know this. Dromio describes his new-found wife as spherical, like a globe. Antipholus asks where particular countries can be found, and Dromio makes bawdy wordplay based on various parts of her anatomy. At one point, Antipholus goes somewhere unexpected:

Where America, the Indies?


But, wait… Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors in the late 16th century, over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson was even a glimmer in his pappy’s eye. There was no USA. O, say can you see the need for a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus introduced Europeans to what they would later refer to as “The New World.” But at the time, Columbus thought that he had circumnavigated the globe and found a new route to the Indies. Despite being in error about this, the islands he reached continue to be called the West Indies and the native people he encountered are still commonly referred to as Indians, though the latter title seems to be phasing out.

The earliest-known use of the word America was in a 1507 map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The Library of Congress has a digital version of it, and it’s really worth checking out. You can see how much and how little they knew about the “New World.” Most of what they had charted was what we today call South America, and very little of the North American landmass is depicted. At the top, apparently overseeing his discovery, is Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer credited for realizing that the landmass discovered by Columbus was not part of Asia, but rather an independent continent.

According to my Arden edition of the play (R.A. Foakes, ed.), Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors around 1591-1592, give or take a couple of years. For our purposes here, it will suffice to note that the play was written after the first English colonists set up in the New World (the ill-fated Roanoke colonists, arriving July 4, 1584), but before the first permanent colony was established in Jamestown in 1607.

So what did Shakespeare mean by “America”? The Arden note is inconclusive: “the only specific reference to America in Shakespeare’s writings; here, like the ‘Indies’ named in reference to its proverbial wealth.” However, according the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life website, Shakespeare’s characters would refer to the New World as “the Indies,” as it appears Antipholus is dong here. So my best inference would be that “America” also is referring to the New World in general, and not necessarily the middle section of the North American landmass.

Isaac Asimov, by the way, is silent on this issue. He does note that, during this section, Antipholus and Dromio have completely abandoned any pretense of being from ancient Greek city-states.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in Congress on this date, July 4, 1776, and today is commonly celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America. The word “America” is now most commonly used to refer to this nation.

So… Happy Birthday, America!

Conundrum: An Eventful 52

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The following recap of 2013 has been redacted by overzealous Internet censors! Can you fill in the blanks to restore our memories of the year?

Here’s the catch: all of the missing words are in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

Was it only 52 weeks __(01)__ that we celebrated the arrival of 2013? A lot has happened since then. __(02)__ __(03)__ was __(04)__ from the same network as Mr. __(05)__ later would be. The __(06)__ story of the past 365 days might be that terrible __(07)__ in __(08)__. The __(09)__ of a mayoral __(10)__ ended when he was revealed to be using the name __(11)__ __(12)__. This may have been the most __(13)__ incident of 2013, unless you wish to give that __(14)__ honor to the family of __(15)__ __(16)__, whose __(17)__ member __(18)__ many by __(19)__ his more __(20)__ views, which many felt went too __(21)__. At the movies, the latest __(22)__ & __(23)__ film had a __(24)__ showing at the box office, though it did not __(25)__ as much __(26)__ as the latest __(27)__ __(28)__ film. In music, the artist born __(29)__ __(30)__ released a second LP with that name. Internationally, __(31)__ __(32)__ was removed from power, while domestically, we fought __(33)__ over __(34)__, the __(35)__ signature __(36)__. The __(37)__ __(38)__ it fiercely, and the __(39)__ itself certainly had some __(40)__ spots. In fact, the worst __(41)__ of 2013 may have been the __(42)__ it triggered, though just as __(43)__ was when Mr. __(44)__ __(45)__ out about the government’s __(46)__ on Americans as part of a secret __(47)__ program. In sports, we once again saw that nobody could __(48)__ from the __(49)__ like __(50)__ __(51)__. All in all, it was an eventful __(52)__.