by Kathleen

The Friday Fact

Since we were discussing the name Jessica the other day, would you like to learn some more facts about Shakespearean names? Did you know that in addition to Jessica, Shakespeare also invented the name Miranda (used in The Tempest) and was the first recorded person to use the name Olivia (in Twelfth Night)?

As we learned, Jessica is most likely based on an old Hebrew name, Iskah, which appears in the Bible (and was translated as Jeska in English). It went on to become the most popular name for baby girls in the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, evidence shows that Shakespeare probably invented the name Olivia, perhaps as a feminine version of Oliver, but perhaps not. It too has grown in popularity in the past few years.

Miranda was also invented by Shakespeare, most likely as a name form of the Latin word “mirandus” (lovely) or the Latin verb “mirari” (to admire).

Are these kids named Richard, Elizabeth and Mary or Demetrius, Ophelia and Desdemona?

Shakespeare was obviously a fan of unusual and striking names. Romeo, Juliet, Ophelia, Othello – these aren’t names we necessarily hear all the time today, even if Jessica and Olivia are. Many of his plays are set in countries other than England, particularly Italy, so it makes sense that the names he uses are distinctive, but still, how many Italians named Mercutio were there in the 16th century? It seems that he simply had a flair for the dramatic!

It’s especially funny when we consider statistics like the following – around 75%-85% of babies born in Elizabethan England were named after their grandparents. This means that most little Elizabethans were running around with names like Mary, John, Richard, Katherine, Joan and Robert. Not an Iago in the bunch!

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Shakespeare at the Movies: Romeo and Juliet Through the Ages

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet has been re-imagined many times, and there are several great movie adaptations to choose from. Romeo and Juliet is not this blogger’s favourite Shakespeare play, but sometimes a good adaptation can make me forget that and revel in the youth and tragedy of the thing. It’s also a play near and dear to our heart because of our mainstage production this past year (which had a modernized setting but featured Shakespeare’s original words).

Let’s discuss a few of the very best film versions!

1) Romeo and Juliet, 1968, dir. Franco Zeffirelli

This Academy-Award-winning film stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as our doomed lovers. It is a very faithful adaptation for the most part – set in 15th century Renaissance Italy, starring actors who were almost as young as the characters in the play (15 and 17), using Shakespeare’s original dialogue. The only changes are fairly small; the film has a different final scene than the play, several scenes were eliminated, and so on. These are all fairly standard changes when going from play (or book) to film, as some things simply work better on the stage (Juliet’s dramatic final monologue, for example) than in a movie (where she simply says one line and stabs herself).

This movie gets a lot of things right, particularly the ages of its stars. Shakespeare meant for Romeo and Juliet to be young, headstrong and – let’s face it – a little bit stupid (or perhaps blind with love), and the youth and physicality of the play really hits home when you see Hussey and Whiting together. Shakespeare’s original dialogue also sparkles, and Zeffirelli was good at cutting out scenes that might have made the movie drag on.

Bottom line: this is the version to watch to get the most faithful adaptation, as it’s probably pretty close to the story as Shakespeare intended it to be seen.

2) William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 1996, dir. Baz Luhrmann

Many devoted Shakespeare fans don’t like this movie, but your blogger is not one of them. It’s Shakespeare for a new era, directed by visionary Australian Baz Luhrmann (check out Moulin Rouge! and Strictly Ballroom as well; these three movies form his trilogy of films about theatre and the arts). The movie features superstar Leonardo DiCaprio (just one year before he sank with the Titanic), and Claire Danes, who was then known for her TV show My So-Called Life.

It’s a modernization of the play set in Verona Beach, California, with the Capulets and Montagues portrayed as business rivals. However, Luhrmann chose to use (most of) Shakespeare’s original dialogue, which gives the movie a very unique feel when combined with the ultra-modern set. The cinematography in this movie is stunning; Romeo and Juliet first see each other through a fish tank, as just one example. Romeo and his pals Mercutio and Benvolio are portrayed as bored teens looking to blow off some steam and cut loose. Danes and DiCaprio have tons of chemistry and the entire movie has a sort of punk feel, which in this blogger’s opinion really captures the youthful essence of the play.

However, the movie garnered mixed reviews from critics at the time. In its own way, it’s just as faithful to the plot as Zeffirelli’s version, but with some interesting additions. The prologue and epilogue are interpreted as newscasts, while the rival gangs have gunfights instead of swordfights. It also happens to have a great mid-90s soundtrack. This version of the play is not for everyone, but it’s definitely doing something new and interesting with Shakespeare’s text, and we think he’d approve.

Bottom line: do not skip reading the play and watch this instead. Watch it after you’ve read the play! And be amazed at how much Leo and Claire have grown up.

3) Gnomeo & Juliet, 2011, dir. Kelly Asbury

This is a version of the play starring garden gnomes voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt. In 3D. What’s not to love?

Though we can’t know for sure if Shakespeare even knew what garden gnomes were, we think he would probably appreciate the creativity of this adaptation. It’s a kid-friendly story, and gnomes are adorable. Enough said.

4) Romeo and Juliet, 2012, dir. Carlo Carlei

It seems like every generation has their own version of R&J, and here comes a brand-new one. Next year Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth will star in this film, which is being shot on location in Italy. Steinfeld is currently 14, which means she’s just as young as Shakespeare’s Juliet, while Booth is a bit older. The question is whether or not this film will capture the magic of the play while still having something new to say as an adaptation. It seems quite similar to the very traditional Zeffirelli film, but only time will tell.

Wordy Wednesday – “Love Is Blind”

Sorry we have gotten off our blog schedule a bit. Here is a fun, nighttime Wordy Wednesday for you! Did you know that “love is blind?” Well, Shakespeare did.

According to my sources, this phrase was actually invented by the Bard. Instead of popularizing a phrase that was already in use, he coined one himself. As with many of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, it appears in several of his plays, notably in The Merchant of Venice:

I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange:
But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.

The character Jessica is speaking here. (Fun fact: Shakespeare also invented this name! Or at least his usage of it in this play is the first recorded usage in history. It’s most likely based on a Hebrew name, Yiskah or in its English spelling, Jeska.)

In this passage, Jessica expresses the still-commonly-held belief that love makes you blind – to your own actions, to your lover’s faults, or even to common sense. Think Romeo and Juliet would agree? Have you ever been in love, and if so, did you behave strangely?

Theatre 101: Aside

Do you know what the word “aside” means? How about in the world of theatre?

An aside is a remark, comment, or even speech given by a character, and it’s made directly to the audience. This is often called “breaking the fourth wall” because it breaks the invisible barrier between actors and audience. As the audience, we’re supposed to implicitly understand that this remark is not being heard by the other characters in the play. It’s sometimes used as a way to help the audience members relate better to the character who’s speaking. Occasionally, the remark is something witty and sarcastic. It usually comments directly on the action of the play.

Famous asides in Shakespeare plays include moments in Macbeth and Hamlet. If you’ve ever seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the TV show Malcolm in the Middle, think about those moments where the main characters look directly into the camera and speak. That’s a version of an aside. There are similar moments on TV shows like The Office where characters will look right into the camera and make a face, indicating an opinion about something that’s going on in the main action of the show. That’s a wordless aside!

Here’s a video that shows some of Jim’s looks on The Office:

The Friday Fact

Did you know that there’s a lost Shakespeare play? The play was The History of Cardenio, or Cardenio for short. We know it was definitely performed in London in 1613 by a group of players called the King’s Men (so named because King James I was their patron). Shakespeare was associated with the King’s Men (originally the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) for most of his career. There are, at least, records of performances of Cardenio.

Scholars think that Shakespeare wrote the play based on a 1653 Register entry listing Shakespeare and the writer John Fletcher as co-authors. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Shakespeare was involved in the writing of the play at all, as other writers sometimes used his name to boost their own reputations. But it’s likely that Shakespeare and Fletcher did collaborate on Cardenio, since they had worked on a number of previous plays together.

In any case, we have no idea what has become of the play. There is no text or manuscript – not even a scrap of one – and no records of what the play was even about. Based on the title, scholars have guessed that the plot of the play is taken from Cervantes’ novel Don Quioxte, as there is an episode in that novel involving a character named Cardenio. But beyond that we can only guess.

This is actually not that unusual. As Bill Bryson tells us in his great biography of Shakespeare, record-keeping was not the best back then. Shakespeare actually wasn’t very popular for years after his death (in terms of performances of his plays), so people got him mixed up with other playwrights all the time, and sometimes gave him credit for things he didn’t even write! Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays would have been lost as well, if his friends and collaborators Heminges and Condell hadn’t published them in the First Folio in 1623.

Just imagine – maybe someday, someone will turn up the lost manuscript of Cardenio! People have claimed to do so before, but they’ve all been outed as scam artists.

Shakespeare at the Movies: She’s the Man

It’s time to talk about one of your blogger’s favourite Shakespeare adaptations: She’s the Man! Yes, that’s right, I love this silly movie, and more than that, I think it’s a pretty darn good adaptation of a Shakespeare play. It’s great when movies based on Shakespeare are more literal or exact adaptations, featuring Shakespeare’s witty dialogue along with the original settings and character names. But Shakespeare’s plots have also proved to be interesting in modern settings with updated dialogue.

She’s the Man is a 2006 movie starring Amanda Bynes, Channing Tatum, Laura Ramsey, and Vinnie Jones, featuring the hilarious David Cross (Tobias from TV’s Arrested Development) as the school principal. The plot revolves around Viola, Amanda Bynes’ character, and her attempt to be taken seriously as a great soccer player. When the girls’ team at her school is cut, she decides to disguise herself as her twin brother Sebastian (who conveniently takes off for London to play in a rock band) and join the boys’ team at his boarding school, proving that she can play just as well as the boys can. But she ends up falling for her new roommate Duke, even as he asks her to help him win the heart of their classmate Olivia. Meanwhile, their weirdo classmate Malcolm is determined to win Olivia’s affections. Comedy – and romance – ensues!

The movie is based on Shakespeare’s delightful play Twelfth Night, a romantic comedy of mistaken identities. The action begins when a brother and sister are involved in a shipwreck. Viola washes up alone on a beach, and assuming that her brother Sebastian has drowned, disguises herself as a boy in order to work as a page for Duke Orsino and figure out what to do. But she ends up falling for the Duke, even as he uses her to woo his lady love Olivia. There’s also a subplot involving a slightly crazed servant, Malvolio, who is convinced that Olivia loves him. You can guess what happens next – mostly wacky hijinks.

So you can see that She’s the Man is a pretty faithful adaptation in terms of plot alone. But I think that the movie gets a lot of other stuff right, too. As a playwright, Shakespeare understood the value of good supporting characters. Many of his plays are focused on intense, doomed, or very charismatic lead characters – Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, etc. But the supporting characters are just as important and often add that all-important humour to the story. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are funny while also being important to the plot, just as the Nurse gives Romeo & Juliet a lot of humour to balance out that sad ending.

She’s the Man also features weird and hilarious supporting characters. There’s David Cross’ nutty principal, who tries to get involved in the action and ends up causing a lot of trouble; Viola’s band of friends, who help her with her transformation into Sebastian; Monique, Sebastian’s stuck-up girlfriend; and last but not least, the male classmates Viola meets as she pretends to be Sebastian. Like Shakespeare’s original play, the movie knows that having a rich cast of odd supporting players is key to the success of a story.

The dialogue in She’s the Man, while not quite as sparkling as Shakespeare’s original text, is also pretty funny. And I think Shakespeare would have loved a lot of the physical comedy moments: soccer wipe-outs, Amanda Bynes’ character learning how to walk like a boy, etc. He definitely enjoyed his silly and over-the-top humour. The movie didn’t originally get very good reviews, but just remember that many of Shakespeare’s plays – even performed with original dialogue, sets, and stage directions – are very silly and feature a lot of crude humour about bodily functions and more. I really think She’s the Man captures the spirit of Twelfth Night. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t find the movie funny!

Here’s the original movie trailer, embedded for your viewing pleasure!

Wordy Wednesday – “It’s all Greek to me”

We’re back! Hi everyone, and sorry for the break. Your blogger went on vacation. Anyway, here’s a Wordy Wednesday post for you. Have you ever responded to something that you didn’t understand with the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me?” Well, guess what: it’s from Shakespeare!

The phrase means that something is incomprehensible to the speaker, much like Greek would be if you didn’t actually speak or read it. It’s from Julius Caesar, a play set in ancient Rome:

CASSIUS: Did Cicero say any thing?
CASCA: Ay, he spoke Greek.
CASSIUS: To what effect?
CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

Casca has no idea what Cicero was saying, because he was speaking Greek and Casca doesn’t understand it. Shakespeare popularized the usage of this phrase, which had existed in some form or another for many years prior to the first performance of Julius Caesar. Another Elizabethan playwright, Thomas Dekker, used the phrase as well in his play Patient Grissel.

Today, of course, people who use this phrase don’t mean that things are literally in Greek – just that they are incomprehensible or hard to understand!