Queasy Endings, Happy Endings in Shakespeare

As You Like It , 2019, an excellent musical version, free in the park by SF Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my jam, which is why I particularly like summer with its Shakespeare Festivals popping up in every district park and on every street corner. I also just finished a class, which knocked me on my ass, filled my head with iambic pentameter, and turned a lot of my bardic understanding upside down. Isn’t that just like a comedy?

There’s nothing like a good lusty Elizabethan comedy – boy falls in love with girl at first sight, girl dresses up as a man, twins get mistaken for each other, bears and donkeys gambol in the forests, and they all get married in the end. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 plays had the comedy label slapped on them by the playwright’s buddies who helpfully subdivided his plays the early folios. We all learned about those divisions in school: comedies end in marriages and no (usually) deaths; tragedies center around a protagonist whose flaw causes mayhem and his own death; and histories were about the kings.

Yet comedies aren’t so easy to categorize. In fact, the last five chronologically are often recategorized by modern scholars as “romances” because they contained tragic elements. But, then, there are the three middle comedies, written before the romances, which have also been called “problem plays.” They are problematic indeed.

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The Real Macbeth

When the hurly-burly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won…


–Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I: Sc 1: Line 3

Macbeth was a real guy. King of Scotland. Lived in a Castle near Inverness. Defeated Duncan and succeeded by Malcolm. Many things that Shakespeare used in his play were factually accurate. However, most of the characterizations of king Macbeth were historical gaffes.

Those of us who had to read Macbeth in high school, who had to diagram Shakespeare’s five act opening-climax-denouement cycle and to write papers about how Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his obsession with ambition, led to his downfall, were given the wrong impression. Macbeth the real King of Scotland (1040-1057), was not a murdering madman, but a far more complex, elusive, and interesting person whose true ambition may have been to unite Scotland.

Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, formerly home to Macbeth, currently home to the Campbell’s.
Photo by kajmeister.
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Heartland III: Not My Mama’s Shakespeare

It’s astounding
Time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll
So listen closely
Not for very much longer
I’m going to lose control

Quick–what’s the next line?

Stratford Festival Theater
Shakespearean Festival Theater in Stratford Ontario, originally built in 1953. Photo by kajmeister.

Forty-two years ago, I saw the legendary Canadian actor Brian Bedford play three roles at the Stratford Canadian Shakespearean festival in repertory: Angelo in Measure for Measure, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and Richard III. The breadth of his performances changed my idea of what actors could do.

Forty years ago, as a freshman in college at Berkeley, I watched a science-fiction movie about a transvestite where people shouted at the screen and threw toast and rice. It changed my idea about how a movie can connect with an audience.

Who would have thought that, getting old, we would wax nostalgic about doing the time warp?

Stratford Festival program, Rocky Horror
Stratford Festival’s Rocky Horror, starring Dan Chameroy. Program photo by Stratford staff, uncredited.

Gimme That Ol’ Time Theater

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What Fools these Midsummer Mortals Be

20170719 mids movie

Oberon, what visions I have seen! Methought I was enamoured of an ass!
— Titania, Act IV, Sc 1

In the dark of the wood, under moonlight, at midnight, anything can happen. That’s the premise of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and what makes it one of the greatest comedies ever written. Aside from making my case as to why this is so, let me also point out a few interesting facts about midsummer, good vs. disastrous Shakespeare, and how Midsummer has been interpreted.

Midsummer is long days and languid nights; fireflies or sparklers glowing while the sound of crickets or frogs echo above dark green trees, thick with foliage. Midsummer is a time for foolery, which is the perfect time to watch a play, especially outdoors. Shakespeare in the Park is popular worldwide in New York and Paris but also in small towns and local venues. Summer solstice-y traditions are also popular whether it’s official Scandinavian holidays like Sankthansaften in Denmark or Juhannus in Finland or even our backyard barbecues. There’s drinking and feasting, sometimes a naked sprint or some skinnydipping, and when the sun finally sets, there’s might be a giant community bonfire. In the dark of the night, in front of a fire, in shadows and in light, anything can happen.

Magic and the Just Desserts for the Snobbish
Lovers enter a dark forest, filled with mischief makers and aphrodisiacs. Local actors prepare a play and, like in Waiting for Guffman, simple actors act simply. A fairy queen and king are at odds, interesting shadows to the real queen and king, also at odds.  Why does A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s plot work so well? Three reasons: Continue reading “What Fools these Midsummer Mortals Be”

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Warning: Contains potential Spoilers from Shakespeare, A Christmas Carol, Pride & Prejudice, and Game of Thrones

20160720 ShakesBear

SF Shakespeare Fest, pikore.co #ShakesBear

It’s summer; it’s time for Shakespeare. There’s Shakespeare in the park, Shakespeare in your local theaters, and plenty at your local library. Go watch some! (although you have my permission to skip over Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, and Australopithecus.) The library will surely have an excellent version A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How can you beat Titania in love with Bottom who has been transformed into a donkey… “methought I was enamoured of an ass….”?

Our favorite tales – the ones that resonate with our modern sensibilities – are stories of reconciliation and redemption. I recently watched an excellent version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale under the stars that showed the power of people seeking and receiving true forgiveness stands at the heart of our most beloved stories.

We learned in school that Shakespeare wrote Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. For years, the way I remembered the comedies and tragedies were by the ending – people dead? Tragedy. Wedding? Comedy. Unless there’s “King” in the title, then it’s a History. Now, please note it was people who came after the playwright who created the categories. Shakespeare wrote whatever the hell he* wanted, then later on people grouped and interpreted and analyzed them ad nauseum. Many of the tragedies have funny elements and many of the comedies have very dark themes. Continue reading “Exit, Pursued by a Bear”