Sunday, July 15, 2012

Plagiarism and Pretension in the Original Klingon

Entry by Alex Shaw

My first pop culture love was Star Trek. The original series. I was in kindergarten when I first started watching the series in 1970s syndication on local UHF television. I remember when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on television, and I remember how much ado was made at the time about airing the original "The Cage" pilot of the original series.

 The Conscience of the King -- featuring bad Shakespeare

I discovered Star Trek well before I came to find Shakespeare. Indeed, my first exposure to Shakespeare comes out of Star Trek. It was actually in "The Conscience of the King" (season 1, episode 13, originally aired December 8, 1966, Stardate 2817.6) that I first experienced Shakespeare. In the episode, Kirk meets a twenty-third century Shakespearean actor, Anton Karidian, who with his daughter is putting on a production of Hamlet. Karidian, it turns out, is an alias assumed by the tyrannical Kodos "The Executioner" who was responsible for atrocities on Tarsus IV twenty years previously. These atrocities resulted in the deaths of members of Kirk's and others’ families. In the end, Karidian's daughter, Lenore, is responsible for a series of murders as she tries to silence and eliminate those who might reveal the truth about her father. Ultimately, she is discovered, and Kodos sacrifices himself to save Kirk as she takes aim with a phaser. She goes mad—an obvious-to-me-now allusion to Ophelia—and is committed to a hospital. Oh, and the climax occurs during a production of Hamlet taking place onboard the Enterprise.

So it seems that my first experience with Shakespeare was Hamlet by way of Shatner & Company.

Honestly, I don’t remember too much about this episode, and I’ve not seen it in ages. I remember it as that episode with Kodos and Shakespearean players and the crazy woman are they doing Lear or Hamlet or Macbeth or what on it? What made a greater impression on me, though, were Nicholas Meyer’s two directorial excursions into Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (II) and The Undiscovered Country (VI). I remember friends in high school—we were, of course, “nerds” at a time when “geek” wasn’t yet in circulation—quoting the whole of Wrath of Khan during school assemblies. And I remember when The Undiscovered Country came out that it was a big deal after the meh I felt about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

At the time, I thought the film was fantastic—and I still rather like quite a bit about VI today—but I remember my English teacher being rather disdainful of the Shakespearean dialogue uttered by General Chang. Today, I understand why.

Christopher Plummer as the Shakespeare-quoting Klingon

He’s a bombastic hack.

In Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, Shakespeare gives us a fellow named Pistol. He’s a “swaggerer,” a blowhard braggart, histrionic in his delivery, imitating in his overwrought way Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine while alluding to everything from Tudor era translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. The man talks big—shouts big!—but he’s ultimately a coward, beaten before the audience by Captain Fluellen after Pistol mocks old Welsh military customs.

The man talks big—shouts big!—but he’s ultimately a coward.

General Chang is a bit like Pistol.

Even the subtitle of the film, The Undiscovered Country, references Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. When I was a teenaged Trekker, I thought Chang was a decent villain who was tossing out these kickin’, epic lines of dialogue. Now, I can’t help but see how Meyer and Chang are just quoting famous Shakespearean lines in order to graft a bit of gravitas and culture on to themselves. What they’re doing is pretty much what Pistol does in 2 Henry IV and Henry V: he was a poseur who, when left to his own devices, was just a cutpurse-to-be. Chang, meanwhile, is a fossil from the Cold War with a bumpy forehead. The difference is that Shakespeare wrote Pistol to poke fun at the writing of his rivals and contemporaries and the sorts of people who quote plays and poems to seem cooler or deeper than they are.

Here are Chang’s quotes from the film (I’ve tagged them with the Shakespearean sources):

General Chang: Once more unto the breach, dear friends (Henry V)

General Chang: "I am constant as the northern star...” (Julius Caesar)

General Chang: Cry havoc, and let slip the Dogs of War. (Richard III)

General Chang: To be... or not to be? (Hamlet)

General Chang: "Tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? Wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (The Merchant of Venice)

General Chang: Ahh... parting is such sweet sorrow. Don't we hear the chimes at midnight? (Romeo and Juliet)

And finally:

Chancellor Gorkon: I offer a toast. The undiscovered country—the future.

Everyone: The undiscovered country.

Spock: Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.

Gorkon: You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

Chang: taH pagh taHbe' [Klingons laugh] "To be or not to be?" That is the question which preoccupies our people, Captain Kirk. We need breathing room. (Hamlet again)

This final example, coming from the Enterprise crew’s dinner party with the Klingon diplomats, including Chang, veers into a Star Trek version of the generally discredited Shakespeare authorship debates. As opposed to the Oxfordians or Marlovians, I suppose the Klingons are Qo'noS-ians instead. Gorkon’s reading of undiscovered country also very self-servingly ignores that soliloquy’s meditations upon suicide, choice, action, and liberty, though we can perhaps forgive Gorkon for trying to connect with humans about an uncertain future by using Shakespeare.

Bones McCoy also hates bad Shakespeare

And it’s uncharitable to think Meyer’s not unaware of how Chang sounds as he shouts famous lines of dialogue over subspace radio. As Doctor McCoy says towards the film’s climax, “I'd give real money if he'd shut up.”

Bad Shakespeare gives Star Trek Shakespeare:

Agree?  Disagree?  Bad Shakespeare values your opinion.  Let us know what you think. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Know Thy Source, or, Why You Sound Silly Quoting Polonius

Entry by Tanya Anderson

It’s a deliberately inflammatory article title, but as I age, I find myself getting more and more annoyed with the abundance of “Bad Shakespeare” out there. Exhibit A: a screen capture of a Google image search for “To Thine Own Self be True” necklaces.

Lots and lots of necklaces celebrating...Polonius?

Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain that as I age, I also find myself drowning in an onslaught of catalogs that have well-meaning, if rather empty, plaques and knickknacks of platitudes that seem to abandon ship midway, jumping the spiritual wave for several pages dedicated to personal massagers of various shapes and sizes before concluding with an assortment of various items lumped together at random. It’s as if, in the final pages, some content editor or layout artist grew weary of trying to figure out who would actually purchase a toilet paper cover shaped like four putti fighting, but figured, “You know, eff it – I’ll stick it next to the ladybug potholders and statues of fairy-angels praying, I guess?”

The whole experience of thumbing through these catalogs is aesthetic gluttony. I’m appalled that I have gawked through the whole thing, and I imagine my mind’s eye looks like this wee dog:

Months will pass. Babies will be born, people we love will die. Students will groan that they have to read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and put off writing term papers until the wee hours in the morning – wee-er than the little dog up there. But some things remain the same: these necklaces are always at the very front or very back of those magazines. You can see from the thumbnails here that they are wildly popular, available in various sizes and shapes – even the Möbius band -- which makes the Shakespeare quote on them appear even more cosmic or esoteric.

Of course, it’s not esoteric. Shakespeare penned the phrase, in what is, by many, considered to be the pinnacle of his dramatic achievements: Hamlet. The sentiment in the words appeals to our modern sensibilities because it echoes much of the philosophy we associate with our age: a knowledge of self and science, an enlightenment, a cogito ergo sum, if you will.

Where, then, is the harm?

The phrase, unfortunately, seems a strange quote for edification for those of us familiar with its speaker, the dramatis persona Hamlet himself derides as “a tedious old fool.” Hamlet, after all, can force Polonius into parroting anything absurd he says:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it's like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.

The Parroting Polonius (you'll nose him in a month)

In his brief stage life, Polonius is never true to himself. He is officious, meddlesome – even willing to risk his own daughter’s safety and sanity to stay in the good graces of Claudius and Gertrude. By the time Hamlet stabs Polonius in the queen’s chambers (which, now that I see that written down, seems like I’m playing medieval-by-way-of-Renaissance-Clue), we understand that Polonius is the least likely character to remain true to himself.

Excellent.  No more Polonian pith. 
On to uncover Old Hamlet's murder!

Intriguingly, people often quote another of Polonius’s aphorisms  out of context: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Here we witness the aged courtier in his element, addressing the king and queen. The speech, in its entirety, runs:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

before Gertrude can take no more and cuts him off with, “More matter, with less art.” Here again, while the phrase itself is pithy, it only remains so if one is unaware of the speaker or context.

There are far worse things than tacky catalogs and quoting Shakespeare out of context, to be sure. But for the sheer frequency of these misappropriations, Bad Shakespeare awards this use of the Bard’s matter without acknowledging the art in them:

Do you have a Polonius necklace?  Do you like to remind people that 'Brevity is the soul of wit'? Weigh in and let Bad Shakespeare know if we should eat crow.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Martin Ruben
An Actor’s Perspective

My brother, an avid theatergoer, one-time actor and a man of letters, was telling me about a production of Richard III with Kevin Spacey, where the actor shouted his way through the entire production. He then went on to say that the rest of the cast followed suit, and that eventually the bombast was overwhelming. There is no doubt as to Spacey’s ability as an actor, so it struck me as odd that such a choice was made and allowed to progress. One wonders if the scope of Spacey’s celebrity made anything the director might have to say moot, or if, in the recesses of the actor’s mind, the hunchback, for whatever reason, would substitute volume for passion. It reminded me of a production many years ago at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where Byron Jennings portrayed the same role, but with a very different approach. His Richard was well tempered, with great cunning, complexity, and a volume that allowed for subtlety and depth.

 The VERY LOUD Kevin Spacey as Richard III

There are those critics who might argue that royalty must make its presence known. Certainly, if one shouts, one’s presence will be known, but will it be heard? A king need not shout to let his subjects know he is the king. He is the king, period. What might cause the rise in volume is when the king, or prince, or anyone in a position of power, is threatened. To overuse a declamatory style is to minimize the effect of the language, putting it on an even plane. During the rehearsal process, we often hear the notion of needing somewhere to go, to bring a speech to a conclusion and, if so required, to let the passion of the argument manifest physically, vocally, or both. But if one starts at such a fever pitch, where does the actor go?

Actors shout Shakespeare because it feels good, in a peculiar way. By raising one’s voice, it is thought, one raises the elegance and passion of the language, particularly in an emotion-laden scene. Not so, at least not in every context. If anything, it tends to obfuscate the inherent romance of the language. Of course there are numerous situations when things attain a fevered pitch, but it is necessary that the audience be taken there, and not slammed against a wall of sound. Unfortunately, we live in an age now where our senses are constantly being bombarded and assaulted. Asking an audience to pay attention is asking them to trust you, and that trust must be handled respectfully, and not shouted out like a military DI. 

It really comes down to one thing and one thing only: tell the story. This one thing, however, contains many, many facets that must be attended to, like so many lords and ladies of the court. Each character has his/her own demands, his/her own ego, and his/her own argument. It becomes the actor’s task to discern between all these demands, the requirements of his own character, and a full understanding of the relationships between the characters. When we shout, unless this shouting is borne out of the sequence of events, we may get someone’s attention. If that is all we do, particularly with the complexities one finds in Shakespeare, we lose the audience immediately. It is essential to remember that within the context of the play, regardless of the possible historical references, Shakespeare has given us real people, many of whom happen to be royalty, but real nonetheless. If we compare ourselves to these characters, we will find many similarities, although we can hope that our actions will not get us beheaded. But we go through the same processes, the same sturm und drang, the same decision making processes. If, as actors, we examine our daily lives, how often do we find that shouting is an effective tool? Rarely, especially where children are involved. So as we continue to examine how to “speak the speech,” it becomes necessary to examine the self and ask: WWWD? What would we do?

So, do over-articulating, over-thinking, and excessive volume work in Shakespeare? No, because it doesn’t work in real life, and for the duration of the play, it is, in its own way, real life. Never is the notion of holding a mirror up to nature more necessary than in the telling of a great tale. If we believe it, the audience believes it, as long as they are not bullied and bludgeoned into believing it.

Bad Shakespeare gives the use of volume over nuance in performance 2/10 laurels.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The unbearable darkness of Anonymous

Tanya Anderson

When I went to a local high school to speak with a group of students last year, they expressed some interest in a medieval program I had started.  One of them asked me if I were excited about the movie Anonymous (PG-13, Dir. Roland Emmerich, Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis). Those of us interested in medieval and Renaissance history have already noted a glaring error – Shakespeare falls under, and indeed is the English Renaissance – but for that moment, in an art teacher’s room, I had about two minutes to explain why I was not excited about the movie, even prior to its release.  Shakespeare scholars are understandably edgy about Emmerich’s film as it promotes the Oxfordian theory of the plays we attribute to William Shakespeare, that a nobleman named Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was the true author of the plays and poetry we attribute to Shakespeare.

I did promise myself that I would try to be objective about reviewing this movie, but I knew it was pro-Oxfordian. I hoped it would present the events as an alternate/parallel/science-fiction tale so that I could watch it, knowing that its writer and director had presented their film to the audience with a wink and a nod.  From the opening and closing bookend technique – set in the modern day – Emmerich attempts to lend veracity to his story, however; and therein lies my greatest concern about the film: it knowingly promotes and authorizes a theory that Shakespearean scholars debunked in the 1980s. 

Portrait of Edward de Vere

Why, then, would the Oxfordian theory even surface as a credible idea almost 35 years after its disintegration? In brief: intellectual and artistic laziness. Screenwriter John Orloff conceived of his script after watching a documentary on Oxford in 1988, at the tail end of any credibility the Oxfordian movement may have had. After the success of Shakespeare in Love (1998), the script for Anonymous was set aside even longer as Hollywood executives worried audiences would not want to see two Shakespeare films in close succession. In other words, producers, the director, and the screenwriter chose to ignore nearly thirty years of Shakespeare scholarship.

Emmerich clung to his motive, one that Sony Pictures watered down in its promotional materials for the film: “The objective for our Anonymous program, as stated in the classroom literature, is to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.” While there is nothing wrong with critical debate, I question the ability of the average high schooler – who may, as my daughter did, have an English teacher who mistakenly referred to Elizabethan English as “Old English” – to watch Emmerich’s film and successfully reject the historical inaccuracies (and they are legion) that he presents. 

For his part, Emmerich wholeheartedly embraces his vision, arguing that the “arrogance of the literary establishment” is concealing the truth, even going to far as to call one Shakespearean scholar an outright “liar” for writing that Shakespeare did, indeed, write the plays attributed to him. 

In addition to his disdain for scholars who use a wealth of irrefutable evidence of Shakespeare's authorship from the period, Emmerich allows his derision for Shakespeare to ooze over his film. Shakespeare is made out to be a boorish, drunken, illiterate oaf who seizes the opportunity to pass off Oxford’s plays as his own. While we should make fun of our sacred cows as it is healthy in the spirit of intellectual play, Emmerich doesn’t stop with the Bard. For a writer who immersed himself in the Elizabethan age, Emmerich seems disgusted by its major figures and invents imaginary personas for them. His Elizabeth is  a flighty old bag who commits incest with her own grandson. Kit Marlowe fares little better, coming across as a sulking, bitter soul, displaying none of the wit we read in his plays. Thomas Dekker also receives lashes under Emmerich’s guard; his character weeps during a presentation of Hamlet and then laughs like a ninny during the comedies.  Did I mention that Shakespeare crowd-surfs after a presentation of Hamlet?

A shrewd ruler, Elizabeth is depicted
as insecure and flighty in Anonymous

Curiously, Emmerich’s film does not become so much an Oxfordian promotion as a Ben Jonson apologist movie. Jonson – who murdered a man but was acquitted because he could read some lines of Latin – was, by many contemporary accounts, a bitter writer who did not celebrate the success of his peers. In Anonymous, Emmerich's Jonson preserves Oxford’s plays and poesy because Oxford is “the soul of the age.” This line, delivered tearfully as the Earl is on his deathbed, is perhaps the most appalling moment in a film riddled with appalling moments; Ben Jonson famously wrote of Shakespeare in the 1623 Folio that Will was “not of an age, but for all time.” Emmerich, using a biased revisionist history here for his film, hopes to counter what he sees is the prevailing attitude of academia: “We know it, we teach it, so shut the fuck up.” His film is a narcissistic, ahistorical, untimely mess.

Rhys Ifans, for his part, does an adequate job in a caricature of a role, schlumping around gloomily, wearing more makeup than Elizabeth. The actor has a heavy burden; after all, ten of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays were written after Oxford’s death in 1604. Orloff and Emmerich casually ignore this problem, depicting the Earl penning Macbeth, written a year after the Earl’s death.

The Earl of Southampton is depicted as Elizabeth's
illegitimate son in Emmerich's film

The film also suggests layers of secrecy regarding the lineage of the Earl of Southampton, where Elizabeth is his mother and grandmother at the same time, Oxford his father. The poems in the sonnet sequence, then, are in Emmerich’s fantasy poems written from father to son. We do, by chance, have some of Oxford’s poetry – and contrary to Emmerich’s theory that the gentleman could and would not have been able to publicly reveal himself as a poet or playwright, Oxford’s reputation as a patron and creator of the arts was well known. One short poem, from a 1589 publication lacks every ounce of wit and the sublime we find in any of Shakespeare’s poems:

When wert thou borne, desire?

In pompe and prime of May,
By whom sweete boy wert thou begot?
By good conceit men say,
Tell me who was thy nurse?
Fresh youth in sugred joy.
What was thy meate and dayly food?
Sad sighes with great annoy.
What hadst thou then to drinke?
Unfayned lovers tears.
What cradle wert thou rocked in?
In hope devoyd of feares.

I once spoke too rapidly in a Shakespeare course in which I served as a teaching assistant, committing a spoonerism by saying something was “like trying to fit a square pig in a round hole.” This mistake of mine accurately serves to sum up what Emmerich has done with Anonymous. In the opening scene, set in the modern age, Derek Jacobi – who has himself has an illustrious career in Shakespearean theater and film – lays out four “problems” that suggest Shakespeare could not have penned his works: that Shakespeare was uneducated, that his father was an illiterate glovemaker, that his will makes no mention of a book collection, that no manuscript survives in his hand. All four of these objections are easily refuted.  Shakespeare attended a notable grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, where students memorized Latin from Ovid under a schoolmaster’s whip.  Additionally, there are theories that during Shakespeare’s “lost years,” prior to his arrival in London, he served as a schoolmaster himself. Marlowe seems to escape this same "uneducated" charge, yet he was a butcher's son.

Elizabethan hornbook, the type
Shakespeare would have used
in grammar school

Although John Shakespeare was illiterate, he must have sought better for his son by encouraging him to attend school rather than enter the glovemaking craft, though by glovemaking, I will stress that this career was lucrative.

Elizabethan gloves, the sort
John Shakespeare would have crafted

Shakespeare’s will has been the subject of debate for decades, but notably for its inclusion of a detail that his “second-best bed” go to his wife Anne while failing to mention the sort of library we would expect the author of Shakespeare's plays to have. The exclusion of mentioning books may mean Shakespeare had sold them when he left London -- and why not, since he appears to have written and elaborated upon many stories he encountered in his storied career and carting them back to Stratford may have proved less profitable than selling them to any one of the many bookdealers near St. Paul’s. Additionally, if he did take his books back with him to Stratford, there may never have been a question about who would inherit them since the majority of his estate went to his eldest daughter Susanna, to be passed on to her first-born son. 

1623 Folio title page

Finally, on the matter of Shakespeare’s play-texts: these were not typically something that were preserved. In fact, they were constantly evolving in the theater, and the advent of the printing press meant that copies of plays – either authoritative or not – were readily available. The most compelling evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship is in the 1623 Folio, or authorized, version of his works. Compiled by his fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell, who preserved and categorized the plays that survived, the Folio is strong evidence – irrefutable, in my mind – that Shakespeare existed and wrote these plays. Additionally, Ben Jonson wrote a brief epilogue for Shakespeare in the Folio, which also lends a great deal of credibility to its contents. 

Bad Shakespeare gives Emmerich’s confused revision of history 2/10 laurels.  You can skip this one and watch the less-promoted version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (2011).

Saturday, February 11, 2012

'Tis Pity it's a Bore

Entry by Martin Ruben

Before venturing into the world of Bad Shakespeare, perhaps it might be valuable to offer up some words of explanation. Since my background is as an actor and not as an academician, I can only speak to the issue from that point of view. I leave it to others far more versed in the literary ins and outs, and will focus only on what, in my terms, is Bad Shakespeare.

In staging Shakespeare’s plays, it is important to make the decision -- before one word is spoken in a rehearsal -- just what precisely is the intention of the production. If the plays are approached as literature, they are doomed. One would be better off sitting in a classroom of budding scholars and take turns reading, stopping to examine each line or concept in the text for its literary merits. But to present a reading to a paying audience would be in most cases, a recipe for disaster, and would certainly qualify as Bad Shakespeare. And yet, so often such an excessive amount of reverence is given to the Bard that the most salient objective is overlooked, and that is to simply tell the story.

Now it would seem so ridiculously obvious, but sadly, many productions overlook this simple task in favor of heaping such bizarre and eccentric interpretations upon the stories that they almost become lost in a melee of overproduced, technically obfuscating nonsense. That does not mean that the stories cannot be modernized or presented in a contemporary fashion. However, the story as written must still be served. There is the author’s intent to consider, and while it is certainly possible to see more than one interpretation of the story, it must still fall within a frame of what the intention of that story is.

I find such things as setting Romeo and Juliet as two warring Mafia families, as has been done, absurd. Read the story. That is not the relationship between the Capulets and Montagues. Of course it is always possible (and often done) that any spin can be put on any story, but this is merely a trick to try and find something “new” to present to an audience. The fatal mistake here is that of not trusting the audience. They do not need to be spoon fed or bombarded with such stretching of the tale that the simplicity is lost. At all turns, the story must be preserved. What separates good Shakespeare from bad Shakespeare is all too often a desire to reinvent the plays for fear that an audience will be bored or unable to cope with the language. Indeed, it is precisely that, the ability to make the language come alive, that will then give the story its power and impact with foisting all manner of frills and geegaws on it.

The stories, for the most part, are extremely intimate. Bad Shakespeare is often guilty of losing the intimacy in favor of bombast. It is not always a case of sawing the air too much, but favoring externals rather than the internal intimacies of the characters. Internal intimacies create the conflicts, which in turn create the building blocks of the stories. If indeed these plays are timeless, it is because the human condition has not changed over these hundreds of years, and the human condition is an intensely intimate one, and deserves careful examination rather than over abundant production values.

It is also important to remember that for the duration of the production, it is not literature. It is a play, possibly a great play, but a play nonetheless, and no different than a play by Neil Simon, John Guare, Marsha Norman, Sam Shepard, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Pinter, or anyone else you can think of. The commonality here is they all have written stories that deserve to be told, and told well. And before a cry goes up of how can one compare these writers to Shakespeare, let me just say that, from an actor’s point of view, storytelling is an equal opportunity proposition, and as such, it doesn’t matter who wrote it. What matters is what we do with it.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions to the idea of Bad Shakespeare is the notion that there is a way to “act” Shakespeare. I am sure many would argue this point with me, but from my perspective you can either act, or you can’t. Of course, the language is a huge factor, and very often is never given the attention that it is due. One simply cannot heap an English accent onto a production and voilà, instant Shakespeare. In fact, the use of accents, usually in frightening and varying degrees, makes even the most well-intentioned production an almost instant failure, for the cacophony that the audience is exposed to will certainly detract from the noblest attempts at storytelling. So one element that should be avoided at all costs is accents. Either everyone does them brilliantly, or not at all. So acting Shakespeare is really all about understanding some rather arcane language and making it accessible to the audience. At least then you have given them a fighting chance, and actors have given themselves some freedom from creating this image that the British accent is the panacea and will vault any production into the world of good Shakespeare. Am I being somewhat facetious? Of course, but the point is now and always to serve the play and tell the story with as few external frills as is possible.

So my focus in future pieces will always be from the actor’s point of view. Since that is my profession and my experience, it seems only natural that that is the perspective to write from. Of course, 100 different actors will give you 100 different opinions. All opinions are welcome for discussion. The beauty of it is that what makes for bad Shakespeare cannot be encapsulated into only a very few things, and with the wealth of information at our disposal, we can only hope to try and shed a little light on the subject in an amusing, entertaining, and perhaps even a thought provoking manner. And now, have at it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

You Naughty Bard!

There is intense speculation about Shakespeare's sexual relationships while he lived alone in London. Actors were notorious for having liasons, and perhaps good Will was no exception. We do have an anecdote about an affair he may have had, from a lawyer named John Manningham: 

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”

Bad Shakespeare gives Will’s line an 8/10 laurels -- his behavior? Well...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mississippi Shakespeare

Though he is one of America’s beloved humorists, Mark Twain is probably not as well known as a creator of some of the worst revisionist Shakespeare – albeit tongue-in-cheek – ever penned.  In his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885 in the United States, Twain’s memorable rapscallions the Duke and the Dauphin recreate, blend, and bastardize several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear.   

The Duke
When Huck and Jim encounter the Duke and Dauphin, both men insist they are royalty.  The Duke also presents himself as an expert on phrenology, divining, and acting; the last he confirms with a playbill announcing himself as the “world-renowned Shakespearian tragedian, Garrick the Younger, of Drury Lane, London.”  He asks the Dauphin if he has “ever trod the playboards” so they can prepare a play to scheme locals out of their money.  The Dauphin replies that he “was too small when pap used to have ‘em at the palace” and asks the Duke to “learn” him how to perform Shakespeare. 

The Dauphin as Juliet

In one of the pair’s first practices, the Duke instructs the Dauphin to dress like Juliet.  E.W. Kembell’s illustrations from the first edition  of the novel, included here, depict the ludicrous notion of a bearded, older man performing Juliet.[1]  The Dauphin has enough sense to suggest that he won’t make a believable Juliet: “But if Juliet's such a young gal, duke, my peeled head and my white whiskers is goin' to look oncommon odd on her, maybe.”

The Duke and Dauphin soon move from practicing the part of the star-crossed lovers, and in addition to the problems with costuming and age, the Duke reveals that the Dauphin cannot seem to voice the part, either: “you mustn't bellow out ROMEO! that way, like a bull—you must say it soft and sick and languishy, so—R-o-o-meo! that is the idea; for Juliet's a dear sweet mere child of a girl, you know, and she doesn't bray like a jackass.” Undaunted, the hucksters don “meedyevil armor for Richard III” and practice their swordplay on a raft in the Mississippi until the Dauphin falls into the water.

The Duke and Dauphin rehearsing Richard III

Assessing their progress thus far, the Duke determines that they should have a short piece ready for the encore of their stage masterpiece and decides upon Hamlet’s soliloquy – despite the that there are four soliloquies in the play – “the most celebrated thing in Shakespeare.”  Since he doesn’t have a text of Hamlet, the Duke must recall the soliloquy from memory, and his memory, as with his attempts at any of the plays thus far, are terrible:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
  That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
  But that the fear of something after death
  Murders the innocent sleep,                 
  Great nature's second course,
  And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
  There's the respect must give us pause:
  Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
  For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
  The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
  The law's delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,
  In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
  In customary suits of solemn black,
  But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
  Breathes forth contagion on the world,
  And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i' the adage,
  Is sicklied o'er with care,
  And all the clouds that lowered o'er our housetops,
  With this regard their currents turn awry,
  And lose the name of action.
  'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
  Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
  But get thee to a nunnery--go!

The Duke’s soliloquy here is a mix of Hamlet, Macbeth, poor memory, and ad libbing. He clearly has some familiarity with Shakespeare’s work, but no clear knowledge of the lines, tradition, or performance of the plays.  As Huck watches the performance, he describes the Duke’s acting as, “beautiful…he strikes a most noble attitude, with one leg shoved forwards, and his arms stretched away up, and his head tilted back, looking up at the sky; and then he begins to rip and rave and grit his teeth; and after that, all through his speech, he howled, and spread around, and swelled up his chest, and just knocked the spots out of any acting ever I see before.”  
In this depiction of the Duke’s acting, Twain has his character perform Hamlet in a style that Hamlet himself decries in 3.2 as he instructs the players,
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak profanely), that neither having th' accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. Reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready. 

Clearly, the Duke has had little-to-no actual theatrical training, and he doesn’t even remember Hamlet’s instructions about acting. 

  The Duke and Dauphin's Performance -- with a naked, painted Dauphin

After Twain builds up the upcoming swindle/performance, the scene still manages to surprise the reader.  The Dauphin takes the stage, “a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and he was painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow. And—but never mind the rest of his outfit; it was just wild, but it was awful funny. The people most killed themselves laughing; and when the king got done capering and capered off behind the scenes, they roared and clapped and stormed and haw-hawed till he come back and done it over again, and after that they made him do it another time. Well, it would make a cow laugh to see the shines that old idiot cut.”  And though the audience is amused, their laughter soon turns to irritation since this prancing scene and one short speech is all the “Shakespeare” they will get to see for their fifty cents. 

Certainly, Twain has a strong knowledge of Shakespeare to be able to create these humorous scenes.  As for the Duke and Dauphin, Bad Shakespeare gives them 2/10 laurels for their efforts. 

[1] This is probably a shrewd twist on the history of the play, where the role of Juliet was performed by a young man or boy in Shakespeare’s day.