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 Black History Month Everyone! Today I’m paying tribute to a great actor and activist, Mr. Ira Aldridge (1807-1867).
Mr Ira Aldridge was not only a great actor but also an influential figure in the abolitionist movement. He rose from the depths of discrimination and dehumanization to become a famous, respected international actor. Furthermore, his life was marked by creating new opportunities for himself and other people of color.
Who Was Ira Aldridge?
True feeling and just expression are not confined to any clime or colour.
Born in New York in 1807, Mr. Aldridge had dreams to found an all-black theater even as a teenager. His first job was with William Brown’s African Theatre, the first African American theater company. However, discrimination and racism blocked Mr. Aldridge from success in New York, when another theater manager “hired thugs to beat up the actors”. The theatre subsequently burned down and the actors were abused by the New York police. Undaunted, Aldridge decided to take his talents to England, boarding a ship, and arriving in the early 1820s. (Howard, qtd in Thorpe 1). Even though he faced discrimination and violence as a child, Mr. Aldridge would not be deterred. Soon his skill as a Shakespearean actor would soon command respect from all.3.) He refused to be defined by the color of his skin, but by his skill as an actor.
Success In Shakespeare
In order to become a professional actor, Ira Aldridge boarded a ship to London and became a Shakespearean actor in the early 1820s. He not only became the first black actor to play the role of Othello, he also played other roles such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Gambia in The Slave, and other roles that denounced the evils of slavery:
Aldridge chose to play a lot of anti-slavery roles, including Othello, as well as the standard lead parts in the repertoire,” said Tony Howard, professor of English at Warwick University.
Not only did his performances call attention to the evils of slavery, they also challenged preconceived notions of what black people were capable of. As you can see in this reproduction of Mr. Aldridge’s 1851 tour advertisements, Ira Aldridge chose to bill himself as “The African Roscius,” a reference to an ancient Roman actor. His performances were heralded for his poise and dignity. The Leeds Times highlights “The passions he admirably portrayed in the human breast.”
No sooner did the Moor make his appearance, than I felt myself, I confess it, instantly subjugated, not by the terrible and menacing look of the hero, but by the naturalness, calm dignity, and by the stamp of power and force that he manifested.
From 1820 to his death in 1867, Mr. Aldridge touredmore than 250 theatres across Britain and Ireland, and more than 225 theatres in Europe. Though he had much more success in Europe, Mr. Aldridge still had to confront prejudices. According to ArtUK.org:
One scathing (and racist) review for The Times claimed that: ‘His figure is unlucky for the stage; he is baker-knee’d and narrow-chested; and owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in such a manner as to satisfy even the fastidious ears of the gallery.’
Thus, Aldridge’s performances confronted and challenged racist views of whether or not a real black person could play Othello, subtly changing the hearts and minds of the European public, at a time when the question of slavery threatened to rip Europe, (and later the United States) apart.
As I’ve written before, Shakespeare has a complicated relationship with the American Civil War, and ironically, many people in the Civil War were Shakespearean actors. More importantly, England at this time was deeply divided about whether or not to support the Union or the Confederacy. England was embroiled in the cotton trade with America, and thus had an economic incentive to support the South. At the same time, public opinion was very much against slavery at the time, and Aldridge helped keep England’s public within that mindset.
Ira Aldridge cared about abolitionism and making life better for black people, especially actors. Not only did he speak out against slavery onstage, he also helped change hearts and minds in local communities. According to ArtUK, in 1828, Mr. Aldridge was approached by Sir Skears Rew to become the new manager of the Coventry Theater. He was the first black man to manage an English theater. Aldridge became a beloved member of the community of Coventry and may have helped inspire the community to petition Parliament to abolish slavery. Thus, Mr. Aldridge’s success in Europe helped open doors for European black actors and encouraged the abolitionist movement, while his sympathetic portrayals of former slaves and oppressed peoples helped change hearts and minds.
Aldridge’s Influence Today
“Aldridge has always interested black stars, but the wider influence he had is not well known,” said Howard. “Robeson was a great fan of his, and when he came to London to play Othello in 1930 at the Savoy, he put on an exhibition about Aldridge in respect of his memory.”
For nearly 100 years, actors and devotees of Mr. Aldridge have been inspired by his life. As the quote above indicates, the next great American Shakespearean Paul Robeson helped build his career on Aldridge’s success; being the first black man to play Othello on the American stage, and eventually touring Europe himself as an actor and a distinguished opera singer. Click below to read more about how Aldridge inspired generations of black actors, and his tours helped bring Shakespeare to many previously unknown European countries.
In modern films and plays, Mr. Aldridge is remembered as a hero, and rightfully so. In the play “Red Velvet,” actor Adrian Lester plays Aldridge and highlights his struggles and successful contributions to the theatre. He was not only a great actor but a dignified and courageous champion of the rights of all people. I’m proud to conclude my black history month posts with this review of the life and career of a man who inspires all Shakespeareans and turned his profession into a powerful call for change.
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. Many others, (as the title implies), want him dead. A faction of outlaw heroes who call themselves The Prodigals are trying to protect Shakespeare, including Juliet and Hamlet, but in this volume, they’ll have to face raging seas, bloodthirsty pirates, and the mind-altering effects of the island in Volume 3, which has pushed them all to near-madness.
My reaction: Volumes 1&2 was framed like a civil war between the heroes and villains of the Shakespeare canon- basically an Infinity War for Shakespeare nerds. This volume is in the context of a high-seas pirate adventure. It has a lot of cool fights and the drama between Cesario and Viola is great, but honestly, I thought it was poorly paced. Maybe it’s my personal taste, but it’s hard to keep myself invested in the story when everyone is stuck on a boat.
As I said in my review of Volume 2, 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:
Most of the drama of the graphic novel centers around Captain Cesario, a dashing rogue pirate, and his first mate/ girlfriend Viola. The main characters from Volume 2, (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Juliet, and Othello), have escaped the effects of the island run by the mad wizard Prospero, but are still shell-shocked at feeling the terrifying psychic effects of that island. This is a clever plot device that basically makes it makes all the characters unnecessary except for Hamlet and Juliet. You could look at this installment as the story of 2 couples, (dare I say twin couples) where Viola and Cesario are fighting over whether or not to join Shakespeare and the other Prodigals, to remain on the high sea as pirates, or to betray them and become ingratiated with the fearsome cannibal-pirate Lucius Andronicus.
I won’t give too much away (there are some spoilers), but let’s just say that the relationships in Volume 2 have been tested to the breaking point; Hamlet and Juliet are having extreme problems, (almost as bad as Hamlet and Ophelia). Viola and Cesario are also fighting constantly. In addition, the ship is constantly under threat from the feared pirate Lucius Andronicus. Will the characters solve their internal conflicts before a mutiny breaks out? Or will they all be cut to pieces by the cannibal Lucius? On this boat, tempests are not kind, and salt waves are fresh with DEATH!
Shakespeare Easter Eggs
Kill Shakespeare, Volume 4 is largely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which, although it mainly focuses on the courts of Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia, does have aspects of pirates, deception, and lovers quarreling. It is interesting (and I give the writers credit) for taking a light-hearted comedy with songs and dances and turning it into a swashbuckling pirate adventure; that takes real imagination, yet it works with the text; the first time we see Viola she is shipwrecked and the captain that saves her life is arrested offstage. This prompts Viola to disguise herself by wearing her twin brothers’ clothes and donning the non-de-plume Cesario, in order to freely behave like a man in a man’s world. Shakespeare already made Viola’s fate intertwined with the sea, so it makes sense that she might want to be a pirate. Kill Shakespeare takes Viola’s two identities and makes them two separate people, both intertwined with a love of the sea.
The graphic novel also conflates and expands other pirate characters from the play; there’s another captain in the play named Antonio who saves Viola’s brother Sebastian, and is accused of being a pirate, While Viola in Twelfth Night is a noblewoman who out of necessity disguises herself as a man and becomes a servant to a Duke, Viola in this version is trying to escape being a noblewoman and becomes a pirate by choice. Meanwhile, Antonio, who denies being a pirate, is changed into the roguish Cesario, who loves Viola as much as Antonio loves her brother Sebastian in the play. Like Antonio, Cesario cares about Viola’s well-being and is willing to sacrifice everything to keep her safe, even being a pirate. This causes friction between the two since again, Viola wants to continue to be a pirate and would rather die than give it up. Their conflicting roles as shipmates and soulmates keep them at odds during the play, sort of like how Cesario’s mask is split down the middle; half tragic, and half comic.
I think this graphic novel is poorly paced. Most of the first half consists of Cesario and Viola arguing about what to do with Shakespeare and the rest of the Prodigals. Their drama is good, but it supersedes everybody else, and I found myself wondering what was going to happen to Shakespeare and the rest, and wishing that they’d got more focus. Othello is reduced to a plot device because he is madly searching for Desdemona, whom he killed during the events of Shakespeare’s play. Othello is no longer the honest, loyal friend to Juliet that he was in the previous editions; now he’s more like The Incredible Hulk, filled with animalistic rage and unable to be controlled except by the love of his friend Juliet. In some ways, Othello was the most likable character in the previous volumes so I hated to see him like this.
In addition, the constant couples’ bickering gets a little bit tedious; I suppose that’s inevitable when you take all the comic elements out of Twelfth Night, (Sir Toby and Feste are back in Volume One, and Malvolio, Fabian, and Olivia are nowhere to be seen). I did enjoy the ending where Viola resolves her conflict with Cesario much the same way Viola solves the problem of her being Cesario in the play. I also like the way that they built up the antagonist Lucius from Titus Andronicus. Lucius is a good choice for a villain in this world because he’s seen some truly horrible things in his own play like his father mutilating people, his brothers and sister murdered, and the worst pie recipe of all time. Making Lucius a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic pirate is a great choice. Still I wish they spent more time fighting with him instead of sailing away from him. In short, the characters are compelling as ever but the action is lagging and the drama is reduced to mostly petty couple squabbling. I would like to see this series pick up in a more action-packed version more in keeping with a graphic novel.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!
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.
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:
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!