While they’re definitely great podcasts to check out, I do have a new favourite!
I recently discovered The Hurly Burly Shakespeare Show, a fabulous podcast by Aubrey Whitlock and Jess Hamlet, AKA Whamlet. Both are vivacious and highly entertaining ‘lady academics’ – their words, not mine – who use their knowledge and expertise to make the plays accessible to new audiences and inspiring them to enjoy and appreciate Shakespeare’s works.
Both hosts are very engaging and easy to listen to, although the podcast does come with a ‘bawdy language’ warning which would be well heeded by those offended by expletives.
The podcast explores each play at a 101 level, giving the listener all the basics they need to know about that play to help them understand it better. Plot, characters, key themes and points of interest are discussed in a relaxed and relatable way.
Each episode also presents insights into the performance or staging of the plays, dramatic devices used by Shakespeare in crafting his works, and various developments in the worlds of studying or performing Shakespeare.
Some plays are revisited at a 201 level, exploring central themes and ideas at a deeper level.
In addition to exploring Shakespeare’s work, there are some really interesting episodes dedicated to the writing of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Thomas Kidd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Thomas Middleton.
The Hurly Burly Shakespeare show is both highly entertaining and informative. It has not only reinforced my knowledge, but also motivated me to read more widely and to expand my knowledge of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote.
If you enjoy Shakespeare, or if you’d just like to know more about his work, I recommend this excellent podcast.
‘Julius Caesar’ is a brilliant play in which Shakespeare demonstrates his genius is in taking a story we all know and making the characters familiar in a personal and almost tangible way. Shakespeare takes one of the most famous men in history and portrays him as fully human, flawed and even vulnerable in different ways. It’s not the way we’re accustomed to thinking about ‘historical giants’ like Caesar., but Shakespeare makes it all seem quite natural.
At the beginning of the play, even while he is being celebrated as Rome’s all-conquering hero, his first interactions cast him as a husband who is acutely aware of his wife’s childlessness. We don’t know if his instructions to Calpurnia and Antony are motivated by sorrow or by his desire for an heir to whom he might pass his empire, but either way, Caesar doesn’t miss an opportunity that might make a difference.
Before long, we see him as a man afflicted by disease when he is struck by a seizure, and is obviously bothered by the fact that is happens in public. He may control all of Rome and its empire, but he cannot control his illness. We also see him as a man keenly aware of popular opinion, sen in his public refusal of the crown not once, but three times, yet ignorant of the way his own senators feel about him personally. Regardless of his aspirations, he is astute enough to know that actually accepting a crown as Emperor is not the best move for him at this point in time.
In these things, the audience begins to see the great historical hero Julius Caesar as a complex, thoughtful man, one who holds a variety of responsibilities and obligations that he takes very seriously. He is very much human, in contrast to the Roman tendency to venerate their heroes almost as gods. We see his humanity rather than his pride, although we know that exists because it is his hubris that brings about his downfall.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of other characters is equally powerful.
Caesar’s assessment of Cassius is profound: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” In those few words, Shakespeare establishes a vivid image that shapes our perception of the man and positions the audience to distrust the character.
Brutus is shown as a moral man struggling with a dilemma that weighs heavily on him. A strong sense of foreboding settles on the audience when he puts his trust in Cassius, making himself vulnerable to a man whose thoughts and conspiracies are indeed dangerous, particularly for Caesar. At this point, even though both Caesar and the audience like Brutus, his destiny as one of the conspirators is sealed.
In all of this, Shakespeare makes expert use of dramatic irony and foreboding to keep the audience in suspense as Caesar’s train speeds ignorantly toward its derailment. This is established right at the start of the play with the mysterious soothsayer who delivers the warning, “Beware the Ides of March”.
While it is a history play, it has some elements of a tragedy in that Caesar is completely oblivious to the fact that his actions are contributing to his own eventual demise at the hand of the conspirators whom he still perceives as friends and allies. The pathos of his question to Brutus: “Et tu, Brute?” — “You too, Brutus?” makes the moment of his all-too-late realisation one of almost palpable betrayal and sorrow. In that moment, Caesar dies knowing that he is truly friendless and alone.
It’s important to note that the play makes it clear that assassinating anyone is not a good idea, and the assassins do not prosper as the result of their actions. It wasn’t in Shakespeare’s interests to be seen to promote or condone assassinating the established ruler, as he was reliant on the good favour of Queen Elizabeth I and, after her, King James. He wasn’t encouraging anyone to try to kill their leader: he was showing that, historically, doing so didn’t actually achieve what the conspirators hoped it would.
It’s a very direct and straightforward play – there are no real subplots and the political undercurrents are all really obvious because they are what drives the play. This makes it a great play for a “first Shakespeare play” for those who are just beginning their Shakespeare journey.
For the word-nerds, this is the text from which we get great, still commonly used phrases like “It’s all Greek to me” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. It’s also the source of the title of John Green’s enormously popular novel ’The Fault In Our Stars’.
If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you’ll probably know that when I’m not blogging, reading or writing, or strutting my stuff on stage in musicals, I’m a teacher.
Teaching is demanding and tiring and stressful, but I am always up for a great booknerdy discussion with my students, who I happen to believe are some of the coolest kids on the planet. That is one of the parts of my job that I really love.
The fun continues this semester. I’m excited to be teaching four more texts I really enjoy. My Year 9 English class are going to study ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Treasure Island’. My Year 11 English class will be studying ‘The Complete Maus’ and ‘The Book Thief’.
Teaching teenagers can be a tough gig sometimes, but it also has its perks.
If you had a teacher you liked, I’d love to know what it was about them that appealed to you or inspired you.Leave a comment and inspire me!
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was written in 1598-99. It is one of Shakespeare’s comedy plays, which means that the main characters enjoy a happy ending.
In that sense, the word ‘comedy’ has changed over time, because now it’s understood to mean a text that is designed to make the audience laugh. There is plenty of humour in this play, though, as it was written purely to entertain and amuse the Elizabethan audiences.
While it’s all about the entertainment, the play does explore some key ideas in ways that are designed to make the audience consider or contemplate those concepts for themselves.
The play revolves around the challenges encountered by several couples who are in love but face various challenges in their personal lives that threaten their happiness and wellbeing. The ways in which different people respond to those conflicts and complications are well worth thinking about, because relationships are always challenged by problems of one kind or another. As Shakespeare observed in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, “the course of true love never did run smooth”, an epithet which is demonstrated with profound clarity in ‘Much Ado’.
Questions of commitment, trust, belonging, family dysfunction, hatred and revenge all emerge in this play, seamlessly woven into and underpinning the plot and the responses of the characters. It is those timeless ideas that enable audience five hundred years later to still appreciate and relate to Shakespeare’s plays even though the language and many elements of our society have evolved since then. Shakespeare really was a master of exploring and portraying human nature at its best and its worst.
In contrast to those more serious ideas, one of the things I enjoy most about this play is the wit and banter between Beatrice and Benedick. They’re crazy about each other, but spend most of their time insulting and taunting each other because neither one knows that other is crazy about the other. In that way, theirs is an unconventional romance because there’s no formality, no swooning, and no overly sentimental conversations. They’re far more likely to be saucy or sarcastic than sickly sweet.
Dogberry is hilarious in his frequent mangling of the language and the way he continually bungles his job as the constable despite his pretentiousness and high opinion of himself. He is entirely inept and ridiculous, providing some welcome comic relief during the more emotionally intense phase of the play.
I also enjoy the way in which Shakespeare uses the characters and events of this play to make fun of the stereotypical romances that occurred in many popular plays and stories of the time, adding another level of wit and engagement to this play. I do love a bit of snarky, subversive humour, especially when it comes to the tropes of the genre of romance.
As with all good Shakespeare plays, there are a couple of characters we can enjoy hating on. Don John, in a perpetual bad mood, seems determined to make everyone else suffer, just because things haven’t always gone his way. His selfish dudgeon may be as annoying to the audience as it is to the rest of the characters, but his blatant disregard for Hero makes him despicable.
I also harbour significant dislike for Claudio and Leonato because they never even stop to consider that Hero might be innocent of the accusations levelled against her. For two men who love her – albeit in different capacities – they have a mighty strange way of showing it. They don’t give her any credit for honesty or integrity: instead, they both default to outright condemnation. The fact that Claudio delivers his judgement with such vengeance puts him right into my “love to hate” group with Don John.
Finally, I can’t help but love a play that can get so much mileage out of a line like “hey, nonny nonny!”
Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.
It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would.
Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.
The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.
Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play.
Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it.
That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not.
Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.
I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites.
At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses.
Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined to let the truth get in the way of a great story.
Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes.
Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it.
Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action.
My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.
The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art.
It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.
To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright.
I’m currently reading a great book titled ‘Blood and Ink’ by DK Marley. It is a really well written historical fiction novel that explores, in part, one of the theories about the identity of the man we know of as William Shakespeare.
Rumours and theories that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else have abounded for a long time. Various people have been proposed as the actual author.
That’s all very interesting, of course, but the fact is, I really don’t care whether his name was actually Filchin McFarkle.
My love for Shakespeare isn’t about the person: it’s about the language, the writing, and the craftsmanship that combine to be the genius of the writer. What his name was doesn’t matter one bit.
The power of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry is that they take something ordinary and transform it into something extraordinary.
Themes of love, passion, ambition, revenge, hatred, despair, desire, and family dysfunction make his work interesting and relatable to just about everyone. And while there are at least a dozen ways to write any story, the way Shakespeare tells each story is absolute magic.
Shakespeare used rhythm and poetic devices like imagery, allegory and highly emotive language to heighten the feelings and drama of the situations his characters find themselves in. He enmeshes them in a complex web of conflicting emotions and ambitions and then exposes their innermost thoughts in the most profound ways. He really is the master of intrigue and dramatic irony, able to hold the audience spellbound, even though they probably already know what’s going to happen and what the various characters are thinking.
To be honest, some of the storylines are pretty rubbish. There are very convenient coincidences, leaps of logic, and plot holes galore, particularly in the comedies. The history plays are at times more fiction than history. Despite all that, Shakespeare dramatises the stories and scenes in such a compelling way, and so deeply engages the audience in the dilemmas and conflicts experienced by the characters, that any issue of credibility actually doesn’t matter.
I will still pick up a play and read it, or watch a performance, or read the sonnets and be as entranced as ever. Even when interpretations change, the magic with which the words are crafted and woven never gets old.
My copy of ‘Seven Little Australians’ is rather tattered and the worse for wear, a result of having been read many, many times.
This is an Australian classic that tells he story of the Woolcot family, and is set near Sydney in the late 19th century. The father was a gruff army captain, and his young wife was a sweet and kind stepmother to the children, most of whom were spirited and often mischievous.
The story is a lot of fun, but it also has some tragic moments. I remember reading the book for the first time when I was perhaps nine or ten. When my favourite character met a most untimely end, I put the book down and refused to read on. I couldn’t believe that an author would do such a thing!
It was only when I talked about it with my great Aunt Judy, who had given me the book, that I resumed reading. She sympathised with me, of course, but told me I really needed to finish the book to understand that the author had a message and a purpose in making that happen.
If Auntie Judy had told me to read it standing on my head, I probably would have done. I adored her. As the sister of my grandmother, whom I had never bet because she died before I was born, Judy was much older than me, but we had always had a close bond. We were great friends and she would always call me “her little girl”. We enjoyed each other’s company enormously, and we both loved books, She and her sister, my Auntie Enid, used to visit us regularly, and in school holidays or weekends, Mum and Dad would take us to visit them. Auntie Enid always brought me a pretty handkerchief as a gift, and Auntie Judy always gave me a book. On her next visit, we’d talk about the book and what we liked about it.
The funny thing was, until the day I told her I couldn’t finish reading this book, I didn’t know that she had been similarly affected for a while. I also discovered that her name wasn’t really Judy. Her given name was Anne, and my mother had been named for her, but she chose to start calling herself Judy because the character of that name had been her favourite in this book, and she had also adopted that name for herself— her real name was Helen.
So, this delightful book holds a lot of personally powerful memories and associations for me. Entirely apart from those, it’s a really good story that anyone who enjoyed Anne of Green Gables or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would appreciate. It has a similar sense of fun and evokes an indulgent love for a naughty kid that is hard to resist. It also has a similarly sentimental tone about it, without being soppy at all.
While my Auntie Judy is long gone, along with the rest of that generation of my family. I am very pleased that I still have this book and my memories. I also have my mother’s copy of two others in the series, given to her by her parents as gifts for her birthday and Christmas in 1944. I love looking at her handwriting inside the front cover, and feeling connected once again by our love of the same stories.
I should also confess that I have laughed at myself heartily while writing about the memories of my outrage at an author killing off a character because, now that I’m an author, I knock people off all the time. My readers don’t tend to be children, though, and in all fairness, the people who die in my horror stories generally deserve what’s coming to them. Given that Auntie Judy also gave me a copy of both Frankenstein and Dracula, and loved those stories, I am fairly sure she’d have enjoyed mine, too. My mother? Not so much.
My copy of ‘Jamaica Inn’ was given to me by my sister-in-law for my 16th birthday. I don’t know if she remembers giving it to me, but I certainly do. I hadn’t read any of du Maurier’s books before, and I read it in a day. Given the tendency of many other favourite books to migrate from my shelves to those of other people, it is something of a miracle that the very same copy is still on my bookshelf.
Jamaica Inn is set in and around a Cornwall coaching inn in the early 1800s. It is a a dramatic and exciting story, full of mystery, intrigue, skullduggery and danger.
Having come to live at Jamaica Inn with her relatives, Mary Yellan, the heroine of the story, learns the hard way that she can’t trust anyone she thought she should be able to, and that life on the moors can be as bleak and coldhearted as the weather.
It is reminiscent of Bronte’s Withering Heights in both the setting, even though the location is vastly different, and the characters who populate it, giving the book a strong sense of the kind of Gothic literature that was written a century earlier. It’s sinister and rather creepy, laced with vivid detail and evocative writing that brings the characters and especially the settings to life.
While it is classified as Romantic Literature, this book should not be mistaken for a romance – the two are very different things. In fact, it’s more of an anti-romance, showing men to be ignorant and selfish, some violent and others just rather stupid. It’s not about female vanity, but rather about the vulnerability of women living at a time when they were entirely dependent on their men to provide for and protect them. The contrasts between integrity and deceit, and between love and selfishness, are powerful, adding depth and drama to the compelling storyline.
The thing I love most, though, is the writing: du Maurier’s craftsmanship is magnificent. That in itself makes her books well worth reading.
P.S. I am excited that I actually got to use the word ‘skullduggery’ in a post, as it’s one of the most delightful words, yet one so rarely gets a chance to use it well. I really am a word nerd.
Dodie Smith is best known as the author of ‘101Dalmatians’, but I much prefer this beautifully sentimental and highly engaging book.
Set in 1930s England, the story of the Mortmain family is told by Cassandra, who begins her narrative with one of my most-favourite-ever opening lines:
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”
Another feature of this book that I really enjoy is Cassandra’s frequent references to books and plays she has read and enjoyed. In that sense, she is the literary forerunner of Rory Gilmore, the booknerdy lead character in the TV show Gilmore Girls. Other characters, too, make scattered literary references throughout the book.
It does frustrate me that the only copy I have on my shelf is one with a movie-based cover image— I generally avoid those, but this is my last remaining copy, which I picked up in my favourite book rescue shelter upon discovering that my other copies had disapeared. It was their last copy, too. Like The Scarlet Pimpernel, this is a book that has migrated from my shelf to those of family and friends on multiple occasions.