Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 23, 2009

Get Thee To a Shakespeare Event or Fillum

It’s Shakespeare’s 445th birthday! In Chicago, Da Mayor (with support from Chicago Shakespeare Theater) has declared 4-23-09 a citywide Talk Like Shakespeare Day. This means you must speak in iambic pentameter — which for those not familiar with this term means pulling one’s tongue manually out of the mouth, twisting it twice counterclockwise, then stuffing it into one’s ear.

But seriously folks, tip your ale wenches. And try the mutton. I’m here all week.

For the record Shakespeare’s best play is Hamlet… about an indecisive mama’s boy with some serious daddy issues. Always a contemporary theme. For instance, when Hamlet discovers that his pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spying on him for his evil uncle, it’s just like when Michael Corleone discovers his brother Fredo has betrayed him. “I know it was you, Rosie,” says the sourpuss Danish prince. Then instead giving him the kiss of death, Hamlet runs him through with a sword. 

Plus, Shakespeare used Hamlet to show he was the only writer ever with the guts to kill off ALL of his main characters. He out-Tarantinos Tarantino. By the end of the last scene, the only people left in the castle are a janitor and the cute little chambermaid the king stepped out with on weekends.

See… and they say Shakespeare is boring. But oh, all that bloodshed… Yuck. I need to go to my happy place now.

By the way, don’t quote me on any of the above. I never fact-check.

But do quote me on this: before winning an Oscar for the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard took on old Will in an earlier and very quirky, artful film based on his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Tim Roth plays Guildenstern… or was he Rosencrantz? (That’s a lame inside joke… and by the way, what are two schmucks with such Jewish-sounding names doing smack in the middle of Denmark?!) Anyway, Gary Oldman plays the other one. It’s like This Is Spinal Tap for Shakespeare geeks, but with some very cool filmic gags thrown in as well. Go rent it.

If not that, then the 1995 Richard III –with Ian “Gandalf” McKellen dressed as and acting like a WWII era Nazi-type heavy — has some great scenery-chewing. Also, I think the Mel Gibson Hamlet is underrated, the Midsummer Night’s Dream film with Kevin Klein and Calista Flockhart is good, any Shakespeare film that Kenneth Branagh put together is excellent (with Much Ado About Nothing, in ’93, being the easiest to like) and the 1982 film Tempest with John Cassavetes and wife Gena Rowlands was a unique modern variation exploring some of Shakespeare’s themes (aging, faithfulness) in a mostly original story.

Oh, speaking of Tempests: my wife’s old theater teacher Frank Galati is acting for the first time in years, in Steppenwolf  Theater’s first ever Shakespeare productionThe Tempest, Will’s last play, is running there thru the end of May.

If you prefer nonfiction:  Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard documentary is quite amusing and informative, both about Al and about American opinions on Shakespeare.

So there are my recommendations, for some do-able Shake-y activities.

Oh, one more: This American Life ran a great program on a Hamlet performance in a prison last year. When real murderers got their hands on this stuff something mysterious, spiritual, and maybe even a bit magical happened. Click above to stream it, or download for 95 cents. (Speaking of TAL, their live cinemacast is tonight, to hundreds of  movie theaters around the country. Go help raise money for this essential radio show, and see/hear some classic Chicago and New York liberals, humanists and wackos do what they do best: tell stories… like Shakespeare did, only the radio show mostly uses soliloquys and monologues.)

My own stories of teaching this stuff, or acting it, or seeing it firsthand (like James Earl Jones as Othello… waaay back when), will have to wait for another day. For now, it is your turn: talk like Shakespeare! (and be glad we now have plumbing, microphones, and actual women onstage… three things Old Will lacked!) 


  1. I first saw Hamlet when I was 15, and I wore black for a week.

    Love that play.

    • Yeah.
      As much as I love it, though, I have never seen it live onstage. I’ll have to keep my ears open, see if a college or CST or some other brave souls try to put it on in the next year or two. I need a Hamlet fix…

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