Hamlet in High Park

This past week I went to see Canadian Stage’s Production of Hamlet presented as part of their ‘Shakespeare in High Park’ season. This season they are performing Hamlet and All’s well that Ends Well. So today, all you wonderful people get a review of the performance courtesy of yours truly. I feel the need to preface, first, that I believe that any performance of Shakespeare is a worthy cause; and that I think there’s always something to be learned from public performance. So if you were hoping I was going to tear something apart, I apologize.

 

First off, I’d like to congratulate the actors in the show on making some bold choices. Hamlet is a big beast to tackle, and one with a long legacy of legendary actors; so coming at it as a performer can be downright scary. The actors in the show made strong character choices, confident moves and sure moments of audience inclusion. I really enjoyed watching them play with Hamlet in Hamlet.

 

I also really loved the set. It’s hard to describe but it’s beautiful. It had a modern feel without feeling out of place. A lovely cross between IKEA, modern art, and a library full of books. (I am clearly not build for set description). It was well-lit, expansive and well suited to encompass all the action. It was a great Denmark, a fine graveyard, and some lovely countryside. I can’t wait to see how the set is used for the other play.

 

The director made some wonderful choices and the crew worked together seamlessly. It’s a difficult show to direct for the same reason it’s a difficult show to act – so many greats have done it before. You don’t want to copy anyone, but you also want to put on a great show. I thought the artistic choices in the show were made confidently and worked well. The actors’ interaction with the set was realistic and compelling. The lighting and sound worked together with the action smoothly, and the set and scene changes ran very well. It was, technically, a very good show.

 

Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the hill watching Hamlet in High Park. It’s a great show and I recommend a viewing. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of a live audience and even more fun when you’re encouraged to bring a picnic.

The Weird Sisters

Last week I read Eleanor Brown’s “The Weird Sisters”. And this week you lovelies get a review. Let me start off with two things. The first is that I have a sister; two in fact. So I came at this book already full to the brim with sibling woes. The second is that the tagline of the book “We love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.” is remarkably astute. It’s lovely book that chronicles the pitfalls and promontories that happen when three adult sisters come home to take care of their mother during her battle with cancer. Throw in a Shakespeare-quoting professor for a father and plenty of secrets apiece and you have a wonderful little thrill-ride of a book.

As someone with siblings, I am always a little wary when a book purports to contain sibling relations. As a Shakespeare-lover I am likewise cautious of any book that professes allegiance to the bard. Let me tell you, my timidity was pleasantly overcome. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. To keep in the spirit of three sisters, I’ll give you three sister-reasons why I am so fond of it.

The first sister-reason is the sisters. It was so wonderfully to see an accurate portrayal of three female siblings not liking each other. I love my siblings. I do not always like my siblings. Sometimes it feels like artifice when siblings in media get along so often. While I’m sure there are real sets of siblings like that out there; I have never seen them. And it’s reassuring to see interactions similar to our own on the page.

The second sister-reason (maybe a little predictably) is the way the book treats Shakespeare. The father of the three adult sisters in the book is a Shakespeare professor who converses mainly in Shakespeare quotes. Which is really neat until you want to know exactly what he’s saying – a phenomonen all three sisters grapples with at least once. But growing up with such a father, all three sisters quote from the bard copiously throughout the book in their own unique way. It’s a fantastic injection of Shakespeare into both everyday life and family emergencies.

The third sister-reason is the writing. Eleanor Brown weaves three separate stories around each other like braiding until you have one solidified piece of literature. She moves between story and dialogue as easy as reaching for the butter at a dinner table; and makes you relish every move. Her dialogue between family is heartfelt and meaningful; her stories come together with the characters so well I forgot they weren’t real. She brought the world of a university town to life and lifted character breathing from the pages. Talent, she certainly has.

If I had to give it an out-of-ten rating, I’d give it a ten. It was a joy to read and a lovely experience to share. I highly recommend “The Weird Sisters” for all who are weird, have sisters, or just love Shakespeare. You’ll feel like a weird sister yourself before you’ve finished the book.

Three Good Reasons

As promised, today we’ll be discussing some of the possible meanings the number three had to Shakespeare. In an effort to understand the bard’s apparent fascination with the number, I turned to some historical resources to see what the Elizabethans thought of the number three. And just to keep in the spirit of things, I’m going to discuss three possible preoccupations Shakespeare could have had with the number three. Get your counting hats on, ladies and gentlemen, here we go.

 

The first reason Shakespeare could have been drawn to the use of the number three is its’ obvious ties to the church. The Holy Trinity has been an ecclesiastical symbol for a long time and, in Shakespeare’s day of strict religion; it would have been a very powerful one. Literally. Invoking three’s meant you were invoking a number that represented power – religious, and balanced. So Shakespeare’s witches become more powerful when there’s three of them. And his lovers from Love’s Labour’s Lost make a stronger point as a trio, because they are representing something more powerful still – the holy trinity.

 

The second reason Shakespeare may have doles out threes in excess is that we remember them. It is said it takes three repetitions of something to remember it; though before this saying was popular people still knew repetition was the key to remembering. Shakespeare’s Will the schoolboy in The Merry Wives of Windsor is repeating his Latin in one of the scenes. So maybe old Will is trying to make sure we remember all those things he put in threes. The witches are certainly important later on in Macbeth, as are the three friends in Hamlet, and the lovers in As You Like It. They come back to us – they are not only worth remembering but integral to the plot – necessary to remember.

 

The third one is superstition. Even if we go so far as to assume Shakespeare was above its’ lure; he would have certainly been aware his audience wasn’t. People in Elizabethan England believed that the events happening to higher powers on earth reflected what was happening above it. “On earth as it is in heaven” as it were. Shakespeare’s trinities are therefore not just echoing the holy one, but also the superstitions surrounding the unholy ones as well. The witches in Macbeth, the murderous friends in Hamlet, the three caskets in The merchant of Venice; all reflect this superstition that the good from above is either echoed or inverted below. And this adds to the mystery and magic of the plays; it brings the element of suspense into the stage drama – will all be righted? The trinity restored? Will superstitions prove true? The suspense to a crowd of superstitious Elizabethans would have been irresistible.

 

So, batting three for three, we’ll finish here. I won’t prolong the joke unnecessarily by adding on a third article on threes (though it is tempting). Instead I’ll close with this; try noticing how many groups of threes you yourself assemble in a given day – why do you do it? And remember:

“Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.
Thrice and once the hedgepig whined.
Harpier cries “’Tis time, ‘tis time.”

 

 

 

 

Three’s Company

 

I’m in the process of reading ‘The Weird Sisters’ by Eleanor Brown; and, while the review will come along in the next weeks, it’s got me thinking about threes. I’ll do a quick sidebar here and say that I recommend the book wholeheartedly to anyone who likes quoting Shakespeare, has a sibling, or who enjoys witty banter. I’ve loved reading it so far and can’t wait to see how it ends. But back to the power of three.

 

I’ll start off with the obvious. The Holy Trinity, the primary colours, the three musketeers, triangles, and pyramids. But there are some not-so-obvious ones, too: the rule of thirds, Celtic knots, the three bells, the three-inch hem rule. There’s a lot to say for each, and Shakespeare gets in on the action. His plays are filled with groups of threes; all balanced, exciting and ever-mysterious.

 

In Macbeth; we have the three weird sisters, their three prophesies, and Macbeth’s three (major) crimes to ascend the throne. In Much Ado About Nothing; we have the three bachelors, the three courted ladies, and the three deceptions. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, we have the ladies and lords trifecta again. In Hamlet we have the three murder attempts, the three royal men, and the three friends. I could go on, but I’m sure you can connect the dots. Shakespeare jumped on the three bandwagon like a cat on a mouse.

 

But why? Why all the threes? Would not two or four have been equally balanced? Wouldn’t they be just as dramatic? William Shakespeare purposely chose to use groups of threes in his plays. But why? Were three’s symbolic in Shakespeare’s time? Was it religious motivation, patron preferences, or a balance? The truth is, we may never know all of the reasons Shakespeare gives us helpings in threes. However; we can certainly speculate on some of the reasons. Check out this coming Thursday’s article for reasons of three.

 

 

 

 

Reading Shakespeare Part III: A World of Pure Imagination

Did you ever play dress-up or pretend as a kid? Do you remember those magical days of slaying dragons and gallivanting around with your sidekick? It was loads of fun living in imaginary world as a child. And it’s a lot of fun visiting one as an adult. Think about the last time you went to see a play, or entertained a silly ‘what if?’ joke with a group of friends. You, my friends, have been on a recent trip to imagination land. The fun of visiting the imagination station is part of the lure of reading Shakespeare aloud.

 

We all have moments when we long for the care-free days of playing pretend. And we all want an escape from our day to day every now and again. Shakespeare’s plays allow us to do just that. Reading them aloud especially so, as then we are participating in the action. When we read, we get drawn into the story and the action-and out of ourselves. Reading aloud adds to this because it produces a kind of ‘reader’s theatre’ effect. We are invited to really engage with what we’re reading by enlisting our voice, posture, movement. In other words, we are being invited to play pretend.

 

And we all know how much fun it is to play pretend. We all love to be king for a day, to take the part of a villain for a change, or to make people laugh by playing the fool. We love to step into the imaginary worlds of Shakespeare’s plays and add our own voice as a part of the action. It’s a little magical time of gallivanting around and playing pretend; and it’s even more fun than it was when you were a kid.

 

 

 

 

Reading Shakespeare Part II: Spurring Speeches

One of the most fun parts about reading Shakespeare aloud has to be the speeches; those moving, heroic numbers that inspire us and leave chills in the spine. But how exactly are Shakespeare’s speeches so motivating? Why is it that every time we hear the Saint Crispin’s Day speech we too find ourselves read to take up arms with King Harry? I’ve found out two surprising reasons why Shakespeare’s speeches are so motivational and captivating: they lie in sports psychology and instagram. No, seriously.

There’s a very interesting psychologist by the name of Dr. Jonathan Fader who wrote the book “Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life”. His premise is “to enhance motivation, set productive goals, sharpen routines, manage stress, and clarify thought processes” with the aim “to approach it [life] with the same immediacy, wonder, and engagement that athletes feel at their peak during a game”.  When you think about it, Shakespeare’s battle speeches do those things too, and war could be viewed as an (extremely brutal and competitive) sport. So the leap isn’t too far. Let’s take good old King Harry for an example, and apply some sports psychology to the Saint Crispin’s day speech. King Harry is using this speech to rally his men before what looks like it’s going to be an ugly defeat at the hands of the French; he’s trying to enhance the motivation of his troops to fight (“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me. Shall be my brother”), set a productive goal (not being defeated), sharpen the routine (make sure his men are fighting with their all), manage stress, and clarify the thought processes of his men (“He that outlives this day and comes safe home”). He wants his troops fighting at the top of their skill in order to beat the French – in other words, he wants his team in peak performance in order to win. Rather sporting, isn’t it? So perhaps that’s why we find ourselves nodding along with the battle monologues of the heroes in Shakespeare’s plays; maybe the psychology of it (what’s called the ‘coaching factor’) works on us through the written word.

Now, for the instagram bit. I bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you? Nope. There are a number of reasons why motivational texts affect our attitudes; but we do know for sure that we like them: instagram is full of motivational quotes plastered over every image under the sun. And we’ve definitely established that Shakespeare’s speeches are motivational. But why exactly do we feel so drawn to and encouraged by these phrases?

There are a few theories. The first one is The Coaching Factor. Doctor Fader explains it as such: “There’s a little bit of implicit coaching that’s happening when you’re reading it. It’s building that self-efficacy in that kind of dialogue that you’re having with yourself,”. You are, in a sense, being coached by the text you’re reading. Try looking to Shakespeare next time you need a pep talk.

Another is the way something is phrased. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Was said many times before JFK coined the phrase, but it is his phrasing that we remember. It’s catchy, readily memorable, and easy to understand. So are a lot of turns from Shakespeare (“Once more unto the breach” anyone?).

There are some biologists that believe motivational texts work on a primal basis as well. The theory is that leaders and their words affect us on a primal level because we are aspirational by nature and want to follow role models. It does make sense when we think of how many times we’re ready to take up swords and follow Shakespeare’s kings into battle. And battle itself is certainly a primal thing.

We have a lot of reasons why Shakespeare’s speeches affect us to profoundly. They’re motivational, touch us on a primal level, they coach us in language we can grab on to and use. They’re a lot of fun to read, too. I have one more theory to add here of my own: they let us be king for a day, or a monologue. And that’s always fun.

Reading Shakespeare Part I: From the Heart

On Saturday June 18th, the Beaches branch of the Toronto Public Library is hosting their monthly Shakespeare Readers. This prompted me to start thinking about our fascination with reading Shakespeare. Why is it we love reading the bard so much? What is it about his works that makes us enjoy hearing them aloud? There are many reasons. So I’ll be exploring them in a mini-series on Reading Shakespeare. You lucky lords and ladies get part one today.

 

I’m going to start you out with a theory of mine and the clarification that, by mine, I mean I share it with many others and its’ near and dear to my heart. Iambic Pentameter, the metered verse Shakespeare wrote all his sonnets and many of his famous speeches in, is a wonderful rhythm. It comprises five sets of an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat per line. So the beat of Iambic Pentameter is da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. It’s a little familiar, isn’t it? Think of a heartbeat – the unstressed and stressed beats of everyone’s favourite blood pump. The rhythm is identical.

 

My theory is this: that we like reading and hearing Shakespeare’s speeches and sonnets out loud because the meter they’re written in matches the beat of our hearts. It’s a rhythm we’ve known all our lives and find inherently comforting; therefore we like hearing it echoed back to us. We find it soothing and familiar. Of course, I’m not the first person to coin the idea, in fact; it’s so widely referenced that I couldn’t find out who was. The human heartbeat is even used as the rhythm example for Iambic Pentameter on Wikipedia.

 

Iambic Pentameter, by the way, can be linguistically broken down. It comes to us from the French ‘iambique’ meaning ‘a foot of verse’, which refers to the unstressed, stressed two syllable verse unit; and pentameter from the Greek meaning ‘five’ for the five verse units per line. Did the French and Greeks know they were quite literally naming the rhythm of their own hearts? Did clever master Shakespeare choose to write in it for that very reason? Is that why we love to read and listen to Shakespeare’s sonnets and verse speeches so much? Check back Wednesday for more on reading Shakespeare.