most friendship is feigning; most loving mere folly

Directing Discount Shakespeare: As You Like It In Forty-Five Minutes has made my weeks more exciting. For one thing, I picked a really good cast. They show up every night enthused to tackle the material. For another, I’m happy to be back in the theater again. I love having a show in production.

But mostly, directing’s been fun because it gives me a chance to play John Barton twice a week.

I have to restrain myself from turning every rehearsal into a Lecture on What Professor Coldheart Thinks About Shakespeare. That’d be immensely boring. Plus, while I think Shakespeare’s continual performance over the last four centuries is no accident, I don’t think he had a God-like command over language. There’s not an hour’s worth of debate to be had over each word choice, each change in accent, or each metaphor.

Shakespeare was a pro, and pros work under deadline.

But reading Shakespeare with an eye toward performing it does yield a tremendous amount of insight. And if I can’t bore my cast, I can certainly bore you.

Here is an excerpt of a monologue from Jaques, companion of the exiled Duke, from Act II, Scene 7 of As You Like It:

I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please; for so fools have;
And they that are most galled with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?
The ‘why’ is plain as way to parish church:
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob

First, the obvious bits: what is Jaques actually saying in plain English? Jaques is petitioning the Duke to become the fool in his exiled court. He’s explaining the ways a fool enforces order in the court: those whom he offends the most must laugh the most as well. If a court jester offends you, you should laugh louder than anyone else. Making it clear that you feel offended jeopardizes your reputation.

That’s just a matter of careful reading and interpretation, but it’s essential. Shakespeare wrote his lines in blank verse (iambic pentameter) to make them easier to remember and deliver. As such, it’s very easy to deliver a Shakespearean monologue prettily without having the slightest idea what it means. Anyone who has an ear for rhythm, can fake a British accent and can project their voice can stumble their way through a soliloquy.

Second, why did Shakespeare use the words he did? This we can only guess at, since he didn’t leave footnotes. In fact, the surviving texts we have aren’t written in exactly his hand: they were copied from show notes, meant to be read and memorized by actors but never kept.

So, my guesses:

  • And why sir, must they so? The ‘why’ is plain as way … that a fool doth very wisely hit doth very foolishly …: There’s a lot of opportunity in here for a quick-tongued actor to play with words here. We have “why,” “why” and “way” in rapid succession, as well as “fool doth very wisely” and “doth very foolishly.” There’s opportunity for good sing-song bouncing between internal rhymes here.
  • as plain as way to parish church. Shakespeare devotes a lot of text to making fun of churchmen. As You Like It is no exception, with the bumbling vicar Sir Oliver Martext. This is probably meant sarcastically, especially considering the reasoning that follows is hardly “plain.”
  • fool / wisely / foolishly / smart / senseless. Parallels and inversions on the notion of being wise or smart and being foolish or senseless. Note that Shakespeare doesn’t use the latter two in that same meaning: “smart” means “to feel a pain” here; “senseless” means “not feeling.”
And that’s only about half of the line.

This isn’t just fodder for English majors, mind you. Think how odd the idiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” would sound if you heard it without the emphasis on “old” and “new.” Those are the most important words in the metaphor: the contrast between old and new, and the implication that past a certain point learning is impossible. Shakespeare used similar contrasts and parallels in his metaphors. Recognizing them, and learning how to call them out, will make your performances more memorable.

If you still don’t believe me, watch some more of those Playing Shakespeare clips online. The difference between watching a half-good amateur stumble through King John and watching Patrick Stewart deliver it should make it clear. There’s more to Shakespeare than being loud and British.


all you had to do was give humpty a chance

Three months, three weeks. Good enough for government work.

I need fact checkers and critical eyes now, people who know about law and journalism and Boston and are willing to tackle 60,000 words of almost-clever prose. I have nothing to offer you but gratitude.

all of this makes me love you more

The older I get, the more I believe that the secret to staying young is finding excuses to party.

This Friday, I went to the Yelp Elite Event for January at Revolution Fitness, a gym within walking distance of my office. Revolution has done its best to combine the “basement gym” look with the “boutique gym” feel. The layout ranges from intimate studios for the de rigeur yoga and pilates classes to a row of fluorescent-lit weight racks in front of mirrors. And there’s a room off to the back with reinforced rubber walls and a mess of equipment that you can just play with. Like a 150-lb tire to flip end over end, or rings to hang on, or medicine balls that you can fling at the wall while screaming. You’re encouraged to experiment.

Saturday was the Snowflake Social, hosted in Arlington. Friends and locals threw a party to raise money for Haiti, dressing up in formal wear and dancing the night away. I posed for prom photos, slow-danced with several friends and drank at the Elks bar. We retired to a friend’s house afterward to have a few more drinks and chill out until the evening crept up on me.

As grown-ups, we look for reasons to put on nice attire and go out dancing: weddings, family affairs, holiday parties and school reunions. If we brought that same questing sense of experimentation to everything we did, how much quicker would it go, and with what energy? Crank up Shaimus and dance with your baby on your hip while you put away the laundry. Invite half a dozen friends over to write with you. Title the next work meeting that you’re responsible for “Awesome Fiscal Responsibility Fun Times 2010.” Smile at strangers. Adopt antiquarian politeness. Open your face to the world.

(This is more a reminder to myself than the rest of you, but let me know if it works)

it is not dying; it is not dying

Returned to the Overthinking It podcast this week, talking about the two-year anniversary of the site, Conan O’Brien’s tumultuous departure from The Tonight Show and the SAG awards.

I highly recommend downloading the podcast. But, if you can’t, my thoughts on late night: I feel nothing so much as a profound pity for Conan O’Brien, who’s put in twenty years climbing to the top of a pyramid that is just now being buried by sand. Late night talk shows have never been less essential. They’re a dying venue in a dying medium. From a strict economic perspective, their current function is to produce Hulu clips at tremendous expense. Show of hands: how many of you followed the Leno-v-Conan feud of the past few weeks by staying up until 12:35 EST to watch every minute of both shows (plus Letterman and Kimmel’s commentary)? and how many of you followed it by watching video clips on entertainment blogs the morning after? and how many of you haven’t followed it at all?

One of my fellow podcasters suggested that Conan ought to be hired by Google, as a flagship presence for a new Google entertainment portal. I don’t know if that idea would work; the idea of Google producing its own entertainment content (a la Yahoo!, or Howard Stern with Sirius) makes as much sense as Google providing their own webmail, or GPS software, or cell phones. But it’s a crazy century so far. And my point remains: the late night talk show is not a dying creature; it’s a dead one. We’re witnessing the throes. The sanctity with which Conan spoke of The Tonight Show, and how terrible it would be to move it past 11:35 PM, sounded like a eulogy to me.

what’s the matter with kids today?

New post up on Overthinking It today, comparing the attitudes of juvenile delinquency in A Clockwork Orange and No Country for Old Men. Check it.

the memories will linger on; the good old days, they’re long gone

I still sit in dumb amazement, sometimes, at the power music has over me.

Standing in Johnny D’s on Saturday, watching the Ravens lose, Bobby pointed out a particular Beatles song that Beatlejuice was covering. It reminded him of the old shareware game Scorched Earth, which he used to play for hours with a friend while listening to Beatles albums. I saw his reminiscence and raised: one of the first CDs my parents got, when they upgraded to a CD player and a full stereo, was Revolver. I remember listening to it while playing my dad at Conquest of the Empire.

“It’s odd, the associations we make,” Bobby observed.

After the Ravens finished failing, I stumbled home. A sudden wave of nostalgia for Baltimore and childhood overtook me, and I turned to the surest remedy: The Band’s self-titled 1970 album.

As a scientist, I have to discount the effect that nostalgia may have on me. I remember listening to Levon Helm’s crooning on summer road trips with the family: Baltimore, MD to Cape Hatteras, NC in eight hours or less. I’ve always had a facility for lyrics and rhythm: it only took a few times for the songs to be ingrained on my consciousness.

And yet Martin Scorsese agrees with me: there was something about The Band that made them uniquely talented. They displayed the same penchant for odd but touching harmonies that the Beach Boys had. Combine that with the folksy strains that resonate with half of the American continent and you have a factory for classics. Rolling Stone, always a tough audience, was amazed that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” wasn’t a century-old spiritual. It wasn’t. It was written by a Canadian. That’s how fucking good The Band was.

Blend once-in-a-generation talent with the lure of nostalgia, and you get a powerful brew. I would learn to play the guitar just to cover half of these songs, and I could never do it as well as Robertson. As it stands, I could never see myself turning to drugs so long as music like this exists in the world.

sell your soul to sign an autograph

There’s a special election being held in Massachusetts today.

See, after a nine-term senator died of brain cancer – and let me tell you, nothing restores my faith in representative government than the son of America’s most popular political dynasty drowning a woman after driving while drunk, then going on to serve another seven terms – a seat opened up in Congress. This would merit nothing more than a historical footnote, except that this puts the Ruling Party’s balance of power at its most precarious point ever, at least since winning the Presidency and a majority in both Houses. So the Ruling Party nominated Massachusetts’ attorney general to run for the Senate seat, a prosecutor who (successfully) lobbied for a demonstrably innocent man to be denied parole, defended the most tragicomic overreaction of emergency personnel in the first decade of the War on Terror, and argued (unsuccessfully) before the Supreme Court that defendants should have no right to cross-examine the lab experts whose evidence may condemn them. The Opposition Party, never one to offer substance when style might serve, nominated a former centerfold who supports increased troop presence in America’s Least Winnable War (three-way tie), supports torture, and gives the same reluctant, caviling, yes-but-wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if support to a woman’s sovereignty over her own reproductive organs that any hardcore Opposition Party member who doesn’t advocate anarchy must give.

This election wouldn’t be half as critical were it not for the health care reboot bill trundling its way through Congress. If the Ruling Party maintains its tenuous hold on power (with the President and the majority in both Houses and all that), they just might manage to pass a bill that funnels money from the working poor to insurance companies by making health insurance mandatory. This bill was inspired by Governor Mitt Romney’s health care reboot in 2006, which the Opposition Party candidate voted for and still defends. But he opposes the current national plan. Meanwhile, the Ruling Party candidate drew some flack for saying that private morals were not a sufficient reason to deny someone contraception. And yet she would probably be called on to support the current health care reboot bill, which states that being on the “public option” is sufficient reason to deny someone an abortion. So we have one candidate who supports expanding health care coverage, except when he doesn’t, and one candidate who believes no one should be denied access to abortive medicine, except when they can be.

“But Professor,” people tell me, “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” You think I’m complaining?