Archive for the 'Reading Group' Category

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 High

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

New research from Liverpool University shows that Shakespeare (and other classical writers) can stimulate the brain. For me, what stood out from earlier studies, was the attention to the duration of the phenomenon:

The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.

This means that if you’re experiencing a work by Shakespeare, who is constantly throwing these poetic curve balls, you can sustain the brain boost over long periods of time. I’ve certainly experienced this sensation many times. I’ll basically go to see any Shakespeare play, regardless of the venue, just so I can hear these words spoken to me. I participate in a monthly Shakespeare reading group, and feel the effect even more profoundly when I am the one reading the words.

Even seeing the text written can do the job, though I often pause a lot when reading and so the pace isn’t necessarily the same. But the research shows an increase in reflection as well, so perhaps that’s a different manifestation of the effect. I subscribe to a Twitter feed that only tweets the plays themselves, one line every ten minutes like clockwork. Every now and then I’ll hit a familiar line and feel the brain bolt. I don’t know why that should be, but I get my shot to the brain all the same.

If I’m doing something that requires no mental attention, I’ll listen to an audio lecture. If I’m doing something that requires my full attention, I’ll listen to music. But if I’m doing something tedious that needs some focus but provides no mental stimulation, I’ll listen to Shakespeare. I’ll typically choose an audio production that I’ve listened to many times before, so I don’t need to be an engaged audience member the whole time. But I find that I can keep my conscious mind engaged on the task much more easily if my subconscious mind is swept away on a wave of poetic bliss. And when a line or two does drift into my awareness, I know the play well enough that I can enjoy it out of context, much like I do the Twitter feed. I get the hit without having to break my stride.

This is your brain on Shakespeare. Any questions?

Under the Influence

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

I’ve been asked by the good folks at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to participate in a project with other bloggers in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday. The idea is to describe in a blog post how Shakespeare has influenced my life. My first impulse was to decline. First of all, it would require providing a name and bio, and I blog anonymously. Though I’ve linked to it several times, I’ve never posted my full name on the blog. More importantly, Shakespeare’s influence is an aspect of my life I don’t usually like to talk about. But perhaps this is an opportunity. By speaking out now, I can help others avoid the nightmare I have lived through. Because you see, my friends, Shakespeare has completely destroyed my life.

As a high school student, I showed a modicum of potential to become a productive member of society. I went into college as an undeclared major, with an array of exciting career options ahead of me. I took classes in a variety of disciplines, with the naive hope of discovering my passions. I took an acting class on a whim, and the professor suggested that I audition for her play. I was ready to do it, until I found that the play was by Shakespeare. Now, I was always taught to stay away from Shakespeare, but the professor was persuasive and I figured there wouldn’t be any harm in trying it just that once.

I was cast as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. I memorized my difficult lines by rote and went through the rehearsal process. One night, while I was waiting backstage and listening to the play, a single line caught in my ear and made me smile. “Hey, that’s pretty clever,” I admitted. A bit later, another line stuck in my head. “I see what he’s doing there.” Like popcorn popping, the revelations began to gradually speed up. Each weave of imagery, each implied metaphor, each beat of the iamb was like a jolt of adrenaline to my young brain. I was converted into a card-carrying Shakespeare fan.

I continued with acting as well, and in my junior year I had the opportunity to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was the experience that first sent me down the rabbit hole. No longer just a casual Shakespeare fan, I had become a full-blown addict. And of course the comedies proved to be merely a gateway drug to the harder stuff. My senior year, I discovered Hamlet, and what should have been a year of personal exploration and maturation was completely lost to that play. I would read it over and over, fascinated by the experience of making new discoveries every time, no matter how many times I had read it. Any thoughts I may have ever had of doing anything else were drowned in that play.

I needed more… Masters degree… Ph.D… My dissertation was on teaching Shakespeare to elementary school students. No longer content to be merely a user, I had become a dealer. A pusher. Could I decrease my own misery by dragging down others with me? I was determined to find out. I started teaching graduate-level Shakespeare courses at NYU – first a beginner, than an advanced class. I was completely out of control. I founded a Shakespeare reading group. I started a Shakespeare-themed blog. I taught for the Folger’s summer Teaching Shakespeare Institute for teachers. Conferences. Lectures. Seminars. Nothing was ever enough. When life threw me a curve ball, I went looking for answers at the bottom of a Riverside Complete Works anthology. I re-read Midsummer, and hit Bottom.

And what has it all gotten me? I am forty years old, and I have never held a full-time job. I support myself by working part-time, training teachers, administrators, school-based data teams, graduate students… anyone, as long as it will pay for that next Caedmon audio production of As You Like It. Had I never discovered Shakespeare, never developed that unquenchable thirst, who knows where I’d be today? But I know where I’ll be tonight. There’s an off-off-Broadway production of Measure for Measure in the West Village. Picture it. I walk the mean streets of Manhattan, desperate for a fix. I turn down a dark alley where I see a non-descript door propped open with a piece of plywood. I slip twenty dollars to a kid with purple hair who hands me a program and waves me in. And I know that, tonight, I will get what I need. And for a junkie, tonight is all that matters.

My name is Bill Heller. And I am a Shakespeare addict.

Conundrum: Shakespeare Invites

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Thanks for the good feedback about last week’s invite rhymes for the Best of the Bard and Henry VIII invites. The Shakespeare invites don’t usually involve poetry, but I do like to include a tagline to catch the interest of group members. Since I haven’t actually organized a reading in some time, I could at least share with you some of the taglines I’ve used. And since there are a few Shakespeare lovers who read this blog, I thought we could make a game out of it.

Can you identify the fifteen plays represented by the taglines below?

1. Bundle up, head on over, and join us as we catch winter by its tale. Hot cocoa will be served.

2. You like it! You really like it!

3. Everybody dies.

4. Come join us at our favorite Bavarian beerhouse as we travel to an austere statehouse, a rowdy whorehouse, and a dank jailhouse.

And then we’re gonna read a play.

5. Revenge is a beach.

6. Witches! Ghosts! Swordplay! Intrigue! Betrayal! Treachery! And the cold-blooded murder of a benefactor! Come join in the fun, as we read the play that dares not speak its name.

7. An afternoon to read. A lifetime to master.

8. We all know what happens when the children of rival families fall in love. But what happens when the rulers of rival countries fall in love?

9. What better way to spend an afternoon than with Rumor, Blunt, Shallow, Silence, Fang, Snare, Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, Pistol, Quickly, and Doll?

10. Four hundred years before Seinfeld, there was a show about nothing.

11. We’re gonna party like it’s 1199.

12. Cast of Characters: a nobleman in disguise, an adulterer, a tyrant, an outcast, a wimp, a lackey, a fugitive, a bastard, a fool, two wicked sisters, and an elderly king, slowly losing his grasp on his humanity. Yes, we’re all in there somewhere.

13. And now for something completely different.

14. Bon Appetit!

15. Come join our monthly meeting of conspirators as we sink our daggers into Shakespeare’s classic tale of political intrigue and betrayal in Ancient Rome.

BONUS QUESTION: If readings are typically held on the first Sunday of each month, what play would have been the appropriate choice for January 2008?

Please post whatever you come up with in the comments section.

UPDATE: Correct plays provided by Asher (10) and Jeremy (6).

The Eighth

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

The invitation rhyme I posted a couple of days ago got a good reaction, so I’d like to share with you another invitation rhyme. I wrote this one as an invitation to a reading of Henry VIII.


The Eighth

The First hailed from Normandy, only to wreck it.
The Second one quarreled with Thomas of Beckett.
The Third one ascended to power at nine.
The Fourth was the first of the Lancaster line.
The Fifth one conducted a martial romance.
He married his queen after seizing her France.
The Sixth lost the War of the Roses, the fool.
The Seventh ignited a new Tudor rule.

But do you recall…
The most infamous Henry of all…

Best of the Bard

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I was telling someone of my list of favorite scenes this evening, and it made me think of a reading that I was planning to have several years ago. Instead of choosing one play, I would edit together a collection of the most popular scenes for us to read. Due to scheduling problems, we weren’t able to have the reading, but I did send out an invitation. The invitation was written largely in iambic dimeter (!), and I thought the readers of this site might appreciate it.


Best of the Bard

A witches’ brew. A fiery shrew. A knavish sprite. A portly knight. A maid’s disguise. A Jew’s surprise. A bastard’s plan. Each age of man. A paper crown. A motley clown. A nightmare haunt. This John of Gaunt. A guarded door. A jealous Moor. A castaway. St. Crispin’s Day.

A eulogy. A balcony.

The death of kings.

And other things…

It’s the very best of all the scenes, speeches, and sonnets from Shakespeare, hand-picked and edited by yours truly. Be there … or not to be there.

Word of the Week: Community

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

The word of the week is community.

It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been doing a lot of leaning on my own community over the past few weeks. I’ve also been thinking about how new technologies and changes in society affect our idea of community.

Today is Wednesday. Since last Wednesday, I…

  • attended a Bris for my cousin’s son.
  • ended my 30-day mourning period for my mother.
  • participated in a live reading of The Comedy of Errors with a group I found online.
  • reconnected via e-mail with a close childhood friend I lost touch with 15 years ago.
  • participated in a learning community seminar about 21rst century schools with my work colleagues.
  • was called for an aliyah at the Bar Mitzvah of another cousin’s son.
  • visited my sister in the hospital and held my 10-hour-old niece.
  • conducted a day-long data workshop that helped a school identify a pervasive student learning problem.
  • began teaching The Merchant of Venice to an 8th-grade class who will be creating a video project based on the play.
  • joined Facebook.
  • was invited to present at a conference at the Folger on teaching Shakespeare in the elementary school.
  • participated in a webinar, cosponsored by the Folger and PBS, that brought together 176 Shakespeare teachers from across the country.

Traditional community structures such as family, school, religion, and professional networks are supplemented and even augmented (though never replaced) by technology and an increased focus on interconnectivity and collaboration. What I learned this week, though, is that there’s no substitute for being there in person.

Welcome to the world, Elena. You have big shoes to fill.

Googleplex – 12/12/08

Friday, December 12th, 2008

It’s time once again to check in on what searches people have done to find themselves at Shakespeare Teacher, and to respond in the name of fun and public service. All of the following searches brought people to this site in the past week.

googleplex fridays

This feature happens to share its name with the headquarters of Google Inc., located in Mountain View, California. I have no idea what goes on there on Fridays.

how come king james didn’t like macbeth

I don’t grant your premise, unless you are referring to the historical figure and not the Shakespeare play. In fact, you might say that the play was actually written specifically to appeal to the new king. Witches were a fascination for James, so he’d have been intrigued from the start. Also, James was a direct descendent of both the historical Malcolm and the historical Banquo. Notice that the witches make a prophecy that doesn’t actually come true in the play, which is an odd dramatic convention. They prophecy that Banquo will not be king, but will instead be the father to a line of kings. Later, Macbeth is shown a vision of eight kings along with the ghost of Banquo who points at them for his. The eighth king is meant to be King James, as he is the eighth king in the house of Stewart. The prophecy doesn’t come true in the play; it comes true in the audience.

presidents with the letter x

So far, it’s just Nixon, but the night is young.

shakespeare film 2010

You do realize you’re skipping over a whole year, right? No interest in The Tempest with Helen Mirren as Prospero? Not anxiously awaiting the new Hamlet with Screech and the Chocolate Rain guy? Okay. From what I can tell, the Shakespeare film event of 2010 will be King Lear with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Naomi Watts, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Keira Knightley as his three extremely beautiful daughters. Also, Eddie Murphy – I kid you not – is planning to do a version of Romeo & Juliet. I imagine he will be playing both roles, but that’s pure speculation.

shakespeare king henry lambasts hal

I was amused to see this one because I used the phrase “lambasts Hal” in my first Shakespeare Lipogram, and I chose the verb because it only has the vowel “A” in it. But I wonder if you’re really looking for that scene from Henry IV, Part One, or if you’re actually looking for this scene from Henry IV, Part Two. It’s one of the great scenes from one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works and was even listed as #38 on my Top 50 scenes in all of Shakespeare.

Hal finds his deathly-ill father asleep, assumes he’s dead, and takes the crown off with him. When he returns, the King’s awake, and lambasts Hal. They reconcile, and Henry gives his son advice for how to be king. The language is… there’s no adjective I could use that you wouldn’t say “Well, yeah, it’s Shakespeare” but the language is particularly rich and evocative in this scene. I did an anagram of a quote from it a while back, but I’m surprised I still haven’t done the most timely quote of them all: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,/ May waste the memory of the former days.” It’s even got a “Q” in it. I’ll have to save that one for a rainy day.

is macbeth is worth reading

Most definitely. I suggest gathering a group of friends together, dividing up the roles, and reading it out loud. Trust me on this one. That’s how to read Macbeth.

I leave the task of responding to the remaining search terms to my readers:

why is shakespeare is one of the founding fathers

what did the tudors bring back to England

was shakespeare a teacher?

slings and arrows on demand time warner

which president read macbeth before he die

how did shakespeare die on youtube

All’s Well that Ends Well

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Well, I finally got the reading group started up again. A member generously offered to host in January, I got the invites out, and we’ve already got enough RSVPs to hold the reading (any less than four, and I cancel).

We’ll be reading All’s Well that Ends Well, which is a play that’s pretty far down the list of plays that I’m familiar with. I think I’ve read it only twice, but both times I had the chance to discuss the play with others: once in a graduate course, and once for a discussion group I was part of. We’ve never done a reading of it, even though my group has been doing monthly readings for over six years now. I have also never seen a production of it, though I may check out the BBC DVD before the reading.

The bottom line is that I’m pretty excited to revisit a play that I remember enjoying very much but don’t necessarily remember why. It didn’t make my Top 25 plays last year, which is not surprising given my limited recollection of the story, but somehow Helena made my list of Top 50 characters, so I guess I’m not completely out to lunch.

One of my favorite scenes (though apparently not one of my Top 50 scenes in Shakespeare) was the scene where Parolles is blindfolded and the soldiers speak in a made-up language to convince him that they are enemy soldiers speaking a foreign language.

Anyway, are there any big All’s Well fans out there? Let’s make some noise. What about this play does it for you? What do we have to look forward to?

Question of the Week

Monday, May 26th, 2008

We did a reading of As You Like It yesterday, and the question of the best marriage in Shakespeare came up again.

Here’s what I had to say last year in response to Cesario, a fellow blogger who suggested that it was the Macbeths:

I’ve heard Harold Bloom express this opinion, and I get the equal partnership aspect, but I find their relationship too dysfunctional and codependent to pay them this compliment. The title “Best Marriage in Shakespeare” is a dubious honor, but I think I’d have to go with Brutus and Portia. They seem like they have a really strong relationship. The fact that it can be torn apart by the assassination is a testament to the earth-shattering significance of that event. We won’t count the marriages at the end of the comedies, because who knows how they’ll fare?

But now, I turn the question over to you.

What’s the best marriage in Shakespeare?

P.S. Cesario is currently annotating the text of Hamlet, scene by scene, on her blog. Check it out.