The liver was the seat of the passions?

Part of the fun of reading Shakespeare is his exposure of language uses since lost and forgotten or uses so modern-seeming that they’re unexpected in Elizabethan times. When Lori gave me a copy of Much Ado About Nothing to read before our Staunton trip, I enjoyed coming across “carpet-monger,” “hobby-horses,” “tennis-balls,” and others.

Good: The book that held the play came with a glossary. Better: This book came from the Cambridge University Press in 1923. Not only were the editors looking nearly as far back in history as today’s reader (me!) was, but today’s reader also got a long look back at them. Best: Their glossary provided a mixture of both effects. Below were my favorites.

Everything below is directly quoted. Any quote marks are from Cambridge eds. I haven’t added my own quote marks just to save you the tedium.

ADVERTISEMENT: advice, admonition.

BLOCK: (a) mould for a hat, i.e. fashion style, (b) blockhead, simpleton.

CARPET-MONGER: a carpet-knight, a contemptuous term for one who prowess belong rather to the boudoir than to the battlefield.

HAGGARD: hawk which has moulted at least once before being caught, and therefore much more difficult to train than one caught younger.

HOBBY-HORSES: buffoons.

LIVER: formerly considered the seat of the passions.

MARCH-CHICK: precocious youngster.

NIGHT-GOWN: ‘It is generally supposed that the night-gown proper, or night-rail, was not worn in England until the middle of the 16th century, and then only by royalty or the nobility.’

PIKE: ‘Put in the pikes with a vice.’ The pike was a detachable spike, for trusting at the enemy, in the centre of the buckler…. Benedick’s indelicate reference needs no comment. [I love this.]

SUN-BURNT: [had just never thought about Elizabethans saying this.]

TENNIS-BALLS: In Shakespeare’s day these were made of white leather and stuffed with hair, generally dog’s hair.

TOOTH-PICKER: toothpick (“Tooth-picks, introduced from abroad, were much in request at this period….”).

36 awesome, much-ado hours in Staunton, Va.

[1.1] An orchard, adjoining the house of Leonato; at one side a covered alley of thick-pleached fruit-trees; at the back an arbour overgrown….

(Also known as Central Virginia, a few hours from D.C., last weekend.)

Shakespeare, people. I knew he wrote comedies. I knew, at times, he could be funny. I didn’t know just how funny. When Lori suggested we see Much Ado About Nothing at a theater in Staunton, Va., I was game. But I expected more challenge than gut-busting laughter. I was wrong.

Much Ado was very funny. The American Shakespeare Center troupe at Blackfriars Playhouse was very funny. The performance was easily the most funny thing I’ve ever seen staged. In the heart of the Queen City of the Shenandoah Valley, the crowd roared. It was an amazing show.

We went on opening night, and we had front-row tickets. Somehow. I had been reading the play during my Metro commutes all week, thanks to a gift from Lori. Maybe I was biased. But I’m pretty sure I was won.

Go. The show runs into April. The theater, beautiful, is the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, and it works under original staging conditions. (Theater motto: “We do it with the lights on.”) The cast gives themselves only a couple of days to put together Much Ado.

They make their own costumes. They introduce their own shows, play their own music from the balcony during the intermission, look straight into the eyes of the crowd, and all around enjoy themselves. They may be the country’s most alternative and originalist Shakespeare players at once. The cast looks liberated, and you feel released just for going.

Silence may be “the perfected herald of joy,” but you get this blogging. As modern as ASC’s Benedict and Beatrice seemed, a blog feels right.

(If only they let you take pictures inside the theater.)

The weekend was full of surprising moments.

After the long drive down Friday evening, the hotel clerk recommended the Mill Street Grill in an old mill nearby. We walked in, found the place covered in old wood paneling and random holiday ornaments, saw the menu running all over the place, and nearly walked out. Then we found an online review saying the place looked and felt strange — “Shouldn’t they decorate more like an old mill?” — but tasted great. We stayed.

On the wine list, we found bottles of Barboursville Chardonnay, one of Virginia’s best, for an shockingly low cost. Then we had ribs and shrimp up there with the best we’d had anywhere, and our waitress possibly the nicest either of us had ever met. We were happy we had stayed.

The next day we explored the town. We lucked into beautiful weather.

Mystery Freemason bunny and blue sky.

Old mill and blue sky.

Continue reading 36 awesome, much-ado hours in Staunton, Va.

A rose without any words would sound as sweet

Someone has probably already used that title to headline a review of Synetic Theater’s wordless production of Romeo and Juliet. But Google tells me no one has yet, so I’m going to strike while the iron is silent.

Lori and I saw the show yesterday night, the last of the theater’s fall series reviving its award-winning Shakespeare work — Macbeth, Othello and now the greatest romance of them all. You should go. The revival runs until the 23rd. I really enjoyed it. Lori really enjoyed it. Friend and colleague Lauren and her husband Steve really enjoyed, and Lauren is a former dancer and arts manager. Don’t buy my yokel view? Buy hers.

The performance is as wordless as they claim. You build the story from what you know already and the music, dance, set, and lights they use to assemble the plot and its themes. At the center? “… set within the gears of a giant clock, Romeo and Juliet highlights the exuberance and passion of youth in which time seems to both stop and accelerate,” a director’s note explains. While my first reaction was to see the gears as the machinations of fate, maybe such a connection still holds. You can feel the clock above you? Then your destiny isn’t quite your own.

It’s interesting afterward to hear the audience applaud but not cheer aloud much, having brought into a space without words. It’s intriguing afterward to find yourself in dinner conversation that keeps returning to time and relationships and not realize as much until the next night.

If you’re older than Juliet and Romeo and still find yourself pushing on these strictures, alone or with another, you’re doing something right.

Shakespeare! The horse goes all the way down

Was fortunate to hear new Folger Library chief Michael Witmore give a great talk Wednesday night, “Data-Mining Shakespeare.” Among other research, he’s collaborated with fellow profs in using the text-analysis tool Docuscope for illuminating word-by-word scans of the Bard’s plays.

What did the scans turn up? Insights into genre. Software was able to group the plays relatively into comedies, tragedies and histories, all by looking at words and phrases. Not the expected ones either, mind you, not just “I love you,” “I die,” “Hey, you get to be the king now.” On the far end of the comedy scale was The Merry Wives of Windsor because it scored highly for use of the first person and interior thought. This word choice made sense for a plot about two people trying to get together.

With the histories, you see more descriptive writing and comparatively less of the comedy qualities. With the tragedies, they fall somewhat in the middle but with exceptions. Witmore cited Othello as dastardly that way. Othello‘s word choices score almost as high as The Merry Wives for comedy qualities. But the effect is Shakespeare leading you into a trap, lulling you into a peaceful spirit at the most basic — practically innate — language levels, even as plot suggests otherwise, then shanking you.

Witmore ended with a metaphor of Eadweard Muybridge’s early series of photos of a horse gallop. One of the first times film captured motion, Muybridge proved there was a point in the gallop where the horse had no hooves touching the ground. Before the shots, we couldn’t see that moment, too distracted by the horse’s greater movement, the obvious dramatic attraction of the legs and the head, and even if we tried, too slow with our own motion-capture to keep up. But a repeated moment of flying through the air did occur, part of the horse’s great propulsion.

The same happened with Shakespeare. While the acting and plot stole our attention, as soliloquies held our emotions, the playwright worked the language all the way down, every word taking us toward his ends.

On a different measure, Witmore did well at explaining how technology and traditional text analysis can complement each other, alternating in unlocking new avenues for examination. A bunch of us from NPR Digital Media went: two coders, two librarians, myself from product dev. After the talk, we each appeared to have a good deal of mulling going on. I also enjoyed seeing Witmore at full speed. He struck me as interesting yet somewhat nervous when I saw him interview Robert Pinsky at the Folger last month. But Wednesday night he was a natural lecturer and promising for the city’s culture in how he mixed arts, tech and emotion.

Grief and Hamlet

Molly Knight wrote the other day about Natasha Richardson’s death, and she mentioned Joan Didion’s experiences. I commented with a read I’d been meaning to pass along here, Meghan O’Rourke’s ongoing “Long Goodbye” series for Slate. After her mother’s death, O’Rourke is exploring different aspects of the experience, and it’s difficult to click away. Her grief reading of Hamlet is my favorite installment so far.

Hamlet is the best description of grief I’ve read because it dramatizes grief rather than merely describing it. Grief, Shakespeare understands, is a social experience. It’s not just that Hamlet is sad; it’s that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. And Shakespeare doesn’t flinch from that truth. He captures the way that people act as if sadness is bizarre when it is all too explainable. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, tries to get him to see that his loss is “common.” His uncle Claudius chides him to put aside his “unmanly grief.” It’s not just guilty people who act this way. Some are eager to get past the obvious rawness in your eyes or voice; why should they step into the flat shadows of your “sterile promontory”? Even if they wanted to, how could they? And this tension between your private sadness and the busy old world is a huge part of what I feel …

Cicada poem two of three

Another losing entry to the Post cicada poetry contest, the winners of which are here and runners-up of which are here. Poem based on a true story.


They say

We’ve cancelled Shakespeare.

We’re not sorry.

Not sorr-EEEE at anomalous decibels.

Seventeen years in the ground,

Worms and darkness,

For a month of sun,

And soles and tires and squirrels,

Then death.


My friends,

Is Shakespeare.