Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book Review: Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Interred with Their Bones is a Shakespearean twist on The Da Vinci Code, and if you approach the book with that firmly in mind, you'll probably find some enjoyment in it. It is, however, one of those books where you can only apply but so much logic to it before the entire structure collapses under the weight of sensibility.

The book's plot structure follows a little too neatly in the Da Vinci path, involving many of the same character tropes and narrative devices. We open, after a brief and vague historical flashback, with Kate Stanley, director of the Globe's Hamlet, meeting for the first time in years with her estranged and eccentric mentor, Roz Howard. (If you're enough of an early modern history geek to be quirking an eyebrow at those names, rest assured: yes, everyone in the book labors under similarly referential nomenclature). Roz has some terrible secret to impart and a quest to set Kate on, but before she can reveal the details of either, she is found dead in the aftermath of a fire (not, as the book jacket would have you believe, at the Globe itself, but in an auxiliary building). Kate feels obligated to pick up Roz's trail of bread crumbs. As she follows them, more dead bodies start piling up around her, and she ends up fleeing with the police on her trail, a device which feels even more strange in this book than it does in The Da Vinci Code. Kate has no real reason to distrust the police, no reason not to clear herself from culpability before embarking on her quest, and so her actions just seem bizarre and inexplicable. It gives the drama of the plotline a false echo, and it's one of the threads that a reader has to avoid plucking at in order to avoid a total collapse of the narrative. Still, with thrillers, you do sometimes have to make plausibility allowances, so this element may not prove troublesome to all readers.

Part of what hindered my enjoyment of this book, which I could otherwise have consumed as mere Da Vinci Code-esque fluff, is that it disturbs me, as a scholar, how much this book not only entertains anti-Stratfordian opinions, but implies that very serious people in the Shakespearean world would not only hold those opinions, but hold them strongly enough to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to prove them true. I started to recoil as soon as Carrell broached the topic, and eventually, that aversion colored my reading of the text pretty strongly. I now know how art historians and theologians alike must feel about Dan Brown. (One of last summer's interns, Natalie, wrote about this aspect of the book on the Intern Blog). Despite the pitfalls of exploring of the "controversy," the book is actually at its best when traipsing through historical possibilities -- the inventions linking Cardenio to Catholic plots via Cervantes and Jesuits are reasonably entertaining and provide some profitable fodder for exploration. I could cheerfully entertain all of that, if not for the liberal allowance suggesting that any of it might be true. The jet-setting aspect of the book, volleying from London to Harvard to the Southwest to Spain (and ricocheting back and forth between some of those a few times) is a fun diversion, and Carrell does an admirable job of painting her landscapes.

One of the critical failings in this book, unfortunately, lies in its protagonist and narrator. Carrell presents Kate as though she is a big up-and-comer in the Shakespearean field, a director that a Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan type would refer to as "that brilliant American child." Kate, of course, demurs from this description, but nonetheless, the whole thing smacks of Informed Ability. Kate is an superlative scholar and director because Carrell tells us that she is, rather than showing us. This trait in of itself wouldn't be so bad, except that, for such a prodigy, Kate has some pretty credulity-stretching gaps in her knowledge -- and one of them is the fundamental underpinning of the mystery, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lost play entitled Cardenio, something that Kate is apparently unaware of until well into the book. The first-person narrative also hampers the book, partially because Kate's head is not quite a well-developed enough place to spend four hundred pages in, partially because it accentuates that gulf between her reputation and what she actually knows. First-person narration creates a trap for a writer: if the audience needs to know something, either the narrator knows it and tells it, which can come off as preachy, or the narrator doesn't know and has to find out in order for the audience to find out, even if it's something the narrator should already know -- or shouldn't need quite as much hand-holding to figure out. Interred with Their Bones manages to fall into both pits multiple times at different points in the story.


Interred with Their Bones was adequate summer-read entertainment. If you're in a place where your mind can let go and indulge freely in a suspense romp, as mine was when I read it at the beach, then by all means, pick this up. The pace clips along well enough to keep a reader engaged, and if the plot turns are occasionally predictable, sometimes that's what you're looking for out of light summer reading. If you're looking for heavier fare or exceptionally solid writing, though, you may want to look elsewhere, as this book doesn't hold up well under much scrutiny.

Monday, June 25, 2012

No Kidding Shakespeare Camp Begins

This morning, ASC Education began our third year of the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for adults. I had not, initially, intended to blog about the camp at the beginning of the week. I thought I would wait until the end, make a wrap-up post, include some pictures, and that would be that.

But then something struck me, just here in the first few hours. As the campers arrived, I realized how many of them I know already -- because they've come to the first two years of camp, or to Teacher Seminars, or to the Blackfriars Conference. Of the nearly-thirty campers, at least half are familiar faces. We started off with an informal brunch, to let everyone settle in and mingle a bit before diving into lectures. I saw people sitting together, chatting amiably like old friends, and I know that they met here. It really is like camp is when you're a kid -- you may only see these people once a year, but when you do see them, they're friends. And it happens so fast -- already today, our new campers are chatting with the group, laughing at shared jokes, and making new friends. We're really starting to build a community with this camp, as well as our other events, of people with shared experiences and shared joy. As a result, they're not just colleagues with a mutual interest anymore; they people who come here become real buddies. Watching that happen, and getting to be buddies right there with them, is a great experience.

When the introductions began, so many of the campers said things that made my heart swell. "This is my indulgence for the summer." "I begged my family to let me take this week." "This is my treat to myself every summer." Many of the first-time campers are here because of our shows, and at least two of them said, "I thought I hated Shakespeare until I saw it here." Another camper is here because our touring troupe had reached her. Another makes a six-hour trip several times a year so that she can see every show, and she jumped at the chance to spend a full week here.

I love that. Statements like those are the reason why we do the work that we do. Hearing one testimonial like that can make frustrating weeks completely worth it. Hearing a dozen of those testimonials in a row just about bowled me over. I love that this thing we've started, a Shakespeare camp for adults, has become a real vacation. These people are taking time off of their jobs and away from their families for a week because they really want to. It's an incredible validation of our mission, "to recover the joy of Shakespeare," to make it something that is a rollicking good time, rather than an academic tonic. I love that our shows are good enough to make people want more. Seeing a production, for some of our audience members, just isn't enough -- they want to dive in, get their hands on the text themselves, learn more about how our actors make their magic. Because of this draw, the camp achieved its optimal number of participants last year, in only its second summer of existence, and we've met that goal again this year. I'm so glad that we can provide this experience for all of these Shakespeare enthusiasts, and I can't wait to see how the program, and our friendships, will keep growing in the future.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"I am not what I am": Shakespeare and Gender Fluidity

The thing about being active in social media, in fandoms, on the Internet in general is that it exposes you to a broader spectrum of humanity than most people encounter on a day-to-day basis -- and it means that a lot of minority groups get greater exposure on the Internet than they do elsewhere. A lifelong citizen of the web, I'm always learning new things from new groups of people. Because I'm politically interested and active, a lot of the things I learn have to do with civil rights, and because of the nature of current politics, a lot of those rights have to do with sexual attraction and gender equality, in some way or another. I've noticed a trend, in the past few years, of increasing awareness of people who do not conform to the socially projected binary system: people who are neither male nor female, but somewhere in between; people who are not cisgendered, whose mental, emotional, psychological identities don't match with their biological organs; people who are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but bi-, or pan-, or asexual, or who are still figuring that out. It's a big wide world out there, and there are all kinds of people in it -- but just because we didn't hear as much about these people before doesn't mean they suddenly started existing in the past few years. These ideas have been around for centuries, even millennia -- and Shakespeare had something to say about them, albeit in a different language than we use today.

Five years ago, I don't know that it would ever have occurred to me to use the terms "gender fluidity" or "sliding scale of human sexuality" (and I hadn't even heard the term "cisgendered," which is still new enough that it has yet to make it into the OED) -- particularly not in a Study Guide aimed for teachers of high school and college students. And yet, in an activity I've been preparing for the Twelfth Night Study Guide, I've done just that. Viola gives me a great in -- and so does Antonio, and so does Olivia, so do Orsino and Sebastian. In "Perspectives: Gender and Behavior," I ask teachers to lead their students through an exploration of the gender dynamics in the play. The activities involve looking at the stereotypical presentations of male and female, both in appearance and behavior, examining how Shakespeare invokes these markers in the plays with cross-dressing heroines, and then exploring how the gender confusion creates emotional conflict . As with all our Study Guides, the main focus of the activity is practical -- how do we stage this? How do costumes affect the presentation? How can an actor play against his or her biological gender or usual presentation of gender? But, as this is the Perspectives section, I also take a moment to broaden the scope -- to explore the social issues the play raises, particularly in modern performance, and how those issues may resonate in students' lives. And so part of the activity looks like this:
  • Give your students Handout #5A: Suit Me Like a Man. This handout provides the text of the scenes from five Shakespeare plays where the heroine makes the decision to dress as a man:
  • Discuss:
    • What do Shakespeare's cross-dressing heroines point to as the markers of masculinity versus femininity?
    • What information does Shakespeare convey about how his (male) actors playing female characters will present masculinity?
    • All of these heroines have help in assuming their disguises. Julia and Portia ask their waiting-women; Rosalind has Celia for a comrade; Viola asks the sea captain; Imogen takes the suggestion from Pisanio. How do these relationships pertain to the social anxiety surrounding cross-dressing? Is it different for Viola, who asks a man for help? For Imogen, the only one among the five who does not have the idea herself, and cross-dresses at a man’s suggestion?
    • Further Exploration: Look at Shakespeare's sonnets for more commentary on the comparison and confusion of gender (particularly Sonnet #20). What continuing relevance do these poems and the gender-bending heroines in the plays have in the modern world, as we begin to consider more frequently ideas of gender identity, gender fluidity, and the sliding scale of human sexuality? How is the social anxiety expressed in the plays and poems like or unlike modern social anxiety around the same topics?

It would be easy to write about Twelfth Night without directly addressing these issues -- to keep it locked safely in a very narrow interpretation of historical context, to ignore the potential homoerotic implications, to pass over what attention the play can draw to the fluidity of gender assignation and the possible impermeability of identity. I could skip over that. I could avoid what is still, in this country and across the world, a highly controversial topic.

But I don't want to do that. Because I don't know who's in the classrooms that will be using these materials. I don't know if there will be a girl studying Twelfth Night who has just figured out that she likes girls, or a boy who's discovering that he likes boys, or boys and girls, or neither. I don't know if there might be a student of either gender who has never felt right in his or her body, has never identified with what biology provided. I don't know if there's someone who, like Viola for much of the play, feels stuck somewhere in the middle. I don't know who they are. I don't know if they get support at home or from their friends, or if they're dealing with it all in silence and isolation. I don't know how often they hear that they're sinful, or sick, or monstrous. And so I don't want to close doors for them. I want to give teachers the tools explore these ideas where they live in Shakespeare's works, rather than skimming past them.

Being a teenager is hard enough. Being a teenager who feels profoundly different from his or her peers is even harder -- particularly when that difference, in so much of our country, can make you a target for prejudice, ridicule, and abuse. I like the idea that Shakespeare might be able to help, in some small way -- to let those teenagers know that, even four hundred years ago, someone was questioning the stability of gender identity. More than one someone, really -- Kit Marlowe's homoerotic themes are hardly subtextual, women writers were challenging society's gendered expectations of them, and Italian artists frequently explored androgyny and blurred gender lines in paintings and sculptures. The topic was out there in the early modern world, and students should get to know that. Even that long ago, in a world we often perceive as so much more rigid than ours, some people were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a boy or a girl, and some were interrogating the nature of sexual attraction. Real people, not so unlike the modern readers, were exploring alternatives to the prescribed norm, questioning their own emotions and desires, and expressing that through art. So this is why I include the discussion topic in the Twelfth Night Study Guide. If Shakespeare can reach across the centuries and help just one student struggling with these issues of identity, then that makes it worth raising the issue.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

I, Iago skillfully retells Shakespeare’s Othello as the Tragedy of Iago, following the famous villain through the course of his career and explaining just how he came to be the mastermind orchestrating the downfall of a proud general and all those connected to him. In doing so, Galland fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare’s narrative, showing us how Iago came to be who he is and chronicling the circumstances that change him from a loyal friend and subordinate to a scheming, vindictive meddler.

The book divides into “Before” and “After,” meaning before and after the point where the play Othello begins, and each half is quite interesting in its own way. In “Before,” we get the development of Iago as a person. Galland’s research serves her well here — early modern Venice springs to life in vivid detail, particularly with regards to its military and political matters. We meet Iago as a young man, and he explains that he has always been known as “honest Iago” — not a compliment in Venice, where the ability to quibble, to flatter, and to evade has far more value than blunt truth. Iago lacks subtlety, always speaking his mind, and taking decisive action rather than weighing the consequences beforehand. He is boyhood friends with Roderigo, though he disdain’s the other boy’s weakness and lack of gumption; they grow apart as they grow older, with Roderigo following his family’s mercantile endeavors. Though Iago has scholarly leanings, his family’s prerogative forces him into the military, where he excels, first in the artillery, then in the army. Along the way, he woos and wins Emilia, the only woman he’s ever met with whom he can tolerate much conversation, and their marriage is a blissfully happy one. When Iago meets Othello, there is instant camaraderie; they meet at a masked ball during Carnival, and the circumstances echo their characters. Neither man can hide what he is, though Othello more obviously, thanks to his skin tone. Iago, on the other hand, suffers that inability in his character. Throughout the book, we see him incapable of wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively — in every Carnival scene, he ends up discarding his vizor, and his ungoverned tongue and open expression display his blunt opinions at every turn. The two men sense a commonality between them, a lack of patience with the artifice and genteel dishonesty of Venice. Iago comes to think so highly of Othello that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, including helping to conceal his epileptic fits from the Venetian Senate. He follows Othello to war, to disastrous ruin on Rhodes, and to the altogether different battleground of patrician dinner tables and courtly galas. There, in the household of Brabantio, Othello meets his undoing: a girl named Desdemona, enraptured with the idea of him. Iago counsels him against the courtship, explaining that no Venetian patrician would ever let his daughter marry outside of that narrow caste; Othello pretends to give up the infatuation, but in fact corresponds with Desdemona in secret and eventually planning an elopement — and since Othello has little more talent for deceit than Iago, Iago has little trouble uncovering the scheme.

In the “After” section, we watch this character, whom Galland has rendered quite likeable, fall. Othello betrays Iago’s trust, giving a coveted lieutenancy to the less-qualified Michele Cassio as a reward for assisting in his covert courtship of Desdemona. Emilia is, to Iago’s eyes, inexplicably supportive of the deceitful romance, and therefore complicit. Feeling wounded and discarded by those he most loved and trusted, Iago’s bitter hurt prompts his plans for revenge.

I call this book the Tragedy of Iago because it tracks his rise and at least partially self-constructed fall in a way that renders him both likeable and pitiable. Galland makes a wise choice, spending the first half of the book on events we never see in the play, because it gives the character a more solid background, particularly in regard to his relationship with Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, the audience hears of their association and implied friendship, but we never truly get to see it; we know from the start that Iago is working to ill ends, because he tells the audience so in barest terms. In I, Iago, the friendship is palpable, heart-warming — and so Othello’s betrayal of Iago has a real emotional effect. When Othello begins to shut Iago out in favor of Cassio, the reader is privilege to Iago’s pain and bewilderment. We also get new motivation for Iago’s actions — jealousy and revenge play their parts, and no mistake, and Iago freely admits that he wants to hurt his friend for hurting him, to disgrace the usurper Cassio, and to remove Desdemona from the picture (though he does not intend to do so through her death). That isn’t the total of what’s going on in Iago’s head, however; when he sees how easily Othello can be roused to dangerous passions, he starts to harbour deep concerns about the general’s ability to serve in the position of honour and responsibility with which the Venetian Senate has placed him. He worries, too, about Othello’s judgment; a man who will pass over more qualified men in order to hand positions to panderers, after all, demonstrates an ethical lapse. Iago never claims to be operating only for the common good, in removing a potentially dangerous commander from his post — but since that lines up neatly with his desire for revenge, why not work for both?

The dual nature of the tragedy is most obvious in the moment when things spin past Iago’s ability to control them. His words have an effect far greater than he expected, as Othello proves so easily inflamed where his wife is concerned.  The subtler tragedy is that turning Iago from honesty to deceit. He has to learn that trait, a talent foreign to him from birth, and it’s terrible to see him do so — to see a good man corrupted by an unfair world. Iago becomes almost drunk on it, overindulging, swept up by his newfound power, pushing limits to see how far he can take his lies before they become too improbable — and astonished when that barrier never seems to impede him. He learns deceit from those who deceived him, and since we have the juxtaposition of his stalwart honesty in the “Before” section, the transformation is all the more calamitous.

The book is best when it’s not trying to out-clever itself. The moments where I grimaced were when Galland was cramming in bits from other Shakespeare plays that didn’t quite belong — having Iago banter with whores and his military comrades by using lines from Measure for Measure and As You Like It, much of his courtship with Emilia coming straight out of Much Ado about Nothing– because they were jarring, discordant. The tenor was so different from the story she’d been telling that it seemed an odd digression. Initially, this made me nervous for the second half of the book, which covers the plot of Othello, but Galland actually handled the dialogue there quite smoothly. We hit the major points and get the biggest quotes without much interference, but most of the conversations are taken out of verse and into more natural prose in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward. The story does rather hurtle itself through the climax and denouement, however, and while that is perhaps appropriate, given how circumstances spiral out of Iago’s control, I could have done with a little more fulfillment, since we had so much build-up to the crucial moments.

This book leaves me wanting the story from yet more angles — Emilia’s, for instance. We only ever see her through Iago’s eyes, and though it’s clear she’s an intelligent and independent woman, she remains only an object throughout this novel. Because everything is first-person narrative, we lose her in the moments when Iago’s not there — which are some of her finest moments in the play. We never really get to know what she’s thinking, and as Iago begins on his plot of vengeance, he distances himself from her, both because he wants to protect her and because he no longer quite trusts her — which has the effect of removing her from the reader as well as from himself. This book is definitely the story of men; Emilia and Desdemona are intriguing, but peripheral, and since Iago never understands either of them, the reader doesn’t get that opportunity, either.

Overall, I, Iago is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The prose is well-constructed, the historical research thorough, and the characters well-drawn. Galland explores the story from an intriguing angle and creates a more three-dimensional world, situating Venice and its characters in the larger world. Whereas Shakespeare narrows in, focusing his scope tighter and tighter until it fits in a single bedroom, Galland allows us to see how this tragedy ripples outward. I think most Shakespeare enthusiasts will find a lot to like about this book, and if there are also some points to criticize — well, most of us enjoy that, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Julius Caesar: Adventures in Dramaturgy, Pt 1

In my capacity as Academic Resources Manager, I deal with a lot of text. I prepare sides and scripts for workshops and lectures, and I insert the text for relevant scenes into our Study Guides. This process always involves some editorial judgment calls -- looking back to the Folio, determining how much of the scene to include, deciding whether to trim some bits out of the middle to narrow an activity's focus, etc. It's been a long time since I cut a full script, however. The last time was in 2006, when I directed Romeo and Juliet in undergrad -- and I knew far less about textual studies then than I do now. I'm going to be serving as the dramaturg for the 2013 Actors' Renaissance Season Julius Caesar, and as part of that process, I've also taken on the responsibility of cutting the script.

The thing about Julius Caesar is that you don't have to cut a lot. The play runs 2438 lines in the Folio, the only early modern version that we have (I got off easy, not having to compare to any quarto editions). We aim for about 2300 lines for a show, with the goal of a two-hour production. I knew going in that I was probably going to want to trim slightly more than that, however, for a few reasons. One is that this is going to be the first show in the Ren Season, so it certainly can't hurt to trim down what the actors have to tackle in those first three days. Another is just to tell a tighter story; there are lots of moments in Julius Caesar that, while certainly not unplayable (particularly with such talented actors as the ASC is fortunate to have), aren't always as gripping as they might be. Shakespeare spends a lot of time showing off his Plutarch, but some of those references may seem obscure or downright bizarre to a modern audience. My inner Latin geek appreciates them; my practical side can trim them without suffering too great an attack of conscience. Finally, knowing that this is going to be the most-played school matinee of the artistic year, I knew I wanted to streamline the text for maximum appeal, to key in on the relationships that define the play, the overlap and tension of those political friendships.

The trouble, though, is that there's just so much good stuff in this play. Take Cassius, for example, who talks more than anyone except Brutus (possibly only because he dies before Brutus). At first glance, you would think that the play could do with a lot less of him and not suffer terribly. So much of what he says, however, is such delicious language. He's a spitfire, choleric and quick-tempered, but no less eloquent for that temper; rather, it seems to fuel and fire him, leading him to cram his speeches with vivid detail, incisive observations, and inventive structure. Cassius is also useful as a contrast to Brutus, not just as a matter of character, but rhetorically as well. Cassius has a complex elegance in his speech which Brutus utterly lacks; in order to get through to Brutus, Cassius has to try different tactics, and it's always the least sophisticated one that elicits a response. Cassius is, in many ways, far, far cleverer than Brutus; it shows in his political canniness (as in his desire to do away with Antony as well as Caesar, recognizing an inevitable threat, and in his awareness of military realities in Acts 4 and 5), and it also shows in his use of words. Shakespeare's language clearly juxtaposes Cassius's political astuteness and practicality with Brutus's blunt honor and intractable morals. This dynamic is not only interesting but critical to the operation of those relationship dynamics that so interest me -- and yet, I know, those long speeches are where attentions will be most likely to wander. So I had a challenge: to balance the need to cut something with the desire to preserve all the character information that the language provides.

Then there are the minor characters. Could I cut that line from Decius Brutus or Metellus Cimber? Well, sure. The play would lose nothing imperative. But then that pretty well excises his reason for being in the scene; I don't want to make a character extraneous, and I don't want to rob an actor with a smaller track in this play of a potentially juicy moment (and since Brutus, Cassius, and Antony thoroughly dominate the line count, there are a lot of smaller tracks).  So, how to balance this? How to keep the sensation of a bustling Rome, crammed with ambitious men and craven followers, while still making cuts that will help the production to present a clear and focused story? Or how about a character like Portia? Certainly, I could trim some of her speeches down -- but she really only gets the one scene to connect with the audience. I couldn't bring myself to butcher those moments, but to justify keeping all of that intact, I had to find something else to sacrifice elsewhere.

I ended up taking a very surgical approach to the text, trimming from within speeches rather than hacking out large sections in their entirety. A line here, a line there -- it adds up, and eventually, I had cut over two hundred lines, but never more than a few at a time. Occasionally it hurt my rhetorical soul a bit, to excise some repetitions or additions -- but that was the choice I had to make. If the rhetorical form was crucial to the moment, to the character's persuasive approach, I kept it, but if it seemed extraneous, if the character had already made his rhetorical point, I could consider it for the chopping block. Consider the following:

CASSIUS
You are dull, Casca,
And those sparks of life that should be in a Roman
You do want, or else you use not.
You look pale, and gaze, and put on fear,
And cast yourself in wonder,
To see the strange impatience of the heavens:
But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men fool and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance,
Their natures and pre-formed faculties,
To monstrous quality; why, you shall find
That heaven hath infus'd them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear, and warning
Unto some monstrous state.
That anaphora (repeated beginnings) in the middle is an interesting structure, and there's no denying that it adds something to this speech. But, this is something Cassius does almost every time he has a speech of more than ten lines, so it's not as though it is an unusual device or one which makes a unique point; we'll hear the same device elsewhere, and the audience will still know that Cassius is given to repetition and to over-emphasizing his point. Those lines also have some nice evocative language -- but, we've had plenty of descriptions of the strange portents in this scene already, and we'll have more in 2.1 and 2.2. By cutting this, we're not losing anything we don't get elsewhere. On the other hand, in the following:

CASSIUS
And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
I had initially marked that final line for cutting, but I ended up putting it back in. In some ways, it's redundant. The audience hears the predator-prey analogy and understands it; why do we need a second iteration? Because, I think, there's a critical symbolic difference between a wolf and a lion. The second analogy, then, is almost corrective -- Cassius grudgingly granting Caesar the association with a nobler animal, but only by comparison to the other craven Romans. The first analogy could then read more like, "I know he would not be a predatory, but that he sees the Romans are but prey," whereas the second reads more, "He were no great and powerful man, were not Romans weak and yielding." The connotation is different, and so I retained what originally seemed a redundancy. We also hear about a lion stalking the streets and a lioness whelping in the streets, and so I think it's important to retain that association of the lion with Caesar.

The largest change I made was for purely practical reasons: our Ren Season has twelve actors in it, and the opening of 3.1 calls for fourteen characters to be on-stage simultaneously. Thirteen enter together, as per the Folio stage direction:

--then, only ten lines in, Publius speaks, though he has no written entrance. So, I struck Lepidus for that scene (he never speaks and no one refers to him) and I combined the characters of Publius and Popilius into one figure. That necessity led to a little creative cutting and line reassignment, but it seems to work. Our actors will still have a challenge to untangle, though, as that still leaves twelve characters entering simultaneously at the top of 3.1, plus someone to conduct the Flourish -- and two of them will have to change from having been Portia and Lucius in 2.4.

Before I sent the cut script off to Artistic Director Jim Warren and Associate Artistic Director Jay McClure, I gathered a few of my friends to do a read-around of the text. With only five people in the room, I anticipated we'd be doing a lot of talking to ourselves, but that actually wasn't the case as frequently as I'd expected. Because Brutus, Cassius, and Antony control so many scenes, most characters end up reacting to one of them rather than to each other. Just doing that read-around taught me a lot about how the various scenes function. Hearing the cut text aloud was helpful; I actually ended up highlighting more lines that I think I could cut, if we needed an even shorter script -- if someone wanted to do a 90-minute version, for example, I think I would have no trouble at all getting it there. I gave Cassius a few lines back after this read-around, I snipped a few lines elsewhere to compensate, and I now have some good ideas about what else we could trade off if someone wants other lines back in. I feel quite positive about it, on the whole; I don't think I slaughtered any sacred cows, and the surgical approach means that, hopefully, most audience members won't notice the omissions at all.

So, we'll see how it turns out. Once Jim, Jay, and at least one actor have looked at it, I'll get the final comments back, and then I'll start preparing the cue scripts. That process will be a whole other adventure with this play, and one which presents some fascinating possibilities (for which I feel I should probably apologize to our eventual Antony in advance). But that, Dear Readers, will be another blog post.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Belated Happy Birthday to Shakespeare

With apologies for the delay, here is my contribution to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project. Last year, I gave you all the full story of my experience with Shakespeare; this year, it's about growth. In the twelve months since the big guy's last birthday, we've had another season of summer camps, we hosted the 6th Blackfriars Conference, and we held our first week-long Leadership Seminar. Personally, I completed another round of Study Guides, I presented at the Blackfriars Conference, and I participated in my first panel at the Shakespeare Association of American conference. It's been a big year.

In some ways, it's actually a little appropriate that I'm finally getting around to wishing Shakespeare a happy birthday today, as today is also the birthday of Sarah Enloe, the ASC Director of Education -- the phenomenal woman who holds this department together. She's a veteran of the UT-Austin theatre studies program and the Mary Baldwin College MLitt/MFA program, she taught theatre arts at the high school level in Texas for five years, and in 2003, she won recognition as teacher of the year and an NEH fellowship to study with Shakespeare & Co. At the ASC, Sarah directs programming in the areas of College Prep, Research and Scholarship (including facilitating the ASC’s partnership with Mary Baldwin College’s Masters in Shakespeare and Performance Program), Personal Renaissance, and Educator Resources -- a near-superhuman effort, really, doing the work of several people in one body (and, to the best of my knowledge, without opening any holes in the space-time continuum in order to fit more hours into her day). She's the one who picked me out for this fantastic job that I hold, and she's been an incredible mentor over the past two years.

This spirals around to one of the things I find so great about Shakespeare: the amazing ability his works have to inspire people. Something about these plays lights a fire in so many people, and so many of those people then feel the compulsion -- the imperative need -- to share that joy with others. Once you strip away the fear, once you get past that initial pushback, it can really be quite easy, if you use the tools that Shakespeare gives you -- as we observed during the Leadership Seminar. Shakespeare's plays are just that -- they're for playing. Pull them apart to find the clues, dig through the obfuscation of the intervening centuries to recover layers of meaning, -- approaching his texts as plays, as living and breathing things, is both so instructive and so enjoyable. In the past year, I've seen the lights go on in so many heads, from nine year old students to urban professionals to septuagenarian retirees. It never fails to reinvigorate me. Our company is filled with people who feel that same fire. It has to be; you can't do this kind of work, with this kind of intensity and this kind of infectious energy, if you don't absolutely love it.

So today, I'd like to thank Shakespeare and Sarah both for their incredible ability to inspire me and others. Happy birthday to you both!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Wandering through Wordles, Part the Second

When I began building last year's set of Study Guides, I devoted a post to the Wordles which we include as part of the Basics unit. ASC Education uses Wordles as a device to introduce students to the idea that Shakespeare's language is their language, that the vocabulary is familiar, not alien. Handing students who are new to Shakespeare a block of uninterrupted text can be intimidating, and the so-called "line of terror" at the bottom of many editions only augments the students' assumptions that they won't understand without explanation. Breaking the words down through a Wordle, however, demonstrates the accessibility of the language. In most instances, the only completely unfamiliar words will be proper nouns -- place names and character names. When students find a challenging word that is not a proper noun, we tell teachers to move back to the text itself; usually, the word's meaning is apparent in context. This method is an easy introduction to Shakespeare's language and can help remove some of the fear that many students experience when first engaging with the text.

Last year, I discovered that Wordles of the first 100 lines can also illuminate something about the plays themselves, as well as what Shakespeare seems to be calling attention to in the first five minutes of a show. As I begin working on the 2012-2013 set -- Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona -- I've started constructing a new series of Wordles. So, as a bit of a teaser for these upcoming Study Guides, I thought I would share the discoveries I've made in these new examples.

To begin, here's Twelfth Night:

The first 100 lines of Twelfth Night stretch over almost two full scenes: Orsino lamenting to his court about Olivia's persistent rejection, and Viola the Illyrian shore, mourning her supposedly drowned brother. The biggest words here are "love" and "brother", and those clues wrap up the relationship dynamics of the play pretty succinctly. Both have a focus in both of the opening scenes; Olivia has recently lost her brother, and uses that as the basis for rejecting Orsino's suit, and Viola thinks her brother Sebastian has drowned. The other words that stand out to me are "may" and "perchance." There's an emphasis on the subjunctive mood, which, in a strange way, sort of highlights the impermeability and the uncertainty that dominates this play. The subjunctive mood is one of desire and doubt, wishes and maybes. Everything is "perchance;" everything exists on unstable ground when we start, and the lines of certainty only become more blurred as the play goes on.

Next up, Romeo and Juliet:
I think, from this Wordle, you get a sense of the challenging atmosphere in the first 100 lines of this play. We see a lot of address happening -- "sir," "thou," "thee" -- so we know, right off, that characters are speaking to each other and that they are, judging by the pronouns, being informal. We also see a lot of active verbs, such as "bite," "draw," "stand," and "strike," as well as other words indicative of a fight -- "sword," "quarrel," "hate." The first 100 lines of Romeo and Juliet set a mood of combat and aggression, and that much is evident in the vocabulary Shakespeare uses. We also get the names of the factions involved, the Capulets and Montagues.

Next, The Merchant of Venice, and I'll confess, this one cracked me up:
Why did this crack me up? Well, as I'd been looking over these first 100 lines, I turned to Sarah and said, "It feels like all anyone does in the first scene of this play is walk up to Antonio and say, 'Hey, man, you look terrible, what's wrong?' Seriously, it just keeps happening." And then I did this Wordle, and lo and behold, our largest words? "Sad" and "Antonio." The Wordle verifies my perception of what's going on in this opening scene. Apart from that, we see a lot of other words related to emotions -- "laugh," "merry," "love," "like," "wearies," "melancholy," -- as well as some words introducing the mercantile aspect of the play: "worth," "ventures," "merchandise," "fortune." It's interesting to me that Shakespeare foregrounds both of those spheres in these first five minutes, demonstrating the complicated links between love and fortune (and between personal merit and financial worth) right from the start.

Finally, the Wordle for the first 100 lines of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is interesting in a rather different way from the others:
At first glance, this one is rather weird, and might have you thinking that Two Gents is some kind of pastoral comedy. Why on earth would "sheep" and "shepherd" appear so large? I love this example, because the Wordle actually points at the rhetoric. Those words appear in repetition in the following exchange:
SPEED
Sir Proteus, save you! Saw you my master?

PROTEUS
But now he parted hence, to embark for Milan.

SPEED
Twenty to one then he is shipp'd already,
And I have play'd the sheep in losing him.

PROTEUS
Indeed, a sheep doth very often stray,
An if the shepherd be a while away.

SPEED
You conclude that my master is a shepherd, then,
and I a sheep?

PROTEUS
I do.

SPEED
Why then, my horns are his horns, whether I wake or sleep.

PROTEUS
A silly answer and fitting well a sheep.

SPEED
This proves me still a sheep.

PROTEUS
True; and thy master a shepherd.

SPEED
Nay, that I can deny by a circumstance.

PROTEUS
It shall go hard but I'll prove it by another.

SPEED
The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the sheep the
shepherd; but I seek my master, and my master seeks
not me: therefore I am no sheep.

PROTEUS
The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the
shepherd for food follows not the sheep: thou for
wages followest thy master; thy master for wages
follows not thee: therefore thou art a sheep.

SPEED
Such another proof will make me cry 'baa.'

Proteus and Speed engage in stichomythia, the rapid exchange of lines (as do Sampson and Gregory in the beginning of Romeo and Juliet), and they layer this with punning and repetitions, including antimetabole, the repetition of words in inverted (A-B-B-A) order. The prominence of those terms in the Wordle, then, doesn't introduce us to a large overarching concept of the play, but it does hint at what the tenor of the play will be. This sort of bantering humor continues throughout the text, between many different characters.

The biggest word in this example, though, is "love" -- right from the beginning, that's what Valentine and Proteus are talking about, and that's what they'll keep talking about throughout the entire play. The tensions between romantic love, friendly love, and self-love are what drive this play, and Shakespeare opens by having his two male protagonists discuss when love is real and when it isn't, during which they repeat the word "love" seventeen times.

Since ASC Education began using Wordles as a tool in our Study Guides, we've had great responses to them. These are a great way for a teacher to begin the class discussion of the play on an accessible level, easing students away from their fear and into a discussion of the text. For more information, check out our Study Guides, available as PDF downloads or print-on-demand hard copies through lulu.com.