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Friday, March 29, 2013

Shakespeare and Easter, 1603

In 1603, Easter Sunday fell on 30 March.

Queen Elizabeth had just died on 24 March.

Elizabeth's funeral cortege

King James had been declared her successor the same day.

I think Shakespeare would have been in Stratford for the Easter holiday. He probably left London a few days before, maybe even before Elizabeth had died.

Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon

After services at Trinity Church, he probably celebrated the holiday with his wife and daughters, with his mother Mary, who lived with them, and any other relatives and neighbors whom they invited into their large house New Place.

I like to imagine that it was a lively event, and there was cause for some celebration.

They would have celebrated the memory of Elizabeth, who had reigned as queen for a remarkable 44 years.

Everyone had stories about her reign. Shakespeare's mother Mary, who was about 65 years old in 1603, would have a great deal to say about life before, and during Elizabeth's reign.

Mary probably had some stories about King Henry VIII, who died when she was about 10 years old.

I like to think that everyone took turns telling story after story of the changes that had occurred in the country in the last 50 years, some of most tumultuous years in England's history.

Shakespeare would have been at the head of the table, and the center of all of this storytelling. He probably got to tell his stories last, because he had met Queen Elizabeth, and had performed at court for her.

If ever there was a time when Shakespeare would talk about the queen publicly and at length, this would be it. With his closest friends and family around him, he could share what he had seen, heard and what he had himself experienced firsthand.

He probably told them about the first time he ever saw Queen Elizabeth. In 1575, she traveled with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester to his castle at Kenilworth, for several days worth of entertainment.

It is believed that as an 11 year old boy, William Shakespeare traveled the 23 kilometers from Stratford to see these festivities.

He must have seen the queen. It must have excited him so much.

He had witnessed the greatest monarch on earth, in his backyard.

If ever there was a moment when Shakespeare had prayed to become successful and meet the queen one day, that was the moment, right there at Kenilworth.

Queen Elizabeth arriving at Kenilworth

Notice the little boy in the lower left corner...

Shakespeare may have told his family and friends about the years before he moved to London to pursue a career there.

He probably told the story about the first time he came face to face with Queen Elizabeth, at court.

We don't know under what circumstances he first met her. But there must have been a moment when the queen would have wanted to personally greet the greatest playwright in her realm.

What did they say? What happened?

In my version of Hamlet, I created a scene where they meet.

What happened when Shakespeare first met Queen Elizabeth?

Shakespeare is the unrivaled playwright in London, and the Queen wants to get a sense of the real man, without any costumes or make-up on.

Shakespeare had worked his whole life for one such moment, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

Without giving too much away, suffice to say that he pays his respects to the queen, amuses her, and she definitely gets a sense of him.

Shakespeare would have had many occasions to entertain the queen at court, with his plays. His success as an actor and playwright depended on successfully entertaining Elizabeth.

Shakespeare did his job. He entertained her and she liked his plays. Shakespeare was more and more successful as the years went by.

Shakespeare would probably have told his family and friends about these occasions -- what she said to him and his fellow actors, what she wore on this or that occasion, and how she behaved when he performed for her.

I don't think Shakespeare would have told his friends and family much more beyond that, and they would have known better than to probe him on the last years of her reign, when despite Shakespeare's success with his plays, his relationship with the queen had changed for the worse.

Shakespeare would keep all stories about the Earls of Southampton and Essex to himself, and he probably never shared them with anyone other than his own wife.

I think Shakespeare would look back on the reign of Elizabeth with happiness and sorrow in equal measure.

I also think that it would not have escaped his notice that Easter, a holiday regarding death and rebirth, had fallen in the same week as Elizabeth's death and King James's succession to her throne.

I don't think Shakespeare was superstitious to think that this was an omen, but it would have been a rather strange coincidence.

He would probably share stories with his family and friends about England's past, with Elizabeth, and then intrigue them with predictions about England's future, with James.

Shakespeare had been in London for many years, and had been at court on many occasions. He must have heard the stories and rumors about King James of Scotland.

He must have heard so many of them, and so many versions of each story that he didn't know what to believe.

But his family and friends in Stratford, on that Easter, they would have wanted Shakespeare to tell them all.

He probably told them the familiar romantic story about how James heroically sailed from Scotland to marry his wife, Anne of Denmark.

He also probably told them some of the stories about James's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots who had been executed by her cousin Queen Elizabeth.

For the sake of any children in the room, he probably didn't tell them the scary stories about the witchcraft trials which James personally supervised.

Shakespeare perhaps told a few stories, as entertainingly as possible, but kept his real thoughts to himself.

In March of 1603, like most Englishmen, Shakespeare didn't know what to think of King James of Scotland.

They were afraid of him, and curious about him. While they were thankful that there was a peaceful transition from Elizabeth to James, they probably wished that there had been someone else, someone less Scottish, and more British who should have inherited the throne.

They didn't know what they were in for, with James as king.

They would soon find out.

And Shakespeare would have many more stories to tell.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Books from Google Play

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shakespeare Amends His Will

On 25 March 1616, William Shakespeare called his lawyer to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He wanted to amend his will.

By January of 1616, he must have known that he did not have long, because he called the lawyer to draft his final will and testament.

In February 1616, his daughter Judith married Thomas Quiney, a vintner.

But Quiney got into trouble. He had slept with another woman who got pregnant. Tragically, she and the baby both died in early March, as she was giving birth.

Quiney had to appear before a court, but was not punished very severely.

If that wasn't enough, Quiney and Judith were married in a time that prohibited weddings, and they did not obtain the proper license.

This was a serious offense. Quiney was excommunicated, and Judith may have been excommunicated, too.

Shakespeare was clearly angry. He struck Quiney out of his will.

He let Judith remain in the will, but with strict instructions never to allow Quiney access to the inheritance.

Most of what was left would be inherited by Shakespeare's elder daughter Susanna, and her husband John Hall, a respected physician.

This must have been a very unpleasant business to attend to, when Shakespeare must have been very ill -- he had almost exactly one month left to live.

A disputed death mask of Shakespeare

These must have been unbearably hard days at his house, New Place.

I can only imagine how sad Shakespeare's wife Anne must have been. She must have known that she was about to lose her husband, and she was losing her daughter Judith at the same time.

Like any spouse, she would have done everything she could to take care and to comfort her husband in these last days. That was her first priority.

But now with her daughter's unwise marriage and the rift that her marriage caused within the Shakespeare family, Anne must have wanted to reconcile father with daughter.

That would have been Anne's second priority.

I like to think that Anne was able to bring Judith home, to see Shakespeare alone.

I like to think that Shakespeare found some kind words to say to his daughter, the twin of his lost son Hamnet. I like to think that Judith cried on her father's shoulder, and apologized for her misbehavior.

But we don't know if there was such a reconciliation.

I do not like to think that Shakespeare died and went to his grave with a heart broken by his daughter's foolishness.

But it is very possible.

I try to imagine what a man like Shakespeare did in his very last days, and what crossed his mind.

I like to think that he remembered all of the grand days in his life, like the first days of his in London, around 1587 when the whole city was unknown to him and his talent and ambititon were burning brightest.

He would have remembered the triumphant moments in The Theatre, later The Globe, performing before Queen Elizabeth and King James.

I think he would spend much of the time remembering his very great friends Richard Burbage, Henry Condell and the other actors with whom he had worked.

I think he would have spent many moments with his wife Anne, reminiscing about their lives together and their lives apart.

I imagine that she would cry uncontrollably at some of these memories. I think they truly loved each other, and the loss of such a love would be unbearably hard.

I don't think he cried while looking back at his life. He had cried enough during his life to cry anymore now. He had cried over too many graves -- like his son Hamnet's -- and lost too many friends -- men like the Earl of Essex, and James Burbage -- to suffer from that pain anymore.

I like to imagine that in his very last days he would bravely face his fate. He accomplished so much, and he fulfilled just about every professional dream he ever had.

What more was there to do?

A recent 3D image of his face, based on the same death mask

He must have had regrets. We all have regrets. But I don't think he would have dwelled on them.

He was able to become an actor and a playwright, write and perform plays and change the course of history. He had earned his place in that history by his talent, his industry, and no little degree of luck.

He had lived a life that was unlike any other, and was almost inconceivable anywhere else on the planet in the late 1500's and early 1600's. He couldn't have accomplished what he did even in Europe -- not in France and not in Italy. Actors were excommunicated in those countries.

Only in England, and only with monarchs like Elizabeth and James, could a man from such humble beginnings climb to such heights, and become a gentleman.

I think there would be a moment or two where he would have been thankful for having been born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a town which he loved, and which lies just about in the center of the island.

Because I think he would have prayed a lot near the end. If he stopped and imagined what Heaven looked like, he probably wanted it to look like Stratford.

Stratford

And he would have thanked God for being born an Englishman, in the heart of England!

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Last Days

Shakespeare's Daughter Judith

Anne and William Shakespeare's Wedding

Books on Apple iTunes


Shakespeare and Essex's Last Ride

On 27 March 1599, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and his men gathered at Tower Hill, near the Tower of London.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

He and his soldiers were preparing to ride off to war.

Essex was the newly appointed general in command of Queen Elizabeth's army, to fight the war in Ireland.

Thousands of people turned out to cheer his name and see him go.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and it was a gloriously beautiful day.

Outside the Tower of London from Tower Hill

The night before, Essex had danced with the Queen at a party.

In the ten years before, Essex had been a rising military and political star -- popular with the people and the Queen's Favorite.

But he had also made enemies at court, and in the last year, he had been losing his standing at court.

Only the year before, in 1598, he was in a heated argument at court.

The Queen boxed his ear publicly.

Essex let his temper get the best of him. He drew his sword on the Queen!

Essex knew what a disastrous mistake that was. I think he offered himself as general for the army in Ireland as a way of repairing his relationship with Elizabeth.

She accepted and made him general.

So, on 27 March 1599, a lot was riding on his success in Ireland.

Elizabeth and Essex, from Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana

If he was successful, he could be Elizabeth's Favorite again, and press her for more power and property. She was old, and if he played his cards right he might be king one day.

He probably didn't even want to think of what would happen to him if he was unsuccessful in Ireland. It was too scary a thought.

Essex did fail in Ireland.

He upset Elizabeth even more, and fell even farther from her favor.

These events led to his failed Rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601. This Essex Rebellion, and Essex's execution, inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

In March 1599, when Essex was riding off to glory in Ireland, Shakespeare had written his Henry V play.

Essex was the inspiration for the character of Henry V. He was the inspiration for the character of Hamlet.

Henry V was written in 1599 to celebrate England's newest and greatest military leader, and potentially their new king. Hamlet was written so audiences could come to terms with his death in 1601.

In professor James Shapiro's excellent 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare he explores how the events of Essex's military campaign inspired Shakespeare to write Henry V.

The public in England was concerned about this seemingly never-ending war in Ireland, and Shakespeare wrote the play to inspire them.

As professor Shapiro writes, what the critics of the play "overlook is that all the debate about the war is the real story" of Shakespeare's Henry V play.

Also, even if they didn't support the war, Shakespeare wanted to rally support for Essex personally.

Essex was Shakespeare's patron, and not only did they use each other politically, they probably liked each other.

Essex could use a propagandist like Shakespeare (the greatest and most popular playwright in London by 1599) to increase his popularity and chance at becoming king.

Shakespeare used the popularity of Essex to increase attendance at the Globe theatre. Essex was a heartthrob military war hero. Shakespeare would have been crazy not to feature him in his plays.

Essex was the biggest box-office draw Shakespeare could have wished for.

I like to imagine that Shakespeare and his company of actors gathered on the streets near the Tower of London on 27 March 1599 to see Essex ride off to war.

Normally, on any other day at two o'clock, Shakespeare would have been starting a play at The Globe.

But that was no ordinary day. They left The Globe to witness history.

Shakespeare would have hoped that Essex was victorious in Ireland. As his patron Essex's fortunes rose, Shakespeare's fortunes would rise as well.


Little did they know that at that moment, around two o'clock, when Essex started to ride off for Ireland, that this was the best they would ever have it.

That was the last time fortune favored Essex. It was all downhill from there.

As soon as he started to ride off, there was a "strange thunderclap" in the clear skies over London. It began to rain, and for the rest of the day there were storms. The day had begun clear and bright, and ended with darkness and rain.

It was thought to be a bad omen, of Essex and the rebellion in Ireland.

What did Shakespeare think, as he hurried out of the rain, probably back to his flat, or perhaps to The Mermaid tavern to celebrate Essex?

Did he think that Essex was fated to meet his doom in Ireland? Or did he think that Essex would return a conquering hero?

I think Shakespeare was too clear-eyed to think that Essex would get everything he wanted.

But if the heavy and dark pessimism that pervades Hamlet is any indication of how sad Shakespeare was when Essex was executed in 1601, then Shakespeare must have been drunk on hope for his friend and England's hero Essex, in 1599.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Books from Amazon

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shakespeare and the Death of King James

King James died on 27 March 1625.

He died almost 22 years to the day that he became King of England, on 24 March 1603.

He had become King of Scotland when he was 13 months old. He became King of England when he was 36 years old.

King James in 1621

There are whole books about him, and there is so much that can be said about this remarkable and endlessly fascinating king.

What is remarkable is that there is so little written about the relationship between King James and William Shakespeare.

Why?

When James became king, he was not like Queen Elizabeth. He was a very different kind of monarch.

He hated his Parliament, and fought with them often. He closed Parliament on more than one occasion, and ruled without them from 1614 to 1621.

He was famous for his financial incompetence. When he became king the country was broke. When he died, it was even deeper in debt.

He didn't particularly like to be king, and much preferred to go hunting. He didn't like crowds, and didn't seem to care if the public liked him.

He left much of the exercise of his power in the hands of men like Robert Cecil.

He made rather sudden shifts in foreign policy, like the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty in 1604.

He also had a short temper for Catholics, whom he persecuted especially in the early years of his reign.

He had an insatiable curiosity and he was very learned. He wrote poetry and published books. He gathered together the finest poets of the period, which included Shakespeare and others like Ben Jonson.

He had a great appetite for entertainment. He was very fond of masques, in which he and his queen, Anne, would join the actors and entertainers as they danced, sang and played music.

He commissioned a new standard bible, which came to be known as the King James Bible.

In the first weeks of his reign, there were already plots against his life -- the Main plot and the Bye plot.

On 5 November 1605 there was a Gunpowder Plot to kill him, his family and blow up Parliament.

All of this was happening in the very first years of James's reign.

King James, early in his reign

These are the years in which Shakespeare was writing Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus, King Lear, Timon of AthensThe Tempest, Henry VIII and Antony and Cleopatra.

It is very surprising to me that there is very little that is written about King James and Shakespeare.

It is an amazing mystery to me why no one wants to connect these two men -- one of the greatest monarchs in history and the single greatest artist in history.

Shakespeare was not just any playwright. When James became king, he elevated Shakespeare's company of actors. They became the official royal playing company -- The King's Men.

With so much going on in the court of King James, I find it inconceivable that Shakespeare would not or did not write about it in his plays.

In the coming months and years, I will be adapting some of these plays, and publishing them for you to read.

In these new versions of the plays I think you will be surprised at how often and to what degree Shakespeare wrote about King James.

As I have just recently announced, I will begin with a version of Shakespeare's Othello play.

I have discovered the real identity behind the character Othello and it is King James himself. Shakespeare wrote the play, in 1604, to paint a portrait of James.

It was not the first time that Shakespeare put the king in a play, and it was far from the last.

If Othello is any indication, Shakespeare was fascinated by King James, and the portraits he painted of him in his plays gives us a picture of James as a king who possessed great strength, great weakness, and despite his crown, was all too human.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Article:

Othello is Otho is King James

Books from Google Play

Friday, March 22, 2013

Shakespeare and the Death of Queen Elizabeth

On 24 March, 1603 Queen Elizabeth died.

Early in the morning of the 24th, she passed away.

She may have died, but the Elizabethan era was not over, not as long as as William Shakespeare was alive and writing plays.

The Elizabethan era is most famous for the flourishing of the arts, the most important and significant of which were the plays of William Shakespeare.

Without Elizabeth we would have had no Shakespeare.

Her reign began in 1558, when she was 25 years old. Shakespeare would be born only 6 years later.




The country was changing so much, ever since the English Reformation began in the 1530's, when her father Henry VIII had separated from Rome.

One of the changes brought on by the Reformation was the nature of entertainment. Before, there were mystery plays and other ecclesiastical entertainment -- all of it based on religion.

One of the earliest actors was James Burbage, who traveled about from town to town, playing to crowds who would pay for his entertainment.

It was an undignified life. It was also a dangerous one, since some towns mistreated actors, like they were criminals and vagabonds.

One of the earliest enthusiasts for these playing companies was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He had employed actors as early as 1559, the year after Elizabeth became queen.

Leicester was the Queen's Favorite. If there was one man to whom she was devoted, and would have married, if she could have married, it was Leicester.

I think the proof of her love and devotion to him was when in 1562 she caught smallpox and almost died. If she did die, she wanted Leicester to succeed her.

I don't think Elizabeth ever really enjoyed playing companies and that sort of entertainment. I don't think she really enjoyed watching others entertain her. I think she wanted to be the entertainment. She enjoyed music and dancing, and is famous for having danced a Volta -- a sensual and undignified dance -- with Leicester on more than one occasion.


Queen Elizabeth dancing the Volta with Leicester


I think it was Leicester who was the real fan, the real enthusiast for playing companies. He was the greatest champion the playing companies could have wished for.

Had it not been for him, the history of playing companies could have been very brief.

But he encouraged their growth, and by 1574 Elizabeth rewarded Leicester's personal company of players, Leicester's Men, with the very first royal patent -- a letter giving them protection under the law. They could perform anywhere in England under the protection of the Queen herself.

James Burbage was the man who first petitioned Leicester for such a patent, and Burbage was one of the original Leicester's Men.

Soon, other companies of actors were created, and were given royal patents. A new industry, a new wave of entertainment, plays and players, was born.

In 1575, Leicester hosted a great celebration for Elizabeth, at his Kenilworth Castle -- only 23 kilometers from Stratford-upon-Avon.

It is believed that an 11-year-old boy by the name of William Shakespeare may have seen the Queen, Leicester and Leicester's Men for the first time.

But it would not be the last time William Shakespeare would see playing companies. They would travel far and wide to entertain, and Stratford-upon-Avon was not all that far, only about 2 days out of London.

Shakespeare's father would have welcomed playing companies and charged them for the privilege of playing in the town.

Shakespeare would have had a front row seat in the earliest years of Renaissance drama, the very first plays and playing companies in the history of England.

Within a few short years, he was in London. He was drawn to the London playhouses, including The Theatre, which was the first permanent and successful playhouse in the history of England, since Roman times.

The Theatre was built by the same James Burbage who had been one of the original Leicester's Men.

Burbage's son Richard would become Shakespeare's greatest friend and ally -- and he was the very first actor in history to perform Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, King Lear and so many more roles.

By 1589-90, the time Shakespeare was in London, writing and performing his first, and immediately popular plays, the history of plays was only 30 years old.


In her Armada Portrait, 1588
the same period when Shakespeare arrived in London


As Shakespeare emerged, by 1593, as the pre-eminent playwright of the period, his plays matured quickly and firmly established plays, players and playwrights as indispensable to the life in London.

At any point in the brief life span of plays, it could have all just gone away.

The plague closed all the playhouses in 1592 to 1594, and yet the plays kept going on, despite the risks.

The Puritans fought against the theatres, arguing that they were breeding grounds of sin and vice. They did succeed in closing the playhouses eventually, in 1642.

It is arguable that when Leicester died in 1588, Elizabeth could have closed the playhouses forever. Why did she keep them open? Was it to honor his memory, a gift to her Favorite?

If she had even stopped to think of closing them after Leicester died, she would later regret keeping them open. The theatres later became hotbeds of political dissent against her -- and would eventually lead to the Essex Rebellion, which commenced with a performance of Shakespeare's play Richard II.

The playhouses could have been shut down, but they weren't. It is to her great credit that they were not.

She kept them open, despite the plague, despite the Puritans in her own court who fought her, despite the insults she perceived to be coming from the stages of The Theatre, and later The Globe.

It is to her credit that she allowed Shakespeare to write and perform just about whatever he wanted.

It is to her great credit that not only did she allow these plays to go on, but she invited them into her court, and had them performed for her personally.

Without her, Shakespeare would never have come to London, to enter an industry she had helped give birth to.

Looking backwards through time we can connect the dots:  Shakespeare and Richard Burbage owed their success to James Burbage, who owed his success to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who could not have been the first patron of a playing company had it not been for Queen Elizabeth.

What did Shakespeare think, on 24 March 1603, when she passed away?


ca. 1595


Everything he had, everything he had accomplished and would accomplish was due to her.

I don't think he liked that, owing so much of his success to her, or to anyone for that matter.

But he had no choice. That was the world in which he lived.

From the time he was a child, all he wanted was to write plays and poetry, and act on a stage. Without Queen Elizabeth, there would be no plays, poetry and the stage to act on.

It was a hard truth, but he had to acknowledge it. I don't think he was much of a drinker, but I would think that he would lift a glass and drink to her memory.

During her own lifetime, I think she was wise enough, and far-seeing enough, to recognize that Shakespeare was England's national treasure.

She probably knew that history would remember him as much as it would remember her.

I don't think she liked that.

But she deserves our eternal gratitude. She never stopped the shows from going on, and never stopped Shakespeare from defining her age, the Elizabethan era.




I hope you join me in remembering her this weekend, and celebrating the memory of such a remarkable woman.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare and the Birth of Playing Companies

The Birth of The Theatre and the Birth of William Shakespeare

Robert Dudley The Queen's Favorite

Shakespeare and Richard Burbage

Essex Rebellion


Books on Google Play



Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gary Oldman and Shakespeare

Should Gary Oldman do some Shakespeare?

Yes, of course!


I am really surprised that he has not done any, on stage or screen. He would be such a natural.

I think it is interesting that he grew up in Deptford, London.

Christopher Marlowe was murdered in Deptford, and he is buried in the graveyard of St. Nicholas Church in Deptford.

I'll bet Gary Oldman has his own theories about what really happened to Marlowe, Shakespeare's greatest friend and enemy.

It is also funny that Gary Oldman once performed on stage in  Marlowe's Massacre at Paris -- the play which I think proves when Hamlet was first performed.



Of course, he was great in the fantastic Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead -- but that is something entirely different.

I can imagine him in any number of roles -- Macbeth, Iago, Prospero, Richard III but more than anything I would love to see him do King Lear.

I know Gary Oldman is still a young man, but I think he would be a powerful Lear.



I have seen just about every film he has done, and with each film he brings something different.

His performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was amazing. I love Alec Guiness as George Smiley, and I doubted that anyone could do better.

But when I heard that Gary Oldman was doing it, I was very eager to see his performance. It is completely unlike anything he had ever done. I can't even remember the last time I saw an actor express so much when he isn't supposed to express anything. Fascinating.

I have really enjoyed his performance in the Batman films. I would have never have thought of him as Gordon, but he really is perfect. But what I enjoyed most was getting to see him in a series of films, and see how his performance evolved from film to film.

I really hope there is a sequel to Tinker Tailor, and with any luck they will do even more of the John le Carre books. Gary Oldman is long overdue to have a character that is his, in a series of films of his own.

That is one reason it is so easy to think of him in a series of Shakespeare Solved films -- it would be great to see him in another series of films. And what better than a series of films that revolutionize Shakespeare.


More than anything I can see him as one of Shakespeare's fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He could do just about any role, and it would be really fun to see him doubled up in roles, performing Shakespeare's most famous plays for the first time in history.

I would love to see him with actors like Christian Bale (again!) Benedict Cumberbatch (again!) Tom Hardy (again!) and many more on the same screen, performing on stage at The Globe in London in the 1600's.

What do you think?

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Books from Amazon

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Shakespeare and Ovid

The great Roman poet Ovid was born 20 March, in 43 BC.


Ovid by Luca Signorelli


Ovid has influenced many writers and artists, including Geoffrey Chaucer, the composers Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten, and many more.

But the influence he had on Shakespeare was profound and seemingly unparalleled. Many of Shakespeare's plays, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, and The Comedy of Errors were influenced by Ovid.

In fact, scholars have found that 90 % of Shakespeare's mythological references come from Ovid's narrative poem masterwork, Metamorphoses.

Why would Shakespeare write plays and poetry so frequently that were so obviously influenced by Ovid?

I think there is something deeper here, something worth exploring.

In 1567, Arthur Golding's famous translation of Ovid was published.


Arthur Golding's 1567 translation


This was only two years after Shakespeare was born, and by the time Shakespeare was a schoolboy learning Latin and Greek, it is well known that he would have read this translation.

Shakespeare's father was a glovemaker by trade, and he served the Stratford community in various positions. But he also got into trouble for wool brogging, illegal dealing in sheep's wool.

I find it interesting that the name Ovid means 'sheep.'

Shakespeare did not go to university. It is thought that his father's troubles brought the family to an almost complete financial ruin, and they could not afford to send Shakespeare to Oxford, as was most likely.

We don't know what Shakespeare would have studied, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was law.

That was never to happen, and within a few years Shakespeare was on his way to London to become an actor and playwright.

I would think that this was met with at least a little scepticism by his family and especially his father, who probably considered a career on the stage no better than being a common criminal.

Ovid's father wanted him to become a lawyer, and after serving in some minor public offices, Ovid resigned from public service and became a poet. His father did not approve.

Ovid was successful right away.

Shakespeare, it would seem, did not waste any time when he got to London, because his earliest plays were big hits.

When the plague hit London very hard in 1592 and it closed the theatres, Shakespeare wrote an erotic poem Venus and Adonis, which was hugely successful. It was like the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Elizabethan era.

Venus and Adonis was modeled after Book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Shakespeare's later epic poem Rape of Lucrece was modeled after Ovid's Fasti. It is interesting to note that the Fasti had not been translated yet, so it is proof that Shakespeare did in fact read Latin.

Shakespeare's sonnets were based on Ovid's love lyrics, Amores.

Time and time again, Shakespeare turned to Ovid to inspire him and help lead him. I know that many writers find inspiration from the lives and works of other writers, but I can't escape the thought that there was something deeper here between Shakespeare and Ovid.

In Ovid's lifetime, he was perhaps most famous for having been banished from Rome by Emperor Augustus.

We don't know why he was banished. It is a mystery to this day.


Ovid Banished from Rome, by J.M.W. Turner 1838


Ovid wrote that he was banished because of "carmen et error" which means "a poem and a mistake." He claimed that his crime was worse than murder and more harmful than poetry.

What was the poem and what was the mistake? Was the poem a mistake?

What did he write and what did he do to so offend and anger the Emperor that he would be kicked out of Rome?

What could be worse than murder?

Plato, in The Republic, attacked the art of poetry, and theatre for that matter. He argued that these arts have a corrupting influence on society, and should be censored and banished.

It was written in 380 BC, so by the time of Ovid, the debate about censorship had been raging for over 300 years.

By the time Shakespeare was writing, the debate had been raging for about 2000 years.

And of course, the argument is far from over, and still rages all over the world today.

When Shakespeare was writing his plays, the history of plays and playhouses and playwrights in England had just been born. With every word he wrote he was breaking new ground and paving a path that had never existed in England before.

England was allowing freedoms unheard of in England before. Shakespeare's father John didn't know such freedoms and would not understand them perhaps to the day he died.

So, Shakespeare knew that his artistic freedom, given to him by Queen Elizabeth, was under siege. It was being attacked (especially by the Puritans) and could disappear just as quickly as it had appeared.

I think Shakespeare felt a real kinship with Ovid, that was deeper and more significant than with any other artist or historical figure.





Shakespeare probably thought to himself, on more than one occasion, that history was repeating itself -- first Ovid and now him, Shakespeare.

And I think Shakespeare couldn't help but be aware of the fact that the raging debate about art and freedom could banish him, or worse yet, kill him.

Shakespeare's greatest friend and enemy, his frenemy, playwright Christopher Marlowe had died under suspicious circumstances. It was believed that Marlowe had worked as a spy for the state, and probably was killed by other agents of the state.

Thomas Kyd, another playwright, was tortured by the government and died from his wounds, not long after.

John Marston, another playwright, had offended King James with his plays, and by 1607 his career was over. He was not killed, but his career was over. Banished like Ovid perhaps.

I think Shakespeare lived with the fear and the very real likelihood that his plays might one day be the end of him.

There were precedents for this in antiquity and precedents in his own lifetime.




I have often thought that Shakespeare may not have retired from playwriting in about 1610. Was he perhaps forced into retirement? Was he banished to Stratford?

This may have been one last great coincidence between Ovid and Shakespeare.

If Shakespeare was banished from London, then it is would be one of the greatest mysteries of the Elizabethan period, just as Ovid's banishment from Rome is the one of the greatest mysteries of Classical antiquity.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Related Articles:

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare

Christopher Marlowe's Life & Shakespeare's Life

Thomas Kyd

John Marston


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Monday, March 18, 2013

Shakespeare and Walter Raleigh's Last Voyages

Sir Walter Raleigh was released from the Tower on 19 March 1616.

He was arguably the most famous courtier of the Elizabethan period, and for a time he had been the Queen's Favorite.


Sir Walter Raleigh in better days


She had sent him to the New World to create a Tudor Empire in North America, and enrich her crown. He was one of the very first to discover the New World, and the area where he first landed he named Virginia, after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth.

While he was exploring and killing and plundering he became obsessed with the legend of a lost city of gold, El Dorado.

Hernan Cortes had conquered the Aztec empire. Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Incans. Surely there must be one more great city to conquer, a city with wealth beyond imagination.

El Dorado must exist.


The Muisca Raft, in gold
It depicts the Zipa ruler of Bogotá offering to the gods, which is believed to be origin of El Dorado myth


Raleigh went looking for it in 1595, with 14 ships and 1000 men. He didn't find it.

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and King James succeeded her, Raleigh was no longer in favor. Not that long before, Raleigh had questioned King James's succession in Parliament.

Within weeks, Raleigh was implicated in the Main Plot to kill King James. He was famously put on trial and sentenced to death.

King James intervened and commuted the sentence to life in prison. Raleigh ended up in the Tower, for life.

But in the next 12 years he continued to lobby for yet another expedition to find El Dorado.

By 1616, King James was game. He could send Raleigh to find this lost golden city. If he succeeded, then James would enjoy a tremendous financial windfall. If Raleigh failed, then James would have even more reason to finally send him to the executioner.

So, on 19 March 1616, Raleigh was released. He was 62 years old.


in later years


It would be another year before he set sail and sadly did not find El Dorado. Their quest met with terrible failure. Raleigh would meet the executioner not long after.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?

Well, by 19 March 1616, Shakespeare was at home in Stratford, and he didn't have long to live. He would die one month later.

I wonder what he would have thought of Raleigh's release. I doubt anyone in England didn't hear the news that Raleigh was free.

I don't think that he and Raleigh had much to do with each other, but there is every reason to think that they saw each other from time to time, at court.

It's hard for me to believe that Raleigh never went to the theatre. If he went to the theatre with any regularity, he would have seen a play by the greatest playwright of the period, William Shakespeare.

I doubt that Shakespeare wanted to have much to do with Raleigh, especially since Raleigh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex were rivals at court -- and Essex was Shakespeare's patron.


Tower of London


But when Raleigh was imprisoned in 1603, I think Shakespeare felt that this sentence was unjust. In a sense, to imprison Raleigh was to shut the door on the Elizabethan era.

I think Shakespeare felt like many in England -- Raleigh was many things, and not all of them good, but he didn't deserve to rot in jail.

So, when Raleigh was released, I wonder what Shakespeare thought. I think he would have been pleased, and relieved that so great a man was no longer in shackles.

But I also think that Shakespeare, who had himself been abused by the court of King James from time to time, was no fool. He knew that Raleigh had to find gold and lots of it. Shakespeare must have known that while Raleigh's death sentence had not been averted, it was just being postponed.

Shakespeare knew that Raleigh's time was not long. He might sink with his ships, be killed at sea while fighting the Spanish, die of disease, or never be heard from again.

Raleigh was 62 when he was released on 19 March.

Shakespeare may have envied Raleigh, getting ready for one last adventure. Shakespeare probably crossed his fingers and hoped that Raleigh made it back safely.

Sadly, Raleigh made it back, only to be executed in 1618.




Shakespeare was 52 years old when Raleigh sailed away on his voyage. He was probably aware of the fact that he didn't have long to live.

I like to think that Shakespeare did not suffer in his last days, but rather faced his end with dignity and courage, because he was getting ready for his own adventure, the the greatest of all adventures -- to that "undiscover'd country" from which "no traveler returns."

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Last Days

The Beginning and End of the Elizabethan Era

Shakespeare and Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh


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Friday, March 15, 2013

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and King James


On 15 March 44 BC, Emperor Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by a mob of 60 men.


Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

This shocking event was all the more shocking because the mob wasn't a group of criminals or common men who suddenly killed their ruler -- this was a planned assassination by some of the most powerful men in Rome -- they were aristocratic Senators.

The events before and after the assassination were depicted in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar.

From this play we get the famous line "beware the Ides of March" spoken by a Soothsayer to Caesar, warning him about the 15th of March. He doesn't take heed of her warning and he is assassinated.

We also get the famous "Et tu, Brute?" (which translates as "And you too, Brutus?") which Caesar says when he is surprised that Brutus would stab him, too.




There is so much written about Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, and I encourage you to read as much about it as possible.

There are a couple of things I find fascinating about this play, and I do want to mention.

This was the very first play Shakespeare and his company of actors performed to inaugurate the brand new Globe Theatre.

They had been performing at The Theatre in Shoreditch, which was the first theatre built for the purpose of performing plays in England since the Roman times.

They moved their act, and took every last piece of wood from The Theatre, across the Thames to Bankside, where they rebuilt it and gave it a new name -- The Globe.

This was an exciting moment in the career of William Shakespeare. You would think that he would want to open the doors of The Globe with a bang -- and he would feel the pressure to write a hit, something that would secure their future and their fortunes.

Did he write a romantic comedy? A bawdy farce? Did he write another history play about a famous English king?

No.

He wrote a play about the assassination plot of Julius Caesar.

Not only that -- he put the actual killing on stage, for everyone to see. Shakespeare didn't always show the death scenes, or executions of his characters. But for Julius Caesar he did.

I find that truly remarkable. Do I think that Shakespeare was trying to incite the crowd to kill Queen Elizabeth? No, but I do think he was trying to capture the spirit of the times, and by 1599, at the end of Elizabeth's reign, I do think there was a lot of loose talk about a regime change.

It is also interesting that Julius Caesar was murdered at the Theatre of Pompey -- which was one of the first permanent theatres in Rome.


Theatre of Pompey 


In 2012, archeologists found what they believe to be the precise spot where he was stabbed to death -- article here.


The location of Julius Caesar's murder


So Shakespeare performs a play, about the killing of the Emperor at one of the first permanent theatres in Rome, in a new theatre that was made from the same wood taken from one of the first permanent theatres in England since the Roman times.

Hmmm. Interesting. You can't tell me that this was lost on Shakespeare. This is not a mere coincidence.

But just in case you think that Shakespeare was trying to start a plot to assassinate the Queen right there on the stage of The Globe in 1599, he did something very shrewd and very telling.

He changed the story. In his play, Julius Caesar is killed not at the Theatre of Pompey -- but at the Capitol!

For those in the audience who did not read, nor know the true story, Shakespeare had defused what could have been a very incendiary play.

For those in the audience who could read and knew the true story, they would not fault Shakespeare, since the play might not have been approved by the royal censor, the Master of the Revels.

But those who knew the true story understood what Shakespeare was writing and what it meant. It is very difficult to understand these things today, because Shakespeare didn't write the play for us. He wrote for his audience in 1599, to open his new theatre.

Finally, it is interesting that the reason the Senators plot to kill Caesar is because they are afraid that he will turn the republic of Rome into a monarchy, with him as king.

What does this say about England in 1599, not a republic but very much a monarchy?


But wait, there's more!

I have never read it written anywhere, by any Shakespeare scholar, about the other significance of 15 March.

On 15 March 1604, the ceremonial entry for King James into London was celebrated.


King James

He had been crowned king the year before, when Queen Elizabeth died.

Soon after she died, he arrived in London, but the city was hit by a very bad period of the plague. They postponed any ceremonies to welcome James.

Shakespeare and his fellow actors had become King's Men, the official players for the king. They were given red sashes to wear, for the ceremonies.

It took a whole year until things calmed down enough for James to be seen by the crowds of Londoners who wanted to welcome him as their new king.

It had been a busy year -- what with the plague and the fact that there were not one but two plots against his life that had to be put down -- the Main and Bye plots.

He must have been afraid for his life, in his first year as King of England.

As he tried to enjoy this ceremony on 15 March 1604, he was probably afraid for his life again.

He had good reason to be afraid. There were more people plotting to kill him.

Not two years later, he would be the target of the most infamous terrorist plot in England's history -- the Gunpowder Plot.

Shakespeare, like anyone in England, or Europe for that matter, was watching this new king very closely, and everyone -- down to the beggar on the street -- was aware that King James had been born during a time of great violence, his parents met violent ends, and he may very well meet a violent end himself one day.

These are the kinds of things that Shakespeare would be thinking in 1604 when he attended to his king during these ceremonies.

I find it very hard to believe that Shakespeare, as he celebrated with King James on 15 March 1604, would not stop and reflect on the fact that it had been 1647 years since Julius Caesar was killed.

Would Shakespeare, who wrote the words "Beware the Ides of March" think that it was a bad omen that King James was officially entering London on the Ides of March?

At some point, Shakespeare was reminded of another Roman Emperor, named Otho.

Because he would write, later that same year, one of his greatest masterpieces -- Othello.

It was a play written for, and about, his new king.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified


The Birth of The Theatre and The Birth of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare and The Great Theatre Heist

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