Sunday, May 1, 2016

Terrorism, Madness, Nostalgia -- Now and Then

I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where recently a guy working as an Uber driver shot eight people because he thought he was receiving coded instructions to do so from the dispatcher on his phone.

Crazy, right? And yet the reason this man seems so clearly, evidently nuts is that no one shared his belief. It was a private lunacy.

It would be comforting to think only isolated people are prone to the kinds of imaginings that lead to explosive violence. But in fact, there's no evidence to support this idea. Most isolated people don't bother other people. (And in fact, this Uber driver was not particularly isolated. He had a family.) What's actually true is that the greatest acts of violence are perpetrated not by lonely people, but by people whose lunacy is stoked by fellow believers -- by those who share and encourage a communal fantasy about a higher power who is directing them to shoot or blow something up, in the name of God or country or some other cause. Social groups can do a lot of damage. And the bigger the social group is, the less apparent it is, when that group becomes murderous, that its members are not only violent, but insane. Collectively insane. They have convinced themselves that ordinary people going about their business are actually not people, but targets.

Commonly these people are angry because something in their world is no longer the way it used to be. They want the world around them to match a world they think

Friday, April 1, 2016

Shakespeare and Gunpowder

What did Shakespeare think about gunpowder? Did you ever wonder? Did he ever blow anything up? Did he ever fire a gun? What would he have thought of our Second Amendment debates? Would he have joined the NRA?

Elizabethan and Jacobean legislators didn't get around to outlawing firearms, since it was such a novel thing to be able to carry one around rather than to have to wheel it onto the battlefield. The big social violence problem during Shakespeare's time was caused not by guns, but by swords, of the new super-sharp and supple Spanish and Italian varieties, with which young men were in the habit of challenging each other in taverns and alleyways

Monday, February 29, 2016


On March 11th a friend and I are traveling to Wayne State University in Detroit to participate in a Shakespeare conference in honor of Shakespeare's approaching 400th deathday, April 23rd (also, coincidentally, his birthday, as far as we know). The theme of the conference is "Shakespeare on Stage and on the Page," with the "Page" part a reference to the First Folio, the first edition of Shakespeare's dramatic works, published in 1623, of which only about 230 copies exist. First Folio volumes are now touring the country (not independently. They have handlers) and one of them has parked, or been parked, temporarily in Detroit. We're going to see it.

So what?, you say. So nothing. It's just something that's going to happen. At least, we plan for it to happen, though, as Shakespeare points out -- usually on gloomy

Monday, February 1, 2016

More on Bad Historical Fiction

Just so you know, this post is going to end up in the Renaissance even though it doesn't start there. I will begin with a rant against films that exploit history to make a case that concerns their creators' own historical moment, focusing on one particular example.

It's not that I didn't like Ron Howard's In The Heart of the Sea (based -- I'm guessing loosely -- on Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction book by the same name). Shipwreck dramas are among my favorites, and this one was kind of fun to watch. The idea had great potential. Around 1850, a young Herman Melville visits Nantucket to interview the last living sailor from the Essex, a ship that was sunk in the 1820s by an angry whale. He's looking for material. So far, so good. The excellent English actor Ben Whishaw plays Mellville, and the no less brilliant Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays the haunted old sailor who served as cabin-boy on the Essex (and who looks way older than he should look thirty years after early adolescence, but maybe that's what nightmares do to you). The visual details of period and place are well rendered in both the Nantucket and the ocean scenes. The story is mostly portrayed through flashbacks, which center on the experiences of the boat's first mate Owen Chase, played by Chris Helmsworth, who -- despite the hideous Australio-Boston accent he comes up with for the Massachusetts-born Chase -- showed talent playing Thor and hosting SNL and is not so bad here, apart from one thing. There's only so much you can do with a crappy script.

What made this script bad was either the screenwriters' intentional abandonment of any attempt to make its characters speak like New Englanders did two hundred

Friday, January 1, 2016

Shakespeare's Deathday

Shakespeare's four hundredth deathday is approaching, and Shakespeare enthusiasts everywhere are unleashing a frenzy of commemorative and celebratory Shakespeare events to mark the milestone. However, because it is a downer to celebrate someone's death, the occasion is being described as the anniversary not of a playwright's shuffling off of his mortal coil, but of the birth of his legacy, which mostly means his plays. This festive rebranding requires a little chronological fudging, since the First Folio -- the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays -- appeared not in the year of his death but seven years later, in 1623, even though the Folger Library is choosing 2016 as the year to lend some of these priceless Folios to universities throughout the U.S. to be feted and celebrated because it's Shakespeare's 400th deathday (or deathyear. The actual day will be April 23rd). Yes, I do mean the books themselves will be feted and honored, almost as though they are visiting dignitaries. And why not? As the source of four hundred years worth of performance scripts and hours of reading pleasure, they deserve to be. If we're going to fetishize a book, it might as well be the First Folio. Of course, since Shakespeare lovers jump at any chance to

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

On Rapping Shakespeare: A Response to Mark Rylance

I recently read an interview with the talented Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who is fast becoming a big TV and movie star due to his brilliant portrayals of Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries Wolf Hall and the Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. In the pages of The Guardian, Rylance complained that most Shakespearean actors impart an inappropriately slow, portentous, and reverent delivery to Shakespeare's lines, which should instead be spoken as rapidly as rap. Rylance also compared Shakespeare's speeches to Rolling Stones lyrics, asserting, "To take a song like Honky Tonk Woman and study it for its literature" does "a disservice to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who would like it to be revered as a great rock'n'roll song." He added that we should likewise "revere [Shakespeare] in the way he would want to be revered -- as a playwright."*

Now, an actor as good as Rylance deserves to be listened to. He knows his craft. But if you sense something fishy about his argument, it's because it's fishy. My

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November . . .

 October 31st through November 5th is a spooky almost-week, encompassing Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day (or the Day of the Dead), and Guy Fawkes Day, which is November 5th. Since non-English people may not know about Guy Fawkes Day (also known in England as Bonfire Night), let me explain that it was the day scheduled by twelve disaffected Catholic gentlemen for the blowing up of the House of Lords at oh, say about 9 a.m., back in 1605. They had lots of gunpowder, and came close to doing it, but the plan fizzled.

What was their motive? And how did they fail? More to the point, how did they come so close to succeeding? And most importantly -- was Shakespeare secretly in league with them?

You'll get some unusual answers to those questions in my forthcoming novel, Gunpowder Percy. Will Shakespeare is the least of its cast of characters, which includes Guido Fawkes (the guy himself, pictured above left), the playwright Ben Jonson, the iron-willed and feisty gentlewomen Anne and Eliza Vaux, mad