Edgar Allan Poe on Poetry, Dr. Johnson, and Shakespeare

In his "Letter to B——," Edgar Allan Poe, who was born 207 years ago today, imagines "immortal Shakespeare" scowling at Dr. Johnson's definition of poetry:
What is Poetry? — Poetry! that Proteus-like idea, with as many appellations as the nine-titled Corcyra! [Corfu] “Give me,” I demanded of a scholar some time ago, “give me a definition of poetry?” “Très-volontiers;” and he proceeded to his library, brought me a Dr. Johnson, and overwhelmed me with a definition. Shade of the immortal Shakespeare! I imagined to myself the scowl of your spiritual eye upon the profanity of that scurrilous Ursa Major. Think of poetry, dear B——, think of poetry, and then think of Dr. Samuel Johnson! Think of all that is airy and fairy-like, and then of all that is hideous and unwieldy; think of his huge bulk, the Elephant! and then—and then think of the Tempest—the Midsummer Night’s Dream— Prospero —Oberon—and Titania!


The New Shakespeare Coins and the Grateful Dead's Skull and Roses

Hungarians used to have the poets Sándor Petőfi and Endre Ady on the their money, and, before they switched to the Euro, the Irish had Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. The Scots have put Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott on their pounds, and Jane Austen graces the British £10 note. My fellow Americans, let's replace the Indian killer Andrew Jackson with Emily Dickinson on the $20.

Image from Coin World.
The Brits now have three different £2 coins to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's (physical) death: one for tragedies, one for histories, and one for comedies (as in the First Folio, the comedies presumably include the romances). The history coin's design may allude to Richard II's "hollow crown" speech (3.2.151-66), in which he imagines death as a king, holding court inside the English crown. That scene is too busy for a coin, and a dagger in a crown perfectly captures the spirit of the passage and the plays. The tragedy coin probably also alludes to specific plays, to Hamlet staring at Yorick's skull (5.1), and to Juliet wishing Romeo weren't named Montague: "That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet" (2.1.85-86).


How Star Wars: the Force Awakens Is and Isn't Like a Shakespeare Play

Adam Driver, behind the mask, as Kylo
Ren, and Kenneth Branagh as Henry V.
Spoiler Alert: This post mentions a plot twist in The Force Awakens.

George Lucas directed Star Wars Episode 4 and produced Episodes 5-6 before making Episodes 1-3, just as Shakespeare wrote the three Henry VI plays and Richard III (which tell a later part of his story) before writing Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V (which tell an earlier part). Just as people sometimes call Episodes 4-6 "the first Star Wars movies" because they appeared first, Henry VI-Richard III is called the "first tetralogy" because Shakespeare wrote it first. Richard II-Henry V is called the "second tetralogy" because he wrote it second. The second tetralogy's last play, Henry V, ends with an epilogue linking it to the first tetralogy, creating a single, continuous epic that tells the story of England from the late fourteenth century to the late fifteenth.

That story reaches a clear finale in Richard III when Richard, the last Yorkist king, is killed by Richmond, who becomes Henry VII, ending the Wars of the Roses and establishing the Tudor dynasty. Star Wars seemed to have reached a similar finale in Return of the Jedi. Darth Vader died, and the Alliance defeated the Empire, ending the star wars. But now we have The Force Awakens, the beginning of the new trilogy that George Lucas said we would never have. It's as if Shakespeare continued his story with Henry VII and then wrote more plays about the Tudors—or, rather, as if he let someone else write them without having control over his story, which seems to be what happened with The Force Awakens.


How Do Shakespeare's Characters Die?

This entertaining pie chart was published in a Telegraph story on The Complete Deaths, a Spymonkey production that "will detail all of the Bard's 74 scripted deaths in one play."


Shakespeare's Globe Plans Simultaneous Outdoor Screenings on London's South Bank

The Guardian reports:
Shakespeare’s Globe theatre is to mark the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death by turning London’s South Bank into a huge pop-up cinema showing 37 new films – one for each of Shakespeare’s plays. 
Some 2.5 miles (4km) of the Thames path between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge will be given over to 37 screens placed in order of when the play was written. 
. . . [E]ach film will only run for 10 minutes – repeated on a loop throughout 23 and 24 April.
The films will be made "on location: Hamlet will be shot in Elsinore (Helsingør) in Denmark, Cleopatra in front of the Pyramids in Egypt, and Romeo and Juliet in Verona in Italy." Not all locations have been decided but the Globe's director, Dominic Dromgoole, "said several actors in the frame for parts are already strongly arguing for sun-drenched Barbados to stand in for the island in The Tempest."

Shakespeare's Globe on London's South Bank
Image from Urban Design London


Did someone steal Shakespeare's skull?

Shakespeare's grave.
His skull is probably in there.
In the Telegraph, Emily Gosden reports on how "clergymen attempting to solve a centuries-old mystery over the identity of a lone skull found in a Worcestershire church vault have been thwarted by a senior church lawyer - who has barred them from carrying out DNA testing." The clergymen wanted to test a local legend that the skull was "stolen from the playwright’s tomb in Stratford as part of a wager set by the art historian Horace Walpole in the 1700s." Like claims about a newly discovered Shakespeare portrait, this story seems far-fetched, which is why the church lawyer "sided with prominent Shakespeare scholars who have rubbished" it.


Jeanette Winterson Talks about Her Winter's Tale Retelling

(Image from The Sunday Times)
Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry, has written a version of The Winter's Tale called The Gap of Time as part of a Random House series of Shakespeare retellings.

In an interview with Rachel Martin on NPR, Winterson explains why she chose The Winter's Tale: "[I]t's got an abandoned baby in it, and I am one, and, you know, abandoned babies in literature do pretty well — not just in literature, in popular culture, Superman, Spider-Man, Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy, he doesn't know who his father is, famously." (Whoops, she means Luke Skywalker of course.)


Was Shakespeare's Family Rich?

In the Guardian, Dalya Alberge describes the research of David Fallow, a former banker who "has spent years studying the Shakespeare family’s wealth, poring over documentary evidence from a time when 'wool was to the English economy what oil is to Saudi Arabia today.'" Fallow believes that, contrary to the accepted story, Shakespeare's father wasn't a business failure who impoverished his family: “John Shakespeare was a national-level wool dealer, and legal research, coupled to analysis of the wool market, proves this. The Shakespeare family never fell into poverty.”

Shakespeare scholar Paul Edmondson says that Fallow's research suggests that Shakespeare's family money, rather than his show-biz success, explains how he could afford “remarkably large purchases of land in the Stratford area.”

An early eighteenth-century sketch of the New Place,
which Shakespeare bought in 1597 and left in his
will to his daughter Susanna.


Seven Times that Shakespeare Refers to Lunar Eclipses

Sunday's big astronomical event made me wonder how many times Shakespeare refers to lunar eclipses. I can think of six.

1-2. In Sonnet 35, the speaker forgives his beloved by saying that everything has a bad side—"Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun"—and in Sonnet 107, he says that, like his love, some things last: "The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured."

3. In Hamlet's first scene, speculating about the Ghost, Horatio describes the portents that presaged the fall of Julius Caesar, one of which was a lunar eclipse: "the moist star / Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands / Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse" (106.11-13).