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.

Reading Shakespeare Part I: From the Heart

On Saturday June 25th, 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.

King Who? King John. Part IV

As it turns out, being submerged in The Life and Death of King John is a marvelous way to spend a couple of weeks. I have enjoyed scouring for it’s film versions, I have reveled in discussing mine and others unfamiliarity with it’s subject, and I have loved learning it more intimately. I re-read the play, interviewed some lovely commuters and helpful librarians, researched, and pondered. All in all, I’ve come to really love King John as a play. Hopefully, I’ve inspired a few of you to join me on the near-forgotten King John road.

 

I had to bear a nod to the original inspiration for the piece, so I did a little research on the man behind the legend: King John himself. The actual, historical King John himself is not as entrancing a figure as Shakespeare makes him out to be. The real life kings claim to fame lies mainly in his late-life signing of the Magna Carta; a document which is widely considered as a precursor to modern human rights constitutions.

 

As for Shakespeare’s King John, his reign is a little more fiery. There are disputes with the French, the other English, themselves, even with the Pope. There are threats, battles, arguable suicide, and poisoning; all moving at a snappy pace and wrapped up in the bard’s eternal flare. But there is something else moving amid the words of the play; the idea of standing up fro what we believe, even if we’re not sure it’s right. A question of identity perhaps? Or a question of expressing that identity with our actions and words?

 

So, have we outgrown the English kings of history? Or are they yet relevant in a world of change and battling media? Do our schoolchildren still find use for old King John? Do we? Perhaps it’s better we all answer that question for ourselves. Though, I urge you, friends, to give it a good read or a thorough viewing before you make up your mind.

 

 

 

 

King Who? King John. Part III

For a play so little known today; King John has a surprisingly distinguished history. King John has the honour of being the earliest known example of a film based on a Shakespeare play. Good old King John makes his first appearance on fil in an 1899 short, silent adaptation that recreates his death scene at the end of the play. Clearly, someone thought King John worth of a great deal of effort, film, and time. A piece of that kind was no easy feat in the early days of film; and they went to great trouble to get good old John on the big screen. Interesting, isn’t it? How the piece they chose first of all- as far as they knew quite possibly the only piece- to be filmed was from a play so forgotten that I could hardly find anyone who has read it now.

 

This early fascination with the play seems shot-lived however; as the only other film versions on the play are a 1989 television movie and the 2015 filmed Stratford production. It is this production I eagerly await to see on Tuesday afternoon. Perhaps the same production will cause a resurgence in Kin John popularity? Are we not all looking for another lesser-known Shakespeare play to celebrate, after all?

 

What, I wonder, has dropped King John so far out of our esteem in more modern times? Have we outgrown the grand histories of Kings? Or perhaps have we merely forgotten how little we have actually outgrown them? Our world is an ever-changing battle ground for competing media; we are pulled in many directions. Often we feel the need to stand and fight for something we believe to be worth saving, usually to the discontent of a power higher than our own. Does it not sound at all familiar to the story of an English king fighting for what he believes is the true course of the crown?

 

Check back in on Thursday for the fourth and final leg of our adventure with King John.

 

 

Anonymous

A recent watching of the film ‘Anonymous’ prompted me to dig back in to my film-reviewing roots. So, this Thursday, all you lovelies get a reflection on a film. Not a review, though; I want you to make up your minds for yourselves.

 

Anonymous is a 2011 project Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by John Orloff. It is billed as a political thriller and historical drama. The film itself explores the idea that the Shakespeare plays were not written by Shakespeare. Set in 1598, with some strategic flashbacks and flash forwards, it proposes that the plays were written by Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford) and distributed by Benjamin Johnson through a half-wit actor posing as the original playwright (you guessed it, names William Shakespeare). It’s the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship made over for Hollywood, with a few twists and turns added in along the way. It details the rise of the plays in public popularity as well as their connection to the clandestine relationship between Edward de Vere and Queen Elizabeth I. It Also deals very briefly with the rise of James VI of Scotland and I of England.

 

As for the juicy bit; did I like it? It’s a good question. But before I answer it, however; I’d like to ask you a few little questions. You know those theories you highly doubt are true, but still love to extrapolate on anyway? Aren’t they fun? Don’t you love the game of them? This film? This film is that. And it’s certainly a lot of fun.

 

For two hours we get to follow around Ben Johnson through Elizabethan London on all kinds of gallivanting adventures. The film brings you into the action and you get to be part of the hilarity and intrigue from the very beginning. It’s a great time and a wonderful way to go back in time for an afternoon. It’s a game we all love to play, isn’t it? Solving the mystery and being a part of it all. Even if the mystery has already been solved at the beginning, we still dress up and go all in for the fun regardless. So, to answer your question: yes, I did like it. And I think you will too.