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Top Five Posts of 2014

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

So… it’s been a light blogging year.

There seems to be a cycle where the more I write, the more people visit, and the more I want to write. But the same phenomenon works in the other direction. I also think that blogs are generally in decline these days. Many thanks to the readers who have stuck with the blog while it has been mostly riddles and anagrams. I hope to have more for you in the new year.

Still, we did manage to reach 150,000 views last month, just two short years after hitting 100,000, so that’s not nothing. Let’s have some cake.

The 150,000th hit came in at 11:02pm on Wednesday, November 26, 2014 from Denver, Colorado. The mile-high milestone found the site via a Google search and viewed the Teach Along with the Frozen Soundtrack post.

So I’m not giving up yet, and I’ve paid to renew the domain name and hosting services for another three years. So the blog will be here for us if we wish to be here for it, at least until December 2017.

And there were a few posts this year that I was proud to write and happy to see find an audience. There weren’t ten of them, but I’d put the top five up against the best of the rest, so let’s get right to it!

5. Thursday Morning Riddle: Ambiguous Edition (December 18)

This was a riddle that had two possible answers, each of which fit all of the clues. I’ve never done that before, and don’t expect to be doing it again any time soon.

4. A Good Pairing (February 9)

In a rare digression into teaching Shakespeare, I compare the literary devices between popular song lyrics and a Shakespeare sonnet. This pairing has been teacher-tested and student-approved!

3. Plantagenetics (December 2)

Do recent revelations about infidelity in the royal family cast doubts on the legitimacy of the Queen? No. No, they don’t.

2. Teach Along with the Frozen Soundtrack (June 2)

This is an exploration of some of the literary, poetic, and rhetorical devices in the soundtrack for Disney’s Frozen that you can point out for students, or have them find for you.

1. Family Trees for Shakespeare’s Histories (September 19)

I’ve been meaning to do this for years, and I finally did it! Each play’s tree 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. Enjoy!

Have a Happy New Year, and I’ll see you in 2015! (Probably…)

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.


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.

Top Ten Posts of 2013

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Once again, I present my top ten favorite posts of the year as a countdown. Only three of this year’s entries deal directly with the Common Core.

10. The Wager (April 28)

My friend Brian bet me he could pass my Shakespeare final without taking the course, and I accepted his wager. We both ended up learning more than we had expected.

9. Shakespeare and the Common Core (January 6)

Does the Common Core really eliminate all literature in favor of dry government manuals? Not even close. In fact, Shakespeare is actually mandated by the Common Core.

8. Shakespeare Follow-Up: Circumnavigation (November 29)

This year saw a new feature added to the blog: The Shakespeare Follow-Up. I chose this one, following up from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a representative sample.

7. Cleopatra’s Facebook (April 17)

This project actually happened two years ago, but I worked with a class of 6th grade students who created a Facebook page for the Egyptian queen, reflecting the events of Antony and Cleopatra.

6. Don’t Be Rotten to the Core (October 2)

While I do have some specific concerns about the Common Core, fixating on distortions and distractions prevents us from having the real conversations we need to have about education.

5. Shakespeare Clickbait (December 25)

What if we used the same tactics to get people to read Shakespeare that websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy use to get readers to click on their stories? I present: Shakespeare Clickbait.

4. Danny and the Death Ray (January 9)

This is a nice little story about a small town, and one boy who dared to speak out in order to save it. Some people read into it as an allegory for something else, but I just don’t see it.

3. In the Zone (March 6)

Wouldn’t it be a shame if the Common Core really were a better way to structure education, but nobody ever knew it because the implementation had been botched so badly?

2. Shakespeare Song Parody: We Love the Plays of Shakespeare (June 28)

The ongoing Shakespeare Song Parody feature came to an end this year, but not before the appearance of this swan song, paying tribute to all of the plays one last time.

1. How Real is Richard? (February 13)

When the bones of King Richard III were unearthed earlier this year, I was inspired to create a seven-point scale to rate how “real” each of Shakespeare’s characters actually are.

Have a Happy New Year, and I hope to see you in 2014!

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

You may also enjoy these stories:

The secret herb that will make women fall for you… INSTANTLY!
The one shocking diet trick that is GUARANTEED to help you lose weight!
Do these three women really have the secret for seeing into the FUTURE?


Some senators challenged this interracial couple’s marriage, and THIS is what they said…
A dying father called for his son, and what he said will blow you AWAY!
Most people don’t know the one food you should NEVER eat…


The 7 tell-tale signs of AGING that men can’t afford to ignore!
Learn one weird trick for erasing ALL of your debt (without paying a penny)!
This single act of forgiveness will restore your faith in HUMANITY!


Click the images above to read more!

My teenage daughter and her friends think that posts like this can’t go viral. Please help me teach them an important lesson by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.


I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

Shakespeare Song Parody: We Love the Plays of Shakespeare

Friday, June 28th, 2013

This is the last in a series of 40 pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

So far, we’ve had one parody for each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and one for the sonnets. We finish the Shakespeare Top 40 with a tribute to all of the plays, one last time.


We Love the Plays of Shakespeare
sung to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel

(With appreciation to everyone who has followed along on the journey…)

Harry, Suffolk, Somerset,
Richard Plantagenet;
Warwick, Edward, Margaret, Rutland,
Younger Lord Clifford;
Lord John Talbot, Tony Woodeville,
Duke of Bedford, Joan La Pucelle;
Duke of Clarence, Tower Princes,
Richard the Third…

Antipholus, Dromio,
Balthazar, Angelo;
Titus gets Tamora by
Baking her kids in a pie;
Tranio, Petruchio,
Katharina, Widow;
Proteus and Valentine have
Bid Verona goodbye…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Don Armado, French Princess,
Costard and Holofernes;
Romeo’s Apothecary,
Juliet’s Nurse;
Gaunt John, he passed on,
Henry’s back and Dick’s gone;
Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug,
Bottom’s got a curse…

King John, Pope, France,
Bastard’s got a second chance;
Shylock and Antonio,
Portia and Bassanio;
Bardolph, Boar’s Head,
Prince Hal, Hotspur dead;
Tavern Hostess, Lord Chief Justice,
Henry on his deathbed…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Benedick, Beatrice,
Dogberry and Verges;
Cambridge, Scroop and Grey,
Fight on St. Crispin’s Day;
Cassius, Cicero,
Julius Caesar, Cato;
Duke Senior, Jacques,
Poems posted on the trees…

O, O, O…

Olivia, Antonio,
Toby Belch, Malvolio;
Ophelia, Claudius,
Hamlet kills Polonius;
Falstaff once adored
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford;
Agamemnon, Pandarus,
Cressida and Troilus…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Helena for Bertram fell,
All’s Well that Ends Well;
Angelo, Claudio,
“Friar” Duke Vincentio;
Desdemona, Othello,
Duke, Iago, Cassio;
Kent’s stand, Lear’s Fool,
Edmund’s death, Edgar’s rule;
Three Witches, two Macbeths,
Scottish spirits come unsex;
Antony, Cleo P.,
Who else would you want to see?

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Marcius, Cominius,
Volumnia, Aufidius;
Cupid, Lucius,
Timon, Flavius;
Gower, Thaliard, Pericles,
Antiochus, Simonides;
Posthumous is shipped to Rome,
Iachimo’s gone to his home…

Autolycus, Leontes,
Perdita, Polixenes;
Stephano, Trinculo,
Ship, wreck, Prospero;
Henry starts a second life,
Anne Boleyn’s his second wife;
Kinsmen our guy partnered for;
May have helped with Thomas More…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
And where we have gone,
The play will start anon,
Anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

We love the plays of Shakespeare!

Hat tip to Shakespeare Online for the chronology.

You can click to read all 40 song parodies here.

How Real is Richard?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

It’s been exciting to see Shakespeare so much in the news lately. The confirmation of the discovery King Richard the Third’s skeleton last week has thrust our beloved Bard back into the international spotlight. But just how relevant is Shakespeare to this discovery? How closely related is Shakespeare’s classic villain to the original owner of the bones found under the Leicester parking lot?

Shakespeare wrote that which we call History plays, but these are plays and not histories. Shakespeare often wrote about “real” people and events, but he always put his unique take on it. He could change any details that he wanted. Did you know that the real Hotspur was 23 years older than Prince Hal, even though the two men were portrayed as contemporaries in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV? That Rutland, killed as a small child in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, was actually older than his brothers George and Richard? That there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer, conflated into a single character by Shakespeare? And obviously, no matter how historical his characters, we all understand that he certainly was willing to put words in their mouths.

None of this matters, of course. Saying that Shakespeare got it wrong misses the point entirely. Shakespeare’s intent was to create entertaining theatrical plays. And Richard III is one of the most enduring and popular works of art ever to spring from the human imagination. So, yeah, I’d say Shakespeare actually got it right, wouldn’t you? An archeological discovery can tell us about history, and this is a particularly exciting discovery at that, but it sheds no new light on Shakespeare’s work. We already knew that Shakespeare based his work on Tudor historians, and that he shared their bias towards the Tudor view of history.

So when we ask whether characters from Shakespeare are “real” or not, it may not be such a binary question. I would prefer instead to think of it as a spectrum. More specifically, I have created a seven-point scale to compare how real the characters from Shakespeare actually are.


* * *

Level Seven
Historical Characters Doing Historical Things
Examples: Henry VIII, Henry V

Even at the highest level of Shakespeare’s reality-based characters, there is still a lot of spin-doctoring going on. Shakespeare doesn’t just write about his country’s greatest heroes without a little glorification. But the stories Shakespeare tells about characters at Level Seven are fairly consistent with their historical accounts. Shakespeare himself must have been at least somewhat impressed with his own account of the life of Henry VIII when he originally gave his play the title All is True.

* * *

Level Six
Historical Characters Doing Speculative Historical Things
Examples: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra

I wanted to make a distinction between historical figures that Shakespeare wrote about from relatively recent time periods, and those from antiquity. There are numerous historical accounts of the lives of the ancient Greek and Roman leaders, so Shakespeare was actually writing from sources, but there is only so much faith that we can put in them. The primary difference between Level Six and Level Seven is the amount of time that has passed since the historical figures lived.

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Level Five
Historical Characters Doing Highly-Speculative Politically-Convenient Historical Things
Examples: Richard III, Joan La Pucelle

Here we can put the characters that Shakespeare had a political reason to vilify. We see a version of history, but it’s a version that’s unapologetically slanted in the direction that Shakespeare’s audiences or benefactors would have appreciated most. Shakespeare is still writing mostly from sources, but the sources may themselves be politically biased, or Shakespeare just felt free to add his own spin to events as he wanted to portray them. The character of Richard III can go here.

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Level Four
Historical Characters Doing Non-Historical Things
Examples: John Gower, Macbeth

There really was a historical Macbeth, but it’s doubtful he did many of the things attributed to him by either Shakespeare or history. Sure, Shakespeare was writing from a historical source, and had political reasons to vilify Macbeth, but the story is so far divorced from reality that we really need a new category to describe it. Level Four is for a character who really lived, but isn’t necessarily portrayed doing the things the original historical figure would actually have done.

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Level Three
Legendary Characters Doing Legendary Things
Examples: Agamemnon, King Lear

Did any of these people really exist? And if they did, are the stories about them true? Probably not. But the stories were passed down from generation to generation, either in oral traditions or written texts, as though they were true. We can’t prove that there wasn’t some actual human being in the dark backward and abysm of time that inspired the legend. Level Three quantifies the precise amount of benefit-of-the-doubt I’m willing to give to that possibility.

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Level Two
Characters Doing Fictional Things Who Couldn’t Possibly be Based on Real People (*snicker*)
Examples: Falstaff, Polonius

These are fictional characters, but audiences at the time would have understood the public figures they were based on. Maybe. If Polonius was based on William Cecil, Lord Burghley, then he could be placed one step above a completely fictional character. This is Level Two. Shakespeare expressly denied that Falstaff was meant to be John Oldcastle to satisfy one of Oldcastle’s noble descendants. But what was Shakespeare’s original name for the character Falstaff? It was John Oldcastle.

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Level One
Fictional Characters Doing Fictional Things
Examples: Puck, Shylock

These are purely fictional characters, invented by Shakespeare or his literary sources. They are not real people. They are not based on real people. We will not be finding their bones under any parking lots. We are not worried about pleasing their descendants. If Shakespeare had simply confined himself to his own considerable imagination, we would still have an impressive panoply of Shakespearean characters to entertain us. But the conversations and controversies surrounding his plays would not be nearly as interesting.

Top Ten Posts of 2012

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Once again, I present my top ten favorite posts of the year as a countdown. This year, nine of the ten deal directly with Shakespeare.

10. Film: The Tempest (July 29)

This is a review of the filmed version of a stage production of The Tempest from the Stratford Festival in Canada, with Des McAnuff directing Christopher Plummer as Prospero. The review talks about the film, the play, and the conventions of film vs. theatre.

9. Some Context (September 23)

I examine some of the quotes that were taken out of context during the 2012 presidential race, particularly those that tell a convenient story about the person being misquoted. Sometimes, however, the quote is even worse when viewed in context.

8. Connecting Students with the Language (August 1)

Just as we make Shakespeare more relevant to our students by drawing modern-day connections to his plots and characters, so too can we use the elements of today’s world to help them make connections to iambic pentameter, as well as other poetic devices.

7. Conundrum: Prospero’s Books (August 21)

This is a complex logic puzzle that uses the titles of Shakespeare’s plays as a part of the game. You don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare to solve the puzzle, nor will Shakespeare knowledge actually help you, but manipulating the familiar names may add to the fun.

6. Kevin Spacey as Richard III (January 15)

I was lucky enough to get to see Kevin Spacey play the title role in Richard III, and instead of writing a proper review, I decided to write a sophomoric parody of one of the scenes, replacing most of Richard’s lines with quotes from Kevin Spacey movies. Enjoy!

5. Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters (August 5)

Inspired by Cassius from Pursued by a Bear, I explore fifty minor characters from Shakespeare’s canon that I think are defined by more than their line counts. Wife of Simpcox, I’m looking at you.

4. Shakespeare Song Parody: Mourn This Way (September 7)

This year saw the genesis of a brand new regular feature on the blog, the Shakespeare Song Parody. I chose this Hamlet/Lady Gaga mash-up as a representative favorite. Runners-up included Agamemnon Style, The Death of Kings, and Lady, It’s Warm Outside.

3. Shakespeare Autocorrect (December 25)

I was enjoying some year-end lists of best Autocorrects when I had the idea to mock-up some examples of how Autocorrect might cause problems of Shakespearean proportions. The concept was a hit on Twitter, and the post earned a last-minute spot on this Top Ten list. Sorry, Shakespeare Palindrome.

2. Shakespeare Anagram: Sonnet CXVI (July 28)

This is not only my favorite anagram of the year, but is also one of my favorite anagrams from the past six years of the blog. I take a Shakespeare sonnet about marriage and anagram it into an original sonnet about same-sex marriage. Check it out!

1. Top Ten Shakespeare Retrochronisms (October 3)

A retrochronism is a word I coined to describe a term in a literary work that is misinterpreted by future generations. In this post, you will find numerous examples from Shakespeare. I had a lot of fun writing this, and I’m really pleased with the way it came out.

Top Ten Shakespeare Retrochronisms

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Don’t worry if you don’t know what a retrochronism is. I just made the word up. But feel free to throw it around at the dinner table and the water cooler; it’s a thing now.

Let’s say an author from an earlier time period uses a term in a sense that’s appropriate to that author’s time period. Then, the author dies and the language evolves. New technologies are invented. Culture shifts. Later readers or audiences then interpret the term as used by the author through the lens of their own time period, and incorrectly think it means something entirely different from what the author could have possibly intended. That’s a retrochronism!

This is not to be confused with an anachronism, a term generally used to describe instances where an author uses something from his own time in a work that is set before that thing would have been possible or appropriate. Shakespeare has many such anachronisms, such as the clock striking in Julius Caesar. But a retrochronism is different. It isn’t a mistake by the author; it’s an accident of history.

We’ve had 400 years now to develop a few good examples for Shakespeare. The quintessential example is from Romeo and Juliet:

JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Most readers of this blog probably know that “wherefore” means “why” and not “where.” But this is far from obvious, and many newcomers to Shakespeare, entering his world through this play, assume she’s searching for him from her balcony. Who says “wherefore” anymore?

Another common example can be found in Hamlet:

HAMLET: Madam, how like you this play?

QUEEN: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

HAMLET: O! but she’ll keep her word.

In Shakespeare’s time, “protest” meant to promise. But today we think of it in the opposite sense of a denial. So when people quote the line, they often mean that a person is denying something so much that it must be true. But Gertrude meant that the lady was promising so much that it must be false!

Those two examples are probably the most well known, but below are my ten favorites, culled from years of introducing kids to Shakespeare and from my own journey of working through the language.

TEN. Was Doll Tearsheet a One-Percenter?

DOLL: A captain! God’s light, these villains will make the word captain as odious as the word ‘occupy,’ which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted: therefore captains had need look to it.

Playgoers who have attended productions of Henry IV, Part Two in the past year must have been taken aback by this statement, possibly even suspecting editorial interference for political purposes.

But in Shakespeare’s time, the word “occupy” was slang for having sex with someone. It’s enough to make you wonder what was really going on at Zuccotti Park after hours.

NINE. Did the Witches prophesy Kitty Hawk?

FIRST WITCH: Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
Wrack’d as homeward he did come.

Most modern audiences are familiar with the word “pilot” as meaning someone who flies an airplane, obviously not what Shakespeare meant in Macbeth.

The word “pilot” meant (and still means) someone who steers a ship.

EIGHT. Was Lord Capulet a pimp?

CAPULET: What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!

Here is one that comes up often when working with kids; this example from Romeo and Juliet is as good as any. Shakespeare had a lot of words for “prostitute,” but “ho” was not among them.

If you bring your voice up on the word, it’s an antiquated expression of zeal. If you bring it down, it’s a contemporary form of derisive address. Voices up, please.

SEVEN. Was Bottom a Lea Michele fan?

BOTTOM: Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.

Folks who are “Glee Geeks” might enjoy imagining Nick Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of them. He admitted he can “gleek” after all.

Sure, I’m being a little silly with this one, but why not? “Gleek” means to joke around.

SIX. Did Olivia have some work done?

OLIVIA: We will draw the curtain and show you the picture. [Unveiling.] Look you, sir, such a one I was as this present: is’t not well done?

VIOLA: Excellently done, if God did all.

OLIVIA: ’Tis in grain, sir; ’twill endure wind and weather.

Viola’s quip “if God did all” can set a Twelfth Night audience roaring if delivered just so. Does Viola suspect a little Nip/Tuck help is behind Olivia’s epic beauty?

Don’t start fitting Dr. 90210 for a doublet and hose just yet. Viola is merely making a reference to cosmetics.

FIVE. Was Hamlet a fan of Wayne’s World?

HAMLET: I did love thee once.

OPHELIA: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

HAMLET: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not.

Again, this one came from the kids, though it was more common back in the ’90’s, when Wayne and Garth had more of an effect on the language.

Think of the line from Hamlet (and similar lines throughout the canon) as being delivered like this: “I loved you… NOT!” Yeah, they really used to do that… I kid you not.

FOUR. Was Feste creating a hostile work environment?

MARIA: Nay, either tell me where thou hast been, or I will not open my lips so wide as a bristle may enter in way of thy excuse. My lady will hang thee for thy absence.

CLOWN: Let her hang me: he that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours.

MARIA: Make that good.

CLOWN: He shall see none to fear.

Well hanged? Oh, no he didn’t!

Well, no he didn’t. It’s usually a safe bet to assume that any possible sexual innuendo was intended by Shakespeare, but Twelfth Night pre-dates the earliest known uses of the expression “well hung” to refer to a generous anatomical endowment. Plus, in the next line, Feste makes it clear he’s literally referring to a hanging. If the sexual pun were intended, why would Shakespeare have backed off the joke?

THREE. Did Ariel suffer from low self-esteem?

ARIEL: Where the bee sucks, there suck I.

Ouch. It’s not hard to convince high-school students that Shakespeare’s characters do, in fact, suck. But would Shakespeare have said so in The Tempest?

No. Bees, you see… eh, go ask your father.

TWO. Did the Porter invent a new art form?

PORTER: Knock, knock! Who’s there i’ the other devil’s name! Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O! come in, equivocator.

Rather than answering the knocking at the door, the Porter from Macbeth imagines himself as the Porter at the gates of Hell, and does some schtick about the various characters he might meet in that position. The expression “Knock Knock, Who’s there” is used to introduce new characters in his standup routine.

But if you’re expecting him to answer “Ophelia,” you’re going to have a long wait. The Knock-Knock joke as we know it is a twentieth-century creation.

ONE. Is Dromio of Syracuse a pothead?

DROMIO S: I am transformed, master, am not I?

ANTIPHOLOUS S: I think thou art, in mind, and so am I.

DROMIO S: Nay, master, both in mind and in my shape.

ANTIPHOLOUS S: Thou hast thine own form.

DROMIO S: No, I am an ape.

LUCIANA: If thou art chang’d to aught, ’tis to an ass.

DROMIO S: ’Tis true; she rides me and I long for grass.

Zing! Dromio’s jonesing for some weed! The Comedy of Errors is a drug play!

But not really. Dromio just longs for the freedom of greener pastures. Grass means grass, baby. However, the “she rides me” part probably does mean what you think it means.

So those are my ten favorite retrochronisms from Shakespeare. Did I miss any? Feel free to add to the list!