My Poetry · Shakespeare

Fall of a Tyrant

A poem about Shakespeare’s Richard III


Scheming, plotting, taking that
Which is not yours to take
Stealing, lying, trusting none
With smiles and friendship fake

Killing, lying, courting one
Who mourns the men you slew
Trapping in a web of lies
All those of use to you

Planning to usurp the throne
Upon a cunning lie
Locked inside the fearsome tower
Youthful heirs must die

Cheering subjects make you king
But enemies grow strong
Cursing you with hate and grief
For all your sin and wrong

Dripping down the castle walls
The blood of those you’ve killed
Brothers, nephews, allies, wife
The blood your hands have spilled

Haunting you with every step
Ghosts on the battlefield
“Despair and die!” their voices scream
By them your fate is sealed

Rising o’er the battlefield
A song of triumph soars
Rebuild the world, unite the signs
Of Lancaster and York

Nevermore from this day on
Shall brothers’ blood be spilled
But rival houses side-by-side
A kinder future build

Rest in peace, you restless ghosts
The battle has been won
The bloodstains fade from castle walls
Your business here is done

Shakespeare

Texas Shakespeare Festival: Richard III

Shakespeare Festival - Richard IIII went into the theater last night feeling excited, but a bit apprehensive. I’d only finished reading Richard III a few days before, and while I was looking forward to seeing it play out on stage, it was one of the bloodiest and most disturbing Shakespeare plays I’d ever encountered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be entranced by the gruesome events unfolding or simply disgusted. I left the theater a few hours later, literally speechless and breathless. It was like a horrible train wreck that you just can’t look away from, and I mean that in the best way possible. I loved it!

This was my second night at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and seeing Richard III was a very different experience from Much Ado About Nothing, which is a light, humorous romantic comedy. Richard III had me gasping in horror, biting back screams, and waiting on the edge of my seat as the doomed members of the House of York plotted against each other. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but I’d imagine it’s much the same effect: what’s happening in front of you is just so horrible it leaves you gasping for breath as if you’d just come close to drowning.

Only Richard III isn’t a horror movie. It’s Shakespeare, and it’s – at least in part – history. Elizabethan propaganda, historically inaccurate, yes, but still. The sides may not have been as black-and-white as Shakespeare would have us believe, but the War of the Roses was still an incredibly bloody and violent time, and history is filled with dictators and tyrants as horrible as Shakespeare’s villain.

Shakespeare’s work often speaks to universal themes. Romeo and Juliet is about love and hatred – irrational hatred and irrational love. Hamlet is about the inevitability of death. Othello is about jealousy and distrust. King Lear is about false flattery and backstabbing and the unfortunate fact that the honest often suffer while the dishonest profit. Many of the comedies deal with some of the same themes, coming to happier resolutions. Richard III, likewise, paints a blunt and unvarnished picture of the evil in the world and the ways in which ordinary people allow it: by trying to profit from it, underestimating the dangers, or simply being too afraid to speak up. There’s something about the play, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s works, which transcends time and continues to feel relevant today.

Shakespeare

Texas Shakespeare Festival: Much Ado About Nothing

shakespeare festival - much ado

This weekend, I’m at the Texas Shakespeare Festival.  They’re performing two plays by Shakespeare: Richard III, which I’m going to see tonight, and Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw last night. It was incredible!

I’ve read 13 of Shakespeare’s plays now (having finished Richard III this week), and I’ve seen movie versions of about half of those, but there’s something very special about seeing Shakespeare performed live. If a movie brings the script to life, a play transports you there as if it were happening all around you. I still stand by my preference to read the plays before I see them, but in the end, seeing them performed live is the best way to get past the antiquated language and let them take your breath away.

This production of Much Ado About Nothing was perfect in almost every way. The set looked like something out of a fairy tale, the actors’ performances were excellent, the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick was just right, and the audience could never stop laughing at the characters’ antics. The later part of the play, where Hero is accused of being unfaithful, was given just the right amount of drama and seriousness, while still adding in enough humor to make the happy ending feel realistic.

When I first read Much Ado About Nothing, and even when I watched the movie, it wasn’t one of my favorites. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Well, I loved it last night. Perhaps not quite as much as Twelfth Night, my favorite Shakespearean comedy, but now that I’ve seen just how funny, heartwarming, and exhilarating Much Ado can be, I think it will always have a special place in my heart.

Shakespeare

Genres of Shakespeare

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

In theory, Shakespeare’s plays are divided up into three genres: Tragedy, Comedy, and History. In reality, there’s a whole lot of gray area. There are plays that blur the lines between comedy and tragedy, between tragedy and history, and even between history and comedy. Not to mention comedies that clash too much with modern values to be funny anymore, a bunch of lesser-known plays that almost nobody reads, and the ultimate dilemma of what to do with Troilus and Cressida. (Personally, I think it’s a sometimes-amusing tragedy, but that’s just me).

So, I made this chart.

Shakespeare Genres

Don’t take it too seriously. Please don’t tell your English teacher that The Taming of the Shrew is a “Comedy Gone Sour” or that Timon of Athens is “The Boring One”. And of course, even within the more serious categories, nothing is absolute. There’s a lot of overlap, for instance, between the Romances and the Problem Plays, and the two genres are sometimes combined into a larger “Tragicomedy” category. But hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and maybe it will even help make sense of the mess that is Shakespearean genre.

Shakespeare · teaching literature

Sixth Grade Shakespeare

The sixth graders at the school where I work are studying Shakespeare, and of course, being a huge Shakespeare fan, I love it.

For most of them, this is their first introduction to Shakespeare. It’s a pretty light introduction: they’re not reading the actual plays, just summarized kids’ versions of them, and they’re not really expected to get the nuances. They’re kids. It’s the first time they’ve seen this stuff. But I think it’s great that they are seeing it now. I will often credit going to see a college production of As You Like It when I was in fifth grade as one of the things that sparked my love of Shakespeare’s work, and it makes me happy to think that these kids will also have the chance to experience Shakespeare in a fun and low-stress way before they get to middle school and are expected to analyze the original language.

Being the Shakespeare nerd that I am, I’m in charge of making sure they’ve done their reading and helping them to understand it. I think the kids are always a little surprised by how many things I’ve read. Just in this one week, I recognized a Harry Potter reference from one of the kids, shocked some of them with the knowledge that I read Percy Jackson when I was their age, and then to top it all off, revealed that I’ve read not one, not two, but thirteen plays by Shakespeare. I could blame my English minor, but really, my book nerd tendencies have more to do with it.

Shakespeare

Spring Break Reading: Much Ado About Nothing

One of the most interesting things about reading Shakespeare is that you never know quite what to expect when you pick up a play. There are certain things that are just so typical of Shakespeare – the wise fool, the clever heroine, the soliloquizing tragic hero – but each play has a distinct “feel” to it. Hamlet is a character-driven contemplation on mortality. Romeo and Juliet is a passionate story of doomed love. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so bizarre and fanciful that it does feel like a dream, whereas Twelfth Night is whimsical and humorous, but much less far-fetched. And Much Ado About Nothing can only be described as a romantic comedy.

I’m not a big romantic comedy person. I don’t mind romance in my reading material, but I’ve always felt like romance on its own makes for a pretty boring story. I like it better as a subplot than as the main plot. So you can probably guess that Much Ado About Nothing isn’t my favorite Shakespeare play I’ve ever read.

That being said, it’s not my least favorite, either. I liked it. I wouldn’t have committed a big chunk of my Spring Break to reading something I didn’t enjoy. Beatrice and Benedick, with their odd courtship and constant bickering, were delightful. Unlike in The Taming of the Shrew, here a clever and sharp-tongued woman is not put in her place, but allowed to be the hero of the story. Her growing love for Benedick softens her, but he is likewise softened, and he isn’t trying to break her spirit as Petruchio does to Kate. It’s the manipulative Don John who creates the play’s conflict, and the two lovers end up working together to clear the name of Beatrice’s cousin Hero, who he falsely accuses of cheating on her fiancé. If anything, Much Ado About Nothing has a Beauty and the Beast sort of storyline, but instead of learning to see past an unpleasant appearance, the two have to overcome their own pride and their habit of being argumentative with each other.

No, not Beauty and the Beast. What it reminds me of is Pride and Prejudice. Just like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, the two leads of Much Ado About Nothing bicker and resent each other, but fall in love by the end of the story. You could even compare Claudio and Hero to Jane and Mr. Bingley, in love but torn apart by false suspicions, or Lydia and Wickham, the relative in danger of disgrace and the man our male lead confronts in order to save her reputation. There’s certainly a feeling in both works that the two leads have no other equal and could only end up together, regardless of their disdain for each other at the beginning. And in both, they do fall in love, after setting aside that disdain and learning to see each other as they really are.

I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice when I read it. I didn’t love Much Ado About Nothing. They’re just not my type of story. But what I’ve learned through years as an avid reader, a student of literature, and now a teacher, is that you don’t have to love a book or have it come from your preferred genre for it to be worth reading. There’s something fascinating going on in the pages of Much Ado About Nothing that I’m glad I gave myself the chance to experience.