Tomorrow is the first session of my course on Shakespeaere’s tragedies! I’m so excited to teach this great group whom I’ve worked with before. To mark this occasion, I present this silly, catchy, and informative song about the tragic fates of Cleopatra, Juliet, Hamlet, and others.
If you want to sign up for this course or request a private session, you can do so at http://www.outschool.com, or by scanning the QR code below:
This is a 30 minute cartoon version of Macbeth originally produced for the BBC in 1992. It features Brian Cox as the voice of Macbeth (before he was the voice of McDonald’s), and Zoë Wanamaker as Lady Macbeth (before she was a witch who teaches at Hogwarts).
I like the way it portrays the horror imagery of the play in sort of a European-manga animation hybrid. Admittedly, there are better ones in the series, but this one is still pretty neat.
To check out other episodes in the series, view this playlist:
Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight With hearts more proof than shields
Coriolanus, Act 1, Scene iv.
Shakespeare uses the word “shield” over 30 times, often as a verb meaning ‘to protect.’ However, there are a few very important references to this ancient tool of defense, and constructing one can teach you a lot about the history of a culture, and that culture’s methods of waging war.
A Brief History of Shields
The seven-fold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart
Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 14.
As the quote above from Antony and Cleopatra mentions, the shield has been around since the dawn of history, certainly since Roman times. The Romans prized their large shields called scuta, which they used in defensive formations as the soldiers crashed through their enemies’ defenses.
In medieval times, Anglo Saxons and Vikings used new and more sophisticated shield formations in some of the most important battles in early British history. This included the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ended the Anglo-Saxon era when the English abandoned the protection of their shield wall to chase the Norman invaders, who then annihilated their forces and proclaimed their leader William of Normandy, conqueror of all England.
In this excellent video, historian and fight choreographer Mike Loads traces the history of medieval shields and shows step-by-step how to make an authentic Anglo-Saxon shield!
[Enter SAMPSON and GREGORY, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and buckles]
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins with servants armed with swords and small shields called bucklers. These shields were designed to be used in single combat (duels) and were very light and agile. According to Mike Loads, young men would wear their swords and bucklers on their hips and make a loud racket as they walked through the streets. The shield proclaimed that they were armed and dangerous. This macho swaggering is the origin of the term “swashbuckling,” which is probably how these servants see themselves since they spend the first scene of the play trying to pick a fight.
What Is heraldry?
Just as the sound of a buckler announced to the world that a young man was armed and ready to fight, the design on a nobleman’s shield announced his status, his house, and his family motto. The popular historical consensus is that once the medieval knight arrived on the battlefield, they started using their shields and tabards as a colorful display; one that made it clear that they were noble. In war, a knight or other nobleman could collect a hefty ransom if they captured another knight alive, so if you belonged to a rich noble house, your brightly decorated shield could save your life on a battlefield in more ways than one.
Each heraldric design would be registered in the College Of Arms, and many of them are still on record today. In Shakespeare’s Pericles, a group of knights presents their shields to King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa right before a joust and she reads their mottos. The shields are like the knight’s ID tags and help the princess know whom to award the prize money once the jousting is over:
Simonides. Are the knights ready to begin the triumph?
First Lord. They are, my liege;
And stay your coming to present themselves.
Simonides. Return them, we are ready; and our daughter,
In honour of whose birth these triumphs are,
[To Thaisa] 'Tis now your honour, daughter, to explain
The labour of each knight in his device.
Thaisa. Which, to preserve mine honour, I'll perform.
[Enter a Knight; he passes over, and his Squire]
presents his shield to the Princess]
Simonides. Who is the first that doth prefer himself?
Thaisa. A knight of Sparta, my renowned father;
And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiope reaching at the sun
The word, 'Lux tua vita mihi.'
Simonides. He loves you well that holds his life of you. Pericles, Act II, Scene ii.
How to make your own shield!
Since shields are an important part of Shakespeare’s plays, here’s how you can make a shield activity at home or in the classroom.
Making the basic shape
If you want to make a buckler, you need a round surface a little bigger than a dinner plate. You should be able to hold it and move it like an extension of your fist. If you want to make a basic 14th-century type shield like the ones I have below, cut out the familiar, ‘state of Ohio’ shape below. I made mine about 11 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I used cardboard but you can also use paper or wood or metal if you have real craftsperson talent.
Choosing a color and design
I got a lot of good information on how people chose designs for their shields by visiting English Herritage.org’s Guide to Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry. The website has a lovely catalog of the colors and designs real knights and barons and lords used to make their shields/ coats of arms stand out. You can choose a simple background with a plant, animal, etc. in the foreground, or you can divide the shield into a cross, a diagonal line called a Fess, or into a triangle called a chevron.
The Personal Touch
You need not be constrained by historical precedent in coming up with your shield. Like any canvas, the only limits on your shield design are your imagination. Check out these designs I made with my kids!
Most mottos are single lines of text (usually in Latin), that illustrate what is important to the house that sports it. For example, Richard II’s motto was: “loyalté me lie,” (“Loyalty binds me.”). You could come up with a simple motto and Google Translate it into Latin or French, etc.
Now that you have your shield, with its own unique motto and design, it can be a useful tool to explain how people saw themselves in Shakespeare’s day. Nowadays we mainly see ourselves as individuals, but this kind of heraldry illustrates how knights, nobles and servants saw themselves mainly as part of a house, with its own values, its own traditions, and sometimes an us vs. them mentality against other houses.
This kind of household mentality is of course, at the core of Romeo and Juliet and the Wars of the Roses cycle of plays, and Shakespeare uses heraldry to illustrate this mentality. Look how the knights in the tournament scene from the 2013 film are dressed in their houses’ colors and the nobles and servants are also wearing those same colors:
Like sports fans who wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, shields and heraldry proclaim the allegiance of the servants and nobles who belong to powerful houses/ kingdoms. This kind of emblem can help students understand a piece of medieval and renaisance history, and how that history shapes our own mentalities today.
Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language, and the subject matter touches on racism and anti-Semitism, so it shouldn’t be read by really young kids.
Premise: Like the Midsummer Night’s Dream edition I already reviewed, this is the full play with Manga inspired illustrations. However, unlike Midsummer, this book is more conceptual. It reinterprets all the characters as either fairies, aliens, mermaids or merman, or some other fantasy characters. It is literally a fairy tale, which I find a fascinating concept for a number of reasons. That said, like any interpretation of Merchant, this choice is somewhat controversial for reasons I will get into below.
“A friend of mine said she got married in Venice and described it as like being in an RPG.”
Faye Yong, Illustrator for “The Manga Shakespeare: Merchant Of Venice.”
What Does Role-Playing Game (RPG) Mean? A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world.
Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements.
Traditional role-playing video games shared five basic elements:
The ability to improve your character over the course of the game by increasing his statistics or levels.
A menu-based combat system with several choices of skills, spells, and active powers as well as an active inventory system with wearable equipment such as armors and weapons.
A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline and additional (and usually optional) side quests.
The ability to interact with elements of the environment or storyline through additional abilities (e.g. lockpicking, disarming traps, communication skills, etc.)
The existence of certain character classes that define the characteristics, skills, abilities, and spells of a character (e.g. wizard, thief, warrior, etc.)
My reaction: I honestly don’t know what to think about the way the comic depicts races. In the interview above, illustrator Faye Yong explains how she chose a fantasy aesthetic for the graphic novel.
She read the script and represented the characters like the Prince of Aaragon, the Prince of Morocco, and re-interpreted them as fantasy characters. A good example is the Prince of Aragon. As you can see in this scene from the 2004 movie, Shakespeare portrays Aaragon as a vain, shallow person. Incidently, Aaragon is a province of Spain, over which the English just won a major naval victory, so Shakespeare makes this character a mockable popinjay since the Spanish were still the mortal enemies of the English:
Fay Yong wanted to heighten Aaragon’s vanity, so she made him a beautiful creature with long, flowing hair.
This is telling: Yong immersed herself with Shakespeare’s text, but she didn’t really delve into the real world context. She wasn’t interested in the real cultures of Aaragon, Morrocco, or even Venice, but to take Shakespeare’s impression of these cultures, and use Japanese style animation to tell Shakespeare’s story. For most of the play, this approach works quite well. After all, Shakespeare depicts Portia and her home in Belmont as an almost ethereal place, where men come from far and wide to see this magical kingdom, and Portias father gets a prophetic vision on his death bed that makes him alter his will so that only someone who can decipher his riddle will get to marry Portia and inherit her estate. Like I said, the scenes in Belmont work very well as a Manga comic, particularly Bassanio’s Zelda-style fetch quest where he has to choose the right casket to marry Portia. I hope someone someday turns this idea into a real game.
However, the scenes in Venice don’t work as well because Shakespeare wrote them with a clear understanding of the real Venice, and the tensions between the Jewish and Christian communities. Details like Antonio’s anti-Semitism, Shylock’s fury at his daughter marrying a Christian, and Portia’s own racism and anti-Semitism is frankly erased when you view it out of the context of the real Venice.
Another example of questionable racial re-interpretation is theThe Prince of Morrocco, who like Aaragon, is a suitor to Portia who likewise fails to choose the proper casket and win Portia.
In Yong’s version, Morocco has green, rather than brown skin now, (sort of like Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z), which is problematic because we associate green with sickliness and that makes this speech of Morocco’s even more problematic:
Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun, To whom I am a neighbour and near bred. Bring me the fairest creature northward born, Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles, And let us make incision for your love, To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine
Not surprisingly, the most controversial illustration choices center around Shylock the Jewish moneylender. As I’ve written before, Shylock has always been a controversial figure, and this comic interprets him in a way I find simultaneously simplistic and highly thought-provoking.
Faye Yong has stated that she wanted to make Shylock look the same as the Christian characters, but that his garb would reflect a sort of “dark elf” aesthetic. She describes him as the sort of fantasy character that worships the moon, rather than the sun. On the one hand, I applaud her for not giving into the old Jewish stereotypes like red hair, hook noses, etc. I also have to admit that Shylock is sort of a dark vengeful figure (he is after all, the villain), so making him a dark elf works on the surface.
On the other hand, again, without the context of anti-Semetism, and the complex relationship between Jews and Christians in the 16th century, much of the Shakespearean text is devoid of meaning. Perhaps this is an attempt to make the play more easily accessible to young readers like teenagers, and I applaud that, but as I wrote in my post about why everyone should read or teach this play, learning about the historical context of real Jews is this play’s great gift, and that is lost in this version.
On the other hand, depicting Shylock like some kind of dark elf or warlock actually brings to life a very real aspect of anti-Semetic prejudice that many people overlook today: for most of western history, many of our stereotypes of Jews were interlinked with our stereotypes about witches!
Jewish Stereotypes and the Occult
So, ironically, much the same way Ian McKellen’s Richard III helped modernize the complex medieval politics of the 15th century, seeing Shylock as a semi-mystical, possibly occult figure, actually brings to light some of the prejudices that real Jews in the 16th century faced!
In conclusion, Merchant Of Venice is extremely hard to adapt in a comic book context, and some aspects are a little lost in translation. That said, it is gorgeous to look at, and it has a great visual shorthand that enlivens Shakespeare’s text in a unique and appealing way.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!
Ages: Pre Teen- Adult. No violence or explicit imagery, but the visual format might be confusing for younger viewers.
Sometimes the over-the top nature of manga drawings works well with this play. When Helena is mooning over Demetrius, we can see highlights in her eyes that work very well within the big-eyed, expressive style of Manga. By contrast, some other characters like Oberon are drawn very sharply, making him appear stern and even grim.
Another thing the style of pictures does is to literally illustrate the poetic passages of the For example, when Titania delivers her “These are the forgeries of jealousy,” speech, the images of the text compliment
Recommendation: This book is a good resource for classrooms exploring the text of
Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language and a lot of fighting and gore, so it’s not really for kids
Premise: William Shakespeare is more than just a simple playwright- he has a magic quill that brings his characters to life. Some of the characters worship him like a god or like a father. Unfortunately, others (namely, the villain characters), are unhappy with their stories and want revenge, causing a civil war led by Richard III, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Iago (who is once again, betraying Othello). Our heroes include Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, Hamlet, and Captain Cesario (who is actually Viola from Twelfth Night in disguise). Can the heroes defeat the villains? Can Shakespeare save his precious creations from destroying each other before it’s too late?
My reaction: In essence, this graphic novel is like Season 4 of one of my favorite TV shows, Once Upon A Time. The premise is that an ordinary writer is given the power to create living characters, some good and some evil. In fact, in Once Upon A Time Lore, Shakespeare WAS one of the Authors in the OUAT universe
The main difference between Once Upon A Time and Kill Shakespeare is that the action is far more violent, and the characters have one main quality- ANGST. As I said, the villains are not happy with Shakespeare, which makes perfect sense. Macbeth famously called his life a “Tale told by an idiot,” and Richard III loves to blame his problems on either God, or his mother, since one or both of them cursed him with deformity and love of wickedness. It makes complete sense that these characters would rage against their creators. The heroes (especially the tragic ones) are also struggling with their sad pasts and trying to reconcile their feelings for Shakespeare. Is he their god? Is he their father? If so, is he a good one or a bad one?
What I like the most about this graphic novel is that the characters are consistent with how the real Shakespeare wrote him, yet they make different choices in the graphic novel. They also grow and play off each other in many interesting ways. Here are some examples:
Juliet in this version is much more of a fighter than a lover. She is a general of all the heroic Shakespearean characters and uses her hope and her wits to rally the troops. That said, she still misses Romeo, who died from the poison just like in Shakespeare’s version, and still has love in her heart. I won’t give anything away but, let’s just say that this time she climbs someone else’s balcony.
Falstaff This might be my favorite change in this version. Falstaff is still witty and gluttonous, but in this version, he’s on a bit of a redemption arc. He commits himself to fight with the rebels and even has faith in Shakespeare and the people around him. Plus, just like his moments with Prince Hal, Falstaff forms a father-son bond with Hamlet in this version, which is really fun to watch. It’s like they took everything bad about Falstaff and metaphorically ‘trimmed the fat.’
Hamlet (AKA The Shadow King in this version), is still brooding over the loss of his father, his murder of Polonius, and his loss of Ophelia. He has once again been thrust into a quest that he’s not sure he can complete- fighting King Richard, finding Shakespeare, and convincing him to help the heroes. That said, he is still capable of warmth, humor, and even romance (no spoilers).
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
In Volume 2, Shakespeare is a jaded mentor figure who has retreated to an enchanted forest after failing to protect his creations. His arc is very similar to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, in that he made a major mistake, failed to live up to the impossibly high standards people had for him, and hides away at the bottom of a bottle. He now has to choose whether to take responsibility for his creations or stay hidden away alone. I love this arc, I love the scene where he talks to Hamlet, and I love the way they develop his character.
It’s a small point, but with the exception of Falstaff and Viola, the comic characters in Shakespeare (at least in Volume 2), don’t have much to do. Feste and Sir Toby Belch appear as traveling players but they barely interact with the tragic leads. I think this was to keep the tone of the novel consistent, but honestly, I do kind of wish they had broken up some of the tragedy with some more comedy.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!
I’m beyond excited that I am able to offer three multiple week courses through Outschool for kids aged 6-12. If you scan the QR code below, you can see class descriptions and individual trailers. You can also check out the “My classes,” Page on this blog. I hope you and your family will join me this summer!
Since Easter, and Passover are coming up, (and we are already in the middle of Rhamadan), I thought I’d examine Shakespeare’s depiction of other worlds both celestial and infernal. As the quote above says, philosophers and poets often wonder what greets us in the hereafter, so let me be your guide through Shakespeare’s poetic renderings of heaven and he’ll, accompanied by some gorgeous artwork from HC Selous, William Blake, and others.
The whitewashed images of Shakespeare’s childhood
Shakespeare was no doubt interested in religion. He quotes from and alludes to the Bible many times in his plays. More importantly, he lived in a time when the national religion changed three times in just 4 years! When Henry VIII changed England to a protestant country, the religious identity of England completely changed:
This change was not just felt in monestaries, but in all English churches. King Henry decreed that certain Catholic traditions like Purgatory, indulgences, and praying to saints were idolatrous, and were therefore banned in the Church of England. So, when Shakespeare’s father was called to destroy the “idolatrous” images of the Last Judgement in the Guild Chapel of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, he had no choice but to comply. If you click on the link below, you can see a detailed description of the images that Shakespeare no doubt knew well in his family’s church, until his father was forced to literally whitewash them.
Like the images on the Stratford Guild chapel, the ideas of Catholic England didn’t disappear, they were merely hidden from view. Shakespeare refers to these Catholic ideas many times in his plays, especially in Hamlet, a play where a young scholar, who goes to the same school as Martin Luther, is wrestling with the idea of whether the ghost he has seen is a real ghost from purgatory, or a demon from hell, (as protestant churches preached in Shakespeare’s life).
I’ve written before that the ghost of Hamlet’s father teases us with the possibility that he might be a soul in purgatory, the Catholic afterlife realm for those not evil enough for Hell, nor good enough for Heaven. At the height of their powers, monks and bishops sold prayers called indulgences that supposedly allowed a soul’s loved ones to buy them time out of purgatory, thus making them able to ascend to Heaven quicker. The image above is an illustration from Purgatorio, part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he visits the soul of Buonconte da Montefeltro, who is languishing because he doesn’t yet have the strength to get out of purgatory and enter Heaven.
Of course, the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I abolished indulgences and proclaimed that purgatory itself didn’t exist, but ideas can’t die, and I feel that Shakespeare was at least inspired by the notion of purgatory, even if he didn’t believe in it himself.
“It Harrows me with fear and wonder.”
(Horatio) Hamlet, Act I, Scene i.
Lucifer and the vice of kings
As a young boy, William Shakespeare was entertained by medieval Mystery plays; amateur theater pieces performed by local artisans that dramatized great stories from the Bible. We know this because he refers to many of the characters in these mystery plays in his own work, especially the villains. King Herod is mentioned in Hamlet and many other plays in and many of Shakespeare’s villains seem to be inspired by the biblical Lucifer, as portrayed in Medieval Mystery Plays.
In this short video of the Yorkshire Mystery play “The Rise and Fall of Lucifer,” we see God (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart), creating Lucifer as a beautiful angel, who then, dissatisfied with his place in God’s kingdom, is transformed into an ugly devil. At first, Lucifer mourns losing his place in Paradise, but then finds comfort by becomming God’s great antagonist.
Compare this character arc with Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester, who also blames his unhappiness on God, (since he feels his disability and deformity are a result of God’s curse). Richard is angry with God, nature, and society, so he wages against them all to become king.
“Then since the heavens hath shaped my body so, let Hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.”
Richard of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.
“All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.”
Claudio. Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison’d in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
—Measure For Measure, Act III, Scene i
“Methought I crossed the meloncholy flood with that grim ferryman the poets write of, into the kingdom of perpetual night.”
— Richard III, Act I, Scene iv.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre Observe degree, priority and place, Insisture, course, proportion, season, form, Office and custom, in all line of order; And therefore is the glorious planet Sol In noble eminence enthroned and sphered Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil, And posts, like the commandment of a king, Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets In evil mixture to disorder wander, What plagues and what portents! what mutiny! What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors, Divert and crack, rend and deracinate The unity and married calm of states Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked, Which is the ladder to all high designs, Then enterprise is sick! - Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene iii.