I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.
So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.
For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.
My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.
I’m stuck at home with the kids for Shakespeare’s Birthday, so I thought I’d come up with some fun activities for my kids to do today:
At home I have a card game called “The Bard Game, which has several famous Shakespeare quotes printed on little cards. I hid the cards around the house and when they found them, I had them recite a short quote. Sometimes I hid them in funny locations like the bath tub or the fridge.
2. Romeo and Juliet For Kids. There’s a bunch of animated Shakespeare videos on YouTube and my daughter really likes this one: https://youtu.be/mMFE0IIHR6I
3. William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki. A fantastic book that introduces Shakespeare’s life and plays.
What’s a birthday party without treats? I had my kids decorate these Romeo and Juliet cookies. My daughter is only 5, so it was good practice writing ✍ the letters R and J.
If you like my ideas or want to suggest something, please leave a comment below!
Today is March 15th, a day that history still bewares, because of the infamous day when armed, violent conspirators went to the Senate and attempted to overthrow elected rulers. For obvious reasons, this put me in mind of the heinous actions of another group of conspirators stormed another Senate and tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow democracy.
January 6th, 2021 (which, coincidently, was Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare-themed holidays), was a tragedy for multiple reasons. The protestors broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia that week.
Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.
How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:
Example 1: Julius Caesar
As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:
What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.
Example 2: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part ii.
Henry VI is the only king in English history to be crowned twice, deposed twice, and buried twice (Saccio 91). As the play begins, King Henry has already lost France, lost his mind, and lost the respect of his people. Around 1455, John Hardyng wrote a contrast between Henry’s father and himself. He laments that Henry the Fifth died so soon and then exhorts Henry to keep the quarrelsome lords in his government from warring among themselves.
Withstand, good lord, the outbreak of debates. And chastise well also the rioters Who in each shire are now confederates Against your peace, and all their maintainers For truly else will fall the fairest flowers Of your great crown and noble monarchy Which God defend and keep through his mercy.
(Excerpt from Harding’s Chronicle, English Historical Documents, 274).
Henry’s political ineptness was why Richard of York challenged his claim to the throne. Though Richard had little legal claim as king, he believed himself to be better than Henry.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part ii, York tries to get the people’s support by engineering a crisis that he can easily solve. York dupes a man named Jack Cade to start a riot in London and demand that the magistrates crown Cade as the true king.
York and Cade start a conspiracy theory that Cade is the true heir to the throne and the royal family suppressed his claim and lied about his identity. Cade starts calling himself John Mortimer, a distant uncle of the king whom York himself admits is long dead:
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage Until the golden circuit on my head, Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams, Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw. And, for a minister of my intent, I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman, John Cade of Ashford, To make commotion, as full well he can, Under the title of John Mortimer.
Just like Cade and his rebels, the January 6th rioters were motivated by lies and conspiracies designed to crush their faith in their legitimate ruler. Even more disturbing, these rioters are pawns in the master plan of a corrupt political group. York doesn’t care that Cade isn’t the real king; he just wants to use Cade’s violence as an excuse to raise an army, one that he can eventually use against King Henry himself.
Similar to York’s lies and conspiracy-mongering, many Republicans have refused to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and some are actual proponents of Q Anon conspiracies!
A lot of Republicans deserve blame for fanning the flames of rebellion on January 6th, but arguably former President Trump deserves most of the blame. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted that Trump spread a huge amount of conspiracy theories without believing in any of them. He does this because he wants Americans to be afraid of imaginary threats that he claims he can solve. What’s easier to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist? Much like York, Trump tried to hold onto power by pressuring his supporters to pressure the Capital, feeding them lies about election fraud, and a secret democratic Satanic cult. Thus radicalized, they resolved to do what Cade’s mob did: “Kill all the lawyers.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in the Senate.
As Dick the Butcher points out, most people don’t actually believe Cade is truly John Mortimer, they are just so angry at the king and the oppressive English government, that they are willing to follow him in a violent mob to take their vengeance upon the monarchy. This is why they try Lord Saye and execute him just for the crime of reading and writing! Similarly, the mob attacking the capital was made up of die-hard conspiracy adherents, and people just angry at the Democratic Party.
Like I said before, Cade and his mob is just a pawn in the machinations of York. Eventually the king’s enforcer, Lord Clifford convinces most of them to abandon Cade, and Cade himself dies a humiliating death- on the run from the law and starving, Cade is murdered by a farmer after trying to steal some food. After Joe Biden became the 46th President, many of the conspiracy group Q-Anon, who had many prominent members in the January 6th riot, began to disbelieve and abandon the conspiracies of the group. However, as this news story shows, some Q-Anon supporters are die-hard adherents and will never abandon their conspiracy theories, and some, like York’s supporters, are being recruited by other extreme groups. Sadly, as York shows, sometimes a riot is a rehearsal for another riot. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III, York finally amasses an army and challenges the Lancastrians in all-out war. Hopefully, the US government will hunt down and arrest these violent insurrectionists before they have the chance to do the same.
Example 3: Sir Thomas More
In the unfinished play “Sir Thomas More, a racist mob again attempts to attack London. This time they have no political pretenses; they want to lynch immigrants who they believe are taking English jobs. As I said in my “Who Would Shakespeare Vote For?” post, More’s speech is a perfect explanation of why this behavior cheapens and denigrated a country’s image, and weakens its ability to command respect from the rest of the world. Last time I posted a video of Sir Ian McKellen speaking this speech, but this time.. well just watch:
Tonight I’d like to discuss some of the spookiest, most enigmatic, and above all WEIRDEST characters in Shakespeare: the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth.
1. Who are they?
Every production has to answer who the witches are, and many have very different answers. Are they temptress? Are they evil agents controlling Macbeth?Furies trying to destroy Macbeth?
I would argue in their basic form the witches are harbingers of change. Their very name “Wyrd Sisters” refers to an old Anglo Saxon concept of fate or destiny. Whether or not they have any effect on Macbeth mind or soul, they point the finger at him and say “things are going to change for you.” Then, he either makes the choices that determine his fate, or they change his fate for him.
Macbeth meets the witches on a heath, which means land that is literally out of bounds– the wild, untamed wilderness, which the old Anglo Saxons believed was the lair of many cursed spirits and monsters. This could symbolize Macbeth’ sin or transgressions, slowly turning into a murderer, usurper, and a tyrant. It could also symbolize the chaos in Macbeth’s life.
What Do They Look Like?
Shakespeare’s descriptions of the witches are highly contradictory- they seem to be floating, yet on the ground, they seem to be women, but they have beards! They don’t look Earthly, but here they are on the Earth. This gives them an other worldly quality that keeps us guessing as to who they are, and helps them tempt Macbeth more easily.
BANQUO What are these So wither’d and so wild in their attire, That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught That man may question? You seem to understand me, By each at once her chappy finger laying Upon her skinny lips: you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so.
MACBETH Speak, if you can: what are you? (Act I, Scene iii).
The Witches’ Language:
You know from my earlier posts that the norm for Shakespearean characters is to speak in iambic pentameter- 10 syllable lines of unrhymed poetry that sounds like a normal heartbeat. The witches break these norms- they generally speak in Trochaic Tetrameter- 8 syllable lines with the off beat emphasized. The witches are literally offbeat, and that’s why their speeches are unsettling. Look at the contrast between a normal iambic line like:
“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (Merchant Of Venice I,i).
“Dou-ble Dou-ble, Toil and Tro-ble.
Fire burn and Caul-dren Bu-ble. (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i).
For more info on the verse forms of the Witches, click here:
The witches also speak their prophesies in a vague, ambiguous manner They like to play with obscuring their prophesies with lines that make Macbeth think one thing, but the opposite is true. The famous example here is when they claim Macbeth will never be vanquished “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.” Macbeth assumes this means he’s invincible, but it actually means that the enemy carry wood from the forrest. This is called Equivocation.
Witches and mythology
1. During the reign of King James, the modern witch hunt began; the king was fascinated with witches and even wrote a book called Daemonology on how to identify and destroy them. This was the era where people believed that witchcraft, rather than a pagan religious practice, was a forbidden craft that could only come from a pact with the devil. However, Shakespeare borrows from both Satanic and early pagan ritual in the characters of his witches.
2. Shakespeare took a couple of details about witchcraft from ancient Celtic and Greek mythology. First of all, the use of a cauldron. In Celtic myth, a cauldron is a symbol of rebirth and was sometimes used to resurrect the dead, just as the witches do in IV i. Of course, the ideal time for raising the spirits was on the feast of the pagan god Samhain, at the point where the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest. The feast took place on October 31st, our modern day Halloween!
3. Familiar spirits In Act I, the witches speak to animal spirits called familiar spirits, which call to them and tell them where to go. King James himself wrote about how the witches found and communicated with these spirits.
In Act IV, Hecate, Ancient Greek goddess of magic appears. She is clearly the lord of all the witches, and is very displeased that they are riddling with Macbeth. Maybe not all witches believe in giving out prophesies that can destroy the Scottish monarchy. Hecate was always enigmatic in myths- she was born one of the Titans who opposed the gods, but frequently changed sides. More then being two faced, she was often portrayed as having three faces! Shakespeare refers to her frequently as “Triple Hecate.”
For more information on this mysterious goddess, consult the video below, (WARNING, ADULT-ONLY CONTENT).
In conclusion, the witches are meant to be ambiguous because the play examines the source of evil- whether it is inspired by other people, or if it comes from one’s own heart. The witches can be either or both, depending on how you want to tell the story, which is why they act and speak in contradictory ways.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this posting, please consider signing up for my online class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I tell you the story of Macbeth and you get to play through an escape room, where you must solve the witches’ puzzles or be added to their Cauldron!
Back in 2009, I had the opportunity to play the lead in a touring production of “Macbeth.” It was the first time I’d ever played a titular Shakespearean character and I was really excited to play this part. I feel that playing one of these parts gives you an insight into the character that no other research can, so I’d like to share the steps of my process, with some pictures and videos from other famous Macbeths to give you an idea of what I learned.
As I said in one of my earliest posts, if you’re auditioning for a Shakespeare play, Read the whole play, not just a monologue book. Monologue books won’t give you a sense of the whole story and you’ll miss a lot of details about who your character is by not hearing what he/she says, and what other people say about him/her. Fortunately for me, I first read the play when I was 17 and remembered the story pretty well. Unfortunately, my first reading of the part was a disaster. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth didn’t feel like a part I could play; he seemed like this huge Scottish warrior who everyone loved until he turned into a psycho killer. I’m not a warrior, not a psycho, and (like most actors), often feel a lot of doubt and loneliness about my self. Ironically, that was what helped me get into the heart of the character!
Figure out what’s the hard part. When directors cast, they need to make sure you can handle the part. If your character has to sing, you better be able to carry a tune. If your character needs to be able to contort into a pretzel and talk to dolphins, he or she will probably make that part of the audition. My advice to anyone auditioning for a specific part in a play (Shakespeare or not), is to think like a director and try and figure out what the hardest thing that your character will have to do, and try to prepare for that. For me, the hardest part of playing Macbeth, was the famous Dagger Speech.
Perform your monologue for someone first. I was fortunate that while I was prepping for the audition, the great Shakespearean director Rob Claire was doing a workshop and he helped me work on Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act I, where he decides whether or not to murder Duncan.
Table work is the point in the process where the actors sit around and read the play, trying to get an idea of the character’s journey from beginning to end. To me is the most exciting time in rehearsals because it’s just the actor and Shakespeare’s words- you can imagine how the play will go, discover how the lines make you feel, and form a bond with your character and fellow actors.
Macbeth’s Motive- During the table read, I decided on Macbeth’s motivation: to prove himself to his wife. In the play, Lady Macbeth frequently criticizes him and seems to define true manhood as taking what you want, regardless of fear or ethics. Take a look at this horrific passage where she first critiques Macbeth’s manhood, then says she would rather bash her baby’s head in rather than give up on murdering the king!
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.
What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
If we should fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii).
One interesting contradiction in the play, although Lady M mentions that she’s nursed a baby, later on in the play Macduff says that Macbeth has no children. I therefore decided that Lady Macbeth has lost a child, and this has caused unimaginable pain for the couple. Therefore, Macbeth is willing to do anything to win his wife’s affection again, even murder.
Study the verse– Another point I’d advise when you’re doing table work is pay attention to Shakespeare’s verse because it provides clues to help you keep your hand on the pulse of your character. Just like a heartbeat, when a line of verse changes or fragments it usually signals an emotional or mental change in the character. Here is a quick analysis of the verse in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Click here to find some great books about how to study Shakespeare’s verse.
Voice and Body
When creating any character, you have to decide how (s)he walks and talks. Most Macbeth’s I’ve seen are big, heroic guys, and I’m not big and imposing. I talked to one of my mentors at American Shakespeare Center and he suggested that maybe Macbeth has a bit of a Napoleonic Complex. This made a lot of sense to me. I thought about how Macbeth gets honored at the beginning of the play; what if he just got lucky killing the Norwegians? What if deep down, he doesn’t feel he deserves to be honored just for killing in war? That kind of self hatred and desire for approval could easily lead to violent behavior. I therefore based my physical choices on alternately shrinking and sulking when Macbeth feels low, and trying very hard to look big and imposing for the rest of the play.
I worked on my arms for the sword work and my back because I believe that’s where Macbeth caries himself. When I wanted to appear like a king I would stand straight and puff out my chest, however in moments like the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, I shrank and turned my head away.
I didn’t try to do a voice for Macbeth, I just tried to let my voice go through the changes. When Macbeth is paranoid or afraid, my voice went up, when he feels in control, I kept it at a low, strong register.
The one time I shouted was at the end, when Macduff demands that
Macbeth surrender. I snarled and barked the line: “I WILL NOT YIELD!” At the end of the play, when Macbeth gets to fight Macduff, I feel he finally feels brave and strong, challenging Macduff even though he knows he will lose. At last he can feel like a valliant hero, even though everyone else sees him as a villain. I gleefully assumed a fighting stance and put all the power in my body into my limbs, ready to attack!
The Speeches. All of Shakespeare’s great characters have fabulous speeches that allow the audience to peer into their hearts. With Macbeth, we see a good man’s journey into becoming a demented, paranoid tyrant through the following speeches.
“If It Were Done,” Act I, Scene vii. This speech was my favorite. It’s basically Macbeth’s version of “To Be Or Not To Be.” In both speeches, the character is contemplating murder, without saying the word “murder.” This is the “IT” Macbeth refers to; killing the king to get his crown. Macbeth is tortured by his ambition and his desire, and you get to see him wrack his brain and body over what to do. Below is Sir Ian McKellen’s interpretation of the speech in a 1979 RSC production.
The Dagger Speech Act II, Scene i. The night of the murder,
Macbeth sees a bloody dagger that points his way to the king. It’s up to the actor to determine where and what the dagger is: if it is the Witches’ magic, his own psychosis, or a hellish prophesy. Does Macbeth love or fear the dagger? Does it stay in one place or move? Answering these questions and keeping track of the answers makes the speech very hard to do. Here is Sir Antony Sher’s kinetic and frantic version of the Dagger Speech:
“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” Act V, Scene v. This speech is often quoted out of context, given that it has a nearly perfect metaphor for the futility of life: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage… it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Since this is the most famous speech in the play, I had to do something different than other Macbeths. What many people forget is that Macbeth says all this when he’s trying to command his army, and gets word that his wife is dead.
I chose to play the speech as a fight within Macbeth to not give into despair. At first he’s furious when he hears the news; he didn’t need this news, especially not today! He tries to suppress his grief, delaying it until tomorrow, but he can’t; now that he knows his wife is dead, his life seems completely pointless, including the battle he was trying to fight. I then gave Macbeth an epithany near the end of the speech: If life is pointless, fighting a battle and dying would be a glorious way to end it! Why not die, after all, life is just “a tale told by an idiot?” At last, Macbeth has a reason to fight again, and he concludes the speech as a call to his soldiers to fight without fear of death. Now, you may disagree with my interpretation, but the point is that it’s mine. I wasn’t trying to imitate Antony Sher, or Laurence Olivier, or Patrick Stewart when they played the part. I was doing my Macbeth, and that’s what made it worth watching.
I hope you enjoyed this look into the process of creating this complex and fascinating character. If you’ve played this character before, leave me a comment about your interpretation, or tell me which Macbeth you liked best and why. Finally, below are links to two full-length productions of Macbeth for your viewing pleasure.