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!
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
Happy Pride Month everyone! This month I’m going to concentrate on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” more info on Shakespeare’s comedies, and a few little nerdy analyses, but first I wanted to extend a friendly hand to members of the LGBTQ+ community, whom arguably Shakespeare has celebrated in some of his writing, especially in Midsummer and the other comedies.
The quote on the featured photo comes from “Twelfth Night.” The character Antonio repeatedly mentions how much he loves Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother). He shows a great amount of courage and devotion. Sadly, Sebastian doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, but he is grateful to Antonio, and tries to help him when he gets in trouble.
If you’re interested in queer readings and queer coding in Shakespeare, enjoy this video analysis from Kyle Kalgren and Rantasmo- a scholar who delves into queer representation in popular media:
Let me know if you’d like me to cover more of this topic. I admittedly, haven’t read many Queer Theory papers on Shakespeare, but it’s a fascinating and wide-ranging topic. It also helps develop the case that, as Rantasmo puts it: “If we truly believe (and I do) that Shakespeare is a universal writer, then his plays should be able to speak to all races, cultures, and all forms of love.”
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!
Since today is the last day of women’s history month I thought I’d talk about the historical first ever Shakespearean actress and first-ever English actress. Margaret Hughes (1630-1719), is credited as the first-ever English actress. She led a fascinating life and books, plays, and movies have immortalized her, including the 2004 film, Stage Beauty.
Although there is some debate among scholars as to whether the 1st actress in question was Margaret Hughe, she is the one who has been credited because of her performance as Desdemona in Othello during the reign of King Charles II.
Around 1660s Charles II formally allowed for public performances of women on English stages. Restoration audiences, craving entertainment after the enforced closure of theatres during the Puritan Interregnum, rejoiced. Others, particularly the successful male impersonators of women, were shocked and annoyed as they suddenly lost their celebrity status and were seen as freaks. The stage war that the appearance of actresses initiated resulted in an almost immediate reiteration of almost medieval misogyny and vituperative ostracism directed at any woman who dared to challenge the masculine reign on the English stage. The actresses themselves had to learn both how to act out femininity as seen through male playwrights’ eyes and how to maintain their celebrity status and the audiences’ adoration. This, however, meant more than ‘just’ displaying perfect acting skills and appearing in the best plays available. A successful actress needed to woo the audience, particularly its male members, with her body, or her sexuality in general. She likewise needed to accept, or even engender, vitriolic attacks on her reputation in public discourse and, if possible, utilise such bad publicity to her own advantage. As such, this chapter aims to present a link between medieval anxiety concerning public displays of femininity and the seemingly privileging introduction of the actress in the late seventeenth-century England. It will also present a synthetic image of celebrated actresses’ lives as seen through theatrical records as well as seventeenth-century pamphlets and poetry, proving true the contemporary saying that only lack of press is bad press.
What I’m going to do is give a few historical notes on Margaret Hughes and her portrayal of Desdemona in the production of Othello and then I’m going to simultaneously do a review of the movie that celebrates her life: Stage Beauty (which was also made into a play).
Review Of Stage Beauty
What Shakespeare In Love did for the 16th century, this movie does for the late 17th century: it is awash with beautiful costumes elegant sets and dazzling music. it is a visual feast and everybody in it is fantastic in their roles, especially Billy Crudup as Ned Kyneston, Richard Griffith as Sir Charles, Tom Wilkinson as Thomas Betterton, and of course, Claire Danes as Margaret Hughes.
Hughes is a costumes mender and dresser for Thomas Betterton’s theater company in London as she watches Ned Kyneston every night as he portrays Desdemona in Othello. Mrs. Hughes develops an admiration not only for his performance and skills but also forms romantic feelings for him. However, Mrs. Hughes isn’t content to keep watching Kyneston from the wings, and sneaks off after work to perform as Desdemonaillegally at the Cockpit Tavern to packed houses. When Kyneston finds out, he is livid.
“[He was] the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen
— Samuel Peypes
Kyneston constantly belittles, ignores, and underestimates Hughes through this film and is supremely arrogant to everyone, enjoying the notoriety he’s achieved as the premier female impersonator in London. However, after he offends King Charles (played by Rupert Everett), and his mistress, Nell Gwynn, (herself an aspiring actress), the King in retaliation, bans men from playing women, thereby making Kyneston seem like a degenerate, incapable of getting work. He sinks into alcoholism and depression, but finds comfort when Hughes finds him and nurses him back to health. The two then form a romantic bond.
In the third act twist of the movie, the actress playing Desdemona in Mr. Betterton’s theater is pregnant, so Margaret must take over her role. Kyneston sees an opportunity to regain respectability as an actor, so he demands to be given the role of Othello. In my favorite scene of the film, Kyneston rehearses the death scene of Othello, changing the acting style from over-the-top stylistic 17th century to very modern naturalistic portrayal:
The two actors perform a fantastic modern naturalistic portrayal of Othello before the king, and they both become respected actors who learn to respect each other.
Danes performs with wonderful real pathos as Hughes and Desdemona. In fact, all the performances are great, the the writing is top notch, and as I said the costumes and cinematography are phenomenal. It’s a very fun, slightly naughty romp through Restoration England, not unlike the flirtatious comedies of Behn and Wycherly.
Special merit goes to Billy Crudup, who had to completely transform his voice, gestures, and dialect for the film. He worked closely with a dialect coach, a physical acting coach, and the director Richard Eyre, who has worked in theater for over 20 years, and has a lot of experience with Shakespeare:
The film is not without flaws; there are some plot elements that are a bit dated and a bit unsettling. While it is true that the real Ned Kyneston was rumored to have relationships with both men and women, including famously, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who appears in the movie. Kyneston’s sexual identity is constantly shifting through the course of the movie, and it’s not handled very delicately. In the beginning of the film, Ned seems very firmly homosexual; his relationship with the Duke of Buckingham is played fairly respectfully, though Ned himself is hardly a positive portrayal of a gay or bisexualim man.
Even worse, when Buckingham rejects him, Crudup’s Kyneston seems to be coaxed by Hughes to become heterosexual, which he remains through the course of the movie. Now these actors have fantastic chemistry together, but it seems bizarre that Kyneston is all of a sudden changing his sexual identity at the same time he’s changing his style of performance. That doesn’t seem genuine, (at least in my experience), and it might be offensive to members of the LGBTQ community to assume that a man might think he’s one identity and then choose to be a heterosexual.
Historical Details that the movie gets right:
1 it is true that for hundreds of years it was considered socially unacceptable for women to play parts on the London stage although it was common practice in Italy and France and other countries
2. Ned Kynaston, Thomas Betterton, and of course Mrs. Hughes are real people who performed during the Restoration. However, they actually rarely worked together. Much like the Admiral’s Men and Chamberlain’s men in Shakespeare In Love, The Duke’s Company which is where Betterton worked, while Mrs. Hughed mainly performed in the rival King’s Company.