Today, April 23 is the established birthday of William Shakespeare! I have a few posts in mind, (which might be a little late), but hopefully, you still enjoy them. Check out my new play summary of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressidaon the Play Of The Month page for a start. More coming soon.
For Pride Month, I’d like to draw some focus to a celebrated LGBTQ film, based on a play that, while not Shakespearean, it was by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and one who influenced Shakespeare a lot. This film, Edward II, directed by Derek Jarman, was based on the play of the same name by Christopher […]
Before you send your kid off to summer camp, why not spend a few short hours learning Shakespeare in a low-key, no-pressure scenario! I have classes on Shakespeare’s life, Romeo and Juliet, and my celebrated Stage Combat class! Sign up now for all the fun on Outschool.com!
a sufficiently entertaining, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation that follows the play’s general outline without ever rising to the passionate intensity of its star-cross’d crazy kids By Manohla Dargis, New York Times Review 2013 Romeo and Juliet is still taught more than any other text in American high schools, and since it’s a play not a book, teachers will inevitably […]
I’m working on Part II of my Shakespeare’s Star Wars podcast and I thought I’d share some of the clips I’ve been editing together. First is a short clip of Darth Vader saying lines to express his sorrow and anger when Luke plummets down the Cloud City shaft, rather than go with his own father. […]
Happy April Fool’s Day! Today I’d like to look at the rich history of Shakespeare’s fools and clowns! Clowns are some of Shakespeare’s classic comic characters, but fools are complex characters that entertain, satirize, and even philosophize. They may dress the part, but they are no fools.
This clip from Mel Brooks’ comic masterpiece History of the World, Part I, has the writer/director perform as Comicus, a ‘stand-up philosopher’ from Ancient Rome- a philosopher who is basically a stand-up comic. As you’ll see, unlike clowns, most of Shakespeare’s fools basically fulfill this role- to satirize and make fun of people and institutions.
What Is A Fool?
Fools and clowns are based on medieval minstrels who, as this video from Monty Python’s Terry Jones shows, were itinerant entertainers who had to do a number of jobs including play music, dance, sing, compose poetry, juggle, and on occasion- START A WAR!
Fools Vs. Clowns
A fool is the renaissance version of a minstrel- an official royal entertainer who worked at royal courts. A clown is a comic part in a play. The often danced, sang, and did improv comedy. To illustrate the difference, here’s a short video about the life of Henry VIII’s favorite fool- Will Sommers
Foolish Founding Fathers
All of Shakespeare’s fools and clowns are based on ancient Italian sources-from the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terrence to the improvised comedy known as Commedia Del ‘ Arte
Commedia is based on stock character types that Shakespeare adapted and fleshed out- Arlequinno became the constantly hungry Dromio, (among others), while Capitano became Falstaff and Pistol. Even Shylock has remnants of Brighella in his DNA. According to Dario Fo in his book: Manuale Minimodell’Attore, Shakespeare adapted stock characters from commedia to be his clowns, and sarcastic characters called sots, who commented on the action to become his fools (Fo, 107)
Will Kempe- Shakespeare’s First Great Clown
Despite his strength and skill as a dancer, Kempe specialized in playing oafish buffoons like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In the Second Quarto edition of Romeo and Juliet, you can see in the stage directions “Enter Will Kempe,” right before Peter speaks:
According to Will In the World by Steven Greenblatt, Kempe and Shakespeare had a falling out in the late 1590s, which many scholars have assumed might have been due to Shakespeare’s distaste for clowns wasting time with jokes that bogged down the play:
Let those that play your
clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there
be of them will themselves laugh, to set on some
quantity of barren spectators to laugh too. Though in the
meantime, 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. Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.
Kempe, for his part, seemed a little big for his britches; he and his fellow clowns seemed to think that Shakespeare's scripts were just vehicles for his own jokes and songs (Reynolds, 247). He then sold his share in the Chamberlain's Men, derriding them in print as "My notable Shake-rags," and then staged a publicity stunt where he danced across England!
1600-1613: The Golden Age Of Foolery
Kempe’s replacement was Robert Armin, an accomplished writer and singer, who specialized in playing satirical Fool roles, which appeared in a number of Shakespeare’s plays after 1599.
Unlike Kempe, Armin’s characters invariably support the themes and ideas of the plays they are a part of. As Feste in Twelfth Night, Armin makes jokes that make fun of the overly-serious Orsino and Countess Olivia:
Feste. Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Olivia. Good fool, for my brother's death.
Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's
soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene v.
Sometimes Armin’s characters are satirical mirrors into Elizabethan society; in As You Like It, Touchstone the Fool mocks the culture of dueling; implying that there are hundreds of loopholes that a gentleman may use to challenge a man to a duel, without actually fighting.
Touchstone. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard; he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was. This is call’d the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again it was not well cut, he would send me word he cut it to please himself. This is call’d the Quip Modest. If again it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment. This is call’d the Reply Churlish. If again it was not well cut, he would answer I spake not true. This is call’d the Reproof Valiant. If again it was not well cut, he would say I lie. This is call’d the Countercheck Quarrelsome. And so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
Jaques (lord). And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?
Touchstone. I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measur’d swords and parted.
The Fool in “King Lear”
Perhaps Armin’s greatest comic creation was The Fool in King Lear; the ultimate satirist who makes fun of the king’s foolish choices. He tries to talk sense to the increasingly mad king, until he vanishes entirely, and Lear himself starts making fool-like cracks at the audience:
Lear Thou hast seen a
farmer's dog bark at a beggar?
Earl of Gloucester. Ay, sir.
Lear. And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold
the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office.
The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none- I say none! Get thee glass eyes
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi.
Through realizing his own foolishness, Lear recovers his sanity, and makes peace with his daughter, which beautifully shows the importance of fools, clowns, and satirists; to question ourselves, to sharpen our critical thinking, and to endure hardships with good humor. Therefore on this April Fools Day, I say,
“Here’s to the fools, to folly, to farce. Let them push the wealthy on the ar— APRIL FOOLS!”
Best, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Actors: Will Kempe” Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria, 28 Sept. 2016, ise.uvic.ca/Foyer/citing. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.
I teach a class specifically on Shakespeare’s comedies where I’ll talk a lot about the way Shakespeare writes clowns. I’ll also delve into the history of Commedia Del’Arte and how it influenced Shakespeare’s characters! For more information, visit http://www.outschool.com
As you probably know, I love to review children’s adaptations of Shakespeare (whether direct or indirect). “The Lion King,” (Hamlet), “Encanto” (King Lear), and of course, the many adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet,” are mainstays on this website: Gnomio and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss, even Pocahontas have their basic plot and characters firmly rooted in Verona Italy.
Then one day by chance, I found this book in a local park, and I knew I had to review it!
This is a simple re-telling of the story of Shakespeare’s play that focuses on just the young lovers. You feel for these cute little animals and in a way, making them a kitty and a dog smitten with puppy love, makes them more understandable and sympathetic than Shakespeare’s youthful teenagers, who indulge in violent delights without using their human reason.
What It Keeps
The book keeps the feud between the two families, has the young lovers meet in disguise at a ball, fall in love on a balcony, get married, and amazingly, DIE! Laden still manages to tell the story in a kid-friendly way, though giving it tragic weight.
The book opens with a rhyming prologue, which, although it isn’t in sonnet form, has the same function as Shakespeare’s prologue- to explain the plot before we see it played out in the book, thus giving the whole story a sense of dramatic irony. Plus, as you can see, Laden also imitates Shakespeare’s love of wordplay with metaphors and puns, (a tale of tails), and alliteration to give the dialogue some wit and effervescence. Reading it gave me giggles like I’d just popped open some champagne.
What it changes: Spoiler alert
All throughout, Laden makes small changes to simplify the plot and remove characters that don’t directly impact the main plot. The characters of Lord/Lady Capulet and Lord/Lady Montegue, The Nurse, Paris, Peter, the servants, and the friars are completely absent, turning an already brief play into an even more compressed story.
Like a lot of animal retellings I’ve seen of this story, the author recasts the human leads as animals that are natural enemies- in this case, cats and dogs. This makes the story easier for kids to understand- as I’ve said before, it’s often difficult to keep track of who belongs to which house in Shakespeare’s version. All you need to know is that Romeo and his brothers are cats and Juliet’s family are dogs.
Funnily enough, my daughter actually complained that the story would’ve been better if Juliet were a cat instead of Romeo, which I agree with for very specific reasons. The character of Tybalt is named after a character from a prose story called “Reynard the Fox,” who had the epithet, Prince of CATS. Mercutio annoys Tybalt by taunting him with this title before challenging him to a duel:
Tybalt: What would you with me? Mercutio: Good Prince of Cats, nothing but one of your nine lives! Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene i.
It would’ve been a funny Shakespeare easter egg to have Juliet and Tybalt be portrayed as cats, but I understand why they went with dogs- Drooliet is a hilarious pun, and having Tybalt be a vicious, rabid dog helps set him up as a fearsome antagonist.
I suppose you’re wondering, how can the author keep Shakespeare’s tragic ending in a children’s book? Well, like Shroedinger’s cat, she manages to make Romeow die and not die at the same time. He gives Drooliet one of his 9 lives, allowing them both to ‘die’ and then come back for a happy ending. It’s a brilliant way to nod at the original, while also keeping the kid-friendly tone.
This book is really fun and very enjoyable for kids, parents, and teachers who want to introduce kids to Shakespeare at an early age!
Just below you can watch the book being read by actress Hayle Duff:
For Throwback Thursday, I’m talking about my first-ever experience going to the Globe Theater. Back in 2007, I saw a production of “Othello” starring Eamon Walker as Othello, and Tim McInerney as Iago. Below are some images from the excellent souvenir program I purchased:
The experience was very special to me I went to London for the second time with my classmates in a college theater class, many of whom I’d also performed with earlier that year in Romeo and Juliet. I got to see over 15 shows in London’s west end , but going to the Globe was definitely a highlight. It felt like a pilgrimage and the icing on the cake after studying Shakespeare’s plays all year long. It was also very serendipitous that the play we saw was Othello, since, as you can see in the video below, I noticed that Sam Wannamaker, the founder of the Globe, performed in the play himself as Iago:
Again, since this was my first time seeing a play at the Globe, I appreciated that they played it straight- Elizabethan costumes, no bizarre staging. This felt very much like stepping back in time. Some critics in recent years say that all Globe Productions should be staged like this, and decry more experimental productions. I see an argument for both camps. The Globe is both a temple to Shakespeare’s life and work, and a modern theater that tries to push the boundaries of live performances, and I think this kind of variety is good. That said, I’m glad that every once in a while, they just let a Shakespeare play be classic.
Yes, this is one of the first ever Othellos I saw, and the first one I ever saw live, but Mr. Walker will always be one of my favorites. He really nails the complexities of Othello’s emotions- from powerful and stoic, to sweet and romantic, to rage-filled and abusive. I really felt for him and truly hated Iago for taking such a worthy person and turning him into a monster.
What Mr. Walker does incredibly well is show Othello’s journey to fight the simmering hatred and jealousy he feels towards Desdemona. You can see it in his face when Desdamona casually mentions that Cassio (the man Othello suspects is sleeping with his wife), has just been in the room with her.
I’ve heard critics claim that Mr. Walker’s voice is hard to hear, and I have to admit, his voice is a little hard to hear in an outdoor amphitheater like the Globe, but his physicality and his sublime characterizations of the role of Othello more than makeup for it. In addition, his great portrayal of Othello was also immortalized in a great TV (which I’ll talk about another time), which makes the aforementioned critique of his voice irrelevant.
In 2000, Mr. Walker starred in a made-for-TV movie modern-day Othello which has this heartbreaking scene at a restaurant (1:12:00- 1:15:00) where John Othello, (the first black police chief in England), talks about how his people left Africa, came to England and were given “Other men’s leavings.” He also makes it clear that for years he wanted to be white. This Othello is very clearly not healed from his generational trauma, and it comes out in violent ways:
I honestly liked Tim McInerney less as Iago than in other roles, such as his film role in Ian McKellen’s Richard III. I thought his character voice was too gruff to be understood, and though his physicality is good, I didn’t get much of a sense of his concept for the character. As I’ve written before, Iago is a compelling part, but the actor has to have a clear objective to help us in the audience understand why he feels the need to destroy Othello.
These minor nitpicks aside, this was an excellent production, and I’m really pleased to retell my experience to you. Below are links to reviews and photo slideshows.
Basics Of Stage Combat: Students will learn the basics of safely enacting a fight onstage, in preparation for a Shakespeare play. We will also learn about the history of sword fighting in the military and the duel.
My daughter really enjoyed taking this class. She was actually able to use her sabre and try out her routine on her father. Paul is quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare and made the class really fun by teaching a fight scene from Romeo and Juliet. It is amazing watching her practice with Paul over Zoom. I hope Paul will have. more combat classes, it is a different way to learn Shakespeare.
An Interactive Guide To Shakespeare’s London (New Class)
A virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London will get kids to interact with the culture of Elizabethan England.
To teach kids about the Elizabethan era and the background of Romeo and Juliet, The Instructor will interact with the class (via pre-recorded videos), pretending to be Shakespeare. The class, pretending to be actors in Romeo and Juliet, will get a virtual tour of The Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, and a virtual visit to an Elizabethan doctor's office. This activity is an immersive way for them to learn about the period, how it relates to the world of the play, and how Shakespeare changed theater.
The class will take the form of a guided WebQuest activity. First, the students will get a worksheet that has a series of fill-in-the-blanks about Elizabethan society (below). The students will fill out this worksheet based on a Nearpod and in conjunction with a website I’ve made, https://sites.google.com/nebobcats.org/visit-to-elizabethan-london/home?authuser=0
Both the Nearpod and each webpage will have a virtual tour, a video, and text explaining some aspects of Elizabethan life. Before they go to each location, I will give a short introduction via prerecorded video:
In this one-hour course, your child will discover the enchanting world of science through a series of magical experiments. Learn about such topics as Astronomy, Static Electricity, chemistry, and optical illusions.
In this one-hour course, students will learn and play games that will explore the history behind Christmas traditions. We will also discuss the themes, characters, and famous quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”
I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of actor Kevin Conroy, world-renowned as the voice of Batman and Bruce Wayne on Batman The Animated Series, the Arkham Asylum games, and many others. Conroy is definitely my favorite Batman, and as I and many others have said before, there are Shakespearean tropes in the Caped Crusader. From the very beginning, Conroy drew inspiration from a particular Shakespearean play, the melancholy prince, dressed in black, who seeks to revenge his father’s murder: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:
I did a cold audition, I had never done an animated voice before. I said the only exposure I’ve had is the Adam West show from the 60’s and they said “NO! NO! NO! That’s not it.” I said ZIP POW POP and they said “NO! It’s, think film noir, think the 40’s New York. Think dark, think a kid who just watched his parents get murdered and spends his life avenging their deaths and he lives in the shadows. He’s got this dual personality and he’s never resolved this torture of his youth. I said you are telling the Hamlet story, this is heavy stuff. And he said yeah, no one has ever said that before, but yeah I guess it is. This is like a classic archetypal, Shakespearian tragedy. So I just used my theater training and put myself into that head (Batman voice) And I got into this very dark place and came up with this voice. (Regular Voice) And as I did it I saw them all running around in the booth. And I thought well either I did something really bad or something really good because I hit a nerve, I know I hit a nerve. And they came out and they said well we’ve seen about over 600 people and how would you like to do the part?
It makes sense that Conroy would use Shakespeare to flesh out Batman. He was a veteran of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, and performed in Hamlet several times. He even played the prince himself for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1984. Yet I don’t think Conroy’s decision to make Batman a sort of modern-day Hamlet was entirely based on just his past experiences with Hamlet.
“Batman is basically the American version of Hamlet,” Affleck said. “We accept that he’s played by actors with different interpretations.”
Ben Afleck, Entertainment Weekly, 2015.
Batman and Hamlet are basically Revenge Tragedies; age-old stories that began with Oedipus Rex and the Orestia in ancient Greek plays, where a hero must lift a plague on his society by avenging the death of a parent (usually the father). This kind of play was very popular in Shakespeare’s day and included a host of others such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, The Dutchess of Malfi, and later The Revenger’s Tragedy.
As this clip above indicates Hamlet is unique among revengers because his conflict doesn’t come from the machinations of his villain; he’s stopped by his own internal conflicts. Batman is more active than Hamlet, but he also wrestles with internal conflicts and Conroy plays these conflicts with a lot of subtlety and nuance. To illustrate this conflict, let’s look at some great clips from the series!
Batman admits he wanted Revenge: “The Curious case of Hugo Strange”
In this episode, Dr. Strange (not the Marvel Superhero), uses a dream-reading machine to try and blackmail Bruce Wayne, and inadvertently discovers his secret identity. Not only does this episode dramatize Wayne’s literal worst nightmare, (someone figuring out who he is), it also touches on the pain of his past and how even though now Batman is a deputized agent of the law who never kills, he began as an angry, vengeful vigilante, like Hamlet:
I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene i.
Batman’s Conflict With His parents.
In this clip from the animated movie Mask Of the Phantasm (1993), a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne feels a conflict between his obligation to avenge his parent’s death, and his budding romance with Ms. Andrea Beaumont:
One can almost sense an Ophelia- Hamlet-like conflict where Bruce knows his quest to avenge will consume him, and leave no time to pursue romance. In all revenge tragedies, the hero has to avenge alone, or at least without the support of a spouse or partner. Hamlet also makes the choice to cut Ophelia out of his life, though it’s not clear why. It could be he’s worried that Claudius will harm her, it could be he’s worried she’s compromised since her father tried to spy on him, or it could simply be that he doesn’t trust her. It’s up to the actor and director to “Pluck the heart of Hamlet’s mystery.”
Eventually though, the choice is made for him, and Bruce Wayne completely commits to his quest to battle the crime in Gotham, as this epic scene from “Mask of The Phantasm” shows:
Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.
Hamlet, Act I, Scene v.
Hamlet and Batman’s Demons
The spirit that I have seen May be a devil; and the devil hath power T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me.
Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.
What’s truly unique about the animated version of Batman is that it’s the only one that takes time to show Batman’s complex relationship with the ghosts of his parents. As previously discussed, Bruce Wayne’s desire to revenge their death and to punish the wickedness of Gotham is what spurs him to keep fighting as Batman, but he also wonders many times if he’s doing more harm than good. He’s also tempted to forget them and try to lead a normal life, like in the episode “Perchance to Dream,” (which itself is a quote from Hamlet). Above all, the animated show knows that, since children are watching this show, they will connect with Batman’s fear of not living up to his parent’s expectations, a fear to which every child can relate.
In the first season episode “Nothing To Fear,” the villainous Scarecrow exploits Batman’s fear of disappointing his parents by drugging him with a fear toxin, causing Bruce to hallucinate that his father is berating him and calling him a failure. Hamlet gets a similar ghostly chewing out in The Closet Scene:
Father’s Ghost. Do not forget. This visitation Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv
While The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is mostly supportive in this scene, Hamlet worries many times in the play if Claudius is in fact innocent, and the Ghost is a demon sent by the Devil to get him to kill an innocent man, and thus damn him for eternity. This uncertainty is the same that Batman wrestles with, as he confronts his own demon-like apparition. Batman then defiantly responds to this fiendish hallucination with one of the most iconic lines in the series:
Only a consummate professional like Conroy with his grounding in Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular could portray such an iconic character. Many fans of Batman like me believe that Conroy’s portrayal was the peak of the franchise, and I feel fortunate that it came out when I was a child. I mourn Conroy’s loss, yet as Mr. Affleck mentioned in the quote above, like Hamlet, the character of Batman has many possible interpretations, and though Conroy will always be my favorite, I hope new and exciting interpretations will arise from the shadows in time, bringing this complex, Shakespearean character to a new audience.
“Good Night, Sweet Prince and flights of bat wings fly thee to thy rest.”
One of the most celebrated international film versions of Shakespeare comes from Japanese director Akira Kurasawa, (1910-1998). The innovative filmmaker is famous for combining Shakespeare with traditional forms of Japanese theater like Kabuki and Noh. Kurasawa’smost celebrated film was his film Throne of Blood, (1957), which was a fusion of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Japanese Noh theater.