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Shakespeare’s Audiences are Still Lit!

Written by Jessie Wise, Company Wright

I’ve always loved Shakespeare, but despite earning my bachelors degree in Theatre Arts Education and my masters degree in Theatre History and Criticism, outside of classwork I had never had the chance to really get involved with the plays. After losing my theatre teaching position due to budget cuts, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get back to the theatre game. Early this year, I spotted an ad in the local paper for auditions for Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s summer shows and knew I had to take the leap to get back involved. One play later, I now am stepping further into this wonderful theatre community to help with some writing and dramaturgical projects. I look forward to the opportunity to share just why I love Shakespeare. 

As Sweet Tea Shakespeare prepares to bring HamLit to the stage this fall, I’ve been thinking about all the ways Shakespeare’s writing remains relevant to today’s audiences. While there is much to be said for how the Bard captures humanity in his works (a blog for another day), I have also been considering how though times have changed from the Elizabethan era, the audience’s needs remain the same. 

Shakespeare’s original audiences came to the open air theatre of the Globe to see a performance and received an experience similar to the sports events of today. They ate,drank, and had the freedom to move about. Those in the floor section, often referred to as the groundlings, could move closer to the stage for a better view. 

This is very much a practice we believe in at Sweet Tea Shakespeare. We provide food and beverage offerings for sale. We have a “sit where you will” and “move as you need” policy, allowing audience members to find explore new perspectives by moving around the seating area, and also acknowledging that humans need movement. 

The atmosphere is akin to what you find at today’s breweries. Grab a beer. Visit the food truck. Pick a seat. Spot a friend. Switch seats to sit with them. Grab another beer. This is what you’ll find as Sweet Tea Shakespeare brings HamLit to local bars and breweries this fall. We hope to see you there! 

Crash Course on Timon of Athens

Before settling down on a lawn chair or quilt to watch Green Tea’s production,Timon of Athens, here’s a quick overview of the plot. 

The play opens with the introduction of Timon- a kind aristocrat in Athens with a severe spending habit. When Timon finds himself confronted with debts, his steward, Flavius, can do little more than tell him that he is bankrupt. Timon then sends his servants to ask his friends for help, only to find that no one will lend him money to repay his debt. In a rage, Timon invites them all to one last feast, severing the main dish- stones and warm water. After this, Timon denounces his former friends and all of mankind. 

Meanwhile, Alcibiades, a captain of Athens, has been pleading against a death sentence given to one of his men. For his persistence, the Senate banishes Alcibiades. Despising the Senate for banishing him, Alcibiades decides to turn his army against Athens in revenge and hears about Timon who has left Athens to live as a hermit. 

Timon, looking for food in the wilderness, finds a hidden stash of gold. Alcibiades finds Timon and tries to befriend him by offering him money. When Timon hears of Alcibiades’ plan to destroy Athens, Timon gives Alcibiades gold to pay his men and march to Athens. Timon even sends away his former steward, Flavius, although with gold in his pockets and more kindness than he has shown to anyone else. 

Alcibiades arrives at the gates of Athens. The senators attempt to defend the city, explaining that not everyone in Athens insulted Alcibiades and Timon, and they ask that Alcibiades come into the city in peace. 

To find out how Alcibiades acts once in Athens, come to see Green Tea’s production of Timon of Athens under the stars, August 21-23. Get your tickets to see the play in action at sweetteashakespeare.com/tickets. 

Winter’s Tale ~ A Glance Behind the Pages

Historical Background Information—The Winter’s Tale

This aspect of dramaturgy has posed a challenged, because technically this play reflects no actual history, at least on the surface. Probing below the surface however, it is believed to be allegorical to the second marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn, or more to the point, its tragic ending. A little historical background to that is in order.

The English Reformation was different from that of Continental Europe in that

1. It was a largely top-down affair, legislated by the monarchy

2. It had very much to do with the personal life of King Henry VIII.

Henry VIII’s marital record is very well known to history, and much came down to producing a male heir. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon had produced only one surviving child—a daughter, Mary. Then as she aged, Henry genuinely developed the hots for her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. So Henry appealed to Rome for an annulment of his first marriage, on the retrospectively decided grounds of Catherine’s being his brother Arthur’s widow, something that was apparently disallowed without a dispensation (which they had gotten) The divorce suit was hardly the most frivolous one to come forth from or been granted to a monarch, but it nonetheless threatened to undo the whole legitimacy of Papal Dispensations. Furthermore, at the time, Pope Clement VII was under the political thumb of Catherine’s nephew, Charles V.

The pope therefore had little option but to dither and stall, allowing the suit to proceed in England for the next two years, before suddenly announcing that it had to be brought to Rome anew. Henry, after laying increasing pressure on the Pope, in 1531 compelled an assembly of English clergy to make him “protector and only supreme head” of the Church in England. Then, in 1533, he went ahead and married the already pregnant Anne, without waiting for an annulment of his previous marriage. When the child turned out to be a girl (the future Queen Elizabeth I), it must have seemed all for nothing—Henry refused even to attend her christening. From there, things didn’t work out so well for Anne, after subsequent failed efforts to give the king a son, ending with a miscarriage. Afterward, the king fell in love with her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, his eventual third wife. Rather than attempt another divorce, he had Anne imprisoned and executed on trumped-up charges of adultery with multiple men—including a close friend of the king’s who refused to confess even to avoid execution. It has been suggested then that Perdita was an allegorical presentation of Elizabeth, the unwanted daughter who went on to be one of the greatest (if not greatest) English monarchs in history.

There are also historical circumstances surrounding some of the geographical oddities described in the play. In The Winter’s Tale, there are references to the “seacoast” and “desert” of the Kingdom of Bohemia. If this Bohemia is the same the comprises most of the modern Czech Republic, this does not make sense, because this region has neither desert nor seacoast. But Bohemia in this context may refer to a much larger territory briefly ruled by Ottokar II of Bohemia that included the Adriatic coast, making it theoretically possible to sail from Sicily to the “seacoast of Bohemia” during the period under discussion. Other possibilities are that Bohemia was an alternate name for the region Apulia in Sicily or a misspelling of Bithynia in Asia Minor. The most likely theory is that Shakespeare, when adapting the novella Pandosto – in which King Pandosto of Bohemia was the one who suspected his wife of being unfaithful with his best friend, the King of Sicily – Shakespeare chose to reverse the locations of the two characters. This was because of King James II’s alliance with Rudolph II, the King of Bohemia (and the Holy Roman Emperor!) at the time of the play was first performed—also making it possible for the play to be performed in honor of the marriage of James’s daughter Elizabeth to the crown prince of Bohemia! There are also other explanations for this and other geographic improbabilities that have been discussed in a separate literary history of the play.

Beyond Bohemia, there is also the question of why Shakespeare located the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when Delphi (ancient and modern) is located in the mountains in Central Greece. Rather, this seeming relocation of the Oracle to the island of Delos (known in Shakespeare’s time as Delphos) is lifted straight from Pandosto, whose author in turn refers Virgil’s Aeneid.

Winter’s Tale – Historical Timeline

Timeline—History of the Play

~ 1588— Pandosto, a pastoral romance by Robert Greene (the literary source for Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale”) published.

~ c.1610-1611—Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale first published.

~ May 11, 1611–”The Winter’s Tale” first performed at the Globe Theatre in London

~ November 5, 1611–”The Winter’s Tale” performed before King James I at the Royal Court

~ February 14, 1613–”The Winter’s Tale” performed at Whitehall as part of the festivities in honor of the

~ marriage of Princess Elizabeth to King Frederick IV, Elector Palatine

~ 1623—“The Winter’s Tale” published in First Folio.

Winter’s Tale – A Bit of History

The Winter’s Tale is the second to last play William Shakespeare published in1611,  is generally grouped with his comedies. But like his final work, The Tempest (a future Sweet Tea production),  is part of Shakespeare“third period” in some ways defy categorization as kinds of mature dramas focusing on human reconciliation, and overcoming misunderstanding. It is based  on Robert Greene’s  prose novella Pandosto, which was published in 1588, with surprisingly few alterations, although the original ends more tragically, with the equivalent of the character of Hermione experiencing no resurrection, and Pandosto (the character equivalent of Leontes) killing himself in remorse for his wrongful accusations against his wife. Rather, it is the return of the long-lost daughter that provides the restoration of order. There has also been some suggestions that The Winter’s Tale was a “redo” of Othello, because both are stories of how unreasoned jealousy can destroy a marriage, with The Winter’s Tale offering the possibility of a happier ending.

The literary history of The Winter’s Tale  provides an additional explanation of  the improbability of the “seacoast of Bohemia” (which is landlocked!). Because this play is partially in the pastoral genre,  popular during the late period of Shakespeare’s plays,  it by definition mixes references from different times and places to purposefully create a sense of not-quite-reality. Even the title is an argument for this explanation, since a “winter’s tale” is one traditionally  told by parents to children that is by definition fanciful rather than realistic. Beyond Bohemia, there is also the question of why Shakespeare located the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when Delphi (ancient and modern) is located in the mountains in Central Greece. Rather, this seeming relocation of the Oracle to the island of Delos (known in Shakespeare’s time as Delphos) is lifted straight from Pandosto, whose author in turn refers to the Oracle of Delos (not Delphi) in Virgil’s Aeneid.

~ Dr. Susan Breitzer

 

Taming of the Shrew – Dramaturgical background

Here’s some information to help you “get inside” Sweet Tea’s upcoming production of The Taming of the Shrew! First, an article written by the Sweet Tea Shakespeare company dramaturg, Ruth Nelson; then, check out the links provided for additional analysis, performance reviews, and fun facts!

NOT Your Average Picnic: Sweet Tea Shakespeare Serves Up The Taming of the Shrew
By Ruth A. Nelson
(originally published in Friction Magazine July 2014)

A rich young bachelor acquires a rich headstrong beauty for his wife. It sounds like the plot of many a modern romantic comedy, doesn’t it? But what if, instead of living “Happily Ever After,” the groom showed up late – and dressed like a homeless clown – to the wedding, dragged his new bride away from the reception and through the mud to his country house, deprived her of food and sleep, and eventually humiliated her into meek submission? One might think a phone call to the police would be more appropriate than a round of applause.

Thus runs the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most hotly debated plays and Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s second offering this summer. Shrew has been a source of contention for literary and theatrical analysts since its debut in the 1590s. Various productions have explored an array of interpretations to this robust comedy, from a sobering tale of cruel misogyny to a surprisingly tender – and easily misunderstood – love story. Whichever way you slice it, this story has the potential to be a difficult theatrical morsel to swallow, for audience and actors alike.

Why choose such a tricky dish for Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s summer fare? Jeremy Fiebig, Founder and Artistic Director of Sweet Tea Shakespeare, does not shy away from the play’s boldly troublesome nature: “Shrew is considered controversial because it seems to celebrate a male chauvinist perspective. The play does do this — there’s no getting around it. To me, presenting and dealing with the discomfort that emerges from a play like Shrew is important. Shrew can serve as a mirror for us. If we look into it, we may not like what we see, but we can sure learn from it.”

Besides being “important,” Shrew has proven its performative worth through sheer longevity. For over four hundred years now, audiences continue to demand, enjoy, and respond enthusiastically to the shamelessly raucous fun of this script. Between 2002 and 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company alone put up no fewer than four productions of The Taming of the Shrew (Maddy Costa, The Guardian 2012). Disguises, rivalries, fistfights in the street, bumbling servants, razor-sharp verbal wordplay – Shrew has it all! Even with its uncomfortable subject matter, this comedy remains a popular resident of Shakespeare’s “hall of fame,” making it an apt choice for the warm, whimsical, unabashedly theatrical Sweet Tea Shakespeare.

Furthermore, at its core, Shrew is a funny story about love. Recalling Love’s Labours Lost, Sweet Tea’s first summer show (June 2014), Fiebig observes: “Both shows this season are about the extremes we go to for love and the unexpected endings that come from those pursuits.” As with every production, the goal of Sweet Tea Shakespeare is to explore authentically the rich nature of this complicated text, invite the audience into the exploration, and have a riotous amount of fun along the way. Who knows? We all might learn something – and we will definitely be better for the laughter.

TEXTUAL HISTORY
Visit the British Library online:
http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/taming.html

*Note: It is widely believed that John Fletcher wrote a sequel to Taming of the Shrew in the early 1600s, called The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed.

LITERARY ANALYSIS
Check out this article by Erin Furstnau: http://www2.cedarcrest.edu/academic/eng/lfletcher/shrew/efurstnau.htm

PERFORMANCE REVIEWS
1) Royal Shakespeare Company, 2012 – Maddy Costa (The Guardian):
http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jan/17/taming-of-the-shrew-rsc

2) Shakespeare BASH’d, Toronto Fringe Festival, 2012 – J.A. Macfarlane: http://www.playshakespeare.com/taming-of-the-shrew/389-theatre-reviews/6071-an-excellent-evening-bash

3) Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 2010 – Barry Eitel
(Framing device written by Neil LaBute):
http://www.playshakespeare.com/taming-of-the-shrew/389-theatre-reviews/4889-labute-cannot-tame-shrew