Shakespeare geekery

Well, this took a lot longer to post than I meant it to. 

I’m a geek.  This should be obvious from my twinned blogs; the percentage of fantasy and scifi is pretty high.  I’m a once-and-hopefully-future Ren rat.  (Well, according to the Renaissance Faire Purity Test,  a Playtron.)  I’m a Shakespeare geek, too – which ties into the Ren rat thing, I suppose; I don’t believe one engendered the other, but that they came about independently and simultaneously.  

The “geek” in my “Shakespeare geek” doesn’t at all mean I think I know everything.  Far from it.  But I have a strong familiarity with several of the plays and a slight familiarity with the rest, I know enough of the ins and outs of the language well enough (I know how to use thee and thou, and *I*know*what*wherefore*means*) that I understand some of the humor and insult and pun Shakespeare intended.  (Not all, by any means – but it’s coming along.)  

Blessings upon iTunes.  When I discovered the wonderful world of podcasts, I thought I’d died and gone to geek heaven.  First I found the NPR podcasts of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!  And Car Talk.  And Prairie Home Companion.  Oh joy.  O marvellous!  Some of the funniest stuff on the planet – mine!  Free!  Woot!  Then I started looking for Old Time Radio broadcasts – I love listening to the commercials – and now I have collected so many I’ll probably never be able to listen to them all.  

*Then* I stumbled on Bardcast.  Which is lovely. 

And Bardcast led me directly to Chop Bard, hosted by Ehren Ziegler, “A show dedicated to sharing the plays of William Shakespeare as entertainment for today’s audience – and that means you.”  “Or to at least keep your experience from sucking.”


Subscribe to this.  Get thee hence and subscribe to it, on iTunes or the website.  No, seriously, now.  I’ll wait. 

It’s always baffled me that so many people “don’t get” Shakespeare.  I suppose it’s like a math geek wondering why everyone can’t do calculus … actually, that’s a pretty solid simile, because the math geeks probably become pretty frustrated when everyone around them says how boring or intimidating or pointless calculus is.  Right: Shakespeare is none of those neither – when done right.  Absolutely anything can be made stultifying if someone tries hard enough – and a great deal depends on how one is taught.  So few teachers can instill passion into these plays, which are, at base, so filled with passion and humor, that it leaves me gobsmacked.  The language gets so much in the way for so many – and it so doesn’t have to. One thing Ehren Ziegler points out is that if all those teenagers being force-fed Shakespeare in high school really knew what they were reading, there would be anarchy. 

It really is hilarious (and at the same time very sad) to think of all those high school students miserably swotting over R&J, never knowing that what they hold in their hands is some of the raunchiest stuff they could dream of  … and it’s sanctioned by the school board.  Wonderful. 

So, here is Chop Bard, with its mission statement of “lifting Shakespeare off the page and back onto his feet”, play by play, scene by scene.  The aim of the podcast is to take what so very many people feel is the bane of their high school existence, that stuff they were forced to read which, as a cousin once said, takes three pages to say it’s raining (I never have figured out which play that’s supposed to be), and which they gladly put behind them as soon as they could and never looked back – to take that and: “Strip away all the pretentious highbrow perception, and elitist crap … you’ll find Shakespeare speaking of common wants and needs, of Love, of loss, of hatred, joy, envy, passion, and more. Things from inside of us, made great.”  Chop it up, dissect it, pare it back to the essentials, and expose the reasons that these are works which have not survived but thrived for 400 years.  There’s a reason people genuinely love Shakespeare – and it saddens me that so many disregard or downright hate it. 

Romeo and Juliet has been covered; they’re up to Act III scene iv of Hamlet now (episode 32).  As I’ve puttered away my evenings in front of the computer (and today waited for the hair dye to set) I’ve made my way up to 25; I don’t want to catch up too quickly, because new installments don’t come along every week.  Through a close attention to the language and an actor’s point of view Chop Bard (not as in chop logic, but as in chop up the work into bite-sized and easily digestible pieces, and season well) opens up the plays, deepens understanding, clarifies.  I love hearing the actor’s POV – I don’t think I’ve had the benefit of that before.  I’ve learned about Shakespeare from the angle of language, and of history, and of crackpot analysis of who-was-he-really (I don’t identify myself as “Democrat” or (God forbid) “Republican”, but “Stratfordian”) and that’s been great – but the actor, or this actor at least, takes some of all of those (except the last) and adds interpretation.  And the interpretation in this case is intelligent, and passionate – very passionate.  Woe betide ye who screw with Shakespeare.  This means YOU, Baz Luhrmann.  And also you lot who still think “wherefore” means something other than “why”.  Showing disrespect or a lack of attention (same thing, often) to the script, as Mr. Ziegler refers to the work, is the worst sin in this context – and given the work put into demonstrating why the scripts are worthy of respect and attention, that is a valid stance.  I’m certainly not about to argue.

He cites four guidelines or rules for reviewing the plays:
1. Choose to believe the scripts are complete
2. It’s not important or it didn’t happen if it’s not mentioned in the text
3. Characters never lie to the audience
4. Always find the forward action of the words

The characters are given a large part of the incisive attention on the podcast.  Again, the actor’s eye is great here: a good actor is going to want to know what is in his character’s head, and a good director is going to work that out with him.  I read Romeo & Juliet in high school (like everyone else), saw the Zeffirelli film, and saw scenes played (extremely well) at the Faire, and it’s not one of the plays I’ve steeped myself in since – and the word portraits of the nurse and Juliet’s parents were a revelation to me – as well as those of Mercutio, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence, and – of course – Romeo and Juliet themselves.  

The language is given a healthy percentage of time, as well, of course.  One beautiful thing about watching and reading Shakespeare is that there are just certain things for which no one has the answer.  I’ve been watching Twelfth Night quite a lot lately, and from that one: Mistress Mall?  No one knows exactly who she was, though there are theories.  Peg o’ Ramsey?  Ditto.  Oh, and as for:

In sooth, thou wast in very gracious fooling last night, when thou spokest of Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians passing the equinoctial of Queubus: ’twas very good, i’ faith.

– ?  The Fool was making crap up.  So sometimes, if you don’t know what Shakespeare’s characters are talking about – no one else does either.  It’s a bit chuffing, that.

Listening to this podcast stirred up cravings.  I hadn’t sat and watched a play in quite a while; for a time there I was taking out some of the BBC complete series and other productions from the library on a regular basis, intending to see as many plays as possible.  This made me think about some of the great productions I’ve seen – Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V, Patrick Stewart in The Tempest, the production in the early ’90’s New York Renaissance Faire (Festival, then) of Midsummer Night’s Dream which was one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen, and one of the funniest.  And, two years ago, New York’s PBS aired a purely wonderful production of Twelfth Night

Thinking about the productions made me decide to add my own feeble voice (though not literally) to the discussion of the scripts.  It’s not going to be the whole blog – if I can manage it I still intend to write about books and whatnot – but I’m planning on working my way through the plays somewhat in the same manner as Ehren Ziegler, and I think following the order he’s using.  Except I’m starting with Twelfth Night, for reasons I’ll talk about when I start it, but suffice to say I consider myself extremely lucky. 

To close, here is another quote from the first episode of Chop Bard: 

The works of William Shakespeare are incredibly vibrant, relevant, and deserving of constant rebirth. They’re not so delicate that they can be broken by a little rough treatment. … Some people are too delicate with Shakespeare, making every syllable so precious, so revered that the audience is in real danger of becoming bored to death, losing the meaning and thrill of the story – like people who collect Star Wars toys and never open the box to play with them, It’s just wrong.

Yup, I’m a geek.  If I ever needed any confirmation of that I have it, because I am looking forward with an absurd amount of glee to opening all the boxes and playing with the toys.

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6 Responses to Shakespeare geekery

  1. You rang?

    If you take pride and joy in your Shakespeare geekery as you seem to do, you really need to come hang out with us :).

  2. stewartry says:

    Oo – there are t-shirts!! Just discovered the site – thanks very much, don’t mind if I do!

  3. sarah enloe says:

    Hi there…thanks for pointing me to chopbard! your philosophy (and his, it seems) exactly match what we are doing in our education department, we are push push pushing to get as many teachers thinking this way as we can and i thin chop bard will be a great help. come on over and read our blog and–more importantly!–come see what happens when we do Shakespeare with his stage directions in mind, too–it is a revelation in fun, entertaining, clear plays and playing. hope to see you in staunton.

  4. Just wait until you get to episode 31! I think you’ll like that one. Wherefore? You’ll see.

  5. stewartry says:

    Wherefore … that means “why”, right?


    Can’t wait!

  6. stewartry says:

    Reblogged this on Stewartry and commented:

    Reblogging this from a while back in celebration of Shakespeare Day … in lieu of new material …

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