Archive for the 'Twelfth Night' Category

Shakespeare Anagram: Twelfth Night

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

From Twelfth Night:

What great ones do the less will prattle of

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Was a selfie wrong? That protest led to hell.

Theatre: Twelfth Night at the Belasco

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

At a good production of Shakespeare, you may be impressed by the production values. The innovative choices made by the director may, at a good production of Shakespeare, impress you. At a good production of Shakespeare, you will likely be impressed by the actors.

At a great production of Shakespeare, you will be impressed by the Shakespeare.

Tim Carroll’s production of Twelfth Night, currently playing at the Belasco Theatre, is a great production, precisely because its component elements all come together to articulate, embody, and enhance the creative genius of the play itself. All of the comic bits and stage business of this production found all of those fun moments and built on them to create a cascade of joy for the production’s entire length.

Mark Rylance is the standout in the all-male cast. He manages to create an Olivia who is able to display a wide range of emotions without ever descending into camp. With one notable exception, none of the humor of his outrageously funny performance comes from the fact that he is male. His Olivia is vain; she’s not interested in Orsino’s advances, but can’t help but be flattered by them. And when she does fall in love, she can no longer maintain her practiced detachment. We laugh at the character, and not the actor playing her.

The one exception is that Rylance affects a very funny gait that makes it seem like he’s gliding beneath his flowing dress. This is probably funnier because we know it’s a man, but for the most part, Rylance creates a comic performance that’s true to his character and not at all about cross-dressing. In fact, I would say the same about the compelling performances of Viola (Samuel Barnett) and Maria (Paul Chahidi) as well; they created believable realistic characters that brought out the humor of the moments and not the drag.

I thought the cast was amazing across the board, but a few more of the actors are worthy of highlighting. Peter Hamilton Dyer was riviting as an edgy Feste. Angus Wright created a very funny Sir Andrew. And Stephen Fry was outstanding as Malvolio, as you knew he would be. In the early scenes, he was less prissy and arrogant than most Malvolii that I’ve seen, and so his innocent glee at reading the letter becomes heartbreaking. We actually feel sorry for Fry’s Malvolio, and making this character sympathetic is no easy task.

Everything was designed to look as it had looked in the Globe, with sets, costumes, and music carefully calibrated for authenticity. An all-male cast talked to audience members on stage. But for me, the best part was the raw theatrical moment of being part of a shared experience with the rest of audience. The performance I saw got more instances of spontaneous applause than a State of the Union address. And when the curtain call came, we didn’t want it to end.

The actors did the curtain call as a dance. The audience started clapping and cheering while the actors danced. Gradually, some of the clapping fell into the rhythm of the music, and soon we were all clapping to the beat. When the music stopped, the dance ended, and the audience exploded once again into a cheering applause. I left with a new respect for the play, and for the power of what great theatre can do.

You may note that I loved this production, but not the other production by the same creative team. How can this be? Well, I think a collaborative artistic creation is more than the sum of its parts. There needs to be a chemical reaction that takes place, and the play has to be a part of that equation. One performance worked with the play it was interpreting, and the other worked in opposition to it. The results of those decisions were two very different evenings at the theatre, at least for me.

Twelfth Night will be running until February 16, but Stephen Fry’s last performance will be on February 13, so that’s probably the end date you want to use. If you enjoy a great production of Shakespeare, you won’t want to miss this one.

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.

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.

Enjoy!

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.

Shakespeare Anagram: Twelfth Night

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Happy Twelfth Night!

From Twelfth Night:

Twelfth-Night; or, What You Will

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Weighty twin full-throat howl

Shakespeare Anagram: Twelfth Night

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

From Twelfth Night:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective, that is and is not!

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

In an occasion vociferous as debate, the president was real, not that naive opponent.

UPDATE: I’m having problems loading the embedded video, so here’s a direct link.

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!

Shakespeare Song Parody: Feste And I Know It

Friday, August 31st, 2012

This is the fifth of a series of parodies, where I change the lyrics to a popular song to make it about Shakespeare.

And now, it has come to this.

Feste And I Know It
sung to the tune of “Sexy And I Know It”

(With apologies to LMFAO and the greater Internet community…)

Yeah, Yeah…

When I get harangued… I see no colors, ‘cause I’m too well hanged.
I’ve a motley style… when Olivia’s sad, I can make her smile, yeah.
I’m nonchalant… I have free license, say what I want.
You put me down, you get your comeuppance.
To be in your shoes, man, I wouldn’t give twopence. (Nah!)

Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Uh uh, I’m no fool!

Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Uh uh, I’m no fool!

When I jest in the streets, yeah, you like what you see. (What, ho!)
Maybe you’d consider some money for me.
I have a clownish kind of wit and I ain’t afraid to show it, show it, show it, show it…
I’m Feste and I know it.

I’m Feste and I know it.

Yo, I never cease… but I can’t begin if I hold my peace.
I live by the tabor… and by the church, ’cause it is my neighbor. (Faith!)
Olivia’s harried… she’ll have no fool ‘till she be married.
When madmen and prisoners get too obdurate,
Illyria knows me as Topaz the Curate. (Vox!)

Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Uh uh, I’m no fool!

Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Ah…girl, look at that coxcomb.
Uh uh, I’m no fool!

When I jest in the streets, yeah, you like what you see. (What, ho!)
Maybe you’d consider some money for me.
I have a clownish kind of wit and I ain’t afraid to show it, show it, show it, show it…
I’m Feste and I know it.

I’m Feste and I know it.

Check it out! Check it out!
Giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, yeah.
Giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, yeah.
Giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, yeah.
Giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle, yeah.

Make you giggle, man. Make you giggle, man. Yeah.

I’m Feste and I know it.

Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Over at Pursued by a Bear, Cassius put together a series of videos lauding Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters back while I was on hiatus. They’re definitely worth checking out. Even when you disagree with one of her choices, she makes a compelling case.

Still, she includes such “underrated characters” as Hamlet and Othello. And while I totally get that a character can be highly rated and yet underrated, a list like this is an opportunity to bench the starters and let the minor characters show their stuff. Basically, what I’m saying is, I want to play too. Now that I’m back, here is my list, with a hat tip to Cassius for the idea.

An old theatre maxim says there are no small parts, but below you’ll find some really outstanding exceptions. Some of them don’t even have names. If your reaction to seeing some of these is “Wait… who?” then I’ve done my job. But don’t dismiss them just yet; they’re on this list for a reason. Let’s start the countdown at 50.

50. Costard (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – With so many foolish characters in one play, it’s easy to overlook the actual clown. But Costard spins some impressively deft wordplay that puts more erudite characters to shame.

49. Pinch (The Comedy of Errors) – Just as things get about as silly as you think they could get, enter good Doctor Pinch. While others suspect Antipholus of mere madness, Pinch tries to exorcize Satan from within him.

48. Fluellen (Henry V) – The Welsh captain may speak his bombast with a funny accent, but he’s not a man to be trifled with. He bravely leads his troops into battle, and handles himself ably in private matters as well.

47. The Scottish Doctor (Macbeth) – A doctor is brought in to cure Lady Macbeth’s madness. Sadly, modern psychiatric practice would be far beyond the reach of Shakespeare’s England, let alone Macbeth’s Scotland.

46. Peter Quince (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – It can’t be easy to construct a troupe of actors from weavers and tailors, but this is one carpenter who is up to the task. Ah, the joys of community theatre.

45. Antipholus of Ephesus (The Comedy of Errors) – The other three twins may have more stage time, but the funniest moments of the play come from the misfortunes that befall the local Antipholus.

44. Corin (As You Like It) – The old forest-dwelling shephard councils the younger love-struck Silvius, matches wits with Touchstone, and reminds us that courtly life isn’t better than the simple life, just different.

43. Antonio (Twelfth Night) – Sebastian’s savior and friend mentions that he happens to be a wanted criminal. But his love and loyalty prove to be powerful forces, as is his rhetoric when he thinks he’s been betrayed.

42. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) – Hermione may have been the one to fake her death, but it’s Paulina who has to sell it. And sell it she does, without so much as flinching. Note to self: stay on Paulina’s good side.

41. Joan La Pucelle (1 Henry VI) – Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led troops in winning great battles against the English, was a revered heroine among the French people. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t French.

40. Oliver and Celia (As You Like It) – They seem like they’re going to be purely functional roles: Orlando’s evil brother and Rosalind’s supportive cousin. And then, boom, they meet and it’s love at first sight.

39. Chorus (Henry V) – The “muse of fire” prologue stands out, but the Chorus stays on the job throughout the play, adding vibrant imagery to expand the theatrical experience beyond the limitations of the stage.

38. Adam (As You Like It) – Rather than embody the bleak vision of Jacques’s last age of man, the spry Adam warns Orlando of the plot against him and faithfully agrees to serve him in exile. Eighty years young!

37. Pompey (Measure for Measure) – Not quite Pompey the Great, his bum is the greatest thing about him. Sent to prison, the former brothel bartender feels right at home among his old customers.

36. First and Second Lords (All’s Well That Ends Well) – This list has a soft spot for characters who aren’t even given names. The Lords are real characters that help advance the plot over multiple scenes. No respect!

35. Duke Senior (As You Like It) – A lesser man might be slightly annoyed by having his entire dukedom usurped. But Duke Senior takes “being a good sport” to a whole new level. And notice he’s not given a name either.

34. Charmian and Iras (Antony and Cleopatra) – When Cleopatra chooses to leave this world, she is flanked by her two most loyal servants – Iras just before and Charmian just after. Good help is hard to find.

33. Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (Richard III) – Richard is so crazed with paranoia that when he accuses Stanley of betrayal, we completely believe the good earl’s denial. But wait… yeah, he went right to Richmond.

32. Archibald, Earl of Douglas (1 Henry IV) – “That sprightly Scot of Scots… that runs o’ horseback up a hill perpendicular” is outbattled by Hal, outwitted by Falstaff, and ultimately captured and released. Ah well.

31. Son and Father (3 Henry VI) – On the battlefield, Henry observes a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. He thus realizes the heavy cost of the war, and his own responsibility for it.

30. The Thane of Ross (Macbeth) – Whether it’s victory in battle or the slaughter of your family, nobody delivers the news like the Thane of Ross, whatever his actual name may happen to be.

29. Roderigo (Othello) – Often overshadowed by the more dynamic characters in the play, Roderigo is a fantastic comic role. Hopelessly in love with Desdemona, Roderigo is an easy target for Iago’s machinations.

28. Iachimo (Cymbeline) – This “little Iago” deserves better than to be thought of as a diminutive derivative. But unlike his nefarious namesake, he never really meant any harm, and is honestly repentant at the end.

27. Lord (The Taming of the Shrew) – We remember Christopher Sly, but what of the Lord who devised the over-the-top prank in the first place. Actually, either one could make this list; they usually both get cut.

26. The Provost (Measure for Measure) – When the Duke realizes he can no longer implement his plan alone, he recruits the Provost, who proves to be an able accomplice. But why does he not have a name?

25. The Queen (Cymbeline) – She’s the classic fairy tale wicked step-mother, who even has the self-awareness to swear she isn’t. On her deathbed, she admits she never loved Cymbeline. It’s good to be the Queen.

24. The Earl of Suffolk (1 Henry IV) – He woos the young Margaret for the king, but has some grand designs of his own. “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

23. Casca (Julius Caesar) – Other characters consider him dull, blunt, and rude, but don’t take their word for it. I find Casca to be witty, wise, and shrewd. Read over his lines and decide for yourself.

22. Countess of Auvergne (1 Henry VI) – Talbot takes a break from invading France to be flattered by the noblewoman’s invitation to her house. It’s a trap, but she ends up having him over for Freedom Fries anyway.

21. Rumor (2 Henry IV) – Best. Prologue. Ever. The living embodiment of Rumor brags about the damage he’s done, while seamlessly bringing us up to speed on what’s happened since Part One. Open your ears.

20. Simpcox and Wife (2 Henry VI) – They are almost the definition of small Shakespearean roles. But their scene is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Go check it out!

19. Mariana (Measure for Measure) – She shows up late in the play, and even then she’s no more than a convenient plot device with very few lines of significance. But then the final scene arrives, and … wow.

18. The Bishop of Carlisle (Richard II) – Richard is defeated, and Henry would be King. Carlisle protests vigorously, describing exactly what will result. As Shakespeare and his audience know, he’s absolutely right.

17. Antonio (The Tempest) – I have to admit that some of the nobles from the boat tend to blend together for me, but Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero, stands out as the most cold-blooded.

16. Moth (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – Compare Don Adriano de Armado and Moth with Zap Brannigan and Kif. Note that Kif’s first Futurama episode was entitled “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Space.”

15. Mistress Overdone (Measure for Measure) – She’s had nine husbands (”overdone by the last”) and this clear-eyed brothel owner still manages to run her business like a professional.

14. Gratiano (The Merchant of Venice) – It’s okay if you don’t remember. He’s the other guy, the one who ends up with Nerissa. But he’s also a really clever comic character who can be a lot of fun to play.

13. John Talbot (1 Henry VI) – He only appears in a couple of scenes, but Lord Talbot’s son can display valor and loyalty in rhymed couplets like nobody else.

12. Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) – Shakespeare describes him as “a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,” and that’s just in the Dramatis Personae.

11. Lord Chief Justice (2 Henry IV) – Henry V’s harsh denial of Falstaff overshadows the new king giving a high place of honor to the constable who chased him down throughout his wayward youth.

10. Doll Tearsheet (2 Henry IV) – Falstaff’s favorite prostitute knows how to handle herself in a bar fight. She gives Pistol a tongue-lashing he really should have had to pay for.

9. Apemantus (Timon of Athens) – Oh yeah, I went there. But you don’t have to read the whole play, just check out the mother joke in the first scene.

8. Pistol (Henry V) – The loudmouth soldier tends to get overshadowed by Falstaff. But his bombast can shatter the stage when he’s ready to discharge.

7. Domitus Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra) – He’s a loyal soldier who abandons Antony only because he can’t support his self-destructive behavior. When Antony returns his treasure, Enobarbus dies of shame.

6. Arthur (King John) – He has few scenes, despite being an important character to the plot. He makes the list for successfully appealing to the heart of a man who has been sent to murder him.

5. Lady Grey (3 Henry VI) – After her side has lost the war, the Widow Grey bravely stands up to the new King. He cannot intimidate her, so he marries her instead. She’ll be Queen Elizabeth in the next play.

4. Sir William Catesby (Richard III) – We remember the evil machinations of Richard and Buckingham, but Catesby is there with them every step of the way, and seems to have no conscience about it.

3. Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew) – It’s easy to forget about Tranio. But while his master is playing servant to win his one true love, Tranio’s the servant who is playing his master – the much harder role!

2. First Gravedigger (Hamlet) – Often dismissed as merely a comic character, the Gravedigger gives Hamlet a chance to reflect on matters of life and death, thus underscoring one of the major themes of the play.

1. Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) – He’s an unlikely claimant to the throne, but his populist rhetoric has the power to start a rebellion at least. This is, I believe, Shakespeare’s most underrated character.

And finally, I invite my friends at Pursued By a Bear to join me in awarding an honorable mention to the most awesome, most minor character in the entire canon…

THE BEAR!

Top Ten Shakespeare Audio Productions

Monday, August 29th, 2011

In Shakespeare’s time, people did not go to “see” a play; they went to “hear” a play. Which Shakespeare play would you like to hear?

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my Shakespeare addiction that referenced the Caedmon audio production of As You Like It. Regular readers of the blog know well the extent of this addiction, but what they may not know is the degree to which that addiction includes audio productions of Shakespeare. Most people organize their mp3 playlists with different genres of music plus one “Spoken Word” category. My iPhone has a “Music” playlist, with various Spoken Word sub-genres, including several playlists of performances of Shakespeare. Given the hours upon hours I have spent listening to these productions, I am now pleased to share with you my ten very favorite selections.

Now, if this is your thing, you really need to get The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare. This is a breathtaking collection of top-quality productions of each of Shakespeare’s plays, directed by Clive Brill and with original music by Dominique Le Gendre. The advantage of buying the set is that you will then have the option to listen to any title you choose. But if you’re not ready to make that kind of investment into the eclectic world of Shakespeare audio, I can give you my own top picks so you can get your feet wet before diving into the deep end of the pool.

Standard disclaimers apply. These are based on my own preferences, which are always subject to change. I based my rankings on writing, acting, directing, production, and music. I limited myself to modern productions only, so you won’t find Paul Robeson or Orson Welles on the list. And I’m sure there are many excellent productions I haven’t listened to. Basically, these are the ten audio productions of Shakespeare I find myself returning to again and again.

And, in keeping with tradition, my top ten list will have twenty entries. Enjoy!

1. King Lear (BBC)

Directed by Glyn Dearman; Starring Sir John Gielgud (Lear), Kenneth Branagh (Edmund), Emma Thompson (Cordelia), Derek Jacobi (France), Bob Hoskins (Oswald), Judi Dench (Goneril), Michael Williams (Fool), and Richard Briers (Gloucester).

This, to me, is the definitive audio Lear. Gielgud takes a larger-than-life character and truly brings out his humanity. An all-star cast delivers solid performances across the ensemble. This is Shakespeare the way it was meant to be performed.

2. As You Like It (Caedmon)

Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind gives one of the greatest audio performances I’ve ever heard. If you’re a fan of the play, or even if you’re not, you owe it to yourself to hear this amazing production.

3. Richard III (Cambridge)

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Richard III), Celia Imrie (Queen Elizabeth), Bruce Alexander (Edward IV), Michael Maloney (Clarence), John Shrapnel (Hastings), Stella Gonet (Anne), Jamie Glover (Richmond), and Nicholas Farrell (Buckingham).

I wouldn’t really have thought of Branagh for the hunchbacked villain, but he does a great job leading a top-notch cast in performing Shakespeare’s classic history play. I never really knew how much was going on in this play until I heard this production.

4. Julius Caesar (Arkangel)

Starring Michael Feast (Julius Caesar), John Bowe (Brutus), Adrian Lester (Mark Antony), Geoffrey Whitehead (Cassius), Estelle Kohler (Portia), and Jonathan Tayler (Octavius).

I can listen to this one again and again. The exchanges between Bowe’s Brutus and Whitehead’s Cassius are electric, and Marc Antony’s powerful monologues are explosive in Lester’s more-than-capable hands.

5. The Comedy of Errors (Arkangel)

Starring David Tennant (Antipholus of Syracuse), Brendan Coyle (Antipholus of Ephesus), Alan Cox (Dromio of Syracuse), Jason O’Mara (Dromio of Ephesus), Niamh Cusack (Adriana), Sorcha Cusack (Luciana), and Trevor Peacock (Egeon).

Along his path to directing the canon, Clive Brill has a lot of fun with Shakespeare’s only slapstick comedy. Silly sound effects and comical music underscore fantastic comic performances by a brilliant cast. Remember, dying is easy; Comedy’s hard.

6. King John (Arkangel)

Starring Michael Feast (King John), Eileen Atkins (Constance), Michael Maloney (Bastard), Geoffrey Whitehead (Phillip), Trevor Peacock (Hubert), Bill Nighy (Pandulph), and Margaret Robertson (Elinor).

Michael Maloney steals this particular show, as the Bastard often does in King John. But strong performances across the cast have the power to churn the blood and tug a few heartstrings as well.

7. Macbeth (Caedmon)

There are a number of audio Macbeths to choose from, but I give Anthony Quayle pride of place. Mood-enhancing sound effects and strong performances across the board make this production the Macbeth of choice.

8. Othello (Cambridge)

Starring Hugh Quarshie (Othello), Anton Lesser (Iago), Emma Fielding (Desdemona).

Lesser’s edgy voice creates a dangerous Iago, who provokes a genuine sense of menace. Quarshie’s passionate Othello makes for a worthy tragic figure. Together, the two performances leave us with an unforgettable audio experience.

9. Henry V (Cambridge)

Directed by David Timson; Starring Samuel West as Henry V.

This is a stirring and creative production of Henry V. Vibrant interpretations of even the minor characters make for a consistently interesting and entertaining presentation of the well-beloved history.

10. As You Like It (Arkangel)

Starring Niamh Cusak (Rosalind), Stephen Mangan (Orlando), Gerard Murphy (Jaques), Clarence Smith (Touchstone), and Victoria Hamilton (Celia).

This is a really great audio production of the play. I rated the other version much higher, but I actually prefer Dominique Le Gendre’s music in this one. And for As You Like It, the music is no insignificant character.

11. Measure for Measure (Arkangel)

Starring Roger Allan (Duke), Simon Russell Beale (Angelo), Stella Gonet (Isabella), Jonathan Firth (Claudio), and Stephen Mangan (Lucio).

Here’s another one I keep revisiting. Beale and Gonet create sparks as Angelo and Isabella, Mangan is brilliant as Lucio, and Allan’s Duke never lets you forget who’s in charge. I think I want to go listen to this one right now.

12. King Lear (Naxos)

Starring Paul Scofield (Lear), Alec McCowen (Gloucester), Kenneth Branagh (Fool), David Burke (Kent), Harriet Walter (Goneril), Emilia Fox (Cordelia), Sara Kestelman (Regan), Richard McCabe (Edgar), and Toby Stephens (Edmund).

Okay, so Paul Scofield as Lear should be enough, right? But he is supported by a great ensemble cast in a well-directed version of one of the greatest plays ever written. Check it out!

13. The Tempest (Naxos)

Starring Ian McKellen (Prospero), Scott Handy (Ariel), Emilia Fox (Miranda), Neville Jason (Antonio), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ferdinand), and Ben Onwukwe (Caliban).

Okay, so Ian McKellen as Prospero should be enough, right? But this is another high-quality Naxos masterpiece – a must-have for Shakespeare audio collectors.

14. Henry IV, Part One (Arkangel)

Starring Jamie Glover (Hal), Julian Glover (Henry IV), Alan Cox (Hotspur), and Richard Griffiths (Falstaff).

I really love this play, and the Arkangel production does it great justice. Griffiths creates a Falstaff with his voice that has the power to rival his stage counterparts. Each scene in this production is like a little gift-wrapped present.

15. Hamlet (Cambridge)

Anton Lesser is the man! This time, he lends his distinctive voice to the Melancholy Dane, striking just the right balance between contemplative and bitter, between witty and mad. There are certainly other audio Hamlets, but Lesser is greater!

16. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Naxos)

Starring Warren Mitchell (Bottom), Michael Maloney (Oberon), Sarah Woodward (Titania), Jack Ellis (Theseus), Benjamin Soames (Lysander), Jamie Glover (Demetrius), Cathy Sara (Hermia), Emily Raymond (Helena), and Ian Hughes (Puck).

Again, I have several versions of the Dream to choose from, but I think I’ll take Naxos for the win. I’ve heard these words so many times, it’s an impressive production that can still make me laugh at them.

17. Richard II (Arkangel)

Starring Rupert Graves (Richard II), Julian Glover (Bolingbroke), and John Wood (John of Gaunt).

Let’s talk of Graves. (See what I did there?) He gives an outstanding performance as Richard, which is important, because – let’s face it – he does tend to go on a little.

18. Henry VI, Part Three (Arkangel)

Starring David Tennant (Henry VI), Kelly Hunter (Margaret), Clive Merrison (York), Stephen Boxer (Edward), John Bowe (Warwick), and David Troughton (Richard).

This is the beauty of the Arkangel series. You can listen to any play, any act, any scene you like. And sometimes, you just really need to hear the “paper crown” scene. When that day comes for you, this is the recording you’ll want to have.

19. Romeo and Juliet (Arkangel)

Starring Joseph Fiennes (Romeo), Maria Miles (Juliet), and Elizabeth Spriggs (Nurse).

Dominique Le Gendre’s love theme for this production becomes the theme song for the entire Arkangel series. Fiennes and Miles are wonderful, as you knew they would be. When you want to hear this play, hear this version.

20. Twelfth Night (Cambridge)

Starring Stella Gonet (Viola), Jonathan Keeble (Orsino), Jane Whittenshaw (Maria), Malcolm Sinclair (Andrew), David Timson (Feste), Lucy Whybrow (Olivia), Christopher Godwin (Malvolio), and Gerard Murphy (Toby).

Well, what can I say, this is my twentieth favorite. But it’s the best of all of the Twelfth Night productions I own, and it’s a great presentation of a fun play, so why not give it a listen?