Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Measure for Measure

I just saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Measure for Measure in Washington, D.C.
It’s fantastic!
If you are in or near Washington, you must see it. 

It runs through October 27 and you can get tickets here:
It was one of the greatest Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. It really made the play seem as fresh and relevant as it must have been when it was first performed in 1604.
I applaud the STC, the play’s director Jonathan Munby, and the brilliant cast for this riveting production.
The play is considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays since it is difficult to categorize. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? And then there is the controversial combination of religious and sexual matters in the play. If you are easily offended, this play might not be for you. But then you would be missing one of Shakespeare's funniest plays.
In this production, all of these problems are faced head on. The play is set in Vienna between World War I and World War II, at a time when art, sex and politics were as volatile as they were during the life of Shakespeare himself.
In a stroke of genius, as you enter the theater,  the actors are gathering on stage, in a Viennese strip club/brothel.
Cameron Folmar as Lucio with the ensemble dancers
There are the muscle-bound bouncers in lederhosen, a brothel madam, a master of ceremonies, male and female prostitutes, and strippers. 
This pre-show cabaret entertainment sets the stage for what is to come, and also more importantly sets the tone for the entire play.
In this production, Vienna is clearly a fascist state like Nazi Germany. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that for his entire life, Shakespeare’s England was a police state.
The incident that starts the play off is when Claudio is sentenced to death for having an unsanctioned marriage with Juliet, who is now pregnant.
The only way his death sentence can be stopped is if his sister, a nun named Isabella, will have sex with Angelo, the man who is in charge of the city and the same man who sentenced Claudio to death.
Scott Parkinson as Angelo and Miriam Silverman as Isabella
Such a plot would not seem very funny, but the play has some of the funniest scenes and lines in all of Shakespeare’s plays. The audience I was with was laughing very loudly by the end.
The cast was excellent. It is hard to point out any one or two actors in this show, they are all so good, and they work very well with each other.
What I will say is that Shakespeare wrote some of his most colorful and memorable characters in this play, and every last actor made the most of their part.
I don’t think I will ever see this play again without remembering how funny Chris Genebach was as Pompey, Cameron Folmar was as Lucio, and Hugh Nees was as Elbow; or how moving Miriam Silverman was as Isabella, Katie deBuys was as Juliet, and Natascia Diaz was as Mariana; or how effective Scott Parkinson was as Angelo, and Kurt Rhoads was as the Duke.
Please do yourself a favor and go see this before the run ends. 

When I consider Measure for Measure as a play, and I have not written about it here before on the blog, it doesn’t seem like a problem play to me.
First of all, Shakespeare is clearly referring to his own life and his earlier play, Romeo and Juliet
As I have written before, Romeo and Juliet was written for the Earl of Southampton when he was engaged to Elizabeth Vernon (who was one of the chief ladies-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth) without having first secured the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, who did not allow such unsanctioned relationships.
For their disobediance to the Queen, Southampton and Vernon, who was pregnant at the time, were thrown in prison.
When he wrote Measure for Measure, he wrote it after Queen Elizabeth had died, and while King James was well into the second year of his reign.
It was first performed at court for the King, during the holidays, on 26 December, 1604.
It shows you what kind of monarch King James was, and what kind of city London was, that such a play, with so much crude and sexual humor, would be suitable for holiday entertainment.
The only other play that I have found to be as funny and as truly bawdy and low down and dirty as Measure For Measure is The Merchant of Venice.
As I was watching this excellent production, I was struck how close the plays really are.
At the end of both plays, a Duke settles a dispute. A Duke rules against Shylock and a Duke rules for Isabella.
Angelo in Measure is very similar to Antonio in Merchant. Both are undone by the illicit love of another character. Angelo is undone by Isabella, and Antonio is undone by his love of Bassanio.
The Duke in Measure is very similar to Portia in Merchant. Both wear costumes in the final trials within the plays. 
Portia, as I have written before, is far from the fair, wise and virtuous princess we have long believed her to be. She is a pig, and her name actually means “pig.”
Also, as I explored in my version of Merchant of Venice, Portia is bisexual. She has a sexual relationship with her maid, Nerissa.
In this production of Measure for Measure, the Duke is depicted as having homosexual encounters, and is haunted by his sexuality.
This would not have come as a shock to King James when he saw the play for the first time. After all the play was written for him personally, and after all, he was bisexual, too.
Isabella in Measure is very similar to Shylock in Merchant
In the entire play, she is the only character who does not change. She is the only constant in the entire play. Shylock is the only character who does not change in Merchant. He stays the same throughout. 
However, at the end of Merchant, he is sentenced to renounce his faith and become a Christian. 
This forced conversion is very similar to Isabella’s fate at the end of Measure when the Duke asks her to marry him, since she would be renouncing her faith for a life as the Duchess of Vienna.
In both Measure and Merchant, almost all of the other characters change, and wear masks of one sort or another. They are never entirely what they appear to be, and often have ulterior motives.
As such, if there is one criticism I have of this production of Measure, it is that Isabella needs to be funnier. Shylock certainly has a sense of humor. Isabella could be funnier, and if she is shown as more of a part of the comedy of the play, then the comedy and drama would be more balanced.
The Merchant of Venice is arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play.”
In my version of Merchant, I solved the play’s problem by revealing how the entire play is neither a comedy or a tragedy but in fact the blackest of black bawdy comedies.
Measure for Measure is also a very black comedy, and it is arguably even more bawdy.
So, if you are interested in seeing one of Shakespeare's true comedic masterpieces, you should definitely see this production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C.


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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ben Whishaw and Shakespeare

Wouldn’t Ben Whishaw be great in some new Shakespeare?
Yes, of course. It’s a silly question.

He should do Shakespeare as often as possible, and with any luck he will return to the Bard over and over again in his career.
Because, from what I have seen, he seems to have been born to perform Shakespeare. 
He has a rare talent to communicate the words in a way that makes them as alive and fresh as they were when they were originally written.

I cannot find very much video of his performance of Hamlet in 2004, under the direction of Trevor Nunn. I did find this clip but it doesn’t give enough of the play to be very satisfying.
He was excellent as Ariel in Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest. There are some clips of him from the film on Youtube, but do yourself a favor and watch the entire film instead. It’s worth it.
Of course, most famously, he recently played Richard II in the first of the four Hollow Crown film versions of the Henriad, comprising Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V.

as Richard II

It’s a spectacular performance, and it is hard to imagine any other contemporary actor doing as fine a job as he did. 
It seems that Mr. Whishaw has a love of performing on stage (he recently finished a run of Peter and Alice with Dame Judi Dench at the Noel Coward Theatre) and I do hope that he continues to do so.
However, he has such a talent for film -- from Brideshead Revisited to Bright Star to Cloud Atlas and of course as the new Q in the James Bond films -- that he really should do more Shakespeare on film, and hopefully the sooner the better.
I can easily imagine him as Iago, as Richard III, as Shylock, and I would love to see him as Macbeth. That would be something. One day in the far future,  when he is considerably older, he will undoubtedly be magnificent as King Lear.

What about Shakespeare Solved?
In my versions of the plays, which present them as they were first performed by Shakespeare and his fellow actors, Mr. Whishaw would fit in perfectly.
He has a talent for period films, and I can easily imagine him as an Elizabethan.
But as much as I would love to see him as one of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, first in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later in the King’s Men, I have another very important role in mind for him.
I have written a great deal about Robert Cecil here in this blog. He was one of the most important and influential men in the later years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and when King James succeeded her, Robert Cecil was arguably the most powerful man in all of England -- perhaps even more powerful than King James himself. 
If there was one man who was William Shakespeare’s lifelong nemesis, it was Robert Cecil.
Shakespeare wrote about Cecil over and over again in his plays. Shakespeare caricatured him as Richard III, as Robin Goodfellow, as Malvolio, for example.
Without going into great detail, suffice to say that Cecil in my versions of the plays is not entirely evil, but a man whom Shakespeare feared because of the immense power he wielded.
I think Ben Whishaw would be perfect as Cecil, and I would think that an actor like Mr. Whishaw would delight in creating a character that features prominently in not one, but a series of films.
Just as Mr. Whishaw allowed us to see King Richard II as a not entirely villainous monarch, he would be able to portray Robert Cecil as a not entirely bad man.
What do you think?

If you agree with me that he should do some Shakespeare and Shakespeare Solved, please show your support on facebookTwitterPinterestGoogle Plus or Tumblr.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Shakespeare and the Real Polonius

William Cecil, Lord Burghley was born, on 13 September 1520.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley
He was the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and acted in several roles, as Secretary of State, as Lord High Treasurer, and Lord Privy Seal.
By the 1590’s, he was arguably the most powerful person in England, except for the Queen herself.
Queen Elizabeth and the two most powerful men in her court, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham 

In her court, he was the head of what could be considered the Cecil faction (or fraction), which included his son Robert Cecil, and Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster. This faction might be considered the most conservative of all in her court.
In the same period of the 1590’s, the Cecil faction’s main rival was the faction headed by the Earl of Essex. His faction might be considered the more liberal voice in her court.
The Earl of Essex
Essex, and others like the Earl of Southampton, were great patrons of artists like Shakespeare. During this decade, several of Shakespeare’s plays were written to flatter Essex and at the same time paint an unflattering portrait of the Cecils.
For example, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet for the Earl of Southampton, when he married Elizabeth Vernon against the wishes of the Queen and men in her court like William Cecil.
Shakespeare’s Richard III character is based in part on William Cecil’s son, Robert. Both King Richard  and Robert were hunchbacks, and it is possible to see the portrayal of a power-hungry monarch who kills his way to the top as a portrait of Robert Cecil who was amassing more and more power in the 1590’s and whom Shakespeare probably held most responsible for the deaths of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.
But the greatest of all portraits of William Cecil in the plays is in Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet. William Cecil was the inspiration for the character of Polonius.
Richard Briers as Polonius with Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

I explore almost all of the references to William Cecil in my version of Hamlet, and all of them are unflattering.
Polonius is the chief advisor to the King and Queen. He interferes in everyone’s life, spies on others, and is described by the hero Hamlet as a “tedious old fool.”
His advice to his son Laertes, which is so famous for its fatherly wisdom, is based on advice that William Cecil wrote to his son Robert.
William and his son Robert
Shakespeare based his Hamlet character in part on the Earl of Essex. Therefore it would make a great deal of sense that when Hamlet kills Polonius, Shakespeare was dramatizing what Essex would have liked to have done to Cecil.
"Hamlet before the body of Polonius" by Eugène Delacroix, 1835

We may never know the full story between William Cecil, Essex and Shakespeare's plays.
But if the Hamlet play (written in the last days of Queen Elizabeth's reign) is any indication, there was something rotten in the state of England, and Shakespeare was writing a brief chronicle, an epitaph of sorts for Cecil, Essex and even the Queen.
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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Orlando Bloom and Shakespeare

I just saw Orlando Bloom as Romeo on Broadway over the weekend.
I was very excited to see this production, since I wanted to see a young actor like him do some Shakespeare. The theatre was packed, and the audience was very enthusiastic during the entire performance.

I had read very little about the production beforehand. The cast was excellent, especially Condola Rashad as Juliet, Christian Camargo as Mercutio and Jayne Houdyshell as the Nurse.
But overall I was disappointed.
The greatest mistake, in my humble opinion, was the modern setting. By putting the characters in modern dress and with modern elements -- like a motorcycle -- the whole play became less compelling than it should be.
In our modern times, young boys and girls get into all sorts of troubles. There are very few social constraints keeping them away from each other.
This play is about two young lovers who fall in love and break all the rules.
But there is nothing on the stage, in the production I just saw, that creates any of the dramatic tension that is so important in the play.

I have seen Romeo and Juliet before in modern setting. Arguably the most famous is the film version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. But while that film is a modern setting, it presented guns and the potential for violence so effectively (where everyone was packing a pistol) that it creates a tension throughout the entire film.
Perhaps in order to create some dramatic tension on the stage, this Romeo is white and Juliet is black. But making this story about race doesn’t have the same effect today that it would perhaps 50 years ago.
If there is nothing really keeping them apart, then the love between Romeo and Juliet is less powerful.
When Shakespeare wrote the play, he wrote it for two people whom Queen Elizabeth herself had personally forbidden from being together. That young man, the Earl of Southampton, was defying the Queen when he fell in love with Elizabeth Vernon.
I liked Orlando Bloom as Romeo. But instead of wearing jeans and Doc Martens boots, he should be wearing Elizabethan period clothing, doublet and hose, and carrying a real sword.
Instead of hanging around Verona (which in this production could be Venice California for all we know) like he’s in a biker gang (and carrying concealed knives), he should be in a world where there are strict rules and social conventions keeping him away from Juliet, and where everyone is carrying a sword and knows how to use it to kill.
Without those strict rules and barriers, the play loses its focus, and unfortunately it has an effect on the performances. I think Orlando Bloom’s performance suffers in modern dress and setting, and he would benefit from period costume and setting.
I love the idea of Orlando Bloom in Shakespeare, and I hope he does more. I think he should definitely play a villain, like Iago. He would be great as Coriolanus.

By all means, please go see this production. With your support, actors like Orlando Bloom will do more Shakespeare.
But after seeing this production of Romeo and Juliet, I would really love to see him in period costume, as a character in the Elizabethan world.
As I watched this, I thought he would be great in some Shakespeare Solved -- in these new versions of Shakespeare’s plays, that show how they were performed for the very first time in history.
I also show why the plays were written and for whom.
One of Shakespeare’s closest friends, and the man for whom he wrote Romeo and Juliet was the Earl of Southampton. 

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton -- the real Romeo

He was one of the most fascinating figures of the period (and was arguably the most handsome man of the time) and with the Earl of Essex, they played a part in one of the most controversial events in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Essex Rebellion of 1601.
I think Orlando Bloom would be excellent as Southampton.

What do you think?

If you agree with me that he should be in more Shakespeare, please show your support on facebookTwitterPinterestGoogle Plus or Tumblr.

Your support will really make a difference!

And your comments are always welcome!


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