Shakespeare Solved ®


Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio



Friday, September 29, 2017

Shakespeare and Women



Is Taming of the Shrew an anti-feminist play?

Was Shakespeare a sexist? A misogynist?

Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day
Shakespeare Globe 2012

A new production in Chicago seeks to “save” the play by performing it with an all-female cast.

The play is “certainly anti-feminist” according to the female director of this particular production. 

She has set the play in 1919, in order to include the suffragette movement, and the vote to allow women to vote.

If you read the Wikipedia entry on the play, you get a summary of the feminist criticism of the play, and the question of misogyny in the play.

George Bernard Shaw (whom some consider to be England’s greatest playwright, after Shakespeare) found the play “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.”

There has been a great deal of critical writing about Shakespeare from a feminist point of view.

It would be impossible to evaluate all of it, especially in a blog post.

I would just like to ask some questions.

Was Shakespeare a sexist — did he discriminate against women, or diminish them in his plays, as if women were inferior to men?

Worse, was he a misogynist? Did he hate women?

A case could be made for sexism or misogyny across all of his plays. 

But if it he was so rampantly and clearly discriminating against, and hating women, I doubt the plays would have endured for as long as they have.

In the abovementioned article about the Chicago production, it mentions how by the middle of the 19th century, there were women’s theatre groups performing Shakespeare’s plays. By the 1940s, there were three of them in Chicago alone: the Hull House Shakespeare Club, Argyle Park Portia Club and Shakespeare Club of Chicago.

I doubt those women’s groups would have existed at all, had any of the women truly believed that Shakespeare was prejudiced against, or hated, women.

Is Hamlet a sexist or misogynistic play? Macbeth? King Lear? Midsummer? As You Like It?

All of those plays have powerful, important and significant female characters.

I can’t imagine those plays without Queen Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Helena and Titania, Rosalind — and many more.

I don’t think Shakespeare could have imagined those plays without those female roles — roles that are as significant and integral to the story as the male roles.

All of those female characters are strong and capable women — but all of them also possess flaws. All of them suffer in some way. Some of them even die because of their faults.

The exact same thing can be said of the male characters. The men are flawed, too. Some of them die because of their faults.

So, how could Shakespeare have written so many complex, fascinating, and all-too-human female characters — and then somehow have made Kate an insult to women?

How did he succeed so often, with over 30 plays, and then failed so miserably with this one single play?



Or did he really fail with Taming of the Shrew?

Is it possible that we don’t understand the play? 

We could be excused for doing so. His plays are very old. 

After re-opening the theatres (which were closed from 1649-1660) Shakespeare’s plays were considered “old-fashioned” and “dull” — and the language was considered “dated.”

So, within 60 years of their original performances, the plays had lost their original meaning.

How much meaning have they lost in 400 years?

What if our understanding of Taming of the Shrew is so inhibited by our modern thinking that we can’t appreciate what Shakespeare was really trying to express?

After all, Shaw said that the play was “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.” 

He was seeing the play 300 years after it was written, and judging it against plays that were written in London circa 1900.

For what it’s worth, I think there is a lot more to Shaw’s views on Shakespeare. 

I think Shaw was intensely frustrated by his lack of insight regarding Shakespeare, and was forever feeling diminished by Shakespeare’s greatness.

Shaw even wrote a short puppet play in which he and Shakespeare box each other! Truth is stranger than fiction.



What if we are too modern to understand Shakespeare?

If we are presumably so much more superior to him and his contemporaries — as far as our social and sexual mores — then why do we return to his plays over and over again?

Why do so many actresses aspire to perform Cleopatra, Ophelia, Juliet, etc?

It begs the question — are we truly superior to him? Or do we return to him and his work because he does in fact still have so much to teach us?

Does anyone seriously think that the roles written for women today, for stage and screen, are superior to the roles that Shakespeare wrote for women?

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
Shakespeare Globe 2016

What I have discovered as I study Shakespeare, was that he was famous for defying expectations. 

He wrote a play about a Jewish moneylender at a time when Englishmen reviled Jews, who were mostly exiled from England.

But for some reason, Shakespeare made Shylock the most compelling character in the play. Shylock is the hero!

Not long ago, I established that Shakespeare created the Jewish moneylender to represent himself, William Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare = Shylock.

David Harewood as Othello
National Theatre 1997

He also wrote a play about a Moorish general at a time when Englishmen reviled and feared such Moors, Africans, non-whites, and non-Christians — or any such aliens.

But for some reason, Shakespeare made Othello the hero! The villain is a white Christian man!

Why would Shakespeare present Iago, who resembled the men in Shakespeare’s audience, as a villain? Why was he alienating his male audience? 

Because that was the whole reason for the play — he was making his audience feel sympathy for Othello, the alien.

Shakespeare loved such baiting and switching. He loved challenging the pre-conceived notions and prejudices of his audience. He did it all the time.

Was an Elizabethan audience really expecting to see a teenage girl on stage as eloquent, as moving, and as self-possessed as Juliet? 

Ellie Kendrick as Juliet
Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo
Shakespeare Globe 2009

I think it is far likelier that Shakespeare’s original audiences expected to see a teenage girl who foolishly fell in love, and faced tragic consequences.

As such, the play (that the audience expected) would have been a cautionary tale, a stern lesson to all young women not to behave foolishly.

But Juliet, as Shakespeare wrote her, is no one’s fool.

In fact, it is Romeo who proclaims that he is “fortune’s fool!”

Shakespeare’s original audience probably was quite surprised to see this Juliet. They related to her even more, precisely because she was a headstrong and smart girl who was not entirely responsible for falling in love.

If and when you fall in love, whose fault is it? 

Therefore, since we can't blame her for falling in love, how can we blame her as entirely responsible for her death?

Shakespeare’s presented a Juliet who was as human and as fallible as we all are. Therefore, before we judge Juliet or blame her for her flaws, we should first take a good look in a mirror.



What if he wrote Taming of the Shrew, and hoped to get an audience full of misogynists — only to pull the rug out from under them?

What if his precise motive, in writing the play, was to make women-hating men change their mind, and treat the women in their lives better?

Also, what if he was actually endorsing shrews? What if he was saying that there is a greatness in being a shrew? 

What if Shakespeare liked strong women, the stronger the better? What if he was encouraging women in the audience to speak their minds with more force and clarity?

What if Taming of the Shrew is not an aberration — what if it is not the one fully sexist and misogynistic play in Shakespeare’s otherwise unblemished career?

What if it is a celebration of strong women?

What if, in order to demonstrate how strong Kate is, she needs an opponent who is worthy of her?

Yes, Kate and Petruchio fight. But is it a fair fight?

No one likes an uneven match. We don’t hope to see two weaklings in a boxing ring. Does anyone watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians hoping to see them all get along — or do we hope to see them squabble?

Occasionally, we all like knock-down, drag-out fights — especially when the opponents are evenly matched, and equally formidable.

Petruchio may be a sexist pig — but by the end of the play, he is as much tamed as she is.

After all, they do end up married. They are the most happily married of all the characters in the play.

Also, what if Kate has become a shrew because there are no good men in Padua?

What if, with all his faults, Petruchio is actually the only decent man among them — and the only man worthy of Kate’s kiss?

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1967

I urge you to read the play again, and see another production of the play. The Shakespeare Globe version is excellent and even-handed.

As we read it again, or see it again, instead of judging the play on our own modern terms, why don’t we give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt?

It is entirely possible that Shakespeare was a sexist, and even a misogynist. 

But what if his plays were his way of rising above his own faults, and transcending the prejudice of his day?

Cheers,

David B. Schajer




Friday, September 22, 2017

Shakespeare DVD & Blu-ray


I don’t think I have ever ranted here on my blog. I am not a ranter by nature.

But I am sick and tired of Shakespeare productions around the world that don’t get filmed.

Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet
(photos by Johan Persson)

Why are actors as acclaimed and influential as Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and many others, not making DVD and Blu-ray versions of their plays?

It’s insulting.

How is it possible that Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet, directed by Branagh, will only be seen by about 3000 people in its three week run?

There is no plan to extend the production, or film it for a wider audience.

So in a world of more than 7 billion people — only 3000 get to see it?

You have got to be kidding me!




How is it possible that Kevin Spacey traveled the world playing Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes, and it is not released on film?

I would love to see Andrew Scott as Hamlet. I would like to own a Blu-ray disc of that production. I would pay good money for it. And I would treasure it forever.

But no. That is not possible.

Why don’t we have a filmed version of Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet -- co-starring the incomparable Judi Dench?

Where are the filmed versions of Ralph Fiennes in his many Shakespeare productions? What about Ben Kingsley? Ian McKellen? And so many more.

Many of the greatest actors of all time, performing the greatest plays of all time, are not preserved for history. That’s shameful.

Ralph Fiennes as Prospero

Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis in Hamlet

There are probably good reasons why these productions don’t get filmed. I am sure there are all sorts of rules and regulations.

I don’t care what the reasons are — these productions must be preserved.

Somehow Shakespeare’s Globe theatre created filmed versions of many of their plays, from 2007 to 2015. I bought almost all of them.

Somehow the Royal Shakespeare Company filmed many productions, going back almost 30 years! I bought almost all of them.

I saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. He was brilliant. I had to go to a theatre to see it broadcast. I went twice, it was so good.

I want to see it again. Today. But no. I can’t. 

That’s insulting.

I think that if you are a global star, a Tom Hiddleston, or a Martin Freeman, you have an obligation to preserve this work, and have a mass audience see it, enjoy it, and treasure it.

Anything less is unacceptable.

If you don’t preserve them, then why do them in the first place? Why wouldn’t you want as wide an audience as possible?

It is quite possible that William Shakespeare himself knew that his plays might survive long after his death, and have a global appeal. 

That might very well be the reason he and his fellow actors named their new theatre The Globe in 1599.

Well, it is 2017 now. Actors, directors, and theatres should realize how much of a global demand there is for Shakespeare.

I would love to find someone out there who could create a Shakespeare Channel — a 24-hour channel that plays taped productions from around the world, by famous and not-so-famous acting companies.

There could even be anchor-men and anchor-women, who could host discussions, and interview artists about their Shakespeare projects.

I think the appetite for such a channel would be enormous. I see this demand through my blog, with its analytics and global insights. The world wants Shakespeare, all the time, and forever. Especially countries like Tunisia in particular, and the Middle East in general.

But until that day, at the very least, I don’t think it is too much to expect actors, directors, and theatres to create taped versions of their Shakespeare productions for DVD and Blu-ray.

I don’t go out of my way to invite you to add comments to any of my blog posts — but here is one time where I would love your feedback.

Who knows — perhaps your responses will inspire these great artists to finally film the productions they make.

Cheers,





Friday, September 15, 2017

No Shakespeare?



I love counterfactual history questions.

What if Germany had won World War II?

What if we had not gone into space, or not landed on the moon?



And the biggest question regarding Shakespeare, to me, is what if Shakespeare had not existed?

What if he had never been born, or had not survived childhood?

The closer you look at his biography, the more you realize that he could have died very young, or in his youth.

He had siblings who died, and he was born during a time of plague.

There was never a guarantee that he would survive for long, or at all.

I do not believe, had he not existed, that someone else would have done what he did, and create the poetry and plays he did.

When you look at his rival playwrights — Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Robert Greene, and the others — not one of them rises to the level of Shakespeare.

They were all very talented artists, but none of them could capture the imagination of their Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences they way that Shakespeare did.

I think the biggest reason why Shakespeare was so unusually successful, and why his plays have endured, was because Marlowe and the other playwrights were writing for the London elite. 

They did not write for the public, for the people.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was the people’s playwright.

It is often noted that Shakespeare did not attend university, as the others had. The point seems to be that his education was not as good as Christopher Marlowe’s, who went to Cambridge.

I am convinced that Shakespeare’s lack of a university education actually benefited him. It made him far more ambitious than the others, and the life lessons he learned were far more valuable than anything in their lectures at Oxford and Cambridge.

Shakespeare’s success was accidental, it was unexpected. He was off everyone’s radar.

Had he gone to university, his home-spun and folksy wisdom, and his priceless and real-world sense of humor would have been beaten out of him. He would have been expected to conform, to fit it, at university. 

Writing plays for the public, and making them laugh, cry, and close their eyes from the horror — none of that was on a university curriculum.

But Shakespeare was a misfit. That is his brilliance, his charm, his greatness.

His greatest artistic creations are characters who don’t conform, who don’t follow the rules, and who always draw outside of the lines — for better or for worse.

Falstaff is the patron saint of misfits. 

Hamlet should be strong and heroic, decisive and brave. But he just can’t. He can’t live up to what we expect him to be. He just can’t be the Prince he should be.

Cleopatra should be regal, composed, divine, and above mundane human and earthly matters. But Antony shatters all of that. She simply loves him way too much for her to behave like a proper divine ruler should.

Even Macbeth. In the beginning, he seems like a competent vassal lord to King Duncan. Then he becomes consumed with ambition, and it leads him on a path of murder and insanity.

All of the great characters are all too human.

Shakespeare was all too human. He embraced it, rather than run from it.

All of the other playwrights ran from their humanity, and wrote plays that were less inspired than his.

And today, as Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed, and interpreted around the world, the plays of his rivals are relatively forgotten.

Had Shakespeare not existed, it is very likely that theatre in the time of Queen Elizabeth would have suffered terribly. As the other playwrights were dying out, from poverty, from drinking too much, from disease, the theatres would have died out, too.

The Queen enjoyed theatre, but preferred animal baiting matches. 

It is doubtful that she would have allowed theatre to prosper had it not been for the popular appeal and success of Shakespeare — and Shakespeare alone.

By the time that King James succeeded Elizabeth, he might have dissolved the playing companies. He preferred masques anyway, and he arguably would have brought theatre into the royal court — and closed up The Globe and other venues.

But they could not close the theatres, because Shakespeare had already changed the game on them.

Not only were most of Shakespeare’s rivals too busy drinking and partying to bother with making a body of work, none of them organized the theatre into anything resembling an industry. 

Shakespeare, with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, organized themselves as sharers in the profits and responsibilities of running a playing company as a for-profit company — not just as a band of actors who served for the benefit of a royal patron.

They made a business out of it. That successful business created competition — and in short order, a theatre industry was born. As far as I know, that was unprecedented in world history.

Queen Elizabeth tried to put the theatres under control. But it only made them more popular.

By the middle of the 1590s, it is doubtful that she could have closed theatres without sparking a city-wide riot. 

By the time that King James arrived in London, in 1603, it was far too late to shut them all down.

Yes, the theatres were shut from 1642 to 1660. But that can’t be attributed one way or the other to Shakespeare, who died 1616.

But, I would argue that if Shakespeare had not so successfully established, and firmly planted theatre in London, over the course of his almost 25 year long stage career, then the theatres would not have reopened in 1660, or at all.

Once the theatres were re-opened, they began to perform Shakespeare’s plays again. It was as if London, and England for that matter, could not live without him.

It was as if once the light of Shakespeare was lit, it could not be snuffed out.

In the decades and centuries since, I think the world as a whole would have been far worse without him, and England in particular would have been far weaker than it turned out to be.

I think even today, the world would be far darker than it already is.

Why? Because he was one of those unlikely miracles that comes along in history. He shined a light on the world and on men and women, in order to teach us more about ourselves than we knew before.

Shakespeare helped shine a light that helped guide England through some of the darkest times in history — not the least of which was the potential invasion by Germany during World War II. 

Sir Laurence Olivier as King Henry the Fifth was one of the greatest symbols of English pride and defiance in the face of Hitler and Nazi oppression.



We are very fortunate that the light that is Shakespeare is still shining today, and he has become a source of light that illuminates and unifies the whole world. 

There are not enough people or things that truly unite us in our humanity. 

His plays and poetry do.

I like to think that he somehow knew that his work would live on long after his death, and what he was doing would have a global impact — especially since he named his theatre The Globe.

I like to think that he chose that name for the theatre because he could, in his vast and brilliant mind, imagine a future world where people were far more free and happy than the one in which he lived — and that he would play some small, but critical, part in helping it get there.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Shakespeare and 'Rule, Brittania!'


"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."


I came across an article that sheds new light on the origins of the England’s great anthem, "Rule, Brittania!"

You would think that this song had nothing to do with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. 

However, the story of how and why the song was created illuminates what Shakespeare was doing with his plays.

Here's the link to the article that I found -- here.




I love this song, with its defiant, strong and proud love of England.

But I never knew the real origin of the song. I thought it was a very rousing piece of music to inspire Englishmen to love their country.

No, it was much more than that. It was a song of revolt.

It was a declaration to all men, including King George II, that Englishmen would not and should not give up its fight for freedom.

King George II

The historian, Oliver Cox, discovered letters written by people who were the first audience who heard this song performed in 1740.

This first audience understood the song as a political message to the king, and his Prime Minister, who were in the audience.

The song was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales — who was the heir to the throne.

Frederick, Prince of Wales

Frederick was not very close to his father, King George, and did not support his government.

Frederick used the song to express the position that England should take a much stronger stand against the nation's enemies, primarily Spain.  

The song was a "call to arms" and a "rallying cry" — to use the British Royal Navy to project power on the seas.

Frederick wanted the song to share his "vision" of his father as "a new type of King".

The song was part of a masque entitled Alfred, based on Alfred the Great’s battles against the Viking invaders.

Here is the entire song, as it was originally written:

1
When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

2
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

3
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

4
Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

5
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

6
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Here is a great video with the song -- I especially love the crowds singing along:




What is interesting to me about this episode from 1740, is that it so closely resembles the situation, in the 1590s, between Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth.

Essex was one of many people who competed to become Elizabeth's heir, and her government broke into two rival factions.

Just as Prince Frederick also wanted this song to serve his interests as far as inheriting the throne, Essex commissioned Shakespeare to write plays to advance his claim to Elizabeth's throne.

Frederick clearly wanted his father to change and become a new kind of king. If his father would not change, then Frederick would be the change that he believed England needed.

If King George could not become as great as King Alfred, then Frederick would be.

Essex's plays with Shakespeare also offer London's audiences a choice between Elizabeth and Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex


Shakespeare's Henry V play is the clearest parallel to Frederick’s Alfred masque. 

In the 1590s, as England continued to face threat of invasion by Spain, Essex wanted this particular play to offer Elizabeth an opportunity to be a new kind of monarch.

If she did not project power, with her land and naval forces, and properly protect England against Spain, and live up to the image of King Henry V, then Essex would be more than happy to take her place.

Shakespeare's Henry V play was also a call to arms and a rallying cry —  Englishman faced enslavement if Spain did succeed in conquering England.

Essex and Shakespeare, and the men who were members of that faction, had very similar fears, hopes, and dreams as Frederick and the men of his faction who designed this Alfred masque. 

Both factions wanted England to be free, and wanted England to be strong in a way that it was not at the time.

I like to think that Frederick knew who and what Essex, Shakespeare, and that faction were about, in regards to Queen Elizabeth.

I like to think that Frederick drew inspiration from Essex’s and Shakespeare’s example.

I like to think that as long as England exists, there are people like them who will defend it and keep England safe and strong — and who will keep their fellow Englishmen free from those who would enslave them.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer