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Friday, December 28, 2012

Shakespeare and the Great Theatre Heist


Did Shakespeare steal The Theatre on 28 December 1598?

Shakespeare and his fellow Lord Chamberlain's Men had to stop playing at The Theatre in Shoreditch at the end of 1596.

The 21-year lease was up.


The Theatre (with the flag on the left) in Shoreditch



James Burbage, the father of Richard Burbage (the actor who created the roles of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, etc.) had leased the site from Giles Allen.

Burbage then built The Theatre -- the first successful permanent playhouse ever built in England.

Over the years, The Theatre was home to some of the greatest actors, writers and plays.


A Midsummer Night's Dream may have been first played at The Theatre


Shakespeare arguably got his start on its stage, and it might be where Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice (to name a few) and perhaps even an early version of Hamlet were all played for the very first time in history.

In 1596, the lease was up and Giles Allen meant to re-possess the land -- and take possession of The Theatre too!


A view of The Theatre from the Yard



Shakespeare and his fellow Lord Chamberlain's Men had to move down the street to The Curtain theatre, while the matter was disputed.

Sadly, James Burbage died in early 1597. I cannot help but think that the dispute over The Theatre, his life's work, helped speed him to an early grave.

The lease was transferred to his sons, Richard and Cuthbert.

1597 and 1598 must have been very strange years. Shakespeare and his fellow actors would have walked by the shuttered Theatre as they travelled to The Curtain on a daily basis.

It is not hard to imagine the frustration they felt at having to lose their home, and the bitterness and anger at having lost something of a father figure in James Burbage.

By the end of 1598, they must have had enough. They took their revenge.

On the night of 28 December, while Giles Allen was away from London for the Christmas holiday, the Burbage brothers and some of the players went to The Theatre and stole it.

They dismantled the entire structure piece by piece, board by board, and nail by nail!





Shakespeare, who by this time was one of eight sharers in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, would have a tremendous interest in having this job done, and done right.

While there is no proof that he was there that night, I find it hard to believe that he would miss the opportunity to steal The Theatre!

Shakespeare had been, after all, an apprentice to his glove-maker father, and his hands were not unfamiliar with hard labor.

I like to think that he picked up some tools and pried The Theatre apart along with the hired carpenters.

Every last piece of The Theatre was carried away and stored in a warehouse near Bridewell until Spring 1599, at which point it was ferried across the Thames to Southwark.

So, by 29 December 1598 The Theatre was no more. *

But by the summer of 1599, what was left of The Theatre was re-built -- piece by piece, board by board, nail by nail -- into a larger theatre that would become The Globe!

We don't know what Giles Allen's reaction was when he got back from his Christmas holiday to see The Theatre gone and his plot of land empty.

I like to think that he went to the nearest tavern and drowned his sorrows.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer


* Correction: I have been kindly informed by Heather Knight, Senior Archeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology that the dismantling would have taken longer than one night. Thanks Heather!


Related Articles:

The Birth of The Theatre and the Birth of William Shakespeare


Books from Amazon

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Shakespeare's King Lear



The first recorded performance of William Shakespeare's King Lear was on 26 December 1606.






There had been other versions of the story, in books and performed on stage, as far back as perhaps 1594. Shakespeare may have written this play, or it could have been someone else like Thomas Kyd.

It is also possible that Shakespeare himself performed the role of King Lear in 1594.

There is so much we don't know about this subject.

However, there are two things that are rather certain -- that Shakespeare and his fellow King's Men performed a version of the story of King Lear and his three daughters, and this version (on 26 December 1606) was unlike all previous versions.



Romola Garai and Ian McKellen in a 2008 RSC production


All other versions tell the story how a King Lear divided his land between his daughters, his favorite daughter Cordelia upset her father and fell from his favor and by the end of the story she and her father triumph over the evil sisters Goneril and Regan, and reclaim their royal power.

These older stories were not just considered stories -- they were considered true historical fact.

Shakespeare was not satisfied with history, and he wrote a new twist. In this new version, which we know today, Lear and Cordelia both die. Goneril and Regan also die.




















Shakespeare abandoned the uplifting ending of the previous versions. He wrote one of the bleakest conclusions in his career, comparable to the end of Hamlet

In re-writing the story of King Lear Shakespeare was re-writing history. For anyone alive during the reign of King James, they would have been shocked and surprised that Shakespeare would have taken such a well-known story and turned a happy ending into a tragic one.





What on earth possessed him to write such a dark and nihilistic tragedy?

And why on earth did he perform it for King James during the winter holiday?




King James, by John de Critz, 1606



There may be no complete answers for these questions, but as you read this blog, I will do my best to explain the life and times of Shakespeare and his relationship with King James, in order to come to a better understanding why Shakespeare, at the peak of his power and influence, decided to write such a dark and unhappy story.

While we can read or watch King Lear today and examine it rationally and calmly, I hope to show you that when Shakespeare wrote it, he was far from calm and rational -- he wrote this play at a time of great historical consequence, and during a period in which he had every right to fear for the future of England.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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Friday, December 21, 2012

John Fletcher and Shakespeare

When Shakespeare retired from the theatre, John Fletcher (baptised 20 December 1579) replaced him as house playwright for the King's Men.






He is believed to have collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio play.

There is some dispute about how much of these plays Fletcher wrote. Harold Bloom thinks that "only a few touches" of Henry VIII were written by Fletcher, for example.

Who was John Fletcher? He was the son of a priest, who at one time was chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. His father died, and he was taken into the home of his uncle, whose status seems to have been seriously diminished after the failed Essex Rebellion.







Fletcher went to Cambridge, and while he may have intended to follow in his father's path, the London stage was calling, and he became a playwright.

He wrote many plays over his career, and many of them were written in collaboration with others.

He had some success on stage in the last years of Shakespeare's career, and how he came to be the resident playwright for the King's Men is anyone's guess. Stephen Greenblatt thinks that Shakespeare "handpicked him as his successor."

In my version of Hamlet, I have a different notion of who John Fletcher was and what role he played in Shakespeare's life.






I will explore the character of John Fletcher in my future versions of Shakespeare's plays, but suffice to say that I think Fletcher was more than just a playwright, and his position in the King's Men had certain strings attached.

How did Fletcher join Shakespeare's company?

If he did work with Shakespeare, did Shakespeare have a choice, or was it forced upon him by King James?

Were the plays written by both Shakespeare and Fletcher really collaborative, or did Fletcher finish plays Shakespeare had not finished?

It may be easier to assume that there is nothing or little to be said about John Fletcher -- but I think there is much more to the story.

I would find it hard to believe that the official playing company for the King was free from political influence and coercion -- from within and from without.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Last night I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream in Washington D.C. at The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall.


It was the first time I have seen a show there, and my expectations were high. After all, earlier this year they received the Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre.

I wasn't disappointed.

The show was excellent!

The costumes were fantastic, the set was great (with hanging chandeliers, trap doors, and a floating piano!) and the music perfectly set the mood -- sometimes whimsical, sometimes dark, and always magical.

The actors were top notch, and they brought a lot of energy and wit to the play.

I don't want to single any actor out, since they were all so good, but there were some priceless moments: Pyramus's hilariously gory death, Titania's waking up in the piano and falling in love with Bottom, and Oberon and Puck in the chandelier with the golf club.

And I don't want to give anything away, but I never thought I'd see a Shakespearean mud-fight! Brilliant!

But for me personally, the greatest moment was (no spoiler, don't worry) between Thisbe and the Wall.

The joke is so politically incorrect and so bawdy, that I am convinced that it was how Shakespeare's original actors would have played it. It rang so true. The audience and I died with laughter.

I think the director Ethan McSweeny did a fantastic job of mining the play for comedy, and he hit paydirt over and over again. I especially think that his setting the play in a vaguely 1930's period was a perfect set-up to the Rude Mechanicals as almost Vaudevillian performers. The entire Pyramus and Thisbe performance is a laugh riot.

I highly recommend that you go see this show if you can -- it is extended through January 6th.

I am very eager to see more Shakespeare at the STC -- they are doing Coriolanus and The Winter's Tale in May 2013.

Cheers,

David




Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ralph Fiennes and Shakespeare

Happy Birthday Ralph Fiennes!

Okay, so his birthday is not until Saturday, but I thought we should start the celebration early!


What more can I say about Ralph Fiennes and Shakespeare?

Not much.

He should do as much Shakespeare as possible whenever possible.

Period.



But should he do some Solved Shakespeare?

Yes and yes.

As I wrote my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice I thought often about Ralph in any number of roles, especially as John Heminges, Shakespeare's fellow actor.

But after I saw Coriolanus, I thought that he might be one of the very few film directors who could conceivably orchestrate the films based on my versions of the plays.

I thought the film was nothing like I expected and more than I had hoped for. I was not all that familiar with the play. I had seen it once many years ago, with Christopher Walken as Coriolanus!

I like the fact that Ralph took a risk, and challenged himself with this film -- he is obviously passionate about bringing new and different Shakespeare to the world.



I hope you join me in wishing him a very Happy Birthday!

Cheers,

David Schajer


Books from Amazon

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shakespeare's Banned Play?


Shakespeare's company, The King's Men, performed a play The Tragedy of Gowrie twice in December 1604.






The play was banned, and no copies of the text survive.

Why? 

What was so subversive about it that the play would all but vanish from history? Did Shakespeare write this play?

The story of the Gowrie conspiracy was well known at the time, as it was based on real events.

On 5 August, 1600 King James IV of Scotland (not yet James I of England) went hunting with some of his men.

He met Alexander Ruthven, who told him about a foreigner he had trapped, and who was carrying large amounts of money. He invited James to interrogate this man, back at the nearby Gowrie House in Perth.

James accepted the invitation. James went up to the turret, without his men, where he was captured by Alexander.

James's men were told that he had left already, and as they were about to ride off, they heard cries of "Treason!" from the turret above.






They fought their way up to the turret where they found James fighting with Alexander.

One of James's men killed Alexander with blows to the face and neck. Alexander's brother John was also killed in the fighting.

This incident was disputed by many, and some believed that this entire story was fabricated, a cover for the murders of Alexander and John.

In any event, King James's playing company, The King's Men decided to re-create these events on stage.



Did Shakespeare's leading man, Richard Burbage, play King James?



It is important to remember that James had only been king of England since March of the year before. I think to many in London, and England in general, he was still an unknown quantity.

I can easily imagine that Shakespeare and his actors would have wanted to excite their audiences with a thriller about their king, where the king defeats his enemies -- a good versus evil story where the king is the hero!

Obviously, the depiction of the character of James would have made him strong and heroic -- and I wouldn't be surprised if James was the one who landed the killing blow on Alexander in the play -- and by the end there would be some sort of celebration for the survival of James, the king of Scotland, now the king of England.



King James



Also, Queen Elizabeth had long ago prohibited the staging of political events or people. This was why playwrights, like Shakespeare, had to write of Verona and Venice, when they were really talking about London.

The Tragedy of Gowrie therefore would have been very controversial and risky -- it was dealing directly with King James himself and events that had happened only 4 years before.


There is no evidence that Shakespeare wrote this play himself. But if the subject of the play was King James, and since this would have been one of the very first plays performed by the King's Men, I find it hard to imagine that anyone else would have written it.

I think Shakespeare was the only playwright who could have gotten away with writing a play about the king himself.

Well, from what we know, the play only had two performances and was done.

Shakespeare obviously wasn't killed or imprisoned for this play, like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd for example, but it was never to be seen again.

Around the same time that this was happening, another playwright, Samuel Daniel performed a play called Philotas. The sympathetic hero of the play resembled the Earl of Essex, who had led a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601, and was executed.

For whatever reason, Samuel Daniel had offended the king and queen. His career as a playwright was over. He was done.

How could Shakespeare write about Essex in his Hamlet play and get away with it, while Daniel's career was finished?

I explored the Essex Rebellion and the significance it played in my version of Hamlet, and while I do think that Shakespeare did get into trouble for writing it, he may have been the one (and only) writer who could not be suppressed.

I think perhaps he was too successful and too popular to be quieted, and have his career ended.

But that doesn't mean that his plays would continue, as in the case of The Tragedy of Gowrie.

Was this a play by Shakespeare that was banned?

We may never know for sure.

But it seems rather convincing.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Robert Arden and Shakespeare

Robert Arden of Snitterfield, Shakespeare's maternal grandfather, died 17 December 1556.

The Ardens were a distinguished family, whose lineage in the male line goes back to the Anglo-Saxon times, and whose substantial properties were listed in William the Conquerer's Domesday Book of 1086.

Only two other families in England share that distinction.

Robert was not a prominent member of his family, but he was a successful farmer, enough so that he rented lands.

One of his tenant farmers was Richard Shakespeare, William Shakespeare's paternal grandfather.

Robert Arden's had eight daughters, and the youngest was Mary, his favorite. She probably grew up knowing John Shakespeare, William's father.

When Robert died, he left the best property to Mary, including a farm called the Asbyes in the village of Wilmcote.

Mary Arden's house still stands today


The rear of the house

A year after Robert died, Mary married John Shakespeare.

This is rather interesting. The same thing happened with William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway: when Anne's father passed away and left her a rather substantial inheritance, she then married William the next year.

I can easily imagine that Robert Arden may have disapproved of Mary's affection for John Shakespeare. I doubt he would have wanted his daughter to marry the son of a man who rented land from him, despite the fact that John was already rather successful and established in Stratford as a glove maker, a trade protected by law, and he had just become an official ale-taster, which was not an unimportant position.

I can imagine that as easily as I can imagine that Anne Hathaway's father Richard may have disapproved of her affection for William.

I like to think that William Shakespeare was one of the very fortunate people in Elizabethan England -- he married for love.

I think that he married for love because his parents also married for love, and he was inspired by their example.

It may be that both couples had been star-crossed lovers at one time -- but instead of ending in tragedy like Juliet and Romeo -- these Shakespeares, Anne and William, and Mary and John, lived rather happily ever after.

Cheers,

David





Thursday, December 13, 2012

King Henry IV of France and Shakespeare

King Henry IV of France was born 13 December 1553, only 9 years before Shakespeare.



For almost his entire life, Shakespeare -- like everyone else in England -- was terrified of the potential for a religious war like the one that was waged in France from 1562 to 1598, known as the Wars of Religion.

Henry was a key figure in those wars, and the path he took in his faith is a good example of how the Protestant Reformation turned the world upside down -- he was baptised a Catholic, he later became a Protestant, then converted back to being a Catholic.

Upon the occasion of his marriage in Paris, in 1572, thousands of Protestant supporters flocked to the city for the celebration. King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Medici ordered the assassination of some of the Protestant leaders, and widespread violence ensued across the city and the country.

The death toll is estimated at upwards of 30,000 people.

Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610, only a few years before Shakespeare died, in 1616.

Henry had been a hero to the Protestants and to the Catholics, and these changes in identity cost him his life.

Queen Elizabeth and King James must have both watched the wars in France with horror, and must have been deathly afraid of that kind of violence in England. When Henry was killed, King James must have seen how vulnerable even a monarch was.

Shakespeare knew that Elizabeth, and later James, feared such violence. He found a way to remind them of the threat they faced, in Hamlet and then later in Macbeth and King Lear.

One of the key figures in the French Wars of Religion is the Duke of Guise, Henry I, whose nickname was "Scarface" -- and who challenged Henry IV's legitimacy as king, and was opposed to Catherine de Medici. In the end, her son's bodyguards killed him.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was executed for having led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. At his trial, he was compared to the Duke of Guise.

I am sure that when Elizabeth ordered him to be beheaded, she was terrified that violence might have occurred in London and England at large.

I have written about this before, and the connection between Essex and Hamlet.

For the entertainment of King James, Shakespeare may have been thinking of the conflict between the Duke of Guise and Henry IV when he created evil Edmund and righteous Edgar in King Lear.

Shakespeare must have been thinking of King Charles IX when he wrote Macbeth.

When Charles died, at the young age of 23, was so haunted by the violence that he had witnessed and condoned, he went insane and his body suffered terrible bloody hemorrhages.

It is interesting to note that King Charles IX was King James's godfather.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Related articles:

Henry IV of France on Wikipedia

King Charles IX of France on Wikipedia

A Toast for the Premiere of Hamlet

Hamlet and the Massacre at Paris
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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Anne of Denmark and Shakespeare

Anne of Denmark was born 12 December 1574, ten years after Shakespeare was born.





She is most famous for having married King James VI of Scotland, in 1589, who later became King James I of England in 1603.

Anne and James had quite a romantic episode surrounding their wedding -- when storms prevented her from sailing to England -- and James took a perilous voyage to join her and get married. It was due to this trip that James became obsessed with the subject of witchcraft -- which Shakespeare would write about in Macbeth.



King James in 1586



The fact that she was born to the King and Queen of Denmark, and the fact that Anne and James stopped off in Elsinore on their way back to England are worth noting, since some have considered that Shakespeare modeled his Hamlet character after James.



Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark



And from what I have read about her father King Frederick II, what with his huge appetite for food, drink and marital infidelity, he sure sounds like a Claudius.

It appears that they did love each other, as much as can be expected between a 23 year old man and a 14 year old girl.

They had many children, but only three survived to adulthood.

Henry Frederick was by all accounts a remarkable child and there were many, including Shakespeare I think, who had high hopes for him to succeed his father, and be a better monarch than his father. It was a sad day when Henry died, in November 1612.

Their daughter Elizabeth was named after Queen Elizabeth, in order to put James in the Queen's good graces, as far as succession to the throne was concerned. Elizabeth's February 1613 marriage to Prince Frederick, Elector Palatine was upset by the recent death of her brother Henry.


Anne of Denmark, King James and Prince Charles, in 1612



Charles later became King, and is most famous for having been the first monarch tried and executed for treason, which led to the abolition of the monarchy. Just recently I found this article about his favorite chessboard, which he carried with him to his execution. Odd.

If we are to judge her based on her children, I think we would find her a disappointment.

I don't think we can blame her too much though, since she was married very young, to a man who seems to have been more interested in men than women, who kept the children from her to be raised by others, and whose theory for the theological basis for monarchy, the divine right of kings, smacks of a certain megalomania.

By 1607, having had some of her children die, and having had three miscarriages, it is believed that she decided to stop having children.

I would think that these difficult childbirths might have something to do with her alleged secret conversion to Catholicism, which caused considerable strife.

Over time, it seems that she busied herself with the arts -- she was a patron of writers and artists -- and she even liked to perform in them! She was a great fan of masques, the more lavish the better.

What would Shakespeare have thought of his Queen?



Anne of Denmark, by Paul Van Somer



I think that the demand for masques, frivolity, for pomp and pageantry, and music had an impact on his writing and may have spelled the end of his career. Yes, his later plays written for indoors entertainment had music and a greater emphasis on costumes, but it is hard to imagine him writing the kind of masques that Ben Jonson did.

Most of Shakespeare's last plays -- Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest and The Two Noble Kinsmen -- I think were attempts at escapist entertainment to suite the tastes of his monarchs, but they may have not been enough to satisfy Anne, James and their court which was becoming infamous for its levels of decadence.

And if it is true that the King would on occasion fall asleep during plays, then Shakespeare had a serious problem on his hands.

It would also seem that Anne favored Ben Jonson, whose career skyrocketed past Shakespeare's during this time.

By the time that Anne's son Henry died, and her daughter Elizabeth got married, I think Shakespeare did not like what he saw in her son Charles, the future king.

Perhaps Shakespeare was well past the point of thinking that he could entertain his King and Queen, let alone keep their attention. I think he was looking to retire to Stratford as soon as possible.

He did, and he died not long after, in 1616.

I often think to what degree Anne of Denmark hastened an end to Shakespeare's career. Perhaps he just could not adapt to the court of King James. Perhaps he should never have become a King's Man.


Anne of Denmark, in 1612, by Marcus Gheeraerts


Maybe that doesn't matter. He wrote so many masterpieces -- Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and so on -- that maybe his time was just done, and there he had no more left to write.

I don't have any answers, but the questions are quite fascinating.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Related articles:

Anne Of Denmark -- on Wikipedia

King James, Anne of Denmark and Macbeth

King Charles I and Shakespeare


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Monday, December 10, 2012

Happy Birthday Kenneth Branagh!

Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh is having a terrific year -- with Wallander, directing and starring in the new Jack Ryan movie, and of course... reciting Shakespeare at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics!



What's even more exciting -- for Bard lovers -- is his recent announcement that he will perform Shakespeare for the first time in over 10 years!

He will be playing Macbeth at a deconsecrated church in Manchester to audiences limited to 300 at a time. Wow!

From what I can learn, the audience will not be removed from the action, but rather it will an "immersive" experience. Any of you who have read my blog at all know that this is how Shakespeare's plays were originally performed, and it is exciting to think that Branagh will push that envelope.

Also, not long ago he stated that he wanted to make a 3D Shakespeare film. I have not heard of any further developments as far as that is concerned, but if he is doing Macbeth, and is thinking of yet another Shakespeare film... then it would seem that we are in for some good times ahead.

Is there another artist who has done so much with Shakespeare in our time? I don't know about you, but Shakespeare in my time is defined almost wholly by Branagh.

I've seen some great performances -- Al Pacino in Julius Caesar, Denzel Washington as Richard III at the Delacorte in Central Park, Kevin Kline as Hamlet, Christopher Walken as Coriolanus -- and I have seen about every film version of the plays. I watched Sir Laurence Olivier's films, and I love them.

But Kenneth Branagh is in another category altogether.

I would say that he made Shakespeare more accessible to me in my life than any other artist.

And don't get me started on his version of Hamlet. I saw it in the movie theatres four times! I've lost count of the number of times I've seen it on VHS, then LaserDisc, then DVD.

In the last several years I became concerned that he might never do anymore Shakespeare. I had hope, but with every passing year, I became more doubtful.

Today, I am thrilled that he is returning to what he so obviously loves -- and I can't wait to see whatever Shakespeare he has planned.

I do hope that he films that version of Macbeth, and shares it with the rest of the world.


But I wonder if he would be willing to really challenge himself as far as Shakespeare is concerned.

I have written versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice that redefine them and solve the mysteries surrounding them. They are entirely different than any Shakespeare I have ever seen, and nothing like what Branagh has done.

I often wonder what more can we expect from Shakespeare, when all we seem to do is to adapt his plays over and over again, in period costumes or modernized, without addressing what the plays really mean, and why Shakespeare wrote them in the first place.

I like to call my versions un-adaptations, since they are stripped of all modern context and meaning, and take us back to see the plays as they were first performed by Shakespeare himself, and his fellow actors. They are the world premieres of the plays. And the way they were originally performed for an Elizabethan audience was as "immersive" as you can get.

Many people may think that watching Shakespeare is hard, and the stories are difficult to follow. The versions I have written can be understood by anyone.

I am confident that my new versions would attract an audience larger than previous Shakespeare audiences, for the very fact that they are so much easier to understand.

I can think of no better artist than Branagh to introduce the world to the plays as they really were -- bawdy, hilarious and political.

From everything I know of him, he has a great sense of humor and he wants nothing more than to share his love of Shakespeare with the world.



Finally, I hope you all join me in raising a glass today, and wishing him a very happy birthday!

Cheers,

David

Related article:

Kenneth Branagh and 3D Shakespeare?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mary Queen of Scots, Henry Stuart and Shakespeare


Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was born 8 December 1542.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was born 7 December 1545.

They were first cousins. He was her second husband.




Mary's first husband Francis II died from an ear infection, although some have speculated that it was poison.

Mary and Henry both had strong claims to the English throne, but if they married they would have even stronger claims. Any offspring would have an unparalleled claim.

They married. By all accounts they fought immediately and incessantly.


Mary in 1565
courtesy of Blairs Museum


She was queen, he was king consort. This meant that she had all of the power, and he had none. He fought for more influence, but she did not give it to him.

But she did give birth to a baby boy, James.

The marriage got even worse when Mary began an affair with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.


Mary and the Earl of Bothwell


The marriage ended in tragedy when Henry was found dead. It was believed that an explosion of gunpowder had killed him. Upon closer examination it was found that he may have been strangled after the explosion. The fact that he had been sick in the recent days suggested that he may have been poisoned.

Mary, who was suspected of having him killed, did nothing to further her innocence when she married Bothwell almost immediately.

As you may know, she and Bothwell were separated, and never saw each other again.

Mary was put in prison. She was only 26 years old.

She was executed in February 1587, when she was 44 years old.


Mary's execution

1587 was just around the time when William Shakespeare was either in London already, or on his way.

The news of Mary's execution would have shocked him, as it shocked all of Europe.

What did Shakespeare think of her and her legacy?

Well, as you can tell by what I have written -- the idea of murdering a king with poison must have stuck in his mind, and of course found its way into Hamlet.

I think Shakespeare did not think of these matters very much in his early days, as he was breaking into London's theatre scene.

But in 1603, when Queen Elizabeth died and James -- Mary and Henry's son -- was crowned, Shakespeare must have re-examined the history of Mary, Francis, Henry and Bothwell with great interest.

Shakespeare's job as a King's Man was to entertain the monarch.

I think Shakespeare did that, and more. He resurrected the spirit of his mother in plays like Macbeth and King Lear.

This would be dangerous ground to walk on, and Shakespeare may have paid a price for this. I think he suffered for his art.

But without this suffering, and without Mary, Francis, Henry, Bothwell and James -- we may not have the treasures that are Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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Friday, December 7, 2012

The Shakespeare Forum's Premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Last night I went to see the premiere of The Shakespeare Forum's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in New York City.

I am not a critic, nor do I write reviews for a living, so far be it from me to criticize this performance.

All I can say is that I enjoyed it immensely!

The cast was excellent and full of energy, as they commanded the playing space -- there was no stage as it were and they freely moved in and among the audience, often engaging them directly!  It was hilarious when Puck landed next to me to watch the show for a minute!

The choice of space was brilliant since it created an energy I think not unlike the Globe in London today -- and definitely like the way that Shakespeare himself and his fellow actors would have interacted with their audience 400 years ago. To borrow a phrase, this interaction creates a "complicity" between the actors and the audience.

And just as I am sure that Shakespeare's audience was thrilled with the interplay -- the audience I was with last night was laughing the whole way through.

I was also stunned that the play was so fast -- just about 2 hours! I have heard of performances running to 3 hours, so I was pleased that this production was so fast-paced and funny.

I had the pleasure of watching a rehearsal for this show recently, and it was fun to watch the actors and the director try to discover as many moments and gags. And all that work paid off, it was terrific to see the finished product, the result of all of that work.

The actors were great! It is rare that I see a show where the actors work together so well, and support each other. Each and every one of them obviously takes great delight in what they are doing, and their excitement is infectious.

After the show, there was a Question and Answer session, where the audience could ask questions of the actors and vice versa. One of the questions raised was whether the lack of set design detracted from the play. I don't think it did. I think the clean and simple space allowed you to focus on the actors, and their wonderful performances. And the excellent costumes immediately signaled where you were in the play, at court or in the woods.

It also made me think of what it would have been like in Shakespeare's time, and in those days you did not go to see a play -- you went to "hear" a play. The best seats in the Elizabethan theaters were above and behind the stage, where you couldn't see the actors very well, but it was where the acoustics were the best. The word "audience" in fact is derived from the Latin "audentia" from which we also get audio, auditorium, etc.

I strongly recommend that you go see this show -- it runs through the 16th of December.

And finally, congratulations to Tyler Moss, the Artistic Director, and Sybille Bruun, the Executive Director -- and everyone at The Shakespeare Forum for an excellent show!

I look forward to seeing more Shakepeare from them in the future!


Cheers,

David

Related Article:

The Shakespeare Forum





Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Great Frost Fair and Shakespeare


A Great Frost began in London on 5 December 1607 and lasted until 14 February.

The River Thames froze over, and was so solid frozen that people could cross the river on foot!





There had been several other frosts like this, during the Little Ice Age (from about 1350 to 1850) including one on Christmas day 1564 that was so remarkable that the Queen herself took to the ice, and was said to have practiced her archery on the Thames!

London merchants celebrated this event by covering the river and hawking their goods, selling food and drink, and anything else they could manage -- and drawing crowds who were eager to go where they had never thought it possible to go.

It was so successful and so many people came to the river, that it became known as the very first Frost Fair.

These would continue for the next two centuries -- the last Frost Fair was in 1814. Who knows, maybe we will see another in our lifetimes.



Frost Fair of 1683-4



Frost Fair of 1683-4



Frost Fair of 1814



Frost Fair of 1814, with Old London Bridge in the background



The December 1564 frost had been only months after Shakespeare was born, and while I doubt he saw it, he must have known about it.

When the Great Frost of 1608 occurred, I think he must have wanted to walk on the river, and I'm sure he delighted in it!

I wouldn't be surprised if he took his business to the river -- while I doubt that the King's Men would perform an entire play, I would think that they might go to the river to perform scenes, or at least drum up business, and distribute handbills.

It must have been quite an experience for playgoers to cross the river by foot to go to Southwark and see a play at the Globe, or other theatres. And I imagine that the wherry-boatmen were pulling their hair out, what with the loss of business!

Finally, I have often thought when Shakespeare's wife Anne, and their daughters Judith and Susanna might have gone into London to visit him.

Perhaps they never did. But if they did, when and why?

I like to think that Anne might have come down to London for a play or two, especially in the beginning as he is becoming famous.

She might have wanted to see the coronation of King James in 1603 with her husband, now a King's Man.

I think the Great Frost of 1608 would be one of those times in which Shakespeare would invite his wife to come to London -- and marvel at one of the most spectacular sights she would ever see.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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