Archive for the 'International' Category

From Amsterdam to New York

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

The final stop on the cruise was Amsterdam, and we decided to spend an extra night in the city.

The Van Gogh Museum was crowded and the Anne Frank House was booked, but I did get to spend some quality time at the Rijksmuseum which was amazing. I also spent a lot of time walking around. The city is beautiful, steeped in history, packed in architecture, and very welcoming. It is also filled with restaurants, bakeries, and store windows advertising things that are not legal in the United States.

I came home on Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning, I was back at work.

It turns out that when you come back from Europe, jet lag actually works in your favor, as “early to bed and early to rise” becomes an inevitability. I think I’m finally back on a reasonable schedule now. But the real adjustment has been transitioning back to regular life from fantasy world.

When you study something like Shakespeare in school, you never expect that one day there will be some SHAKESPEARE EMERGENCY that you have to fly out and be on call, but that’s what happened, and it was the experience of a lifetime. This was a 400th anniversary celebration, so I have no reason to think Celebrity will do this again, but it was great while it lasted and I have wonderful memories of the trip.

And maybe I picked up an extra reader or two for the website. Sounds like that’s my cue to start writing again.

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!

Elsinore!

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.

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)__.

Shakespeare Anagram: Julius Caesar

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

From Julius Caesar:

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Hint: Don’t believe the Twitter shot.

Mandela’s this freedom fighter.

I vote hero.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: The Atom

Friday, December 6th, 2013

In As You Like It, Celia reveals to Rosalind that she knows the name of Rosalind’s secret admirer. It is Orlando, who has already captured her heart. Immediately, Rosalind begins to pepper Celia with an overwhelming litany of questions, which causes Celia to exclaim:

It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover

Wait, what? Isn’t this the same play that said that the world is six thousand years old? How could Celia possibly know about atomic theory? Fortunately, there’s no job too small for the Shakespeare Follow-Up.

According to my Folger edition of the play (Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, ed.), the word “atomies” as used here means “dust particles in sunlight.” Oh.


Never mind.

Later in the play, Phebe uses the word, and this is clearly the meaning she intends:

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:
’Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,
That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,
Who shut their coward gates on atomies,
Should be call’d tyrants, butchers, murderers!

So that would appear to be that. But, wait! According to my Arden edition (Juliet Dusinberre, ed.), there’s more to the story. “Atomies” does indeed mean “tiny particles,” but…

The word, which occurs twice in AYL (see 3.5.13) and in no other Shakespeare play, may suggest the territory of the research conducted by Ralegh’s navigator, Thomas Harriot, into the atom and into optics, with particular relation to the refraction of light and the nature of visions.

(We’ll get back to Harriot, but as a side note, you may remember that Mercutio also uses the word “atomies” in the Queen Mab speech. To be fair, I checked my Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet (Brian Gibbons, ed.), and found instead the word “atomi,” which is from Q1. The Folio has “atomies.” So it’s arguable whether the word appears in another play, but the Arden is at least consistent. Even if you say the word is unique to As You Like It, however, the concept does appear in at least one other play.)

Atomism, the theory that all matter is made up of smaller units that cannot be further divided, was an idea embraced by several Pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Leucippus and Democratus. Aristotle rejected this theory, believing that the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) were continuous and infinitely divisible. As with most of these kinds of arguments, Aristotle’s version won the day. Although there were some notable figures who did believe in atomism throughout the ages, Aristotle’s theory was still the prevailing concept even in Shakespeare’s day. So in Twelfth Night, Viola gets Olivia’s attention by telling her “you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!” as Sir Toby asks Sir Andrew “Does not our life consist of the four elements?” when trying to make a point.

However, even in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century, atomism was making a comeback, boasting such impressive adherents as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and even Galileo. Thomas Harriot was an early contributor to the developing theory, though at a time when it was still dangerous to speak too openly about what was considered a heretical idea. It’s intriguing to think that the notion may have captured Shakespeare’s imagination as well, but this is merely speculation. I don’t think you can strongly infer this from his use of a particular word twice in a given play, especially when the second use of the word points fairly decisively in the other direction.

In 1808, John Dalton (building on the work of Lavoisier and Proust) demonstrated that when a substance (such as water) is broken down into its components (such as hydrogen and oxygen), the proportion can always be described with small integers, implying that there is a direct correspondence on some foundational level. His atomic theory of matter led to further inquiry and discovery throughout the 19th century. In the early 20th century, quantum mechanics allowed scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Nils Bohr to describe the unique properties of particles on the microscopic scale.

There’s a lot more to the story, but it will have to suffice to note that in the mid-20th century, science learned how to split the atom, unleashing the potential for a virtually unlimited power source, weapons of unthinkable destruction, and a series of ethical questions that have turned out to be much more difficult to resolve than even the propositions of a lover.

Theatre: Richard III at the Belasco

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

In a NYC Shakespeare season filled with a Macbeth here and a Midsummer there, with two productions of Romeo and Juliet running and another two Kings Lear on the horizon, it would be hard for a single production to stand out as the fairest of them all. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to seeing Mark Rylance play Richard III in the currently running production at the Belasco Theatre with a higher degree of anticipation than any of the others. Richard III is my favorite play, and I love Rylance as an actor. I first saw him about 20 years ago playing Henry V in New York and then Benedick in London shortly after. He and I may not agree on who wrote these words, but I’m always glad to hear him speak them.

My anticipation had some extra time to build, as the actors do their pre-show preparations in full view of the audience. Some audience members were seated on the stage, which evoked the feeling of the Globe. The actors changed into costumes from Shakespeare’s time (not Richard’s) and the musical entertainment seemed Elizabethan as well. So when the show began, and Richard’s opening monologue was given in a presentational style, it seemed to fit with the concept they were going for.

Once Rylance began his winter-of-our-discontenting, I was hit by a sense of deja vu, before realizing that I had seen Rylance give this speech before. He delivers the same monologue playing Burbage in Anonymous. But this was a very different delivery than the one he gave in the film. Here, Rylance delivers Richard’s speech in broadly comical tones and with full interaction of the audience. When we laughed at his lines, he’d stop and laugh along with us, appreciative that we found the humor. He chummed it up with the audience members in the on-stage rows. And he was having so much fun, that we almost forgot that he was about to set up his brother to be murdered.

Can you play Richard III as a comedy? Sure. Many of Richard’s antics, as written, are way over the top, and his chutzpah in several scenes is absolutely breathtaking. I think you have to laugh at some of the more outrageous moments. And the choice allowed Rylance to truly revel in the most delicious moments of Richard’s glory, which provides some of the fun of the play. Richard becomes a Puck figure, that trickster devil who tempts mortals to their doom for his own increase. The play does work on that level, and elements of it can be found in any production.

The problem is that if you only play it as a broad presentational comedy, then it becomes a different play, potentially a good play, but one vastly inferior to the one that Shakespeare wrote. Rylance plays a very jocular casual-sounding Richard, and it doesn’t work. It’s not like the natural-sounding language of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, but rather a presentation of the play as a shared joke with the audience. So, Richard isn’t Richard, but an actor playing a role. In the beginning, he knows the plots he’s laid are going to work – it’s in the script – so he barely needs to put any effort into getting there. And so, the inductions are not so dangerous. Later in the play, when he knows he’s going to lose, the presentation of the lines is more serious, but the outcome is just as sure and there still are no stakes. We end up watching a pageant, and not a play. It is merely a shadow puppet production of Richard.

And this matters, because the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard finds his own cutthroat machinations so funny is part of the evil of his character. And when I watch a good production of this play, I have the experience of a charismatic villain seducing me with his charm by making me feel like I’m on the inside of a momentous historical moment. Shakespeare makes me root for the bad guy. Who do I get to root for in this production? An actor playing a role, mugging for the audience, and not really seeming to care about how the plot progresses? I end up rooting for intermission.

So we get a stammering, mumbling Richard, with his back to the audience half the time, throwing his lines away and uttering his best asides under his breath. Actors meander about the stage with no sense of purpose, and Richard himself seems like he’s barely paying attention.

It was an all-male cast, which put the actors playing women in a very tight spot. If they played up the humor too much, it would play as a drag show, but if they played their parts too seriously, they’d be mismatched with the lead. Instead, they all ended up playing a kind of introspective sadness that plays as feminine without being too Monty Python.

It was disappointing that so much effort went into the costumes, music, set, and marketing for the show, and so little attention was paid to the direction. But Tim Carroll’s flat production felt more like an amateur reading group or high school production than Shakespeare on Broadway. Put simply, the play was not well articulated, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a production.

On the positive side, the lines played for comedy were actually funny. Kurt Egyiawan was a standout doubling as the Duchess of York and Richmond. I liked the final fight concept, and the dance at the end. And I always enjoy hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken out loud. But none of these are enough for me to recommend this show to you.

The same company is concurrently performing Twelfth Night, and I actually have much higher hopes for that production. Rylance will be playing Olivia. Stephen Fry, grievously underused in this production as an audience member sitting five rows ahead of me, will be playing Malvolio. Some of the elements that didn’t work for me in this production may be better suited to that play. In fact, I kind of got the sense that it was Twelfth Night where all of the attention was focused, and Richard III was merely slapped together as an afterthought.

May I live in hope? Watch this space.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Circumnavigation

Friday, November 29th, 2013

When, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon sends Puck to fetch the magic flower, he gives him a deadline:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

I don’t know how fast the Leviathan could swim, so let’s talk about whales.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the fastest whales can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. If you Google “40 miles per hour in leagues per minute” it will convert the speed for you; it’s about 0.193 leagues per minute. So it would take about 5.18 minutes for the world’s fastest whale to swim a league, and I doubt it would take the Leviathan any longer.

Puck’s not ready to promise that. He responds:

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

He’s going to need more time than Oberon asked, but to be fair, he’s going to take the long route.

Is it possible to do a complete circumnavigation of the Earth in 40 minutes? Puck’s got some powerful magic behind him, but that seems like a pretty fast journey. The Earth is almost 25,000 miles around. This claim needs a Shakespeare Follow-Up.

The 16th century voyages of Magellan and Drake would have been known to Shakespeare when he wrote the play. But these expeditions took years, and Puck didn’t have that kind of time. Over the next few centuries, many would make the trip, but it was always measured in years.

In 1873, Jules Verne wrote a fantasy novel called Around the World in Eighty Days, which documents a fictional attempt by Phileas Fogg to achieve the title journey in order to win a bet. Fogg travels by railroad and steamship, which gives him an advantage over his purely nautical predecessors. While they have to navigate around landmasses, he gets to travel a more direct route. Also, he’s a fictional character, but so is Puck. In the real world, the current record for sailing around the world belongs to French yachtsman Loïck Peyron. He ended his journey in January 2012 after 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds. His prize? The Jules Verne Trophy.

Impressive as that is, Puck’s not going to make his deadline in a sailboat. What about hitching a ride on the Moon, a naturally orbiting satellite with close ties to the play? Well, as you might guess, the Moon takes about a month (29.5 days) to show its phase to the Earth. That’s faster than Peyron, but not fast enough for our time-pressed friend.

Shakespeare’s England wouldn’t have known any more of modern flight than Puck’s Athens, but we need to cut down our time. In 2010, Riccardo Mortara, Gabriel Mortara, and Flavien Guderzo set the record for a jet airplaine circumnavigation in 57 hours and 54 minutes, beating the Moon by a significant margin but still falling short of our goal. Being a fairy, Puck might have some connections to Santa Claus, who reportedly can make the worldwide journey in a single night. But to really pick up some speed, Puck should look into a spacecraft.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin completed the first orbit of the Earth in 108 minutes. Now, we’re talking! There have been numerous orbits since that historic trip. I haven’t been able to find the fastest orbit, which is strange since you’d think that would be a big deal. I did find someone on a space message board who claims that Apollo 17 holds the current record at 87.82 minutes. I haven’t been able to find a source confirming that, but I haven’t been able to find a source contradicting it either. So given our current state of technology, the fastest estimate of a non-magical human circumnavigation given by even Internet hearsay is more than twice as long as Puck’s 40-minute promise.

So what happens in the play? After Puck leaves, Demetrius and Helena enter, have a scene together, and exit. Then, Puck returns with the flower. The length of the scene can certainly vary between productions, so to get a reasonable estimate, I consulted the relevant scene in two audio recordings from my collection. In the Arkangel version, Puck departs at 11:40 and returns at 15:40. He is away exactly 4 minutes. In the Naxos version, Puck is even faster. He’s gone from 9:11 to 12:54, for a total of 3 minutes and 43 seconds. We don’t know if he fulfills his ambition to put a girdle round about the earth, but it seems that he does indeed return ere the leviathan can swim a league.

Even a freewheeling sprite like Puck understands the importance of working on the boss’s timetable.