Archive for September, 2013

Video: Richard II (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, September 29th, 2013


Enthusiastic and meme-hip as it is, my one-word review of The Hollow Crown, Sam Mendes’s four-part television adaptation of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, probably deserves further elaboration. I’ll be watching the productions on DVD, so I may be somewhat out of sync with your local PBS airing currently underway. But you can also catch the series on streaming video through the PBS website, so it’s all good. This review will focus mostly on Richard II, the first of the four plays, because I haven’t watched the other three yet.

Now, if you’re a faithful reader of this blog or, well, met me once, you know this is the kind of thing I live for, and you’ll be prepared for the breathless effluence of a hardcore fan. But truth be told, I can be a tough audience. Because I know the play so well, it’s hard to get me to suspend my disbelief. And this is a tough play. The language is lofty and poetic, even by Shakespeare’s standards, so it’s harder to get the words to sound natural.

And yet, I found myself riveted by the dramatic tension of the scenes, despite knowing not only what was about to happen, but also the exact words that were about to be spoken. I don’t know how that’s possible, but truly I was engrossed the whole time. The actors were top-notch across the board, and the direction was very clear in telling the story. The scenes were beautifully shot and in high definition. True, I was watching it on DVD, but I checked out the streaming feed for this review, and was very impressed at how high you could set the picture quality. Welcome to the future of Shakespeare.

The opening scene started with voice-over of Richard’s “let’s talk of graves” speech, the speech that “the hollow crown” comes from. I must confess feeling a moment’s hesitation, as I worried the director was going to get cute with the play. But then Richard calls for his uncle, John of Gaunt, and it’s Patrick Stewart. Lines are spoken, and I’m feeling the brain burst. This is going to be a wild 148 minutes.

We don’t get much Patrick Stewart, but we do get the “royal throne of kings” speech with full Tom Hooper Les Miz close-up. It’s fantastic, of course, but it’s the subsequent scene between Gaunt and Richard that I had to put back and watch again. And then (spoiler) Stewart’s gone, but we’re given no less than David Suchet (York) to take up the baton. And those are just the supporting players.

Worth mentioning is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. His demeanor is somewhat understated, as is appropriate to the character, but he has some really nice subtleties to his performance. But the real standout in the cast was Ben Wishaw as Richard. I didn’t know much about him outside of Shakespeare Uncovered and James Bond, so I was completely unprepared for just how good he was going to be. Wishaw creates a soft, pampered Richard through his body posture, vocal intonations, and a not-insigificant contribution from a monkey. But then, as his place is challenged, his character arc transitions from entitlement-fueled rage to deep melancholy despair without losing any of the qualities Wishaw had established for Richard. He made me feel the “let’s talk of graves” speech, which I’ve taught phrase-by-phrase, as though I was hearing it for the first time. His performance in the (spoiler) abdication scene alone elevates him to a level of greatness where I can say that his participation in any future project will be no less of a draw for me than a Patrick Stewart or a David Suchet, and that’s no small compliment.

I do have some very minor quibbles that have much more to do with my own Shakespeare pedantry than anything lacking in this production. Some lines I like got cut, but I’ll get over it. Northumberland and especially Henry Percy are underdeveloped. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it were a stand-alone production of Richard II, but the characters reappear in later plays, and the fact that the Percys supported Richard’s ascension in this play adds an ironic layer that’s only possible when you do the plays together. But I understand Jeremy Irons will be playing Henry IV, so maybe the other actors will be replaced as well. Also, I missed the Duchess of Gloucester. Would it really been so hard to have called up Helen Mirren or Vanessa Redgrave or somebody and ask if she had a day to come in and do a scene with Patrick Stewart?

But these are my problems and not yours. If you like to order your Shakespeare well done, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be your way in. And if you are a fan of Shakespeare, but not the histories (Duane), you owe yourself this unique opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.

I’ll post more reviews as I watch the rest of the series.

ETA: Duane’s already on it.

Shakespeare Anagram: King Lear

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

From King Lear:

O! reason not the need; our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

The suggestion of a gold iPhone enraptures snobs, but stores near here are out.

Shakespeare Follow-Up

Friday, September 27th, 2013

I am pleased to announce a new regular feature to the blog: the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

Shakespeare lived and wrote during a time we call the Early Modern Period. And yet, there is much about his time that doesn’t seem very modern at all. It’s common for students to mistakenly refer to Shakespeare’s language as “Old English” because it seems so far removed from the way we speak today. But once you get past the vocabulary and sentence structure, you realize that the language is just the tip of an iceberg representing a 400-year-old gap of knowledge, culture, and worldview.

Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, but pre-deceased him by over 25 years, well before the Italian’s famous grapple with Pope Urban over the question of heliocentrism. Dying as he did in 1616, Shakespeare just barely missed the beginnings of what we consider to be modern science. Bacon’s Novum Organum, published in 1620, contained the early stirrings of the scientific method. And as the Scientific Revolution started picking up some serious steam later in the 17th century, the ideas of the world Shakespeare inhabited were already starting to seem antiquated.

A lot can happen in 400 years. Empires rise and fall, as historians rethink their judgements. Breakthroughs are made. Values shift. We still love Shakespeare because he tapped into the universal truth of human existence, sure, but that doesn’t mean we understand him fully, nor he us. Shylock’s conversion, Dromio’s beating, Katherine’s taming… they can seem harsh to us, living in a different culture and a different time. New discoveries, like the recent unearthing of the remains of Richard III, give us insight on historic people and events that Shakespeare never would have had. Just because Shakespeare’s always on our main stage, doesn’t mean we’re always on the same page.

And thus is born the Shakespeare Follow-Up. Each week (or whenever the mood strikes me), I’ll identify a passage from Shakespeare that highlights a particular gap between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Perhaps it’s a scientific statement of fact, believed to be true in Shakespeare’s time, but ridiculously outdated in ours. Maybe it’s an idea that wasn’t accepted in Shakespeare’s time, but it turned out to be remarkably prophetic. Or maybe it’s an instance where Shakespeare shows us that something we think of as wholly modern has been around longer than we think. I’ll quote the passage, and then provide a “Follow-Up” of where we are today.

This feature will probably end up to be more about cultural, historical, and scientific shifts than it is about Shakespeare. But this blog has always been approached with the philosophy that a love of Shakespeare is only the beginning of a life of examination and discovery. This feature will be another step in that journey. And I think understanding the gaps between us and Shakespeare helps us understand his works better as well. Hamlet tells Horatio that there “are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in his philosophy. And so, let it be with Shakespeare.

Sound like fun? The Shakespeare Follow-Up will appear on Fridays.

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

I’m a cup for your coffee, or glass for your beer;
I’m a grin for the camera that spans ear to ear;
I’m to rob on the street using violence or fear;
And a book that displays how your suspects appear.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Asher. See comments for answer.

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

I’m a fence to keep animals sorted by sections;
A tool that turns ink into prose introspections;
I mate with a cob; I give timely injections;
And let babies play with surrounding protections.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Asher. See comments for answer.

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

I’m a substance unclean, such as soot, filth, or grime;
I am evidence held of a shame or a crime;
I am scurrilous gossip; I’m soil with lime;
I am poverty poor; but I’m cheap as a dime.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Asher. See comments for answer.

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

I’m the crucial minutiae a witness provides;
I’m an intricate pattern the big picture hides;
A security team; where the Devil resides;
And to scrub down a car on its front, back, and sides.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Asher. See comments for answer.

Question of the Week

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

So, today was my birthday.

People always seem to want to know how you spent your birthday. Frankly, it’s just another day to me, so it doesn’t bother me that I spent much of it preparing for a workshop tomorrow.

The workshop is going to be on the Danielson Framework for Teaching, a 22-component system for evaluating teacher effectiveness. Last year, New York City was using three of these components, and we all had to learn them inside out. This year, we’ll be using all 22, and everyone is scrambling to catch up.

Over the next two days, my job will be to train all of the teachers in one high school on the extremely comprehensive criteria on which they will be judged.

I did some trainings on the Framework over the summer. Teachers approach it with skepticism, as experience has taught them to be cautious of new initiatives. Added to this is the reasonable perception that the system can often be hostile to teachers. But once we actually delved into the measures, the teachers generally agreed that they are fair, assuming the evaluations are implemented fairly.

I’m guessing that the Danielson Framework will be a very important part of my life between now and my next birthday, so I should say a few words about it. The 22 components are organized in four domains:

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
Domain 3: Instruction
Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

New York City is using the ratings based on the Framework as a portion of overall teacher evaluation, and Domains 2 and 3 will be 75% of that portion.

As an interesting side note, I was in Pennsylvania visiting my sister last week, and I happened to be there on the day that the kids were assigned their teachers. Parents were texting and calling each other like mad trying to determine who got what teacher and how the classes would be made up.

Out of curiosity, I asked my sister what parents look for when they decide what teachers they want their children to have. She listed a number of qualities that mainly fall into Domain 2. I asked her if parents in her community care about how much test scores improved for the class the teacher had the previous year. They couldn’t care less.

So that’s not a scientific study, but it is an enlightening data point. As we head back to school, I’d love to turn the question over to the Shakespeare teacher community.

When you send your own children back to school, what do you look for in a teacher?

Break’s Over

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Thank you all for your patience as I took an unplanned hiatus from the blog. The summer’s over now, and it’s time to return to a regular schedule of writing.

I just added 22 new categories and went back through the archives to update them. So now, if you want to browse through posts that contain Classroom Ideas or my thoughts on Education Policy, those are now options available to you. You can see the Popular posts that, for whatever reason, generate the most traffic, or sift through the Snark. I even added a new category on Teaching Shakespeare, because that’s how I roll.

So what can you expect from the next few months of Shakespeare Teacher? Well, I’m kind of curious about that myself. I expect I’ll continue to do the riddle, and have no plans to abandon the anagram. I even have a new feature planned, still in search of a title. The rest is a mystery waiting to be unravelled. I’m looking forward to our making that journey together.