I’ve seen four live productions of Romeo and Juliet, (5 if you include West Side Story). I’ve also watched four films (6 if you include West Side Story and Gnomio and Juliet) and one thing that I’ve noticed again and again, and again is that you can tell the whole story of the play with clothing. This is a story about families who are part of opposite factions whose children secretly meet, marry, die, and fuse the families into one, and their clothes can show each step of that journey.
The feud Nearly every story about a conflict or war uses contrasting colors to show the different factions. Sometimes even real wars become famous for the clothes of the opposing armies. The Revolutionary War between the redcoats and the blue and gold Continentals, the American Civil War between the Rebel Grays and the Yankee Bluebellies. In almost every production I’ve ever seen, the feud in Romeo and Juliet is also demonstrated by the opposing factions wearing distinctive clothing.
Historically, warring factions in Itally during the period the original Romeo and Juliet is set, wore distinctive clothes and banners as well. . In this medieval drawing, you can see Italians in the Ghibelline faction, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Empire, fighting the Guelph faction (red cross), who supported the Pope. Powerful families were constantly fighting and taking sides in the Guelf vs. ghibelines conflict in Verona, which might have inspired the Capulet Montegue feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Even the servants of the nobles got roped into these conflicts, and they literally wore their loyalties on their sleeves. The servants wore a kind of uniform or livery to show what household they belonged to. The servants Gregory and Sampson owe their jobs to Lord Capulet, and are willing to fight to protect his honor. Perhaps Shakespeare started the play with these servants to make this distinction very obvious. Here’s a short overview on Italian Liveries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
In 1966, director Franco Zepherelli set a trend with his iconic use of color in his movie. He chose to make the Capulets wear warm tones while the Montegues wore blue and silver. Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore a gorgeous red dress that made her look youthful, passionate, and lovely, while Tybalt (Michael York), wore red, orange, and black to emphasize his anger, and jealousy (which has been associated for centuries with the color orange). By contrast, the Montagues like Romeo (Leonard Whiting) wore blue, making him look peaceful and cool. These color choices not only clearly indicate who belongs to which contrasting factions, but also help telegraph the character’s personalities. Look at the way these costumes make the two lovers stand out even when they’re surrounded by people at the Capulet ball:
Zepherilli’s color choices were most blatantly exploited in the kids film Gnomio and Juliet, where they did away with the names Capulet and Montegue altogether, and just called the two groups of gnomes the Reds and the Blues.
To get Romeo and Juliet to meet and fall in love, Shakespeare gives them a dance scene for them to meet and fall in love. He further makes it clear that when they first meet, Romeo is in disguise. The original source Shakespeare used made the dance a carnival ball, (which even today is celebrated in Italy with masks). Most productions today have Romeo wearing a mask or some other costume so that he is not easily recognizable as a Montague. Masks are a big part of Italian culture, especially in Venice during Carnival:
In the 1996 movie, Baz Luhrman creates a bacchanal costume party, where nobody wears masks but the costumes help telegraph important character points. Mercutio is dressed in drag, which not only displays his vibrant personality but also conveniently distracts everyone from the fact that Romeo is at the Capulet party with no mask on.
Capulet is dressed like a Roman emperor, which emphasizes his role as the patriarch of the Capulet family. Juliet (Claire Danes) is dressed as an angel, to emphasize the celestial imagery Shakespeare uses to describe her. Finally, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dressed as a crusader knight because of the dialogue in the play when he first meets Juliet:
Romeo. [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:720
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,725
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.730
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!735
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by the book. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V, Lines 719-737.
Notice that Romeo calls Juliet a saint, and later an angel in the famous balcony scene, which explains her costume at the ball. Juliet refers to Romoe as a Pilgrim, which is a cheeky comment on his crusader knight costume. In the Crusades, crusader knights made pilgrimages to the holy land, with the hope that God (and presumably, his angels) would forgive their sins. Romeo’s name even means “Pilgrim.” Luhrman makes clever nods to Shakespeare’s text by dressing Romeo and Juliet in this way, and gives the dialogue a bit of a playful roleplay as the characters make jokes about each other’s costumes- Romeo hopes that he will go on a pilgrimage and that this angel will take his sin with a kiss.
In Gnomio and Juliet, the titular characters meet in a different kind of disguise. Rather than going to a dance with their family, they are both simultaneously trying to sneak into a garden and steal a flower, so they are both wearing black, ninja-inspired outfits. Their black clothing helps them meet and interact without fear of retribution from their parents (since they do not yet know that they are supposed to be enemies. The ninja clothes also establishes that for these two gnomes, love of adventure unites them. Alas though, it doesn’t last; Juliet finds out that Gnomio is a Blue, when they both accidentally fall in a pool, stripping their warpaint off and revealing who they are.
Sometimes the dance shows a fundamental difference between the lovers and the feuding factions. West Side Story is a 20th-century musical that re-imagines the feuding families as juvenile street gangs, who like their Veronese counterparts, wear contrasting colors. The Jets (who represent the Montagues) wear Blue and yellow, while the Sharks (Capulets), wear red and black. The gang members continue wearing these colors on the night of the high school dance, except for Tony and Maria (the Romeo and Juliet analogs). In most productions I’ve seen, (including the 2021 movie), these young lovers wear white throughout the majority of the play, to emphasize the purity of their feelings, and their rejection of violence. Thus, unlike Shakespeare’s version of the story, West Side Story makes the lovers unquestionably purer are more peaceful than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and their clothing makes this clear.
The Merging of the family (8:30-11:00)
Costume Designer Charlene in the 2006 AU production deliberately had the characters change clothes when they get married. Juliet was wearing the same iconic red dress as Olivia Hussey for the first two acts of the play but then changed into a pale blue gown that matches Romeo. The clothes re-enforce the idea that the marriage represents Romeo and Juliet abandoning their family’s conflicts, and simply showing their true colors.
Another way of getting everyone in the family to subconsciously unite in grief would be to costume everyone wearing black except Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, The Capulets are already mourning Juliet, (because she faked her death in Act IV), and the Montegues are already mourning Lady Montegue (who died offstage). Just by these circumstances, everyone could come onstage wearing black, uniting in their grief, which is further solidified when they see their children dead onstage.
Not all productions choose to costume the characters like warring factions, but nevertheless, any theatrical production’s costumes must telegraph something about the characters. In these production slides for a production I worked on in 2012, the costumes reflect the distinct personality of each character and show a class difference between the Montagues and the Capulets.
The 2013 Film: Costumes Done Badly
The 2013 movie is more concerned with showing off the beauty of the actor’s faces, and the literal jewels than the clothes:
Most of the actors and costumes are literally in the dark for most of the film, probably because the film was financed by the Swarofski Crystal company, who literally wanted the film to sparkle. Ultimately, like most jewelry, I thought the film was pretty to look at, but the costumes and cinematography had little utilitarian value. The costumes and visual didn’t tell the story efficiently, but mainly was designed to distract the audience with the beauty of the sets, costumes and the attractive young actors. The only thing I liked was a subtle choice to make Juliet’s mask reminiscent of Medusa, the monster in Greek Myth, who could turn people to stone with a look. I liked that the film was subtly implying that love, at first sight, can be lethal.
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.
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.
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!
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. 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.
If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
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.
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!
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.
I can no longer brook thy vanities.
They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls
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.
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
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.
As promised, here is my review of the hot new Broadway musical “Something Rotten.”
My reaction: I went into this show with the hope that it would be a witty, whimsical, musical salute to both Shakespeare and musicals, and it certainly was , but to my mind as a Shakespearean fan, I felt like it didn’t quite live up to its full potential. Yes it’s entertaining, yes it has some great acting and great performances, yes it boasts some glistening songs and scores of jokes, but the plot is a little recycled, the characters are hard to like at times, and the balance of Shakespeare and musicals is pretty tipped to one side.
Something Rotten is entertaining from the moment you walk up to the door of the St. James Theater: I was greeted by colorful Elizabethan cartoon figures who voiced their take on the show via speech bubbles: “Song and dance at the same time? Blasphemous!” As I walked up the stairs to my seat in the Mezannine, I saw all kinds of Shakespearean merchandise in the lobby from magnets to T-Shirts, to signature candy bars and drinks, including one called “The Bloody Bard.” This raised my hopes that this show would show some love to Shakespeare in addition to musicals.
As I took my seat, I gasped at the enormity before me: a huge Greek proscenium opening on a Pantheon like dome, complete with two painted muses on the ceiling, and three chandeliers that would tempt any Phantom of the Opera to deploy upon the audience. Below the dome was the set; an impressive recreation of an Elizabethan playhouse with its thatched roof, wooden galleries, and the banners that announce the start of the show. Once the lights dimmed, the orchestra began with trumpet and the ping of an old fashioned Tambor drum, which slowly evolved into the raucous jazzy tune “Welcome To the Renaissance.” The show had begun, and I was smiling already.
As I’ve stated before, the premise is pretty simple. Two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, (Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani respectively), are struggling writers who are trying to make it in theater in London, constantly out classed by Shakespeare (Christian Borle), who used to be an actor in their company. Nick angrily curses out Shakespeare in song in the hilarious number: “God I Hate Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare is a flamboyant and stupendously successful writer with a leather doublet, killer abs, and a cocky smile. He knows he’s the best there is, and shows off by giving extravagant parties and poetry readings, complete with colored lights and pyrotechnics! Shakespeare also has an annoying habit of stealing lines and ideas from other writers; the second he looks at Portia he says, “Good name,” hinting at his use of her name for the heroine of The Merchant Of Venice. Borle is fantastic in his Shakespeare strut, and plays the Shakespeare rockstar persona to the hilt.
Both the Bottom brothers secretly envy Shakespeare; Nick for his money and success, Nigel for his skill at writing beautiful poetry. Nick worries how to make a living as a playwright, especially since he is also supporting his brother and his wife Beatrice (played excellently by Heidi Blickenstaff). Bea urges him not to worry and assures him that she is strong enough to get a job and help ease the burden of supporting his family in the song: “Right Hand Man,” (a wonderful satire of contemporary gender politics). “It’s 1595, we have a woman on the throne,” Beatrice tells her husband, “By 1600 a woman will be exactly as equal as a man.”
Nick doesn’t want his wife to have to work for him, but he can’t get out from under Shakespeare’s shadow. Desperate to turn his luck around, Nick pays a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to tell him the future of musical theater. Oscar goes into a raucous musical number, “A Musical,” that “invents,” and parodies almost every musical of the last 50 years from A Chorus Line, to Rent, complete with an upbeat tune and kick-lines!
Bottom becomes convinced that he will create the great new musical that will rival Shakespeare’s plays in popularity, and he gets his brother and the Soothsayer to write it. He now imagines that for once, “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top!”
Nigel Bottom, Nick’s brother, is an aspiring poet who dreams of creating a play that will show beauty and truth. Nigel’s poems put love in the heart of Portia, who adores both his poems, and Nigel himself. The only problem is her father Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas), is a Puritan, (as well as a closet homosexual). Jeremiah despises theater, and by extension, Nigel. The pair secretly meet to allow their love, and their love of poetry to blossom. They also have a wonderful duet, “We See The Light,” where they imagine getting Brother Jeremiah to believe in their love, which turns from tender Elizabethan ballad into a catchy Gospel tune.
I don’t want to give too much away but, in the end, the Bottom family and Shakespeare strike a deal- Shakespeare will still rule theater in England while the Bottoms get to be on top at last in America, where their new musicals will become the theater of the future.
If you already have seen the show, here are some Shakespeare jokes you might have missed:
The title “Something Rotten,” refers to a line from Hamlet where the guard Marcellus declares: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
The name Nick Bottom comes from one of Shakespeare’s characters; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is an actor in an amateur theater troupe, who is magically transformed into a man with the head of a donkey. Through the play and the musical there are jokes about what an ass Bottom is both literally and figuratively.
The two female characters are also named after Shakespearean heroines: Beatrice, Bottom’s strong-willed wife is from Much Ado About Nothing, while Nigel’s sweetheart Portia appears in The Merchant of Venice, as does the Jewish moneylender Shylock.
In many of Shakespeare’s comedies women dress up as men to take on their jobs, just as Beatrice does for her husband Nick.
The villainous puritans who try to shut down Nick and Nigel’s musical are based on a real life religious group who did eventually pull down all the playhouses in London, and ban theater altogether. Fortunately for Shakespeare, they didn’t succeed in destroying the theater until 30 years after he was dead.
The brothers’ home land of Cornwall probably echoes that of the brothers Edmund and Edgar in Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear.
Many people have accused Shakespeare of stealing his work from other people over the years, and of course, this musical makes it one of his defining characteristics. I’ve written about this in the past, but to sum up my arguments- Shakespeare adapted, he didn’t steal.
The beautiful song: “To Thine Own Self Be True,” is a direct quote from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet; a bit of fatherly advice from Lord Polonius to Leartes.
(Spoiler Alert) Toby Belch, Shakespeare’s non-de-plume as he spies on Nick Bottom, is named after another of the real Shakespeare’s characters- a fat drunken knight from the play Twelfth Night.
The line “Son of York,” comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III.
(Spoiler alert) Ironically, in Shakespeare’s play of Merchant it is Portia, not Beatrice who disguises herself as a male lawyer and saves the heroes from death in the courtroom with her famous “The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strained” speech, though Beatrice does so in Something Rotten.
(Spoiler Alert) The judge in the courtroom whom Shakespeare promises not to make fun of is named Falstaff, named after Shakespeare’s most celebrated comic character- another fat, drunken knight who has no moral code whatsoever!
(Spoiler alert) When the brothers are banished and sent to America with Shylock, this parodies a historical event in 1751, where a troupe of actors mounted one of the first ever theatrical productions in America, which happened to be Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
This musical is a wonderful and entertaining show, but as I said before, I feel that some of it didn’t quite live up to my own expectations. I’ve decided to list my criticisms as a list so that you can choose to read or ignore it. After all, this is only my opinion, and I want you to make up your own mind.
I would argue that plot-wise, Something Rotten is basically The Producers set in 1595. The Bottom brothers who struggle to produce a play are quite obviously lifted from Mel Brooks’ Bialistock and Blume, and the fact that Brad Oscar, (who was in that musical), has such a big part in Something Rotten, is a dead giveaway. Plus the final scene that culminates in a courtroom is very derivative of the climax of The Producers. I feel that for a musical that bills itself as “A Very New Musical,” the creators belie this statement by ripping off one of the most popular musical of this century.
This is a small point, but I believe that there are far more musical jokes in Something Rotten than Shakespeare jokes. This could just have been my own experience, (surrounded as I was by high-school aged musical theater geeks), but I thought that the torrent of musical theater puns and quotes was simply too much. The audience ate it up and laughed so fast that I couldn’t hear a lot of the other jokes. I wish that the jokes were a little more spaced out, and that the balance was a little more toward Shakespeare instead of musicals.
The roles for women are small and the roles for minorities are nearly nonexistent- the only black actor is a minstrel (played superbly by Michael James Scott), who only gets one song, “Welcome To the Renaissance,” and doesn’t have any influence on the plot whatsoever. In Shakespeare’s plays, fools and minstrels were essential to understanding the plot and often helped comment on the action, so I thought not using his talent more was a huge missed opportunity. Likewise, Bea and Portia are great characters, but I wanted to see more of them in the play, and it would have been nice if they got a scene together.
Although Shakespeare is the antagonist, I found his scenes were the best, which arguably caused sort of a problem. I feel the writers couldn’t really pick a lane in terms of making it clear whom to root for- Bottom or Shakespeare. In many ways Nick Bottom is a jerk- he ignores his wife, he ridicules his brother, and his jealousy to Shakespeare (though understandable) is highly unappealing. By contrast, Shakespeare might be an egomaniac and a thief, but as he says in “It’s Hard to Be the Bard,” he’s just trying to live up to the adoration that his fans demand of him. The Bard is arguably more sympathetic because he is constantly trying to live up to his image as a genius. Like a lot of artists from Mozart to Bob Dylan, to Picasso, to George Lucas, Borle’s Shakespeare worries that he’s piqued too soon, and has nothing more to offer his public. Bottom never offers to help Shakespeare or ask him for advice on how to become a better writer, he just tries to steal Shakespeare’s success and justifies it with his insatiable jealousy. At least Max Bialistock was nice to Leo Bloom and encouraged him to follow his heart’s desire of being a producer, but Nick never even does that for Nigel. In short, I found it hard to enjoy the character of Nick Bottom, (who was supposed to be the hero), when he is never given an opportunity to be likable. Once again, Bottom is overshadowed by the Bard, but this time it’s his own fault.
Although I was a little disappointed with these issues, the show is incredibly entertaining, well-acted, and has great catchy songs. I certainly would recommend it to any musical theater fan with at least a touch of Shakespeare in their soul!
Stay tuned for a review of one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations I’ve ever seen, the experiential theater piece, “Sleep No More.”
I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I have some good news: in the next few days I will post my reviews for two of the hottest Shakespeare inspired shows in New York- “Something Rotten” and “Sleep No More.” These are some of the best shows I’ve ever seen and I hope you enjoy reading about them. I will also finally finish my posts on Much Ado About Nothing, and announce our new play of the month.
Hope that piques your interest and thanks for your patience!
Today, June 24rth, is the ancient Roman festival of Fortuna, the goddess of luck and worldly fortunes. I’ve chosen to use this opportunity to explain a little bit about the concept of Fortune, which Shakespeare uses frequently in his tragedies. But first, a short musical interlude:
Does this song sound familiar? You’ve probably heard it underscored in hundreds of commercials, TV shows, maybe even in concerts, it’s a song composed by composer Carl Orff called “O Fortuna.”
In Roman mythology, Fortuna was the goddess of luck, wealth, and fertility. If you listen to the lyrics of the song above, you can see that for centuries, people chose to represent Fortune as a fickle, changeable, and irresponsible goddess. Unfortunately, one of the reasons she’s personified as a woman is the long-held prejudice that women are weak, have frequent changes of mind and mood, and can’t commit to one person, (a view of women that I and Shakespeare believe to not be true). However, based on his writing he does seem to think Fortune fits these characteristics:
“I am Fortune’s fool” –Romeo and Juliet
O fortune, fortune! all men call thee fickle:If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him. That is renown’d for faith? Be fickle, fortune; For then, I hope, thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back. –Romeo and Juliet
“When Fortune means to men most good, She looks upon them with a threatening eye.” –King John
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod ‘take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends! -Hamlet
In Dante’s Inferno, Fortuna lives in the Underworld with Plutus the god of gold, helping to distribute the god’s wealth to people above ground. In the Middle ages she was an explanation for why some people have good luck, some have bad, and why luck frequently changes.
The Wheel of Fortune.
Fortuna’s most recognizable symbol is her wheel; the symbol of how luck can change; just when you think your life is perfect, the wheel turns and you find yourself on the bottom. Frequently in tragedy when things go wrong, the characters blame Fortune, such as when the Lord of Kent finds himself put in the stocks like a common thief and gripes: “Fortune good night, smile once more, turn thy wheel,” King Lear, Act II, Scene ii. And yes, the real game show was partially inspired by the goddess’ most famous symbol.
Fortuna In Tragedies
Shakespeare mentions fortune over 500 times in his plays and frequently in his tragedies. Characters in Shakespearean tragedy frequently single out Fortuna as the cause of their unhappiness and curse her as a liar and a strumpet. In a Christian society, it was a lot more appealing to blame a pagan goddess than a loving, Christian god, (which would probably be considered blasphemous). Now you see why she has become a popular scapegoat for misfortune in tragedy. At the same time, all tragedy raises questions about the nature of free will; how much of bad fortune is the result of fate, and how much is a direct result of the character’s bad choices? Edmund in King Lear laughs at the notion of any kind of fate, and accuses all of humanity of shirking responsibility in this speech:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! (King Lear, Act I, Scene ii).
At the same time, the audience also knows that Edmund was cursed by Fortune from the beginning, since he is the illegitimate child of the Duke of Gloucester, which might prove exactly the opposite point of his speech. He may act like he is absolute in his free will, but his behavior and his violent end suggests otherwise. So when characters curse Fortune or Fortuna in Shakespeare’s plays, take a look at the language they use to characterize this abstract concept. The way we think about luck or fate helps shape our perspective of our own lives, and therefore how playwrights depict this mysterious goddess helps us see the possibilities of human choice, and maybe help us make better choices than the tragic men who slander her in these plays!
The banner for the new musical: “Something Rotten”
Well everyone, at last there’s a new Shakespearean musical on Broadway! It was nominated for 10 Tony’s and won Best Actor! I caught one of the numbers during the Tony awards on Sunday and I would highly recommend checking this musical out!
The show is set in the 1590s, when all of theater is dominated by a powerful playwright called “The Bard”, who can seemingly do no wrong, (obviously a nod to Shakespeare) . The show then, centers around his competition; two actors who conceive and create the world’s first musical, paying the Bard a backhanded compliment by implying that the only way to beat Shakespeare is to come up with something he hasn’t done before.
Not only do I love the show’s tongue-in cheek wit, I also enjoy the fact that it has some flirtation with real history- Shakespearean plays were actually put to music in the 1640s, as a way of getting around the Puritan’s laws against spoken dialogue in plays. More importantly, the show is a loving parody of both Broadway and Shakespeare and who doesn’t just love loving parody?
So for all of you musical Gleeks and Shakespeare Nerds, go see “Something Rotten” if you can. Below is a link to their official website: