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.

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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 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.