But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music… – OTHELLO, II i

othello poster

The third and final opening night of the 2018 Kentucky Shakespeare season is here at last. As is the third and final opening night mix.

There was a running gag between the actor playing Othello & myself that after Iago’s line, “The Moor – I know his trumpet” Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” should play (I know, I know, it’s a flugelhorn), but it just didn’t fit the mix. We tried to get it to happen for his entrance to parley with the Percy gang as Blunt in 1 HENRY IV as well, but them’s the breaks.

Speaking of which, break legs, O cast, O crew – here it is:

(And no, don’t even try Spotify with some of these. What fun is that?)

The Playlist

  1. “Jealous Man” – Hoyt Axton: This seems like a clear enough statement of purpose;
  2. “Tush” – ZZ Top: I mean, it IS the first word of the play. How often this opportunity come?;
  3. “On the Street Where You Live” – Holly Cole Trio: This is her father’s house – I’ll call aloud;
  4. “What About Your Daughter” – J.B. Lenoir: Would YOU had had her;
  5. “More” – Tom Jones: I know, it’s spelled wrong, but still. And I think this expresses well Othello’s marital feelings for…
  6. “Badass With a Heart of Gold” – Jason Morphew: …Desdemona, the only real reason beyond its catchiness for this song to be here (it’s just not a common name in popular song);
  7. “Duke of Earl” – Gene Chandler: My wife is playing the Duke in this one (quite unlike my turn in Errors), so she gets to pick the Duke song;
  8. Blue Rondo à la Turk – Dave Brubeck Quartet: We must not think the Turk is so unskillful/ To leave that latest which concerns him first…;
  9. “Warriors” – Thin Lizzy: Again, this seems to speak for itself and yet fit the mix better than the “We’re Going to War” song from Duck Soup;
  10. “These Arms of Mine” – Otis Redding: For since these arms of mine had seven years pith…’
  11. “Raspberry Beret” – Hindu Love Gods: The modern military setting we’ve chosen makes for some fine soldierly headgear;
  12. “Green Eyes” – Gene Krupa Orchestra with Roy Eldridge & Anita O’Day: Also probably self-explanatory;
  13. Casio VL Tone demo: O my dear Cassio!/ My sweet Cassio! O Cassio, Cassio, Cassio!
  14. “Let’s Make Love Not War” – Charles Watts & the 103rd St. Rhythm Band: The profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you;
  15. “Jealousy” – Liz Phair: I can’t believe you had a life before me/ I can’t believe they let you run around free/ Just putting your body wherever it seemed like a good idea/ What a good idea;
  16. “Hanky Panky” – Los Hitters: This may do something. (Tommy James is all well and good, but I have a soft spot for this version);
  17. “It’s Your Thing” – Isley Brothers: I credit the inclusion of this one to the weird little filthy exchange Iago & Emilia have in the middle of the loooong scene that is Act III Scene iii;
  18. “Hate & War” – The Clash: I have the will to survive/ I cheat if I can’t win/ If someone locks me out/ I kick my way back in;
  19. “Between the Sheets” – Foreplay feat. Chaka Khan & Nathan East: I chose this version because duh Chaka Khan, but also a fear of Too Much Isley – Now stop asking questions, Emilia, and go make the damn bed;
  20. “Down By the Willow Garden” – Everly Brothers: aka Edwina’s Lullaby from Raising Arizona. The presence of a willow in folk song or Shakespeare never means anyone any good;
  21. “A Little Warm Death” – Cassandra Wilson: This isn’t here at the end because of the Elizabethan slang for orgasm, or because of the complex sexual imagery of the play, especially in its final scene, but because anyone who’s ever done Shakespearean tragedy outdoors knows the true meaning of the phrase.

Now I’m going to go take a nap.

Reft of his brother, but retained his name – COMEDY OF ERRORS, I i


It’s a truism in Shakespeare that if it’s even moderately important for the audience to know, he makes sure it’s said around three times. Theories tend toward practicality here: you can’t expect attentive comprehension from an audience of unruly midday inebriates with one eye out for prostitutes and snacks. And that’s just the nobility – the groundlings were noisy as well.

This makes editing Shakespeare a little easier sometimes – a front-facing, seated audience trained to do its shopping at intermission can usually do with one or two mentions of the fact at hand, so the trimmer can just prune out the least useful instance(s). Unless it’s a mug line, of course. Merch people hate it when you cut out the line they put on the mug.

All that said, there’s an instance in Errors of information sort of sneaking in only once and while I know of no one who gets that upset about missing this detail, every now and then people do bring it up.

To wit: why on earth do the twins all have the same name?

Parents of twins have been known to do the matchy-matchy thing with clothing for a long time, and it’s something twins have been known to continue well into old age even without parental enforcement. But sharing names is a bridge too far.

The easy answer is that they didn’t give the twins the same names. Because that’s a terrible idea.

The Shipwreck

Late in the important expository info loaded – and I mean loaded – into the play’s first scene, Egeon says of the twin he raised that he

At eighteene yeeres became inquisitive

After his brother; and importuned me

That his attendant, so his case was like,

Reft of his brother, but retain’d his name,

Might bear him company in the quest of him…

(Sidebar: the twistily-worded phrase “so his case was like” would roughly translate to “so similar was his situation”.)

And there it is: “retain’d his name,” Egeon says blithely, never to be discussed again, even by the twins when they meet up at the end.

In Shakespeare’s main source for Errors (the italics are important here – his main source for just plain errors was Holinshed. ZING!), Menaechmi by Plautus, this is all laid out nicely by the speaker of a prologue, who says that when news got back to Syracuse of [the broadly different situation that separated the twins in the original], the man raising the “surviving” twin changed the boy’s name to that of his lost sibling – no particular reason is given, but it was likely as a sort of memorial.

That prologue continues with a useful couplet stating (in the Nixon translation in my battered ol’ Loeb copy) “To keep you from going astray later, I herewith forewarn you:/ Both twins have the same name.” Couldn’t ask for more than that. I guess the Romans were drunk, too. Hooda thought?


It’s not clear how this worked in Shakespeare’s Errors. Were the names of the Syracusan pair changed in infancy? Did they choose to do it themselves when the non-servant lad “became inquisitive”? Does anyone really care that much as long as the requisite wackiness ensues?

I suspect the latter is the best answer. As with most of Shakespeare’s comedies, those details didn’t seem very important to him, so we honor them best by steamrolling over them apace and hoping no wiseacre ever makes a living picking the plays apart word by word in the printed form they were never intended to take. Best of luck.

God keepe me from false Friends – RICHARD III, Act III Scene i


Hello, again – it’s hot out there. It’s hot here, anyway. The summer still doth tend like crazy upon my state of Kentucky, where Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer season is here and the time is right, despite the undoubtedly educated opinion of Martha Reeves and both Vandellas, for Shakespeare in the park. There are some majestic (and blessedly shady) trees surrounding the stage, good friends to all of us in the cast.

Cypress and gingko, they are. The trees, not the cast. I like to touch at least one before each show. That’s trickier since the stage redesign has brought all three onto the stage – I have to sneak and do it before we start – but I manage. I’ve lobbied repeatedly for naming them Cordelia, Lavinia, and Rosalind (center, left, and right, respectively) which seems useful, but then I’d have to go into the whole Rosalind-with-a-long-i conversation and I want to put that off until unavoidable.

But doth the summer still tend upon my state, or doth it still tend upon my state? Titania is impressive, no question, and has every right to brag. But the word “still” in that line is tricky. It doesn’t mean “the summer continues to wait on my delicious royalness”. It means “the summer always/continuously  waits on my delicious royalness”. Which is a fine point, but. Still.*

David Crystal (insert my own Shakespeare nerd fanboy noises here) snags a phrase from comparative semantics (faux amis) and in several of his writings calls such words “false friends”. They look familiar, but they’re often misleading.

Here are a few you might encounter during the 2018 Kentucky Shakespeare summer season in particular:


This one’s fairly important, one could say, in Othello, and turns up in Errors as well. It has little to do with envy, which is how we commonly use it – “Your vacation pics! I’m so jealous!” – and much to do with suspicion and/or vigilant watchfulness. In Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio finally levels with someone he & Kate have been messing with and says, “Come go along and see the truth hereof,/ For our first merriment hath made thee jealous.” Keep a particular eye out for this one. A jealous eye, even.


Two of the many euphemisms for mental instability our language has provided over the centuries. “Distracted” occurs several times in Errors and it does not mean “having a deficit of attention” but “insane”. “Ditto “mated”, which means something “amazed” or “overcome”, with sort of a sense of temporary insanity, though it retains the modern meaning of “found a romantic partner” as well. This gets played with in Errors, in fact: Luciana asks the twin who’s not her brother-in-law if he’s mad and he, in love with her almost at first sight, responds, “Not mad, but mated.” Later, as the Duke tries to get everyone’s loopy stories to match up, he says he thinks they “are all mated, or stark mad,” that is, “temporarily crazy, or perhaps just all the way there”. The jury is still out when we finish Act V. Those people are not right, none of them. Maybe Balthazar, tops.


In Shakespeare, “compact” (emphasis on the second syllable) means “made of” not “squeezed tightly together like the trash in the Death Star”. Theseus, in a once-famous speech toward the end of Midsummer that now gets cut most of the time, says “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact” – which makes more sense when you know this definition. Think of the Mayflower Compact, if that helps.

Same goes for “framed” – the “made of” meaning hangs on now in the sense of a construction team framing a house. In Othello, Cassio is described (by Iago, so, grain of salt) as “framed to make women false”. I guess it’s a compliment?


This can mean “from” in all the same ways we use, but also has a nice concise one-word easy-to-fit-into-verse sense of “away from” or “far from” – “we are now from home” the emphasis is on being away, not on having come from there. If that makes sense. It’s tricky, but when the actors help, it’s pretty clear.


Falstaff loves this one, and it’s all over Henry IV part 1. It roughly corresponds to our “there it is” or “so be it” or “que sera sera”, “it is what it is” or whatever other cliché we’re using to indicate a fraudulently resigned shrug these days. One of Falstaff’s many idle threats: “If Percy be alive, I’ll pierce him: if he do come in my way, so: if he do not, if I come in his (willingly) let him make a Carbonado of me.” (That’s a piece of meat slashed up for broiling. There’s also a nice play on “Percy” and “pierce”, which would have sounded a lot more like one another 400 years ago; alas, that joke is gone.)


This one often means “in the making” or “afoot” in Shakespeare – “Do you hear aught, sir, of a battle toward?” is somewhere in Lear, I think. At other times it means “docile” or “willing/compliant” and is linked to “froward”, a word meaning the opposite (“stubborn”, “willful”) and one that we don’t use at all anymore. Think “to” and “fro” if that helps.


This is particularly tricky to the ear – “fear” can also mean “fear for”. So when someone says “He was much feared by his physicians” they mean the doctors were worried, not afraid of him. Fear can also mean “doubt”, as in Gertrude’s “Fear me not” to Polonius as he mansplains her relationship to her son to her (he gets a shiv right after, so all is well…).


That should hold us over for now, yes? Usually context (and the inflection of friendly actors) makes this sort of clear, but it pays to have the ears ready.

Now that I think of it, perhaps we could name the trees Martha, Betty, and Rosaland? I don’t think the Vandellas would object.


*It doesn’t mean there’s seasonal moonshine machinery nearby either, but, yes, we are in Kentucky and yes, that’s still (sigh) a thing, though less an issue in these days of trendy home brewing.

What madness rules in brainsick men – HENRY VI Part I, IV i

In the time since I last wrote one of these, I’ve finished the 8-week, 3-production run of the Kentucky Shakespeare 2017 summer season, spent a week putting the house back in order and doing neglected and despised yardwork, then spent two weeks in New England visiting the in-laws and nephews and some friends (the latter had a tiny Maine cabin on an island in Penobscot Bay for a week – that was unclear: the cabin is always on the island and the island is always in Penobscot Bay, but our friends were only in it for a week and we were only in it for two days), read a giant novel and about six New Yorkers (yet I’m still not caught up), then drove home and spent a day collapsing before I return to audiobook narrating and neglected and despised yardwork.

I’ve had opportunities to write here during that time, but I have not taken them. Clearly. In part, my brain needed a little respite from iambic pentameter, in part because while I’ve been flitting about the national/international straws have continued to pile and the feeling that I’ve been watching a camel weep and wince beyond its endurance has continued to…continue. And little feels more frivolous in the face of all that than the rhythmic and semantic concerns of centuries-old playscripts.

Raggedy Andy Camel with the Wrinkled Knees

But in the midst of all that another thing happened: there was a sale. Bear with me.

Once a year (or so) the Criterion Collection has a 50% Off sale on its well-worth-the-price DVDs, with their fancy extras and scholarly treatment of movies worth the attention (staying on message, Chimes At Midnight, Ran, Throne of Blood, and a mess of Oliviers are all part of their – and my – collection). A recent release that I grabbed during the sale this year has been a favorite since my youth: Woman of the Year (1942). First outing by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, MGM, directed by George Cukor.*

Hepburn Tracy

Criterion has included all kinds of fun and fancy interviews, but the thing that came back to me before even unwrapping the case was the old-fashioned flame war (i.e., on radio and in newsprint) about whether or not baseball ought to be suspended for the duration of WWII because (Hepburn) it’s a frivolous waste while something important is going on or (Tracy) it’s the very thing we’re fighting for. Unlike the equivalent battle were it to occur on Twitter, the two people arguing (in extended sentences indulging not in platitude nor snarky gif nor repeated handclap emoji) managed to meet and get to know each other and in fact quite like each other, while never ceasing to argue and never denouncing the ideological impurity of the other. Both were in America in the midst of a war with an actual organized nation of Nazis, not profoundly mis-/uneducated cosplayers, so their focus was fairly clear.

Anyway, the memory of that aspect of the movie reminded me that while I agreed with  Tess Harding on most points, I was with Sam Craig on this one and as a result indulging in the study of figuring out ways of doing properly the thing I choose to do, both for a living and as a creative act, felt a bit less frivolous. So I dug in again.

It also happened (we’re coming back to Shakespeare now, I promise) that I had picked up a copy of the Sonnets, which of course I already have in a couple of different formats… but this copy is the triple-ply Stephen Booth edition. The notes; my stars, the notes. People get scared of notes even when they’re necessary and helpful, but these are the best things ever. I’d love to have this in some kind of three-dimensional hypertext version but then it occurs to me that it already exists in the poems themselves.

The notes are difficult to describe except to say that they aren’t explanations so much as a way to appreciate how much idea is piled on top of idea in the Sonnets, as well as how the ideas intentionally lead you down ambiguous byways as you first (second, third) read them. They’re like a sheet music notation that constantly reminds you that at this moment you’re hearing an A minor chord and therefore you can’t really know yet whether this song is going to be in A minor or resolve to C major until you get around to the resolution at the end. The notes themselves delightedly withhold information from you until the proper time, then remind you of what already happened so you can see where the ambiguities dissipate and where they instead continue to stack up. It’s astounding work and it’s a shame more Shakespeare notes (and more notes in general) don’t follow this lead. I suspect that’s because it’s difficult and time-consuming and who wants that?!

I think actors in particular would benefit from looking at the scripts this way – the end of every line of verse, every phrase, every sentence is an opportunity for just the tiniest bit of suspense, the sort of suspense that tricks an audience into leaning forward and listening to all the curves the actor is throwing out there for the brain to negotiate, which means those actors have used the map of the play to run the course themselves first. Which seems important. To me.

But for the moment, it’s hot out, and the crabgrass isn’t going to spray itself with vinegar and Epsom. Peace to all.

remington steele


*I also in the last couple of months reminded myself of my childhood love of Remington Steele, which, if I have the order right went from “I Like Mysteries” to “Youthful Feelings About Stephanie Zimbalist” to “This Sort of Fellow Makes an Impression On Her, eh?” to “By Being British and Quoting Cinematic History Chapter & Verse?” to “What Is This ‘Britishness’ Anyway?” to “PBS” to “Cultural Anglophilia” and “Delving into Cinematic History” to “Devotion to Both While Forgetting the Initial Cause”. It’s a misty path, but not a surprising one.

Something wicked… – MACBETH IV i

A weird thing for any modern production of Julius Caesar is that for most people who aren’t utter history nerds that are deeply into that period of Roman history, whatever notion they have of the story of Caesar’s assassination very likely comes from this play, if only from classroom memory of Antony’s oration. Which means we lose the important facet of the play: it’s more or less Wicked*.


To explain:

Brutus & Cassius (and the rest of the conspirators) were for centuries seen as just the ultimate awful betrayers (there are even rumors that Brutus could have been Caesar’s illegitimate son). In the Inferno, Dante stuck them in the ninth and centermost circle of hell, where Lucifer, stuck in ice himself, eats them eternally with his three mouths (Judas gets the third one, and even here, as with everything Catholic, there’s a bit of hierarchy, with B&C being eaten (again, eternally) feetfirst while Judas is in headfirst).

So in a world where the Inferno is taken as the most common image of how all this works, to write a play in which one of the three worst people in human history is portrayed as a thoughtful, decent, capital-S Stoic with the best interests of his beloved Republic at heart (who made some remarkably ill-considered decisions), one of the other worst people in history is portrayed as maybe Machiavellian but certainly not even the worst person in Shakespeare much less all of humanity by the time all is done, and The Betrayed is sort of barely there at all but for a couple of pompous pronouncements, more talked about than talking, it’s really…well, a bit of a twist on the received notions of how one tended to interpret the story at the time it was written.

So imagine now that for hundreds of years, The Wizard of Oz has been an interesting footnote that some grad students are into, but the story everyone gathers around to watch every year** is instead Wicked.

Because that’s sort of the perspective we’ve got on Julius Caesar now.

Just an observation.



*Was I the only person a little disappointed that Hamilton wasn’t a hip-hop bio-musical of the two Margaret Hamiltons (the actress and the NASA computer scientist)? Probably.

**Am I showing my age here or what? When was the last time a family movie was subject to network TV holiday schedules and not evermore at the fingertips to shut the little darlings up on road trips?

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

..so 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…

…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.

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.