Shakespeare Solved® versions of these plays solve the mysteries surrounding them by taking us back in time to see the plays as they were performed for the first time in history.


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The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company


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1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shakespeare's Real Polonius


23 April 2016 is one of the most exciting moments in Shakespeare history.


It is the 400th anniversary of his death. He died 23 April 1616.

On a happier note, it is also the 452nd anniversary of his birth, since he was born on or about 23 April 1564.

In 2014, for Shakespeare’s birthday, I solved the meaning of the name ‘Shylock’ — yes, the name ‘Shylock’ means ‘Shakespeare!’

In 2015, for Shakespeare’s birthday, I solved the meaning of why the ‘cocke crows’ in Hamlet.

Not long ago, I wrote about the real Claudius, the real Gertrude and the real Hamlet.

So, for 2016, I would like to share a new discovery with you.

I have solved the meaning of the name ‘Polonius’ — and this helps to support a theory about the real man whom Shakespeare based the character on.

Delacroix's Hamlet and Polonius

The name ‘Polonius’ is clearly derived from ‘Polonia’ which is Latin for Poland.

A person from ‘Polonia’ would be a ‘Polonian.’

In the Edward III play, King John of France mentions “The stern Polonian, and the warlike Dane.” He is referring to the Polish and Danish mercenaries who serve in his army.

But the other uses of the word ‘Polonian’ in other plays from Shakespeare’s lifetime are far more interesting.

King Richard II arrives to arrest Thomas of Woodstock

In the Thomas of Woodstock play (also known as Richard the Second Part One) the word ‘Polonian’ appears twice.

The first time it appears is when Queen Anne asks about her husband King Richard II, and how he spends his time with his flattering favourites:

QUEEN ANNE 
Saw’st thou King Richard, Cheney? Prithee tell me 
What revels keep his flattering minions?

Cheney answers her that they waste time worrying about how to dress in the latest foreign fashions:

CHENEY 
They sit in council to devise strange fashions 
And suit themselves in wild and antic habits 
Such as this kingdom never yet beheld: 
French hose, Italian cloaks, and Spanish hats; 
Polonian shoes, with picks a handful long 
Tied to their knees; with chains of pearl and gold 
Their plumed tops fly waving in the air 
A cubit high above their wanton heads.

The criticism he makes is that the king is more interested in foreign fashions than in running the country.

Later in the same play, Richard II sends a Courtier to summon Thomas of Woodstock to court. 

Thomas of Woodstock, who is the hero of the play, and the embodiment of everything that is good and honest and solidly English, notices the Courtier’s ‘Polonian’ shoes:

THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK
Then this at court is all the fashion now?

COURTIER 
The king himself doth wear it;
Whose most gracious majesty sent me in haste.

Woodstock probably has to stifle a laugh at these ridiculous shoes:

THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK
This pick doth strangely well become the foot.

But the Courtier is proud as a peacock at his shoes, and that the king honored him with courtly duties:

COURTIER 
This pick the king doth likewise wear, being a
Polonian pick; and me did his highness pick from forth the rest.

As a good and true Englishman, Thomas of Woodstock wouldn’t be caught dead in such foreign clothing. He tells the Courtier that his humble and plain clothing would not suit the Court of the king.

There are several other uses of the word ‘Polonian’ in plays from Shakespeare’s time — by Thomas Dekker, and Samuel Rowlands, for example.

Each time the word ‘Polonian’ is used in these other plays, it is to express something flashy, flamboyant and excessive. But most importantly — foreign. 

It is used to represent something or someone who is not English.

In these plays, ‘Polonian’ is an insult.

So, what does the name ‘Polonius’ mean in this context? 

Ian Holm as Polonius, 1990

It clearly is not meant to be flattering. After all, Polonius is one of the most evil characters in the entire Hamlet play. It would make sense that Shakespeare would choose a foreign name that is loaded with a meaning that underscores how evil he is.

In Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio have just seen the Ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus asks Horatio if the Ghost looks like the dead king:

MARCELLUS
Is it not like the king?

HORATIO
As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

So, King Hamlet once fought against Norway and he battled ‘Polacks.’ This means that Norway and Poland are Denmark’s enemy.

Polonius is the most senior official in the Court of the King and Queen of Denmark. But if his name suggests that he is from Poland, and Poland is Denmark’s enemy, what is he doing anywhere near the Court?

Oliver Davies as Polonius, RSC 2008

It would be as if the British Prime Minister during World War II was not Winston Churchill but a man named Hans Berliner.

Or if during the Cold War, the American Secretary of State was named Ivan Muscovsky.

So, Shakespeare has chosen a name for this villian that suggests that he is not Danish, but rather Polish — he is foreign.

I am not the first person to deduce that the Polonius character is based on a real person, namely William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

Burghley was Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted councillor for forty years, until his death in 1598.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley

Some people dispute that Shakespeare was basing the character on Burghley, but there is a great deal of evidence to conclude that Polonius is Burghley, some of which I discovered myself, and which I included in my version of Hamlet.

But what did Shakespeare mean when he gives Burghley the name Polonius?

Did Burghley like gaudy shoes? Was he a fancy dresser? It is unlikely that he had expensive taste in clothing. But he did invest huge sums into his estates.

But if the meaning of ‘Polonian’ means something or someone who is foreign, then is Shakespeare calling Burghley foreign, or something less than English?

It is possible that Shakespeare is simply accusing Burghley of serving England as badly as Polonius served Denmark.

But I think there is more to Shakespeare’s character assassination of Burghley.

During Shakespeare’s career, England’s greatest enemy was Spain. It was the superpower of its day, far more powerful and wealthy than England.

During Elizabeth’s reign, two parties emerged during the long conflict with Spain: the ‘peace party’ and the ‘war party.’

The war party wanted to fight Spain everywhere and anytime. The peace party wanted a negotiated peace with Spain.

Burghley was the leader of the peace party. Over and over again during his long career, he would argue that it would be better to make peace with Spain than to fight Spain, even if such a peace was considered ‘dishonourable’ by the war party.

Battle of the Gravelines, Spanish Armada

For example, in the months leading up to the Spanish Armada in 1588, Burghley sent his own son, Robert (who would succeed his father in power and influence) to hold peace negotiations with Spain’s notorious commander, the Duke of Parma.

Those negotiations were of course a ruse, a waste of time, because Spain was hell-bent on conquering England.

During the 1590s, while Spain pretended to want peace and would arrange more peace negotiations, Spain would also continue to scheme to conquer England, and sent several more armadas — all of which happily did not succeed in destroying England.

Another example involves one of England’s greatest heroes, Sir Francis Drake, most famous for his circumnavigation of the globe. Drake hated Spain with a burning passion, for it’s cruelty against him. 

Sir Francis Drake, photo by Gary Nicholls

On a voyage in 1577-78, Drake accused his co-commander Thomas Doughty of witchcraft and treason, and executed him. 

It is possible that Doughty was a spy for Burghley, who may have put him on board to hamper the voyage. Why? Because Burghley wanted to appease Spain, and not interfere with Spain’s naval exploits and overseas colonisation. 

Therefore, to Shakespeare and men like him, who loved England with every fibre of their being, Burghley appeared to be serving the interests of Spain more than England. 

For all Shakespeare knew, and he probably suspected as much, Burghley might have been employed as an agent by Spain, or paid money to keep England out of Spain’s way.

Sir James Croft

Another English member of that delegation to negotiate peace in 1588 was Sir James Croft (a member of the peace party) who did in fact receive Spanish bribes. 

So it is not impossible to believe that Burghley, Croft’s superior at Elizabeth’s Court, would accept Spanish bribes, too.

There is no evidence to prove that Burghley ever took bribes from Spain, but there is evidence that his son Robert later would. 

Burghley with his son Robert

And there is every reason to think that Robert inherited not only his position at court, and family property, from his father — but also perhaps a craving for Spanish gold. Like father, like son.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley is a fascinating character in history, and we can debate whether what he did was good or bad.

But we should not rule out what men like Shakespeare had to say about him.

To Shakespeare and men like him, he was an apologist for Spain. His loyalties seemed too Spanish, and not English enough. 

Shakespeare feared, like so many at the time, that Spain might one day really succeed in conquering England.

We have the benefit of hindsight. Today we might believe that Spain never had a real chance of conquering England, or that Spain never really meant to conquer England.

But in the 1590s, to Shakespeare and men like him, Spain was a clear and present danger. They thought that Burghley might end up leading England to her doom, and might allow Spain to invade and conquer the nation.

Of course, had Shakespeare written a play with a villain named Burghley, he would not have lived very long. He would have been put in the Tower to rot and to die. Other playwrights were tortured and imprisoned, and Shakespeare could easily have shared their fate.

Due to the censorship during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Shakespeare could not write how and what he liked. He had to disguise his thoughts and feelings. 

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Shakespeare was not part of the Queen’s Council, and had no say there. But Shakespeare did write plays for and about Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was the leader of the ‘war party’ during the 1590s. He was also Her Majesty's commander for the army.

Shakespeare wrote many plays to support the political position of his artistic patron, the Earl of Essex, who argued time and again with Burghley about the foreign policy as it relates to Spain.

As I have often written elsewhere on this blog, Shakespeare based his Hamlet character on Essex. Therefore the story of Hamlet is in large part a story about Essex’s struggle at Court with men like Burghley.

In that play, Shakespeare creates a villain named Polonius whose schemes directly and indirectly lead Denmark to its doom: King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Prince Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all die — and Prince Fortinbras of Norway conquers Denmark.

Hamlet was a nightmare scenario for men like Essex and Shakespeare, a nightmare they believed would come true for England. 

We can be thankful for the fact that Spain never did conquer England. But we should also properly remember Essex and Shakespeare for the part they played in keeping England safe. 

Shakespeare’s plays, for and about Essex, shaped public opinion and restored a national pride that prevented men like Burghley from weakening England.

It has often been said and written that Shakespeare’s plays helped England survive some of the darkest hours in her history, especially World War II. 


For example, Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V, released in 1944, helped England through that war.

But we should not forget that Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, and other plays during the 1590s, were no less important during some hours that were no less dark.

Cheers,



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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Shakespeare's Globe The Complete Walk


If you are lucky enough to be in England on 23-24 April, don’t miss an extraordinary free and public Shakespeare event — Shakespeare’s Globe The Complete Walk.


To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth) Shakespeare’s Globe has made 10 minute films for 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.

The films will be shown publicly on outdoor screens on a 2.5 mile path along London’s South Bank, and also in Liverpool’s city centre.

And what an all-star cast!

James Norton as Richard II

These short films include everyone from Gemma Arterton to Simon Russell Beale to Jessie Buckley to David Harewood to James Norton to Jonathan Pryce to Michelle Terry to Dominic West to Olivia Williams — and many many more!

From what I can tell — and it seems that much of the details about which actor plays what roles are under wraps — Gemma Arterton plays Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Simon Russell Beale plays Timon of Athens, James Norton plays Richard II, Jonathan Pryce and his daughter Phoebe reprise their roles as Shylock and Jessica, and Dominic West plays Coriolanus.

What is even more extraordinary is that each short film was shot on location — so Simon Russell Beale plays Timon in Athens! Jonathan Pryce plays Shylock in Venice! Dominic West plays Coriolanus in Rome!

Gemma Arterton as Rosaline

There are only excerpts of the films online so far, with James Norton performing in Westminster Hall, for example. And it is unclear whether these films will be available after the 24th — but I hope they will be online soon thereafter, so the whole world can see them.

There is a great article about the films (read it here) written by Dominic Dromgoole, the outgoing Artistic Director of the Globe, and the connection between the real settings where they shot the films, and the plays.

You can read more about the event here, on the Globe’s webpage: 


Of all the great events planned to celebrate Shakespeare this year, this is the most exciting — and I hope you don’t miss it!

Cheers,



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Friday, March 25, 2016

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Winter's Tale in OP


VERY EXCITING NEWS!

FINALLY we can see a Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in Original Pronunciation!

The fearless Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is making Shakespeare history again with their second Original Pronunciation play.

What is Original Pronunciation?

Original Pronunciation, or OP, is the real accent Shakespeare and his actors would have spoken the plays back 400 years ago.

It is an Early Modern English accent that sounds like Irish almost, and the Shakespeare plays and movies we are seeing now are spoken with the WRONG accent!

Isn’t that amazing? If Shakespeare came back to life and heard how actors today speak his lines, actors like Kenneth Branagh and Benedict Cumberbatch, he would be very very confused!

Here is a 10 minute video that perfectly explains and demonstrates how OP sounds and why OP is so important:



Last year, the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory peformed and OP version of The Merchant of Venice.

It was the first time in 400 years that Merchant was performed in the right accent. I saw that incredible production and here is my glowing review — here.

Here is a link for tickets:


I hope you can see this rare and incredible production of one of Shakespeare’s most magical plays. The show is only running for 12 performances — running from 1 April to 24 April -- so please don't miss it!

Cheers,



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Monday, March 21, 2016

Shakespeare's Globe The Tempest


I just watched the DVD for Shakespeare’s Globe 2013 production of The Tempest last night.

What a remarkable production!



It is one of my very favorite Shakespeare plays, and this is a very entertaining production. It is definitely the funniest!

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you.

Director Jeremy Herrin assembled some wonderful actors together and brought the play to life in a fresh new way. His artistic choices as far as music and costume, which have a great rustic and rawness to them, are excellent.

The entire ensemble is great, but I should point out some of the chief roles:

Jessie Buckley, Roger Allam and Joshua James

Roger Allam, to me, is one of Britain’s greatest national treasures, and he is perfect as Prospero. He strikes a wonderful balance between the lonely sorcerer, the stern but loving father, and the man who seeks vengeance upon those who stranded him on this island.

Jessie Buckley and Roger Allam

Jessie Buckley as Miranda is delightful as she grows up way too fast after the shipwreck and falls in love. She also strikes a great balance between naive and young, and smart and good. She is also the most easily excited Miranda I’ve ever seen, and I love the way she leaps into Ferdinand’s arms. Hilarious!

Colin Morgan

Colin Morgan as Ariel is a revelation. He is very strong and athletic, and makes the most of the stage, by climbing, swinging and coming in and out of scene. But he is also very serene and obediant in a way that I have never seen before. And Mr. Morgan has an excellent singing voice.

James Garnon, Sam Cox and Trevor Fox

For Shakespearean comedy, I don’t think there are very many actors who can match Sam Cox as Stephano or Trevor Fox as Trinculo. They are worth their weight in gold, and they steal every moment they are in. I especially love how Mr. Cox strikes poses like when he “meows” to Caliban. He is an absolute master of discovering hidden nuggets of humour in Shakespeare.

But the performance that surprised me the most was James Garnon as Caliban. I pity any actor who plays Caliban. It is a tough role, one of the most challenging in Shakespeare’s plays.

But Mr. Garnon takes on the challenge, and delivers an unforgettable performance. His Caliban is at turns scary, funny, unsettling, endearing, and very very compelling.

It makes you wonder, did Shakespeare write the entire play just for Caliban?

Even if Shakespeare did not, Mr. Garnon plays Caliban as it he is the star of a play all about him.



I found an interesting interview Mr. Garnon did — here.

As a veteran actor at The Globe, he finds that acting on that stage is very different, especially as far as the audience is concerned:

Mr. Garnon “explains that plays at The Globe are a shared game: soliloquies are not asides but a chat with the audience. The work is a two-way conversation from which the actor is continuously learning – each day’s performance affecting the next.”

With all due sincerity, I applaud him and congratulate him on discovering one of the great secrets of Shakespeare’s plays. I have written very often about how Shakespeare did not write soliloquies but rather colloquies, conversations with the audience.

I am so pleased that he is making an effort to bridge the divide between the actors and the audience. 

In all fairness, many of the Globe actors, especially Sam Cox and Trevor Fox, and many more including Mark Rylance, have and do involve the audience in the play. Mr. Garnon is not the only one who understands this. 

But with all due respect, there can be so much more of it, so much more back and forth between the stage and the crowd, than these great actors have attempted before.

I hope you buy this DVD and see this wonderful production for yourself. And while you are at it, there are many more great productions available on DVD in the Globe shop. So I hope you buy some more!

Here is the link to the Globe:


Cheers,




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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III


Very exciting news — Ralph Fiennes is going to play Richard III!

He will begin rehearsals in April, and the production will open at the Almeida Theatre this June



Directed by Rupert Goold, the cast also will include Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret — which is a reunion for her and Ralph, since she played Volumnia in his Coriolanus film.

There is so much Shakespeare excitement this year, since it is the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 — but this is perhaps the most thrilling event of the year.

It is surprising that he has not done the role already, since he has excelled at playing some of the greatest villains, like Coriolanus, Voldemort in Harry Potter, and Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

as Coriolanus

He is also very well known for his heroic roles, like Prospero, the Count de Almássy in English Patient, and M in the last two James Bond films.

But we have never really seen him do comedy.

I think he has a wonderful opportunity with Richard III. His performance could be groundbreaking, and he could revolutionize how we understand Shakespeare’s great (and misunderstood) villain.

I saw Mark Rylance’s incredible performance as the crookback, and I wrote a review — here.

What was remarkable about his performance was the amount of comedy he brought to the role. It was the funniest Richard III I have ever seen, and the reviews at the time praised him for just how funny he was.

But that production didn’t go far enough. It was not as funny as it could have been. 

There is a great deal of humour in the play that has yet to be fully exploited on stage and screen, and this is the opportunity of a lifetime for an actor as great as Ralph Fiennes.



We misunderstand the play. We think it is a history play and/or a tragedy, played solemnly and soberly. 

Why don't we see it as a comedy? Because we don’t think of how the play was originally performed circa 1593. 

When Shakespeare originally wrote the play, the Richard character was based on the villainous Vice character in the morality plays of the period. 

Other Vice characters in Shakespeare include Edmund in King Lear (who is quite a dark villain), Iago (who is actually quite funny and bawdy) and Falstaff (who is known for his clownishness).

The point is that we have lost touch with the comedy inside this Richard as Vice character. When we see Richard performed today, he is too often a mustache-twirling villain, a straightforward bad guy. He is too much like Edmund in Lear.

What if Richard is more like Falstaff?

What if Richard is more humourous? What if he laughs more?

In today’s popular culture, we have Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. He is a great Vice character — he laughs and kills gleefully. 

We also have Hannibal Lecter, who is funny, ironic and literally and figuratively savours killing people.

What if Shakespeare’s Richard III character is more like them?

When we read the play closely, Richard is far funnier than any other character in the play. 

As he murders them off, and plots his path to seize the throne, the other characters stand around like deer in the headlights, ready to be run over.



For such an accomplished actor like Ralph Fiennes, I hope that he takes a chance and blazes a new trail with this role. It would be a truly historical event.

Cheers,



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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Simon Russell Beale and Shakespeare


Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest actors in the history of Shakespeare.

I have read about many of the productions he has done, since I have unfortunately seen too few of his stage performances. Where are the DVDs of his Iago, his Timon?

But what I have seen, including his marvelous and award-winning Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series, is extraordinary.

I found some pictures of his career, and I thought it would be fun to share them with you.

His first stage performance was as Hippolyta in Midsummer, at primary school. Sadly I could not find a picture of that.

But I did find a picture of him as Desdemona in a later school production.

as Desdemona in 1975

as Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, 1990
Royal Shakeseare Company

as Richard III, 1992
Royal Shakespeare Company

as Edgar with David Bradley as Gloucester in King Lear, 1993
Royal Shakespeare Company

as Edgar

as Ariel with Alec MacCowan as Prospero, The Tempest, 1993
Royal Shakespeare Company
As Iago, with David Harewood as Othello, 1998
National Theatre

as Hamlet, 2000
National Theatre

as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, 2003
Donmar Warehouse
as Benedick, with Zoe Wanamaker as Beatrice, in Much Ado, 2007
National Theatre
as Leontes in The Winter's Tale, 2009
Old Vic
as Leontes

as Timon of Athens, 2012
National Theatre

as Falstaff in The Hollow Crown

as Falstaff

as King Lear, 2014
National Theatre
as King Lear

And there is some recent exciting news, that he will return to the stage, and return to the Royal Shakespeare Company for a new production of The Tempest, directed by his longtime collaborator Sam Mendes.

as Prospero in the forthcoming Tempest

He will play Prospero, and from what I have read (article here) it sounds like there will be some 3D special effects.

I hope you enjoy this pictorial celebration of his career in Shakespeare.

I think he was born to perform Shakespeare’s plays. He started on stage with Shakespeare and I hope and fully expect that he will continue to perform the Bard’s plays for many more years to come.

I have often thought about him, and what part I would want him to play in my Shakespeare Solved series.

The one historical figure I would love to see him play is William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

William Cecil

William Cecil is one of the most important men in world history, and his long and close partnership with Queen Elizabeth I is a fascinating story that has never really been told.

Shakespeare based his Polonius character on Cecil. If Shakespeare was a good judge of character, then we should conclude that Cecil was also one of the most villainous men in history.

I think that Simon Russell Beale would be perfect to play this complicated and paradoxical historical figure.

Cheers,



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