New Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

In this 9 week course, students will discover Shakespeare’s greatest characters- Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and others through games, dramatic readings, and interactive projects! -The class is designed to be ala carte- you can learn about all these plays, choose a specific play to focus on, or do the entire course. Each class will have a game of some kind, an engaging quiz, and a short explanation of the setting, characters, and motifs of one or more plays. Each class will also include a close reading of a famous speech.

Course Structure

Background on the Tragedies- the Wheel of Fortune

I will explain the basic structure of Elizabethan tragedies and the concept of Fortune, which is a motif Shakespeare uses in all of his tragedies. I will also debate the concept of “The Tragic Flaw:” the notion that otherwise good people are brought down by single character flaw. Finally, we will quickly summarize the premise behind all 11 of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The Greek Plays

I will summarize Shakespeare’s two tragedies that are set in ancient Greece and provide commentary on their themes and ideas. I will also draw parallels between the Ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides and Shakespeare, with a particular emphasis on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs on the function of tragedy, which influenced every major drama for the last 2,000 years.

The Roman Plays- From Republic to Empire

We will take a bloody, backstabbing journey to ancient Rome, and discuss how Shakespeare shows through these four plays the dissolution of a republic into an empire. We will discuss the themes of democracy, dictatorship, mob rule, and savagery. Plays covered: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus.

“Hamlet”- The man at the crossroads

We will explore the universality of this timeless tragedy, and do close readings of his famous soliloquies.

 “Macbeth: The Tower built on lies-

In addition to the character and his speeches, I’ll draw parallels to the history behind the play, including witchcraft in the Jacobean era, and the Gunpowder plot against the king!

“Othello”- The Lovers and the Devil

I will talk about how Shakespeare dramatizes race and prejudice in the context of Othello’s struggle with prejudice and his own jealousy.

“King Lear”- The Blind Fools and the Hermit

I will discuss the complex plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy about old age, blindness, betrayal, and families ripped apart by greed.

Think Like a Director

 I will teach the students to think like a director and develop a concept for the characters, set, lights, etc. I’ll also briefly take you through famous productions of these great tragedies by the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.

Special Offer

Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Tragedies: The Fates of Men and Nations” with coupon code HTHESG5B2Q10 until Dec 31, 2022. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-tragedies-the-fates-of-men-and-nations-xKCYUkC9 and enter the coupon code at checkout.

Shakespeare Crafts: Shield

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

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

Shakespeare uses the word “shield” over 30 times, often as a verb meaning ‘to protect.’ However, there are a few very important references to this ancient tool of defense, and constructing one can teach you a lot about the history of a culture, and that culture’s methods of waging war.

A Brief History of Shields

The seven-fold shield of Ajax cannot keep

The battery from my heart

Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 14.

As the quote above from Antony and Cleopatra mentions, the shield has been around since the dawn of history, certainly since Roman times. The Romans prized their large shields called scuta, which they used in defensive formations as the soldiers crashed through their enemies’ defenses.

DIY Roman shield
A replica of an ancient Celtic shield.

In medieval times, Anglo Saxons and Vikings used new and more sophisticated shield formations in some of the most important battles in early British history. This included the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ended the Anglo-Saxon era when the English abandoned the protection of their shield wall to chase the Norman invaders, who then annihilated their forces and proclaimed their leader William of Normandy, conqueror of all England.

In this excellent video, historian and fight choreographer Mike Loads traces the history of medieval shields and shows step-by-step how to make an authentic Anglo-Saxon shield!

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

Swashbuckling

[Enter SAMPSON and GREGORY, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and buckles]

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins with servants armed with swords and small shields called bucklers. These shields were designed to be used in single combat (duels) and were very light and agile. According to Mike Loads, young men would wear their swords and bucklers on their hips and make a loud racket as they walked through the streets. The shield proclaimed that they were armed and dangerous. This macho swaggering is the origin of the term “swashbuckling,” which is probably how these servants see themselves since they spend the first scene of the play trying to pick a fight.

What Is heraldry?

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

Just as the sound of a buckler announced to the world that a young man was armed and ready to fight, the design on a nobleman’s shield announced his status, his house, and his family motto. The popular historical consensus is that once the medieval knight arrived on the battlefield, they started using their shields and tabards as a colorful display; one that made it clear that they were noble. In war, a knight or other nobleman could collect a hefty ransom if they captured another knight alive, so if you belonged to a rich noble house, your brightly decorated shield could save your life on a battlefield in more ways than one.

Each heraldric design would be registered in the College Of Arms, and many of them are still on record today. In Shakespeare’s Pericles, a group of knights presents their shields to King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa right before a joust and she reads their mottos. The shields are like the knight’s ID tags and help the princess know whom to award the prize money once the jousting is over:

Simonides. Are the knights ready to begin the triumph?
First Lord. They are, my liege;
And stay your coming to present themselves.
Simonides. Return them, we are ready; and our daughter,
In honour of whose birth these triumphs are,
[To Thaisa] 'Tis now your honour, daughter, to explain
The labour of each knight in his device.
Thaisa. Which, to preserve mine honour, I'll perform.
[Enter a Knight; he passes over, and his Squire]
presents his shield to the Princess]
Simonides. Who is the first that doth prefer himself?
Thaisa. A knight of Sparta, my renowned father;
And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiope reaching at the sun
The word, 'Lux tua vita mihi.'
Simonides. He loves you well that holds his life of you.  Pericles, Act II, Scene ii.

How to make your own shield!

Since shields are an important part of Shakespeare’s plays, here’s how you can make a shield activity at home or in the classroom.

Making the basic shape

If you want to make a buckler, you need a round surface a little bigger than a dinner plate. You should be able to hold it and move it like an extension of your fist. If you want to make a basic 14th-century type shield like the ones I have below, cut out the familiar, ‘state of Ohio’ shape below. I made mine about 11 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I used cardboard but you can also use paper or wood or metal if you have real craftsperson talent.

Choosing a color and design

I got a lot of good information on how people chose designs for their shields by visiting English Herritage.org’s Guide to Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry. The website has a lovely catalog of the colors and designs real knights and barons and lords used to make their shields/ coats of arms stand out. You can choose a simple background with a plant, animal, etc. in the foreground, or you can divide the shield into a cross, a diagonal line called a Fess, or into a triangle called a chevron.

The Personal Touch

You need not be constrained by historical precedent in coming up with your shield. Like any canvas, the only limits on your shield design are your imagination. Check out these designs I made with my kids!

Your Motto

Most mottos are single lines of text (usually in Latin), that illustrate what is important to the house that sports it. For example, Richard II’s motto was: “loyalté me lie,” (“Loyalty binds me.”). You could come up with a simple motto and Google Translate it into Latin or French, etc.

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

Now that you have your shield, with its own unique motto and design, it can be a useful tool to explain how people saw themselves in Shakespeare’s day. Nowadays we mainly see ourselves as individuals, but this kind of heraldry illustrates how knights, nobles and servants saw themselves mainly as part of a house, with its own values, its own traditions, and sometimes an us vs. them mentality against other houses.

This kind of household mentality is of course, at the core of Romeo and Juliet and the Wars of the Roses cycle of plays, and Shakespeare uses heraldry to illustrate this mentality. Look how the knights in the tournament scene from the 2013 film are dressed in their houses’ colors and the nobles and servants are also wearing those same colors:

Like sports fans who wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, shields and heraldry proclaim the allegiance of the servants and nobles who belong to powerful houses/ kingdoms. This kind of emblem can help students understand a piece of medieval and renaisance history, and how that history shapes our own mentalities today.

References:

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

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

The Ides of March

A historical Account

However, the Romans gave way before the good fortune of the man and accepted the bit, and regarding the monarchy as a respite from the evils of the civil wars, they appointed him dictator for life. This was confessedly a tyranny, since the monarchy, besides the element of irresponsibility, now took on that of permanence

Patrick Stewart (Cassius), convinces Brutus (Ian Richardson), to betray Caesar, RSC, 1970

Under these circumstances the multitude turned their thoughts towards Marcus Brutus, who was thought to be a descendant of the elder Brutus on his father’s side, on his mother’s side belonged to the Servilii, another illustrious house, and was a son-in‑law and nephew of Cato. 2 The desires which Brutus felt to attempt of his own accord the abolition of the monarchy were blunted by the favours and honours that he had received from Caesar. 3 For not only had his life been spared at Pharsalus after Pompey’s flight, and the lives of many of his friends at his entreaty, but also he had great credit with Caesar. 4 He had received the most honourable of the praetorships for the current year, and was to be consul three years later, having been preferred to Cassius, who was a rival candidate. 5 For Caesar, as we are told, said that Cassius urged the juster claims to the office, but that for his own part he could not pass Brutus by.105 6 Once, too, when certain persons were actually accusing Brutus to him, the conspiracy being already on foot, Caesar would not heed them, but laying his hand upon his body said to the accusers: “Brutus will wait for this shrivelled skin,”106 implying that Brutus was worthy to rule because of his virtue, but that for the sake of ruling he would not become a thankless villain. 7 Those, however, who  p589 were eager for the change, and fixed their eyes on Brutus alone, or on him first, did not venture to talk with him directly, but by night they covered his praetorial tribune and chair with writings, most of which were of this sort: “Thou art asleep, Brutus,” or, “Thou art not Brutus.”107 8 When Cassius perceived that the ambition of Brutus was somewhat stirred by these things, he was more urgent with him than before, and pricked him on, having himself also some private grounds for hating Caesar; 

So far, perhaps, these things may have happened of their own accord; the place, however, which was the scene of that struggle and murder, and in which the senate was then assembled, since it contained a statue of Pompey and had been dedicated by Pompey as an additional ornament to his  p597 theatre, made it wholly clear that it was the work of some heavenly power which was calling and guiding the action thither.

Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus,110 who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; 5 but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tulliusº Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair. 6 But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. 7 It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. p599 8 At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”

9 So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. 10 But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; 11 for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. 12 And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. 13

And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. 14 For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.

-Plutarch’s Life Of Caesar

Artwork

Video 📹

Commentary

James Shapiro in his book 1599, addresses the common complaint that in the play that bears his name, Julius Caesar dies halfway through the play and has little time onstage to make a connection with the audience. The play is about tyrananicide, what causes it, what it looks like, and especially its aftermath. In a time when Jesuits and Catholic radicals threatened to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare wrote a powerful story about how fragile government systems can be; how striking the head off Rome leads to anarchy and sometimes tyranny.

A Roman pie 🥧 for pie day

Ave and Happy Pie Day ! Since it’s Roman month, I thought I’d talk about the most infamous pie in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, and give you an ancient Roman recipe that tastes a lot better!

In Act V of Titus Andronicus, the titular general and his household cook and serve the Empress’ sons to their mother in a pie! Here’s how the scene plays out in the 1999 film Titus:

The infamous pie scene from Titus Andronicus

Before he cooks the Empress’ sons, Titus actually tells them what he is going to do to them, like some kind of psychotic chef giving a cooking program:

This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whilst that Lavinia 'tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood.
You know your mother means to feast with me,
And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow'd dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on;

I’ve adapted Titus’ recipe into this creepy recipe card below:

Now when Titus says coffin he’s actually referring to a pie crust, (though ironically this coffin will also be a tomb for two human bodies). Ancient Romans did in fact make meat pies, so Tamara wouldn’t have immediately been suspicious It also was not unheard of for the ancient Romans to actually eat brains! According to DE RE COQUINARIA, one of the oldest surviving Roman cookbooks, there was a recipe called Patina frisilis, a pudding made of fresh vegetables, wine, and calf brains:

Take vegetables, clean and wash, shred and cook them cool them off and drain them. Take 4 calf’s brains, remove the skin and strings and cook them4 in the mortar put 6 scruples of pepper, moisten with broth and crush fine; then add the brains, rub again and meanwhile add the vegetables, rubbing all the while, and make a fine paste of it. Thereupon break and add 8 eggs. Now add a glassful of broth, a glassful of wine, a glassful of raisin wine, taste this preparation. Oil the baking dish thoroughly put the mixture in the dish and place it in the hot plate, (that is above the hot ashes) and when it is done unmould it sprinkle with pepper and serve.

APICIUS- DE RE COQUINARIA (c. 1st century CE).
Medieval edition of De Re Coquinaria

My research suggests that the coffin was mainly just flour and oil and was not actually intended to be eaten. It would be similar to a modern salt crust pie that seals in juices and helps preserve the pie in the absence of refrigerators.

Thankfully Apicius has another recipe for a Roman pie that I find much more appetizing

Elderberry Custard or PiePatina de sambuco

A dish of elderberries, either hot or cold, is made in this manner: take elderberries, wash them; cook in water, skim and strain. Prepare a dish in which to cook the custard; crush 6 scruples of pepper with a little broth; add this to the elderberry pulp with another glass of broth, a glass of wine, a glass of raisin wine and as much as 4 ounces of oil. Put the dish in the hot bath and stir the contents. As soon as it is getting warm, quickly break 6 eggs and whipping them, incorporate them, in order to thicken the fluid. When thick enough sprinkle with pepper and serve up.

A modern recipe for Elderberry pie 🥧

While I’m at it, here’s another historical pie recipe that was a favorite of Shakespeare’s Richard II:

Roman Women Week!

Since International Women’s Day is tomorrow, I’m devoting this week to talking about the awesome female characters in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: Titus, Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus

First, here’s my post and an accompanying podcast on Roman women, which includes an analysis of Lavinia, Portia, Valumnia, and Cleopatra:

Here’s a fascinating video about the lives of Roman girls:

And here’s a special section about Cleopatra:

Comedy sketches about Cleopatra from “Horrible Histories” BBC, 2015.
cleopatra facts infographics in 2021 | Cleopatra facts, Ancient history  facts, Cleopatra history
A Lady-Gaga-esque song about Cleopatra from “Horrible Histories,” 2014
Infographic from an article about Cleopatra’s beauty regimen. Source: http://socialdiary.pk/

The Roman Army Under Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar’s success as a politician was deeply tied to his success as a military leader. Therefore studying the Roman army during Caesar’s life helps one understand why he was so popular and why the Senate wanted him dead.

With The Seventh, Eighth, And Ninth Legions, The Tenth - Military Uniform (1000x475), Png Download
Uniforms of the 10th Legion (Julius Caesar’s Legion) during Caesar’s life, the reign of Augustus, and afterwards.

Caesar was commander (or legatus legionis) of the 10th mounted legion, which means his soldiers were mounted on horseback. Caesar was in charge of maintaining control over the warring tribes in Gaul (modern day France). Each legion was organized into 6 companies (cohorts) of 100 men, led by a Centurian, Source : http://thedioscuricollection.com/ejercito_romano_en.php

Organization of the 10th Legion. As you can see from the key below, each company of 80 to 100 men is led by a Centurian, and each company has 3 Tesserarius (watch commanders)

According to Imperiumromium.com, Caesar helped reform his army, and his Centurians carried out many different campaigns in Gaul:

As you can see, his soldiers were mainly armed with helmets, leather armor, and their large shields and Gladius swords. Below is an exploration of the different parts of the Roman uniform:

https://costumes.lovetoknow.com/roman-soldier-uniform