One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.
This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.
The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.
Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story
Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.
I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.
I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.
Part II: The women take wing
During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.
Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.
Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:
Tomorrow in honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll be talking about the smash-hit Broadway show “Six,” a musical history retelling of the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII. In preparation, watch this excellent documentary about the Tudor Dynasty!
Today I’ll be tracing the recurring themes and motifs that evolved from Shakespeare’s last solo play, “The Tempest,” and chart a course that explains the evolution of this play into the beloved Star Trek franchise.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is based on a real story. As I said before, the story might have come from a traveler’s story about visiting the island of Bermuda in the early 1600s. The idea of Europeans going to an uncharted island, meeting the strange inhabitants, and ‘civilizing’ them, might have inspired Shakespeare to write the story of Prospero.
In addition to the Bermuda story, the age of English colonization had firmly begun at this time. The first English colony in America, Jamestown was settled in 1607, and The Tempest came out 1611.
At the same time, The King was worried about magic and trying to marry his daughter off to a prince.
Shakespeare wasn’t allowed to comment on contemporary issues, so instead of setting the play in England or even contemporary Europe, he set it on a fantastical island with spirits Prospero can control. His control becomes a metaphor for colonization. At the same time, we see a fantasy version of James’ daughter’s marriage in the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. The motifs of discovering strange new worlds and encountering new races of people form the core of Star Trek and space-based science fiction in general, and an adaptation of The Tempest in the 1950s would set the template that the Enterprise and her crew would be built on.
“Forbidden planet”- The Tempest goes Sci-Fi
Forbidden Planet is a story about a dashing, adventurous captain, a curmudgeonly doctor, and a science officer who are from a United group of planets that peacefully searches for “brave new worlds,” and the people in them. Obviously, these characters are very similar to Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Spok, so clearly Star Trek owes its initial creation to the success of Forbidden Planet, which was a Sci-fi adaptation of the Tempest. The question then is if there is there more that we can say about the connection between Shakespeare and Star Trek.
Star Trek’s relationship with Shakespeare
The main connective tissue of Star Trek and The Tempest is the use of exotic locations and alien cultures to explore issues that were close to home. When people in 1600 went to see Hamlet Prince of Denmark they didn’t see an ancient legend of a Viking Prince as the original Amleth, written by Saxo Grammaticus; what they saw was a thoroughly modern story of a Renaissance Prince tackling theological issues that had only just been dreamt of by the English protestants; issues of predestination, issues of Calvinism, issues of the questions about the issue the existence of purgatory, etc. That would have been unheard of to the original audience of Prince Hamlet. The appeal was seeing a different place and time to retell an ancient legend that at the same time spoke to the present time of the 17th century. Star Trek does the same thing only looking to the future instead of the past.
Like Star Trek, Shakespeare used exotic locations to examine issues that were universal, (no pun intended), issues that were very much for the consumption of his audience. Look at Star Trek; every alien race the Enterprise encounters is an allegory for some culture or idea on Earth, like the two-toned alien Lokai and Bele that represent segregation and racism, or the Klingons who represented the Soviet Union, or the Borg, who represent imperialism and authoritarianism, cults, and to a certain extent fascism,
In Star Trek, space-age technology was always secondary to character; it was always about fragmenting the human condition into different recognizable alien species. Through the characters of Dr. McCoy, Captain Kir, and Mr. Spok, Star Trek examines humanity through 3 distinct points of view; that of Kirk the wide-eyed Explorer, McCoy, the cynical doctor with a heart of gold, and the cold and logical Mr. Spock. As the series went on, the allegories to contemporary affairs grew more nuanced, like how in Star Trek 6, the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons represents the final days of the Soviet Union, and the fear on both sides of what a post-Cold War world would be like.
Star Trek The Next Generation: The Tempest, Reformed.
Why did the creators of Star Trek cast Patrick Stewart, the foremost Shakespearean actor of his time, to play the captain of the Enterprise? I would say it is because Shakespeare is a writer who follows some of the same tropes that Star Trek would later use, so the creators needed a Shakespearean actor to communicate these ideas to the audience.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation first came out in the mid-1980s; the lens through which we saw alien cultures changed significantly: Picard sees humanity and the universe through a sentimental lens; viewing all cultures with no concept of superiority or paternalism. Like Shakespeare, Picard sees these cultures as his own and all worthy of respect. That’s why these cultures are often drawn to him and embrace him as one of their own, such as in the episode where he literally lives the life of a man named Kamin on the now-dead planet of Katan, and becomes the only living man to pass on their stories:
Picard’s greatest antagonist Q is a warped mirror of Picard; somebody who sees humanity as a plaything but nonetheless is intrigued and fascinated by human nature:
Taken together, Picard and Q are like the two sides of Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest. Simmilar to how Dr. Morbius represents Prospero’s ego in Forbidden Planet, Picard represents the superego- the part devoted to improving the lives of his crew and the aliens he helps, and who looks at each “brave new world,” he encounters with awe and respect.
Q however, is Prospero’s Id- a malevolent, cynical, vengeful man, (who like Prospero in the episode Deja Q, is actually banished from his rightful place in the Q Continuum). He torments and enslaves creatures for his own amusement and his curiosity about humanity is more morbid and sadistic than scientific or philosophical. With this in mind, it makes sense that Q has been such an enduring part of the Star Trek series since he is an essential component of the series’ psychological makeup.
Science fiction in general is about possibilities- looking at where we came from and where we are and asking questions about where we are going. Generally speaking, Shakespeare looked more to the past than the future, but his conclusions were pretty much the same- he saw “What a piece of work man is,” but also feared greatly for his survival. Star Trek takes these concepts and projects them out to the far future. Even though in the 24rth century humans have mastered space travel, eliminated poverty, and put aside petty prejudice, people are still people and the conflicts they have don’t change. What’s great about Star Trek is how well both choose to tell the eternal story of the human condition, looking before and after and making some truly profound discourse on what it means to be human. Perhaps the real final frontier is the same as the first- the human heart.
Stagecraft has a fascinating and interesting history. The way we portray spectacle on stage has changed a lot since the advent of television and movies, which utilize computers and animatronics, etc. to create impossible things that could never be is shown live. In a way, the pre-recorded nature of film and TV gives theater practitioners an advantage because the more clever they are with their stagecraft, the more impressive it is for the simple fact that it is live- happening right now in front of an audience.
What I want to do with this post is to speculate whether, with the technology of the time, if Shakespeare could have used some kind of visual spectacle to portray otherworldly creatures, such as the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth
The conventional wisdom
Most books I’ve read on Elizabethan stagecraft say that the theaters of this era were very minimalistic in design. They had trap doors, they had galleries, they had a primitive flying rig, and they had music and some simple sound effects, but most of the experience was watching the actors, their costumes, their bodies, and hearing their voices hence ‘audience’- audio, “To hear.”
We are told there wasn’t much visual representation of spectacle and fantasy on Shakespeare’s stage, which which is is odd because there are some pretty fantastical elements in his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, where the former calls for a ghost and the latter calls for a ghost, witches, and a literal goddess to appear on stage. How may one ask, was this achieved back in Shakespeare’s day, the late 1590s and the early 1600s? The conventional wisdom is that the ghosts in Hamlet and the ghost in Macbeth came through a trap door in the stage known as Hell.
If you’re you go to the Globe now you can see this actual trap door being used. It used a primitive pully system to open up in the middle of the floor. The ghost would ascend to the stage through a small step ladder. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is described as wearing a suit of armor and being very pale. Banquo’s ghost is described as having long hair dappled with blood.
Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet in Macbeth’s honor. Based on this hypothesis it’s likely that a banqueting table was brought out into the middle of a stage to conceal the ghost, to make it more of a surprise when it ascends onstage through the trap door, but the effect to modern taste would be rather dull. However impressive the performance, this cannot stand up to the stunning nature of visual effects using computer technology, motion capture, et cetera. I wanted to see if there are any Elizabethan theatrical illusions that would still have been accessible to Shakespeare back in the 1590s.
Idea #1: A Smoke-monster ghost?
My research began with this video from the YouTube History Channel Atun-Shei Films, where the author traces the history of film, (both as photography and film as a projection). He cites at the start, an incident in 1536 where a supposed necromancer appeared to conjure a ghost for an unsuspecting rube. According to The Lives Of the Necromancers, the solution was achieved by creating huge clouds of smoke within the theater space, (which was the Colosseum) and then using a primitive camera obscure to project a frightening image Into this space.
Camera Obscura is a term is it Latin for dark chamber the principal had been discovered for century had existed for centuries bit is for centuries but only in the 1530s this was the 1st recorded example of it being used to create a theatrical illusion.
The question is, could Shakespeare’s company have performed the same illusion with the technology of the day? Honestly, I find it rather unlikely that Shakespeare’s audience would’ve put up with huge clouds of smoke in a wooden amphitheater. Still, the fact remains that primitive projection technology existed back in Shakespeare’s day, which means a director could reasonably implement it in a production of Hamlet or Macbeth, even under the constraints of Original Practices.
So the question remains, is there a visually striking way to represent the ghosts that could actually work in Shakespeare’s theater. My first idea is…
Idea 1: Glow In the Dark Paint
Glow-in-the-dark paint wasn’t invented until 1908, but there are some rocks that naturally glow such as hackmanite and phosphorus.
Theoretically, Shakespeare’s company could have crushed this rock into a powder and made it into a paint that glowed onstage. There is precedent for this- in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the terrifying ghost-hound is merely a large dog painted with phosphorescent paint:
In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.
“Phosphorus,” I said.
“A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead animal.
Doyle, Part IV.
Though this paint would potentially make a terrifying effect, this would be impossible at an outdoor theater during the day. This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare used glow-in-the-dark paint at the Globe, as most of the performances took place in the afternoon. That said, both Hamlet and were written just at the point in which Shakespeare’s company was in the process of acquiring an indoor theater, the Blackfriars.
The Blackfriars and Shakespeare’s stagecraft
Almost all of these ideas would depend on Shakespeare having access to a theatre in which he could control the lighting. As you can see, the Blackfriars was lit with candles and its indoor nature meant that performances weren’t dependent on sunlight. Greg Doran, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has theorized in the past that maybe while his company was preparing to move into the Blackfriars, Shakespeare was changing his material to make it both literally and figuratively darker.
In the reconstructed Blackfriars, (where I studied and interned for three years), there is a trap-door and flying rig like the Globe, so the conventional trap-door ghost can and has been utilized there. I would also argue that in the Blackfriars unlike the Globe, there was a chance for more variety of theatrical illusions- perhaps a smoke projection, magic lantern, or even…
Idea 3: A Pepper’s ghost
A Peppers Ghost is a stage illusion that dates back to the 19th century. It uses the principle of refracted light to project the image of a ghost on top of a piece of glass. This image will appear translucent and could be very impressive to an audience at the Blackfriars! As you can see in the diagram below, the actor could be under the stage in the trap door standing in front of a mirror, and the glass sheet could be used to project his image to the audience. The only concern would be that this could limit the blocking of the other actors, and it might not make the ghost visible to the audience members in the upper galleries, but it would still be an impressive visual effect that uses scientific principles known in the 17th century.
Pepper’s Ghost illusions are still used frequently in theme parks, trade shows, and concerts where singers interact with “holograms.” As a special Halloween treat, (or trick as the case may be), I’ve included a video that will allow you to make your own Pepper’s ghost at home. If you choose to make one, leave me a comment!
So, in conclusion, though we are taught that Shakespeare’s theater often reveled in simplistic theatrical designs, I personally think that there is more room to explore low-tech theatrical illusions like these, especially at companies like the Globe Theater and the American Shakespeare Company, which pride themselves on using Shakespeare’s original staging practices. Live theater has dodged giving up its ghost for 2,000 years by exploring the limits of live theater through movement, voice, story, music, and yes spectacle. I think theater practitioners, even Original Practitioners should keep innovating new kinds of spectacular means to keep creating fresh interpretations of Shakespeare, that still keep within the spirit of the play’s original time and place.
Bonus: If you want to learn more about the stage illusions of Shakespeare’s company, click here to listen to That Shakespeare Life Podcast with Cassidy Cash. In this episode, she interviews theater professor Frank Mohler, who describes how thunder and flying effects were done in the 17th century, using records of the period, and his own experimentation.
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:
In this 9 week course, students will discover Shakespeare’s greatest characters- Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and others through games, dramatic readings, and interactive projects! -The class is designed to be ala carte- you can learn about all these plays, choose a specific play to focus on, or do the entire course. Each class will have a game of some kind, an engaging quiz, and a short explanation of the setting, characters, and motifs of one or more plays. Each class will also include a close reading of a famous speech.
Background on the Tragedies- the Wheel of Fortune
I will explain the basic structure of Elizabethan tragedies and the concept of Fortune, which is a motif Shakespeare uses in all of his tragedies. I will also debate the concept of “The Tragic Flaw:” the notion that otherwise good people are brought down by single character flaw. Finally, we will quickly summarize the premise behind all 11 of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The Greek Plays
I will summarize Shakespeare’s two tragedies that are set in ancient Greece and provide commentary on their themes and ideas. I will also draw parallels between the Ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides and Shakespeare, with a particular emphasis on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs on the function of tragedy, which influenced every major drama for the last 2,000 years.
The Roman Plays- From Republic to Empire
We will take a bloody, backstabbing journey to ancient Rome, and discuss how Shakespeare shows through these four plays the dissolution of a republic into an empire. We will discuss the themes of democracy, dictatorship, mob rule, and savagery. Plays covered: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus.
In addition to the character and his speeches, I’ll draw parallels to the history behind the play, including witchcraft in the Jacobean era, and the Gunpowder plot against the king!
“Othello”- The Lovers and the Devil
I will talk about how Shakespeare dramatizes race and prejudice in the context of Othello’s struggle with prejudice and his own jealousy.
“King Lear”- The Blind Fools and the Hermit
I will discuss the complex plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy about old age, blindness, betrayal, and families ripped apart by greed.
Think Like a Director
I will teach the students to think like a director and develop a concept for the characters, set, lights, etc. I’ll also briefly take you through famous productions of these great tragedies by the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.
Basics Of Stage Combat: Students will learn the basics of safely enacting a fight onstage, in preparation for a Shakespeare play. We will also learn about the history of sword fighting in the military and the duel.
My daughter really enjoyed taking this class. She was actually able to use her sabre and try out her routine on her father. Paul is quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare and made the class really fun by teaching a fight scene from Romeo and Juliet. It is amazing watching her practice with Paul over Zoom. I hope Paul will have. more combat classes, it is a different way to learn Shakespeare.
An Interactive Guide To Shakespeare’s London (New Class)
A virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London will get kids to interact with the culture of Elizabethan England.
To teach kids about the Elizabethan era and the background of Romeo and Juliet, The Instructor will interact with the class (via pre-recorded videos), pretending to be Shakespeare. The class, pretending to be actors in Romeo and Juliet, will get a virtual tour of The Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, and a virtual visit to an Elizabethan doctor's office. This activity is an immersive way for them to learn about the period, how it relates to the world of the play, and how Shakespeare changed theater.
The class will take the form of a guided WebQuest activity. First, the students will get a worksheet that has a series of fill-in-the-blanks about Elizabethan society (below). The students will fill out this worksheet based on a Nearpod and in conjunction with a website I’ve made, https://sites.google.com/nebobcats.org/visit-to-elizabethan-london/home?authuser=0
Both the Nearpod and each webpage will have a virtual tour, a video, and text explaining some aspects of Elizabethan life. Before they go to each location, I will give a short introduction via prerecorded video:
In this one-hour course, your child will discover the enchanting world of science through a series of magical experiments. Learn about such topics as Astronomy, Static Electricity, chemistry, and optical illusions.
In this one-hour course, students will learn and play games that will explore the history behind Christmas traditions. We will also discuss the themes, characters, and famous quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”
On October 22nd at 1PM EST, I’ll be joining the Shakespeare Online Repertory Theatre on Discord for an online dramatic reading of “The Tragedy of King Lear.” I’ll be playing The Earl Of Kent! Check it out on Discord.com! Below is also a link to a YouTube live stream of the show as well.