30 April 2018

Smile and Be a Villain

By sad coincidence, two of our cats died several years apart on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. Last week, the Bard turned 454 (I didn't send a card) and his plays still merit constant performances the world over. Shakespeare thought he would be remembered for his poems (except for the sonnets, only slightly better than John Dillinger's) and retired at age 47 a relatively wealthy man, especially for a writer.
It's easy to talk about his brilliant images and use of symbols and all that high-school-worksheet stuff, but his plays would live on anyway because he wrote brilliant conflicted characters, especially his villains. He constantly reminds us that everyone needs a goal or motive, especially the bad guys. They aren't just "bad by nature"--although Don John claims that he is in Much Ado About Nothing.

In King Lear, Edmund tells us he's standing up for bastards,
but he's jealous because his little brother Edgar, born of married parents, will inherit Gloucester's estate even though he's younger than Edmund. Jealously and sibling rivalry are powerful forces. Look at the women in the same play: Goneril and Regan want their father Lear's estate, but the younger Cordelia is daddy's favorite...until she can't flatter him enough and he kicks her out with the tragically incorrect proclamation that nothing will come of nothing. Actually, it will lead to at least eight deaths.

The older sibs in both families are monsters, but we understand why they lie, stab servants, commit adultery, scheme against each other, plan to murder their spouses, and tear out Gloucester's eyes. The sins of the fathers live on in the children. Lear may be my favorite Shakespearean play and I'd love to direct it if I thought I could find fourteen strong actors in community theater. Unfortunately, age is a factor for at least three men, and the women are stuck as Goody Two-Shoes and the Bitches, a darker version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Macbeth is the only other Shakespeare play still on my directing bucket list (I've directed six)--if I could find an appropriate time period that hasn't been recycled into cliche and decide how to present the witches (I've considered young, nubile, scantily clad and dimly lit because they personify temptation, Macbeth's loss of innocence). Macbeth is a war hero who goes to hell in blank verse because those bearded sisters offer him a tempting look at the future and he makes the mistake of telling his wife. His fall gives us two of my favorite monologues, the "If 'twere done when 'tis done" speech as he contemplates murdering Duncan and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" tour de force while the walls buckle around him. That speech also gives us "it is a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiot, signifying nothing."

Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play (I've seen it done badly more often than not), but the actors or directors miss the point. Lady M is the forerunner of the modern groupie, and power is her aphrodisiac. Listen to the rhythms of her "come you spirits of the night" speech and you'll hear her bare her soul.

Iago feels Othello has unfairly passed him over for promotion, so he vows revenge, always a clear motive. He sizes up Othello as a man who loves his wife so much that he will believe the worst, and turns innuendo into high art when he "suggests" that Desdemona and Cassio are intimate. His attention to a handkerchief makes Professor Moriarty and Snidely Whiplash look like Boy Scouts.

I've played Claudius, the adulterous uncle/step-father in Hamlet. He loves Gertrude so much he kills his own brother to be with her, but his futile prayers ("My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thought never to heaven go.") show he knows he's still going straight to hell.
Hamlet stabs him with the envenomed epee and pours the poisoned chalice down his throat (talk about overkill) to hasten him on his way. His "Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven" speech is  as powerful as his stepson's monologues, but seldom quoted.

Technically, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice isn't a villain so much as a victim, but he makes his case to Antonio and Bassanio when they "cut" the deal for Antonio's pound of flesh. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine..."
Rehearsal shot (note unpainted floor) from my 2006 Merchant

They don't write them like that anymore.

'Tis true, 'tis pity, and, pity 'tis, 'tis true.

As a footnote, tonight is Walpurgisnacht, the night the demons walk. It's the night the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream wander in the woods before getting everything sorted out for their weddings along with Theseus on May Day.

And, as BSP, my story "The Girl in the Red Bandanna" appears in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, along with a story by our late blog partner, B. K. Stevens.


  1. Congratulations on your AHMM story- and best of luck getting just the right setting for Macbeth, although worries about setting/ time period were quite foreign to the Bard.

  2. Excellent points about villians.

    Side note: back in the 60's, we had the Reperatory Theatre project in New Orleans. I'm sure it was national. It brought Broadway-caliber plays to the old Civic Theatre (later a disco where I met an unforgetable girlfriend I used in my story "Love and Murder" - but I digress). The federal government paid for the project where we high school students got a day off school to see these plays, including several Shakespeare plays. The most popular was ROMEO AND JULIET and MACBETH. Never forgot them. Electrifying on stage.

  3. O'Neil, I don't think I really understood or appreciated Shakespeare's work until I drifted into theater in my 30s after I'd already been teaching for ten years. The plays are intended for performance, not reading, and doing them on your feet makes stuff much clearer. I still remember taking a one-day workshop on performing the First Folio and discovering for the first time that Mercutio's Queen Mab speech in Romeo & Juliet is in prose, not blank verse (as it is in many edited modern versions) and it was much clearer in prose.

    Two favorite memories: The Hartford Stage Company offered a brilliant production of Hamlet two years ago and my wife and I watched several busloads of high school students sit with their eyes and mouths open wide at the amazing young actor (I wish I remembered his name) playing the lead. I think about 200 girls fell in love that afternoon and I'm sure many of them went home to read more Shakespeare.

    In the late 90s, I directed a production of Twelfth Night set in the Old West, and we had a special performance for middle schoolers chaperoned by some truly hip young teachers. They loved it and stayed late to meet the cast and crew and ask thoughtful questions. Several of them actually brought their parents back to see it again...and explain it to mom and dad.

    Shakespeare is for everyone.

  4. I love Shakespeare so much. I started a group in Madison that, after seven years, still reads Shakespeare plays aloud once a month, and I've joined a group here in Sioux Falls that does the same. We've run through the canon at least twice. It's amazing how funny Romeo & Juliet can be when read aloud by a group of people who are mostly post-menopausal.

    Re the 3 Witches, I used to write 5-minute Shakespeares for our local community talent-show fundraiser, and the way I did them was to have them be cheerleaders, complete with pom-poms. On the other hand, I think Agatha Christie had it right when she had Miss Marple say, I'd just have them normal old women saying their lines very calmly, quietly, menacingly...

    Congrats on AHMM!

  5. Congratulations on your AHMM story, Steve!


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