House of Shakespeare

Posted in Celebrations, Shakespeareana on 2014/04/22 by mattermind

Tomorrow is Shakespeare’s birthday and to honor it I will be posting throughout the day.

While wrapping up Henry IV, Part II, I encountered a bit of wicked treachery that reminded me of an article I had recently seen drawing comparisons between Shakespeare and the TV hit, House of Cards.

I don’t watch the show because I’m not, as a rule, attracted to treachery nor art depicting it. For similar reasons, I was unable to stick with Mad Men, another wildly popular and highly touted offering.

The dark side of humanity is not a place I desire to dwell unless to extract a necessary moral lesson. I can bear it in limited quantity, but I prefer to spend my time and what’s left of my senses exploring the virtue, goodness and possibilities rather than to surrender to the negative any more than need be.

I imagine that’s a rather odd confession in an age of anxiety. This is a time for the celebration of anti-heroes and ironic wit, detached critiques and dumbed-down avuncular stooges. It gets harder and harder to wear one’s heart nakedly on one’s sleeve.

But I do protest too much.

Henry IV will wrap tomorrow and I will share news of birthday celebrations from around the world as I find them.

This world was made a better place by Shakespeare’s birth. The day has finally arrived for everyone, everywhere to make hay of the occasion, and to let their appreciation for the Bard be known.

Shatner Vs. Shakespeare

Posted in YouTube on 2014/04/21 by mattermind

I just discovered this delightful stop-motion movie made out of Legos (no, not that movie…this five-minute short about Shakespeare).

Wags may prefer calling it The Ultimate Battle of Wills (cough). Just call it “educational” and enjoy a good laugh while marveling at the infinite ingenuity of your fellow human kind.

Or maybe these folks just have too much time on their hands.

Either way, keep it up, guys.

In Celebration

Posted in Celebrations on 2014/04/18 by mattermind

…of the sacred holiday of Easter, this blog will take a break from Good Friday through Monday morning. I wish everyone a blessed time of joy and happiness among all your loved ones.


“Enough with the Goddamned Shakespeare Already”

Posted in Performance, Shakespeareana with tags , , on 2014/04/17 by mattermind

Public Radio International

While it’s safe to say that not everyone loves Shakespeare, few would go as far as to suggest that the modern theater is being undermined by too great an appreciation for the Bard.

Yet according to this NPR story, an internet meme has gathered momentum proposing that very thing. A closer examination, however, reveals that any aspersion cast by the opinion has more to say about theater managers than about the indisputably greatest playwright who ever lived.

And to an extent it makes sense; by overrelying on a singular cow to deliver the cream, theater houses are not only dulling audiences with steady doses of the already familiar, they are also neglecting all the other works that rarely get performed as a result.

I suppose the same argument holds in arenas like classical music where Bach, Beethoven & Mozart tend to crowd out all the rest. But is there any other field where one titanic individual dominates his rivals to such an extent as Shakespeare? Should he be throttled back to allow other neglected voices to shine?

It’s an interesting idea to say the least. You can read more and comment on it yourself HERE.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/16 by mattermind

Henry IV: Part II, Act III

I’m not sure what motivated Shakespeare to write Henry IV in two parts rather than just one, but his follow-up suffers from a serious case of sequel-itis.

We start to feel this now, in the midsection of the play, as Henry laments his inability to sleep, and Falstaff contrives more devious ways to avoid responsibility and connive cash for his dubious exploits.  We almost wish for a good battle sequence to distract us with mindless action.  Anything to further the plot and wrap this up so we can move on to the larger stakes of Henry V.

I have finally caught up to this period in the lecture series on English history.  Along the way I got detoured by fascinating discussions on the Black Plague and its effects on the feudalistic economy, the Peasant’s Revolt, the spread of English, Chaucer, the growing power of Parliament, proto-Protestant dissatisfaction with the clergy, and even the dawning age of the printing press and the tidal shift of common literacy.

There is so much going on during this era that it made me angry at the black holes in my education.  The cataclysmic mistake, I believe, is that we compartmentalize our school systems in the United States, creating an assembly-line-inspired manufacturing process that has broken down complicated knowledge into its crudest, most rudimentary moving parts.

I have studied Chaucer in English class, the printing press in history, the Magna Carta in political science…but I have never had a teacher help me put the pieces together until now.  The blame for that falls squarely on me.  But when I look back at how I was taught everything I learned in school, it was delivered piecemeal in easily-digestible units, discreet chapters with tidy summaries that in no way bear resemblance to the complex, holistic truth. 

We have so specialized the generation and acquisition of information that we have lost all sense for how it flows together into Gestalt patterns.  History is no more a collection of generals and wars than literature is a bunch of novels, poems and plays. Those are just the names we ascribe to certain qualities and behaviors, fragments of glass in the stained-glass window shedding light on the human soul and our collective destiny.

We can’t just cut out and isolate convenient bits from our intellectual, spiritual and cultural development and then offer these up to our youth, assuming our work is done.  As educators, our job is first to master the material and only then present it with all its lumps, bumps, connections and contradictions. But those are the very instructors who are stripped from the corporate model of education in our race to the standardized bottom.

How many people on the streets know that it was the spread of gunpowder that led directly to the end of chivalry?  Or that the massive loss of life suffered during the Black Death created competition for the dwindling labor force, a downward momentum on prices and an upward push on wages that would help smash the oppressive chokehold of serfdom in Europe?
– or that an increase in laws would inevitably lead to a need for educated lawyers which in turn created openings for a new class of students to earn a good living in the courts?

Wheels within wheels. 

And now we’re in the middle of a series of succession plays during a tumultuous period when the king chafed at the rising power of Parliament to enforce checks on his revenues, and baronial accumulation of influence created clashes of treacherous alliances.  The more you know, the more fascinating all of this becomes.

I regret that I am late to the party.  But I am grateful that I was at least invited.

He Was the Mark and Glass, Copy and Book

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags on 2014/04/15 by mattermind

Henry IV: Part Two, Act II

The title comes from a speech by Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow, who speaks as boldly and as bluntly to her father-in-law as Hotspur might himself were he alive.

She has GRIEVANCE, since it was Northumberland and Glendower’s pussyfooting that contributed directly to her love’s defeat.  Hotspur might have withdrawn – or at least waited for reinforcements – but everyone knows that wasn’t his way.  The real question is why his father chose to hold back (it seems doubtful that he in fact was sick, since he fails to mention it now when any plausible excuse might come in handy).

I find it most revealing that Lady Percy takes umbrage at Northumberland’s specific reference of the word “honor” – a crucial word for this play and certainly for Hotspur.  It demonstrates that the idealism which ran through the son runs equally through his wife, if indeed it has run aground in the father.

She wonders why he’s all fired up now to take to the field after the horses have fled the barn.  Honor? she says.  You care about honor among strangers, when it didn’t bother you to abandon your own son at his most desperate hour?

Feisty girl, speaking to her father-in-law this way.  But I love that about her, just like I loved the same characteristic in her husband.  They stand for principles in a world run amok with royal flimflammery, baronial machinations, pompous egos and lowbrow buffoonery.

If we assumed that by killing Hotspur, Prince Hal would rise to the occasion and embody a regal bearing for the throne, we assumed wrong.  Not only does he continue to fart around with Falstaff, but he begins preening about his royal place and such, whether it’s uncouth to be seen among the common folk.  Cry about his ailing father?  But how would that look in front of his future subjects?

Blah blah blah.  The kid ain’t ready for prime time.  Falstaff is…Falstaff.  The rebellion is in disarray.  And now Northumberland has been convinced by his wife and daughter-in-law to wait this round out – again? – to see how the chips will fall.

Hotspur may have had his faults, but I sure do miss him now.

Next Man Up

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags , on 2014/04/14 by mattermind

Henry IV: Part II, Act I

There’s a famous saying in American football: “The most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback.”  For those who either aren’t familiar with the NFL or have no idea what the expression means, it refers to the human tendency to believe that a simple switch is all it takes to fix whatever ails you.  The devil you don’t know versus the horndog you do.

Shakespeare shows us that this penchant goes way back, long before Walter Camp and others created the first rules for what would one day become the most dominant sport in the United States.  Which is a roundabout way of saying that what we find at the start of Henry IV, Part Two is a bunch of fed up malcontents desiring regime change because it beats the guy they got in charge now.

“Throw the bums out,” is another popular expression in American sports politics, referring of course to the same phenomenon, but through (we hope) an orderly electoral process.  It amounts to the same thing, really: out with the old, in with the new, maybe this go round will turn out better.  It usually doesn’t, but hey, memories are short and what else ya gonna do?

On a sad note, Part Two begins with the mighty Northumberland learning second-hand that his son, Hotspur, is dead.  Shakespeare complicates the scene by having the news travel unreliably by pony express, so that what Northy first hears is that his son is alive, the king is mortally wounded and the rebels scored a decisive victory.  That almost trumps DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN for blowing the banner headline.

By now Northumberland is old and weary, yet the personal loss spurs him into suiting up one more time and riding out for another battle, probably his last.  He is buoyed, however, by word that he and his men will be facing a divided royalty, with Glendower, the Archbishop and all the other latecomers who let Hotspur down now causing the king to have to split up his counter attack.

The odds are stacked tremendously against the insurgency at this point, but now they have little choice other than to carry on.  The offer of pardon is likely off the table for good.  Anybody involved in this mess will almost certainly end up like Worcester, only without a famous sauce named after him.

There follows an utterly forgettable Falstaff scene which only makes me wish to hasten the moment that Hal drops him like a bad habit.  I realize I’m tipping my hand here and that what’s to come remains controversial to this day.  But I don’t care much for Falstaff.  I’m just curious now how it all goes down.

As a theme song for this section of the play, I keep hearing this anthemic ear worm burrowing in my brain. Sing along, kids! You know the words.