Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths


When watching a Shakespeare tragedy, I always look forward to seeing the death scene(s) “done right.” What this phrase means for this theatergoer is that I prize seeing the characters themselves, as “real” people, hope against hope that this death will not in fact occur, that fate can be averted and a happy ending achieved for all. A successful performance makes me believe that just this once, Richard III may possibly find that elusive horse and rally the troops, or Romeo will prolong his rambling speech for a few more stanzas, just until Juliet rouses herself (as no doubt he easily could). Occasionally I hope along with these characters that they will talk their way out of it, as pale Desdemona begs merciless Othello, “I hope you will not kill me” (5.2. 37), or believe in a miracle as haggard King Lear desperately vacillates between despair and hope, crouching over Cordelia’s body: “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; / If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why, then she lives” (5.3.260-263). At other times, this suspense builds my wicked satisfaction at a villain getting his just deserts, as when Macduff delivers the gloriously chilling line, “Macduff was from his mother’s womb / untimely ripped” (5.11.15-16), to trembling, whey-faced Macbeth, at once bereft of magical protection by that most unforeseen of medical events—a Scottish cesarean section in the Middle Ages. I want to see the sneer wiped right off Macbeth’s face, replaced with a knowledge of the grisly death in store for him. Within a death scene, Shakespeare often builds words upon each other to heighten suspense and to stave off the inevitable, speeches temporarily interposed between a character and their impending death. When the words stop on a Shakespearean stage, life ends.

A recent performance of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at Chicago Shakespeare Theater interjected comedy into the usual unalleviated pathos of such scenes, causing me to marvel at how some deaths can be both touching and uproariously amusing depending on atmosphere and tone. For an informative look at the entire performance and an important request for the same treatment of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which I heartily second, see my colleague Andrea Stevens’s recent review for City Desk. Adapted and directed by Tim Crouch and co-produced with Brighton Festival and Royal & Derngate Northampton, this dark comedy was enacted by the four members of the British comedy troupe Spymonkey, Aitor Basauri, Petra Massey, Toby Park and Stephan Kreiss, who work together as artistic directors and/or performers to craft and perform each show. A remarkable amount of physical activity went into each of the seventy-six deaths, which were counted down on one neon sign to the right of the stage, while another above the stage helpfully listed the person and play (i.e. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet). Particularly, I was impressed by Petra Massey’s girlish leaps and bounds to get up on Juliet’s tombstone, energetic asp-dance as a writhing, sensuous Cleopatra flanked by serpentine back-up dancers, and gravity-defying antics inside the giant plastic bubble during the rebellion against Toby’s vision for The Complete Deaths. During the bloodiest death scene that “went through” a variety of deaths at one sitting and utilized an Asian-themed chopsticks-and-sponges “sword-fight,” Aitor and Stephen went from sedate “touching” to all-out bucket-dumping, wrestling, strangling, and attempted murder in a pool of fake stage blood, the former furious at having his own successful hits ignored and Stephen’s accepted by the omnipotent neon sign, whose approving buzzer signaled the end of a character’s life. Playing out thespian animosity through the medium of successive stage deaths was a great choice, channeling vicious urgency into the most humdrum of minor character interactions.

The two deaths I laughed and cringed at the most, however, were acted out through objects, not people, using flies at the end of sticks and puppetry. One depicted Cinna the Poet’s violent death in (conscious) mistake for Cinna the Conspirator in Julius Caesar. Wandering out of doors in answer to a fateful impulse, “I have no will to wander forth of doors, / Yet something leads me forth” (3.3.2-4), the poet encounters a rowdy mob of plebeians looking for trouble. The company acted out the menacing lead-up to the murder with small marionette stick-figures on a table who surrounded the poet-figure menacingly, while a projector portrayed the marionettes’ maneuvers on the big screen overhead. Herding him into the midst of a circle, they shrieked, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!” The figure, crying, “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet! I am not Cinna the conspirator!” was then torn apart by a baying crowd and set ablaze, burning while the company stood calmly around, satiated (3.3.28-36). Seeing such calculated, yet uncontrollable violence consuming Cinna’s proxy effectively stimulated the viewer to imagine how horrific the actual encounter must have been, and reflect on how useless words are in some Shakespearean deaths to counter or even forestall violence and hate.

One of the most famous deaths in the Shakespeare canon, due to its unusual method of execution, is the drowning of George, Duke of Clarence by First and Second Murderer in a cask of Malmsey wine at the behest of Clarence’s wicked brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. To portray this death, three members of the cast solemnly re­cited lines from the scene as ominous music played in the stillness, holding fly sticks, which they moved to vibrate the flies in time to the words:

FIRST MURDERER Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey butt in the next room.
O excellent device!—and make a sop of him.
No, we’ll reason with him.


All eyes were trained on the overhead screen, where the mason jar full of water sitting on the table acted as the offending Malmsey butt. Fly Clarence awoke and eloquently pleaded for his life:

CLARENCE How darkly and how deadly dost thou speak.
Your eyes do menace me. Why look you pale?
Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?
To, to, to—
To murder me.
Ay, ay.


Despite pleading at some length (which was curtailed somewhat as the lead-up to the murder stretches to 190 lines in the original play), no argument fly Clarence can make will preserve him from his liquid doom. The two Murderer flies forcibly hold struggling, frantically buzzing Clarence down in the depths of the mason jar for an impossibly long time until he relaxes, floats to the top, and remains in place. Cue buzzer! No human-acted performance of Clarence’s death has ever moved me to such helpless laughter and strange emotion: seeing his murder in fly-form reveals the utter helplessness of the duke as a character, ganged up on and completely surprised at the sudden reversal of everything he believed in and thought he knew about his world, the kingdom, and his beloved brother, Gloucester. He dies knowing the awful truth of his brother’s betrayal, but such knowledge does not save him.

Seeing these deaths all at once is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what Shakespeare means to say about the precariousness of life and suddenness of death by the way he pictures, speaks, and writes last words and actions before snuffing out the candle that can never be relit. Through its surface buffoonery and slapstick, especially in its appreciation for allowing contemplative stage time to certain deaths such as Clarence’s and Cinna’s, The Complete Deaths illustrates Shakespeare’s philosophy of theatrical death at large: a good death is memorable and eloquent, a bad death is quick and obscure, because a good theater death needs to live on in audience memory. What weds the maudlin and absurd in this particular show, at least for me, is its full-hearted embracing of chaos as an existential concept contributing to tragedy and comedy alike insofar as such chaos recalls the uncertainty, inevitability, and apparent unfairness of death. In fearing, responding to, and experiencing their grotesque demises, Shakespearean characters mirror us, having no idea when, where, and by what method they will die. While laughing at the ridiculousness of some characters’ dramatic exits into the afterlife, we as the audience acknowledge our own fragility, apprehension, and find comfort in (still) being part of the dark comedy.

Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia.

Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier

In fall 2016, The Pritzker Military Museum & Library filmed a series of in-depth interviews with scholars, artists, and military veterans entitled Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier. In partnership with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four episodes explored the role of soldiers and warfare in Shakespeare’s work and the role of Shakespeare in informing our understanding of soldiers and warfare.

I went to the Museum to watch the live taping of the last episode, and while touring the collection beforehand, I was struck by the fact that the Pritzker is an art museum. Not, of course, only an art museum, but the two major exhibits on display during my visit were both exhibits of Vietnam-era art. One was of photographs taken by the Department of the Army’s Special Photographic Office (DASPO) of the day-to-day lives of American servicemen. The photos are alternately chilling, inspiring, beautiful, awful. They convey a sense of the war that brought home a kind of reality that was unavailable to me through reading books about it. The other exhibit was a collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters. Again, I was given a view of the war from the point of view of the North Vietnamese that any amount of statistical and historical information about “the enemy” could not convey.

For me, the most intriguing through-line in Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier was exactly how reciprocal that relationship between art and history is. The series featured actors, directors, soldiers, and scholars, all working together to bring stories of war to the stage in responsible, evocative, and truthful ways. The knowledge exchanges were surprising in many ways, but one after another, participants claimed that the value of the exchange had been in their favor—that is to say, most seemed to feel that they learned more from their involvement with their collaborators than they contributed.

The four sessions focus on different aspects of the larger topic. The first episode features Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director and Founder Barbara Gaines alongside Fordham University Professor Stuart Sherman. Sherman collaborated with Gaines on Tug of War, CST’s flagship double production chronicling the foreign and civil wars from Edward III to Richard III. Gaines and Sherman discuss how they went about telling this story of war, using Sherman’s historical knowledge to inform the art. Gaines had many advisors on this project, including a handful of veterans whom she interviewed personally in an attempt to bring onto the stage something like the experience of having been at war. Interestingly, Gaines repeatedly states that it is not possible for a civilian to truly understand what being a soldier in wartime is like. While such a claim responds to the mystique that surrounds war and soldiers, it is an odd claim for a theater artist to make; an important aim of the project of Tug of War is to convey that very experience—to allow audiences who are not veteran’s insight into what war is like. Gaines describes a very powerful image that has stuck with her and which she used in conceptualizing the play. The image is from an adaptation of The Odyssey in which a river speaks of the bodies that have floated down it, the death that it has seen. Sherman—who also at one point claims that veterans have understandings which are unavailable to civilians—responds to Gaines that the theater is that river—the river that “knows the costs, the collective costs of killing.” Such a sentiment is compelling; one hopes that art can, at its best, bring that knowledge to its audience.

For Stephan Wolfert, a veteran-turned-actor who was featured in the second episode, “Shakespeare wrote veterans perfectly.” Wolfert served as an infantry officer for eight years before leaving the Army and eventually becoming an actor and director who works with veterans, using Shakespeare to help veterans re-integrate (or, as he calls it, “decruit”). Not only does Wolfert claim that Shakespeare (who was not a veteran) understands veterans, but that as a consequence, Shakespeare wrote characters who veterans understand easily. Wolfert’s account of his first experience with Richard III’s opening speech is illuminating; for Wolfert, the story of a soldier lamenting his inability to fit into civilian society, and his sense of being deformed by his experiences in war, rang perfectly true. So true that he uses that speech, amongst others, to introduce veterans to Shakespeare, using theater as a kind of therapy.

The third episode features CST actors James Vincent Meredith and Jessie Fisher as well as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Yandura, chair of Military Science at Loyola University. Meredith and Fisher played Othello and Emilia respectively in CST’s 2016 production of Othello. Yandura worked with the cast to help them better portray soldiers. The production was set in modern day, and Emilia was also a soldier, so the two actors worked closely with the LTC to develop both a sense of soldiering based on both physical and psychological training. Learning actual drill from Yandura (in what he described as an abbreviated “basic training”) was, according to the two actors, incredibly valuable to them and the rest of the cast. Theater ensembles are used to developing a group identity and esprit de corps, but doing that through military drill was both inspiring and educational. Meanwhile, Yandura felt that he learned more than he imparted; his exposure to the stories of the actors and to the play gave him new ways to think about how he might use theater skills to train his own students at Loyola. Yandura said that he found the actors, with their attention to detail and their willingness and their professional training in the ability to submerge their own egos in order to emulate the behavior of others, were amongst the quickest candidates he had ever trained.

Fisher’s experience was particularly fascinating, as she learned both from Yandura and Yandura’s wife (also a veteran), who came to rehearsal and was willing to discuss what it was like to be the wife of a soldier. Fisher’s Emilia being a soldier created a very interesting reading of the character. As a soldier, her first loyalty lies with her commander, Othello, and her comrades, including her husband Iago. Assigned to “babysit” the civilian Desdemona, she is at first resentful of the woman who has no place in a military zone, and who is keeping her from “more important” duties. It is only as she realizes that the men are behaving poorly, and that Desdemona is demonstrating the pure loyalty which she believes she has a right to expect from Iago and Othello, that she comes to sympathize with her charge. This exciting new reading would have been difficult to create without the help of LTC Yandura.

In thinking more about the way that art and history inform each other, I am reminded of the vital importance of both as the foundation of a free society. According to the staff of the Library, there were protests by American servicemen when the exhibit of North Vietnamese propaganda art opened. These veterans were angry that posters showing our soldiers being killed and our planes being shot down would be displayed. Apparently, those protesters mostly changed their minds after actually seeing the exhibit. I wonder if their minds were changed about more than just the appropriateness of the exhibit; perhaps their perspectives on the war itself might have been shifted slightly, too.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

Joffrey Ballet – Romeo & Juliet


Joffrey Ballet’s 2016 production of Prokofiev’s and Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet opens upon a scene of stark contrasts, not just the obvious black and white of the costume and set design or the unexpected stillness of the dancers upon the stage as old newsreels play in the background, but what these visual contrasts represent—the age-old conflict between the Capulets and Montagues. These two families must share a stage world where everything is black and white, and here we are no longer talking about visuals. Family, politics, worldview separate the two groups, and group choreography scenes at the beginning of acts 1 and 2 make this clear. Costuming clearly articulates the families, and the choreography itself is a striking mixture of dance and stage combat, movements somehow both graceful and stark that express the tension and violence beneath the surface. The climactic street fight between Mercutio (Derrick Agnoletti) and Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili) in particular has such a sense of both regimented movements and chaos that the audience is left stunned when it is over, even those who knew the deaths were coming. This is a world and a stage where both nothing and everything is shocking, where black and white and harsh reds combine with militaristic music and sometimes jerky dance steps to convey a sense of animosity that is barely, and sometimes not, concealed.

In the midst of this world, Romeo and Juliet: star-cross’d lovers clearly demarcated by their pale blue dress and peaceful but passionate movements. The performance of Amanda Assucena in particular as Juliet on the night of October 14 was masterful, both in Assucena’s execution of notated choreography but more importantly in her embodiment of the struggling spirit and nearly inexpressible grief of the heroine as she mourns not just for her lover but her family and her entire world. It is a role needing to be both danced and acted, and Assucena excelled at both. Our Juliet and her Romeo, Alberto Velazquez, drew tears and a standing ovation from the audience on this particular night. The tragedy of the plot and the triumph of the performance were quite clearly theirs.

The lovers and their families and friends are set, in Pastor’s version, in a twentieth-century Italy; moving between the acts, the action moves forward in time, drawing a thread between the Fascism of Mussolini’s 1930s, the violence of the Red Brigade 1960s, and the right-wing political parties of contemporary Italy. The political implications of the production are clear, with the Capulets as the dominant, autocratic Fascists and then the right-wing traditionalists, and the Montagues as the leftist opposition. The conflict is far larger than the two families, the forces with which the two lovers must contend almost insurmountable in scope. While an interesting interpretation that brings relevance for the audience into the performance, such a depiction does have its drawbacks. In Shakespeare’s play, the Capulets and Montagues get no more description than their brief introduction in the Prologue as “two households, both alike in dignity” (line 1, emphasis mine) who are consumed in an “ancient grudge” (line 3) of which no one seems to remember the origins. Shakespeare gives us two nearly identical foes. The audience sides with no one but the lovers, who seem caught up in a pointless struggle that ends easily enough at the end of the play, when the two families reconcile over their shared tragedy. In the Joffrey’s performance, the all-black, military-style costumes and borderline goose-stepping of the Capulets leave no room for ambiguity: the audience is clearly meant to side with the Montagues in this ongoing battle. Their vibrantly colored costumes in the second half and the lovable antics of Mercutio underscore this. Such an interpretation tends to remove Romeo from danger and shift the audience’s sympathies wholly onto Juliet, who might be happy living with her Romeo and his family if only she could escape her own. While the political dimension may add depth and emotion for a modern audience, it is not very true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s text, where both lovers are equally victims and where their deaths, though tragic, seem not to have been in vain when their fathers make peace.

But the presence of the modern audience is key, as the audience is to any performing art. While a Shakespearean scholar may take slight issue with the recasting of the Montagues and Capulets as good and evil, the significance of Pastor’s version for our contemporary world is clear. Italian politics are not the only ones under scrutiny: the timelessness of the performance is matched only by its timeliness, in an American election cycle where we seem as starkly divided as the two families. The Joffrey’s performance highlights not just the never-ending cycle of violence and war between two Italian families, but the perpetuation of conflict everywhere in our world. It is telling that the performance ends without the reconciliation scene that Shakespeare’s text provides; both families simply march away from each other bearing their dead, heedless of the other’s pain, in a display reminiscent of two hardened politicians who refuse to shake hands. The imagery and performances offered in the Joffrey’s Romeo & Juliet may depart from the text, but they are yet anoth­er example of how fully the stage is capable of bringing the text to life.

Anna Ullmann is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean early modern drama, early modern historiography, and Marxist literary theory. She received an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and her BA in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System

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On Saturday, September 24, Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosted a panel discussion on the practice of teaching and producing Shakespeare with incarcerated populations. The audience, who filled the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare at its Navy Pier home, was an eclectic mix of academics, activists, and artists who were all eager to get out of the beautiful fall weather and into a windowless theater to hear what the panelists had to say.

The discussion ran for two hours, and then at least another hour informally in the lobby for those who chose to stay. Many aspects of this work were discussed, and my intent here is only to explore a few of them that have particular interest for me; other discussions that I overheard in the lobby went in completely other directions, which I feel is the hallmark of a very successful panel.

One of the first issues that moderator Lisa Wagner-Carollo raised was what the relevance of Shakespeare is to incarcerated individuals and to the criminal justice system itself. Both practitioners and participants in prison programs described how Shakespeare speaks to them specifically. Panelist Agnes Wilcox, the founder and former artistic director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, explained that prisoners see themselves in many of the characters Shakespeare writes. Doing Julius Caesar, the cast recognized in Cassius a “con man”—conning Brutus into doing a job that he did not want to do: the murder of his close friend. Wilcox told of a guard who, watching a rehearsal, started pointing to the conspirators without knowing the characters’ names, but recognizing them nonetheless: “We have one of him, a couple of him…. definitely one of him…”[1]

That is, of course, a testament to the general applicability of Shakespeare—the fact that he writes characters which everyone can see themselves in is one of the most commonly cited reasons for his enduring appeal. But Shakespeare also writes a surprising amount about justice and law. Even in his comedies, incarceration and legal action are constant elements. Kate Powers, who directs the Rehabilitation through the Arts program, discussed her recent production of Twelfth Night at Sing Sing maximum security prison. When I expressed surprise to her in the lobby after the panel, she elaborated on the choice. In that play, Malvolio is imprisoned in a tiny, dark room and tortured by characters with whom we have generally sympathized. Presumably that scene was funny for an early modern audience, but contemporary audiences often find it uncomfortable. According to Powers, however, her cast and audience loved it. They, more than anyone, understand what it is to be put in solitary, and to be abused by guards.

The prisoners take their work on the plays very seriously. Powers related a story about a rehearsal game where the ensemble working on Hamlet had put Claudius on trial. The rules were that the actors could only introduce evidence from the text. The actor playing Horatio was being cross-examined and answered every question about the ghost and about Hamlet with the same answer: “I don’t know anything about that.” Kate finally asked him why he was not relating what he knew, and he looked at her in mystification. “I swore to Hamlet I wouldn’t say anything!” Panelist Haisan T. Williams, a past participant in the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institute, told of a fellow prisoner who turned down parole because he would have been paroled before the performance for which he had been rehearsing.

This work is clearly important to the participants, but one of the most compelling issues raised at the panel is what the value of these programs is to society. It is worth, I think, interrogating the instinct that makes us think of these two questions as if they were different; that is, why do we think that something could have value to prisoners but not to society? Itari Marta, founder of the Penitentiary Theater Company, at Santa Martha Acatitla penitentiary in Mexico, made an observation that begins to offer an answer. “Prison” says Marta, “is a reflection of outside society.” She said this in the context of a discussion of the particular challenges that she faces in her work; in this case, the corruption that is endemic to Mexican government and that has become normalized by Mexican society, which makes resource management very difficult for her. But this idea of prison as a reflection of society has remarkable explanatory power in several arenas. At the simplest level, if Shakespeare and prisons can both function as ways for a society to better understand itself, then the appeal of one within the other is not surprising.

Marta’s observation, however, is also a call to think about what we see reflected in our prison systems. By her account, her challenges as an artist stem from the way her society thinks about prisoners and about crime: “Our country is corrupt and our government wants it that way. As a people, like anyone would, we have become used to the way things are and so the worst thing is that we cannot imagine things differently, so we have become infected. So when there is a chance for change, we reject it, either because we don’t trust the authorities or because we don’t trust the possibility of change.” Participants in the Penitentiary Theater Company struggle for resources that often get diverted elsewhere. However, perhaps because of the way prisoners are considered, they have access to a source of income that is unavailable to American prisoners. Marta’s project puts on performances for the general prison population, but they also do performances that are open to the public, and for these they charge admission. The proceeds of the public performances pay for the production, and whatever is left over goes to pay the actors. That may seem innocuous, but it would never occur to American programs that the work of rehearsing and performing a play is work, or more to the point that prisoners might be entitled to reap the fruits of their labor. According to Powers, her program is not even allowed to bring cookies for the actors. I see in this startling difference (and it was startling to every one of the Americans on the panel, according to discussions I had with them after the event) an important reflection of the different views of incarceration. Where Marta’s challenges revolve around corruption, ours revolve around the perception of prisoners as sub-human.

In discussions of criminal justice system reform, the question we asked earlier about the value of these programs to society is usually asked in a way which implies that the questioner, intellectually concerned about limited resources, wants to make sure that those resources are being spent wisely. But hidden beneath the question, all too often, is the emotionally charged challenge: why do prisoners “deserve” Shakespeare? This is the issue that incarceration as a very concept struggles with. We talk about rehabilitation, but deep in our hearts many people look to the prison system for vengeance. Kate Powers gets asked at least once a week, “Why are these murderers getting free Shakespeare?” The question is indicative of the way Americans have been trained to think about the incarcerated. Why indeed should prisoners be treated like people at all?

But if the goal of incarceration were actually rehabilitation, that question should answer itself. Who needs Shakespeare more than prisoners? Powers argues that that the values that prisoners develop while working on Shakespeare’s plays are an important aspect of the programs. “These are human plays, and they teach us to be human.” Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars (a twenty-two-year-old program with twelve active prison programs) adds that the themes and characters found in Shakespeare’s plays reflect the trauma that incarcerated men have experienced. For him, trauma and shame are part of the human experience, and he finds that the prisoners he works with find the characters whose particular traumas match their own, as a way to come to terms with their own lives. “As actors, they have to analyze and dissect the characters, building the actor’s tools for self-reflection.” Both Tofteland and Wilcox discussed the way such work trains the actors to develop empathy—that quality which is essential to play someone else on stage, but also, as Martha Nussbaum has argued in Not for Profit, essential to the role of citizen in a democratic society. Exactly the role that rehabilitation purposes for those who have served their time.

Put in terms of societal self-interest by Williams, the question becomes, “Who do you want coming home?” Because prisoners do come home. And when they do, the question of what happens to them is, or ought to be, of vital interest to civilians. Williams offers fairly stark options—either programs like these teach the values of our society, or men return to society with only the lessons that one might imagine are taught by being stuck in a box for seventeen years.

The effectiveness of the programs is unquestionable; recidivism rates amongst alumni of programs like those run by Tofteland and Powers are less than five percent, a tiny fraction of the fifty to sixty percent that is the national average. One can only hope that this is seen as a worthwhile goal by anything calling itself a justice system.

[1] Throughout this essay, I am using quotes from the speakers, but those reflect my own notes taken in real time, and so are not necessarily verbatim. Where I have italicized words within the quotes, those reflect my perception of emphasis put there by the speaker. A final complication is that Itari Marta spoke in Spanish, which I do not speak, through a translator who was performing consecutive translation, not simultaneous.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

Shakespeare’s Globe – The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice is an Elizabethan romantic comedy that time and changing mores, especially attitudes towards Jews and a post-Holocaust abhorrence of anti-Semitism, have transformed into a modern dark tragicom­edy. Shylock, the comic blocking figure who, like Hermia’s father in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stands in the way of young lovers, has become in most productions of The Merchant of Venice the play’s tragic protagonist.

In the Elizabethan romantic comedy, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her Christian lover, Lorenzo, must circumvent the old usurer in order to marry; and before Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano may consummate their marriages, Portia in a thrilling cross-dressed performance as a brilliant young lawyer must save Bassanio’s friend, Antonio, from Shylock’s murderous attempt on his life. She succeeds in a last-minute courtroom tour de force that uses Shylock’s legalism against him: if in taking his contractual pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast, Shylock spills a drop of blood or takes even slightly more or less than a pound, his own life is forfeit. Defeated and then “generously” ordered by Antonio and the Duke of Venice to convert to Christianity, thereby saving his life and his soul, Shylock leaves the stage to the lovers for the play’s idyllic and humorous final act.

This modern darkly tragicomic Merchant of Venice gives us instead a sympathetic Shylock abused by Christians, especially Antonio, abandoned and robbed by his only child, and fighting back in the only way he can in an environment of intense and pervasive anti-Semitism: that is, by insisting on a strict interpretation of the law of contracts that Venice must uphold or risk losing its position as the most important commercial power in the Mediterranean. In this version, Portia’s cunning interpretation of the relevant legal statute deflates Shylock’s businessman’s belief in the law of commerce, while the order for his forced conversion destroys his sense of identity as a Jew and as a human being.

Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Munby and one of several international shows visiting Chicago Shakespeare Theater during this quatercentenary year, does the best job of balancing the Elizabethan romantic comedy and the modern tragicomedy of any production I have seen. After almost half a century I still vividly remember Laurence Olivier’s acutely intelligent and heartbreaking Shylock in a production directed by Jonathan Miller that was marked by the anti-Semitism of all of its Christian characters. But by focusing on the tragedy of Shylock and allowing the Christians no redeeming features, this production, brilliant and groundbreaking as it was, lost some of what is or can still be delightful in the play’s romantic comedy.

Jonathan Munby’s Merchant, by contrast, gave to every character his or her due. There was no attempt to gain extra sympathy for Shylock by sentimentalizing his relationship with his daughter—at their first appearance together they were quarreling in Yiddish. And the Christian characters were a more morally mixed and nuanced bunch than in some productions I have seen. While excoriating anti-Semitism, Munby also presented the more complex and perhaps uncomfortable truth that idealism and intolerance, decency and bigotry, can exist in the same person and that being an outsider oneself (Antonio as homosexual) need not grant one compassion for another kind of outsider.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stage was dressed to evoke rather than precisely imitate Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where Munby’s production originated. Dark curtains covered the back wall; simple tables, chairs, and plinths were brought on as needed; actors entered through a large central opening, from the sides, and through the audience. The permanent architectural features, as in Shakespeare’s Globe, were two tall pillars, whose capitals were lit up to resemble gold in the Belmont scenes. The period costumes also emphasized the contrast between Venice and Belmont. The Venetians wore dull colors highlighted by red; in Belmont blonde heiress Portia wore gold, and Bassanio and Jessica, too, exchanged their drab Venetian clothes for golden ones in Belmont. Sixteenth-century Italy was evoked, too, by bursts of Italian music and pleasing Italian songs that punctuated the production and provided a basis for Lorenzo’s beautiful invocation of the power of music in act five.

The production opened with a noisy carnival scene that was already underway as the audience took their seats. This prologue set the tone for the action to come as the good-natured jollity of maskers, musicians, and courtesans gave way to a violent, unprovoked attack on two Jews as they crossed the stage.

In keeping with the spirit of performance at Shakespeare’s Globe, the actors in the prologue and in the play proper interacted with the audience. In particular, Launcelot (an engaging Stefan Adegbola) brought up onto the stage members of the audience to play the “fiend” and his “conscience” as he debated leaving Shylock’s service. At the performance I attended (August 14), the first “fiend” (a local Shakespear­ean perhaps?) to the great amusement of the audience left the stage at the line “use your legs,” and a second had to be recruited. At other times actors drew the audience into their world by referring to particular spectators. Most interestingly, Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) spoke his early asides to the audience, at those moments incorporating all of us as fellow Jews in an anti-Semitic society.

The Christians in Munby’s production were not uniformly anti-Semitic. I have seen worse: for example, the vicious Venetians of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2005 production, which featured Mike Nussbaum as Shylock. Most virulent of Munby’s Christians were Antonio (Dominic Mafham) and Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). Antonio was initially a sympathetic and dignified figure in his impossible but generous love for Bassanio. When Solanio (Raj Bajaj) asked him if he was sad because he was in love, Mafham’s vehement “Fie” spoke volumes about the pain of keeping his feelings private. But in his interactions with Shylock, this Antonio was exceptionally brutal, verbally and physically, and when finally he shook Shylock’s hand to seal their bargain, he immediately wiped his own on his garment. Gratiano, immoderate in all things (he first entered the stage in the process of throwing up and later was accused of fathering a baby), equally displayed mean-spiritedness, not only baiting Shylock during the trial but also attempting—through gestural interjections—to dissuade Lorenzo from marrying Jessica.

To his credit, Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), while clearly one of the boys, stood up for his love for Jessica with some spirit. Allowing Lorenzo this grace paid off in the last act when Shakespeare gives this young lover the most beautiful lines in the play about the loveliness of the starry night and the harmony of the music of the spheres: “Such harmony is in immortal souls.” In the Olivier production, the moment had to be subverted in keeping with the general degradation of the Christians—the foppish Lorenzo carefully put his handkerchief on the ground for himself to sit on. Apollo’s Lorenzo put his jacket on the ground for Jessica. All the difference in the world. And an exquisite moment was preserved.

The most decent of the Christians was Dan Fredenburgh’s Bassanio, the most likeable Bassanio I can remember. Unlike Antonio, whose excess he attempted to restrain, Bassanio did not wipe his hand after shaking Shylock’s (admittedly a low bar). Despite his impecuniousness, he did not play Antonio, instead gently deflecting an attempted kiss on the lips, and he appeared truly to love Portia, not only her money.

Though more acerbic than her Bassanio, Rachel Pickup offered a somewhat nuanced portrait of Portia. The audience could sympathize enough with her wit and charm and her beautifully spoken love for Bassanio to enjoy the romance of the caskets plot while cringing at her racial prejudice towards the Prince of Morocco and later Jessica. The choice to make Morocco (a character whose eloquence has encouraged critics to see him as a trial-run for Othello) as ridiculous as the Prince of Aragon somewhat mitigated the bad taste left by Portia’s racist abhorrence of this suitor. Both Giles Terera as Morocco and Christopher Logan as Aragon gave highly entertaining over-the-top performances of cultural stereotypes that brought the house down, leaving one to wonder perhaps whether it is, after all, any more acceptable to mock Spaniards (or Dutchmen or Englishmen, like Portia’s other undesirable but unseen suitors) than Africans.

Portia was least sympathetic in her offhand attitude to Jessica. Both she and Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) repeatedly had difficulty remember­ing Jessica’s name (in the manner established by Joan Plowright’s Portia in Olivier’s production). And at one point Portia handed Jessica her wine glass as if she were a servant. In the court scene Portia really did not figure out how to save Antonio until the last possible moment, making this well-known episode something of a nail-biter. But though perhaps less calculating than some Portias in this respect, Pickup was nasty enough in her put-down of Shylock.

The show belonged to Shylock—and to a greater extent than is usual to Jessica. Advance publicity prepared audiences for this focus by foregrounding the real-life father-daughter relationship between Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock and Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica. Maintaining his precarious masculine dignity through a harsh self-sufficiency, Pryce’s Shylock was as passionately prejudiced against Christians as they were against Jews, obviously with more cause. But though he intended retribution from the beginning in proposing the “merry sport” of his contract with Antonio, the savagery of his revenge was primed by his daughter’s elopement with a Christian. Expecting to triumph in the court of law, Shylock was instead humiliated by Portia, who reduced this strong, passionate individual to a frail old man—“I am not well”—and eviscerated him, body and soul.

The keynote figure in Munby’s production was actually Jessica rather than Shylock. The audience apprehended Jewish experience in an anti-Semitic society through Jessica’s attempts to engage with Venetian culture. At first more reprehensible than sympathetic in running off with her lover and her father’s money, Jessica gained the audience’s sympathy when, as an outsider at Belmont, she was ignored by Portia and Nerissa. Later, tutored by Lorenzo in private moments, Jessica learned to dance and to speak in appropriately fulsome language about Portia, whom, understandably, she did not like. Her delight in her new art of dancing and her new golden dress was irresistible. And so the audience was drawn with Jessica into acquiescence in the tempting pleasures of Belmont—that is, until she learned what had been done to her father.

Shylock’s exit from the court is his textual exit from Shakespeare’s play, but not from most contemporary productions, which find ways to bring him back to disturb the comic harmony of Belmont. The Olivier production, for example, concluded with the offstage recitation of the Kaddish. The 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, showed the newly baptized Shylock being barred from the Jewish ghetto. In Munby’s production, while Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano were amusingly resolving their quarrels about their rings, Jessica read with horror the letter that Portia brought to Belmont detailing events in Venice. Implicitly, she realized what she had done in abandoning her father for Lorenzo, Judaism for Christianity.

The play ended with a devastating coda as a procession entered to perform the ceremony of Shylock’s baptism. In agony Pryce’s Shylock could barely respond with the required “Credo” to each article of the Christian Creed. In counterpoint to the triumphal Latin chanting of the Catholic ceremony, Jessica kneeled at the side of the stage singing with passionate sorrow a Hebrew prayer of repentance, begging for forgiveness. The Christian procession exited, and Lorenzo returned to take Jessica into Portia’s house. But just as the doors were closing, she turned to face the audience. She was trapped—like Shylock.

The exceptional darkness of this ending to what was in many respects an audience-pleasing production of The Merchant of Venice was both deeply moving and theatrically thrilling. And the discordance was by no means out of keeping with what Shakespeare himself does elsewhere in his drama, even in an early romantic comedy such as Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I look forward to seeing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater next February.

Verna Foster is a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in modern drama, dramatic theory and Shakespeare. She holds her PhD, MPhil and BA in English from University of London. Her publications include a book on tragicomedy, as well as numerous articles.

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night

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In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, after having quickly tricked Cesario into straying from Orsino’s prepared speeches of courtship, the Countess Olivia triumphantly declares that the poor Viola-in-disguise is “Now out of your text” (1.5.204). This causes Cesario to abandon the “text” completely, so that Olivia receives passionate words directly from the heart, perhaps for the first time, and ultimately falls in love with this unwitting messenger.

Similarly, it was the extra-textual, intuitive nature of Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks: Twelfth Night that drew love from the audience at Welles Park. Before the show began, Will Mobley, the show’s Feste, addressed an audience that professed to be about half newcomers to Shakespeare’s works and advised them to use context to guide their experience when the text itself became too impenetrable. Flanked by the grand Welles Gazebo on one side and a group of elderly men playing bocce on the other, and preceded by a riveting presentation by the Old Town School of Folk Music that had many playgoers dancing in their seats, CST gave a performance that enabled the audience to use this context to enjoy a show that was true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s words while updating and packaging them for a modern, casual setting.

Presented with a play that often rings with dark notes even as it is undoubtedly a comedy, director Kirsten Kelly and the performers were able to remove some of this ambiguity for an audience that included dogs, babies, and balloons, as well as attentive listeners. While some might say this detracts from the play’s overall complexity and Shakespeare’s artistic achievement, the beauty of theater is that it is adaptable to the context outside it in the same way that it is able to use onstage context to draw listeners in. For this particular show, the decision to turn Orsino’s and Olivia’s melancholy into melodrama was the right one. For example, Orsino made his entrance carrying an enormous portrait of Olivia done in lurid colors, which he then proceeded to dance with and eventually kiss rather emphatically, laying on it a large, wet smack that was audible over the “food of love” coming from Feste’s piano. We were unquestionably in a comedy from the start.

The transformation of Feste, the “wise fool” originally created for the more satirical and serious clown Robert Armin, into a lively jester-turned-musician kept much of the more confusing dialogue at bay and consistently kept the energy of the show high. Feste often speaks in riddles that take us a moment to puzzle out. Some of these moments were kept, such as his logical proof that Olivia is really the fool and not he (1.5.61), but many of them were cut, rightfully I think, as it kept the audience’s attention moving in this abridged, outdoor production. They had also composed an upbeat musical score for many of Feste’s songs, particularly the finale known most often as “The Wind and the Rain,” and incorporated this music throughout the show. Such decisions made for a cohesive, pleasant performance for a Sunday afternoon in the park.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways in which the director and cast upheld the joyful arc of the show while making use of the context of performance was the overall treatment of Malvolio. This is often one of those dark notes already mentioned. While he is never exactly likable, in other renditions I have seen and in the text itself the other characters’ trickery and humiliation of Malvolio can easily come across as cruel; the humor goes one step too far. This negativity is underscored by his final line, in which he vows to “be revenged on the whole pack of [them]” (5.1.365). The Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks show left none of this lingering doubt amidst our happily ever after, and this was achieved largely by the actors’ full engagement with the audience and the brilliant characterization of the long-suffering, absurdly pedantic, and somehow endearing Malvolio by Jonathan Weir.

In Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, Robert Weimann outlines the difference between what he terms the locus and platea. The
locus is the upper, more focalized part of the stage where action is more separated from the audience, while the platea is the lower part, sometimes even spilling into the seats, where the action is more connected to the spectators and context of playing. Rather than place Malvolio, the focus of our ridicule, on the more separated locus of the stage, nearly all of his actions were given on the platea, either at the very front of the stage or on the ramp and grass in front of it. From the way he addressed the reading of “Olivia’s” love letter directly to the audience, to his swiping of a snack from a playgoer in the front row, to his retreating after his declaration of revenge not backstage and out of sight but fairly deeply into the actual audience, Malvolio was clearly someone we laughed with, not at; an engaging character with his own kind of humor, who was reconciled back into the cast at the end and was never alienated from the silliness of the other characters or the casualness of the setting.

CST went quite far “out of their text” for this Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks performance, abridging many scenes and even translating whole speeches into Spanish, but the results were truly gratifying. By balancing their commitment to Shakespeare with their duty to their audience, Kelly and her cast and crew produced a show that sent both first-time viewers and seasoned veterans away laughing.

Anna Ullmann is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean early modern drama, early modern historiography, and Marxist literary theory. She received an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and her BA in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College.

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night


On August 6, I went to Welles Park with hundreds of other Chicagoans carrying picnic blankets, food, and those little Shakespeare fans to see Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks’ performance of Twelfth Night. It’s worth the trek to your neighborhood park in terms of stage design alone. Without spoiling too much, one device that struck me as being highly original and humorous in this production was that of Viola/Cesario riding her bike in place on stage, while Malvolio races up, falls back, puffing, and finally overtakes her by overturning the bike and demanding that she take back the ring that she supposedly gifted to Olivia. Similarly, in the first scene of this production (the original play’s Act 1, scene 2) the twins hurl themselves around the nautical stage’s ladders and rigging, mimicking the violence of the wind and waves as their ship breaks apart and hurls them in opposite directions, movements rendered more striking by the sound of snapping timber and howling winds. Besides the fanciness of some of these more dramatic moments, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks: Twelfth Night makes some interesting changes that speak to the question of translating Shakespeare’s work to modern audiences. Adapted and directed by Kirsten Kelly, this production introduced Spanish translations of Viola and Sebastian’s English lines when they spoke to each other, played up and updated the music in Shakespeare’s original play, and eliminated Malvolio’s Puritan antecedents, three significant changes that update and simplify the convoluted plot.

In particular, the first change provides a subtext to the story that would otherwise be lacking, juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, the domestic with the foreign. With two Spanish-speaking actors in the production playing leading roles, the brash, amusing Andrea San Miguel as Viola and Nate Santana as a dashing Sebastian, Kelly apparently chose to have the twins occasionally converse with each other in this language. This brief use of Spanish ironically had the effect of being intelligible to some bilingual members of an audience already straining to understand early modern English, while excluding others from the intimacy of the twins’ relationship. Actor Will Mobley’s pre-play adjuration, “Watching Shakespeare takes a few minutes before eyes and ears adjust. Watch the faces and watch what the actors do,” applied perfectly to this scenario as well. Accordingly, this change did not obscure the play’s sense at all. Through their corresponding actions, such as desperate reaching, crying aloud, or embracing passionately, the general sense of these words could be easily interpreted by viewers: A brother and sister torn apart…A brother and sister lovingly reunited. These few translated lines also stressed how such Spanish-speakers in a predominately English-speaking society could find intimacy, familiarity, and even privacy in conversing with family members in their mother tongue. But what would Shakespeare say to his English lines being translated into modern Spanish? Based on his track record with languages other than English and Latin, I think he would love it.

Though all of Shakespeare’s lines in Twelfth Night are originally composed in English, the playwright also relished writing lines in other languages for diversion and show off his learning. Notably, he left spaces for Welsh to be spoken by the Earl of Glendower’s daughter, (a part possibly enacted by a Welsh-speaking actor in his company) in 1 Henry IV and in Henry V wrote the majority of Princess Katherine of France’s lines in French to indicate the cultural and linguistic divides that separated couples transculturally wedded in a time of war and dynastic change. As for Shakespeare’s use of ancient Illyria as the setting, this seems to have been motivated by a desire to choose a fantasyland for his shipwrecked travelers that would be culturally vague and exotic-sounding, not to pinpoint a specific setting. Dwellers at the sites of modern Montenegro and Albania, both the Illyrians and their native language remain lost to history, representing a convenient European geographical vacancy for Shakespeare to fill with a motley assortment of inhabitants inexplicably and haphazardly given English (Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch) and Italian (Olivia, Orsino, and Malvolio) names, regardless of interrelation or social class. As no indication is given in the original play as to Viola and Sebastian’s parentage, country of origin, or station in life beyond its being “above [their] fortunes” (Act 1, scene 5) and their having had a father who had previously “named” Orsino to his daughter as an eligible bachelor (Act 1, scene 2), it may reasonably be assumed that these twins with Italian or Latin names are from an Iberian locale and of noble birth. Having Viola and Sebastian speak Spanish to each other in Kelly’s adaptation ultimately emphasizes their secret foreignness in Orsino’s Illyria, a single wistful echo of the familiar world lost to them through their journey, shipwreck, and perhaps even new marriages to local Illyrian nobility, in an otherwise outrageous comedy.

And yes, this comedy is outrageous, playful fun by an impressively solid cast. Devastatingly regal in nightcap and silk dressing-gown, Jonathan Weir plays an off-the-cuff Malvolio for all he is worth, flailing his long, yellow cross-gartered legs about, making absurd facial contortions, and persistently stealing Lays potato chips and white wine from the audience at the least excuse: “Can’t eat just one!” Moping about Byronically with disheveled attire, Neal Moeller’s portrayal of Orsino emphasizes the character’s ridiculous oversentimentality while preserving the menace of his misogynistic diatribes against Olivia for spurning his advances. Further high points throughout the comedy were Dominic Conti’s hilarious gaucherie as the clueless suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the comedic timing of Ronald Conner’s Sir Toby Belch, Nike Kadri’s dignified, passionate Olivia, and Will Mobley’s empathetic interpretation of Feste, Olivia’s fool. The boxing scene and its choreography were utterly marvelous—but I’ll say no more. Pack a basket, grab some congenial folks, and go see the play for yourself!

Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia. Read more about Lydia…