Shakespearean Tropes In Meow Wolf’s “Omega Mart” (Spoiler alert)

Giant Skull art as part of Area 15. Hamlet would be dazzled.

I just got back from Las Vegas where I had a simulating, terrifying, and extremely engaging trip to the Meow Wolf Area 15! If you haven’t heard of them, Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment group which specializes in creating multimedia experiences, and their most popular and mysterious installation is their apocalyptic grocery store, Omega Mart.

Even if you’ve never been to Omega Mart, you might have seen their website, their ’employee training videos’, or the music videos that have been floating around the Internet. My journey began when I saw this video by the YouTube channel Food Theory. After seeing this video, I, like Matt Pat was compelled to go there myself and discover what Omega Mart was like.

My handwritten notes about the mysteries of Omega Mart that I wanted to explore once I got there.

“We take a lot from open world games [where] you can play the story lines or you can just mess around.  We like giving people that optionality (sic). If you’re a 5 year old kid and you aren’t into reading a bunch of material, you just want to run around and treat it like a playground, and that’s totally fine.”

Vince Cadleback, CEO of Meow Wolf
Video artwork that was projected on the wall of the Forked Earth room

A Note about the experience

Meow Wolf’s CEO has stated that the experience of Omega Mart is ultimately up to you. Similar to Sleep No More, this art installation (and it is an art installation) is much like an experiential theater experience in that there is no proscenium, and you do not sit down; it is not a passive watching experience but an active mystery. In Sleep No More, you followed various actors and watched them act out scenes in front of you. In Omega Mart, the story is more epistulary, meaning that there are no live performances, but you can unlock the story at your own pace through reading journal entries, corporate memos and websites, mini-games, and of course, actors performing in corporate videos, commercials, and even security footage. Like a modern video game, you can just walk around the open world and enjoy it, or you can unlock all the lore and piece together the mystery of Omega Mart yourself. This is story a story that is rife with greed, personal tragedy, family drama and maybe even murder. So of course my Shakespeare brain activated, and I wanted to see if I could find some Shakespearian tropes in the story of Omega Mart. I should mention that this kind of experience is often best when you let it become a surprise, so if you truly want to experience Omega Mart without spoilers, stop reading….

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 OK well if you’ve continued reading grab your tattoo chicken, apply your whale song deodorant and let’s get going!

The Characters

The drama of Omega Mart focuses on a single family, the Dram family: Walter, Charlie, Cecilia and Marin Dram. As you go through the various exibits in the Meow Wolf installation (not just the OmegaMart store), you begin to piece together what happened to them, how this family broke apart, and what Shakespearian tropes can we see within this story.

  1. Charlie Dram: Sir John Falstaff The whole story begins with Charlie Dram; an old garage attendant who lives in the fictional town of Seven Monolith Villiage in Nevada. As you can see in the brochure I photographed above, Charlie runs a small tourist attraction where he guides tours allowing people to see The Forked Earth- a dimensional rift between our world and an alien planet, that is also the fount of a powerful and dangerous place called The Source Well. At some point, Charlie goes into business with his family, who eventually cut him out of their lives.

Henry VI know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

  • King Henry IV, Part II, Act V, Scene 5.
Walter Dram, CEO of Dramcorp
2. Walter Dram: King Lear. This being America of course it was inevitable that somebody would try to capitalize on the Source Well, specifically Walter dram Charlie's brother Walter. Mr. Dram, the CEO of Dramcorp found a way to harness the source and use it it's not explicitly stated but it's highly implied that he took the source to a place called plenty Valley and started using it to revitalize crops out in the Las Vegas desert.
After harnessing The Source, Walter found that he was able to create produce that had unusual properties updates and creep and from there he opened his grocery store omega mart If you go to a megamart the product seem just a little off they all seem to have peculiar names seem to have peculiar properties and in some extreme cases they seem to have inhuman properties like like lemons that are alive! Charlie calls these creatures "mascots;" creatures that have that seem to be living cereal boxes. The source seems to have unpredictable and uncontrollable effects on effects on on natural products but because every Omegamart produce is doused with Additive S (which is Walter's addictive additive made from The Source), customers don't seem to care if they become addicted to any products that are laced with The Source.
Walter finds himself extremely a rich and successful and opens up his corporation Dram Corp in 1977. Decades later in 2020, Walter and promises to make his daughter Cecilia Dram his sucessor when he retires yet he retires, but at some point he must have reneged on that promise and then mysteriously promising Kaz Matzumora the position of CEO. What happened toacilitate the fallout between Walter and Cecilia, we're not sure But it's quite possible that it has something to do with Cecilia's daughter Marin.

Better that thou hast not been born, then not to have pleased me better.

King Lear

So we have a rich and successful man, who, now that he’s getting old, desires to pass his empire on to younger people, including his daughter. At the same time, he refuses to let go of power, and is willing to throw family under the bus to get his way, as he did with Charlie, and would have done with Marin, (more on that later). Let’s just say, it is very easy to spot the parallels between Walter Dram, and King Lear. Look at this video below where Walter seems to repent for his greed and abandoning his family, though it takes place in an ethereal prison.

  • LearPray, do not mock me.
    I am a very foolish fond old man,
    Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
    And, to deal plainly,
    I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
    Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
    Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
    What place this is; and all the skill I have
    Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
    Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
    For (as I am a man) I think this lady
    To be my child Cordelia.
King Lear Act IV, Scene vii.

When I watched the Film Theory about Omega Mart, I thought Walter was like King Duncan in Macbeth, and his daughter Cecelia was Lady Macbeth, killing Walter to gain his power. The truth though, is much more complicated, and it centers around Walter’s granddaughter, Marin.

2. Marin Dram: Cordelia from King Lear, Miranda from The Tempest

if you look at the videos in Charlie’s office you can see Cecilia Dram (Walter’s daughter), drinking the Source. Within a minute she starts having cramps, and convulsions; she has been literally impregnated by the Source! Her daughter Marin was conceived by Cecilia Dram and the Source. But, there’s a catch; Marin, because she was created from the Source, cannot be too far from the Source Well. So, rather than living with her her mother and grandfather at Dramcorp, she’s forced to live in a yurt in Seven Monolith Village, very close to the Source Well.

Tarot cards found in Marin’s desk.

Marin’s diary expresses a deep sense of loneliness and a desire to explore the world, not unlike Prospero’s daughter Miranda in The Tempest. She also expresses romantic feelings for Rose, a girl who lives in Seven Monolith, (who according to Charlie, is the granddaughter of a woman who successfully translated the language of the aliens who created the Source Well). The wonderful music video “Marin’s dream” playing below, shows cogent references to Marin having bisexual feelings for Rose and fear towards her mother. This is partly because, since Marin is connected to the Source and her family has been exploiting The Source for profit, she is fearful that her mother will exploit her for her Source-given powers .

We are such suff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep

Prospero- The Tempest

It is further revealed that Marin is capable of creating living creatures with her own mind because of her connection to the Source. Below is a drawing by Marin of a hampster These powers make her highly desirable to both of Cecilia and Walter. As Charlie mentions in the brochure, there are living product creatures called mascots and it seems likely that Marin is literally creating these creatures in her sleep!

At the end of the music video you can see Marin going through a portal in the wall. In Seven Monolith you can access numerous posters, emails, and phone calls that discuss and speculate about Marin’s disappearance. Some say she ran away from home, some say she was violently sucked into the portal, but the music video makes it very clear that Marin Dram chose to leave Seven Monolith Villiage, and to leave our universe as we know it. Why? It probably has to do with her mother, Cecilia Dram.

Cecilia’s letter to Charlie, May 2017

Cecelia Dram: Goneril and prosperO

Like I said before, I was expecting Cecelia to be the villain in the story- a power-hungry “thankless child,” (as King Lear puts it), who murdered her own father to take control of his empire. Now it’s possible that she did want to take the company at some point, but what also seems clear is that Cecelia is also seeking redemption for herself, and a reunion for her family.

Cecelia and Walter’s Disappearance

In a highly classified video that you can only access in the Dram Corp offices, Walter and Cecilia confront each other about Marin, and Walter seems to be intent on exploiting her gifts for profit. At this point, the video cuts out, but the audio tells us that Walter has fallen into the Source Well. It’s unclear whether he fell or if Cecilia or Marin pushed him, but what we do know is that Walter in every subsequent and email and communication with the board is referred to as “traveling.” When I first saw this, I thought that it meant that Cecilia had murdered Walter simply to gain control of the company, but it seems to be wilder than that; it seems that Cecilia might have thrown Walter into the source well to protect her daughter, but now wishes to get him back.

Once Walter falls into the Source Well, he actually absorbed so much Source that he no longer has a physical form; he seems to have ascended to a higher plane of existence and as you can see in this whiteboard, there’s a rumor that he is actually hiding somewhere in the Omega Mart facility. I won’t give away where he actually is though; you’ll have to discover it yourself.

Cecilia’s motives are the most interesting and ambiguous in the course of the Omegamart storyline. Her demeanor changes drastically after the disappearance of her father and daughter; it seems that she is trying to harness the power of the source not for profit but for but to cause her employees to “Ascend to a higher plan of existence.” Other members of the board in teleconferences seem frustrated with her, accusing her of no longer taking an interest in selling products anymore and that she seems to be coming down with strange cult-like behavior. Look at this highly confusing LED talk she gave one month after Walter’s disappearance:

So it’s ambiguous what Cecilia’s motives are- it could be that she’s attempting to create an army of Source-addicted zombies to do her bidding. It’s also possible that she is trying to figure out how to replicate the same experience as Walter and Marin. Maybe she wants to try and replicate what happened to them, so she can see them again.

Further evidence also supports that Cecelia is desperate to contact Marin and Walter by the fact that in addition to working on LAT, (her employee advancement program), Cecilia is also pushing her research team to create inter-dimensional portals. The clip above in which Cecilia talks to her DART scientists strongly implies what Cecilia really wants to do is to find her daughter in whatever dimension that she’s actually in. Notice that when the test subject mentions a teenage girl he sees in his dreams, Cecelia immediately drops everything to talk to him. Soon after that, DART starts working on DRAMNILATE, a technology that allows researchers to look inside people’s dreams, and test them on the exact same employee as before. Clearly Cecelia is hellbent on finding Marin anywhere, even in dreams!

Through the entire Omegamart storyline, it is ambiguous as to whether Cecilia is the hero or the villain. Her quest to find her family is noble, but she is hiding behind a mask of unbridled capitalism and exploiting a company that creates an addictive substance to do it. It seems almost Faustian that Cecelia has made a deal with the Devil to try and get her family back.

 Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done. No harm.

I have done nothing but in care of thee,

Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who

Art ignorant of what thou art…

The Tempest , Act I, Scene ii.

So what does this have to do with Shakespeare? When I saw how Cecelia was protecting Marin I saw a king Lear trope; a greedy cruel old man who places his kingdom ahead of even his own family. Lear’s daughter Goneril lies to him and rejects him, but she does so to protect herself. Cecelia is alike a Goneril who protects Cordelia, the youngest and most innocent of Lear’s daughters, while Marin is like Cordelia herself.

Zenion creature (left), and illustration of Caliban (right).

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me! When thou camest first,
I loved thee And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king!

Caliban, Act I Scene ii.

Looking at the totality of the Omegamart story, there are several connections to the Tempest Calliban the creature that lives on Prospero’s island bears striking similarities to the Zenions. He is described as being man and fish, much like the Zenions. Further, Caliban is not a native inhabitant of the island; he was brought over by the witch Sycorax and Prospero exploited him after Sycorax died, much like how the Dram family, especially Walter, exploited The Zenion’s magical Source.

In both cases, the Prospero character has both noble and ingnoble goals- Prospero wants to get himself and his daughter home, but also to revenge his exile to the island. Walter and Cecilia seem like Prospero split in two: there is a light side that wishes to defend Marin and see her safely home,and the dark side that wishes to exploit The Source and addict unwitting consumers.

I won’t give away how the story of omegamart ends but let’s just say that Walter gets across the notion that he has repented for his greed, and wishes to free the Source from the factory, much like how Prospero frees Ariel at the end of The Tempest. In both cases, YOU are the necessary person to help free Walter. Both Walter and the Meow Wolf team have hinted that there are new areas of Omega Mart that guests haven’t unlocked yet. Perhaps you will be the one to unlock the secret to free Walter, and the Source!

  • ProsperoNow my charms are all o’erthrown,
    And what strength I have’s mine own,
    Which is most faint: Let me not,
    Since I have my dukedom got
    And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
    In this bare island by your spell;
    But release me from my bands
    With the help of your good hands:
    And my ending is despair,
    Unless I be relieved by prayer,
    Which pierces so that it assaults
    Mercy itself and frees all faults.
    As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
    Let your indulgence set me free.
Prospero. Act V, Scene i

Thanks for reading this post. If you enjoyed reading it, leave a comment below. Please also relate any Omega Mart stories you had at Area 15!

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.

The Concept

Clip from Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.

Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.

Stage Olivier
Olivier as King Henry stands on a reconstruction of The Globe Theater in his 1944 film.

While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.

While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.

Derek Jacobi as the Chrous in Henry V

Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.

When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.

Branaugh in King Henry V

What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.

Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:

King Henry (Branaugh), talks in disguise to the soldier Williams (Michael Williams)
Comparison between Olivier’s 1944 version, and Branaugh’s 1989 movie portrayals of the Battle of Agincourt.

The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.

Non Nobis scene from Henry V

The Plot Of the Play

  • King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
  • The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
  • Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
  • Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais 
  • The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
  • Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.

Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.    

Historical Context

My Favorite Moments

I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.

  1. Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.

Supporting Cast

Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”

Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.

Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.

My Reaction

In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:

Branaugh in an interview with Bobbie Wygant in 1989.

Remembering David Warner

https://www.rsc.org.uk/news/david-warner

I’m saddened to report the death of a great British thespian and a versitile character actor. David Warner rose to priminance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, whre he played a celebrated Hamlet, a saintly King H enry VI, and many many others.

Warner as King Henry VI, RSC 1965

https://www.thehamletpodcast.com/hall

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/stage/2022/jul/25/david-warner-was-gentle-inquisitive-and-stunning-on-stage

Warner’s stage career falls into two distinct halves: a youthful decade of riotous acclaim and a late-life flowering separated by a period from 1972 to 2001 when he forsook the stage to carve out a career in cinema. Yet in both youth and age he showed similar gifts: an innate gentleness of spirit, a sense of latent melancholy, an inquisitive intellect

Shakespeare Crafts: Shield

Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight
With hearts more proof than shields

Coriolanus, Act 1, Scene iv.
Roman re-enactors demonstrate a testudo formation (The Tortoise). Wikimedia Commons.

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.

DIY Roman shield
A replica of an ancient Celtic shield.

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!

Man fighting with a sword and buckler.
Illustration of a man fighting with a sword and buckler

Swashbuckling

[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?

A series of heraldric devices from the Royal College of Arms.

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!

Your Motto

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.

Regal coat of arms for King Richard III. Note the white boar, (Richard’s personal charge). Note also that he has combined the 3 red lions of the royal house of Plantagenet, with the blue and gold fleur de lis of the crown of France. Richard claims the throne of England and France and combining heraldic imagery is known as “marshaling.”

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.

References:

  1. English Heritage Guide To Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry

3. https://www.thearma.org/essays/SwordandBucklerP4.htm#.YtysVlfMLq8

Shout out to theatrevibe.com

This website got a lovely shout-out from Lizzie Loveridge member of the Critics Circle,  the national professional body of British critics for dance, drama, film, music, books, and visual arts. I’m truly honored, and, to return the favor, I’m going to repost one of her reviews for this year’s Globe Theater production of “Much Ado About Nothing” here:

Review of the 2022 Globe Theater production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” from TheaterVibe.com

Thank you Ms. Loveridge, and thanks for reading!

How “Hamilton” is like a Shakespearean History Play

If you have two ears, you’re probably familiar with the Broadway Musical Hamilton. It swept the Tonys, has opened up touring productions across the country, and there’s already talk of a movie.

This historic American musical was the brainchild of writer Lin Manuel Miranda, who also originated the role of Alexander Hamilton.

The show is incredibly smart, creative, and delves into the seminal moments of American history.

What’s really exciting to me is that Hamilton also has a depth and complexity that mirrors some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, specifically the history plays.

Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote 10 plays about the lives of English kings, from the vain Richard the Second to the heroic Henry the Fifth, to the diabolical Richard the Third. Here is a list of Shakespearean history plays, with links to online study guides, listed in chronological order by reign, not publication date.

  1. King John
  2. Richard the Second
  3. Henry the Fourth, Part I
  4. Henry the Fourth, Part II
  5. Henry the Fifth
  6. Henry the Sixth , Part I
  7. Henry the Sixth , Part II
  8. Henry the Sixth , Part III
  9. Richard the Third
  10. Henry the Eighth

Are these Shakespearean history plays historically accurate by our standards? No, not by a long shot, though Shakespeare is only partially to blame for that. While Lin Manuel-Miranda had Hamilton’s own essays, his letters from friends and loved ones, and of course, every American history book at his disposal, Shakespeare’s sources were few, and mostly propaganda. They were, (to paraphrase Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin), “A series of lies, composed by winners, to excuse their hanging of the losers.”
Shakespeare’s genius however, was to turn these two-dimensional propaganda stories into three dimensional characters with which we can all identify. Miranda did the same thing in reverse- distilling his wealth of historical information into a universal story of a man’s quest for the American Dream. Hamilton went from being an immigrant, to a soldier, to a pioneer in American law, government, and finance and the musical reflects his struggle to achieve his dreams through each stage of his life. It is also a love song from America to a man who dreamed of a future for America, one not dissimilar to the ode Shakespeare wrote to his “Star of England,” Henry the Fifth. The greatest compliment I can give Miranda is to say that he created an American musical, with the scale and breadth of Shakespeare.

Part I: War and Peace

In Shakespeare’s histories, particularly the first tetracycle of plays that include Richard the Second, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard, III, there is a constant shift between war and peace, as scholar Robert Hunter observes. These plays cover the 200 year period of Wars of the Roses, and the end of the Hundred Years War. In all of these plays there are some very violent and very opportunistic young men who see war as an opportunity to rise above their stations. In war, they win glory in death, honor, respect, and status in life. However, in peacetime, they have “no delight to pass away the time,” as Richard III observes, and they struggle to survive in the political landscape of peace.

Hamilton is a man of this same mold: When we first meet him, he is a poor immigrant from the West Indies with no title or money to improve his status. He spends the first third of the musical wishing he could become a commander in the Revolutionary War, especially in the song: “My Shot”


Once Hamilton joins the revolution, his fortunes start to improve; he becomes George Washington’s aide-de-camp, then becomes a war hero in the Battle of Yorktown, and marries Eliza Schyler, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America.

Hamilton in war bears similarities to Shakespearean characters like Hotspur, Richard Duke of York, and even Richard III; people who see war as a chance to either die in glory, or become honored, wealthy, and powerful.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, he fares less well once the war ends. Even though he becomes Washington’s first Secretary Of the Treasury, his success and closeness to now-President Washington makes him a walking target to his political adversaries. Even worse, his ambition and inability to compromise makes Hamilton equally vulnerable to people who see him as a loudmouth, an elitist, and a would-be demagogue who wants to control America’s finances and live like a king, similar to the way the British Prime Minister controls England’s finances.

The character Hamilton resembles most in peacetime is Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
I happen to know a lot about this character since I played him back in 2008. Wolsey controlled Henry VIII’s finances and was hated by most of Henry’s court because he was the son of a poor butcher in Essex, and became the king’s right-hand man. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, the lords of court are whispering about how Wolsey really controls the government; they even call him the ‘king cardinal’!

The real life Wolsey appears to have been hated just as much by Henry’s lords. Just look at the faces of the people of the court in this painting of the king and Wolsey by Laslett John Pott; the lords on the right are clearly jealous of Wolsey’s closeness to the king.

Potter, Laslett John, 1837-1880; The Dismissal of Cardinal Wolsey
Laslett John Pott, The Dismissal of Cardinal Wolsey, 1874

In both plays, Washington and King Henry are treated like gods- invulnerable, aloof, and completely above reproach.

Whenever anything bad happens in the play or musical, the legislature blames Wolsey and Hamilton, not the King or the President. Also, in both plays each one falls from grace and is destroyed by his enemies when the king and president no longer supports their right-hand-men.

Wolsey and Hamilton both fall because of their position as the financial advisor, which makes them a target to their enemies. Both are accused of using their country’s finances to enhance their personal wealth, which leads him to scandal and disgrace.

In Henry the Eighth , Wolsey is certainly guilty of conspiring to use his country’s wealth to line his own pockets- he pays the cardinals in Rome to influence their vote in the hopes that he will become the next Pope!

Pettie, John, 1839-1893; The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey
John Pettie: The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, 1869

CARDINAL WOLSEY

What should this mean?
What sudden anger’s this? how have I reap’d it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leap’d from his eyes: so looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall’d him
Then makes him nothing. I must read this paper;
I fear, the story of his anger. ‘Tis so;
This paper has undone me: ’tis the account
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends; indeed, to gain the popedom,
And fee my friends in Rome. O negligence!
Fit for a fool to fall by: what cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the king? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again. What’s this? ‘To the Pope!’
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to’s holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall

Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more. Henry the Eighth Act III, Scene ii.

Again, though Wolsey is guilty, like Hamilton he also used his financial genius to bring England into a new age of prosperity after centuries of war. The Tudors were some of the richest and most powerful monarchs in British history, and Wolsey helped establish their dynasty, but thanks to his enemies, he is turned out of court in disgrace:

O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. Henry VIII, Act III, Scene ii.

Hamilton is also accused of embezzling his wealth by his enemies, including James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson


Hamilton’s enemies argue that his banking system benefits New York, where Hamilton was part of the House Of Representatives, as well as the Constitutional Convention. The main difference between Wolsey and Hamilton is that he didn’t embezzle America’s money, he is actually guilty of a far worse sin- adultery. Hamilton is accused of having an affair, and embezzling funds to keep it quiet, which he denies in a spectacular fashion:

In both plays, the moment where the main character begins to fall is dramatized in a stirring, metaphor-rich soliloquy. Wolsey compares himself to the Sun, who, once he reaches the zenith of the sky, has nowhere to go but down to the west, and set into night.

Hurricane, From Hamilton: An American Musical. Reprinted from DeviantArt.com

Hurricane From “Hamilton: An American Musical. Reposted from Deviant Art.com

Hamilton compares his situation to being in the eye of a hurricane, a particularly apt metaphor, since the real Alexander Hamilton’s house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1772. In addition, Lin Manuel Miranda‘s parents come from Puerto Rico an island that has, (and continues to be,) ravaged by hurricanes.

In the song, “Hurricane,” Hamilton remembers that when he lost everything as a boy in 1772, he beat the hurricane by writing a letter which was published in the newspaper, and inspired so much pity that the residents of the island raised enough money to send Alexander to America.


Later in the song, Hamilton decides to try to soothe the political hurricane that has engulfed him by writing a pamphlet, admitting the affair, but denying any embezzlement. Eventually the scandal destroys Hamilton’s career, but it doesn’t destroy his life; for that we have to look at the Shakespearean rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Part II- The Duel: Hamilton and Burr V Henry and Hotspur.
Aaron Burr and Hamilton keep meeting at important moments in the show, as if their fates are intertwined like gods in some kind of Greek tragedy.

Hamilton and Burr appear as polar opposites in the musical. Hamilton is fiery, opinionated, uncompromising, and highly principled. He ruffles feathers, but his supporters know where he stands. Burr is the opposite. He keeps his views to himself, and waits for the most opportune time to act on anything. Throughout the play, Hamilton and Burr hate and admire different things about each other. Hamilton admits that Burr’s cool practicality helps him to practice the law and succeed in politics, while Burr admires Hamilton’s energy and his ability to work and write as if his life depends on it, especially in the song “The Room Where It Happens.”


After Hamilton endorses Jefferson in the election of 1800, Burr loses the race, and the job of Vice President. In the musical, he blames Hamilton, and their grievance grows into a deadly conflict.


The rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr mirrors many characters in Shakespeare, but the two I want to focus on here are Hotspur and Prince Hal from Henry the Fourth Part One

As this video from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows, these two combatants meet only once in the play, but they are constantly compared to each other by the other characters, who talk about them as if they were twins, (they even have the same first name)! Even the king remarks that his son could have been switched at birth with Hotspur.

Prince Henry (known as Hal in the play), is the heir to the throne. Like Burr in Hamilton, Hal is methodical, cool, keeps his feelings to himself, and is known by some as a Machiavellian politician. Hotspur, (or Henry Percy), is his opposite. Like Hamilton he is fiery, eloquent, and not afraid to die for his cause, which in Hotspur’s case is to supplant the royal family and correct what he believes is an unjust usurpation by Hal’s father, King Henry the Fourth.

In the scene below, the two men seem hungry to not only kill one another, but to win honor and fame as the man who killed the valiant Henry. Whether it’s Henry Percy, or Prince Henry who will die, is something they can only find out by dueling to the death.

HOTSPUR

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.

PRINCE HENRY

Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.

HOTSPUR

My name is Harry Percy.

PRINCE HENRY

Why, then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.

HOTSPUR

Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come
To end the one of us; and would to God
Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!

PRINCE HENRY

I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee;
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.

HOTSPUR

I can no longer brook thy vanities.

They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls

HOTSPUR

O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for– Dies.

Hamilton’s duel is also a matter of honor; Alexander wants to defend his statements against Burr, while Burr wants to stop Hamilton from frustrating his political career. Here is how their duel plays out in the musical Hamilton:


Just like Burr, Prince Hal feels remorse after killing his worthy adversary.

PRINCE HENRY

For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I’ll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave. Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene iv.

III. The Times

Yorktown battlefield plaque

In both Hamilton and all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the characters know that they are living during important events and their actions will become part of the history of their country, and none more than Washington. In the song, “History has its eyes on you,” he warns Hamilton that, try as one might, a man’s history and destiny is to some extent, out of his control, which echoes one of King Henry the Fourth’s most bleak realizations:

Henry IV. O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and die. Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene i.

Washington is keenly aware of his legacy and does his best to protect it. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV,the king also lies awake trying to figure out how to deal with the problems of his kingdom, which is why Shakespeare gives him the famous line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Likewise, Richard II, makes a famous speech where he mentions how many kings have a gruesome legacy of dying violently:

As we see the whole story of Hamilton’s life, his fate changes constantly and his legacy shifts in every scene of the show: immigrant, war-hero, celebrated writer, Secretary of the Treasury, but then, once he published The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton went from famous to infamous. After After Burr murdered him in the duel, Hamilton might have been utterly forgotten, in spite of all his great accomplishments. This is a key theme in all history and tragedies; the desire of every man to create a lasting legacy for himself, and thus transcend mortality.

The women who tell the story


Fortunately for Hamilton, the women of his story also help to preserve it. Historically, most of Hamilton’s archives were preserved by his wife Eliza Schyler, and she and her sisters help shape the story from the beginning to the end of the show. Hamilton’s sister in law Angelica sets up this theme by literally rewinding the scene of her first meeting with Alexander, and then retelling how she and Hamilton met from her own point of view.

Once her sister marries Hamilton, Eliza Schuyler asks to “be part of the narrative.” She knows she married a important man and that his life will someday become part of American history. Eliza wants to be a part of that historic narrative.

When Hamilton commits adultery and writes the Reynolds pamphlet though, Eliza is so hurt and scandalized that she rescinds her requests. In the song “Burn,” she destroys her love letters from before the affair, and all correspondence she had with Alexander when he revealed it. Lin Manuel Miranda explained that he wrote the song this way because no records during this period survived, so he invents the notion of Eliza destroying them as a dramatic device, to heighten her estrangement from her husband. Though this is a contrivance, it does re-enforce how, when part of the story is lost, it twists and destroys part of our impression of a person. Shakespeare knew this too; Henry Tudor went to great lengths to destroy the legacy of his predecessor Richard the Third, and literally repainted him as a deformed tyrant. Shakespeare couldn’t escape the narrative of Richard as a monster when he wrote his history play and sadly helped to perpetuate it to this day.


At the end of the play though, Eliza changes her mind yet again, as the final song I placed earlier shows, Eliza spends the last 50 years of her life to preserving and protecting her husband’s name, as well as Washington, all the founding fathers, and children who can grow up knowing that story at her orphanage. This song illustrates clearly that in the end, a man’s story is defined by the people who tell it, and Hamilton is fortunate to have such a creative, energetic and talented writer/ actor in Lin Manuel Miranda, and the cast of Hamilton, to preserve the story in such a Shakespearean way.

Bravo.

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Educational links related to Hamilton:

Books

download

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter. A complete libretto of the show, with notes on its creative conception. download (1)

download (2)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. This is the book that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to create the show. It is a stirring, well-researched historical biography.

TV:

“Hamilton’s America” PBS Program. Originally Aired 2016. Official Webpage: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/hamiltons-america/ You can watch the full documentary here: http://www.tpt.org/hamiltons-america/

Web:
Biography. Com- Alexander Hamilton:https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.biography.com/.amp/people/alexander-hamilton-9326481

Founders Online: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Columbia University, accessed 11/12/17 from https://founders.archives.gov/about/Hamilton

House Of Representatives Biography: Alexander Hamilton- IIhttp://history.house.gov/People/Listing/H/HAMILTON,-Alexander-(H000101)/

Resources on Shakespeare’s History Plays:

Books

  1. Shakespeare English Kings by Peter Saccio. Published Apr. 2000. Preview available: https://books.google.com/books?id=ATHBz3aaGn4C
  2. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. Available online at https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_Our_Contemporary.html?id=QIrdQfCMnfQC
  3. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
  4. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
  5. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by
  6. Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding Published: 16 Jan 2013.

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  7. Will In the World
  8. Will In the World by Robert Greenblatt
  9. Will In the World by Prof. Steven Greenblatt, Harvard University. September 17, 2004. Preview available https://www.amazon.com/Will-World-How-Shakespeare-Became/dp/1847922961

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TV:Shakespeare Uncovered: Henry the Fourth. Originally Aired February 1, 2013. Available at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/episodes/

Websites