Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful: Shakespeare and the Neo-Puritans

Shakespeare Penn
The Offending Portrait

Years ago, I read a certain interview with Sir Peter Hall. (I have since tried to find it many times, to no avail.) If I recall correctly, he talked about the crazy ways Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes directed and performed. This wasn’t a complaint. He made the point that, thus far, the undeniable quality of the plays has rendered them indestructible. He said something like this: Shakespeare is somewhere smiling; you simply cannot take him down.

But just a few months ago, a group of Neo-Puritan English majors at the University of Pennsylvania did just that. They took down Shakespeare. That is, they righteously took down a portrait of Shakespeare. His race, gender, and possible religious perspective lacked sufficient identity credit. Not even his ambiguous sexuality earned him indulgence.

Not surprisingly, these students learned their religion from the English department faculty. It’s they who originally voted to replace the offending portrait. Also not surprisingly, the faculty had a hard time coming up with an alternative. After all, this was Shakespeare they were trying to replace. Frustrated by the delay, the good students took matters into their own hands, and the space is now sanctified by a picture of Audre Lorde.

UCLAThis religious revival can be found on campuses throughout the country, and Shakespeare is a favorite target. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only four of the top 52 universities and colleges in the country currently require an in-depth course on Shakespeare. Finesse your schedule just right, and you can get a degree in English literature from UCLA without ever reading the greatest writer in the English language. Where identity is the doctrine, English departments are the seminaries.

But it’s important to understand that, where Shakespeare is concerned, identity politics aren’t really the issue. They’re just the current weapon of choice in a centuries-long, fascinatingly strange movement to unseat the bard. I say movement, but that sounds too organized. Phenomenon is a better word. Shakespeare has weathered everything from scholars trying to take credit for his work to conspiracy theorists trying to credit others with his work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf highlights the odd tendency of frustrated people to turn their frustration on Shakespeare––even people who have no connection to the literary or theater worlds.

Why? Because Shakespeare is, without question, the best. They hate Shakespeare because his work is so objectively good.

Graves Shakespeare QuoteYou see, it’s not that Audre Lorde is unworthy or shouldn’t be studied. No. Study her. English literature contains many more voices than it had or allowed in Shakespeare’s time. Make room for them. But here in 2017, like it or not, Shakespeare is still the greatest artist with a pen. Pretending that’s not true is perilous, sure, but it’s also stupid. Students who study literature-sans-Shakespeare learn an art and craft without experiencing its best practitioner. That’s just crazy. To excuse that omission because of Shakespeare’s race and gender––that’s even crazier.

Perhaps your attitude goes something like this: “Well, now you know how women and minorities have felt for millennia.” Fine. You can say that all day long, but at the end of the day you’re still just a bigot making value judgments based on race, gender, and religion.

Anyway, the numbers seem to suggest that the slow excommunication of Shakespeare is under way. And, who knows, perhaps they’ll eventually rid themselves of this insensitive writer who so crassly stands out as better than everyone else.

For my part, I hope they succeed. Again, I think they’re crazy for doing it. But I sincerely hope they succeed.

The Puritans of Shakespeare’s time tried to shut down theaters in the name of the church. The Puritans of our time are trying to turn theaters and academies into their churches. I say get Shakespeare out. Kick him to the other side of the river. Let him build a new Globe. He’s good at that.

In the middle ages, a nearly dead Western theatrical tradition found a new ritual from which to emerge inside the churches of Europe. When it was no longer allowed there, it didn’t die. It flourished because it was set free. Western theater was born again.

For too long our academies have tried to make Shakespeare preach their myopic socio-political sermons. Unsatisfied with the success of that project, they’ve now turned to disparaging him, just like the frustrated Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.

Good. Let them. Set Shakespeare free. His works will emerge from academia untarnished, showing that Peter Hall was right about their indestructibility. And free from the zealotry of these Neo-Puritans, the plays will be more beautiful than ever.

Shakespeare has faced off with Puritans before. He beat them then. He’ll beat them this time too. Let them do their worst.

He’s still smiling.












Where My Bones Shall Be Thrown

grammy5-blog480We closed a production of Twelfth Night last night. And today its excellent songs linger in its wake: O Mistress Mine, Come Away Death, and The Wind and the Rain. When we talk about Shakespeare, we usually talk about his plays and poems. But his lyrics are rarely discussed.

Shakespeare was an excellent lyricist. That might seem like a given, since he was such a good poet, but in Shakespeare’s time, as in ours, the poem and the song were not the same thing. Great lyricists are often middling poets and great poets middling lyricists.

In times like ours and Shakespeare’s, to be both a poet and a lyricist, one must understand that a poem is the voice against silence and the lyric is the voice against percussion and/or tone. You choose different words when you are placing the voice against silence––the solitary voice is the music. The words have to work in a different way than they do when you place them against percussion or tone.

And while it is true that specific music affects word choice, it’s also true that the fact that there is music at all affects word choice. So Shakespeare’s songs continue to work even though they are given different music for different productions.

Come Away Death

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:

A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!


Shakespeare Lost and Found

Don Quixote Picasso
Picasso: Don Quixote

Today is Shakespeare Day, and the big news in Shakespeare right now is that Lewis Theobald’s play Double Falsehood may actually be Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio, which he wrote with John Fletcher.

Shakespeare has long been connected to Cardenio. We know that his company performed Cardenio in 1613, right before he retired. And in 1653, thirty seven years after Shakespeare’s death, publisher Humphrey Moseley registered the play and attributed it to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Fletcher was indeed Shakespeare’s writing partner near the end of his career. (Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen are both Shakespeare/Fletcher plays.)

Cardenio itself is based on a section of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Thomas Shelton published an English translation of part of the book in 1612, and scholars who compare these things say that when you read Theobald’s Double Falsehood, you can see that Shelton’s translation is the main source for the play. (The names of the characters are changed in Double Falsehood. It’s probable that Theobald did this, and not Shakespeare and Fletcher, since the Shakespeare/Fletcher play was called Cardenio, and Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote.) But think of that: Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote a play based on a part of Don Quixote, which was performed just one year after Don Quixote was published in English, and during Cervantes’ lifetime. By the way, there are some really cool parallels between Shakespeare and Cervantes, right down to their appearance.

Enter Lewis Theobald, 1727. It’s important to understand that Theobald is, to this day, a respected scholar and critic. Generally, he is not seen as a charlatan. But when he presented Double Falsehood and claimed it was his own improvement of manuscripts he had found of a lost Shakespeare play, naturally everyone wanted to see those manuscripts. When he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, produce them, his claim was considered to be a hoax. Double Falsehood was thought to be just a play by Lewis Theobald, based on the Cardenio story, written in a style like Shakespeare’s. Some believed he did have manuscripts, but that they were later Restoration era rewrites, and not originals––and fairly recent stylometric studies seemed to support this.

So the big question for Theobald has always been: if you had manuscripts––even Restoration era copies––why on earth would you not display them? It’s hard to believe that, for someone like Theobald, the temptation to be someone who has produced a great work of art would be greater than the desire to be the guy who found those manuscripts. A find like that is what Shakespeare scholars dream of. It would have been the kind of achievement that led to canonization in the world of Shakespeare studies. And as a Shakespeare scholar, Theobald would have been discerning enough to know that Double Falsehood would never measure up to a work like, say, Hamlet, any more than does The Two Noble Kinsmen.

But now, in the light of recent research from the University of Texas at Austin, there are only more questions for Theobald. The researchers claim that through statistical, psychological, and stylometric evidence, they are certain that Theobald’s Double Falsehood was written by Shakespeare and Fletcher––mostly by Shakespeare. They also claim that there is no strong evidence that any of it was written by Theobald, that if Theobald did anything other than change the character names, his “improvements” were minute. If these researchers are right, that means Theobald actually had manuscripts containing a play written mostly by Shakespeare. And then he chose not to make that find his crowning achievement as a Shakespeare scholar. That is mindboggling.

See, it was originally thought that he lied about having the manuscripts at all, because he couldn’t produce them. Now it seems that he did have them, and that he may well have destroyed or hidden them. Did he destroy those manuscripts so he would never be found out? Could someone who cared as much about Shakespeare as he did even do something like that? Even if he thought they were Restoration rewrites?

Theobald had a bit of a tangle with Alexander Pope. In his Shakespearean work, Pope was known to have rewritten some of Shakespeare’s lines. Theobald corrected Pope’s work in a very public way. But did Pope’s reworkings give Theobald the idea for his own supposed reworking of Shakespeare, Double Falsehood? Theobald was the better scholar and critic, but if he could pass off a Shakespeare play as his own, he would also be the better poet. Alas, I would love to blame this on Pope, since he is on my list of historical figures I’d like to punch, but Pope never destroyed or hid a manuscript of a lost Shakespeare play.

The good news is that Cardenio may have been found, hiding in plain sight all these years.

Happy Shakespeare Day.

If My Wind Were But Long Enough To Say My Prayers, I Would Repent

You say he has been thrown in the rivers and has
 been grievously [b]eaten as an old [w]oman: methinks
 there should be terrors in him that he should not 
come; methinks his flesh is punished, he shall have
 no desires.

–Sir Hugh Evans, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Merry Wives
Copyright Javen Tanner, 2014. Image by Samantha Kofford Photography.


I’m so glad Shakespeare was as silly as he was profound. But, somehow, the profundity is always there.

Make no mistake, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written to make audiences laugh. To approach it with any other goal in mind would be amateurish.

But I love the fact that in what is often regarded as Shakespeare’s lightest play, he still structures the near farce within a penance rite. It’s a play about Falstaff, the excellent vice of the Henry IV plays, finally being brought to repentance.

First he is baptized, thrown into the Thames to be washed with the laundry. Next he is beaten, a mortification of the flesh to rid him of the desire for evil. And, finally, he is brought to a tree where he is tormented and mocked while wearing what could be considered a thorny crown.

Of course, this all happens in the midst of abundant bawdy humor. This is no morality play. Nor is it a mockery of the sacred. It’s simply this: if Falstaff is going to repent, it’s going to be funny and irreverent.

The Poet’s True Design: Retelling the Sleeping Beauty Story

Brunhilde Asleep

About seven years ago I was directing a production the The Winter’s Tale. One day it occurred to me that Perdita’s story was structurally similar to the stories of Snow White and other fairytale princesses. And, of course, the other heroines of Shakespeare’s romances followed this structure, as well. Before I knew it, I was investigating the link. I became drawn to the princess fairytales as keenly as I am drawn to the great mythologies of the world.

I found what I call “the lost daughter” to be a common archetype in story telling. And I found that the fairytale versions of this story delve much deeper than the reductive coming-of-age or sexual awakening themes that are typically assigned to them in college classrooms. The lost daughter is a symbol of humanity’s deepest angst in the face of existence and mortality. She is lost innocence, yes, but more importantly, she is lost youth and beauty. She is the morning, her companion is time, and she walks steadily into the arms of night. In fairytales her name is Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and others. In Shakespeare her name is Marina, Imogen, Miranda, the tragic Cordelia, and of course Perdita (literally meaning “lost girl”).

A few years after that production of The Winter’s Tale, I decided to write my own stage version of Snow White. When I put it on its feet, I was surprised by how well it was received. People really love these stories. So then, this past summer, I decided to write another one: Sleeping Beauty. But it’s hard to write a play wherein the heroine spends much of her time sleeping. That’s when I started wondering about Aurora’s dreams.

One of the many versions of the Sleeping Beauty story is the story of Brynhildr (or Brunhilde). Brynhildr was a valkyrie cursed to sleep by the god Odin. Valkyries chose who lived or died on the battlefield, and Odin became angry when Brynhildr chose an outcome against his wishes. He cursed her to sleep in a ring of fire, there to remain until the ring was broken. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I wondered, if Brynhildr dreamed Aurora’s story and Aurora dreamed Brynhildr’s story?

The various parts came together quickly. I was already marrying Norse mythology and a western European fairytale, so I had no trouble adding Greek and Irish mythologies to the mix. The story of the mythological Aurora and her lovers Tithonos and Kephalos fit nicely with Sleeping Beauty’s century of sleep. And Tithonos’ choice in my version is similar to the Irish story of Emer and the hero Cuchulain. My three good witches are the primordial Greek goddesses of night, time, and youth (Nyx, Ananke, and Hebe), so their powers are actually functional to the story. (And two of the three have really interesting daughters in a story about daughters.)

The fourth witch, the evil one famously named Maleficent in the Disney version, is taken from Shakespeare. The witch Sycorax, mother of Caliban, never actually appears in The Tempest, but she is nevertheless an important figure. I didn’t want to just use her name. I thought it would be more interesting if the witch from The Tempest and my witch were one and the same. I have wanted to write about Sycorax for some time, and this play seemed like a good place to start. Nobody knows how Shakespeare came up with her name, but the best guesses are all from Greek (my favorite meaning “breaker of hearts”). So it’s not a huge stretch to make Sycorax, the witch of darkness, the daughter of the Greek goddess of night.

And that was it. Suddenly I had a new version of the fairytale that combined Aurora’s and Brynhildr’s stories. Once again, I was surprised and gratified by how well it was received. Both of my princess fairytales have been performed at the school where I teach, but they were written for adults to perform for children. I look forward to producing one of them with Sting & Honey.

People can get snooty about fairytales. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard complaints about the Disney versions, with claims that the Grimm versions are the “real” ones. That is ignorant nonsense. I guarantee you that when people read the Grimm versions there were complaints about them being watered-down corporate rubbish. These stories have been told and retold for centuries. They are nobody’s property, and nobody has ever told them the “right” way. That’s part of their beauty and their staying power. And, for the record, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is an exquisite film. 

One more thing: As a result of western culture becoming more politically puritanical, there is an ongoing attempt to phase out these stories. But the more we try to silence old stories because elements of them fail to live up to some transient sociopolitical standard, the stupider we become. I have touched on this before regarding The Odyssey. Such prudery is anti-intellectual and, frankly, adolescent. You don’t like the stereotypes in Cinderella? Instead of trying to silence the version of the story you don’t like, write your own version. After all, whether you like it or not, the story is about you.



Hebe means youth, and so I have no daughters.
In fact, I am the daughter’s living symbol,
Fated to be lost in the woods, on waters,
Or in a dream because I touched a spindle.
And while I’m lost I spend my time with fairies,
Poor shepherds, witches, dwarves, or even wolves.
Lessons are learned: a good girl never varies
In what is true, and knows just whom she loves.
But that is not the poet’s true design––
The lost girl is not truth, but
youth and beauty.
It’s youth and beauty all of us resign,
Then fill the void with wisdom out of duty.
But wisdom never satisfies the lack,
And that same girl is never coming back.

Javen Tanner

Brynhildr and Clown
Clown and Brynhildr (Aurora)

I’ll Take That Winter From Your Lips

For Shakespeare’s 450th, here is one of the most disturbing, hilarious, compelling, and tragic scenes he ever wrote. I can’t wait to direct this play.

Richard Tuschman: Daydream
Richard Tuschman: Daydream


SCENE V. The Grecian camp. Lists set out.



Here art thou in appointment fresh and fair,
Anticipating time with starting courage.
Give with thy trumpet a loud note to Troy,
Thou dreadful Ajax; that the appalled air
May pierce the head of the great combatant
And hale him hither.


Thou, trumpet, there’s my purse.
Now crack thy lungs, and split thy brazen pipe:
Blow, villain, till thy sphered bias cheek
Outswell the colic of puff’d Aquilon:
Come, stretch thy chest and let thy eyes spout blood;
Thou blow’st for Hector.
Trumpet sounds


No trumpet answers.


‘Tis but early days.


Is not yond Diomed, with Calchas’ daughter?


‘Tis he, I ken the manner of his gait;
He rises on the toe: that spirit of his
In aspiration lifts him from the earth.



Is this the Lady Cressid?


Even she.


Most dearly welcome to the Greeks, sweet lady.


Our general doth salute you with a kiss.


Yet is the kindness but particular;
‘Twere better she were kiss’d in general.


And very courtly counsel: I’ll begin.
So much for Nestor.


I’ll take that winter from your lips, fair lady:
Achilles bids you welcome.


I had good argument for kissing once.


But that’s no argument for kissing now;
For this popp’d Paris in his hardiment,
And parted thus you and your argument.


O deadly gall, and theme of all our scorns!
For which we lose our heads to gild his horns.


The first was Menelaus’ kiss; this, mine:
Patroclus kisses you.


O, this is trim!


Paris and I kiss evermore for him.


I’ll have my kiss, sir. Lady, by your leave.


In kissing, do you render or receive?


Both take and give.


I’ll make my match to live,
The kiss you take is better than you give;
Therefore no kiss.


I’ll give you boot, I’ll give you three for one.


You’re an odd man; give even or give none.


An odd man, lady! every man is odd.


No, Paris is not; for you know ’tis true,
That you are odd, and he is even with you.


You fillip me o’ the head.


No, I’ll be sworn.


It were no match, your nail against his horn.
May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?


You may.


I do desire it.


Why, beg, then.


Why then for Venus’ sake, give me a kiss,
When Helen is a maid again, and his.


I am your debtor, claim it when ’tis due.


Never’s my day, and then a kiss of you.

So Hallowed and So Gracious is the Time

Our annual Nativity piece opens in one week. Come and see us. (Info here.) Merry Christmas.

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

–William Shakespeare, Hamlet


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