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Friday, September 15, 2017

No Shakespeare?



I love counterfactual history questions.

What if Germany had won World War II?

What if we had not gone into space, or not landed on the moon?



And the biggest question regarding Shakespeare, to me, is what if Shakespeare had not existed?

What if he had never been born, or had not survived childhood?

The closer you look at his biography, the more you realize that he could have died very young, or in his youth.

He had siblings who died, and he was born during a time of plague.

There was never a guarantee that he would survive for long, or at all.

I do not believe, had he not existed, that someone else would have done what he did, and create the poetry and plays he did.

When you look at his rival playwrights — Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Robert Greene, and the others — not one of them rises to the level of Shakespeare.

They were all very talented artists, but none of them could capture the imagination of their Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences they way that Shakespeare did.

I think the biggest reason why Shakespeare was so unusually successful, and why his plays have endured, was because Marlowe and the other playwrights were writing for the London elite. 

They did not write for the public, for the people.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was the people’s playwright.

It is often noted that Shakespeare did not attend university, as the others had. The point seems to be that his education was not as good as Christopher Marlowe’s, who went to Cambridge.

I am convinced that Shakespeare’s lack of a university education actually benefited him. It made him far more ambitious than the others, and the life lessons he learned were far more valuable than anything in their lectures at Oxford and Cambridge.

Shakespeare’s success was accidental, it was unexpected. He was off everyone’s radar.

Had he gone to university, his home-spun and folksy wisdom, and his priceless and real-world sense of humor would have been beaten out of him. He would have been expected to conform, to fit it, at university. 

Writing plays for the public, and making them laugh, cry, and close their eyes from the horror — none of that was on a university curriculum.

But Shakespeare was a misfit. That is his brilliance, his charm, his greatness.

His greatest artistic creations are characters who don’t conform, who don’t follow the rules, and who always draw outside of the lines — for better or for worse.

Falstaff is the patron saint of misfits. 

Hamlet should be strong and heroic, decisive and brave. But he just can’t. He can’t live up to what we expect him to be. He just can’t be the Prince he should be.

Cleopatra should be regal, composed, divine, and above mundane human and earthly matters. But Antony shatters all of that. She simply loves him way too much for her to behave like a proper divine ruler should.

Even Macbeth. In the beginning, he seems like a competent vassal lord to King Duncan. Then he becomes consumed with ambition, and it leads him on a path of murder and insanity.

All of the great characters are all too human.

Shakespeare was all too human. He embraced it, rather than run from it.

All of the other playwrights ran from their humanity, and wrote plays that were less inspired than his.

And today, as Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed, and interpreted around the world, the plays of his rivals are relatively forgotten.

Had Shakespeare not existed, it is very likely that theatre in the time of Queen Elizabeth would have suffered terribly. As the other playwrights were dying out, from poverty, from drinking too much, from disease, the theatres would have died out, too.

The Queen enjoyed theatre, but preferred animal baiting matches. 

It is doubtful that she would have allowed theatre to prosper had it not been for the popular appeal and success of Shakespeare — and Shakespeare alone.

By the time that King James succeeded Elizabeth, he might have dissolved the playing companies. He preferred masques anyway, and he arguably would have brought theatre into the royal court — and closed up The Globe and other venues.

But they could not close the theatres, because Shakespeare had already changed the game on them.

Not only were most of Shakespeare’s rivals too busy drinking and partying to bother with making a body of work, none of them organized the theatre into anything resembling an industry. 

Shakespeare, with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, organized themselves as sharers in the profits and responsibilities of running a playing company as a for-profit company — not just as a band of actors who served for the benefit of a royal patron.

They made a business out of it. That successful business created competition — and in short order, a theatre industry was born. As far as I know, that was unprecedented in world history.

Queen Elizabeth tried to put the theatres under control. But it only made them more popular.

By the middle of the 1590s, it is doubtful that she could have closed theatres without sparking a city-wide riot. 

By the time that King James arrived in London, in 1603, it was far too late to shut them all down.

Yes, the theatres were shut from 1642 to 1660. But that can’t be attributed one way or the other to Shakespeare, who died 1616.

But, I would argue that if Shakespeare had not so successfully established, and firmly planted theatre in London, over the course of his almost 25 year long stage career, then the theatres would not have reopened in 1660, or at all.

Once the theatres were re-opened, they began to perform Shakespeare’s plays again. It was as if London, and England for that matter, could not live without him.

It was as if once the light of Shakespeare was lit, it could not be snuffed out.

In the decades and centuries since, I think the world as a whole would have been far worse without him, and England in particular would have been far weaker than it turned out to be.

I think even today, the world would be far darker than it already is.

Why? Because he was one of those unlikely miracles that comes along in history. He shined a light on the world and on men and women, in order to teach us more about ourselves than we knew before.

Shakespeare helped shine a light that helped guide England through some of the darkest times in history — not the least of which was the potential invasion by Germany during World War II. 

Sir Laurence Olivier as King Henry the Fifth was one of the greatest symbols of English pride and defiance in the face of Hitler and Nazi oppression.



We are very fortunate that the light that is Shakespeare is still shining today, and he has become a source of light that illuminates and unifies the whole world. 

There are not enough people or things that truly unite us in our humanity. 

His plays and poetry do.

I like to think that he somehow knew that his work would live on long after his death, and what he was doing would have a global impact — especially since he named his theatre The Globe.

I like to think that he chose that name for the theatre because he could, in his vast and brilliant mind, imagine a future world where people were far more free and happy than the one in which he lived — and that he would play some small, but critical, part in helping it get there.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Shakespeare and 'Rule, Brittania!'


"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."


I came across an article that sheds new light on the origins of the England’s great anthem, "Rule, Brittania!"

You would think that this song had nothing to do with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. 

However, the story of how and why the song was created illuminates what Shakespeare was doing with his plays.

Here's the link to the article that I found -- here.




I love this song, with its defiant, strong and proud love of England.

But I never knew the real origin of the song. I thought it was a very rousing piece of music to inspire Englishmen to love their country.

No, it was much more than that. It was a song of revolt.

It was a declaration to all men, including King George II, that Englishmen would not and should not give up its fight for freedom.

King George II

The historian, Oliver Cox, discovered letters written by people who were the first audience who heard this song performed in 1740.

This first audience understood the song as a political message to the king, and his Prime Minister, who were in the audience.

The song was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales — who was the heir to the throne.

Frederick, Prince of Wales

Frederick was not very close to his father, King George, and did not support his government.

Frederick used the song to express the position that England should take a much stronger stand against the nation's enemies, primarily Spain.  

The song was a "call to arms" and a "rallying cry" — to use the British Royal Navy to project power on the seas.

Frederick wanted the song to share his "vision" of his father as "a new type of King".

The song was part of a masque entitled Alfred, based on Alfred the Great’s battles against the Viking invaders.

Here is the entire song, as it was originally written:

1
When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

2
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

3
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

4
Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

5
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

6
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Here is a great video with the song -- I especially love the crowds singing along:




What is interesting to me about this episode from 1740, is that it so closely resembles the situation, in the 1590s, between Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth.

Essex was one of many people who competed to become Elizabeth's heir, and her government broke into two rival factions.

Just as Prince Frederick also wanted this song to serve his interests as far as inheriting the throne, Essex commissioned Shakespeare to write plays to advance his claim to Elizabeth's throne.

Frederick clearly wanted his father to change and become a new kind of king. If his father would not change, then Frederick would be the change that he believed England needed.

If King George could not become as great as King Alfred, then Frederick would be.

Essex's plays with Shakespeare also offer London's audiences a choice between Elizabeth and Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex


Shakespeare's Henry V play is the clearest parallel to Frederick’s Alfred masque. 

In the 1590s, as England continued to face threat of invasion by Spain, Essex wanted this particular play to offer Elizabeth an opportunity to be a new kind of monarch.

If she did not project power, with her land and naval forces, and properly protect England against Spain, and live up to the image of King Henry V, then Essex would be more than happy to take her place.

Shakespeare's Henry V play was also a call to arms and a rallying cry —  Englishman faced enslavement if Spain did succeed in conquering England.

Essex and Shakespeare, and the men who were members of that faction, had very similar fears, hopes, and dreams as Frederick and the men of his faction who designed this Alfred masque. 

Both factions wanted England to be free, and wanted England to be strong in a way that it was not at the time.

I like to think that Frederick knew who and what Essex, Shakespeare, and that faction were about, in regards to Queen Elizabeth.

I like to think that Frederick drew inspiration from Essex’s and Shakespeare’s example.

I like to think that as long as England exists, there are people like them who will defend it and keep England safe and strong — and who will keep their fellow Englishmen free from those who would enslave them.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer





Saturday, July 8, 2017

Will on TNT Shakespeare TV Series


I just watched the first episode of the new television show Will on TNT, about the young William Shakespeare.

I want to share some of my thoughts about it with you.

This is not a full and detailed review, since I would not have very nice things to say about the show — and my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything.

This show looked very exciting to watch, since the full story of William Shakespeare — how he came to London and how he conquered the stages there — has not been told on TV or in films.

The creator of the show is Craig Pearce, who collaborated with Baz Luhrmann to make Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby, and my personal favorite, Strictly Ballroom — which my father watched and re-watched probably more than any other film he ever saw.

I have always had a great affection for those films, and I even got to meet Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin several times. They are some of the nicest and most generous people in the world.

So I was very excited to see this show. The cast looked great, young and energetic — and they are indeed very talented.

I don’t mind that the show has a contemporary rock soundtrack — I love The Clash’s London Calling. 

I don’t even mind the groundling audience members dressed up like they were at a concert, in the 1980s, for Flock of Seagulls, Boy George, or Adam Ant — with their spiked hair and colorful make-up.

I would have preferred far less nudity, and violence. I think it was gratuitous, unnecessary, and a complete distraction from the story of Shakespeare himself.

I wish I could recommend this TV show, and tell you that you should watch it. Sadly, I can’t. 

The biggest problem with this show, is that it assumes that since we know so little about Shakespeare, then it is free to invent history.

Instead of attempting to develop or discover some truth about Shakespeare, this show just makes stuff up.

If you don’t know anything about Shakespeare, you will not learn anything from this show. 

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s life, or if you know a lot about him, you will probably be as frustrated as I am at how many liberties this show takes with Shakespeare’s life and work.

I encourage you instead to find a good biography of Shakespeare — James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, or Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, or Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age.

You could also read or re-read his plays and poems. Or you could stream, or watch a DVD of, an adaptation of one of his plays. Or watch a production from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, or a production from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Any of those will give you more entertainment and insight into Shakespeare than this show does.

Cheers,




Sunday, April 23, 2017

Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

Today is the 453rd anniversary of his birth.

I want to celebrate today with a new discovery I’ve made.

The Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare
National Portrait Gallery

Did you ever wonder why Shakespeare chose the names Viola and Olivia for his characters in Twelfth Night?

Did you ever notice how the name Viola is an almost perfect rearrangement of the name Olivia?

Is it possible that these names refer to actual people, who lived in Shakespeare’s day?

Let’s look at the characters.

Olivia is a Countess, who is in mourning because her brother died.

Viola is a young woman who is ship is wrecked, and believes her brother may be dead from the same catastrophe.

Instantly we can see that Shakespeare has created characters that mirror each other.

Malvolio with Olivia and Maria
Malvolio and the Countess
engraving by R. Staines based on the
original work by Daniel Mclise

Who is Olivia?

In the context of the play, Olivia is a Countess, and has a court filled with characters, like Maria and Malvolio.

Maria is Olivia’s servant. Shakespeare’s audience, at the Globe theatre circa 1602, would have instantly recognized Maria as the equivalent of a Lady-In-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth.

Malvolio is Olivia’s steward. Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized Malvolio as the highest officer of state, which in Tudor governments was the Lord High Steward.

Therefore, as Shakespeare’s audience watched this play, it would been an almost inescapable conclusion for them to deduce that Olivia was a depiction of Queen Elizabeth I.

There is one more very telling topical allusion in the play, that supports the idea that Olivia is the Queen.

Olivia has recently lost a beloved brother.

The first performance of Twelfth Night on record was 2 February 1602.

This is almost one year after the Queen’s beloved Favourite, the Earl of Essex, had died.

The Queen loved Essex like a son. There were reports of how these last days and months of the Queen’s life (she would die almost a year later in March 1603) were the most somber and most sad of her entire glorious reign.

Did Shakespeare write this play to reflect the events of his time, and to discuss what was going on inside the court of Queen Elizabeth?

It is almost impossible to believe that his purpose was anything other than that.

If Shakespeare was not trying to reflect the events of the time, and was not trying to depict the royal court of Elizabeth, then he did a terrible job of it. 

While this may not seem like definitive proof, this evidence is well beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, if we proceed with the understanding that Olivia represents Queen Elizabeth, who does Viola represent?

Is it possible that Viola represents another real historical figure from the Elizabethan age?

There is in fact a real historical person who was lost, on a voyage to another distant land.

Her name is Virginia Dare.

Baptism of Virginia Dare
by William A. Crafts 1876

Virginia Dare was born in the New World, in 1587, not long after she arrived there by ship.

Her parents had just traveled there to establish a new English settlement.

Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World colony of Virginia.

This Virginia Colony was named after Queen Elizabeth, the so-called “Virgin Queen”.

So, in effect, Virginia Dare is also named for the Queen.

The fate of Virginia Dare is not known. In 1590, a ship was sent to resupply the settlers, but they had disappeared. Why they vanished remains unknown.

While the baby Virginia Dare and the other settlers were not technically ship-wrecked, it would not be too much to say that their disappearance was comparable to a voyage lost.

Shakespeare featured shipwrecks in several of his plays, perhaps most famously in The Tempest.

It is well known that one of Shakespeare’s influences in writing The Tempest was a real 1609 shipwreck in the Bermudas, in the New World.

With this play, about the shipwrecked Viola, I think it is entirely possible that Shakespeare was alluding to the loss of Virginia Dare and the other settlers from 1587.

Finally, the name Vi-rginia is eerily similar to Vi-ola.

Therefore, was Shakespeare drawing a connection between Olivia and Queen Elizabeth and Viola and Virginia?

If he was not, if he had no intention of creating these associations, then he did a very poor job.

I think that Shakespeare was far too good a writer, and far too shrewd a chronicler of his times, to make such associations by accident.

What does this mean? What if anything was Shakespeare saying with Viola and Olivia and Virginia? What was the point he was making to Queen Elizabeth?

I will answer these questions, and explore all of this, in my forthcoming series of novels, which tells the story of Shakespeare’s entire life, and all of his works.

I hope you stay tuned, and come back to this blog for more news and developments about these novels.

Finally, I hope you take a moment today to celebrate the life and work of William Shakespeare!

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Monday, April 3, 2017

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Antony and Cleopatra


I just saw a production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory — and I highly recommend it!

What made this production so special is that it was performed in OP (Original Pronunciation) — all of the actors spoke with the original accent that Shakespeare and his fellow actors would have spoken.

Here is a link to buy your tickets:





This is the first time in 400 years that this play has been performed in the accent that Shakespeare spoke!

That should be enough for you to drop everything, and go see this production right away.

If you love Shakespeare, you must see this production.

Even if you have seen Antony and Cleopatra 100 times before, you have never seen a production like this.

The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is becoming the world’s pre-eminent company as far as OP is concerned. They started with Merchant of Venice in OP two years ago, and they did The Winter’s Tale in OP last year. And they are just getting started, and plan to do at least one play in OP each year.

What is so special about OP? I would say that it brings the words to life like nothing I have ever seen/heard before, with Shakespeare. And even the least poetic of his lines have a charm and warmth to them that otherwise is lost when spoken with another accent.

I will admit that Shakespeare in OP is sometimes a little more of a challenge for me to hear, and understand what is being said. But that is also what is so fascinating, when you watch/hear an OP Shakespeare play, you really begin to focus on the language in a different way. It exercises different muscles, as it were, in your brain.

The OP is also something of a challenge for the actors. Not all of them are as well-practiced as others, and there are varying degrees of skill with this dialogue in OP. But even if you don’t understand every last word of every last line, you still get the gist of what is said, and I was never lost in the play.

The main roles are performed by the most experienced OP actors — this is Valerie Dowdle’s third OP performance. She is as remarkable as Cleopatra as she was as Portia two years ago, and as Hermione last year.

Valerie Dowdle as Cleopatra
(photographs by Will Kirk)

She clearly loves OP and has a lot of fun with the role of Cleopatra. She really gets the different facets of the character — her campiness, her silliness, her histrionics. And by the end of the play, her death is all the more moving. 

Chris Cotterman as Antony

 Chris Cotterman is a great Antony. He is another veteran OP performer — I saw him last year as Leontes, and as Bassanio two years ago. He is a solid leading man, and does an excellent job as Antony, one of the most powerful men in history, who is undone for his love of Cleopatra.

I especially liked how he showed a truly emotional side to Antony, which otherwise could be lost in less capable hands.

The founding Artistic Director of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, and the director of this production is Tom Delise. He deserves so much credit for staking a claim as the one and only company in the world to consistently explore and re-discover Shakespeare through OP.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays, even without OP. I applaud Mr. Delise and his brave company for taking this challenge head on.

If you are anywhere Baltimore, I hope you make time to see this incredible production.

Cheers,


David B. Schajer


Friday, March 31, 2017

Shakespeare Solved 5th Anniversary!


Thank you for a wonderful 5 YEARS!

Thanks to all of you, this blog is now 5 years old.

Without you, and without your interest in this blog, I might have stopped writing this a long time ago.

I am thrilled to say that I have many more years worth of material to share with you — with newer and even bigger discoveries!

When I first started this blog, I thought it would only appeal to a small number of people.

But very quickly this became the #1 Shakespeare blog in the world!

This blog has more Internet traffic, more page views, and a larger social media community than any other blog about Shakespeare.

This is the #1 Shakespeare blog in the world — and it’s because of you!

Shakespeare Solved is also getting more popular than ever — more and more people are joining this community each and every day, and traffic to this blog is growing.



I have some VERY EXCITING NEWS to share with you.

After more research, I have discovered new solutions to Shakespeare’s life and plays.

So, I have decided to publish a SERIES OF NOVELS!

These novels will take us back in time — to walk in Shakespeare’s shoes, and see Shakespeare’s world through his eyes.

This series of novels won’t just be the story about a few weeks of his life, or months or years.

No, these novels will tell the whole story of his whole life!

Yes, you will be able to read about how Shakespeare came to London, how he met the most famous and powerful women and men of the age, and how he wrote the greatest plays in history.

Also, you will be able to learn the full truth about his relationships with Queen Elizabeth I and King James.

This series of novels goes through his entire career, with new and exciting insights into each and every play. 

For the first time in history, you will be able to learn why he wrote the plays and what they really mean.

I will be writing more about this very soon. I hope you keep following Shakespeare Solved for more updates about these new novels.

Thank You!

Cheers,




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