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

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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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

I just saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet last night.

It’s the best Hamlet I've ever seen. You simply can not miss this production.

The play is being shown through National Theatre’s NTLive — you can find a showing here:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would like to share some of my thoughts with you about this fantastic production.

I didn’t know what to expect. I made an effort not to read any reviews beforehand, and I tried very hard not to read any of the press about the production. 

I did not want to spoil the effect of watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

And what an effect it is. He is superb.

It is easily the greatest performance of his career.

I have enjoyed seeing his performances on TV, and in film, but this is the richest, fullest and most thorough demonstration of his talent I have ever seen.

I knew he can deliver complicated dialogue, and quickly. What I didn’t know is that he can reduce Shakespeare’s often challenging and convoluted dialogue into very relatable and coherent thoughts. Just by his delivery, verbally and through body language, he translates Shakespeare’s poetry. Watching him speak as if these thoughts were occuring to him in real-time, and not memorized beforehand, is an unexpected and thrilling surprise.

What suprised me the most about his performance was how out of control he seemed to get, how his emotions occasionally rose to the surface, broke free and escaped his command of the role. 

During those moments, the character of Hamlet, the soul of the character which Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago, spoke through Mr. Cumberbatch — as if he summoned a spirit and it came alive within him.

William Shakespeare himself, in the guise of Prospero, spoke of his “potent art” and “rough magic” and how he has commanded graves to open and awake “their sleepers.”

Well, I think that Benedict Cumberbatch woke up the spirit of Hamlet through his rough magic and potent art as an actor.

Over and over again during this production, his emotions became stronger and more authentically real than I have ever seen in any of his prior roles. It was like watching an entirely new actor.

When he confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s grave and asks “Dost thou come here to whine, To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her?—and so will I.” he gets himself in such a frenzied emotional state that it was hard to watch. It was almost too painful to witness.

And yet, he gives a riveting performance, that is the most fearless, the most in control (but always seemingly about to spin out of control) and most mature than any I have seen before from him.

It is hard to describe the absolute pleasure it is to watch him in this role.

I can’t wait to see him as Richard III in the upcoming Hollow Crown series, and I hope that he returns to Shakespeare as often as possible — especially for the stage. 

I fully expect that he will become known as much for his Shakespeare work as he will for anything else he does in his career.

What makes this production an even greater delight is the incredible cast.

Ciarán Hinds as Claudius

I was thrilled when I heard that Ciarán Hinds would play Claudius. He is a great actor, and he does not disappoint here. In fact, this is definitely a highlight of his career. 

He is a very formidable foe for Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and perhaps my favorite moment is when Hamlet catches the conscience of the king — the look on Mr. Hinds’s face is priceless — like the color has gone out of his face.

Also, I love when Mr. Hinds lets loose and grows angry and loud. He has such a commanding presence, larger than life, that I want to see and hear him not just as a usurping murderer, but as a grand tyrant.

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude
in the bedroom scene
Anastasia Hille is wonderful as Gertrude. It is one of the most demanding stage roles, because so much of it depends on the bedroom scene. In that scene, the queen, while innocent of the plot to kill her husband, is unmasked and shamed into reclaiming her virtue. 

So, for me, the point of the scene is to see her at arguably the lowest moment in her entire life — and how she comes out of it alive. Hamlet does not kill her, but he does murder her vanity.

In that scene, I was astonished at how emotional Ms. Hille became, how she abandoned all vanity. It is a real tour de force, and I have never seen it done with such power. 

Sian Brooke as Ophelia

Sian Brooke is marvelous as Ophelia. I admired how she showed Ophelia as a rather fragile creature even from the very beginning — as a young woman who is bossed around by her father, and whose brother eclipses her.

Too often, I think Ophelia is played as bright and strong, only to fall apart, and die. Here, I think Ms. Brooke did it right, by showing that Ophelia’s weakness is always there. Her Ophelia is good and decent, but succumbs to too much manipulation. She is collateral damage in the war waged between Hamlet and Claudius.

I have to admit that it was also sometimes too painful to watch her, her brave depiction of this fragile flower of a girl crushed underfoot is too heart-breaking to look at. 

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes is refreshingly fragile as well. He is no two-dimensional opponent for Hamlet, but rather like a brother whom Claudius has turned away from reason and love for Hamlet. There should be no pleasure taken in seeing them duel at the end, and gratefully this production doesn’t glorify this fatal fencing match.

Jim Norton is perfect as the patron saint of bureaucratic villainy, Polonius. What I admired the most about his portrayal of Polonius is that he is often funny but never thinks himself as humourous. He plays Polonius very straight, which makes him even more real and human — which makes him even more frightening a figure.

Nothing amuses him, nothing makes him happy, nothing shocks him. He is all business — even when it includes plotting against Hamlet.

The rest of the cast is just great — each is cast with care and each gets their moment to shine, and put their mark on their role.

Much of that credit goes to Lyndsey Turner, the director.

She has done an extraordinary job of assembling such talent, creating such a vivid and intriguing world in which they perform, and allowing them to perform to such heights.

She also finds most all of the humour in the play, which makes this a rare Hamlet where you laugh quite a lot.

The setting is modern-ish, with elements which evoke different periods in history. Perhaps the most intriguing is the toy soldier motif, which creates an interesting comment on a Denmark which is threatened with war.

The set itself is designed by Es Devlin, most famous perhaps for her having designed the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony. It is monumental and very cold. It is not a happy or pretty world, and you can begin to appreciate the joyless childhood Hamlet and Ophelia would have suffered there. 

The set evolves over the course of the play, and I don’t want to give too much away, but instead of going outside to see the grave where Ophelia is buried, the graveyard becomes the interior of Elsinore.

I always prefer to see Shakespeare in period, not in modern settings or modern dress — but I have to say that almost instantly I didn’t care anymore. I was focused on the performances more than anything, and as long as they were compelling and excellent, I was too busy to notice much else.

I loved the music by Jon Hopkins. My biggest complaint was that there was not enough of it. I wanted to hear more.

So, please do yourself a favor and see this Hamlet. With any luck, a DVD/Blu-ray will be made, but in the meantime you can find it through NTLive.


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Monday, December 14, 2015

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth

I just saw the new Macbeth film, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

It’s a good film, and you should definitely see it.

When I first heard about the film over a year ago, I was excited because I’m a big fan of both Fassbender and Cotillard. I really thought that they were very well cast as the Macbeths.

I was a bit disappointed by the lack of scale and special effects to make this Macbeth larger than life. The scenery is great, but the sets are rather simple, the music is very subdued, and there is hardly any special effects.

 But it was clearly the director’s choice to dispense with too much pomp and pagentry, cut to the chase, and get right to the performances.

And the performances are superb. Why do you need special effects and big sets and casts of thousands when you can get great performances from the two leads, and focus the camera on their faces and leave it there?

I was thrilled at the moments when the camera just held on Ms. Cotillard’s and Mr. Fassbender’s face as they spoke. Sometimes the best special effects are the faces of great actors. And their voices are very compelling, and it is exciting to hear them speak Shakespeare’s words.

It is not every actor who can play such demanding roles while the camera is so close to their face.

Michael Fassbender makes such unusual choices in his career, everything from (the young) Magneto in the X-Men films, to Shame, 12 Years a Slave and so forth. He is immensely charismatic, and seems to love to challenge himself with each role he chooses.

I was thrilled to see him do Shakespeare, and he is perfect as Macbeth. 

His Macbeth is no thug, no brute, and is actually very likeable in the beginning. He is sympathetic at first. He makes Macbeth’s descent into madness and murder chilling and very human. I was pleased that he never made Macbeth seem like a monster — only a man who has an ambition which “o’erleaps itself.”

I really hope that he catches the Shakespeare bug and continues to do more, especially for the stage.

Ms. Cotillard is an inspired choice for Lady Macbeth. She is that rare  actress who can play just about any role. 

Her Lady Macbeth is very cold and calculating, and it is clear that she is in command of their relationship. Her chemistry with Mr. Fassbender is strong, and the scenes with both of them together are great. Her descent into madness is very moving, and more emotional than I am used to seeing it.

I hope that she also continues to do Shakespeare, now that she has done this film.

If there was one thing about their performances which I find fault with, it is that sometimes the fact that all of the dialogue is spoken too softly, and sometimes there is too much restraint in the filmmaking.

The entire film has a hushed quality that, rather than making it dramatic and suspenseful, just sounded like the film’s volume was turned too low.

The rest of the cast is great — they look perfect for this period, and they are all compelling in their own way.

I especially liked Sean Harris as Macduff. He gets one of the best scenes in the film, upon hearing that his wife and children have been murdered, and his moment of heartbreak is very moving.

The director, Justin Kurzel, does an impressive job with the period, and the actors. I was very pleased that the film was not as blood-soaked and gory as I expected it to be. Of course, there are several murders on screen, but I appreciated the restraint.

Mr. Kurzel weaves some rather interesting creative choices into Shakespeare’s play — how he depicts the Weird Sisters, and how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, for example. I thought the Weird Sisters were good, but not as frightening as they should be. 

The climax, how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, is a very inspired choice. It suprised me, and was very well done.

But more than anything else, he makes an excellent choice to simplify the story and focus on the two great actors in the lead roles. 

I encourage you to go see this film. 

Even if you have seen the play, or read it before, there is much here that will entertain you. 

If you have never seen it before, or have not read it, this film is a good introduction — but you should still read the play. The words themselves have a “rough magic” which everyone should discover for themselves.


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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Shakespeare & Hamlet's Sea of Troubles

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

What does Hamlet's "sea of troubles" mean?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Earlier in the play, in Act 1 Scene 4, Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost, since the Ghost might make Hamlet go crazy, and lead him over the cliff to drown in the sea:

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?

But Horatio doesn't stop there. He also says:

think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.

He is saying that the sea itself makes people desperate, and perhaps suicidal, when they look at the large sea, and they hear the roar of the waves.

So, right away, in the very first act, Shakespeare is introducing the idea that Hamlet might go mad, and be tempted to commit suicide.

And Shakespeare is connecting that idea to the image of the sea.

Later, Shakespeare reinforces this idea in the "To be, or not to be" speech, with the "sea of troubles" -- which appears in Act 3 Scene 1.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

In Act 5 Scene 7, we learn that Ophelia has drowned. It is unclear if she committed suicide or not. It is possible that it was an accidental death. What is clear from Act 5 Scene 5 is that Ophelia had gone mad.

What is also clear is that Shakespeare is establishing a link between suicide, death by drowning and madness.


Perhaps the answer lies in the very next scene, Act 5 Scene 1, with the gravediggers.

They debate whether Ophelia should have a Christian burial, since she committed suicide. 

The First Gravedigger makes a case that if a man goes into the water, he has committed suicide.

But if the water comes to him and drowns him, then he did not commit suicide.

Here is a brief video of the scene, with Mark Hadfield as the First Gravedigger:

Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes,--mark you that; but if the water come to him
and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

It would seem that Shakespeare is familiar with the law as it regards suicide -- or as it was known as "felo de se" -- "felon of himself."

If a person committed suicide, they were committing a crime against themselves.

Shakespeare's First Gravedigger is making an odd argument that a man could be the victim of the water itself -- coming to him!

As is often the case, Shakespeare's fools and clowns speak some kind of fundamental truth -- they have a message.

So what is the message here?

Was Ophelia a felon to herself? Or was she the victim of a crime? And if she is the victim, who are the criminals?

In her case, there is no one criminal. It would seem that there were many people, including Hamlet, who are guilty for driving her to madness and death.

Hamlet decides not to commit suicide during his "To be, or not to be" speech. But he does die by the end of the play. 

Hamlet's final duel

Was Hamlet's death self-inflicted, was he a felon to himself? Or was he the victim of a crime?

It is clear that there are many who conspire against Hamlet during the course of the play: Claudius, Laertes, Osric, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius. Even his own mother!

All of these conspirators were like a "sea of troubles" which came to him and drowned him.

It is clear that Hamlet is the victim of a crime.

And Hamlet was never mad, he pretended to be mad.

What I find fascinating about this conclusion is that it is not the same conclusion historians have drawn for the man who inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

The man for whom Shakespeare primarily wrote Hamlet was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Essex was Queen Elizabeth's "favourite" at court, and he suffered many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, until he led a rebellion against the Queen's Court and was executed for treason.

Historians would have you believe that Essex was guilty of the crime, and that he was figuratively a felon to himself. It was all his fault. 

And historians would have you believe that if Essex was not mad, he was at least so emotionally unstable that it helped to destroy him.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet for many reasons, not the least of which was to serve as a record of who Essex really was, and what really happened to him.

It would have been impossible for Shakespeare to write a play entitled "The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex" in which the real true story of his downfall and execution was depicted.

So Shakespeare wrote Hamlet instead.

And just as Shakespeare's Hamlet character is not a felon to himself, only pretended to be mad, and was ultimately murdered by many conspirators -- so too we should consider that Essex took up arms against a sea of troubles.

But the sea came to him and drowned him first.

I invite you to read more about Shakespeare, Essex and Hamlet here on my blog and in my version of the Hamlet play -- to learn the true story behind these men and events.


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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Shakespeare The First Poet Laureate

I apologize for my long absence from this blog. I have been working on a new project for Shakespeare Solved, and I hope to share some exciting news with you about it in the near future.

So, as an apology for my absence, I want to share with you one of my favorite theories about Shakespeare:

Shakespeare was England's first Poet Laureate.

Was Shakespeare England's first Poet Laureate?

History books tell us that King James created the position of Poet Laureate for Ben Jonson in 1616. Ben Jonson is considered England's first Poet Laureate.

I do not mean to insult the memory of Ben Jonson, but he was not the first Poet Laureate. Shakespeare was.

Or was Ben Jonson?

Let's look at the history behind all of this.

Gulielmus Peregrinus was a "Versificator Regis" -- a "King's Poet" -- to both King Richard the Lionheart and King John. He was known as William the Pilgrim and he was active in the years of 1190 to 1207.

Richard I anointed at Westminster Abbey

Over the centuries there would be other men who were called "Versificator Regis" or even "Poet Laureate." 

Geoffrey Chaucer served both King Edward III and Richard II in various court offices. Edward III made Chaucer a Poet Laureate. To reward Chaucer for his writing, he was given a gallon of wine every day for as long as he lived.

Geoffrey Chaucer as a Pilgrim

During Shakespeare's career as a playwright, both Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel were acknowledged as Poets Laureate.

Shortly after King James and Queen Anne arrived from Scotland in 1603, Samuel Daniel was made Master of the Queen's Revels and later the Queen made him a Groom of her Chamber.

Samuel Daniel

But even more importantly, King James made Shakespeare a Groom of the King's Chamber. Also, Shakespeare and his fellow actors became The King's Men -- the royal official playing company for the King. 

There was simply no greater honor King James could bestow upon Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the undisputed champion of the theatre.

But what if he had also made Shakespeare his Poet Laureate?

It is my argument that Shakespeare was England's first de facto Poet Laureate, whether King James created the position for him or not.

King James, ca. 1606

King James's reign was from 1603 to 1625. But from 1603 to 1616 (when Shakespeare died), there was no more popular playwright and poet than Shakespeare.

To be sure, Ben Jonson was a popular playwright, but was often in trouble with the law and the King's Court. 

Shakespeare was a much more productive playwright than Jonson, who wrote 7 or 8 plays in this period. Shakespeare wrote perhaps 13 plays, including some of his greatest masterpieces like King Lear and Macbeth.

However, Jonson did create a great number of masques, which were grand spectacles and were undoubtedly very popular. But honestly, who reads them or performs them today?

Shakespeare did not write masques, and this is perhaps part of the reason why we do not remember him as England's first Poet Laureate.

But what is most mysterious is 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died.

In February 1616, while Shakespeare is on his deathbed, King James gave Ben Jonson a pension of 100 marks, or about £60, and he made him the first official English Poet Laureate.

In March, the well-known playwright Francis Beaumont died. He was honored with a grave at Westminster Abbey. 

Francis Beaumont

Shakespeare died in April. There were hardly any tributes written to mourn his passing at the time. It was as if he was already forgotten, as if he didn't matter.

In November, Jonson published a First Folio collection of his own works.

In 1623, Shakespeare's First Folio collection of plays was published by his great friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell. 

Shakespeare's First Folio, 1623

There were hardly any tributes to Shakespeare in this Folio. Ben Jonson did write a eulogy, but I consider it back-handed.

Jonson writes:

I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room :
Thou art a monument without a tomb

Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser and Francis Beaumont were all buried in Westminster Abbey, as Jonson himself would be. To say that Shakespeare does not belong with them is not only plain wrong, but is in very poor taste.

There is also the possibility that there was a debate whether to move Shakespeare's remains from Stratford to Westminster Abbey. This eulogy may have been Jonson's vote against it. You can read more -- here.

Shakespeare did get a monument in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner -- in 1740!

Poets' Corner, with Shakespeare's 1740 monument in the center

In the eulogy, Jonson also writes that Shakespeare's education was not very impressive, that Shakespeare "hadst small Latin and less Greek." It would seem that whatever rivalry there was between these two playwrights, Jonson was still nursing a grudge 7 years after Shakespeare died.

Jonson's eulogy was also long overdue. Why didn't he write one in 1616, after Shakespeare died?

Also, in 1616, King James himself published a Folio collection of his own writings. It is strange that the King did not publish a Folio collection to remember Shakespeare, his own King's Man in 1616. Apparently, it was not a consideration.

I find it rather odd that Shakespeare -- the King's Man, and Groom of the King's Chamber, and the most important playwright and poet of the last quarter century -- died without any royal or literary honors.

Shakespeare's Stratford Grave

When Ben Jonson died, he was buried at Westminster Abbey. Shakespeare was buried in a rather humble grave in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The absence of honors for Shakespeare, or a grave at Westminster Abbey, are real mysteries. If it was not meant as an insult to Shakespeare's memory, then what was the meaning?

The fact that King James created the position of Poet Laureate for Ben Jonson is also mysterious. Did King James all of a sudden get the idea in February 1616? 

No, it is very reasonable to think that the position had been filled, and it was filled by Shakespeare for perhaps as long back as 1603, when King James become King of England and Scotland.

If Shakespeare was in fact the first English Poet Laureate -- the "Versificator Regis" or "King's Poet" -- and that fact has been lost or erased from memory and history, then what does that say about the relationship he had with King James?

That is a question I am exploring with my writing, and I am very eager to share more of these questions, discoveries and theories with you in the future.

There is much more to this story, and much more proof that King James celebrated Shakespeare early on in their relationship, only to have that relationship sour and turn very ugly towards the end.


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