My dearest cuz,/ I pray you school yourself – MACBETH, IV ii

Occasionally in the midst of Olde Englishe Talke, Shakespeare will suddenly sound bracingly modern. The title of this post is one of my favorite examples. And the words all mean the same as they do now, down to the not-just-for-blood-relatives use of “cuz”.

But it’s difficult not to feel, when in the midst of performing Shakespeare, that everything would be so much easier if an audience knew just a couple of obsolete words and meanings. Just a handful. Just enough to take the fangs out of so many seemingly toothy moments of confusion for the average audience.

Most people get pretty quickly from context that wherefore = why and that the occasional shouted “Go to!” or “Marry” or “S’blood” is some kind of Elizabethan default for hitting one’s thumb with a hammer. An attentive actor will even make the Thees & Thous different enough from the Yous that playgoers get some shift in intimacy or power from the change without knowing(/caring) that the juggling of Thee/Thou/You is even happening.

But sometimes even a familiar word with a slightly altered meaning can stick in the ear like a distracting bug and not let you get on with what else is happening (pardon the simile; we’ve been performing outside since May). Someone suggested I lay out a short list, so here are few that came unsystematically to mind. Enjoy!



Now means: happy/sad                     Used to mean: lucky/serious

It’s easy to see how this took place – “happy” meant fortunate (related “happenstance” and “perhaps” and even just “happen”), but the standard response to good luck being good spirits, the transfer of meaning happened. So it’s worth remembering (for actors, too) that when Malvolio shouts, “I thank my stars I am happy!” (Twelfth Night, II v), that’s what he means: fortunate. And when Benedicke asks Claudio if he speaks something “with a sad brow” and later says, “Prince, thou art sad”, he’s more referring to them being solemn-faced than depressed.



Now means: affectionate                    Used to mean: foolish, mad, infatuated, gullible, stupid

It still occasionally has a bit of the old meaning – take the phrase “a fond hope” – but even then it’s a little lighter. In Shakespeare it’s usually downright insulting. it’s easy to see how the shift happened with this one, since we do it with other similar words for romantic emphasis (crazy for you, mad about you, etc.), but those words didn’t lose their other connotations as fond has. It comes from a Middle English word, fonnen, that’s probably also related to “fun”, though it also used to mean “to lose taste” in the sense of food going bland with age. You see the connection. “Your brain’s gone stale.”

“You see how simple and how fond I am” – Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, making a play for sympathy that is utter bull.



Now means: envious                          Used to mean: suspicious, doubtful, worried when Brutus says to Cassius, “That you do love me I am nothing jealous” it means “I believe it”; this is also definitely something you want to keep in mind anytime you see/hear Othello.



Now means: moral compunction or reservation                    Used to mean: a tiny amount, either of weight or doubt

A “scruple” was once an apothecary’s measure, a tiny unit of weight (only twenty grains), so when Antonio is insulting the men responsible for his niece Hero’s (fake) death in Much Ado, he says, “I know them, yea/ And what they weigh, even to the utmost scruple”, he’s being precise. Though the meaning that involved tiny, niggling doubt was also there, so when an imprisoned Richard II notes that even his thoughts of things divine “are intermix’d with scruples” it’s that sense.



Now means: um, we                    Used to mean: Royalty in double capacity

Speaking of His Highness: people still know what this means (in that when we mock someone fancy/full of themselves we might speak in their voice using the Royal We – “Oh, we are special, aren’t we?”) but to get specific just for fun, it meant that the King or Queen at some times spoke as two entities at once, both the head of state and the embodiment of the state itself. So Richard II isn’t just being a self-involved twit*, he’s fulfilling his obligations.



Now means: um, from                    Used to mean: away from, maybe even far from

This isn’t really that different, but is just an added sense we’ve lost that’s easy to cause confusion to the modern ear. Usually it means what we mean when we say “from”, but in Much Ado when Hero (knowing full well that Beatrice is hiding within earshot) says that “to be so odd and from all fashions/ Cannot be commendable.” “From all fashions” doesn’t mean Beatrice is, I don’t know, generated by fashions or was born within the city limits of Fashion (see, our modern sense doesn’t work at all here) but that Beatrice is away from, removed from (or has removed herself from, knowing her) all fashions. Does that make sense? It’s an odd one, but it turns up a fair amount.



Now means: naughty/slight                    Used to mean: the same thing, only moreso

There are quite a few words that have simply weakened over the centuries. “Naughty” is intentionally mild when we use it now, almost always denoting toddler-like intentionally-bad-but-only-a-bit behavior. But when one of the Tribunes shouting at the unruly masses at the top of Julius Caesar calls them “naughty” he means business. Naught in the sense of nothing; wicked, vile, and nasty. “Slight”, too, isn’t something we use as much of an insult, but Brutus’s “Away, slight man” to Cassius is a sharp dig, a more terse and angry way to call someone insubstantial but make it sting.

no springs


Now means: well, several things but none are what it…              Used to mean: fuss, to-do

I kind of like this lost sense of the word, that a disturbance or turmoil is a “coil”, not unlike our sense of the word “haywire”, I guess. We cut the line from our Much Ado (“Yonder’s old coil at home”) because the speaker’s (Ursula) behavior and the following lines gets the information (that all the ado was about nothing) and the mood across just fine without confusing the audience. This links to the next one, which doesn’t come up that often but that I like:


Now means: well, several things but none are what it…               Used to mean: lots, more, in fact, than enough

There was a colloquial sense of “old” (like in the above “old coil”) that meant roughly “a metric buttload” – the Porter in Macbeth  right out of the, you should pardon, gate, notes that if one was doorman of Hell there would be “old turning the key”. Hell being a busy place for a doorman. **


This isn’t a word people use anymore, and I think it’s useful enough for a comeback. It usually means “immediately” or “at precisely the right time”, also with the sense of “early”, which fans of punctuality will agree amounts to the same thing. So it’s good to rise betimes in the morning, or if you’re trying to get a bunch of guys to agree strongly to a poorly-considered political assassination, tell them “If these be motives weak, break off betimes” (JC, II i). That sort of thing. Nothing we don’t have a term for but…I just like it. It’s punchy. Let’s make this particular fetch happen, kids.



I’ve been all into this one before, but it couldn’t hurt to mention it again, seeing as how Shakespeare seemed so endlessly entertained by it.




* note: sometimes Richard II is just being a self-involved twit.

** We should count ourselves lucky that the play wasn’t called Old Coil About Naught, which could easily have happened. Except that “nothing” had another added slang meaning I won’t go into here, in case there’s a family audience…

The strings, my lord, are false – JULIUS CAESAR, IV iii

I apologize in advance for posting another of these opening night mixes I suspect no one listens to, but I’d have made it for my own entertainment anyway, so the playlist may as well go up here.*

Faint justifications/paltry excuses follow. Have a happy Lena Horne Centennial, and break legs, all!

jc poster

1) The First Cut Is the Deepest – P.P. Arnold: because there’s no classic soul single about the unkindest cut, and anyway, I’m playing Caska – plus, potentially, Caesar would have given them all of his heart, but there was someone who tore it apart;

2) Breakin’ In a New Pair of Shoes – Cleo Brown: for the Cobbler and his manipulation (withal) of all the other unruly mechanicals;

3) Rome (Wasn’t Built In a Day) – Sam Cooke: clearly…also, a shout out to Romeo & Juliet in one of the later verses;

4) Suicide Is Painless – Ahmad Jamal: because Cassius talks about this a distressing amount in a play featuring at least three and a half suicides, and because the theme from M*A*S*H fits nicely into a play with a significant scene of two military buddies arguing in a tent;

5) Stormy – Bobbie Gentry: the weather, it could be said, looms darkly over this play…;

6) Superstition – Stevie Wonder: Calphurnia teaches us the vital lesson that one should not eat Italian food right before bedtime (and the little Bela Lugosi sound bite (pardon) from The Black Cat is something remembered from the Monkees’ Head soundtrack, if it was familiar at all);

7) In the Colosseum – Tom Waits: another one that rather speaks for itself, lyrically;

8) A Case of You – Joni Mitchell:  “I am constant as the northern star,” quoth Mr. Ambition before he’s snuffed out – Joni said it again a couple of thousand years later**;

9) Hipster, Flipsters – Lord Buckley: If you’re familiar with the work of Lord Buckley, “well, there you jolly well are, then, aren’t you,” and if not, he was a…translator…of sorts. This is his version of Mark Antony’s funeral oration;

10) Cry Me a River – Julie London: mostly this is only because it’s the only song I can think of that uses the word “plebeian”;

11) Stand – Harvey Averne: this cover of the Sly & the Family Stone classic is on here purely because I’m backstage at one of my favorite weird moments of the show, in which Brutus tells everyone to get out of the tent while he and Cassius have it out and it reminds me of the servants of Freedonia calling repeatedly for “His Excellency’s Car” in Duck Soup;

12) You Don’t Bring Me Flowers – Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond: I find it difficult to hear Cassius say that of late “I have not from your eyes, that gentlenesse/ And show of Love, as I was wont to have” without hearing this in my head

13) Death Letter – Casssandra Wilson: correspondence, as always in Shakespeare, bears some weight, but let’s say this one in particular is for Portia;

14) You’re On Fire – They Might Be Giants: this one was also going to be for Portia in a literal sense, but the figurative sense of Cassius, the poor sap, all yokèd with a lamb that carries anger as the flint bears fire.

15) White Ghost Shivers – New Orleans Owls: I like to think the “White” in this instance is in reference to Perry, that keeper-alive of Great Caesar’s ghost, but then I also like to think the Owls in the band sat even at noonday upon the marketplace, hooting and shrieking, but there’s no heed to be taken of me;

16) Starstruck – The Kinks: is this for the victims of various cults of personality in Rome, or for those who believe the fault is in our stars that we are underlings, or to those maskers & revelers addicted to wine & champagne? I don’t know, it just seemed right and I’ll always include something from Ray Davies given half a chance;

17) When In Rome – Blossom Dearie: translated from the Italian – If you tend to conform to a known social norm, that’s a more ***. Or as Blossom herself sings at the end, “Disregard the signs and the omens”;

18) Oh, Happy Day – Edwin Hawkins: know that most of the cast, too, has this post-final-couplet earworm – thanks a heap, Octavius (and Francesco Carotta);

19) Won’t Get Fooled Again – Labelle: I love this version. If history teaches us anything, though, it is that we will, in fact, be fooled again; but keep prayin’, Mr. Townshend.


* And to the couple of people who have asked why I don’t do this on Spotify: they frequently don’t have the versions of songs that I want. And one is not another. Such is life.

** I love the Prince version(s) too, but he always skips that verse, which was the whole point of the song’s appearance here.

*** the proper singular is “mos”, but that’s even less funny.

…a voluntary wound/ Here, in the thigh – JULIUS CAESAR, II i

This is worth quoting in full, and trying to keep yourself from hearing with too modern an ear. Portia says, What’s up with you lately?; Brutus says, Go to bed, you’re sick; Portia says, Tell me – you think I can’t take it?

          Tell me your Counsels, I will not disclose ’em:

          I have made strong proofe of my Constancie,

          Giving my selfe a voluntary wound

          Heere, in the Thigh: Can I beare that with patience,

          And not my Husband’s Secrets?

Brutus says, Yikes…fair enough, I’ll tell you. (Then there’s a knock on the door, so whether he tells her is left uncertain; later she seems to know what’s going on, with all the political assassinating and stuff, but whether she figured it out or Brutus told her is lost to history, and Shakespeare, as he often does with such matters, leaves us dangling.)

So what exactly is your damage, Portia Catonis Filia? Is this cutting a child-of-divorce thing (she was), or are you cheesed because your husband is so well liked by that Caesar guy your father hated?


This “voluntary wound” episode comes straight out of Plutarch, Shakespeare’s main source for Julius Caesar, and reading the direct source does add the helpful detail that she said she did so to prove that she couldn’t be forced to reveal anything he might tell her even under torture. But the fact remains that she seems to have done so before this whole conversation, so…whether that makes her one Supremely Hardcore OG Stoic or sufferer of a severe chemical imbalance – or both – is also lost to history. Also, though it’s known that this self-wounding with a barber’s knife made her sick and feverish, it’s up to the production whether this is the “condition” she’s in that Brutus mentions. Some productions also portray Portia as pregnant. (Say that sentence three times fast.) There’s leeway here, of course, what with drama being more important than accuracy to Shakespeare and to anyone trying to tell an engaging story. And since no one can be certain, what the hey? Go for it.

It’s hard to take her later (2,000-year-old spoiler alert) suicide by the distinctly in-character swallowing of hot coals as a sign of any propensity toward self-harm, either. Though again, history is muddy on this*, so a production has more of a responsibility to make things interesting than accurate. But suicide in this play (and in Ancient Roman and Japanese culture) wasn’t exclusively what it is today, especially in battle. Shakespeare makes quite clear that the running-on of swords in Julius Caesar is related to the question of honor (though Cassius does talk about it a lot throughout the play every time the slightest thing goes wrong; frankly they’re lucky they got as far with the plan as they did with him aboard…but he was his mother’s son. More than Macduff, and for that matter Caesar, can say, if you go by Shakespeare’s tenuous hold on what “born of woman” means); Portia, being Portia, sees herself as part of her husband’s army, I think, so her grief at their parting is a lot more potentially layered. Only now it hits me: this…this is the play they throw at fourteen-year-olds?

Portia is a fascinating character and was by all reports that survive of her a fascinating person. Of all the prequels Shakespeare dealt in, it makes you wish he had given her more stage time in a backstory of her own. Someone get on that, won’t you?


* Some believe she really killed herself by staying in an unventilated room where charcoal burned and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning; some think she was sick anyway and died, possibly of plague, well before the battle of Philippi. But those are historians. We who do straight theater have to leave lingering deaths like that to our expert colleagues in the world of opera.

Stand close awhile, for here comes one in haste – JULIUS CAESAR, I iii

Julius Caesar is upon us, or as I think of it, the second show in the month of June in which I’ll say “for here comes one in haste” and just have to hope that it’s always Cinna that shows up and not Ursula from Much Ado because then I’ll just be hopelessly confused which I usually am in rep anyway. This whole summer has come in haste.

Most of Caesar will run in July, though, which seems appropriate since the month was named for him, but also inappropriate because probably no play by Shakespeare is more historically associated with the academic year than this one. It has been said (and I believe it) that for years teachers chose this play as their students’ introduction to Shakespeare in no small part because it lacks the filthy, suggestive, delightful crudeness of all the other big favorites. (I think Romeo & Juliet  has probably taken the student mantle now for reasons of being “relatable to teens” or whatever, but JC still does solid bulk scholastic paperback business.)

Julius Caesar

There was a time when every student in the country know Antony’s funeral oration by heart – or was supposed to, anyway – in part because of its clear rhetorical examples (certainly clearer than the mixed metaphors and long lists of that “To be or not to be” mess, right? Take arms against a sea? That doesn’t work.) But me, I regrettably come from the public school period just a little after great chunks of memorization had stopped; it would have been pretty useful had I only known I’d be memorizing things for a living later. I can do you all of The Blues Brothers and Monty Python & the Holy Grail if necessary, but it seldom is, and it’s not nearly as impressive as knowing the prologue to the Canterbury Tales or “Locksley Hall” or the other bits dumped from the curriculum.


So for those of us who weren’t assigned “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” (or, as the typo I just fixed said, Countryman, which is that crazy Jamaican movie from the early 80s and is great but probably not relevant here), here are a few things useful to know going in to watching Julius Caesar.

-Caesar dies. You knew that, right? As in any other historical tragedy, the author kind of assumes you know the outcome of the Titanic or Hiroshima or Lincoln’s trip to Our American Cousin. It then plays with that, in little scenes and details that do nothing but show you how close the whole thing was to being prevented both through effort and coincidence. Some of these ineffective obstacles are made up, some historically believed, but all of them just make the whole gruesome business seem more inevitable. The actor playing our Brutus, who has played the role before, said in rehearsal it made him feel like he was in an episode of The Twilight Zone, like every production of the play reincarnated Brutus for eternity to do over and over something he regretted. This came out of a conversation about Cassius’s harsh irony just after the assassination:

                                     How many Ages hence

          Shall this our lofty Scene be acted over,

          In State unborne, and Accents yet unknowne?

(more on that in this earlier post)

The assassination of Caesar and the resulting rule over Rome by triumvirate (Octavius Caesar, Antony, & Lepidus) brought an end to the Roman republic and pretty much to democracy in the Western world until the founding of America (I oversimplify, but still.) The assassination was seen as one of the worst acts of betrayal of all time – Dante put Brutus with Judas in the innermost circle of Hell – until Dan Stevens left Downton*. Shakespeare chooses the fairly bold notion to see the conspirators as humans instead of mustache-twirlers, which just ends up making the whole murder and its aftermath that much worse for individual and country. I note all that only so it stays in mind the next time someone brings up all the kerfuffle at the Public in New York again. (I can’t speak for every company, but at Kentucky Shakespeare we always urge everyone to stay for the whole show. Things tend to, you know, change as the story unfolds. Also, we pass the hat at intermission so you have to stay at least that long, right?)


Well. This was going to be a list, but that’s just about all you need to know that the play doesn’t tell you. Shakespeare very kindly makes clear early on that Honor Suicide was most definitely a Thing for noble Romans; that many in power (as always) had a fair amount of disdain for what Caska calls “the rabblement” and “the common herd”; that people are quickly willing to jump on a new celebrity bandwagon and almost immediately forget what came before – the audience scarcely needs to know who this “Pompey” guy is that gets mentioned early in the play because frankly Rome seems to have forgotten him itself, now that he’s been defeated by someone more charismatic.

I will  add one lame little Shakespeare tidbit – this was probably the first play Shakespeare wrote to be performed at his company’s fancy new theatre, the Globe, in or around 1599. Plays were daylight affairs back then, in the late afternoon. Which makes the opening lines all the more entertaining to me: “Hence: home you idle Creatures, get you home:/ Is this a Holiday?” The percentage of the audience slagging off work was probably significant.

Oh, cheap laughs at the audience’s expense…treasure them in a play like this. Things go wrong pretty quickly.

caesar assassination

* Isn’t it nice that we live in a day when we don’t have to worry about anything worse than thi – oh, hang on; I just read any newspaper of the last century. Nevermind.

…stemming it with hearts of controversy – JULIUS CAESAR, I ii

Among other feelings, I’m feeling that feeling that, say, a lifelong diehard Cubs fan feels when they win the Series and suddenly everyone’s got a hat on, or perhaps that of Bill Murray in Stripes when he defends the then-living Tito Puente. Because suddenly this week everybody’s incredibly well-informed about Julius Caesar.

There’s enough chatter on both sides about the whole shtuss’n’tummel at the Public in Central Park, New York (“that other one”, as we affectionately call it in Louisville, where our Shakespeare company in an Olmstead-designed park started one whole year earlier) that I don’t really feel the need to write a whole post going on about it. I only popped on here to note that I’ve been thinking of a different play for a couple of days, one I bought an LP box of (because they used to do that with straight plays in a simpler time) at a used record store in Cambridge, Mass. sometime just before the end of the last century.


It made its premiere just over fifty years ago, in January of 1967. It was called MacBird and starred Stacy Keach, Rue McClanahan, and marked the professional debut of Cleavon Little. It reads like a particularly edgy MAD Magazine lampoon (let me be clear that I mean that as a compliment) but at fuller length.

Here’s a little wiki-history.

The reasons why it came to mind are probably wildly obvious, so I’ll just bring it up and leave it here for you. The times, they are, uh…changin’?

Music do I hear? – RICHARD II, V v

Another show, another mix. I’ve gone for kind of a Wes Anderson soundtrack feel here, seeing as the nature of Richard’s character is fairly Euro-emo (Yérmo? That does get the Yé-Yé in there). I mean, look at that face…


That’s a Wes Anderson face. Having feelings. Right, Neill? (That’s Neill.)

He was born in Bordeaux and all (Richard, I mean), so some French pop will be welcome. A little more introspection than is particularly healthy, so some Kinks (more than one song by the same artist, which normally goes against my personal mix rules, but again, it plays into the Andersonity, so I make an exception here). And other things.

The reasons behind the inclusion of each song float from lyric to title to general mood, depending, though some are admittedly more obvious than others…

Here it is. Break legs. Happy opening – enjoy!

King’s Revenge – Thin Lizzy: I think the lyrics explain themselves, and perhaps the attitude of the multitude, what Bagot calls the “wavering Commons”.

Love and Chivalry (Caprice élégant en forme de schottische)– Louis Moreau Gottschalk: a nice Andersonian instrumental, plus the title, right?

I’m On an Island – The Kinks: The nature imagery throughout this play is notable, not just for Gaunt’s famous “sceptered isle” speech. I like to think this is Richard separated from the Queen.

Old Old Woodstock – Van Morrison: The domino that starts it all tumbling down the stairs is Woodstock. (Why does he fly upside down?)

C’est Notre Histoire – Lysiane Loren: It’s our history. Oui?

What’s the Buzz – Roy Meriwether Trio: Something about Bushie, Bagot, & Greene always makes me think of this, but also there’s a LOT of throwing around of Judas’s name every time anyone so much as puts too much mustard on Richard’s sandwich. Listening to this version also reminds me how much Sir Andrew stole from Donovan, but that’s not important here.

Long Daddy Green – Blossom Dearie: Not so much because I’m playing Greene as to acknowledge the importance of what Harvey Korman would call Count De Monet in this particular tale.

Friendly Loans – The Marcels: “Why cousin, wert though Regent of the world,/ It were a shame to let this land by lease.”

Something’s Coming – Bill Barron Orchestra: It’s name is Henry and he’s safe at Ravenspurg, fresh from exile. Something Good? Maybe…

Green Green Grass of Home – Tom Jones: Not only another paean to the land itself, but featuring a Welshman in honor of the superstitious captain who leaves at greatly exaggerated rumors of Richard’s demise.

Surrey with the Fringe on Top – Sonny Rollins: This is useless, but I think of it whenever Surrey’s name is mentioned, so…

Help! – Cathy Berberian: These lyrics remind me of Richard a couple of times in the play, but particularly during his “sit upon the ground” breakdown.

Stop Your Sobbing – The Kinks: …and these remind me of everyone around Richard in said scene.

In the Garden – Hee Haw Gospel Quartet: Have a seat. Have an apricock. I have some bad news.

Je Crois En Toi – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Original 1961 French Cast): If you know How to Succeed, you know this scene is a bunch of guys in an executive washroom yelling about their competition (“I’ve gotta stop that man cold or he’ll stop me”), followed by Our Hero’s personal pep talk into a mirror. This French version fit the vibe better.

Fractured Mirror – Ace Frehley: “For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.”

It’s a Sunshine Day – The Brady Bunch: “’God save King Henry’, unking’d Richard says,/ ‘And send him many years of sunshine days.” And then from the side stage I sing this under my breath.

Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers: “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”…

A Woman Is a Sometime Thing – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: “Good sometime Queen, prepare thee hence for France…”

Yesterday – Roosevelt Grier: This and the next few songs are all definite Richard-at-Pomfret underscoring, top to bottom. And yes, that’s Rosie Grier.

Too Much on My Mind – The Kinks: “For no thought is contented.” I mean, right?

The Party’s Over – Judy Holliday: Melodramatic showtunes seem like they’d be Richard thing if he had been born a few centuries later.

I Can Hear Music – She & Him: “Keep time!”

Magic Garden – Dusty Springfield: Were there a closing credits sequence, this would doubtless play over it. But it’s a play, so there isn’t. But still. Jimmy Webb clearly read Richard II.

He is our cousin, cousin – RICHARD II, I iv

A fancy note for the audiences who will be coming to Kentucky Shakespeare’s Richard II:

For all of the political goings-on in Shakespeare’s Histories, the thing to bear in mind while you’re needlessly stressing yourself out about who’s going by which title in this scene (and it is needless; don’t stress out) is that they’re really all family affairs, tales of fathers and sons and cousins and brothers (yes, predominantly men, though the women, sparse as their stage time may be, always seem to be the people most concerned about the cohesion of the family unit) doing rotten stuff to each other in the name of something that falls between Honor and Ambition, with sprinkles of Vengeance thrown in.

Richard II, for example, could easily be described as the story of a couple of brothers who have just lost another brother, probably killed at the command of their nephew, who just happens to be king. Or the story of two cousins, both with powerful fathers who never quite got to be in charge, metaphorically arm-wrestling over which of them gets to be in charge. Almost all the major players are closely related by blood or marriage. Here’s a simple Wikipedia family tree, drawn by Muriel Gottrop (all that Creative Commons stuff applies here).


And this one doesn’t even include all the many, many sons of Edward III. They were coming out his ears. Good standard policy for a king: one or two sons? Great. But it reaches a point where too many sons become a problem and people start waking up dead in the morning. But, as is noted by James Goldman’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

All of these sons of Edward III got up to all sorts of nonsense that Shakespeare mercifully leaves out and/or condenses (the less said about John of Gaunt’s attempts to claim a Spanish throne, the better), but the thrust of this particular play isn’t even the internecine family shenanigans so much as the question of who (if anyone) gets to decide whether the Heaven-Anointed King is rotten at his job, and if so, what can be done about it.

Now, Shakespeare’s audience would have probably known a fair amount about the main players in this story, in part because it was their nation’s history, in part because royals & rulers have been afforded celebrity status for centuries – The Queen Herself bets in the middle of this play that a pair of commoners she encounters will “talk of State: for everyone doth so/ Against a change” (the change in this case not being a good one for her…) – and in part because they didn’t live in our age of Television Renaissance and absent a new episode of Nashville waiting for them when they got home, they had to have something in their heads. So they had a basic familiarity with these powerful families in a way that we might, in a poorly combined analogy, have of the Kennedys and the Skywalkers.

A version of all the “Previously on…” information needed to make sense of Richard II  would have been easy to acquire to folks in Elizabethan London since there was a popular not-by-Shakespeare play, often called Woodstock, that covered the events leading up to Shakespeare’s – namely, the sketchy death of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard’s uncle. It’s assumed that its popularity was one of the reasons Shakespeare even wrote his “sequel” to it. But we’re not doing that play (I’ve read it; it’s pretty lumpy). So this production will open with a prologue written/assembled for the occasion that will, one hopes,put forward all you need to know leading up to Act I Scene I.

Seeing a good production is, as is true of any play, always clearer than reading it, if for no other reason than you have faces and voices to put with the names. And lord knows the British aristocracy depicted in Shakespeare collected names/titles like characters in Russian novels. So this prologue is also a nice chance to say (though not so baldly), “See that guy? He’s the Duke of York. See her? Her husband just died and almost nobody’s happy about it.”

Here’s something else that might be handy: a map of England at around (just after) Richard’s time.

So if you’re wondering where he lands when we come back from intermission (and he comes back from Ireland), it’s just west of the E in WALES. Or where Bullingbrooke lands when he comes back from exile? Ravenspur is on the northeast coast, north of The Wash. Bristol isn’t terribly hard to find on here, and I’ll trust you to spot London on your own. There isn’t a terrible amount of fighting in the play (which is one of the big problems some of the other nobles have with Richard’s reign, really – the missed opportunity to gain money and land through fighting. Though being less war-prone would be seen as a strength to modern eyes. Except he manages to send soldiers off to Ireland, so, his hands aren’t that clean). So feel free to ignore the battlefields until next year when Henry IV née Bullingbrooke does a fair amount of sparring with…well, I won’t tell you until 2018.

…in the even road of a blank verse… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, V ii

We opened Much Ado last night at Kentucky Shakespeare, our second audience, and I’ve already noticed something fascinating.

The Wife and I got to play Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew a couple of years ago and now we’re playing Beatrice and Benedick. (We’re running out of bucket list pairings, frankly. Maybe Don Armado and Moth? She’d be a terrific Armado.) The sort of easy go-to critical response is that the former are just a rough draft of the latter, but I’d fight that to the end. I’ve gone on about this before. And I should add to those previous musings first that K&P and the whole world of that play are all painted in rather broad strokes (not an aspersion; I love broad strokes).

And there’s another vital difference – B&B are almost entirely prose and K&P in verse.


Not just verse, but early verse, so very end-stoppy, by which I mean their thoughts and phrases often coincide neatly with what Benedick calls the “even road of a blank verse”. Take for example this from Petruchio (which I memorized when I was 18 for something and if I ever have an accident or a stroke will probably provide my Mel-Blanc-“What’s-up-Doc?” awakening, so put that in your pocket just in case – pardon the lack of Folio spelling, but it’s faster to type from memory):

          Thus have I politicly begun my reign,

          And ‘tis my hope to end successfully;

          My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,

          And till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

          For then she never looks upon her lure.


And so on. If you say that out loud to yourself while obeying the verse, you can hear how confident it sounds. It can be acted in a way that makes that confidence sound false (which is helpful when playing a palatable Petruchio in a 21st century production), but still each little chunk of logic/thought lines up with each chunk of verse.

It’s a good general order of operations, I think, to give the verse rhythmic priority over the punctuation, or if you prefer, to see the verse as another type of punctuation, something I’ve probably gone on about before and will again. In early Shakespeare, the verse and sentence structure have a tendency to line up anyway. This is tricky when playing comedy, because a huge part of comedy is rhythm that feels unexpected but right (if that makes any sense; I’m not sure it can or should be properly verbalized). So a predestined ten-syllable line makes for some specific choices, one of which can always be to break the line, I guess, though that provides its own challenges.

But in prose, you have a lot more wiggle room – one of the results of even characters in the early plays like, say, Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona being written in prose is not a sense of low social standing but a freedom to wing it a bit so people don’t clearly know how your line will end. Petruchio’s longer speeches are all little even verse arias that are tough to interrupt beyond a) actor-manufactured bits and b) trying to let laughs land between lines. Not a bad thing, again, but a difference. Launce’s prose is all about little gag set pieces (The Shoes Story; The Dog Piss Story). Very entertaining but not what you’d call character development.

And so we’re back to Benedick. Yes, he shares Petruchio’s professed He-Man Woman-Hating, although he’s nowhere near as hard-boiled and drops it at the first sign of a serious situation come the abandoned wedding of Act IV.

Our Gang Hi Sign

And yes, he shares the Sam’n’Dianity of his romantic sparking with his inevitable lady-partner. But Benedick only slides into verse sporadically, and never for long. So instead of the above soliloquy, when Benedick speaks to the audience, they get:

          I doe much wonder,

          that one man seeing how much another man is a foole,

          when he dedicates his behaviours to love,

          will after hee hath laught at such shallow follies in others,

          become the argument of his owne scorne,

          by falling in love,

          & such a man is Claudio,


and on for a while without a period for about twenty lines. The above layout is not the way it’s set in the Folio or any modern edition, but I wanted to highlight the commas. They’re not grammatical so much as rhythmic and I’ve been using them for emphasis in various ways (breathing, smacking the word before the comma a bit harder, etc.) and they do all the work for you, setting up the joke, subtle on the page but a really solid laugh in performance, that the audience is being wound up to hear an admission and gets only more mockery of the lovelorn (which will pay off with the other Benedick soliloquy that provides the scene’s matching bookend).

Folio Much Ado

Now, I knew these things intellectually and to a degree even practically before these last two nights of handing the show over to the audience. But the feeling of the way the audience’s attention works during that speech, and how using that punctuation to ensure that everything comes in clear so as to set up the punchline that is the word “Claudio”, is just that: a feeling. Difficult (and maybe not useful) to get more specific about.

It’s also not nothing that Benedick reaps the rewards of being in a better play than Shrew or Gents – I love ‘em both, but the script gives the audience a chance to be genuinely emotionally invested in Benedick, so his moments with the audience and with Beatrice aren’t set pieces but an ever-evolving series of builds and payoffs with an almost Tati-esque level of development and structure, all torn apart and then seemingly falling back together when you aren’t expecting it. (If I didn’t have to go do the show I’d get more specific but for example check out the way women being “wise”, “fair”, and “virtuous” is used in different spots throughout II iii).

And this later/denser writing (plus being in a different story) gives Benedick a vulnerability Petruchio lacks and an intelligence that Launce (of course) lacks. B still has some of the emotional immaturity of those two, but it seems to be in its waning days as the play continues and he learns things.

And when he does use verse, it’s tricky. The title of this post is from a soliloquy in which Benedick says he “was not born under a rhyming planet”, dooming his poetic attempts. But in the next scene in which he appears he speaks for a long time in verse that stutters nervously but in perfect rhythm. I didn’t notice this until well into rehearsals, but as he asks Leonato for Beatrice’s hand, notice the weird syllable repetitions:

          Signior Leonato, truth it is good Signior,

          Your neece regards me with an eye of favour…

          Your answer sir is Enigmaticall…


          In which (good Frier) I shall desire your helpe.


Weird little internal rhyme there. The only other major rhyming by Benedick was in prose and was looong ago after the dance when he tells the Prince:

          Yet it had not beene amisse the rod had beene made,

          and the garland too,

          for the garland he might have worne himselfe,

          and the rod hee might have bestowed on you,

          who (as I take it) have stolne his bird’s nest.


Which he ruins intentionally (and to me delightfully) with that last line and which isn’t in iambic pentameter at all but cannot be said unrhymingly.

But now, meeting Claudio again towards the end he comes of with (and bear in mind that this rhymed better in the pronunciation of the era):

          Bull Jove sir, had an amiable low,

          And some such strange bull leapt your father’s Cow,

          ‘E got a Calfe in that same noble feat,

          Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.


Easy as you please. And then it all falls apart, for the next thing he’s responsible for is a public proposal to a woman too wise to woo peaceably. Spoiler: it all works out.

These probably don’t read to an audience at all, but these are the details that make this work such a pleasure.

We’re supposed to have lovely weather all weekend. Y’all come see us.


* Photo by Bill Brymer

Therefore play, music! – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, V iv

It wouldn’t be a show if I didn’t make a mix, now would it? (cf. Titus & Macbeth; They Might Be Giants did the honors for R&G Are Dead.)

So I’m going to go act and stuff now. Enjoy the playlist, available here on YouTube. I knew it would turn out a little Benedick-centric because frankly I’m lucky to remember what I’m saying at this point, much less anyone else, but there’s also more mid-/late-60s’ soul here than a Regency-set Elizabethan play might initially imply. It’s summer, and that where my summer ear always leads.

Explanations? Well, I’ll try. If it doesn’t make sense before you see the show, it might make more after. Join us, won’t you?


1) “Weep No More” – Billie Holiday, featuring the Stardusters: As close to “Sigh No More” as popular music is going to give us.

2) ”Heroes and Villains” – Beach Boys: As good an alternate show title as popular music is going to give us.

3) “Just One Look” – Doris Troy: Seriously, Claudio, we’re not in a hurry. We’re staying for a month.

4) “Better Off Without A Wife” – Tom Waits: “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

5) “She’s Actual Size” – They Might Be Giants: The short jokes at Hero’s expense just never stop, but she’s clearly got more going on than it appears.

6) “Just the Way I Am” – Dolly Parton: “Let me be that I am and do not seek to alter me,” quoth Don John when he isn’t crying in his room singing along with Dolly.

7) “Get On the Good Foot” – James Brown: “With a good leg and a good foot, uncle, and money enough in his purse, such a man would win any woman in the world, if ‘e could get her good will.”

8) “Harlem Globetrotters Theme Song” – Hanna-Barbera: “Will Your Grace command me any service to the world’s end?”

9) “Seven Days Too Long” – Chuck Wood: Claudio (always with the hurrying) wants to marry tomorrow, but Leonato makes him wait a “just sevennight” and I’m sure this is how the poor kid feels.

10) “Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip” – Eugene Buckley & Peerless Quartet: “Hath any man seen him at the barber’s?”

11) “Fire” – The Pointer Sisters: “What fire is in mine ears?” asks the recently gulled Beatrice. But we know, don’t we?

12) “Silhouettes” – The Rays: Pretty much a summing up of what happens offstage during our intermission, until the last verse, anyway.

13) “For What It’s Worth” – The Staple Singers: A little something for Messina’s capable night watch.

14) “Oh No, Not My Baby” – Maxine Brown: And back we go to Claudio’s seemingly constant mental state…

15) “Where Were You Last Night?” – Traveling Wilburys: Ditto.

16) “Twine Time” – Alvin Cash & the Crawlers: After the (spoiler) spoiled wedding, Leonato goes along with a convoluted scheme – “Being that I flow in grief,/ The smallest twine may lead me.”

17) “Strange” – Patsy Cline: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you, is not that strange?”

18) “I Would Do Anything For Love” – Future Idiots: Except, you know, kill Claudio.

19) “Sticks and Stones” – Ray Charles: This just seemed a pretty solid B&B mission statement song.

20) “The Question (Do You Love Me)” – Dave “Baby” Cortez: This is a question that comes up a lot, in life, I suppose, but definitely in Much Ado.

21) “Tombstone” – Suzanne Vega: The whole epitaph-reading thing, obviously.

22) “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” – The Ronettes (though I almost put the Flo & Eddie version on too because I love them equally): Clearly this covers most of the mood of Act V Scene iv.

23) “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” – Tina Turner: “Another Hero?” “Nothing certainer.”

24) “My Terms” – Helena Ferguson: Another general-sentiment-of-V-iv song.

25) “Church Bells May Ring” – The Willows: While this could go with the ending of any of the comedies, I put it here because there’s this great church bell sound cue in our show that sounds terrific from the audience but is deafening from backstage in a way that still makes me jump every time as if one of Scrooge’s spirits is about to appear right behind me.

There you go. I’m going to try to squeeze in a nap now.