Four Bizarre Theories About Shakespeare

facespeareHappy belated birthday, Shakes!  Just a day late. Actually, the exact date of his birth has long been disputed.  Generally, April 23, 1564, which is also St. George’s Day, is accepted as the date of the Bard’s birth, but because his baptismal records reflect April 26th as the date, no one is completely sure. So hey, maybe I’m not a day late but two days early!  (You can read more about the conflicting birth information here.)

As with any celebrity, from Lindsay Lohan to our beloved Bard (let the record show that this is the only time you will ever see these two names so closely linked), all kinds of bizarre theories abound.  Here are a few of my favorites. Feel free to perform your own facepalms.

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Number I: Shakespeare Was a Jewish Woman

In this theory, John Hudson argues that Shakespeare was, you guessed it, a Jewish woman. The woman Hudson has in mind is Amelia Bassano Lanier, who was the first woman to publish a book of poetry in England.  The theory rests largely on the circumstances of Bassano’s life, which Hudson contends match, much better than William Shakespeare’s did, the content of “Shakespeare’s” work. But Hudson has also identified technical similarities between the language used in Bassano’s known poetry and that used in “Shakespeare’s” verse. And he has located clues in the text – recently noted Jewish allegories and the statistically significant appearance of Amelia Bassano Lanier’s various names in the plays – that he says point to her as the only convincing candidate for the author of Shakespeare’s work. (Source)

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“Methinks thou art a general offense”: Cats Deliver Shakespearean Insults

Because what goes better with a haughty insult than a haughty, haughty feline?

Henry IV, Part Two

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Letters to Juliet: A Project of Love for the Lovelorn

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One of my favorite things that has been going around the internet for some time is the EMO person who posted, “What if he’s your Romeo, but you’re not his Juliet?” The lightning-fast response was, “That means you’re his Rosaline and you survive the friggin’ play.”

Despite the reality of what happens to the “star cross’d lovers,” the persistence in thinking of them as the romantic ideal lives on.

See?

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Most people, even those who have never read or seen the play, are more likely to conjure up this image, or something close to it, than gruesome deaths:

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I didn’t know, however, until I heard a story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday, that men (mostly, I guess) have been penning letters to Juliet for centuries.  Initially, shortly after the play’s performances, people left notes at what was thought to be her tomb. The numbers of letters left became so great that the post office of Verona established a special office to handle the volume. 

The remarkable thing about the letters left for Juliet is that she actually answers. Well, understudies for Juliet do. Dozens of volunteers in Verona, who call themselves “The Juliet Club” answer, by hand, each of the 6,000+ letters addressed to Shakespeare’s heroine each year.  All of the letters are retained in a massive archive, to which more letters are regularly added.

The job must be tough but many of the volunteers have been at it for ten and twenty years, some even longer. What do they say to these heartbroken people? Here is one of their answers to someone who was driving herself crazy asking, “What if?”

“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if? I don’t know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it’s never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn’t it be true now? You need only the courage to follow your heart. I don’t know what a love like Juliet’s feels like – love to leave loved ones for, love to cross oceans for but I’d like to believe if I ever were to feel it, that I will have the courage to seize it. And, Claire, if you didn’t, I hope one day that you will. All my love, Juliet”

You can read more about the long history of the Juliet Project in Lise Friedman’s study,  Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love


A Very Bad Bard, Indeed

William Shakespeare—playwright, poet… ruthless tax evader?

So says a new research paper to be presented next month by academics Dr Jayne Archer, Professor Richard Marggraf Turley and Professor Howard Thomas of Aberystwyth University, Wales. These three have exposed the Bard for offenses he committed more than four hundred years ago—those of hoarding grain during a food shortage and evading taxes. For these crimes Shakespeare was fined in 1598 and threatened with jail time.

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Naughty, naughty Shakes

Since the records clearly prove these facts to be true, it seems impossible that Will’s crimes could have been kept a secret for so long. As it turns out, though, these were never actually hidden from the academic community. Rather, it seems that scholars downplayed this information because they “cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest,” according to the Sunday Times. But in doing so, the Aberystwyth researchers argue, critics also ignore a large influence on Shakespeare’s work.

Take the play Coriolanus, for instance, a fiercely political tragedy that finds conflict in the juxtaposition of rich and poor. Art imitates life so greatly that the plot actually centers around a famine exploited by the rich, who drive up the price of grain to be sold to the poor—precisely what Shakespeare himself partook in. Since it was written around 1607, the same time of the Warwickshire food riots (where Shakes owned a considerate amount of land), some now argue that Coriolanus came out of the playwright’s desire to assuage some of his guilt for hoarding grain and exploiting famine. While nobody can prove that for certain, at the end of the day we can walk away having learnt of a new side to Shakespeare’s persona, that of the “ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximise profits at others’ expense, and exploit the vulnerable–while also writing plays about their plight to entertain them,” says Dr. Archer.

“They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain” (Coriolanus, Act I, scene i).

King Lear is another work that features a similar focus, continues Archer, as “there is a very subtle depiction of how dividing up land also involves impacts on the distribution of food.” Examining his works in this new light, it seems clear that Shakespeare had more practical, earthly matters on the mind than we normally credit (or discredit) him with. In so far that it might actually affect the reading of his plays, was the scholarly community right to keep this information hushed for so long? Does it change the way you think of William Shakespeare?


The LAWSC’s All-Female Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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For twenty years now, the L.A. Women’s Shakespeare Company has been staging Shakespearean plays with an entirely female ensemble. Later this year (August 17-October 4), the company will take on Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Hamlet, with LAWSC founder and artistic director Lisa Wolpe in the title role.

In 1993, the LAWSC was completely funded by private donations and played in the very small Hollywood Actor’s Theater. However, the company soon won a grant and were able to expand beyond the fifty-seat capacity of their original home and played larger venues. Eventually, the company was able to offer their players and support personnel a “modest stipend” but to this day, the company continues to be “volunteer-base[d]” and a “grass-roots company” even as their audiences continue to grow.

Past productions have included Romeo and Juliet (1993); Othello (1994); Richard III (1995); Much Ado About Nothing (1996); Measure for Measure (1997); Twelfth Night (2000), The Tempest (2002); The Merchant of Venice (2005);  and As You Like It (2007).

portiaSo the big question: why an all-female cast? Because an all-female troupe can cause a “transformation of the perceptions of women’s roles in our society by working to create a deeper, more powerful, unbounded view of women’s potential.” Furthermore,  the  “productions illuminate contemporary issues through a classical context, offering a unique political and social perspective.” The mission of LAWSC is “to provide a creative forum for the exploration of violence, victimization, power, love, race, and gender issues, and to provide positive role models for women and girls.”

The production met its $10,000 Kickstarter funding goal, but the company is hoping to raise a total of $40,000. If you would like to support this or future projects, click here. Check out the video below for a sample of Lisa Wolpe in action as Iago in Othello!


Choose Your Own Adventure: Hamlet!

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If you are at all a fan of comics, or have a child who is, you have likely heard of Ryan North, writer of the hilarious comic book series, Adventure Time , the wildly popular Dinosaur Comics  and perhaps even the #1 best-selling Amazon short story anthology Machine of Death .

 North had an idea for a new project, a take-off on the beloved children’s series Choose Your Own Adventurewherein the reader can select different paths for different characters. Each path leads to a radically different ending for the character and for the story.

Why not apply the same idea to the Bard?  North mused. He took his idea to Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing site which funds creative projects. North made his goal of raising $20,000 in three and a half hours, made six times his goal in a  week, and now the project has accrued $580,905.

Here’s an idea of what you can do with North’s adventurous Hamlet (from The Guardian): 

Readers will be able to opt  to Hamlet (“an emo teen in his early 30s”), Ophelia (“She’s got a +1 science stat, but she’s also got a -1 weakness against water”) or the King, Hamlet’s father, “who (SURPRISE) dies on the first page and becomes a ghost. And then we make fun of you for dying on the first page, but you can become a ghost and must INVESTIGATE YOUR OWN MURDER that you TOTALLY SLEPT THROUGH because you got SLEEPY IN AN ORCHARD. (“Shakespeare wrote this part,” said North.)

So what are you waiting for?

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Uncovering the Real Richard III: Why It Matters

Fellow Shakespeare nerds! Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this finding of one twisted old skeleton at the bottom of a car park. That’s right, the long lost body of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, is now found!

For a while now, archaeologists determined to uncover Richard III’s body, long since presumed to be lost to history or dissolved at the base of a river bed, have suspected a Leicester car park to house his remains. Unglamorous as it is for a royal burial site, the lot was built over the site of the old Grey Friars monastery in which some records report Richard was interred. Last September, all the drilling and digging away of 500 years’ worth of debris paid off, as the research team pulled from the earth the twisted skeleton of a man killed in combat. Despite the seemingly obvious evidence before them–that the 15th c. skeleton of a man with a deformed spine was found exactly where King Richard’s body was said to be buried–the researchers held the body’s identity in question until only yesterday. On Monday, February 4th, a day that will forever go down in Corpsegate history, a press conference on the scale of a hot young pop star’s perfume launch descended on the University of Leicester, and the Guardian was there to deliver it to the greedy public in real time. Because who doesn’t want to receive minute by minute updates on a 500 year old, unidentified corpse? Nobody.

Well, maybe Cambridge academic Mary Beard didn’t:

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But whatevs. Finding Richard’s body can totally lay to rest the pesky rumors that have haunted his reputation since his fateful death at Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard III was embroiled in a bloody British civil war during the 1400s. This period was named the Wars of the Roses for the emblems of the two feuding royal families–a white rose for the house of York (Richard’s), and a red rose for the house of Lancaster. York eventually lost the crown, and Richard of Gloucester’s death in the Battle at Bosworth Field signified the end of a thirty year war. His defeat came at the hands of Henry Tudor, who was subsequently crowned Henry VII–father of Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I.

Enter the Renaissance and the Elizabethan golden age. Eager to impress his Tudor queen, Shakespeare wrote histories that painted the house of Lancaster in a favorable light. But no monarch presented quite as much opportunity for propagandizing as Richard of Gloucester; labeled for centuries as “deformed,” Richard’s image only worsened when Shakespeare penned him as the evil, scheming hunchback, the killer of two young princes, an incestuous savage.

In actuality, Richard’s lopsided figure has been speculated before as resulting from his skills at archery–the thought being that one side became overdeveloped, causing a curvature of the spine. No word on the pathology of the skeleton’s misshapen back has been released, however, except to say that it was not caused by scoliosis. Still, the conflicting accounts reveal the murkiness surrounding Richard III’s legacy.

Because in fact, Gloucester made some rather liberal reforms in his time, the most prominent of which stand to this day:

In December 1483, Richard instituted what later became known as the Court of Requests, a court to which poor people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard. He also introduced bail in January 1484, to protect suspected felons from imprisonment before trial and to protect their property from seizure during that time. He founded the College of Arms in 1484, he banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books, and he ordered the translation of the written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English.

And although most people already know that Shakespeare’s play was more fiction than history, the unfair image of an old, withered, and bitter king has been a hard one for poor Richard to shake. Now the recovery of his old, withered skeletal remains might not be much help with altering that, but if anything it puts a face, nay, skull to a tired myth. The skull that proves Richard was mercilessly treated by both his captors and history, as he was laid to rest beneath a whole lot of ugly European hatchbacks forever.

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For all the juicy updates from the University of Leicester press conference, check out that Guardian article here. And if you’re suddenly starting to miss that heinously evil version of ol’ Dick, well we’ve got some dastardly Richard III quotes to devour here.


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