Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why Shakespeare? Why now?

Shakespeare? Why now? Shakespeare? What took you so long? Shakespeare? What's so great about Shakespeare?
All of these questions have been hovering around my mind for awhile and have, in fact, been asked in one form or another, more or less diplomatically, by friends, relatives and students for a few years.

These are questions that really want an answer. So even though what the world probably doesn't need is another Shakespeare blog, that's what it's getting. I could of course just write a journal but what good would that be? Shakespeare is to be shared.

In the beginning...
My first encounter with Shakespeare was in the form of the LP soundtrack of the Broadway musical ”Kiss Me Kate” in the mid-50's when my age was still a single digit. Of course I had no idea who or what Shakespeare was but the name was in one of the songs. My working class parents loved books, music and movies and fortunately they exposed me to all three in abundance but they were never Shakespeare fans. much for....Well, at that stage in my life...
Next encounter – suppressed as the torturous traumatizing event that it was – was in school (sixth? seventh? fifth? some grade or other) when I had to recite a Shakespeare sonnet from memory in front of the whole class! What sadists these teachers be! More on this later.

Oh well. I survived apparently and years passed. Encounter three (as far as I remember) was in 1968. The lovely Olivia and Leonard in Zefferelli's lovely Most Famous Love Story of All Time in the least romantic of places, a drive-in movie. Seen in the company of my sort of boyfriend at the time. Truth be known, the only thing I actually remember is missing something important because I really really really had to run to the little office building to pee. So much for reverence for the Bard.

More years became a few decades. I was no more, no less, exposed to Shakespeare than the rest of the English speaking world so I was aware of the quotes and stories: tobeornottobealltheworld'sastageoutoutdamnedspot and so on and so on but no impression was really made. I had a life to live, wars to demonstrate against, equality to fight for. If anybody had said Shakespeare to me I would have said, ”What's he got to do with anything?”

Silly me.

Still, Shakespeare lurked patiently.

Enter the 90's

What came first, Kenneth Branagh or the university? I don't remember. But at about the time I came up with the idea of going back to school to become, at the advanced age of 50-something, a high school English and history teacher – and thus being re-exposed or properly exposed to Shakespeare via literature courses – Kenneth Branagh's Henry V was shown on TV and my husband Hal (not related to Shakespeare's Henrys) and I watched it. And -

Well, I won't claim to have been born again immediately but all within a period of a few years in some chronological order or another

  • I read a little Macbeth for homework and was so fascinated that I read the whole thing aloud all by myself
  • Hal and I saw
    • Branagh's Hamlet on TV – possibly the best movie ever made
    • Taymor's Titus on TV – one of the best Shakespeare movies ever made, one of the best movies ever made
    • Ian McKellan as Richard III – ditto
  • we read The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night together with classmates from the University who shared our growing Shakespeare interest and have now been our friends for years
  • we saw Shakespeare in Love
  • we saw some Shakespeare-in-the-park-in-Swedish and a short clever version of Romeo and Juliet in English in the park of the Queen's Palace outside of Stockholm
  • We bought the CD ”When Love Speaks”. Rufus Wainwright's version of ”When in disgrace...” was so beautiful it sent shivers down my spine and....wait a minute! I know this sonnet! Where have I heard it before....? Ah, the ghost of the sadistic teacher arises. That's the sonnet I recited by heart in front of class, and it's been there waiting, all those years, to reemerge when it would be appreciated.
  • We went to London.
    • Not necessarily to see a Shakespeare play but because we hadn't been there for awhile. And this time, why not see a Shakespeare play now that we've become acquainted? So before going we booked what was available, Henry IV Part Two at the Roundhouse. Not exactly the most famous of the plays but we didn't care. We bought it and read it aloud together so that we'd have a chance of understanding what was going on (throughout all this we understood about half of what everybody said in the plays but that seemed to be enough) and when the time came to find our seats at the theater and enjoy our very first Shakespeare-in-English-on-a-real-stage we did. Enjoy it. Thoroughly.
    • We also visited the Globe gift shop (it was April and the theater itself wasn't open yet), bought some DVDs, came home...
    • ...decided to read the history plays (we're a bit slow but we finally figured out what the history plays are and that they're about the Hundred Tears War and the War of the Roses) and watch the DVDs we had of them.
  • We started reading books about Shakespeare. About the man and his life and times: Greenblatt's Will in the World, Greer's Shakespeare's Wife, Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. About the plays: Harold Bloom's Shakespeare The Invention of the Human, Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Our Shakespeare shelf started filling up.
And then came.....

The Box
Hal looked at BBC's shop on line and found the box with the complete production of the plays recorded in the late 70's and early 80's. We ordered it and thus began our deliberate journey. All of the plays and all of the DVDs. We read the plays aloud, we watched all of the movie versions that we had on tape or DVD – and the number grew rapidly. At the moment, for example, we have six versions of Hamlet on DVD. Our most exotic film is Macbeth in the Lapp language.

Other latecomers to Shakespeare will recognize our reaction. All those quotes! Oh is that from Shakespeare? Oh is that from this play? And the modernity! This is about today! These people are just like us! And the language! Never mind that there's a lot we don't understand – the power of the pattern that the words weave is clear, so clear!

And so on.

In short, we became Shakespeare fanatics. And quickly realized that one reading, one viewing is not enough. This is a life long project. How many times we'll be able to read the plays we, of course, do not know. We're now on our second time through. But even as we were reading them the first time, I knew that reading them, and reading about them, wasn't enough either.

The Blog
Visions of revolutionizing modern Shakespeare analysis aside, what do I want to accomplish with this blog?

Two things. I want to have fun writing about what I've had fun reading. And I want to reach out to you Shakespeare freaks around the globe.

In this first stage my plan is simple. To write a spontaneous text about each play as we read it. Some analysis, some reactions to others' analysis, some reactions to the movies – whatever comes to mind. It will go slowly. That's OK.

So far I've written essays about five plays: Two Gentlemen of Verona (” Friendship Between Women”), Taming of the Shrew (”The Breaking of Katharine's Spirit”), Henry VI Part Two (”From Anticipation to Disappointment and Exasperation – Margaret's Marriage to Henry”), Henry VI Part Three (”Well, Make Up Your Minds Already!”) and Titus Andronicus (”The Nastiness of Lucius”). None of them are ready yet but as soon as they are I'll post them on the blog.

What comes next is up to you. If you find this blog in the jungle of blogs, if you too want to share your thoughts on Shakespeare, let our minds meet! Shakespeare is indeed to be shared. Shakespeare speaks to everybody who wants to listen.

Shakespeare is calling! Let's respond.

Ruby Jand
July 20, 2011


  1. Looking great!!!!

  2. Looking forward to reading your analyses! :)

  3. Sounds like a lifelong love affair, Ruby. The course of true love never did run smooth, eh!

    I'm awfully happy that you have decided to launch this blog. Truth to tell, I haven't found many such places on the Web. Annotated online editions of the plays, yes, zillions. But somebody taking the trouble to write thoughtful reviews, including discussions of movies and quoting a number of studies, that is something rare.

    By all means it will be fun to discuss the Bard together. And as long as something is fun, it's certainly worth doing.

    Now to introduce myself, sort of. I'm afraid my exposure to Shakespeare is really very brief so far. I've just dig out my first review of his play ("Othello") and it's dated March 26, 2012. But I do recognise the symptoms of Bardomania. I also got hooked on reading (and re-reading) as many plays as I could, including reading aloud (but only when completely alone!), watching movies, listening to music inspired by Shakespeare, etc. I'd love to see something live on the stage but have no such opportunity for now. Frankly, however, I think I would prefer movies anyway: much greater opportunities in every aspect, even if the special live magic can never be quite captured.

    It's funny how easily Shakespeare permeates your unconscious. I often find myself, when confronted with an unexpected problem, exclaim mentally "Ay, there's the rub". Such examples will doubtless multiply in the future. And yes, it's amazing how often one comes across Shakespearean quotes in books, movies and what not. Why on earth should Fenimore Cooper have prefaced most of the chapters of "The Last of the Mohicans" with quotes from Shakespeare? Apparently, the man was a fan.

    1. Again, welcome to the blog! And thanks for the intro. It’s always inspiring to come into contact with new Bardomaniacs. It sounds like you’ve been bitten in about the same way I was not long ago. I’ll have to check out ”…Mohicans”. I read it in my pre-Shakespeare days.

  4. Here are some tips how Shakespeare can be quite useful during your everyday's conversation. I hope Ruby will forgive me for the spam.

    When somebody talks too much without saying anything at all, as often happens, use Getrude's advice: "more matter with less art".

    For a polite comment in such situations, useful are Bassanio's description of Gratiano as someone who speaks an "infinite deal of nothing"; alternatively, Romeo's description of Mercutio: "A gentleman, that loves to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month."

    When somebody tries to sell you verbally the most common lie in the world - namely "I love you" - there's no better answer than Cordelia's: "Love, and be silent".

    When you're selling something and the other party argues to reduce your quite reasonable price still further, then the so-called "Lear Reminder" is very helpful: "Nothing will come of nothing."

    When you have a date with somebody who is in none too platonic a mood, then use Juliet's verbal slap: "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?"

    When you are baffled by some action, the best and most natural question is Macduff's: "Wherefore did you so?"

    When you are simply fed up with explaining something to a most uncomprehending individual, by all means use Iago's last words:

    Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
    From this time forth, I never will speak word.

    1. You’ve just brought up one of the very big reasons for Shakespeare’s eternal fascination – he’s so very quotable! I have a whole long list of quotes I’m going to use in real life as soon as the opportunity arises. Unfortunately I have a terrible memory and will probably never succeed in producing a snappy Shakespeare come-back. But maybe a “Ruby’s Reflections”? Thanks for the idea!