Quotulatiousness

March 24, 2014

Interpersonal communication in Shakespeare, or “Juliet and Her Nurse”

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:40

Emma Pierson does a bit of statistical analysis of some of Shakespeare’s plays and discovers that some of the play names are rather misleading, at least in terms of romantic dialogue:

More than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it, we can now say that Romeo and Juliet has the wrong name. Perhaps the play should be called Juliet and Her Nurse, which isn’t nearly as sexy, or Romeo and Benvolio, which has a whole different connotation.

I discovered this by writing a computer program to count how many lines each pair of characters in Romeo and Juliet spoke to each other,1 with the expectation that the lovers in the greatest love story of all time would speak more than any other pair. I wanted Romeo and Juliet to end up together — if they couldn’t in the play, at least they could in my analysis — but the math paid no heed to my desires. Juliet speaks more to her nurse than she does to Romeo; Romeo speaks more to Benvolio than he does to Juliet. Romeo gets a larger share of attention from his friends (Benvolio and Mercutio) and even his enemies (Tybalt) than he does from Juliet; Juliet gets a larger share of attention from her nurse and her mother than she does from Romeo. The two appear together in only five scenes out of 25. We all knew that this wasn’t a play predicated on deep interactions between the two protagonists, but still.

I’m blaming Romeo for this lack of communication. Juliet speaks 155 lines to him, and he speaks only 101 to her. His reticence toward Juliet is particularly inexcusable when you consider that Romeo spends more time talking than anyone else in the play. (He spends only one-sixth of his time in conversation with the supposed love of his life.) One might be tempted to blame this on the nature of the plot; of course the lovers have no chance to converse, kept apart as they are by the loathing of their families! But when I analyzed the script of a modern adaptation of Romeo and JulietWest Side Story — I found that Tony and Maria interacted more in the script than did any other pair.

All this got me thinking: Do any of Shakespeare’s lovers actually, you know, talk to each other? If Romeo and Juliet don’t, what hope do the rest of them have?

Update, 28 March: Chateau Heartiste says that this study shows that pick-up artists and “game” practitioners are right and also proves that “Everything important you need to know about men and women you can find in the works of Shakespeare”.

February 24, 2014

Terry Teachout interview on Satchmo at the Waldorf

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Marc Myers talks to author and playwright Terry Teachout about his latest play:

Satchmo at the WaldorfAs Terry Teachout was finishing Pops: A Life, his 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, he had an idea. Realizing that Armstrong’s final performance at the Waldorf in 1971 was an operatic moment — a meet-your-maker crescendo in the life of a great artist — Terry wrote a theatrical work where the trumpeter reflects on his life, and his white manager, Joe Glaser, adds his thoughts. The radical device was having the same black actor play both parts.

The result is Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play now in previews at New York’s Westside Theatre Upstairs. The show, which opens March 4, stars John Douglas Thompson and is directed by Gordon Edelstein. Terry, of course, is the Wall Street Journal‘s drama critic, which places him in the tricky position of walking the talk — putting himself out there as a playwright. It’s one thing to critique plays and performers and quite another to become the artist behind the work and face criticism.

Flying back from Boston yesterday, I posed five questions to Terry a week from Satchmo at the Waldorf’s premiere…

JazzWax: Why place Louis at the Waldorf Hotel—aside from the event being his last performance?

Terry Teachout: One of the themes of Satchmo at the Waldorf is the extent to which Armstrong had lost touch with his original black audience by the end of his life — a fact of which he was well aware, and one that hurt him deeply. It struck me that to use a high-priced uptown hotel as the play’s setting would serve as a powerful and telling symbol of this transformation. Even the title ties into it. You hear it and you ask yourself, “What is Satchmo doing at the Waldorf?”

In addition, the setting is an aspect of what I hope is the complexity of the way in which I portray Armstrong, who wasn’t a simple man by any means. He’s proud, rightly so, that a black man who was born in the Storyville section of New Orleans in 1901 can now play and stay in a hotel like the Waldorf. At the same time, it breaks his heart to look out at the all-white crowd and realize that his own people have turned their backs on him. There’s nothing remotely simple about that situation, or about his emotional response to it.

February 14, 2014

Shakespeare’s Richard III

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:02

John Lennard is a fan of William Shakespeare and it shows in this blog post:

The Imploding I

Shakespeare’s Richard III is the principal source of a figure still current in drama and cinema — the witty devil we love to hate. Fusing the role of the (aspiring) King with that of the Vice (the tempter in morality plays, who as a player of tricks and user of disguises was always more theatrically aware than his innocent victims), Shakespeare produced a role that from his first, mesmerising soliloquy, beginning the play, commands both amused and horrified attention. As witty as he is ruthless, and as witting about himself as about others, Richard dominates the stage whenever he is on it, and all his tricks come off marvellously — until they don’t.

I’ve just transcribed the Folio text of the play it calls The Tragedy of Richard the Third : with the Landing of Earle Richmond, and the Battell at Bosworth Field [...] and I was struck by how potently verse and punctuation record Richard’s force and his final implosion. Here’s that famous opening soliloquy:

Enter Richard Duke of Gloster, solus.

Now is the Winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke :
And all the clouds that lowr’d vpon our house
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.
Now are our browes bound with Victorious Wreathes,
Our bruised armes hung vp for Monuments ;
Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings ;
Our dreadfull Marches, to delightfull Measures.
Grim-visag’d Warre, hath smooth’d his wrinkled Front :
And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds,
To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries,
He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber,
To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute.
But I, that am not shap’d for sportiue trickes,
Nor made to court an amorous Looking-glasse :
I, that am Rudely stampt, and want loues Maiesty,
To strut before a wonton ambling Nymph :
I, that am curtail’d of this faire Proportion,
Cheated of Feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, vn-finish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing World, scarse halfe made vp,
And that so lamely and vnfashionable,
That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them.
Why I (in this weake piping time of Peace)
Haue no delight to passe away the time,
Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne,
And descant on mine owne Deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot proue a Louer,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to proue a Villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these dayes.
Plots haue I laide, Inductions dangerous,
By drunken Prophesies, Libels, and Dreames,
To set my Brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other :
And if King Edward be as true and iust,
As I am Subtle, False, and Treacherous,
The day should Clarence closely be mew’d vp :
About a Prophesie, which sayes that G,
Of Edwards heyres the murtherer shall be.
Diue thoughts downe to my soule, here Clarence comes.

Everything here serves to present Richard’s complete control, and it’s an excellent example of the Ciceronian style and balance that characterises much of Shakespeare’s most fluent and speakable verse. For all its dynamism the language is exceptionally balanced and structured, bracing opposites within lines (“Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings”, “That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them”) ; within couplets (“Now is the Winter of our Discontent, / Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke”, “Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne, / And descant on mine owne Deformity”) ; and within the quatrains that dominate the grammatical structure (“And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds, / To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries, / He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber, / To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute”). The whole flows as trippingly as commandingly from the tongue, as generations of great actors have found, and the language is so strong and clear that it can bear very different styles of presentation. The two best Richards I’ve had the luck to see on stage, Anthony Sher and Ian McKellen, could not have tackled the role more differently — Sher was seriously hunched and scuttling on calipers that became weapons, feelers, probes at will ; McKellen was a restrained and clipped army officer whose only visible deformity was a hand kept always in his pocket — but both could draw equal strength and suasion from the magnificent verse Shakespeare provided.

December 21, 2013

QotD: Baldrick and the workhouse Nativity play

Filed under: Britain, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Baldrick: I’ve been helping out with the workhouse Nativity play.

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, of course. How did it go?

Baldrick: Well, not very well. At the last moment, the baby playing Jesus died!

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, dear! This high infant mortality rate’s a real devil when it comes to staging quality children’s theatre. What did you do?

Baldrick: Got another Jesus.

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, thank goodness. And his name?

Baldrick: “Spot.” There weren’t any more children so we had to settle for a dog instead.

Ebenezer Blackadder: Oh, dear. I’m not convinced that Christianity would have established its firm grip over the hearts and minds of mankind, if all Jesus had ever said was “woof!”

Baldrick: Well, it went all right until the shepherds came on. See, we haven’t been able to get any real sheep, so we had to stick some wool…

Ebenezer Blackadder: On some other dogs!

Baldrick: Yeah. And the moment Jesus got a whiff of them, he’s away! While the angel’s singing “peace on earth, good will to mankind,” Jesus scampers across and tries to get one of the sheep to give him a piggy-back ride!

Ebenezer Blackadder: Scarcely appropriate behavior for the Son of God, Mister Baldrick! Weren’t the children upset?

Baldrick: No, they loved it! They want us to do another one at Easter. They want to see us nail up the dog!

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, 1988.

April 3, 2013

El Neil on acting

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, L. Neil Smith recounts his brief brush with acting:

It takes a particular kind of individual to be an actor.

I first became aware of this phenomenon in high school, when one of the English teachers cast and directed the only play I’ve ever been in (although I’d already had lots of stage experience as a musician), Anastasia.

The young lady the director chose to play the lead, I regret to say, was an utter non-entity of whom none of my friends or I (outcasts ourselves in our own way) had even been aware. You might say she was an ultra-wallflower, rather like the invisible girl in that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer you may remember. And yet she was so utterly brilliant and appealing in the difficult role that she brought tears to everybody’s eyes, and she earned a long, well-deserved standing ovation.

I have no idea what happened to her afterward.

There are exceptions, but in general, actors are people so empty, so devoid of personality, they need others to fill them up, writers to put words in their mouths, directors to tell them which piece of tape to stand on, when to move and how, specialists to dress them and apply paint to their faces, and a horde of other creatures exactly like them to inform them — through a sort of neural network like the nervous system of a jellyfish — what they should think and say on their own time.

February 17, 2013

A shocking, lurid tale of depravity that transfixed Victorian London

Filed under: Britain, History, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:15

In History Today, Richard Canning reviews a new book on the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, aka Mrs Fanny Graham and Miss Stella Boulton in 1871:

McKenna provides what is certainly the definitive account of the Boulton/Park story, drawn not only from contemporary journalism but also from the full legal transcript, a miraculous survivor housed in Kew’s National Archives. It is a miserable tale, if leavened both by McKenna’s dramatic verve and, during the show trial held in Westminster Hall, by Fanny and Stella’s black humour. The establishment account – that the pair’s persistent cross-dressing importuning was a scandal to public morals that must be stopped – soon breaks down. McKenna shows clearly how the men were effectively set up and, to some degree, even entrapped.

Police confidence in pressing the serious charge of ‘conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery’ (as opposed to the minor offence of outraging public decency) was nonetheless misplaced. Buggery had until lately incurred the death penalty and still carried a lifelong penal sentence. No such charge had been brought for 240 years. The problem which attended the endless, farcical medical examinations of Boulton and Park reflected sodomy’s millennial history as the nameless or invisible crime. Few Victorian doctors could claim to have seen evidence of the extreme anal dilation which purportedly occurred after the ‘insertion of a foreign body’. Of the half dozen who inspected the pair – both inveterate sodomites, as McKenna concedes – only one remained certain that the corporeal evidence supported conviction. They were acquitted and the notion that ‘the impurities of Continental cities’ had reached London was rooted in legal terms for a quarter-century – if paradoxically seeming somehow to be affirmed.

McKenna lays bare a fascinating tapestry of interrelated personal histories, only partially capable of reconstruction. Frederick’s elder brother Harry, already twice disgraced, was hiding in Scotland under an assumed name. Their father, a judge, was urgently shipped off to South Africa during the trial of his younger son. Impressively, Frederick’s mother – amusingly a literal ‘Mary Ann’ – took to the stand to defend his moral character. So successful was she that the identification of Frederick/’Fanny’ as a theatrical mother’s boy exonerated him entirely from the imputation of vice.

November 18, 2012

Having (in)famous ancestors

Filed under: History, Humour, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:40

John Scalzi is having mixed reactions to all the Twitter updates about Lincoln and theatres:

And he wrote about his infamous relative a few years ago:

Every family should have an interesting skeleton in the family closet. In my family, it’s John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who, of course, was the President of the United States during the American Civil War. Booth assassinated Lincoln not long after the cessation of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, by sneaking into the President’s box at Ford’s Theater (the show: Our American Cousin) and shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol. Booth then leaped from the box to the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus it is with tyrants”) and “The South is avenged.” He broke his leg but managed to escape nevertheless. However, eleven days later, he was discovered in a barn, burned out, and then shot (by himself or by a soldier, it’s unclear). He died shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Booth’s body was never positively identified, so it’s possible he actually escaped. Either way, he’s dead now.

For the record, I’m not a direct descendant — my line goes through one of his nine other siblings, making him something along the lines of a great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle. Whenever I mention my relationship to him, though, people’s eyes get wide, their jaws go momentarily slack, and some people actually back up a step, as if a long dormant assassination gene might suddenly fire up, and they’d be the unlucky recipient. I get a kick out of that. Then I go for the extra point my mentioning that John Wilkes and I have the same birthday: May 10, 131 years apart. By the time I mention I get edgy handling pennies and five dollar bills, people begin to wend their way to the nearest door.

September 26, 2012

Shakespeare’s Henry V: public choice theory in the 15th century

Filed under: Economics, Government, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:37

In The Freeman, Sarah Skwire points out that the opening act of Shakespeare’s Henry V — while boring to those hoping for battle and carnage — explains the public choice economic theory of rent-seeking:

Shakespeare’s Henry V — a favorite of theater companies and movie studios — begins with an invocation of the muse of fire, presumably because only her powerful heat and light can provide the inspiration necessary for Shakespeare’s great task of bringing forth so “great an object” on “this unworthy scaffold.” The prologue promises, after all, that we are about to see the armies of two great monarchies clash at the famous battle of Agincourt. A plea for divine aid seems only reasonable.

After all that buildup, however, the opening scene of the play has to be one of the dullest stretches in all of Shakespeare’s writing. Promised a ferocious battle with knights and horses and blood and thunder, we are given instead more than one hundred straight lines of a highly technical legal discussion between the Bishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. It is historically accurate. It is important. And it is exceptionally tedious.

It is tedious, that is, unless you are familiar with one basic piece of Public Choice theory.

Gain without Mutual Benefit

One its core concepts is the idea of rent-seeking. Unlike profit-seeking, which aims at mutually beneficial trade, rent-seeking is the attempt to use the political process to capture a bigger slice of wealth for oneself. Unlike trade, there is no mutual benefit. No wealth is created. The only profit is to the rent-seeker, and possibly his cronies. With that in mind, the opening scene of Henry V is gripping. It is no longer more than one hundred lines of fifteenth-century legal trivia. It is more than one hundred lines of some of the most explicit, uncensored, behind-the-scenes rent-seeking action in literary history.

August 30, 2012

Exaggerating your points to make them seem more important than they are

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:05

Geoff Chambers does a bit of Google searching to track down a few of the claims made in Stephen Emmot’s critically acclaimed one-man show “Ten Billion”:

The reviews were full of superlatives. The Times’ critic calls it “utterly gripping, terrifyingly lucid”; Time Out: “monumentally sobering”; Billington in the Guardian: “one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre”; the Financial Times: “one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage”; the Mail on Sunday “certainly the most scary show in London”. Almost all of them cite Emmott’s conclusion: “We’re f*cked”.

Here are some of the key “facts” (or “f*cts”) cited by Emmott and picked up by critics. (It is of course impossible to check whether the critics have quoted Emmott correctly, since no record of what he says exists):

1) A google search uses as much electricity as boiling a kettle.

2) It takes 3,000 litres of water to make a hamburger, (that’s 10 trillion litres of water annually to sustain the UK’s burger industry).

3) It takes 27,000 litres of water to make a bar of chocolate

4) Animal species are currently going extinct at a rate 1,000 times their natural level.

5) Bangladesh will be under water by the end of the century.

TL;DR for those who don’t feel up to reading the whole thing: 1) false, by a factor of 100. 2) true-ish, but massively misleading. 3) false, or Emmott eats humongous chocolate bars. 4) false, even though Wikipedia thinks it’s true. 5) false, the land area of Bangladesh has actually grown over the last 50 years thanks to land reclamation projects.

August 29, 2012

QotD: Government funding for the arts “stinks in God’s nostrils”

Filed under: Government, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 15:14

There’s at least a third reason to stop state funding of the arts, and it’s the one I take most seriously as a literary scholar and writer. In the 17th century, a great religious dissenter, Roger Williams (educated at Cambridge, exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony), wrote the first case for total separation of church and state in the English language. Forced worship, said Williams, “stinks in God’s nostrils” as an affront to individual liberty and autonomy; worse still, it subjugated theology to politics.

Something similar holds true with painting, music, writing, video and all other forms of creative expression. Forced funding of the arts — in whatever trivial amounts and indirect ways — implicates citizens in culture they might openly despise or blissfully ignore. And such mandatory tithing effectively turns creators and institutions lucky enough to win momentary favour from bureaucrats into either well-trained dogs or witting instruments of the powerful and well-connected. Independence works quite well for churches and the press. It works even more wonderfully in the arts.

Nick Gillespie, featured guest for “Economist Debates: Arts Funding”, The Economist, 2012-08-29

May 21, 2012

The perils of misreading

Filed under: History, Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:05

I saw a Twitter update from MHQjournal, linking to a brief news piece:

#Theater: One-Man Play Takes Controversial look at Robert E Lee http://goo.gl/news/SyBu Hope they did enough research to get the nuances right.

I slightly misread the name of the play as “Robert E. Lee — 50 Shades of Gray”, and thought it was a very odd notion to have the very paragon of an upright, pious southern gentlemen reading from a modern erotica novel…

April 23, 2012

Shakespeare’s plays as Soviet samizdat

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

An interesting bit of Soviet history in the BBC’s post on Shakespeare in the former Soviet Union:

In Soviet-era Lithuania, there were productions of Shakespeare for which people queued through the night for tickets. Shakespeare was culture with official approval, but as one of the few alternatives to tales about earnest Soviet heroes, it was also a way for theatre directors to symbolically address forbidden issues. Going to the theatre had an excitement it perhaps lacks nowadays, says Mamontovas.

“I miss those secret messages… there were always little secret messages from the artist to the audience. But there’s no need for that now because you can say what you want openly — it’s more entertainment now.”

[. . .]

Then there is the history of Hamlet in the Soviet Union. An early landmark of Lithuania’s professional theatre was a production of Hamlet by Mikhail Chekhov, nephew of the playwright Anton.

But Hamlet then fell out of favour. Stalin, it was understood, had turned against the indecisive Prince of Denmark. The uncomfortable comparisons between the setting of Hamlet, the dark world of Elsinore and the Kremlin, was perhaps too close.

Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, had usurped the throne, depriving the young Hamlet himself, and there were parallels — for those who wished to see them — in Stalin’s seizure of Lenin’s leading role and his demolition of rivals such as Trotsky.

There was also another layer of symbolism. Stalin, a keen theatregoer, took against the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold and had him arrested and tortured, and executed.

Meyerhold dreamed all his life of staging Hamlet, his favourite play, but somehow never managed it. He was renowned for having said, with bitter irony, that he wanted his tombstone to read: “Here lies a man who never played or directed Hamlet“. From the day he was killed in 1940, Hamlet and the death of Meyerhold became intertwined in the public imagination.

Stalin’s death in 1953 prompted a series of new Hamlet productions that tested the boundaries of how far the post-Stalin thaw had gone, and so the play gained a symbolic status of freedom of expression.

March 29, 2012

Edinburgh may be killing the cultural golden goose

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:46

Tiffany Jenkins talks about the origins of the world famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the powers-that-be who seem to be determined to strangle it with red tape:

In 1947, eight theatre groups turned up to perform at the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival, an annual event established to celebrate and enrich postwar European cultural life. The theatre groups had not been invited, and were not part of the official programme. So instead they created a spontaneous festival on the side. Growing year on year, with the theatre groups encouraging others to participate, this alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival eventually established itself, in 1959, as the Festival Fringe Society.

Today, Scotland is home to some of the top cultural events in the world. Many take place in Edinburgh during the August months, attracting high-profile authors, artists, comics and theatre companies from all over the globe. At the heart of this cultural firmament is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an event now funded and supported by government and local councils. Yet, in a nasty twist, those very same central and local authorities, currently enjoying the prestige of being associated with a world-renowned festival of culture, are seemingly intent on stifling the spontaneous, do-it-yourself impulse that originally gave birth to the Fringe.

[. . .]

From 1 April 2012, it will become necessary to have a ‘Public Entertainment License’ to undertake any kind of public art in Scotland. Previously a licence was only required for events charging admission. Starting next month, even the smallest local events being run for free — say in a café or a bookshop — will require one, which must be applied for six weeks beforehand. This will include exhibitions in temporary places, gigs in record shops, free film screenings, music in pubs. You know, even really dodgy stuff — like poetry readings to 10 men and a dog.

Apart from the form-filling and curtailment of spontaneity — you cannot just ring around a few friends and suggest a performance at the weekend — this will cost money too. In the past, fees for a ‘public entertainment licence’ have ranged from £120 to £7,500, requiring several months’ notice to be given to the council and three weeks public notice. Nothing will happen without long-term planning. Small venues, like cafes, which support artists and performers by hosting free events, won’t be able to cover the costs. And they shouldn’t have to. Art doesn’t need a licence, and nor do we to enjoy it.

What we are seeing is the hyper-regulation of everyday life where anything we choose to do spontaneously and between ourselves is seen as dangerous or threatening. The authorities want to monitor, codify and regulate the most normal, everyday interactions and behaviour.

December 23, 2011

Correcting Shakespeare’s sources: the real Richard III

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:37

Robert Fripp talks about the historical Richard III and the vicious caricatures that Shakespeare drew upon to produce his famous play:

In 1983, I was working a high-stress job pulling together CBC TV’s weekly investigative program The Fifth Estate. I still ask myself: Why, on top of that, did I spend my nights and weekends imitating a long-dead playwright? My labour of love was a play called Dark Sovereign, which I wrote in the four-century-old English of William Shakespeare and his 17th-century contemporaries.

The same year, 1983, also happened to be the 500th anniversary of King Richard III’s accession to the English throne. Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, is widely believed to have murdered his two nephews in the Tower of London, usurping the elder boy’s crown and reigning just 25 months before the upstart Henry Tudor (Henry VII) killed Richard in battle in 1485 and displayed his body for three days.

King Henry went on to inflict judicial murder on many whose claim to the throne was better than his. Nearly 20 existing portraits of Richard III were disfigured after his death to show humps painted onto the subject’s back. Writers, principally Sir Thomas More and Raphael Holinshed, gave the dead king a hostile press.

Then Shakespeare borrowed from Holinshed to write The Tragedy of Richard III. (It may be significant that the first edition’s title omits the word “King.”) Shakespeare wrote his character assassination around 1591. It was probably performed first for the Court of Queen Elizabeth I shortly thereafter. Tudor monarchs had been ruling for more than a century by then, but their tenuous claim to the throne still seemed to trouble them. Having denied Richard a decent burial a century earlier, they still had need to heap dirt on his reputation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I portrayed the Earl of Northumberland in the 1983 re-enactment of the coronation of Richard III (at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto) on local TV, and I portrayed the Earl of Lincoln in the (non-televised) version on the actual anniversary date. You could say I’m biased in favour of the revisionist view of the character of good King Richard.

November 3, 2011

So who did write Shakespeare’s plays?

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:23

Jonathan Kay tackles the crank-infested ground of Shakespeare’s works:

‘There are three infallible signs of the crank,” Catholic intellectual Joseph Bottum has written. “The first is that he has a theory about the Jews. The second is that he has a theory about money. And the third is that he has a theory about Shakespeare.”

Very true. Take, for instance, Ignatius Donnelly, perhaps the greatest crank in American history. In the late 19th century, Donnelly wrote books such as Ragnarok, which argued that Atlantis was destroyed by a passing comet and that the contours of our Earth were formed by splatterings of extraterrestrial “gravel.” He also believed the secret identity of the Great Bard could be discovered by counting and multiplying all the different words in his plays. In his crank manifesto, The Great Cryptogram, he claimed to have discovered a secret cipher that proved Francis Bacon was the true author.

[. . .]

And then there was Sigmund Freud, one of the small handful of thinkers whose influence on Western culture arguably can be said to stand alongside Shakespeare’s.

For Freud, it all began in 1898, when a Danish literary critic named George Brandes published a book outlining the connections between Shakespeare’s life and literary works. Hamlet, for instance, was said to grow out of Shakespeare’s grief for his own father’s passing in 1601. Freud became fascinated by this theory at a critical point in his life — his own father had died in 1896. And he incorporated the notion into The Interpretation of Dreams, in which Freud argued that Hamlet “is rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex”

Of course, all the back-and-forth among the Marlovians, Baconians, Oxfordians, and Stratfordians misses the point completely: the plays were clearly not written by William Shakespeare, but by a different chap of the same name.

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