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 amazing 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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Cumberbitches and Benedictines Flock to the Cinema for HAMLET

Why not the deerstalker cap? That was my thought when Cumberbatch, in his first "Hamlet pretends to be mad" scene, marched across the on-screen stage in a tin soldier costume that included a towering drum major's hat. That hat was great, but, given that Hamlet is the ultimate detective, probing the secret of his father's murder, not getting Benedict to sport the Holmes headgear featured so amusingly in the brilliantly updated TV series Sherlock was a wasted opportunity. I decided director Lyndsey Turner must have begged Cumberbatch to do it and Cumberbatch simply refused. If so, I understand.

But  those who didn't see the British National Theatre's live-streamed* Hamlet will want to know not what hat the Benedict wore, but whether he was any good. Did he embarrass himself? Should some stars just stay away from Shakespeare?

Well, yes, some stars should just stay away from Shakespeare (perhaps the subject of another post). But Benedict Cumberbatch is not one of those. In fact, his was one of the two most brilliant portrayals of Hamlet I've seen.

That the second in that group was David Tennant's, in a 2012 production, might indicate my preference for newer approaches to the role, but it doesn't mean I'm not

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Will's Will

Lately I've been thinking about investments, and because these turned out pretty well for William Shakespeare, I've been wondering, WWWD -- What Would William Do in today's markets? Of course, I have no idea, though I'd like to think he would sign up for one of those expensive weekend seminars that use his plays to instruct people in making fiscally savvy business decisions (see my post on this, "Shakespeare Profiteers Make Out Like Bandits!," below). I also hope he'd use a chunk of his earnings to contribute heavily to the arts, and to various charities like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, but alas, all that we know of him suggests he kept as much of his money as he could for himself, though we do know he once loaned someone ten pounds, because he was careful to make a record of it.

Yes. As Katherine Duncan-Jones pointed out in her biographical work Ungentle Shakespeare, Shakespeare was a tightwad. In his Stratford barn, he hoarded grain to capitalize on times of bad harvest, and no evidence suggests that he was the type to stand his fellow players a round of drinks. There is of course no evidence to

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Shakespeare on Aging

One of the many insulting things about Facebook and Google is their personalized highlighting of geezer-oriented products and articles to folks whom their spy system has deduced are over 50. This would include me and my friends from high school and college. Most of my friends are better than I am at ignoring "EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD GRANDMA LOOKS 45!" and "Bronson Health Center. Your Choice for Congestive Heart Disease." I myself get annoyed, and tend to check the little box requesting no further ads from these sources. On the proffered list of reasons why one is offended by the ad, I always check "It's against my religion."

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?

Well, as followers of this blog know by now, all roads lead to and from Shakespeare. Will had a lot to say about everything, including aging. Some might think he had little right to comment on that topic, since he died when a mere babe of 52. "That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang" -- please! I know 50 was not the new 40 in 1616, but by most