Like I said in the review for “Romeo and Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss,” adapting Shakespeare’s play for children seemed to me like an impossible undertaking, until I saw this film. This interpretation had all the romance and danger of Romeo and Juliet, with all the wry humor of Shrek. Before I present my thesis, I want to post a refutation of a review from a man I actually hold in very high esteem:
I’ve watched all of Mr. Kalgreen’s reviews of Shakespeare on film, from Hamlet, to Ran, to Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, and all but one of his reviews I genuinely loved. This is why I was so dissappointed when I saw this review. As his channel suggests, “Brows Held High” is mostly interested in high concept editions of Shakespeare and in a rare act of snobbery, Mr. Kalgren seems to turn his nose up at this movie, calling it essentially populist trash. He seems to say that the film misses the mark as a legitimate Shakespearean adaptation, and he’s not wrong. What he fails to notice though, is that is not the point of this movie. It’s purpose is not to be a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare, it’s a simplfied way of introducing children to Shakespeare.
This computer animated film is set in two adjoining houses in England, with two families of garden gnomes duking it out for supremacy. Though this seems like a ridiculous concept, it gives the film a great amount of charm, watching these two gnomes trot across the garden with their plaster feet, riding around on lawnmowers, and of course the fact that they are gnomes makes even Tybalt look cute.
Most importantly, unlike other ‘inanimate object comes to life’ movies, garden gnomes are able to be smashed. Unlike the nearly indestructable Woody or Lightning McQUeen- these characters can be smashed. It’s established in the first 10 minutes that both Gnomio and Juliet have parents that were smashed. This means that the audience is constantly worried for the safety of the characters, especially when they fight. This is a clever, kid-friendly shorthand that allows the audience to worry about the character’s mortality, without the gory realities of human death.
The characters are also handled with care and charm. Gnomeo is a cocky, self-assured gnome who first looks for adventure before finding love. Juliet is even more of a spitfire than her human counterpart, and is able to perform midnight catburgling into a nearby greenhouse. It’s their desire for fun and adventure that makes these two compatible, and makes their love easy for even a child to understand.
The film’s cleverness doesn’t stop there: the filmmakers inserted all kinds of Shakespearean jokes to make the play easier to understand and to entertain the audience. For example, the Capulet and Montegue households on “Verona Avenue” have the addresses 2B and another 2B crossed off, (punning on Hamlet’s most famous line). In addition, when we first meet Juliet, she argues with her father (voiced by Michael Caine) to let her off a small white platform that he forbids her from leaving. Because she’s a gnome, her father literally puts her on a pedestal, which beautifully illustrates the relationship between Juliet and Lord Capulet. In the play, this is hinted at, but not really explored, but in this version, it is front and center, and helps increase the drama.
Perhaps the most clever thing about Gnomeo and Juliet, is that the film makes you very aware that this is an homage, rather than a re-interpretation of the story. At the opening of the film, a tiny gnome with a ridiculously long hat says: “The story you’re about to see has been told before… A LOT.” This immediately reminds the audience that, although this film will give you the general idea of Shakespeare’s play, the real play is full of more violence and sex than a children’s movie will allow. At one point, Gnomeo even converses with an animated statue of Shakespeare himself, as a way of further conceding the homage, recognizing the difference between an adult-themed play, and a children’s movie, and hopefully, encouraging kids to see both versions.
I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.
So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.
For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.
My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.
I’m stuck at home with the kids for Shakespeare’s Birthday, so I thought I’d come up with some fun activities for my kids to do today:
At home I have a card game called “The Bard Game, which has several famous Shakespeare quotes printed on little cards. I hid the cards around the house and when they found them, I had them recite a short quote. Sometimes I hid them in funny locations like the bath tub or the fridge.
2. Romeo and Juliet For Kids. There’s a bunch of animated Shakespeare videos on YouTube and my daughter really likes this one: https://youtu.be/mMFE0IIHR6I
3. William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki. A fantastic book that introduces Shakespeare’s life and plays.
What’s a birthday party without treats? I had my kids decorate these Romeo and Juliet cookies. My daughter is only 5, so it was good practice writing ✍ the letters R and J.
If you like my ideas or want to suggest something, please leave a comment below!
For Shakespeare’s Birthday, I thought I would discuss his most famous speech what is arguably his greatest play. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was written in 1600, the pinnacle/ middle of Shakespeare’s career, after Julius Caesar but before Macbeth.
To Be Or Not To Be has intrigued and mystified people for centuries. It is full of ambiguous imagery, haunting images, and solemn contemplative ideas. I’m going to try and break the speech down first like an intellectual argument, but I will also give you some of my interpretation of Hamlet’s thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare’s genius is creating a speech that gives plenty for the reader to interpret,, but it’s up to the reader to decide what’s happening in the speech.
Just a refresher of the plot:
1. The king has died and been seen as a ghost
2. He tells his son Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius, who killed him to become king and marry Hamlets mother, Gertrude.
Hamlet is trying to determine if the ghost is telling the truth and if so, how can Hamlet revenge the death of his father?
The speech occurs right in the middle of the play. Hamlet has been acting strange and the king is worried. He hides behind a tapestry right before Hamlet enters. He then delivers this famous and highly cryptic speech:
Ham. To be, or not to be, that is the Question: Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune, Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles, And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes That Flesh is heyre too? 'Tis a consummation Deuoutly to be wish'd. To dye to sleepe, To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there's the rub, For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come, When we haue shufflel'd off this mortall coile, Must giue vs pawse. There's the respect That makes Calamity of so long life: For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time, The Oppressors wrong, the poore mans Contumely, The pangs of dispriz'd Loue, the Lawes delay, The insolence of Office, and the Spurnes That patient merit of the vnworthy takes, When he himselfe might his Quietus make With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles beare To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will, And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue, Then flye to others that we know not of. Thus Conscience does make Cowards of vs all, And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution Is sicklied o're, with the pale cast of Thought, And enterprizes of great pith and moment, With this regard their Currants turne away, And loose the name of Action. Soft you now,
Now before I talk about the context of the speech, I want to deconstruct it as an intellectual argument. Hamlet is grappling with something huge, and he is weighing the consequences of his potential actions. Remember, Hamlet is a prince, but he is also a college student, so he turns his choice into an intellectual argument.
If you look at the speech as an argument, it hinges on two points- to be or not to be.
One is passive and one is active
Both actions are potentially lethal, as evidenced by the two metaphors Hamlet describes later.
Contrary to popular belief, I believe that this speech is not just about suicide. It’s about the choice between suicide and murder, (in this case killing Claudius).
Three Speeches- Macbeth, and Hamlet
Lets discuss the two central images at the start of this speech. One is active- fighting (“taking arms”), and one is passive (“to suffer…”). Both choices have a similar outcome- death. No one can fight the sea, and arrows are just as lethal.
Let’s look at the speech again, and turn it into a series of beats using the conjunctions “and, but, and or,” The speech has 6 beats. What he’s thinking about or feeling is open to interpretation, but the argument definitely changes at these points. First the thesis:
This beat sets up the two options (murder and suicide). Why do I think this? Because it’s similar to two other speeches: https://youtu.be/nq3hcs1yFKw
It’s worth noting that about the same time, Shakespeare wrote three great soliloquis; Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be,” Macbeth’s “If It Were Done,” and Brutus’ “It must be by his death.” All three speeches have some notable commonalities:
All three speeches are in passive voice; the would be murderer wishes he didn’t have to kill someone, but wants the victim dead nonetheless.
Refuse to mention the name of the man who will die.
Refuse to say ‘murder’
Personify death in abstract terms.
When I noticed the commonalities between the speeches, I came to realize that all of them are about murder, not just suicide. I think Hamlet alone contemplates suicide as well as murder, possibly because unlike Brutus and Macbeth, Hamlet is not at all sure he’s doing the right thing.
Beat 1 The Nerve: Hamlet is working himself up for something; either murder or suicide. It’s ambiguous which one he starts with, and largely depends upon the actor’s interpretation.
Beat 2The Consequences Whether Hamlet kills the king or himself, either way he could die and when he does, his soul will have to answer for his actions. This is similar to Macbeth, who worries that his foul murder will be exposed and judged by “Heaven’s cherubim, horses upon the sightless couriers of the air.”
“There’s the rub”- there’s the catch.
“Coil” refers to a snake skin. The line characterizes death as shedding an earthly body, something that seems all too easy to do. It’s an uncomfortable image because it makes death look all too easy. It also calls to mind the story of Gilgamesh, who had a flower that would grant him immortality, but a snake stole it, which is why snakes cam shed their skin, seemingly growing young again forever.
This beat is where Hamlet seems smothered in his frustrations with life.. Rather than making a decision, he’s sidetracked with a laundry list of universal problems. His energy seems up, but it’s unclear why.
When I performed this portion of the speech, I realized that everything Hamlet refers to, Claudius has done: he has oppressed and wronged the kingdom, he has delayed the law, and he has hindered Hamlet’s love for Ophelia by letting Polonius deny Hamlet’s access to her. Perhaps the laundry list is designed to psych him up- listing all the reasons Claudius deserves to die, (without tipping him off).
Beat 4: The Downward Spiral
Once again Hamlet is thwarted by the concept of Death and divine judgment. He seems to imply that everyone is scared into compliance with the threat of death.
Hamlet’s conclusion is that he has no conclusion. He can’t kill himself because his conscience tells him that God is against it, and he cannot kill Claudius because of fear of death or damnation.
When he says “The native hue of resolution,” he means red, (as in blood), is curtailed, cut off by the very thought of Deaths pale scythe.
Mel Gibson plays Hamlet as a sort of man in mourning. He is as close to the action movie hero as Hamlet gets with his large, imposing physique and brutal looking medieval sword:
Speaking of action heroes, the whole movie Last Action Hero has a reoccurring motif of nodding to Hamlet. The avenging hero archetype is the prototype for every action movie, every superhero, (and most kung fu), and it began with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is why it’s hilarious that Schwarzeneger portrays him in Last Action Hero- the movie is a loving parody of every single action star since the original- Hamlet.
Why Else might Hamlet be so cryptic?
Not all versions are about suicide or murder
Lawrence Olivier believed that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex, and therefore has an unconscious desire to murder his father and sleep with this mother, which is why he considered himself unworthy to avenge his father’s death. In Olivier’s To Be, you can almost see his Hamlet aroused by his own Oedipal fantasies and then recoiling with disgust right before he says the line: “Perchance to dream.”
Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet centers around court intrigue. In contrast with Oliver’s Gothic Elsinore, his is bright and baroque, but it’s full of two way mirrors. Half the film is either large shots with lots of people watching public performances or POV shots of people being watched.
Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be,” focuses on the possibility that Hamlet knows that Claudius is watching him through the two way mirror- he frightens him, puzzles, him, but in the end, never gives Claudius a clue as to his true intentions.
Murder or suicide?
the speech is not only famous for its universality but its evocative imagery, clear (albeit cryptic) construction, and heightened circumstances.
Shakespeare is able to give us a complete character without giving everything away, which allows anyone to reinterpret the character their own way. That is why Shakespeare’s characters endure.