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, March 30, 2015

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Merchant of Venice

I just saw the greatest production of Merchant of Venice I have ever seen, by the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Do not miss it! 

CLICK HERE for a TRAILER to the play

It runs thru 25 April.

You can learn more here, and get tickets here:

It is arguably the most historically significant Merchant of Venice since it was first performed in around 1597.

Why is it so historic? Because this Merchant is performed in OP — Original Pronunciation, which is the Early Modern accent which Shakespeare and his contemporaries spoke. 

It is the first time in 400 years that this play is being spoken in the way that it sounded to William Shakespeare himself.

What is the effect of hearing OP?


I have never heard more than a few lines spoken in OP. So to hear an entire play spoken in the language that Shakespeare spoke, and to hear the words as they would have sounded in his mind and on his lips is a truly remarkably thrilling experience. I can not say enough good things about it.

What is it like to see Merchant of Venice — my personal favorite Shakespeare play — performed and spoken in OP?

A religious experience.

It was as if I have never seen the play before and it was reborn in my mind. It was a wonderful, surreal, and once-in-a-lifetime joy that I will never ever forget, as long as I live.

Please drop whatever you are doing right now and buy tickets to this production. 

The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory should be applauded for their decision to not only perform Shakespeare in OP, but to tackle such an important play.

Ben Crystal

To advise them on the OP, they invited Ben Crystal, who advances OP in Shakespeare as an actor, author and producer, based on scholarship with his father, David Crystal, the world’s foremost author and lecturer on the English language. Their revolutionary approach to the Bard is quickly setting the Shakespeare world on fire, and there are more and more OP productions in the works.

Here is a brief and very entertaining video that can help introduce you to OP, and help open your eyes and even more importantly your ears to what Shakespeare really sounded like:

Ben Crystal was at the performance I saw, where he introduced the audience to OP and spoke about his exciting work. I was lucky enough to meet him in person and he is as funny, brilliant, and just plain cool as I had hoped he would be.

As soon as the play began, I have to admit that it took me a little while to adjust my ears to OP. If anything, it made me lean a little closer, and pay a little more attention than I would normally do while watching a play. But it was not a chore to listen to.

After the first few minutes, I found the sound of OP very comfortable and there were whole stretches of time when I didn’t even realize I was listening to such an archaic accent.

The actors, who should all be praised for blazing this OP trail, were fantastic. All of them were clearly visibly thrilled to make such Shakespeare history, and they had a lot of fun on stage. They made the most of it, and the audience, myself included, was rewarded with a very special and unique entertainment.

Zach Brewster-Geisz

Zach Brewster-Geisz as Antonio was great, and he played the character as a good, decent, generous man. 

Chris Cotterman and Valerie Dowdle

Chris Cotterman was a great Bassanio, tall and handsome, and with a rather playful energy. His chemisty with Portia was especially good.

Valerie Dowdle was excellent as Portia. Not only was her Portia almost precisely as I think Shakespeare intended Portia to be, but she brought the character to life in a way that arguably exceeds what the character can and should be.

Portia might be considered the star role of the play, and Ms. Dowdle made the most of that opportunity, and created a princess who is a hot mess. Portia is pretty, yes, but a real diva with daddy issues who loves to hate on men.

If it wasn’t for one other character, Portia would steal the whole show.

That other character of course is Shylock.

Ian Blackwell Rogers

Ian Blackwell Rogers as Shylock was as good as I had hoped. He has a real talent for OP and he clearly loves Shakespeare’s language, since he has an easy familiarity with it.

Shylock is such an important character in Shakespeare’s plays that it is distressing when he is played badly. But when he is played well, like Mr. Rogers’s performance, it is a real treasure. I consider myself very fortunate to see his portrayal of Shylock.

The director, Tom Delise, deserves great praise for assembling such a talented company of actors, and delivering not only a great show, but challenging his actors and his audience with this play, arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem” play.

However, I do wish that Mr. Delise had gone further in his bold production of Merchant

Perhaps the greatest and most unusual choice was to make Portia almost as unlikeable as she is supposed to be. There is a reason why Shakespeare gave her a name that means “pig.” I wrote about that, here.

This production bravely includes her racism towards the Prince of Morocco. When he fails the three caskets test to win her in marriage, she says: “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”

During the intermission, I overheard three men ask themselves why we should be rooting for such a racist princess? That is a very good question.

This production also deserves credit for introducing us to Venetians whose sexuality is not as clear as it has historically been portrayed. This sexuality is not displayed or acted out. It is in the language and how the characters emphasize certain words, especially as far as how much Bassanio and Antonio are “dear” to each other, and how much they “love” each other. 

There is more sexual ambiguity in this production than you may have seen before, and it raises very good questions about the play. Sadly, it does not answer those questions.

You might think that the sexuality of the Venetians is irrelevant. But it is in fact central to this play, and without a proper portrayal of their sexuality, the play runs into trouble.

Bassanio goes to Antonio (an older unmarried man who only associates with other men) because they are lovers. Bassanio asks Antonio for money to pass himself off as a wealthy prince, to marry a princess and get at her gold. Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has already been similarly passing himself off as heterosexual in order to marry Jessica, not for love, but for her gold.

Much of the humor in the play is found when we realize that the princess whom Bassanio wants to marry, Portia, is in fact a lesbian! She and her maid Nerissa are lesbian lovers. Portia doesn’t want a husband, but she needs one in order to be free.

So, Bassanio pretends to be straight to win Portia, who pretends to be straight in order to be won. Comedy ensues. 

But more importantly, if their sexuality is not depicted properly then it has a disastrous effect on Shylock’s character. 

If we do not appreciate that Shylock knows that Venetians are gold-digging frauds and sexually sinful (as anyone in Shakespeare’s lifetime would have believed) then we are asked to root for Portia and Bassanio, and want them to be happily married.

Instead we should be rooting for Shylock. He is the one and only hero in this play. He is the only character who means what he says, and says what he means, and never represents himself falsely. 

I have discovered persuasive evidence that Shakespeare named Shylock after himself. Yes, “Shylock” means “Shakespeare.” If my theory is correct, then it begs the question, why would Shakespeare name a character after himself, and make him the villain? I wrote about that, here.

Sadly, in this production, Shylock is a villain. He is a sympathetic villain, and Mr. Rogers does his best to get us to like Shylock, but he is still, incorrectly, the bad guy.

So as much as I hate to see Shylock as the villain, and as much as I wanted to see more of what I know Merchant can be rather than the Merchant I was watching, there was so much excellent work and so much talent in this production that I find it hard to fault these artists for the result.

I do not want to discourage you from seeing this fantastic production. 

It is a very rewarding show, and it is well worth your time!


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Friday, March 27, 2015

Martin Scorsese and Shakespeare

I just read an article that Martin Scorsese may direct Kenneth Branagh in a film version of Macbeth.

The film is inspired by Branagh’s stage version of Macbeth, which premiered in 2013 for the Manchester International Festival, and which later came to New York City in 2014 — which I saw, my review here.

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

There are no details about this film, if it will be a filming of the play, or whether it will be a more expansive film, with sets, locations, etc. 

From what Mr. Branagh says, it is up to Martin Scorsese how he wants to translate this stage production, and how he wants to direct his first Shakespeare adaptation.

I am thrilled that Mr. Scorsese will finally interpret Shakespeare. In my opinion, there is no such thing as too many Shakespeare productions, for stage or screen, and especially for screen. So, I can’t wait to see this film.

Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull

Mr. Scorsese’s films are filled with Shakespearean characters, from Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (who resembles King Richard III, who is something of a Raging Boar!), to Henry and Loretta Hill in Goodfellas (which resemble the Macbeths), to The Departed, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy and Matt Damon’s Colin are like Edmund and Edgar from King Lear, and Jack Nicholson’s larger-than-life Frank Costello is a modern-day malevolent Falstaff.

Martin Scorsese with LeonardoDiCaprio and Matt Damon
on the set of The Departed

Mr. Scorsese is not one of the greatest filmmakers in history because he knows how to use a camera. He understands that richly defined and all-too-human characters, the good and the bad and the ugly, fascinate and entertain us. None of us may live lives like the characters we see in Scorsese’s films, or Shakespeare’s plays, but we want to watch them, and learn about ourselves in the process.

Is Mr. Scorsese the modern-day Shakespeare? Maybe. But he certainly understands how Shakespeare made plays that have endured for centuries, and for that Mr. Scorsese’s films will endure.

My only concern for this proposed film is the production of the play I saw. I saw it in person in 2014, but I also saw the televised film version of the 2013 Manchester production. It was not a successful production in my personal opinion. 

Perhaps the greatest mistake was performing the play in 2 hours. This decision, to rush the play along, was unfortunate. 

All of the actors, including Mr. Branagh, whom I admire greatly, spoke and acted as quickly as they could, as if they had a plane to catch.

With Alex Kingston, as Lady Macbeth

I have read the play many times, and I have seen it performed before, so I am very familiar with the story and the characters. So, I can follow it very easily.

However, wheneverythingisspokensoquicklythatyoucanhardlyhearonewordfromanother, it makes the experience not entertainment, but rather dull, a chore.

The play and the actors barely had a chance to catch their breath, and the result was a play that didn’t breathe and was hurried, and never allowed us to explore the action of the play as it unfolded.

Why is the pace of the play so important? Because the Macbeths are cold and calculating, and commit premeditated murderer. If the pace is too fast it makes them appear like people who rush headlong into murder without stopping and thinking about it. 

The more time we watch the Macbeths plot murder, the more horrible it is. To speed the play up is to rob us, the audience, of the vicious thrill of the play.

With the Weird Sisters

So, while I am very excited and eager to see this film version, I do hope that it does not hurry the play, and gives the actors every opportunity to pull us into, immerse us in the horror of this tragedy.

I am optimistic that Mr. Scorsese will take his time. His films are often long, and I have no problem with that. When he has characters and stories as compelling as The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, what's the hurry? 

What do you think?


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Shakespeare and Keira Knightley

Should Keira Knightley do some Shakespeare?

Of course!

She is such a talented actress, I am surprised that she has not already tried the Bard already.

She has had an amazing career, doing everything from action-packed films like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, to romantic dramas like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Doctor Zhivago, and so on.

This kind of versatility is rare these days, and I think she likes the adventure of doing something new, something she hasn't done before.

She also seems to enjoy doing period films, like The Imitation Game, and The Duchess -- and more importantly, she fits seamlessly into those periods, as if she really belongs to that time.

I would love to see her in any number of Shakespeare roles, like Cordelia, Desdemona, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, and so forth.

But I would really love to see her play Kate in Taming of the Shrew, with someone like Clive Owen as Petruchio. Wouldn't that be great? I think it would be funny, and wildly entertaining.

It's one of my favorite Shakespeare plays (I wrote about it recently here) and I think she would enjoy being so brash, and loud, and scary, but at the same time very strong, smart, and more than a match for the insane courageous rascal and love of her life, Petruchio.

But what I would really like is for her to be in this Shakespeare Solved series of films, about the life of Shakespeare, and how he came to London and wrote plays that entertained thousands, and even served both Queen Elizabeth and King James.

There are several characters she could play, but the one that I think would suit her best is a character I invented named Mistress Quickly, who is the most successful brothel madam in London, and one of Shakespeare's greatest friends throughout his lifetime.

The character of Mistress Quickly as I imagine her, is arguably the smartest and most powerful woman Shakespeare ever meets in London, besides the queen herself.

Perhaps the one actor whom I most want to play the part of William Shakespeare in this series of films is Benedict Cumberbatch.

After seeing the excellent work they both did together in The Imitation Game, I am very eager to see them work together on screen.

And as far as I'm concerned, Keira deserved the Oscar for that performance.

What do you think?

Would you like to see her in some Shakespeare, or in this Shakespeare Solved series of films?

If you do, 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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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I and Essex

What was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex?

Queen Elizabeth I

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

And what does it have to do with Shakespeare?

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester was one man whom Queen Elizabeth arguably loved more than any other man in her lifetime.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Dudley was her royal “favourite.” She bestowed on him many gifts, and titles including the prestigious office of Master of the Horse. She gave him the lucrative monopoly on sweet wines.

As far as property was concerned, he benefited very handsomely. He became one of the greatest landowners in England, especially in Warwickshire, and the area around Stratford upon Avon. He took a house in London, on the Strand, and named it Leicester House.

The greatest prize of all was power. She gave him power, and he accepted it. According to the Spanish Ambassador, Dudley was one of three people who ran the entire country.

There was suspicions at the time that Queen Elizabeth would marry Dudley. But he was already married, to Amy Robsart. 

Matching miniature portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley
by Nicholas Hilliard, 1575

But as tempting as it was to get married to Dudley, the queen did not. She would not marry any man, perhaps because she did not want to share her power, or undermined by another, even by a king consort, as Dudley would have become had he married Elizabeth.

The Venetian Ambassador wrote: “Lord Robert Dudley is very intimate with Her Majesty” and “Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife (Amy Robsart) has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”

Dudley abandoned his wife after Elizabeth become queen. Soon after, Amy Robsart was found dead in her home in Oxford. She had fallen on a flight of stairs. While she may not in fact have been murdered, it was suspected at the time that Dudley had plotted his own wife’s death.

The Death of Amy Robsart
by William Frederick Yeames, 1877

The scandal from this death added to the problems Elizabeth and Dudley had in getting married. The queen even made plans to marry Dudley off to Mary, Queen of Scots — just so long as Dudley never left London, so she could still see him.

Over the next few years, Dudley stayed close to the queen, even lodging next to her apartment at court, but he started having affairs. He even had a son, Robert Dudley, named after himself.

In the summer of 1565, the queen became jealous over his flirtation with Lettice Knollys, who was married to Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. 

Lettice Knollys, by George Gower, 1585

It is unclear when and if there was an affair between Dudley and Lettice, but in November of that same year, she gave birth to a son, Robert Devereux.

Why was this son not named Walter after his father, but Robert?

This son, Robert Devereux, was the first son of Walter and Lettice. They had had two daughters before. It is very odd then that for the very first male child, the name would be Robert, and not Walter.

If the child was in fact named after Robert Dudley, why would Walter Devereux agree to name the bastard child after his wife’s lover?

Because Robert Dudley, due to his close relationship with the queen, was the single most powerful man in England.

Walter Devereux may not have been happy that his wife had an illegitimate child, but he was powerless to stop Robert Dudley.

Therefore, while there is no proof that Robert Devereux was the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, the circumstantial evidence is very strong.

About 10 years after this boy Robert was born, Walter Devereux died in Ireland. It was suspected that Dudley had him poisoned. Again, there is no proof, but it was widely rumoured at the time.

Less than 2 years after that, Dudley married Lettice. 

In 1584, Robert Devereux, was introduced to the queen’s court.

In 1588, Dudley died.

Queen Elizabeth and Leicester
by William Frederick Yeames, 1865
I like to think that the seated boy is Essex, age 10

In the year before Dudley’s death, the queen gave this young man, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the office of Master of the Horse.

After Dudley’s death, the queen gave Essex the sweet wines monopoly. He also took Dudley’s home on the Strand, Leicester House. He renamed it Essex House.

It is clear that for whatever reason, Essex would inherit what had been Dudley’s and would replace Dudley at the queen’s court.

Her old “favourite” was dead. Essex became her new “favourite.”

Essex, by Hilliard, ca. 1587

We don’t fully understand who Essex was to Queen Elizabeth, or how intimate they were.

But with this brief chronology of events, it seems that perhaps the best way to describe the exact nature of their relationship is to say that Essex was the son she wished she would have had with Dudley — had she been able to marry him, as she had once wanted.

But, she chose her power as queen over being married and having children.

Sadly, it was that choice, which we can certainly understand and admire, which led to so much of the political problems towards the end of her life.

It is very tragic to imagine what it was like for Essex, who was born to Dudley, who was for all intents and purposes the king of the country, to lose that father, to inherit that father’s titles and revenues, but to have no power like his father had once had. Even worse, Queen Elizabeth took to punishing Essex. For example, she took away his sweet wines monopoly, which was his main source of income.

By the time that Essex came to court in 1584,  the queen had other men, William Cecil and his son Robert Cecil, and Frances Walsingham, who had acquired too much power for Essex to overcome.

Robert Cecil, Essex's great nemesis

There was a war in her court, between the Cecil faction and the Essex faction.

Essex probably saw himself inheriting the throne after the queen died.

It was probably the one thing he most desired.

It was the one thing his enemies, the Cecils, most feared.

The war between Essex and the Cecils reached a fever pitch in 1601, and Essex led a failed rebellion against the queen and her court.

He was executed for this crime.

If Essex was the son the queen wished she had with Dudley, then it must have broken her heart when her “son” was put to death. We don’t know if she gave the order, but in any event, Essex was beheaded.

As I am sure you can see from this history, much of this bears a striking similarity to Prince Hamlet, whose father is poisoned (as Walter Devereux may have been) and whose power is usurped by others, Claudius and his henchman Polonius (which would represent the Cecil faction) and who is finally murdered by his own mother, albeit by accident.

Essex had become Queen Elizabeth’s “favourite” in 1587.

That is around the same time that Shakespeare came to London in search of fame and fortune.

Essex as Shakespeare would have first known and seen him in 1588
by Hilliard

Essex became one of Shakespeare’s artistic patrons, perhaps as early as 1593.

Essex and Shakespeare may not have been close at all. Essex may have told Shakespeare nothing about his struggles at court.

Or, it is possible that Essex and Shakespeare were very close, the best of friends. It is possible that Essex told Shakespeare every last thing, every last intrigue that occured in Elizabeth’s court, every last victory, and every last injury.

We should consider the latter possibility more closely. If we are to understand why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and what it might really mean, we should entertain the possibitily that Shakespeare’s Hamlet play is the most detailed account of Queen Elizabeth’s court that has ever been written.

Queen Elizabeth in 1601

If we want to understand who Queen Elizabeth was, we should look at Gertrude more closely, and how she treated her son. That may be everything we need to know about Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex — the son she would have had, had she had a son.


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Shakespeare & Lèse-Majesté Laws

I read a news article recently about two actors in Thailand who were sentenced to jail for having performed a play that was deemed offensive and "damaging to the monarchy."

I confess that I don't keep up with modern news and history, since I am so busy reading about the past Elizabethan and Jacobean history.

But when I saw this article, I had a profound sense of déjà vu.

The actors, Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong

These actors in Thailand performed the play only once. The play, The Wolf Bride, is set in a fantasy kingdom and portrayed a make-believe king and his advisor.

Thailand is one of several countries that has lèse-majesté laws -- laws against injuring the dignity of the majesty, the reigning monarch.

These two actors will spend two and a half years in jail for this "crime."

It is a light sentence in Thailand, where the punishment under the lèse-majesté laws can be up to 15 years.

Thailand's king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has ruled Thailand since 1946, and is revered as something of a god by many Thai people. 

King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Queen Elizabeth I and King James I were also treated, and expected to be treated as divine. They considered themselves God's anointed.

King James advanced the theory of the divine rights of kings, more so than Elizabeth. This led to frequent difficulties with his Parliament, since he believed that all power came from him.

King James

The author of this divine-right theory was a Frenchman, Jean Bodin, who was also famous for his writing on demonology, which was one of King James's great passions. King James seemed to believe, as Bodin wrote, that kings should be "responsible only to God."

During Elizabeth's reign, the two most famous playwrights (before Shakespeare) were Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. 

Kyd was thrown in jail, tortured and died not long after, probably from the wounds he suffered from the torture.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe died under suspicious circumstances, not long after he too was questioned by the authorities. It is possible that he was murdered by agents close to the court of Queen Elizabeth.

The up-and-coming playwright Ben Jonson was thrown in jail for satirising Queen Elizabeth in his Isle of Dogs play.

Despite the lack of evidence that Shakespeare was ever thrown in jail, I think he was, for having written Hamlet in 1601. It was a very political play and unflattering to Queen Elizabeth. I wrote about that recently, here.

Ben Jonson

During the reign of King James, Ben Jonson and his co-writer George Chapman were thrown in jail for their Eastward Ho play in 1605.

Chapman's two-part play The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron, performed in 1608, was so scandalous, and offensive to visiting French Ambassador, that King James sent three of the actors to prison.

The three actors were boys.

But it seems that King James relented, and in his mercy he released the boys from prison. He even had them perform the Byron plays during the Christmas festivities at court.

Thailand's king was quoted as saying, in 2005: "Actually, I must also be criticised. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the king cannot be criticised, it means that the king is not human", he claimed. "If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the king is not being treated as a human being. But the king can do wrong."

Despite this confession, he has not relaxed the lèse-majesté laws in his country. Before 2005, there were on average, five or six such cases per year.

Since 2005, the cases have increased. In 2010, there were 478 cases.


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