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Saturday, April 30, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare - Z Is For Zzzz…

Macbeth and the Three Witches

 Hullo, everyone! Today I’m bringing you the final post in my series about William Shakespeare and his plays!  Z is not a common letter in Shakespeare. But I’m quite pleased that I have only had to cheat twice.

So, here we go. Z is for Zzzz… in other words, sleep. 

You wouldn’t think it would be important in this kind of story, but it does give you something to think about. 

People have nightmares in Shakespeare. In Richard III, for example, George of Clarence, Richard’s brother, has one early in the play. He makes a very long speech about it, to Robert Brakenbury, who runs the Tower prison. Here is a link, as it’s too long to quote in full.

Interestingly, while his brother plays a part in the nightmare, Clarence doesn’t think of him as doing anything bad on purpose. He says Richard fell overboard and accidentally knocked him off too. 

Soon after, he is taken away and drowned in a butt of malmsey wine; the nightmare was an omen. 

Near the end of the play, Richard himself has a bad night, just before his final battle, approached by the ghosts of his victims, while Richmond, the future Henry VII, has a sweet sleep. 

At least these guys sleep. That is more than can be said for the Macbeths. 

At the start of the play, Lady Macbeth talks her husband into killing the king in his sleep. Then she finishes the job by smearing blood over the faces of King Duncan’s sleeping servants, to lay the guilt on them. Macbeth then kills then and says, basically, “Oh, I had to kill them, they killed the king, I got so angry!”

So, this unpleasant couple are punished via sleep - or lack of it, anyway. 

In Macbeth’s case, he hears a voice say, “Sleep no more, Macbeth doth murder sleep.” Which he has, by killing the king and his attendants, all while they are asleep.

He realises this, so perhaps insomnia is the price of his feelings of guilt; sleep is for the innocent. “…the innocent sleep that ravels up the sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course.” 

It’s a great way to think of sleep! 

You would think that a villain like him, willing to kill and keep killing to get the throne and keep it, would sleep quite soundly, feeling no guilt whatever once it’s done, but no. 

Lady Macbeth’s guilt leads to sleepwalking and eventually suicide. She sleeps all right, but during her sleep she relives all the stuff she did on that dreadful night. That night, she said, “A little water clears us of this deed,” while keeping her head, but now she washes and washes, and “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”   

So, both guilty parties pay for their evil deeds with their precious sleep. 

It does seem the punishment fits the crime!

One more Shakespeare tidbit, though not about sleep. Did you know that Tolkien’s Ents, those sentient walking trees, were inspired by this play? It’s true! 

Like so many of us, including me, he thought the bit about Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane was cheating. What connection did it have to a bunch of soldiers carrying branches, for goodness’ sake? It annoyed him, so he thought, what would happen if Birnam Wood really could come to Dunsinane?

And that is how the Ents were born! 

See you Monday for my concluding post! I hope you have enjoyed this journey through the stories of the Bard as much as I have writing them.

Friday, April 29, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare - Y Is For Yorick


Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet with Yorick. Fair Use. 

So, at nearly the end of the Challenge, I’ve come up with the only Y I could think of in Shakespeare. There may be more, of course. 

Who is Yorick? He was the jester at the Danish royal court in Hamlet. We never actually meet him, because he is dead, and has been for twenty-three years by Act 5 of Hamlet! We just hear about him in the Gravedigger scene. But the image of Hamlet holding a skull is iconic; it’s only one scene, late in the play, but when most of us think of Hamlet, that’s the image we see. The photo above is Laurence Olivier in the 1940s movie; the Gravedigger was played by Stanley Holloway, later to play the role of Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady

Hamlet and his friend Horatio have arrived home, and are in the churchyard, where Yorick is being dug up to make room for Ophelia, whose funeral is about to happen. They meet a couple of gravediggers, one of whom speaks to them. 

There is a conversation about the Gravedigger’s job, how long bodies last and so on. 

Then he lifts out a skull. When Hamlet asks whose it is, the Gravedigger chuckles and tells him it was Yorick. This man remembers Yorick all right, telling Hamlet and Horatio that he remembers Yorick once pouring a flagon of Rhenish wine on his head. “A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!”

 Presumably even the castle gravediggers are invited to feasts there, and the wine pouring was for the amusement of the feasting people. 

Hamlet asks to hold the skull and reminisces on his childhood memories of the man. 

“Alas, poor Yorick!” he tells his friend. “I knew him, Horatio. A man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…” He remembers getting “a thousand” piggy backs on Yorick’s back, kissing him and watching him play. Now Hamlet is sad, seeing what’s left of him. That leads to his thoughts about life and death in general, moving away from the jester who made him happy as a child to - well, everyone. The most beautiful woman will end this way, he says. The most famous generals in world history might well be plugging a barrel somewhere - everyone will end here. 

And soon after, Ophelia’s funeral procession arrives and Yorick is not really relevant any more. But several moments of Shakespeare’s longest play are devoted to someone Hamlet cared about deeply but whom we never meet. 

Here is a link to the Gravedigger scene as performed by Laurence Olivier and Stanley Holloway.

Tomorrow will be my final Shakespeare post. Z is for…Zzzz. If you want to know more, see you then! 


Thursday, April 28, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare X Is For eXtras


Today I will be posting about stuff I couldn’t fit into other posts. I did mention a book with a Shakespeare theme, A Midsummer Tempest by Poul Anderson. 

But that was a fantasy. Here is an alternative universe novel about Shakespeare himself, and a couple of plays he didn’t write in our world. It is a perfectly good historical novel, except it didn’t happen.

One of my very favourite books by American writer of alternative universe fiction Harry Turtledove is Ruled Britannia. I have read it so many times it is looking rather shabby. I had to buy an ebook! 

In Ruled Britannia, the author asks, what if the Spanish Armada had succeeded in conquering England? 

Nine years later, Elizabeth I is in the Tower. Lord Burleigh is alive and free, for some reason. The Spanish have their soldiers in London. The Spanish Inquisition has been replaced by an equally keen English Inquisition, happily burning heretics.

Christopher Marlowe wasn’t assassinated, and has written more plays, some of them performed by Shakespeare’s company. 

The story, though, is seen from the viewpoint of two people. One is Shakespeare, of course. The other is Lope De Vega, who was Spain’s answer to Shakespeare, though he wrote a lot more. A few of his plays were translated into English, and I have one of those mentioned in the novel, La Dana Boba(The Foolish Lady), which I bought on Apple Books. So, yes, a real person. 

In our world, he was in the Armada, but never reached England. In Ruled Britannia, he is a Lieutenant in the occupying army, but still manages to write and produce plays. He also hangs out at Shakespeare’s theatre and goes backstage to chat with the cast, whom he thinks like him. Um, no, not really. But they can’t be rude.

He loves women, plural, which ends up getting him into huge trouble.

Shakespeare is commissioned to write two plays. One of the commissions is from the Spanish, who want him to write a play celebrating the life of Phillip II, who is dying, to be performed on report of his death. The other is a much more dangerous commission, from Lord Burleigh, who wants him to write a play inspiring the English to rise up against their oppressors. 

He gets paid a huge amount by both sides, but how much money will be worth the danger of writing a play called Boudicca in an occupied country? He doesn’t have the choice, though. If he said no, he would be assassinated because of what he knows. 

So, the play is written secretly, but also the actors and crew have to be carefully checked out - there are, after all, lifelong Catholics and other supporters of the current regime. 

And rehearsals are not easy either, even when everyone in the company can be trusted, with Lope De Vega turning up to what he assumes are rehearsals for King Phillip, in which he is playing a role. 

In some ways, it reminded me of a TV miniseries called An Englishman’s Castle, in which the conquerors are the Nazis and the rebels are the cast of a soap opera designed to reconcile the English to their situation. But it’s about Shakespeare! 

There is a character called Walter Strawberry, who is obviously meant to be Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing, and quotes from the two plays are by other playwrights. There are also plenty of quotes from existing Shakespeare plays scattered throughout the dialogue. 

Anyway, a wonderful novel! You can buy it in ebook on Apple Books and worth checking Kindle as well. 

A humorous Shakespeare-themed short story by Turtledove that is also available in ebook is “We Haven’t Got There Yet.”

In it, Shakespeare hears that a theatre company has ripped off his play Hamlet. Furious, he turns up at the theatre, intending to have a serious word with the plagiarists. However, he sees the play first, and absolutely loves it. The play is, of course, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. Going backstage afterwards, he meets the actors, who admit to being time travellers.  

Tomorrow there will be a very short post on the only Y I can think of in Shakespeare’s work - Yorick! See you then. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A To Z Challenge: Shakespeare - W Is For The Winter’s Tale


Leontes being an idiot. Public Domain.

In my L post, we learned of that dreadful man, King Leontes, who destroyed his own family and his relationship with his best friend because…(checks notes) his wife persuaded his friend to stay a bit longer when he couldn’t, and touched hands in a friendly manner…

Let’s continue and talk about the whole play. 

So, that idiot Leontes puts his Queen, Hermione, on trial. Word comes into the courtroom that their little boy Mamilius has died of stress at his mother’s treatment. Hermione faints and is carried off. Her loyal lady Paulina returns a while later with a baby girl, pleading with Leontes to check her out and see how much the child looks like him. He orders the baby to be abandoned and orders Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, to do the dirty deed. 

Then Leontes hears his wife has died. He never does ask to look at the body or have a funeral. Interesting, that.

Polixenes, the friend, flees with the help of a courtier called Camillo, who goes with him.

Antigonus arrives in Bohemia, that landlocked country which, in Shakespeare’s imagination, has a sea coast, and makes a speech saying he thought he might as well leave her in her real father’s kingdom. This is the famous “Exit, pursued by a bear” scene. 

The child is found and brought up by a shepherd and his son(who saw Antigonus being eaten by the bear).

Sixteen years later, Perdita is a beautiful young woman, in love with a young man called Florizel, who is really the son of King Polixenes. There is a sheep shearing festival and a lot of singing and dancing. (When we performed this play at university I played the role of Mopsa, the young shepherd’s girlfriend, and got to sing a song with Dorcas, the other shepherdess, and Autolycus, a pedlar/pickpocket). Perdita, of course, is too dignified to do any of this stuff; she is a princess, though she doesn’t know it, and behaves like one. This is a case of nature versus nurture, and nature will always win.

Among the audience are King Polixenes and Camillo, in disguise.  Polixenes has heard that his son has been dating a peasant girl and wants to know what’s going on. He is impressed with Perdita’s beauty and dignity, especially when he hears her speak her famous flower speech, but come on, this is a peasant! No way is she marrying his son! 

Polixenes reveals himself and orders the young couple to break up. However, Camillo, who has become homesick, takes them aside and advises them to go to Sicilia, the home of Leontes. He will go with them. They are followed by the terrified shepherd and his son, who are afraid of what the king might do to them for letting his son romance Perdita, and bring along the stuff found with her as a baby, to prove she was adopted.

Leontes is a much-changed man and is pleased to see Florizel and Perdita, whom he assumes(correctly, as it happens) is a princess. 

Polixenes turns up, as do the shepherds, and, after a lot of discussion, it’s realised that Perdita is Leontes’ daughter. This all happens offstage and we hear about it from the shepherds who, to their delight, are made “gentlemen” as a reward for having looked after Perdita.

Remember what I said about Leontes not having seen his wife’s body or given her a funeral?

Paulina invites everybody to her house, to see a statue of  Hermione which is just completed. Of course, we can figure out what’s next. It’s the real Hermione, who has been hidden all these years, and pretends to be a statue; Leontes does remark that the statue looks much older than his Queen. 

 Or maybe it was magic, but I don’t think so. Anyway, Leontes doesn’t care, he has his wife back and has turned into a much nicer man. 

A pity about his son. That character actually is dead, alas! 

Oh, and the widowed Paulina gets to marry Camillo.

I first saw this play on a school excursion to the touring Royal Shakespeare Company when I was in Year 12. The roles of Hermione and Perdita were both played by the same actress, as is fairly common these days, though they do have to have someone else doing it, silently, in the last scene when both characters are in the same room. The actress was a much younger Dame Judi Dench. If you have only seen her as an older woman, you probably can’t imagine her young, but she would have been in her thirties then. She was wonderful! 

There have been a fair number of productions over the years. The first film I saw, late at night, on a black and white TV, was made in 1967, with Laurence Harvey as Leontes, Moira Redmond as Hermione and Jim Dale, who has become an amazing audiobook reader(He did the American Harry Potter books) as the mischievous Autolycus. I remember that the first half of the story, in Sicilia, was done in Mycenaean style costumes, then in Bohemia everyone was dressed Elizabethan. It may be my faulty memory, but it’s a strong one. 

See you tomorrow when X will be for EXtras, about stuff I hadn’t room for in other posts!

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare - V Is For Volumnia, Virgilia, Valeria


Volumnia and Coriolanus. Public Domain

In my C post I wrote about the play Coriolanus, mentioning the hero’s mother, Volumnia. 

Volumnia is one of Shakespeare’s more powerful women, though the play is not performed as often as others such as Hamlet or the Scottish Play. She has to be, with a son who is a general and for whom she has ambitions.

Volumnia has brought up her boy to believe that the lower classes are scum, who don’t deserve to be looked after. Unfortunately for him,  those people have a vote! So, if it takes showing them the wounds he got defending them to get their support, something he considers baby kissing, too bad. He isn’t going to do it. And Volumnia is a part of that. 

She lives vicariously through him. In her first scene she tells her daughter in law, Virgilia, that while other mothers were worried about what would happen to their sons, she was sending hers off to war, and he came back a hero! When Virgilia asks what she wild have done if he had died, Volumnia replies, “Then his good report should have been my son.” In other words, she would rather be the mother of a dead hero than a live son who was nothing special. She confirms this in the next few lines, saying she would rather have had eleven of a dozen sons die as heroes than have one who was a wimp. 

She wants him to be wounded, which proves his hero credentials, when Virgilia is worrying for her man. Early in the play, she proudly announces that he has twenty seven wounds.

The scene in which she, Virgilia, their friend Valeria and her grandson turn up at the enemy camp can be interpreted differently. She tells her son that if he carries on with his attack on Rome, nobody is going to win; either he will be dragged through the streets as a prisoner or his family will suffer. In the production I was in at university, our Volumnia was a local TV star who had given up her TV show to study English. She performed it proudly, never suggesting that she had done anything wrong. 

I am still watching the film version with Vanessa Redgrave in the role, so I’m not sure how she will do that scene, but in the National Theatre production, directed by the wonderful Josie Rourke(who also did that Tate/Tennant Much Ado About Nothing), it was interpreted differently by Deborah Findlay. She had her hair hanging loose after wearing it up. She lowered her eyes and spoke softly, as someone who knew that in the end, all this was her fault and he was going to die. But she still had to persuade him. I rather liked that interpretation- doing it the other way just makes the viewer say, “Oh, for goodness’ sake, she just doesn’t get it!”

There are two other women in the play. One is Valeria, a chirpy, cheerful family friend who arrives at their home to ask Volumnia and Virgilia to go out for the afternoon. Valeria has a similar attitude to Volumnia’s, and describes with great relish how she saw Volumnia’s grandson chasing a butterfly and tearing it with his teeth, saying - in Shakespearean language - that he is a real chip off the old block. 

Volumnia says happily that “he had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster.”

Virgilia drily calls her son “a crack, madam,” meaning a young rogue. She refuses firmly to go out while she hasn’t yet heard from her husband. 

She is the gentlest of the women in this play. She is not crazy about the idea of her husband being wounded, and worries for him, while her mother-in-law thinks of it as proof of his manliness - and a chance to win the job of consul.

But Coriolanus loves her; she is the only one to whom he shows any tenderness or gentleness, calling her “my gracious silence.” 

She doesn’t get many lines, but she makes the most of them and in the scene in which Coriolanus’s women go to the enemy camp to beg him to stop, she and Volumnia are in accord. 

Tomorrow- The Winter’s Tale

Sunday, April 24, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare - U Is For Upstart Crow


The book in which Greene is rude about Shakespeare. Public Domain.

Who would have thought you could turn the life of Shakespeare into a sitcom? Yet that happened in 2016, when a TV series was produced to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It is written by Ben Elton, well known for such comedies as Blackadder and The Young Ones, and stars David Mitchell, who makes a very good and convincing Shakespeare.

 The title comes from the Elizabethan novelist Robert Greene, who was very rude about Shakespeare, calling him “an upstart crow, beautified in our feathers”, to accuse him of plagiarism, which was ironic, given that he pinched that line from Roman writer Horace! 

Even more ironically, Shakespeare did later use one of Greene’s novels, Pandosto, as a basis for The Winter’s Tale.

Robert Greene is a regular character in Upstart Crow, as the villain. The actor playing Greene, Mark Heap, was in the radio play of Good Omens, in the much more benign role of angel Aziraphale. 

There are three seasons and some specials, including a recent “Lockdown” episode in which the characters are in lockdown due to the plague.

The series is about Shakespeare’s years in London, from 1592 onwards. He is renting an apartment from the mother of series regular Kate, a young woman who wants desperately to go on stage, but can’t because women in England were not allowed to perform in those days. It doesn’t stop her from complaining about it or Shakespeare from telling her she can’t. 

Christopher Marlowe is another regular character, who hides out in Shakespeare’s digs after he survives his assassination attempt. Yep, Marlowe didn’t get murdered after all! It’s implied that Shakespeare actually writes some of Marlowe’s plays, a joke on the suggestion that Marlowe wrote his plays. 

Another regular is Shakespeare’s servant, Bottom, who is not very bright.

Each episode centres around one of Shakespeare’s plays. He goes back to Stratford each episode, where he visits his family - his wife Anne Hathaway, the three children and his parents - and complains about the public transport. Each episode ends with him discussing the story at the fire with Anne. His father, John Shakespeare, is shown as a rather vulgar man, who spends a lot of time sitting at the table on a chamber pot. 

The actors in his company are Richard Burbage, Henry Condell and Will Kempe. Another genuine historical character is Mistress Lucy, the pub keeper inspired by a real African woman called Lucy Negro. 

His daughter Susanna is shown as a strong young woman who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, reads his plays and gives him advice he listens to. In the Much Ado About Nothing episode, Shakespeare tries the whole Hero thing with a boy she likes, but she punches the unlucky youth when he tries to apologise. In the Merchant Of Venice episode, she has a job at a Dame school, where she makes use of an adapted version of the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech to help a boy in her class who has been getting bullied for his “simple” nature. 

That was a particularly good episode. Shakespeare wants to avoid overdoing the antisemitism in it, so when Richard Burbage wants to do Shylock as an over -the-top baby eating Jew, Shakespeare auditions others for the role. It doesn’t work out, because the very good actor who gets the job(sending up Mark Rylance) turns out to have been working for Robert Greene. So Richard Burbage gets to do the baby eating Jew after all. But that scene where the young boy successfully uses Shakespeare’s speech to make his classmates understand was very touching. 

Shakespeare’s friends don’t consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream funny until the donkey head is introduced, but think Hamlet is hilarious, much to Shakespeare’s annoyance. 

It was a very funny series, which you can watch whether or not you are a regular Shakespeare fan. In fact, it might get some people checking out the plays.

Tomorrow’s post will be on those women of Coriolanus, Volumnia and Virgilia. See you then! 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

A to Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare - T Is For The Tempest

Prospero and Miranda. Public Domain

 The Tempest is probably Shakespeare’s last play. At the very end, the magician Prospero speaks of retirement, throwing his book into the deep and getting rid of his staff, suggesting Shakespeare’s own retirement. 

Anyway, it’s a nice one to end on, if so. And as you’ll know, it has been used for other shows, from Forbidden Planet to a musical called Return To The Forbidden Planet which uses 1950s songs.

It begins with a storm(the tempest of the title). The ship has a number of people important to the protagonist, Prospero. It’s a magical storm which he caused, so everyone thinks they are shipwrecked but in fact, the ship is fine. Nobody has drowned.

Prospero lives on an island with his young daughter Miranda, and a couple of magical servants, Ariel an “airy spirit” and a rather less airy creature called Caliban, whose mother was a witch, Sycorax, who had died. Prospero brought Caliban up and was okay to him till he tried to rape Miranda. 

Father and daughter are there because while he was Duke of Milan  he spent so much time with his books that it was easy for his brother, Antonio, to send him off to sea in a rotten boat with his toddler daughter, Miranda, and usurp the Dukedom. A kindly, loyal courtier sneaked them enough supplies to get to an island and be able to set up there. 

Now Antonio has come to the island with a bunch of others, including another Duke, whose son Ferdinand is about to fall in love with Miranda, of course. 

Prospero has become a very powerful magician during his years on the island, so he is able to confuse everyone, with the help of Ariel, and make their lives miserable for a while. Caliban is hanging out with a couple of coarse crewmen, Stephano and Trinculo, who introduce him to alcohol, which he enjoys for a while, till he realises that they are not good for him.

Prospero makes Ferdinand work, pretending to disapprove of his relationship with Miranda, who has, after all, never seen a man before except her father, unless you count Caliban, who is not really human. Of course she is going to be attracted to the first pretty young man she meets. 

Anyway, all eventually turns out well. There is a wedding with a masque played by spirits of the island. Prospero frees Ariel and embraces Caliban as his other half, a bit like Captain Kirk in “The Enemy Within” embracing his “evil” half, without whom he really can’t function. He undoes all the nasty stuff he has done during the play and forgives, after Ariel says he/she feels sorry for them, and makes his speech about retiring from magic. 

I’ve seen many productions of it on stage, including one where the island is Australia and Ariel and Caliban are both Indigenous Australians; when Ariel is freed, she throws off her western clothing and joins a group of other indigenous women. Caliban was presented as an Indigenous man in chains, inspired by a historical photo of a group of chained men. He is not interested in hugging Prospero and regards him with contempt as he throws off his chains.

To be honest, I’m not fond of Prospero, who neglected his job as Duke for his studies and had his throne stolen as a result. But it’s interesting to see the character develop, to the point where he accepts his dark side and overcomes his resentment to show mercy. 

There have been quite a few impressive actors doing The Tempest over the years - so many that I’ll give you a Wikipedia link.

There was a film in 2010, which cast Helen Mirren in the lead as Prospera. I see that one of the smaller roles was played by Alfred Molina, whom you may have seen at the beginning of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, as Indiana Jones’ assistant, who got killed by one of the many traps in the cave, and has since played a Spiderman villain.

The BBC version I saw many years ago had a terrific cast - comedian Michael Hordern as Prospero, David Dixon as Ariel(you may have seen him in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as Ford Prefect), Nigel Hawthorne(Yes, Minister) as Stephano, Andrew Sachs as Trinculo(the waiter from Barcelona, Manuel, in Fawlty Towers). 


I played Ariel the airy spirit once, at university. It was great fun to do. 

Have you seen a performance of this? If you are in the mood, there are a number of productions on YouTube. 

See you on Monday for U!

Friday, April 22, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare- S Is For Sebastian And Shepherd


Olivia and Sebastian. Public Domain

Today’s letter is S. We will take a brief look at two S characters. 

S is for Sebastian, who is the twin brother of Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night. He and his sister are parted during a storm off the coast of Illyria. The two of them think the other is dead, but both have survived the shipwreck. We see a lot of Viola, who appears in the very first scene and decides to disguise herself as a boy in order to get a job with the Duke, but Sebastian doesn’t arrive on the scene till later in the play, when he arrives with a sea captain called Antonio, who rescued him, but really is not happy to be in Illyria, where he is not welcome and likely to be arrested. Antonio lends him some money and they split up, agreeing to meet later. 

There is a lot of confusion as people mix him up with his sister, who is working for Duke Orsino under the name of Cesario. Antonio meets “Cesario” and is arrested as he had feared, asking for his money back, not realising he is speaking to the wrong twin.

Sebastian meets Olivia, whom Duke Orsino had wanted to marry, and marries her himself about five minutes later, angering Orsino, who thinks his trusted page Cesario has betrayed him. 

What a mess! 

Another S character is the old Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, who finds a baby girl on the shores of Bohemia and raises her as his own. The child is a Princess, Perdita, daughter of Hermione and Leontes. More of this in the W post. His son, the young Shepherd, saw the death of Antigonus, courtier of Leontes, who had brought the baby to be abandoned, describing Antigonus’s mauling by a bear. 

“Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn,” his father tells him, showing him the baby. These two characters are funny and loveable and lighten up the tone of a play that has been grim till then.

More of these characters in W for The Winter’s Tale!

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare - R Is For Richard III


David Garrick as Richard III. Public Domain.

We all know about the real Richard III, the one who was found  under a car park in Leicester a few years ago and buried respectfully in an oak coffin built by a Canadian descendant of one of his sisters. At the funeral one of the guests, who read a poem, was also descended from one of Richard’s relatives. I mention him because that family member was Benedict Cumberbatch, who played one of the nastiest versions of Richard III I have ever seen, in The Hollow Crown series.  

You may know him better as Marvel’s Dr Strange. 

Today we will check out Shakespeare’s version of Richard III, that complete and total villain. Mind you, villain or not, he often can’t believe how easy those victims of his are to con. Benedict Cumberbatch does it best, his face expressing sheer amazement as the woman whose husband he killed is persuaded by him right over her father in law’s coffin. Later in the play he talks to his sister in law, Edward’s Queen, who knows all the dreadful things he has done and still tells him to write to her about marrying her daughter, his niece. Again, Richard shows utter amazement at her willingness to make deals with the man who killed off her family, and doesn’t Benedict Cumberbatch perform this beautifully!

I studied this play in Year 11. We had a very good English teacher that year, who happily discussed all the details with us, as well as telling us about Josephine Tey’s novel, Daughter Of Time, which cleverly had her character Inspector Grant handle a cold case from his hospital bed and work out the story of the real Richard III. I read it and ended up joining the Richard III Society. 

But, evil or not, Shakespeare’s Richard is a fascinating character. He starts the play with that famous speech beginning:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York,

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. 

The speech is all about how things are going so well for his family, but peace is boring! He isn’t suited for it because with his hunch back no woman wants him anyway. 

About five minutes later, mind you, he woos the Lady Anne and talks her into marrying him! 

There is a Dave Allen skit of this scene. Richard offers her his dagger to kill him, knowing she won’t, but in the skit she stabs him. He sinks to the floor groaning,  “You weren’t…supposed…to do that…”

The play is absolutely full of dead bodies with Richard gleefully standing over them - and with his speeches he sucks the audience into laughing with him.

Shakespeare got his information from a variety of sources, including Holinshed’s Chronicles. It’s inaccurate, of course, but Shakespeare was, after all, writing in the age of Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII, who killed Richard and took the throne. It’s one of his earlier plays, but certainly powerful. The fact that there have been so many productions of it certainly suggests that. 

Laurence Olivier’s film is the one we saw when I was in high school. Olivier’s Richard was utterly charming…until he wasn’t. The scene where little Richard of York, the younger prince, makes a joke about his hump is the one where the child suddenly realises his nice uncle isn’t so nice, when Richard turns and glares at him. The boy is terrified.

There is a version I can’t get hold of, with Ian McKellen in the lead, performed in 1930s costumes. The film opens with a party at the palace celebrating the family’s victories, with a dance band and a glamorous female singer singing a song with lyrics by Marlowe. The Queen’s brother is shown as an American, who would be considered an outsider in those days. The battle scene near the end involves tanks. If I can ever get a copy I will re-view it with great pleasure. 

Looking For Richard is an American film with Al Pacino, in which the play is discussed in great detail and scenes from it performed by Pacino and others. It’s definitely worth a watch, though you might prefer a straight performance of the play.

References are made to the play in many films and TV shows. My favourite is the first episode of Blackadder with Roman Atkinson. The premise is that Richard’s defeat at the battle of Bosworth was all a lie made up by Henry VII for propaganda purposes. In the opening scene, Richard, played by Peter Cook, is playing with his nephews, one of whom, Richard of York, grows up into Brian Blessed. He wins Bosworth for his uncle, but Richard III is killed by Edmund Blackadder(Atkinson) in mistake for a horse thief(“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Ah, horsie…”). Edmund’s father, Richard of York, becomes Richard IV. 

There are, of course, many Richard III novels, including my favourite, We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman, which uses a line from the Shakespeare play for a title, but is about the real, decent Richard. 

See you tomorrow for the letter S! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A To Z Challenge 2022: Shakespeare- Q Is For Mistress Quickly And Queen


Mistress Quickly And Falstaff. Public Domain.

Mistress Quickly is the proprietor of the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, where Prince Hal and his friends, including Falstaff, hang out in Henry IV Part 1. This is, I think, her first appearance, but she is in a number of other plays, including Henry IV Part 2, Henry V and The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

She is a comical character, who utters a lot of malapropisms and is annoyed at Falstaff for calling her a woman. The first time you see her she is telling him off for owing her a lot of money. However, the speech she makes in Henry V, describing Falstaff’s death, is quite poignant.

She is married in the first play, but presumably is widowed by Henry V, because she has married Pistol, one of the Boar’s Head gang. 

The role has been played by some well known actresses such as Julie Walters in The Hollow Crown and Judi Dench in the Kenneth Branagh Henry V. It is a plum role for a middle-aged actress.

There are a lot of Queens in Shakespeare’s plays, so I will stick to one, Gertrude from Hamlet.

Gertrude is, of course, Hamlet’s mother. She loves him, really she does, but she has, in his opinion, committed a crime in marrying his uncle, Claudius, so soon after his father’s death, and that’s before he finds out his father was murdered. He isn’t crazy about Claudius in the first place and doesn’t understand why she would marry the inferior brother after having his father. There is, though, no real indication that she knew about the murder. 

In the Franco Zeffirelli production, starring Mel Gibson, the role was played by a relatively young Glenn Close, due to the theory that Gertrude would probably have been married young, as women were in those days. While it’s possible, we know that Hamlet is thirty because the Gravedigger reminisces about a battle Hamlet’s father won on the day he was born, thirty years ago. So Gertrude would be, at best, in her mid forties.  

Julie Christie played the role in the Kenneth Branagh version. She was in her fifties at the time. 

Wayne and Schuster did a Hamlet skit, “All In The Royal Family”, in which Gertrude talks like the character from All In The Family, telling us that “my son Hamlet is coming home from college!” It was a very funny skit, but the only one I could find on YouTube was dubbed into Spanish! 

As per usual for a Shakespeare tragedy, the stage in covered in bodies in the last scene, including that of Gertrude, who has drunk poisoned wine her husband has put out for Hamlet. 

Let’s stop here and see what tomorrow brings!