If you’re reading this as I post it, there’s a Shakespearean nerd in your life and your wits are about to turn trying to find a gift. I’ve already written about printed editions of Shakespeare and educational apps, so you can consult those if that’s what you are looking for. Now I’m covering the kinds of stuff that die-hard Shakespeare fans will kill a king and marry with his brother for, basically nerdy swag that no Shakespearean fanatics should be without!
For anyone: Immortal Longings.com- This company is very special to me. If you’ve seen any of my Play Of the Month posts, you’ve seen the gorgeous artwork for Shakespeare’s plays by the artist Elizabeth Schuch. Not only do I love her work, my wife and I put her prints on the decor for our wedding day, and wrapped some of my presents in wrapping paper with her designs on it. If you go to her website, she sells Shakespearean art printed on and inspired by Shakespeare’s plays on everything from tapestries to clothes to iPhone cases. I highly recommend checking her work out, and patronizing it as much as possible: https://society6.com/immortallongings/s?q=popular+framed-prints
I also want to give a shout-out to the website Good Tickle Brain, a weekly Shakespearean comic that satirizes the Bard’s work with love. I feel the best way to introduce anyone, young or old to Shakespeare is through a healthy dose of satire and parody. Mya Gosling loves Shakespeare and it comes through in her simple, funny retellings of his plays. If you go to their shop (spelled Shoppe to appeal to nerds like me), you can get some of her comic books, funny T-shirts, and a few educational posters for teachers too: https://goodticklebrain.com/shoppe/
Bards against humanityMost people know the raunchy card game where you try to encapsulate a disgusting word or phrase with a description written on your card. Well, there’s a Shakespeare version too! It makes sense that someone made a card game inspired by the king of the Elizabethan put-downs, (and the inventor of one or two modern curse words!)
Wine🍷 Though I was unable to find actual wine with Shakespeare’s name on it, practically every other part of the wine drinking experience has been branded with Shakespeare- wine bags, glasses, corks and bottle stoppers, and even whole bars! If you spend a few minutes looking online, you can find tons of Shakespearean wine merch. By the way, here’s a convenient list of quotes Shakespeare wrote about alcohol: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/shakespearedrinking.html
Pen and ink There’s a lot of good versions of pen and ink with Shakespeare’s name on them. Imagine the fun you can have writing sonnets with your own Shakespearean pen and ink!
Shakespearean Comic Books. I’ve written reviews about some of these books and I’m very impressed by the artwork and the clever adaptations. Click here to read my review of the Romeo and Juliet Comic.
Pop-Up Shakespeare by the writers of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I’m a huge fan of The Reduced Shakespeare Company and they have created an amazing new popup book for kids of the entire Shakespearean cannon!
Barbie and Ken as Romeo and Juliet. Ok, so this is a bit of a stretch, but hey, I’d get it for my daughter.
Board books 📖 Yes, even toddlers can get into Shakespeare. I actually read this to my daughter a lot. It’s not the story of the play, but it does introduce some of the characters and famous lines which can help a child to become familiar with Shakespeare.
King 👑 Of shadows (Ages 8-12) This is an excellent young adult novel that teaches a lot about Shakespeare’s theater and the time period in which he lived. For a complete review, click here:
This was one of my favorite books growing up. It tells the story of Shakespeare’s life and work, with special attention to the creation of the Globe Theater in 1599. It’s gorgeously illustrated and a great read for kids!
So there are some gift ideas for the Shakespeare nerd in your life. Merry Christmas!
Here’s one more gift that you could give a Shakespeare nerd ages 13-18: A class from ME!
Go to my Outschool profile and Get $5 off the following classes:
I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story. Today I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!
Part I: Story
Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:
Shakespeare’s three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.
Part II: Themes
Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.
The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.
King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.
The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Lear’s friend the Duke Of Gloucester, places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.
James Barry, c. 1786.
No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. https://youtu.be/7acLWsal1FU
In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.
Part III: Characters
Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.
Ned Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II
Duke Humphrey is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Ned is Lord of Winterfell, a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age.
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.
Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.
Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.
King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, the real people whom Shakespeare adapted into the character of Emperor Saturnine in his play Titus Andronicus.
When we first meet Saturnine, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, (who helped him win a war and win his crown), just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.
King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.
◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.
Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.
Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard.
In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.
He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet , he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.
-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513
There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London. Below is a picture of the famous Wilton Diptych, (Richard the Second’s private alter piece), which depicts the king and all the angels in heaven wearing a badge with a white stag on it.
LittleFinger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from Pericles, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life governments, he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.
Jon Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.
◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:
He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”
◦ Shakespeare wrote several characters born out of wedlock such as Phillip Falconbridge in King John, and Edmund from King Lear.
Unlike Jon Snow, Edmund in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:
Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.
Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.
🦁 Tyrian Lannister –
Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004.
In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.
◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.
◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.
◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books
Both characters are, ahem, fond of drink. Falstaff even has a beer named after him:
◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble knight who was foolish enough to wear armor while crossing a river on a raft.
“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.
My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.
🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth
Just as her son Joffrey has the arrogance and sadistic cruelty of a Roman emperor, Circe is a mirror image of the cruel empress Tamara, Queen Of Goths in Titus Andronicus. Both women are attracted to power and motivated by revenge. Tamara wants revenge against General Titus, who executed her son in the war. After seducing and marrying the emperor, she uses her influence to execute two of Titus’ sons. She then uses her lover Aaron the Moor (with Whom she secretly has a child), to concoct a plot to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter. And if that weren’t enough, she tries to drive him mad by appearing at his home dressed as the Roman goddess Revenge. In short, Tamara is a classic femme fatale, who raises above the social oppression of her sex by seducing powerful men, and stabbing them in the back.
Circe is also a femme fatale, though Martin gives her more time to explain her motivations than Shakespeare gives Tamara. Like the Queen Of Goths, Circe marries King Robert Baratheon, while secretly having a taboo affair, this time with her brother Jamie. The difference is that Circe kills not strictly for vengeance, but mainly to conceal the fact that her son Joffrey is actually the product of her incest in order to protect him and eventually make him king. This is why Circe kills Ned Stark, Jon Aron, and consents to the murder of all or Robert Baratheon’s true born sons.
Circe does desire revenge, but not against anyone in particular. Instead, she wants to repay the patriarchy that keeps her down simply because she is a woman. Quote about Circe when she talks about how jealous she is of Jamie. In that chapter we get a great sense of who Circe really is. Because she’s a twin, she compares herself to her brother, observing how Jamie was given on her glory and respect when he became a knight and a member of the King’s Guard, while she was sold off to king Robert at the age of twelve like a slave or a common whore. Why, Circe asks, if she looks so much like him and acts so much like him, is she treated so differently just because she’s a woman? In a perverse sort of way, her incest might be a misguided attempt to claim part of Jamie’s honor and power through sexual conquest. Both Tamara and Circe show how an oppressive patriarchy can plant truly destructive thorns in the hearts of women, and these two queens reap that bitter harvest by cutting down the men in power one by one.
like camera Circe is driven by her love for her children and her desire and her pride and desire for vengeance. She spends the first half of the place seducing the emperor to gain his favor and then when she is made empress she uses her power to systematically destroy Titus and his family. Similarly, Circe marries king Robert and then when he dies she makes her son she then kills Ned Stark guy in prisons his daughter tries to kill the second of and
Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺
◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.
🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline
◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.
🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!
◦ Crafty and beautiful
◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection
◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.
Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.
In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:
“This is a wedding too.”
The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”
This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me: now no more The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip: Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself To praise my noble act; I hear him mock The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come: Now to that name my courage prove my title! I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall? If thou and nature can so gently part, The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still? If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.
Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.
After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!
There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of
Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:
The Merchant Of Venice is unquestionably Shakespeare’s most controversial play- it covers such topics as anti-semitism, religious hypocrisy, racism, slavery, and the meaning of justice and mercy. As I have written before, few people read this play in school, but I believe that it has many lessons to teach our children. I also believe its lessons are also very much a part of the Christmas/ Hanukkah/ Kwanza holiday season, and here’s why:
All that glitters is not gold.
Hath not a Jew Eyes
The quality of mercy is not strained
You may very well wonder why this play about greed and prejudice reflects the warm holiday spirit. I would argue that, like cold winter snow, this play emphasizes the importance and the need for compassion, humanity, and generosity because without it society becomes truly frigid.
Merchant Of Venice takes an unflinching look at greed, prejudice, and religious hypocrisy, while at the same time retaining a hope for peace on Earth and goodwill towards men.
One of the best ways I can justify the connection between Merchant and the holidays is by comparing it to the quintessential Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In terms of tone, themes and especially characters, these two classics are very close indeed. Shylock is an ancestor of Scrooge- in addition to both being money lenders, both men are miserly, cold, and willing to destroy lives for wealth. Shylock even has a ghost that comes back to haunt him. Shylock mentions a ring that he got from his late wife Leah, similar to how Scrooge lost his only love, Belle. Just as Scrooge is a counterexample of everything that Christmas stands for, Shylock’s greediness, cruelty, and hatred of the people around him make him a figure to avoid, no matter what holiday you celebrate.
Merchant also raises questions about materialism, which we should all consider around the holidays. Shylock especially mentions this in quotes like: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live.”
The themes of Merchant also reflect a modern multicultural holiday season. In one example which I wrote about before, The Prince Of Morocco has a great speech that calls to mind the concept of kuchijagulia, or self determination, one of the 7 principles of Kwanzaa.
According to the official Kwanza website, kuchijagulia means, “To speak up for oneself,” and Morocco definitely does that:
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene I.
Moracco’s unwillingness to change who he is makes him a model of the kind of pride African Americans celebrate during Kwanza. In addition Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is also very proud of his heritage. His famous quip: “Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,” expresses perfectly the resilience of the Jewish people, which of course is the central point of Hanukkah.
When it comes to Christmas, Antonio demonstrates a Christ- like self sacrifice, when he lets himself be arrested and nearly killed by Shylock.
▪Bassanio. Good cheer, Antonio! What, man, courage yet!
▪ The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all, 2045
While Antonio’s actions mirror Christ’s sacrifice. Portia’s famous “The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strained,” speech, goes to the heart of the reason why Christ came to earth; to grant mercy to the sinners who would be damned otherwise
▪Shylock. On what compulsion must I? tell me that.
▪Portia. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, 2125
▪ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
▪ Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
▪ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
▪ ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
▪ The throned monarch better than his crown; 2130
▪ His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
▪ The attribute to awe and majesty,
▪ Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
▪ But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
▪ It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, 2135
▪ It is an attribute to God himself;
▪ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
▪ When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
▪ Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
▪ That, in the course of justice, none of us 2140
▪ Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
▪ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
▪ The deeds of mercy. Merchant Of Venice, Act IV Scene I.
Shakespeare no doubt wrote these characters to reflect the Christian values many people celebrate at Christmas. Meanwhile the play’s comic subplot with Bassanio and Portia teaches Christians about generosity and mercy. As I have written before, the character Bassanio is the moral center of the play, and his journey mirrors many characters in classic Christmas stories who learn about giving and receiving, the true meaning of Christmas.
In Act III, Scene ii, Bassanio participates in the highest stakes Secret Santa gift exchange ever: three boxes of gold, silver, and lead are set before him.
If Bassanio picks the right gift, he will be rich, powerful, and married to a beautiful woman, but the winning box is inscribed with a warning: “Who chooses me must give and hazard all he has.” Bassanio wins the gift auction, which means he may marry the beautiful Portia, but he gives her the choice to marry him or not: https://youtu.be/6IFSMgggS8k
[Music, whilst BASSANIO comments on the caskets to himself]
▪Bassanio. So may the outward shows be least themselves: 1440
The world is still deceived with ornament.
▪ In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
▪ But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
▪ Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
▪ What damned error, but some sober brow 1445
▪ Will bless it and approve it with a text,
▪ Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
▪ There is no vice so simple but assumes
▪ Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
▪ How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false 1450
Look on beauty, 1455
▪ And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;
▪ Which therein works a miracle in nature,
▪ Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
▪ Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;
▪ Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge 1470
▪ ‘Tween man and man: but thou, thou meagre lead,
▪ Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught,
▪ Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence;
▪ And here choose I; joy be the conseque
▪ You that choose not by the view,
▪ Chance as fair and choose as true!
▪ Since this fortune falls to you,
▪ Be content and seek no new,
▪ If you be well pleased with this 1505
▪ And hold your fortune for your bliss,
▪ Turn you where your lady is
▪ And claim her with a loving kiss.
▪ A gentle scroll. Fair lady, by your leave;
▪ I come by note, to give and to receive. 1510
▪ Like one of two contending in a prize,
▪ That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
▪ Hearing applause and universal shout,
▪ Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
▪ Whether these pearls of praise be his or no; 1515
▪ So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;
▪ As doubtful whether what I see be true,
▪ Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene ii.
Like the story The Gift Of the Magi, Bassanio prizes Portia’s love, and is willing to give her all he has in return, which is what separates him from the other suitors. Bassanio also understands it’s not the physical gift that is really the gift, it’s the love that it represents that really matters, which allows him to look past the outward appearance of the lead chest. Having gratitude for the gifts we receive and pledging our love to others is something that everyone should remember at Christmas and all festive occasions.
In Conclusion, it isn’t cheery, and it is not as hopeful as most holiday stories, but in the season when people of all faiths celebrate together, Merchant Of Venice is a great reminder of our shared humanity and how we can show love and mercy to our fellow people.
Book– Will in the world by Steven Greenblatt- An amazing analysis of Shakespeare’s life and career. The chapter “Laughter At the Scaffold,” traces the link between Merchant Of Venice and the real life treatment of Jews in the 16th century
Book/ TV- Playing Shakespeare by John Barton.
Movie– Merchant Of Venice 2004 Movie starring Al Pacino. I like the way the director films the drama documentary style, using a single handheld camera in most of the shots. Pacino is very good at playing Shylock as a bitter, cynical old man who is trying to survive in a powerful Christian country.
With just a few days left until Halloween, many of us will be anxious to put the candy bowl away, dim the lights, and watch a scary movie. I’d like to recommend my pic for the single best Shakespeare play for Halloween, and you might be surprised to learn which one it is:
It’s not Macbeth, despite its ghosts and witches, it’s not Hamlet, though it has a famous scene in a graveyard. In my opinion, the scariest, most horrific, most disturbing Shakespearean play is the ancient Roman revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus!
Titus is the most violent, most outrageous play in the Shakespearean cannon and features murder, mutilation, cannibalism, (and even featured the first recorded trick or treating). It was also his first tragedy ever, written around 1590. Back in this period, Shakespeare’s theater was also the site of public executions and blood sports like Bear-baiting, so Shakespeare knew that gore sells. He also knew that people were reading the bloody tragedies of the Roman poet Seneca, so he created a play that out-does the Roman master of bloody violence!
So why have you not heard of it?
Too violent for school For most people, their first encounters with Shakespeare is in the classroom, and because of the violence in this play it’s definitely not appropriate for high school. The most famous atrocity in the play happens to Titus’ daughter, who is raped offstage. Then, to keep her from incriminating the men who raped her, the rapists cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Quite a departure from the “Honey tongued” Shakespeare we see in the comedies and sonnets.
It’s vulgar: T.S. Eliot declared that Titus Andronicus is “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” For people who expect Shakespeare to be poetic and romantic, this play is a sad dissapointment.
It’s Over the top- People don’t just die in this play, they get butchered horror movie style! Some get stabbed and thrown in a pit, some get their limbs chopped off, one character is buried alive! Many scholars say that after one atrocity after another, the only way you can react to the horror onstage is to laugh. Look at this scene where the villain of the play, Aaron the Moor, confesses to a laundry list of hideous atrocities which he did just for the pleasure of being evil:
Scholars often compare the dark comedy of Titus to the films of Quentin Tarantino, who will murder his characters in grotesque, but funny ways. I won’t even give away the surprise ending where Titus and his daughter gets their revenge, but let’s just say that they would certainly agree with Tarantino that revenge is a dish, best served cold!
It might be racist As I mentioned in the clip above, the main villain of the play is a black man. Aaron, like Richard III is completely evil and unapologetic about it. When I was studying Shakespeare in college, James Earl Jones, (Darth Vader himself) came to my school to talk about Shakespeare’s racially diverse characters. He argued though that nobody treats Aaron any differently until they learn about his heinous crimes and that the person who seems to hate Aaron’s blackness the most is himself. Look at this passage and see if you agree:
I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand
Look by and by to have thy sons with thee. Aside Their heads, I mean.
O, how this villany Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace. Aaron will have his soul black like his face (Titus, Act III, Scene 1).
Now the question to ask about Aaron and most of Shakespeare’s villains, is are they bad because they’re different (different race, differently abled, illegitimate birth), or did they become bad from people treating them badly?
Serious note– Even though productions often dramatize the violence and rape in Titus as over-the-top black comedy, this kind of rape and violence happens in real life, every day, particularly violence against women like Lavinia. One reason why this play is gaining popularity is sadly, that this kind of violence is more common in our current society with the shocking number of rapes committed in this country (1 in 5 women, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center), and the brutal murders in this play suggest many real-life atrocities such as Abu ghraib,
If you can’t get to the theater this Halloween and want to watch a production of Titus, you’re in luck: In 1999, Julie Taymor, famed director of the Broadway production of The Lion King, directed a film adaptation of Titus which I consider the single greatest Shakespearean film of all time. The movie captures the grotesque comedy of the play, while also visually showing the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. It also doesn’t get hung up on historical accuracy just because the play is set in Rome. Best of all, the cast in incredible: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Langue, Alan Cumming, Harry Lennox and more. This cast knows how to do Shakespeare for the movies and their work shows in every scene. Interesting side note: Hopkins actually considered making this movie the last movie of his career, which explains his amazing glee and energy in the role of Titus. Below is a nice in-depth analysis of the film
In this section, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing.
Name: The Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
Media: Comic book, with accompanying website
Ages: Young adult/ Teen.
Premise: A slick, clever interpretation of Shakespeare that pares down the story and uses Japanese-inspired Manga comic book design to bring to life the violence and youthful energy of Romeo and Juliet. It transposes the story to a Tokyo suburb with two katana-wielding rival versions of the Capulets and Montegues.
My reaction: I think this is a very clever and very exciting way to get young people interested in Shakespeare. The pictures help bring the emotions out with great clarity and the storytelling is very condensed and clever. In addition, the website has helpful resources for Shakespeare newbie’s.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all teens and high-school students and fans of Shakespeare.
This was without a doubt, the most incredible theater experience I’ve ever had. It was scary, interactive, exciting, clever, sexy, and even a little disturbing, but without a doubt it was incredible, original, and true Shakespearean theater.
Before you read the review though, a word of caution-
WARNING: this is a production where, the less you know about it, the better your experience will be. I will provide a basic outline of the production, and give you an insight into what I experienced, but I would urge you to see the show yourself without any preconceptions, so if you want to keep the mystery going that surrounds this production, I suggest you stop reading…
Alright, if you’ve chosen to keep reading, that means you want to know more, so more I shall give you. Going from the general to the specific, I’m going to talk a bit about what the show is, then describe the experience a bit, and then offer some tips for people who have never gone before.
Sleep No More is not the traditional kind of theater- there is no proscenium, no stage, no seats, and only one platform. It’s what theater teachers like my wife call “Experiential Theater.” The way she explains it, it’s theater that exists as an event. Rather than sitting and watching, you actively follow the action and you can get so close to the actors you can, (and sometimes will), touch them.
The play was conceived by an English company called Punchdrunk Theater Company, who took over an old 6 story warehouse on West 27th Street in New York City, and turned it into a fictional hotel/bar called the “McKittrick Hotel.” The play, (which is done entirely without dialogue), is a re-imagination of both Macbeth, and the novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, set in the 1930s. The audience is admitted on the ground floor and are permitted to go freely through the 6 floor set and watch the actors perform. Different actors perform on different floors and interact with other actors at different times, and the audience may watch any scene or actor they wish.
The title of the play comes from this passage from Macbeth:
As I said before, this a very freeing and very active kind of theater. The only division between you and the actors is that you will wear a face mask. Your role is basically to be an anonymous spectator at an event that unfolds before you, an event full of madness, sex, murder, and mayhem. I would describe it as sort of like living in the strange orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, or that scene in The Shining where Shelly Duvall runs through rooms of the hotel and keeps seeing bizarre sights.
From the moment you enter the incredibly detailed hotel, you know you are in a place that was dangerous, dark, and chaotic. You wonder if the people are crazy, or if the building itself is crazy.
As an audience member, you set the pace of your experience as you wonder through the hotels’ infirmary, library, parlor, bath, ballroom, balcony, patio, and dark forest (masterfully designed by Alexandria Challer). Eventually the actors will find you and you choose whether to follow them or wait for something else to come along. When I first entered the hotel, I spent a few minutes looking at the set- reading a hotel guest list, or examining a jar in the pantry, or staring at animal carcasses in the trophy room. Eventually though, I found a story unfold before me, and I rushed to follow it.
Because none of the actors talk, this play is not Macbeth, unless you want it to be, it is not Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, unless you want it to be. YOU determine what your experience is. The great, (and famously crazy) theater theorist Antonin Artaud once said, “Text is a prison.” If that’s true, then Sleep No More has set its actors free: their movements convey the story through mime, ballet, gestures, and occasional words. This freedom from the restrictions of text means that it’s up to you to truly piece a story together, and you will find that story can alter, change, and sometimes disappear into mist.
How is This Story Macbeth? (Spoilers Ahead)
One of the most common complaints I read online from people who saw the show is that they didn’t understand the connection between Sleep No More and Macbeth. I don’t want to give too much away because I feel that part of the fun in this production is trying to figure out the connection yourself, but I will provide you with a few scenes to look for, to give you some clues on how to connect this physical theater piece with Shakespeare’s play:
Scenes to look for:
In the bedchamber on the 3rd floor, there is a bathtub on a small platform. On the steps leading up to the tub I saw a letter that contains this text from Shakespeare:
They met me in the day of success: and I have
learned by the perfectest report, they have more in
them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire
to question them further, they made themselves air,
into which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in
the wonder of it, came missives from the king, who
all-hailed me ‘Thane of Cawdor;’ by which title,
before, these weird sisters saluted me, and referred
me to the coming on of time, with ‘Hail, king that
shalt be!’ This have I thought good to deliver
thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou
mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being
ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it
to thy heart, and farewell.
This was the first definite evidence I had that the performance was inspired by Shakespeare besides the title of the play. A woman in a beautiful ball gown entered and read the note, pacing the whole time. Suddenly a handsome, red headed man came in. Like the Macbeths in Shakespeare, the body language between these two was hot and fierce; at times passionate and sexual, at times violent and animalistic. Lady Macbeth uses her body and her caresses to tempt her husband to murder, as the one in Shakespeare seduces him with her words. He trembles, turns away, brushes her off. Then, when she persists they struggle- clawing and slapping, even throwing each other across the bed, but in the end, exhausted, he slumps. She, victorious, leaves the room, looking like a queen already.
2. Alone in his room, Macbeth contemplates his dire murder. He leaves the warmth of the bedchamber and enters a dark, moon-lit forrest with a few gravestones. I followed him out into the forrest, knowing that what he does now will probably be an interpretation of Macbeth’s two most famous soliloquies: “If It Were Done When Tis Done” (Act I, Scene vii), and the famous Dagger Speech from Act II, Scene ii. Since the actor didn’t talk, he had to convey Macbeth’s inner torture with his body. I saw him going up to a statue of the Virgin Mary, beating his fists and chest against the hard stone. It was clear to me that this symbolized Macbeth’s struggle between morality and desire. He staggered away from the statue and stopped at a stone pathway that led back to the bedroom. Macbeth then put his hands on the stones, lifted his body up pull-up like, and kicked his legs in a futile attempt of motion. I immediately thought of Macbeth’s line:
I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself And falls on the other (Macbeth I,vii).
It was clear that the actor was showing how Macbeth cannot bring himself to kill, yet is too ambitious to let go of the desire to kill and this is what manifested in his tortured body. He then turned toward me and the other audience members and I saw his expression change. He looked around, worried, even frightened, as if he saw something he couldn’t believe. It wasn’t clear to me at first, but now I’m pretty sure that he was looking at the dagger from his famous soliloquy, and it was US. He ran from the forrest, and we charged after him like a swarm of angry bees! We found him in a corridor on the 2nd floor, where he again hoisted his body up against an old fireplace, inverting himself with his legs sticking up, and his head below, like an upside down cross. He then stretched his hands out and waved them frantically. Two frightened audience members took them and helped him hoist himself down. When Macbeth got to his feet, he proceeded to a darkly lit chamber where another man lay sleeping…
3. In a small bar on the 1st floor, I saw Macbeth with two women and one man. They all wore black lipstick and had crazed and hungry looks in their eyes. The music sped up to a crazed pace and the movements erupted into a terrifying orgy of sights and sounds. A strobe light pulsed showing me glimpses of the frightening spectacle, which included the two women stripping their clothes, the man putting on the head of a goat, and one of the women pulling out an infant covered with blood, and holding it in triumph over Macbeth’s head. At this moment I realized that these gruesome creatures must be the witches, and that they were foretelling Macbeth’s destiny as they do in Act IV. They also brought out a tree, which signified the prophesy that Macbeth will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood walks to Dunsinane Hill. To be honest, I don’t remember much after that, I was probably still in shock!
4. Back in the forrest, I encountered a small brick structure that looked like a tower, with a woman looking out of it expectantly. She beckoned me to come inside. When I did, I saw that she was dressed in a nurses’ uniform, and she was looking at a doctor with concern. Inside the tower was a small operating room with a circular table in the center, and two rows of seats above it. The doctor was injecting some kind of drug into his arm, which made it twitch in spasms. The two of them walked into the forrest and through a door into a room that looked like a small train station with platforms and travel posters on the walls. Lady Macbeth was there, wondering aimlessly. I instantly identified this moment as the famous sleepwalking scene, where Lady Macbeth contemplates the crimes to which she has become accessory. Usually the actress conveys her guilt by washing imaginary blood off her hands, but in this case she chose to interact with people, specifically, ME. She held out her hands to me, I took them. She looked into my eyes with a haunted look on her face. Then she whispered in my ear: “The thane of Fife had a wife, and she was beautiful.” I could see that this woman felt alone and afraid, with no one to talk to. She was no longer the powerful figure throwing her husband across the bed. This was what had driven her mad, and her madness allowed her to see me and the rest of us in the audience. She looked upon us with looks of disgust and terror, as if we were the ghosts of the people she killed, and ran away somewhere we couldn’t follow. We never saw her again (until the ghostly finale).
Those were just a few pieces that I witnessed. I won’t give away how it ended, but I will tell you that the show ended in a dining room on a tableau that reminded me of a cross between Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and the banquet scene of Macbeth.
When I talked to my wife, (who also came to the show, but was in a different audience group from me), she told me that there were many other scenes that were clearly inspired by Rebecca; she encountered a woman that she figured out was the ghoulish housekeeper Ms Danvers. She also had an intense meeting with the long-suffering Mrs. DeWinter, who gave her a locket and told her to keep it always. Finally, my wife revealed to me the startling fact that (Spoiler Alert), the same woman who plays the infamous Rebecca, dressed in a red flowing gown, also becomes Hecate, the goddess of black magic in Macbeth!
These performances are athletic, well thought-out, and incredibly nuanced. If you take some time to familiarize yourself with the stories of Macbeth and Rebecca, you can understand how the actors are interpreting the stories through dance, mime, and interactions with the set, props, and occasionally, the audience themselves.
I’d now like to conclude this review with my own pieces of advice for those of you who choose to see the show:
Yes, wear comfy shoes. Almost everyone will tell you to bring comfortable shoes and they’re right- if you don’t want to lose the thread of a story, you have to be quick. Macbeth in particular is fast and nimble as a tiger, and you have to run fast to keep up with him.
Find a person that interests you. I think some people make the mistake of staying in one place too long and ignoring the actors. This is physical theater, so try to find an actor to follow.
Pretend you are a ghost if it helps Remember, murder and insanity are here, and you have a chance to see what it looks like and how it moves. Look right into the actor’s eyes and embrace your power to haunt these lost souls. Don’t be afraid to get close to them, and stay there as long as possible.
If you do read Macbeth or Rebecca beforehand, it can be useful to memorize a few lines or moments and look for them in the performance. I can tell you for a fact that these actors meticulously planned their performances to give physical life to these two great works of literature. Look for a gesture, a glance, or a prop that jogs your memory and puts you into this hybrid world of Shakespeare and Du Maurier.
The actors can sense if you are interested in interacting with them. If you seem scared or apprehensive, they will respect your space and not get close to you, but if you show them you are brave enough, they will extend a hand, or come toward you and give you a theater experience you will never forget.
Leave your loved ones behind. Nothing was more fun to me than talking about my experience with my wife after the show and piecing our nights together. Even though the same show was going on the whole time, we saw different people, to different rooms, and had very different reactions.
If an actor disappears, don’t wait for them. Sometimes you’ll follow an actorrl and they’ll duck into a corridor, or go behind a locked door, or a sentinel in a black mask will block your path. Now the story is over, and you are alone. Now you must choose again where to go, and try and uncover the sense of this horror.
If you get to go to the 6th floor, consider yourself very lucky. Only a few people get to see it. My wife said she saw one person go up there. He was on an elevator with a small group. As they reached the top floor, a hotel porter let him off, then extended an arm, to indicate no one else would be admitted. Even the man’s girlfriend was blocked by the porter, who then explained, “This experience is best undertaken, alone.”
Well, I hope this whetted your appetite somewhat. Like I said this show is incredible, and very different from the kind of theater we generally think of, and that’s what makes it engaging and exciting. However, there is violence, nudity, and gruesome imagery onstage so it is definitely not for children. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the Sleep No More website: www.sleepnomore.com/
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.”