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.




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.



King Who? King John. Part II

Still in full-swing preparation for the screening of King John next week; I’ve been asking around to see if it’s just me who remembers John Wayne but not King John. As it turns out, if I’m not in good company, at least I’m not alone. Of all the people I asked in a mostly random survey of all my phone contacts and some cooperative sidewalk users; only a few could lay claim to reading it. Many expressed remorse at having not read it, and wished to in the future. When asked why they hadn’t read it the response was largely thus: I’ve only read the Shakespeare we read in school. Fair enough.

So, should we be bringing dear old King John into the classroom? Is it important enough to beset our children’s brains with the life and death of a royal Johnny? Should we all be a little more John-aware?

Armed with these and other burning questions, I headed to the Toronto Reference Library to question some librarians on King John, why they felt he is so frequently forgotten, and where they think his place might be.

Unfortunately, of the two librarians on duty when I accosted the information desk, neither had read the play. I posed my other questions, and they agreeably pondered with me the merits of teaching history plays. While we couldn’t come to a complete solution to the king John dilemma; it was found unanimous that we could all use to be a little more King John-aware.

So, have you read King John? I think you should. Not too enthused about the written word? Come down the Beaches Branch of the Toronto Public Library on June seventh at 2 pm and join me for a free screening and get you King John on.


King Who? King John. Part I

On Tuesday the seventh of June, the Beaches branch of the Toronto Public Library will be showing the Stratford Festival screening of ‘King John’. Of all of Shakespeare’s English History plays, ‘The Life and Death of King John’, as the full title goes, is perhaps the least well known. The reason for this, I suppose, is the public’s more ready familiarity with the Richards and Henrys of historical infamy.

In preparation, I gave grand old King John a re-read to ensure I won’t be completely lost come Tuesday. The play itself features a line of those Plantagenet’s we’ve come to love from the other plays, quite a few French, and an Austrian Duke thrown in for a little spice. A good international mix if you’re looking for a battle. But they aren’t, of course. Or are they? The play is snappy as far as histories go, and we’re in the thick of it from the very beginning – as is King John. But I won’t spoil a good story by saying any more than that it’s a recommended history play.

What I particularly appreciate about film(ed) adaptations of the history plays is the familiarity they bring. Especially for us North Americans who have a hard time putting a story to the name, let alone face, of our former monarchs. While I grew up with the stories of hero loggers of the East Coast and John Cabot; many of my school friends from Britain have equally fond memories of the recounted glories of Plantagenet battles, and French-English skirmish I know nothing about. So, while I could give you a ripping yarn about a saucy logger; I have to confess I don’t think I could even tell you how many King Richards there even were all together. This is where screenings come in. I find it easy to differentiate Shakespeare’s Antiquity plays because I know the central figures from other media sources. Anyone ever seen a sesame street segment on King John? Me neither. When it’s put on a screen for me; however, I get to match a face to the story played out before my eyes and the king of yore becomes as easily memorable as my favourite John Wayne quote. Though Shakespeare’s history plays are not completely historically accurate, I still know more about the history in general then when I started. So go see a history play this week. Tell yourself it’s brushing up on international history and don’t be at all surprised when you get swept up in the battle cry.

The screening takes place at the Beaches Branch of the Toronto Public Library, 2161 Queen Street East, at two pm on the seventh of June, and plans to run until four forty-five pm.

Cross Canada Adventure – Amherst

July 10, 2014

Amherst, Nova Scotia – 10:00 a.m.

The town of Amherst Nova Scotia is about a half an hour east of the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border. It’s a quaint town, with no other claim to fame than that my Grandmother lived here when I was small; so I have fond memories of the area. Coming into Amherst, I made a list of things I know about Amherst. It comprised the following:

  • It’s on the Eastern Link bus route from Halifax to Moncton
  • The Circle K gas station has chocolate bar-flavoured coffee
  • My grandmother used to live there

A poor geographic summary, if I do say so myself. We got in at about nine in the morning; with plans to go up to Springhill (see next week’s article) to visit family for lunch and tea. The Canadian road trip tradition – the Tim Horton’s stop, was made; and with our bodies newly caffeinated we pressed on. As we were running early; we stopped into the shopping center and went to look around in the giant tiger store. It was a bit of a to do, as the store just  recently arrived in Amherst; and my grandmother had heard varying reviews from her cousins and wanted to form one for herself.  It’s a generic run of the mill box outlet like most giant tiger stores, but it passed the time.

Amherst is a nice place. It has enough grocery stores and outlets that you can get what you need, but it’s close to the more rural areas of Nova Scotia so that it’s not too urban. I used to really enjoy it as a quiet spot of repose on the coach route. I think a lot of people who live in the area do so for the serenity and the option of both country and urban living. Overall it’s a lovely area, close to the beach and ocean so many Nova Scotians love with all the reasonable comforts of being more inland. So while I may not have improved my geographical knowledge of Amherst, I certainly enjoyed my time there.