Saturday, November 8, 2008

Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave

Reading Bryson's biography of William Shakespeare clued me in on how much I don't know about England's most famed and respected playwright and poet. Take the cover portrait, for example. It is one of three images believed to be of Shakespeare, although there are questions about whether this, or any of the three, are actually him. Although painted by a skilled artist of the time, the above portrait has many peculiarities. Notice how one eye is larger than the other, and his hair is longer on one side. Bryson also points out how oddly his head seems to be floating above his collar.

Bryson notes eighteen different spellings of the writer's name, and cites that, of the remaining signatures on official documents such as deeds and marriage license, not one uses the spelling we have come to accept. Of course, there is the never-ending discussion of who really wrote his plays, and Bryson offers some fascinating research on that as well. To top it off, there is evidence to support that we have been mispronouncing the fellow's name incorrectly, and that it may actually be "shockspear."

All of that got me digging for a fun piece I often shared with my students entitled "Life in the 1500's." Shakespeare lived from 1564-1616, so this way my clever way of getting them into the Elizabethan mindset. The source used (and which was used every other English teacher I knew at the time) provided explanations for common phrases that grew out of the time period, along with some surprising historical facts. Here are a couple for you:

  • Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, shared her bed with two sisters and six servant girls. They slept on the bed crosswise. Another bed in the Hathaway household was frequently occupied by her brothers, and up to sixty servants.
  • June was established as the traditional wedding month in the middle ages. The yearly bath was generally in May, so women were still smelling pretty sweet in June.
  • In order to keep warm, small domestic animals slept in the thatched roofs of cottages. A heavy rain could bore holes in the thatch, and the animals would fall through, giving us the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs."

  • Parts of Great Britain were short on burial space, and often, graves were dug up, and bodies were disposed of to make room for the newly deceased. Scratch marks were found on the inner lids of many coffins, leading people to fear being buried alive. To calm these fears, a string was tied to the finger of the dead person, and attached to a bell on the outside of the grave. People were hired to walk through the cemetery at night, listening for bells. So, that gave us "graveyard shift" and "Saved by the bell."

These bits of odd history led to lots of questions, and resulted in some eagerness to jump into whatever Shakespeare play was on the docket. Of course, after reading the first couple scenes of any play, I prepared for the big question. "Ms. D. why do they all have to talk so stupid? I can't understand anything they are saying?" From there, I asked Kid A what he didn't understand. "Well, I don't get the part where Antonio says he can't lend Bassanio any money because his money is all tied up in his ships."

Kid B would tell me that she could not understand the part where Portia was telling Nerissa what was wrong with all the men that had come "wooing," and Kid C was struggling with Shylock wanting a pound of flesh as guarantee that his loan would be repaid. Within 15 minutes, they had spilled all their nervousness out upon the desk tops. Whining about the language, the characters, the symbolism...all they while, clearly indicating that they knew exactly what was going on in the play.

I had to do some digging to come up with these examples for you, and guess what I found? All those years that I (and others) were prepping minds to absorb the greatness of the bard, we were actually entertaining them with fictional material. Yup. Every credible source I came across while searching agrees that the "Life in the 1500's" document was all just a fun hoax. For a capsule version of research that debunks these and other medieval/Elizabethan claims, you can check out If you are so inclined, this website will lead you to many others with formal, extensive, and documented explanations.

**********Did you know that Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame, was also a British spy? It's true. You can read all about it in The Irregulars:Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, by Jennet Conant. Or, for a lighter, and certainly a sassier take on Dahl's life, pick up his autobiography, Boy. Dahl's account of his life isn't so much a comprehensive portrait, but rather an episodic glimpse into the people, and events that stand out for him. If you are a fan of his work, you will see where many of your favorite characters originated.

**********The Taffetas are working real hard to tidy up their December 4-7 show at UW-Manitowoc. You can get a sneak preview of their show here on Nov. 22, right after author Lesley Kagan reads and signs...about 12:15. Yesterday, we started working on a barbershop number with some tricky hat- passing choreography. That number is going to be fun. The challenge right now is to keep them from tying their arms in knots. Sometimes I sit back and marvel at what these four women are doing. People might think that doing a four person musical would be easier than a bigger show, but when you think about it, four people are doing the work normally done by 15-20 people. That is a huge undertaking. Except for intermission, and one brief off stage moment in Act I, they are on stage singing, dancing, or speaking for the entire show.

When a director has the privilege of working with actors who bring so much talent, skill, and intuition to the stage, it is natural to keep pushing to see how much farther they can stretch. That is the point we're at right now. All I can say is that so far I haven't made anyone cry(that I know of) and they continue to stretch beyond my initial vision for the show. I am afraid they have far outstretched my creative parameters...I tried to do some fancy tap dancing to outwit them, but I think they're on to me!