Thursday, December 31, 2015

Seeing All of Shakespeare

Shakespeare is one of those cultural assets that humans seem to absorb like the air, just by being alive. Often, we are not even aware that we are quoting a phrase first set down 400 years ago, it's simply a set of words we are used to hearing together. So even if you have some mental image of Hamlet holding a skull and saying "Alas, poor Yorick I knew him...something something" may be surprised later to hear "every dog has its day". Or to watch Othello and hear Iago describe jealousy as a "green-eyes monster". Hundreds of English language expressions appear to have originated in Shakespeare's work!

Watching the Shakespeare plays over the years has been a fascinating discovery process like that for me. At first, the process was slow. Seeing "The Merry Wives of Windsor" with the university Basilian Literary Association. An occasional Shakespeare in the Park or local production. But it wasn't yet a serious pursuit, yet.

The big turning point was listening Peter Saccio's Great Courses audio course about Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. A distinguished and illuminating lecturer, Professor Saccio's course underscores brilliantly how much stimulating material there was to learn. This quickly led to acquiring a small collection of books and DVDs about the plays.

About a year ago, this BBC box set appeared in the mail, including their versions of nearly all the plays ("The Two Noble Kinsmen" wasn't included in the BBC productions). This series was produced and broadcast by the BBS during the late 70s and early 80s. Watching them wasn't power-watching weekend fare for me, I was trying to get a good understanding with as many of the plays as possible. The usual process would be to flip through the Rough Guides Shakespeare book to get a rough idea of plot, then read commentary about the play by Marjorie Garber or Harold Bloom, two favorite critics regarding matters Shakespearean. Watching these Region 2  DVDs on computer made following along in the text easy. This has been a FANTASTIC experience, offering the experience of many neat bits in the less-performed plays.

Around a month ago, I realized that I had seen almost all of the plays and made it a goal to see them all before year's end. The lack of "The Two Noble Kinsmen" was made more complicated by there not seeming to be any versions on DVD. Fortunately, there are a couple enjoyable versions available on YouTube. The version performed at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) was a lot of fun: the New Zealand accent mixes well with iambic pentameter!

Well, yesterday I checked off my last play, "Pericles: Prince of Tyre".

Is that it for my Shakespeare-watching? HARDLY! Many or these plays are deeply entertaining and deserve additional viewings and closer study. There are also a number of great versions available for some of the plays, such as the Royal Shakespeare company, Kenneth Branagh productions, the Globe in London. There is years of material yet to be seen and explored are tremendous amounts of critical analysis to be pored over. There are metaphorical side streets to be explored, like learning about the rhetorical devices used in the plays, learning about Elizabethan history and culture, as well as the history of the Plantaganets.

This is only the beginning....

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

My first reaction after seeing this play was that there were some heartwarming and also hilarious bits but that the play overall is one of the weirdest plays I've seen from Shakespeare. But the overall shape of the play comes from the classic "Apollonius of Tyre" and as with his other embellishments on existing material, the Bard managed to impart his qualities of humanity and humor onto a very odd play.

The hero, Pericles, starts the play by solving the riddle of a king and nearly loses his life as a result. The riddle of King Antiochus is supposed to be a challenge where a champion can win his daughter but lose his life upon failing. But solving the riddle reveals his incestuous relationship with his daughter and the king decides to kill Pericles for solving the riddle. Since he will kill anyone who either solves or fails to solve it, it's not clear whether the point is providing the king and his daughter a bit of sport.

Antiuchus sends his henchman Thaliart to kill Pericles, following him to Tyre when he flees for his life. Realizing the assassins are likely to follow him there, Pericles boards a ship and flees (rather than simply having Thaliart arrested or executed for coming to kill him in his own kingdom). Pericles' ship bestows food on a starving city of Tarsus and later sinks. He survives and wins the heart of Thaisa, who unfortunately appears to die on another ship during a storm, after giving him a daughter. Her body is dropped from the ship in a sealed box which conveniently protects her from drowning and she is revived by a kindly doctor. Pericles leaves his daughter Marina and her nurse with the people of Tarsus but, unfortunately, the queen tries to have the daughter killed when she grows up. Instead, she is kidnapped by pirates and sold into captivity in a brothel.

The character of Boult, a servant in the brothel, is played by Trevor Peacock, an actor who has played some terrific roles in the BBC Shakespeare series, including Lord Talbot (terror of the French) and Jack Cade (whose companion suggests "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers") in the first two Henry VI plays.

In the brothel, the plot really takes some comedic turns, with some seriously outrageous lines. Just as Marina appears, the brothel has had bad luck keeping suitably, er, staffed. At one point, Boult describes prospective customers anticipating sex with a virgin:

    'Faith, they listened to me as they would have
    hearkened to their father's testament. There was a
    Spaniard's mouth so watered, that he went to bed to
    her very description.

And another:

    I warrant you, mistress, thunder shall not so awake
    the beds of eels as my giving out her beauty stir up
    the lewdly-inclined. I'll bring home some to-night.

However, Marina's virtue is so strong that she converts prospective customers from lust to chastity, increasing the brothel's existing cash flow problems. Her virtue is so strong that Boult cannot even follow through with his plans to rape Marina and instead helps her find employment as a sort of healer. Meanwhile, her father revisits Tarsus and, believing Marina dead, sinks into despondency and mourning. But in the end, chance encounters reunite Pericles, Marina and Thaisa.

Pericles the play itself is narrated by a figure named Gower without any explanation of who Gower is. As it turns out, he is a 14th century poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. The screen shot below is of Gower on board a ship near the end of this play. I thought it conveyed a quiet, thoughtful sense of what viewing this play was like for me, as this was the last Shakespeare that I had never seen (blog post about THAT to follow).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Word Frequency in Shakespeare's Plays

What do geeks do over Holiday break? One option is devoting some time to hobbies and interests that they often can't, because of work getting in the way? In my case, that will mean seeing whether interesting bits can be learned my combining Shakespeare and data analysis.

I'm still thinking a lot about what directions I can take this analysis. An obvious first step is doing some kind of word frequency analysis to see what that might indicate about the play. Given a decent database containing Shakespeare's work and a little programming ability...let's see what we can come up with!

I've had a small C# app for a while that can request string searches and full downloads from a Shakespeare data source online. Recently, I added code that breaks down the lines into individual words and then counts how often each appears in a play, sorting those totals from most common to least common. Let's see if that will provide any interesting results...comparing one of the Bard's most-loved comedies (As You Like It) with the harsh, Machiavellian play Richard III.

As You Like It

A pastoral comedy, As You Like It was probably written in 1599; it was not published until 1623's First Folio. It contains many ingredients that Shakespeare had been incorporating into his plays:
- young lovers on the run from forces that would destroy them
- the wilderness of a forest that, ironically, has fewer and more direct dangers than the "civilized world"
- a woman disguising herself as a man so that she can wander the world more safely
- a fool (Touchstone)
- a cynic (Jacques)

It's main character, Rosalind, is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest creations. Though she herself is showing the slightly daft behavior typically shown by young people in love, she has the self awareness to know that she is acting that way. In her disguise as a boy, she can thoroughly sound out her intended Orlando's thoughts and feelings about her, knowing that any artifice he might show in wooing her as a girl will not be present. In this natural world, she also gets to see him capably facing danger (snakes, lions) but also showing nurturing behavior for an aging retainer who had earlier helped him avoid a threat to his life.

Though there are some serious threats from man and beast in this play, this is truly one of Shakespeare's happiest comedies.

Richard III
Fact or fiction, true chronicle or Tudor propaganda...wherever it play falls it is a deeply engrossing and popular play. Coming at the end of Shakespeare's History plays about the last Plantagenets, Richard III is the story of the Duke of Gloucester, a noble son of Henry VI's Duke of York who aims to win the crown for himself at any cost. He eventually succeeds but only through means that eventually doom him.

Early in the play, his arc ascendant, Gloucester successfully woos a woman whose husband and father-in-law he had earlier killed in the play 3 Henry VI. Later, having ordered the murder of two young nephews, he tries to duplicate this feat and fails...without even realizing that he failed. A consummate actor, he begins the play emotionally seducing watchers of the play. But his crimes become too rank and he ends the play so utterly alone that even he does not love himself.

Lets take a look at the frequency with which words appear in this play and see whether they correspond to the plots:

Richard III is approximately 30,000 words long. There are about 4100 distinct words in this play.

The most common word in it:
the         989 times

In any play, many of the most common words are going to be names, pronouns and articles such as "the", so leaving them in serves no value. When I removed those words, these were some of the words that jumped out as useful to note, along with their frequency:

king        262
lord         240
queen      176
death         72
murderer    67
love           64
prince        48
blood         39
dead          38
noble         37
die            36
tower        30
royal         28
bloody       28
ghost         19
horse         17
angry          6
leisure         6
slaughter     6

It's probably not surprising that these words overwhelmingly pertain to royal titles, violence and death. And even where the word "love" appears, it does not have the happy connotations with which it is usually endowed. Rather, it has a sense of irony and contempt: Gloucester wooing the Lady Anne over the corpse of Henry VI, his claims to love the brother Clarence who he is conspiring to kill or the forced amity of a dying King Edward IV trying to quell family hostility before he dies.

This is not a cheerful play.

Now let's compare this to the word frequencies in As You Like It, which has about 22000 words in total (3280 distinct words).

Again, "the" is the most frequently appearing word, occurring 694 times.The most significant words include:

good     115
love       111
duke       93
forest      39
brother    37
father      37
fool         36
heart        31
shepherd  25
marry      22
daughter  18
kill            9

Again unsurprisingly, the words in this play are usually positive words about relationships. "Good" and "love" are two of the most frequently appearing words. And in contrast to Richard III, "love" is not a cynical affectation. There is humor about the behavior of lovers but it is not a cynical humor.

The word duke appears pretty frequently, as there are two "dukes" in the play. The forest (Arden) appears frequently, as it is the main setting of the play. There are words pertaining to danger but they are a minor point.

This IS a cheerful play about finding love and happiness in life. This sense is reflected well with the words Rosalind uses to close the play:

    It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
    but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
    the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
    no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no
    epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
    and good plays prove the better by the help of good
    epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am
    neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with
    you in the behalf of a good play! I am not
    furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not
    become me: my way is to conjure you; and I'll begin
    with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love
    you bear to men, to like as much of this play as
    please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love
    you bear to women--as I perceive by your simpering,
    none of you hates them--that between you and the
    women the play may please. If I were a woman I
    would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
    me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
    defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good
    beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my
    kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.