The Dark Side of Love’s Labour’s Lost

Now that our play is all blocked, we’re taking the next bigs steps: text work and music! As the campers analyze more deeply why the characters are choosing those particular words at those particular moments, new motivations and emotions are coming to light. Who knew that the way you stress the words in your dialogue could affect the entire meaning of a line? Well, most people at the ASC, probably, but not a lot of the campers. Each day we make new discoveries about why scansion and rhetoric are so important (and SO COOL). A closer look at the text also reveals some seriousness in the play that is not initially apparent. The scene in which the King refuses to grant the Princess of France Aquitaine, for instance, is so much more dramatic now that the campers have a better understanding of the text and what is at stake for these characters. It turns out there is much more seriousness to this seemingly lighthearted play than meets the eye. This play is not just about love and courtship. It is about war and death. A closer look at the historical context of the play, as well as some obscure references in the text, makes that evident.

The LOVE’S LABOUR’S cast discusses the text

To begin this exploration, though, I want to start by talking about a different play, Shakespeare’s lost work, the mysterious counterpart to Love’s Labour’s Lost: Love’s Labour’s Won. Before studying it here, I had only known about it from that Doctor Who episode where The Doctor and Martha go to visit Shakespeare (ah, David Tennant. He makes such a good Hamlet and such a cheesy Doctor). But somehow, I don’t think the reason we don’t have Love’s Labour’s Won has anything to do with space witches (disappointing, I know). A few records of Love’s Labour’s Won exist, but no one really knows exactly what it is. Is it as sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost? Is it just an alternative name for an existing play? (Chiari) As with many of the questions I ask on this blog, we can never know because all the people involved are super dead. That being said, we can still theorize, and that is exactly what I plan to do. But I’ll get to that later. For now, we’re going to look at the Love’s Labour’s that isn’t lost, which, ironically, is Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Among the merriment, death has a constant presence in this play. First, the princess kills a deer when hunting. The deer seems trivial, but anyone who has read As You Like It knows that a dead deer can be a PRETTY BIG DEAL to some people (*cough* Jaques *cough*). Not only this, but the princess has a whole monologue about how she has no regret for killing the deer. Oddly…morbid. Holofernes even writes an epitaph for the dead deer. A comedic epitaph. Again, sad in strangely silly way. Moreover, there is a really random reference to the fact that Katherine’s sister died because her love was unrequited. WHY IS THIS NOT A BIGGER DEAL. It’s like death is there but no one is really talking about it or coming to terms with it– until the King of France dies.

Rehearsing that ridiculously long final scene

In a surprisingly somber moment, Mercade “came into an artificial world to announce a piece of news that was real” (Brook). All of the references to death and grieving that were simply jokes suddenly seem real. Bobbyann Roenen notes that there is perhaps nothing like that moment in the whole range of Elizabethan drama.” Some believe that sobering ending is possibly based on the end of a French novel, L’Academie Francaise, which had just been translated to English at the time, and Shakespeare likely read (Caroll). This inspiration may explain why this ending is so different from the endings of all Shakespeare’s other comedies. The moment serves a crucial purpose: leading the plot to the much darker place that the dialogue has been hinting at.

Not only is the idea of death ever present, but also the idea of war. Characters are constantly using language of battle. Boyet introduces the concept, complaining that the Princess is to be housed in the field like “one who has come to besiege his castle” (2.1.231) The relationship between Rosaline and Biron, too, is often referred to as a “civil war of wits” (2.1.222) Even the courtship aspect involves some martial language. When Boyet comes in to tell the women that the men are disguised as Russians, he makes comments like “I am stabb’d with laughter” (5.2.715) and “Arm, wenches, arm!” (5.2.718) So unnecessarily violent? The Princess buys into it, referring to Boyet as “scout” (5.2.721). Even the comedic show Holofernes and Nathaniel device about the Nine Worthies make many references to violence as it is about warriors. It also ends in a real fight between Armado and Costard. Most notably, play includes a very literal threat of war. The King of France and King of Navarre are having a dispute over Aquitaine, a region much larger than Navarre itself. The conflict that brings the Princess to Navarre in the first place could easily cause violence to break out.

The most interesting interpretation of the play, though, comes in when you look at the historical context of the character’s names. Though Ferdinand was never a king of Navarre, the character is still likely a reference to a living person. Navarre was, in actuality, a small Protestant region that contained modern day northern Spain and southern France. The most famous king of the region was Henry, who married the Catholic princess of France (Hm? Kinda like how the King of Navarre in this play marries the Princess of France?). When the Navarre Protestants came to France for the wedding, though, the Catholics were not so happy about that. Thus began the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Protestants were slaughtered in the streets. Somehow, though, Henry still ends up becoming King of France. But he recognized the religious turmoil and decided that the best political move was to convert to Catholicism. As he famously said, “Paris is worth a mass” (one of the lines that bring back all those distressing memories of AP Euro). Even though there’s no way to know for sure, it’s pretty evident that this is the event the play is referencing (Cole). In fact, Biron and Longaville were the names of two loyal followers of Henry of Navarre (Carroll).  

At the time this was a BIG DEAL, and Shakespeare’s making reference to it would have been no small matter. Naturally this move was widely controversial, especially in England. Back when Protestant England was competing with Catholic Spain, they were trying pretty hard to ally with France, considering the number of Protestants there (despite the fact that the monarchy was still Catholic). So the English were not to happy about this whole conversion thing. Richard Wilson argues that, “So outrageous was Henri’s abjuration to English Protestants […] that Love’s Labour’s Lost may be the only Elizabethan literary text,” Richard Wilson has argued, “that dares, even elliptically, refer to it” (Carroll). Oddly enough, this seemingly light-hearted play would have been incredibly politically controversial.


Though the Navarre thing is the most political reference, the other names in the play are also references to military figures. For  instance, the name of the schoolmaster, Holofernes is a biblical reference. 

Is Shakespeare roasting Don Armado, or is Don Armado roasting Shakespeare?

In the Bible, Holofernes is an invading general of Nebuchadnezzar, or as I like to think of him, the guy in that disturbing Romantic era painting (if you want to see a disturbing Romantic era painting, just look up “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”) And then there’s Don Armado, who, though comedic, is in many ways a military character. For one thing, he makes many references to being a soldier (e.g. “As it is base for a soldier to love…” (1.2.144)) Plus, “the Spanish Armado” sounds an awful lot like the Spanish Armada. You know, that time Spain tried to attack England with its navy and failed miserably? And that would have happened not long before Love’s Labour’s Lost was written. Armado is all big talk and appearances, until he actually gets challenged to a fight, at which point he reveals he can’t fight because he doesn’t have a shirt. Moth also references the fact that though Armado is all about his boastful presentation, he is actually very poor. Sound like it could be a reference to anything? Shakespeare satirizes France and he satirizes Spain. Shakespeare is just roasting everyone in this play.

If there is such a feeling of dread and war hanging in the play, though, why does nobody take it seriously? Well, no real war has happened. It’s just threat no one feels they actually have to worry about. A much different atmosphere is different in a play like, say, Much Ado About Nothing. 

In Much Ado About Nothing, the war has just ended. 

The soldiers are returning home. 

Instead of throwing their faith at their beloved, the lovers in this play are careful. 

Beatrice and Benedick are guarded with their affections. Claudio suspects he has lost Hero twiceAnd Beatrice wants Claudio dead. IMG_1760Eventually, everything turns out okay, but it took a while to adjust to normal life after the war. 

Why is this important? Well! I’ll tell you.

Some people think that Much Ado About Nothing is Love’s Labour’s Won.


But yeah, because think about it. It is the exact opposite of Love’s Labour’s Lost. As in a Greek tragedy, the violence happens offstage. We see prewar and postwar, but nothing in between. In fact, the Royal Shakespeare Company one performed the two shows to express this,  on “either side of the First World War [… Love’s Labour’s Lost] conjuring up the carefree elegance of a pre-war Edwardian summer; the other [Much Ado], in a post-war England when the world has changed forever” (“Love’s Labour’s Lost”) In a 1988 American production, the show is set on the brink of World War II, and it implies that Biron is killed in the war before he is able to return and marry Rosaline.

So that’s my theory. Or, rather, the theory of some scholars I researched and, based on all I read, I am inclined to agree with. In its references to the possibility of war, Love’s Labour’s  “suddenly introduced an enigmatic coexistence of light and dark” (Carroll).  

But who knows? There’s no way to be sure about what Love’s Labour’s Won really is. Maybe the whole Love’s Labour’s Won thing was the space witches the whole time.

*X-Files theme plays*

Works Cited

Brook, Peter. The Shifting Point: Theatre, Film, Opera 1946-1987, New York, Harper & Row, 1987, p. 1

Carroll, William C.  “The Wars of Love’s Labour’s Lost: Performance and Interpretation.” Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare.

Chiari, Sophie. “Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing: An Early Diptych?”Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare.

Cole, Mary Hill. American Shakespeare Center Theater Camp, July 28, Staunton, VA. 

Ezell, John “On Designing Love’s Labour’s Lost – Twice,” in Londré, op cit., p. 434.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labours Won.” The Royal Shakespeare Company.

Roesen, Bobbyann [Anne Barton], “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Shakespeare Quarterly 4 (1953), p. 424.

Flat Treason ‘Gainst the Kingly State of Youth

Four lovers, a country clown, and jokes as stupid as the pun “Jud-ass Maccabeus”– at a glance, Love’s Labour’s Lost is no King Lear when it comes to seriousness. George Bernard Shaw once called it a “sunny, joyous, delightful play” (Collins). Most of Shakespeare’s comedy are peppered with darkness, be it Hero’s faked death in Much Ado or Rosalind’s exile in As You Like It. Love’s Labour’s is oddly joyous all the way through– until the end, where things take a surprisingly dark turn. Amongst all the merriment, a messenger comes in to reveal the news the the Princess’ father has died, and she is now queen of France. All the couples part ways, promising that in a year they will be together again. The entire play has been a fun romantic romp and suddenly, someone died? None of the couples can be together? Even the clown is upset? When do Shakespeare’s clowns ever get upset? (Touchstone excluded. Touchstone is always upset). It’s basically two completely different plays. A long comedy, and a very short tragedy. So why is it like this? As with most things in life, I don’t know. But! I can propose a theory, and my theory is this: this play is about more than just a flirtatious flight of fancy. It’s about growing up.

Who are these masked strangers?! I DON’T KNOW WHO THEY ARE.

The idea of maturity is presented from the very first line of the show: the King of Navarre establishes that in order to be taken seriously as studious scholars, he and his lords take an austere course of study. They must fast one day week, and only eat once a day otherwise. They are forbidden from sleeping more than three hours at night, napping, talking to women, and, in general, having any kind of fun (psychologically speaking, this is actually a very ineffective way to study. As a college student, I can say that from first hand experience). Ferdinand wants his court be remembered. He is proving that he and his lords have self control, so they swear an oath that they will give up all of these things. I wonder how long that’s gonna last. (It lasts like two seconds, for those of you who have never seen the play. Otherwise this would be a pretty short play. Boyet would be like “The Princess of France is here to talk to you!” and the “King would be like “I can’t talk to women bye” and then the show would be over.) But not only do the King and the lords fall in love with the Princess and her ladies, they fall in love with them LITERALLY THE MOMENT THEY SEE THEM. Like, Longaville has never even spoken to Maria, but he’s already writing her poems about how she is a goddess. YOU HAD ONE JOB, GUYS. WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN TO YOUR LITTLE ACADEME, HM? The ladies, on the other hand, have come here for business, and business alone. They have no interest in finding husbands. But like, a little flirting never hurt anyone right? Clearly these men are infatuated with them. Might as well have some fun.

WHO IS THIS?! (It’s Don Armado!)

The men, though trying so hard to be mature, and up just being artificial. Constantly speaking in rhyme and verse, the men romanticize the idea of being in love more than they do the women they are in love with. Danish critic George Brandes notes how the play mocks “artificiality in style and utterance” to the point the play almost becomes a “tedious” parody of itself (Londré). It is no wonder that they women do not take their gestures of affection seriously. Even when Rosaline flat out tells Biron to speak simpler, he can’t do it. At a glance, it looks like the women are the paragon of maturity by comparison. They are in Navarre for business, not pleasure, and they find the men’s wooing humorous. But they’re not perfect either. They get so caught up in their mocking the men they don’t seem to realize they are doing real damage. So herein lies the problem: the lords are too in love with the idea of love to be authentic, and they women are too in love with themselves to be authentic. Both parties better grow the heck up. (Fischer)

However, the lovers are not the only ones who act in a superficial, somewhat childish manner. Even the old school teacher, Holofernes, acts in an artificial way. Ever trying to showcase his linguistic talents, he is constantly sprinkling (or rather, dumping)  Latin words and classical references into his speech. Holofernes is the ultimate mansplainer. Like, he literally tries to explain what the ground is. And how to pronounce the word “debt” (with the b, apparently.) But for what? To show off? The only moment we see Holofernes show any genuine emotion is when the lovers mock him during the performance of the Nine Worthies. Other than this, everything he does is all in good fun, like making fun of the constable Dull or writing a pun-filled epitaph for a deer the Princess killed. The moment he hears somewhat decent poetry that might rival his own, he just has to go and prove why the verses are “very unlearned” (4.2.491) He may be older, but he’s just as childish as the rest of them.

Examples of artifice are everywhere in this play. Especially in the scene where the women LITERALLY PUT ON MASKS to confuse the lords, WHO ARE DISGUISED AS RUSSIANS. It’s all about facades, fun, and general fooling around.

And then the King of France dies.

And things are not so fun anymore.

And woman we’ve been watching joke and dance and flirt is suddenly the Queen of France.

Whether or not she is ready to grow up, she has to. Because time moves on whether you are ready to grow up or not (I’m looking at you, Biron. Stop using all those fricking French words, they don’t make you sound as smart as you think they do). Instead of all coupling up, like in the Shakespeare comedies we are used to, the lovers instead part ways, hoping to see each other again in a year. In fact, in the way that we have been staging it, two of the ladies reject their lovers. The other two, the Princess and Rosaline, charge theirs with tasks. The King is to live in solitude for a year, and Biron is to use his wit to do some good by entertaining the dying in a hospital. If they want to marry their loves, they need to grow up with them. (Also, like, you literally met these women once? Calm down? Wait a while?) The ending of this “sunny, joyous, delightful play” is oddly painful.

Based on all this, I think there’s a reason the Blackfriars put this show in the same season as Peter and the Starcatcher.  The both deal with the same topics: getting older and letting go. (I also think there’s a reason that they put this play with Much Ado About Nothing, but that’s for a future blog post!)

LOVE’S LABOUR’S cast rehearsing in the Blackfriars Playhouse

The fact that the ASC is currently doing Love’s Labour’s is both a curse and a blessing. I was a little worried when I found out the campers would be going to see the show at the Blackfriars. These kids idolize the Blackfriars actors. I remember in my camp days there were campers drawing ASC fan art. But this camp makes everyone come to terms with a painful truth: we cannot all be Alli Glenzer, as much as we want to. I was concerned the campers would see the wonderful work the Blackfriars actors are doing, and try to mimic is. But as our director Andrew points out, despite the fact that we are doing the same play, we are telling a different story. We have a different cut. We have different actors. Specifically, we have younger actors. Which is honestly perfect for such a coming-of-age story. The playfulness of the flirty quarreling, the quickly changing affections, the desperate desire of the Princess and King to be taken seriously as adults– these are all things that are all too familiar to teenage actors. So we’d better take advantage of that. As Biron says, denying this would be “flat treason ‘gainst the kingly state of youth” (4.3.609).  If we did not utilize our campers’ young years, we would be wasting a great opportunity. This is the perfect show to do with camp. John Murrel says in his play “Taking Shakespeare” that once you’re old enough to understand Shakespeare, “you’re too old to feel it anymore.” (Fischer) These kids get to understand it and feel it at the same time!

Thus far, I think the campers have been doing a great job maintaining that youthful spirit. Like the lords just improvised a dance for the scene where they are disguised as Russians and it was honestly amazing. And I’ve never seen a group of teen actors so excited as when the director compared the ladies’ characters the the Crystal Gems in Steven Universe (the Princess of France is Pearl, in case anyone was wondering). Considering the whimsical nature of our rehearsals, I think this performance really merits the name, “play.” These kids are playing the heck out of this show. It is lovely to see them discover how the characters must strike a balance between fun and business. As it turns out, sometimes most mature thing to do is know when to be a child.

Works Cited:

Carroll, William. “The Wars of Love’s Labour’s Lost: Performance and Interpretation”. Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare. ; DOI : 10.4000/shakespeare.3079

Fischer, Mike. “Love’s Labour’s Lost: A Winning Comedy”. The Journal Senteniel. USA Today, 2017.

Londré, Felicia Hardison. Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays. Routledge, 2000.

A Licensed Fool

In King Lear, the character of The Fool serves many, many different purposes. He is a storyteller, a singer, a jokester, a political commentator, and can be interpreted as the conscience of the aged King Lear. Logistically, King Lear professionally employs The Fool — this position would have been familiar to an early modern audience as a “Licensed Fool” or a “Court Jester”  — to be entertainment for his royal court. One of the perks of being an official Fool is the ability and license to speak truth to power without being beheaded for doing so: The Fool is one of the only characters who can insult the king without repercussion. The Fool is wise and quick; he would have to be, in order to sustain himself (like Feste in Twelfth Night or Touchstone in As You Like It) being a Fool by trade.  One major difference between The Fool in King Lear and most of the fool characters in other Shakespeare plays is that The Fool in King Lear exists in a tragedy, not a comedy, and is a major character within the play — at least, until his character disappears from the play just over halfway through.

Chris Johnston as the Fool, David Anthony Lewis as Kent, René Thornton, Jr. as Lear, and Zack Powell as Edgar in the ASC’s 2016 production of KING LEAR. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The tradition of the Licensed Fool dates to early medieval times but is also present in today’s culture. Whereas some people would categorize reality TV stars as fools [editor’s note: they totally are, but not by this definition of “Fool”] I would argue they are not employed to be fools. They can be foolish characters (much like Dogberry is in Much Ado About Nothing) but reality TV stars are not employed to specifically entertain the leaders of our political parties while also keeping them humble and connected to regular humanity (as far as I know). Contemporary examples of the Licensed Fool archetype certainly exist, just not in the employ of political leaders. With the end of the monarchical system of government (and along with the general fact that feudalism is no longer a thing in most of the world) jesters, fools, and the tradition of entertainers are now employed by the general population, instead.

When Shakespeare was writing, only people who could afford to hire a jester or balladeer or any other form of entertainer would have been able to employ a full-time Fool (after all, they require room & board and probably healthcare). In contrast, the masses all pitch in to pay for our modern “fools.” Clowns like the Marx Brothers, the famed vaudeville family who made many movies where they’d joke, sing, and make political commentary, were a huge hit, and audiences who wanted to see their movies were the ones who paid for them (as opposed to the president or a state governor privately funding those films and screening them only for friends and family). Our fools are people like Steve Martin, Dwayne Johnson, Tina Fey, Kevin Hart, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK: paid entertainers with the savage brilliant edge of a fool. With the advancement of mass media, these modern “Licensed Fools” have taken the form of actors, stand-up comedians, improv artists, and the like — for a “Licensed Fool” is simply an entertainer who is being paid for their services. In Shakespeare’s time, there were fools in the court and people playing fools on stage. American Vaudeville performers were paid entertainers. Today our top entertainers are paid for what they do with huge amounts of money.

The Fool in King Lear, however, does more than entertain. Arguably, he is the conscious of King Lear himself. The Fool holds opinions on all of Lear’s daughters and comrades. He shapes the King’s views (or at least the audience’s understanding of the King’s views) regardng Goneril and Regan in Act One, Scene Four by wittingly describing how the two sisters fooled their father. The role of Lear’s Fool reveals the true nature of all the characters using comedy, wit, and the permission to use them. The Fool is a vehicle to express true thoughts, and can be a dangerous character to those who don’t want to hear difficult truths.

The Fool and the idea of the Fool asks a question of us: is the entertainment with which we surround ourselves daily also serving as our conscience? Our opinions? Entertainment has a huge influence on how we view the world and the entertainers who get to have that influence are the ones who are paid. Just as the Fool heavily influences Lear’s world view, so do our modern forms of entertainment influence us. King Lear is a deep play with many meanings — we’ve hardly scratched the surface here — which still ring true today, like the role of the Fool: entertainers have the power to speak their minds, and that power can be dangerous for anyone who wants to stop people from hearing what’s on the Fool’s mind.

As an exercise, myself and my song writing collaborator, Theo Teris, wrote a song for an entertainer. A love song. This song is inspired by the jester-type and is inspired by fantasy and comedy worlds:

‘Dragon’s Will Fly’ A Fool’s Song by Chase O’Neill and Theo Teris-

“Is Black so Base a Hue?” (4.2.824)

Shakespeare was racist.

Well, probably.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy’s work. He was a brilliant playwright whose drama still speaks to the human condition. Plus we really can’t know that much for sure about him and his personal beliefs. But based on what we know of the Elizabethan England and the text, he was probably racist as heck by today’s standards. It’s really hard to get around that.

Titus presents issues of race that a modern audience cannot ignore. While the racial makeup of the 29 campers in session 1 is not 100% white, it is 90% white (which is, frankly, disappointing) and our diversity comes from our Asian-American and Latina campers, with nary a Black camper (African-American or otherwise) to be seen. As a result, the cast of our production is also 90% white. An all female, mostly white production (with the cast’s lone Asian-American teenage girl playing Aaron) is problematic at best, racist at worst, and dangerously offensive if done without careful thought and open dialogue. So… we have a problem. And while it’s a difficult one to talk about, we cannot and therefore will not ignore it. We have to talk about it, and be wildly uncomfortable doing so if that’s what it takes. A little discomfort in the face of an open dialogue about systemic racism within our whitewashed community is probably a good thing.  

That being said: I’m a white girl. I spent many years of my life thinking the only thing I had to do to fight institutionalized racism was “not be racist.” Well, all it takes is a quick look at the state of this country to know that while there’s a lot of people “not being racist”, the problem is institutionalized racism is far from solved. That’s why camp admin has made it a priority to actively engage in this issue.  Western culture has a long, dark history of racism, and I want to dive into it. However, I recognize this is going to be a seriously learning process for me and while I’m really looking forward to documenting that process on the blog, I recognize both that a) I have a lot to learn and b) I will very likely say some ignorant things on more than one occasion. . This post is the first in a series of race posts affectionately known as “Racism in Early Modern England i.e. Why White People (historically) Suck.”

Let the wokeness begin!

When we’re talking about race in Titus, we’re talking about Aaron, the one black character in the show (well, I mean other than his baby, but I want to mainly focus this investigation on Aaron). The play often refers to him as “Aaron the Moor” or simply “The Moor.” (The word “moor” is often used in Shakespeare to refer to people of color, but the word has a more complicated definition and history beyond this. I was actually totally unaware of this until Lia Wallace told me because I was so used to interpretation of Othello where Moor = Black and just never figured there was more explanation. But I’m going to make a whole other post about that!) Shakespeare portrays Aaron as the epitome of all evil. He advocates rape, cuts off Titus’ hand, devises the plot to have Martius and Quintus put to death, violently murders an innocent nurse (well, a racist nurse, but I think it’s safe to say that brutal murder was taking things a little too far), and does many other terrible things. And yet, by the end of the play he says the only things he regrets is that he “cannot do ten thousand more” (5.1.985). All because…he feels like it? Despite all the stuff he does, I don’t see any clear motivation for Aaron in the text. And any good actor knows that you can’t play a character (at least, you can’t play a character well) with no motivation. So why is Aaron the way that he is? In order to answer that question– well, I can’t. I don’t know why Shakespeare did what he did, and there’s probably no way for me to find out. But I can propose a theory! And my theory begins with a look at how race was viewed in Early Modern Europe.

Race was already a common idea in Elizabethan England, but racism itself was not even a word yet. While “the word ‘race’ entered the European vocabulary towards the end of the fifteenth century and became established as a scientific category in the nineteenth, the term ‘racism’ was not coined until the twentieth century.” (Wieviorka 66). There were black people in Elizabethan England, though many worked as servants or slaves. In fact, when King James said he wanted lions to pull his chariot through London, but lions were not accessible (oddly enough), he had two black men pull the chariot instead (Thompson). Black people were viewed as subhuman, and often stereotyped as being evil. In many Elizabethan works, “there seems to be a considerable confusion whether the Moor is a human being or a monster.” (Alexander, Wells 112). This is why Aaron would have been seen not as a fully developed person, but as a stock character that was no stranger to the Early Modern stage. Shakespeare’s audience would not have been like, “Hey, why is that guys so pointlessly evil?” They would have been like, “Classic Moor, am I right?” The association between evilness and blackness in the text is inescapable. Aaron even says, “Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (3.1.638) (Because apparently it’s particularly evil to speak in third person?) Clearly the people of Elizabethan England had some incredibly racist stereotypes about what a black character was supposed to be (unfortunately, not too far from stereotypes we still have today about black characters in the media). As history has proved time and again, people fear what they do not understand and what is different. It would have been easier for the audience to buy that the evil was coming from a black man, who they felt was “other” and “exotic,” than from the Roman characters, who were seen as more civilized. Afterall, Rome was considered the bastion of civilized society. It’s harder to question an idol than demonize something you were already taught to hate. So do we know for sure that Shakespeare intended Aaron to be evil solely because he was black? Nope. And we will never know. Still, Aaron fits pretty well into the Elizabethan archetype of “bestial moor”.

But as camp director Lia Wallace often reminds us, the text is a lie and nothing is real. Keeping in mind that “Shakespeare is super dead” is important. Even though there’s evidence Aaron was written to be purely evil due to his race, do we need to play him as such? It’s asking the wrong question to wonder how we are supposed to see Aaron. We should be analyzing how we, a contemporary audience, do see Aaron. I mean, he actually does say some pretty empowering stuff. Despite all scorn that’s directed at him, he is still owns his race and is proud of it.

For instance, when the nurse laments that Tamora’s child was born black, a clear marker that Aaron, not Saturninus, is the father, she refers to the child as “a devil” (4.2.819) and calls the situation a “joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue”, thus equating all of those adjectives with the idea of blackness by its very nature. Now Aaron gets a lot of sick burns in this play (yes, we all know I am talking about “Villain, I have done thy mother” (4.2.829). “What a thing it is to be an ass” (4.2.800) comes in a close second.) but his response to this is one of my favorite lines: “Zounds ye whore, is black so base a hue?” (4.2.824). He is fully aware of the implications his skin color has in this society, but he nevertheless embraces it. Wait, what? Shakespeare? Old white man? Wrote this? That’s…oddly progressive of him. Then again, Aaron has been portrayed as pointlessly evil this whole time. Are we supposed to believe him or disagree with him? Is this supposed to be thought provoking or just more evilness? The answer is simple: It doesn’t matter. Because (say it with me now) Shakespeare is super dead. Again to quote Lia, “Shakespeare is not going to come back from the grave and go ‘That’s not what I meant!’” (though to be fair, my first thought if that happened would not be like, “Shakespeare I’m so sorry I interpreted your play incorrectly!” it would be like “Whoa hey look it’s Shakespeare. What’s he doing here? Isn’t he super dead?”)

With all this in mind, the fact that we are faced with the “The Titus Thing” is no surprise. We have a black character and no black campers to play him. Keep in mind Aaron would originally have been played by a white man in black face. Early modern theater was racist from the very beginning, so it makes sense that Shakespeare is not a huge draw for people of color today. But does it have to stay that way?

This gets at the question of reclaiming. We know that as a society, we do not now accept what Shakespeare’s audience accepted. So is performing the play now enabling those beliefs or empowering the people they hurt? Considering the fact that we are in fact doing the show, I am inclined to say the latter. However, as a white girl, I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer that question. Some productions of Titus have portrayed Aaron as more empowering. In Greg Doran’s 1995 production, the whole play took place in South Africa. Titus was an Africaans general and the weakening of his family represented that failure of the apartheid. Aaron was not simply an evil doer, but a revolutionary fighting against colonisation and oppression. Doran wrote that it made Aaron  “emerge as a much more complex and intriguing character” (“The Horrifying Fascination”). However, I wanted to get a sense of how we could approach all this in our production, so I went to our very own Aaron, Sam Chu, for some input.

Sam Chu, trying out some make up and costumes for the show

Sam has been doing an excellent job working on the role of Aaron. Since I’ve been playing Chiron, I get to work with her a lot and it’s been really wonderful. It’s hard to miss, though, that Sam is one of the only non-white campers, cast as the only specifically non-white character. Sam is half Chinese. She actually doesn’t mind being cast as Aaron. She says, “I think in a camp that’s 99% white people…if you had some diversity and you didn’t utilize it, it would have been kind of weird.” In fact, she’s no stranger to being confronted with racial issues on the stage before. She was once cast as Jasmine in a nearly all white production of Aladdin. Sam described the experience of meeting the cast for the first time and realizing that a play that takes place in Iraq would be performed by almost exclusively white people. “It was really weird” she recalls.

As far as playing Aaron, Sam has noticed the unfair way he is treated in the script. “I honestly think he’s been kind of villainized…probably because of his race…Because he is black, he’s supposed to be the main character who’s evil and no one’s supposed to care about him that much. He just kind of does what he does and is what he is….He’s meant the be the dark, the black, the villain, and just because he is black, everyone hates him. Just like racism now. And in Shakespeare’s time.”

Nevertheless, she has been finding some humanity in him, “Sometimes he’s just flat out evil. I think he’s evil with a little bit of a heart.” In fact, in some ways she relates to his experiences with discrimination. She says that while she culturally identifies as more white, she still owns her ethnicity.“I still feel a sense of pride in my Asian side…I do take pride in that I am more than just caucasian.” She imagines that much of the racism directed at her as a child went over her head, but still recounts how her school experience was somewhat segregated. Most of the Asian students hung out together, and being half-Asian, she only felt half in with that crowd. “There was this joke in math class…I am not good at math…and people would say ‘dumb Asian’ and I would be like, ‘huh, that’s really weird, because I thought that just because I was Asian I was smart’…it’s kind of like the expectation to be who you are…I thought that was kind of weird and rude.” Though of course the experiences of Asian Americans and black Americans are not the same, it seems pretty undeniable that anyone who is not white faces some kind of discrimination in this country, even if it comes out in the form of microaggressions. Sam is not the same race as Aaron, but she still finds the way he deals with his treatment somewhat inspiring. “He doesn’t take it to heart. Like I never took it to heart…He knows they say it, but he’s strong enough and he knows who he is…he is whoever he wants to be. I kind of respect him in that way.”

While she seems to be enjoying the role, Sam does think that there are many things the ASC could do to increase diversity. “I know that a lot of the kids from here are from specifically acting schools or schools for the arts which normally cost more…A way to do that is maybe to reach out to different places…sometimes people of color feel ‘wrong’ in theater place because it’s mostly been just white people…If you reach out to schools that don’t necessarily have the opportunity or money, that would be good…I have some friends in Hampton, Virginia… in a normally black neighborhood…and they don’t even know what ASC is.”

No doubt the problem of diversity in the arts, specifically Shakespeare, is something we as the ASC should be working to bolster. These are certainly not issues we should ignore. In the meantime, I am hoping we can make a production of Titus that is still sensitive and relevant. As Sam noted, Aaron can still serve as a symbol of racial pride, and that can be relevant to all people who face racial discrimination. I think the best passage to end on is one that Sam noted as one of her favorites as it showcases Aaron’s strength. When protecting his child, he proclaims, “Coal-black is better than another hue,/ In that it scorns to bear another hue./ For all the water in the Ocean,/ Can never turn the swan’s black legs white” (4.2.843-6) Despite everything, Aaron won’t yield to the racism he faces. “He takes pride in his race and knows that he will never be white” Sam says, “He can be who he is and be proud of it. Yeah. I like that.”


On a slightly lighter note, here’s a really fantastic Key and Peele sketch about race in Shakespeare. Warning: There is a fair bit of profanity.

Works Cited:

Alexander, Catherine, M. S. and Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge Universety press. 2000
Chu, Samantha. Personal Interview. 25 June 2017.
“The Horrifying Fascination of Titus Andronicus.” Times Higher Education,
“Shakespeare’s Racism in Titus Andronicus” Dirty Hand Sam.
Thompson, Ayanna. “Shakespeare and Race”. Video. Oxford University Press.
Wieviorka, Michel, The Arena of Racism. SAGE Publications. London: 1995

Minions of the Moon- The Thieves of 1 Henry IV

The throne is weak. The king is in disarray. England is on the brink of collapse. So, of course the only action left to take is to usurp the throne and make yourself king. That always solves the problems, right? Since being king was such a desirable occupation back in 14th century England there was always contention surrounding the crown so much so that Richard the Second signed the Treason Act of 1397 in which four kinds of treason were laid out and made illegal. The first involves the purposeful death of the king. The second is described as any act to dispose the king. The third form of treason was described as attacking the kings honor. Finally, the fourth act of treason was detailed raising the people up to wage war against the king (21 Ric.2 c.3). The Treason Act of 1397 worked very well for him clearly as all of these laws were broken in disposing of King Richard the Second two years later. The English monarchy declared their kings to have divine right to rule. With King Richard numerous acts against treason were enacted it was not only a crime against the state to commit treason it was also a crime against God. In The History of King Henry the Fourth, Part One by William Shakespeare he depicts theft and treason on many different levels from the lowly highwayman to the rebellion to the very court of King Henry the Fourth. The juxtaposition, though, between the lowly highwayman and those in position of power is that there is a clear contrast that is drawn especially between the characters of Sir John Falstaff, King Henry the Fourth, and Harry “Hotspur” Percy.

Antony Sher as Falstaff in the RSC’s production of Henry IV Part One

The Fat Knight, Sir John Falstaff, is a thief. He does claim, many times, that he will turn over a new leaf and repent for his sins of villainy and gluttony. This is the type of person who makes a new year’s resolution almost every day and, of course, never follows through with it. When his dear friend, Prince Hal, calls him out on his hypocrisy and history of ‘purse-taking’ the fat knight replies with the statement, “Why tis my vocation Hal, tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation” (1.2.75). This frank honesty from a small-time thief, or ‘purse taker’, is the kind of person Falstaff appears to reveal himself as. He doesn’t look for justification for his criminal acts. He doesn’t seek redemption or spiritual guidance for his criminal undertaking. He merely says that being a thief is his job. He at least claims to value honor and honesty within his vocation, “A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true to one another” (2.2.264). Granted in this scene Falstaff is fuming about Ned Poines, another friend of Prince Hal’s, hiding the fat knight’s horse. This language though implies, while he himself is a liar in almost every respect, does in fact value honor or at least plays on the honor of others to get what he wants. Falstaff knows no honor on the battlefield, dying for another man’s house, as he describes in a monologue in Act Five, Scene Two but does seem to at least call upon honor of the thieves when he is frustrated. Falstaff is a criminal of the state and, in his opinion, also in the eyes of God just as the rebellious Hotspur is as well.

King Richard the Second made it illegal to usurp the throne. King Richard the Second hade the divine right to rule as per English custom at the time. Nevertheless, he was usurped by the namesake of Shakespeare’s historical play, King Henry the Fourth. King Henry the Fourth is a criminal in the eyes of the state and God as per English custom and law. He has been putting down rebellion after rebellion and trying to keep England unified (with considering many outlandish ideas) while his disappointment of a son, Prince Hal, hangs out with and colludes with thieves at a dive bar. In Act One Scene One King Henry also wished that fairies had replaced his son with the valiant Percy and King Henry takes this comparison between Prince Hal and Harry Percy a huge step forward in Act Three. King Henry grills his son with both a history lesson and severe disapproval when equating his own criminal act with that of the current criminal rebellion, “As that art to the houre was Richard then, / and even as I was than, is Percy now” (3.2.689-690). King Henry is telling his son that he is acting like the former King Richard the Second (who was a terrible king in almost every respect) and that the rebellious Percy is acting like he was back when Henry took the crown from King Richard. Henry, who understands his right to rule is tainted though a criminal act, in this scene convinces his son to take up arms with him against the rebellion and end the cycle of violence surrounding the throne. Unlike Falstaff, who is unapologetic in his criminal act, King Henry feels guilt over how he came to the throne but is seeking redemption, through peace in England and his son, Prince Hal, whereas Falstaff completely avoids the idea of redemption for his crimes. This is all so wonderfully set against the actions and crimes of Harry “Hotspur” Percy who is actively seeking throughout the play to overthrow the reigning king.

Hotspur, his father, and their cohorts, do not believe they are criminals in the eyes of the state or God. They believe they are completely justified in their actions to overthrow the king as they attest King Henry has no claim to the throne. Hotspur puts this very eloquently and forcefully, “But shall it be that you that set the crown / upon the head of this forgetful man, / and for his sake wear the detested blot / of murderous subornation?” (1.3.189-192). Hotspur blatantly calls King Henry a murderer here for how he acquired the crown. It’s talk like this throughout the play which makes Hotspur believe his actions against the crown to be justified by the laws of the land. In Act Two Scene Three Hotspur reads a letter in which he rattles off all the support his proposed rebellion has (albeit he addresses this to a letter in his hand) and uses this to justify his preparing leaving for a battle against King Henry.

Falstaff, King Henry, and Harry “Hotspur” Percy are all criminals in one way or another. The laws against usurping the throne put into place by King Richard the Second were in part meant to protect King Richard himself. He was a pretty awful king after all. That aside, there three characters from one play are all criminals and thieves and they all handle this crisis extremely differently.  Unenforceable laws from a dead king don’t stop people from committing crimes but these characters, having such a varied reaction to their position as a criminal, offer the audience an insight into the conscious of the characters that alone mean nothing but juxtaposed to one another unearths the question of morality and ethics within this play.


Works Cited

England. Treason Act of 1397. Chapter 3. Richard II. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Glenn Schudel. The History of King Henry IV, Part 1. Print



Cruel, Irreligious Piety

I’ll be completely honest: I was nervous when I found out I was going to be working on Titus Andronicus. I didn’t know too much about it, but it did know it was notoriously Shakespeare’s most violent play, famous for its superfluous amputations. As it turns out, I was not alone in questioning the gratuitous violence in Titus Andronicus. The play has been under fire for a long time, criticized for being too gruesome. It was only revived once in the entire nineteenth century (The Shakespeare Book, 52). In 1687, English dramatist Edwards Ravenscroft (a last name I truly envy) said of Titus, “‘tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his [Shakespeare’s] Works; it seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure” (The Horrifying Fascination). So how do we make this “heap of Rubbish” into an experience that fun, entertaining, and (most importantly) NOT mentally scarring?

We’re figuring that one out. And actually, is going rather well.

It’s important to remember, though, that the art people appreciate is a reflection of the spirit of the time. The zeitgeist, if you will (I will NEVER miss an opportunity to drop a buzzword). During the Romantic period, for instance, Hamlet was considered the greatest Shakespeare play. I mean, think about it. Hamlet has all the things the Romantics loved. A troubled hero, a supernatural occurrence, a (contemplated) suicide, and a beautiful woman who dies tragically young (spoiler alert). It’s no wonder that those angst-ridden Romantics liked Hamlet so much. In the twentieth century, though, King Lear became more popular. This was the century that saw destruction and devastation due to deeply disturbed dictators, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Again, it is no surprise that this particular century would take a liking to a play about a troubled old man (The Horrifying Fascination). So what does that mean for Titus? Will it only have its heyday when chopping off hands willy-nilly becomes relevant? If so, I think people would hardly be focused on whatever theater is suddenly popular. They’d be more focused on their lack of hands.

However, past directors of Titus have realized something over the years: once you get past all the gore, Titus actually has some very interesting themes. It in some ways fits the mold of Elizabethan drama, while at the same time being very subversive. It is simultaneously sexist and feminist, racist and progressive (but these I will get to in later posts). Director Yukio Niagawa found out way to bring out these bits beneath the bloody surface of Titus in his 2006 production of the show, using red ribbon instead of blood (Death, Mutilation). 

Image from Yukio Niagawa’s 2006 production of TITUS ANDRONICUS

Niagawa’s strategy makes a lot of sense. We live in a day and age where all you need to do is go to a Quentin Tarantino movie to see fountains of blood pouring out of someone. We’ve become desensitized too it. Matt, our incredible director, has made it clear that he does not want the focus to be on the gruesomeness of the violence, but the reasons and the pain behind it. That’s why in our production, blood is represented by black fabric. In a way, this choice is is a reflection of the entire play: it’s darker than what we’re used to. Puns aside, the black ribbons of blood take away the element of gore to leave only to emotional damage it causes.

One of the biggest focuses of the play is ritual. In fact, following traditions is exactly what incites the plot. Titus is all about honor. To begin with, his name comes from the Latin titulus, meaning “title of honor” (Meaning and Origin). Moreover, when Marcus introduces Titus in the beginning of the play, he says that Titus is “surnamed Pius.” This likely refers to his cognomen (Chaudhuri, 787), an extra name given to a Roman citizen. The title Pius is a reference to Aeneas, one of the founders of Rome (The Shakespeare Book). From the very beginning, Shakespeare establishes that honor and custom are important to Titus. Unfortunately, this gets him into a lot of trouble. Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, to the spirits of the soldiers lost in battle, despite Tamora’s pleas for him to be merciful. Tamora’s exclamation, “O cruel irreligious piety” (1.1.71) says it all. Titus follows tradition to the point where it’s unnecessarily brutal. The rest of the play she seeks revenge. Next, Marcus offers Titus the position of Emperor and Titus refuses, saying the role should go to Saturninus, the eldest son of the deceased emperor. Again, following tradition comes back to hurt Titus, as Tamora easily manipulates Saturninus to exact her revenge. Titus goes on to kill his son Mutius for dishonoring him. Another major problem. Calm down, Titus. This is becoming a pattern.

Titus is not the only one with questionable motives, though. Tamora and the Goths also take their revenge plan to the extreme, thinking that in some sense they are purveyors of justice. After the Chiron and Demetrius rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, and Aaron gets Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus killed, Titus wants revenge. (Double revenge? Is there a word when you want to revenge revenge? Revenge is starting to not sound like a word anymore.) All the racism against Aaron, too, gives hims enough motivation to seek retribution. All of this culminates in the final scene the cast has affectionately dubbed the Murder Party (in which almost Literally Everyone dies).

Rehearsal image from our TITUS, directed by Matt Minnicino.

Well, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with the present day and age? I mean, it’s not like we have human sacrifices anymore (at least, one would hope). Why is this play relevant? No, our society doesn’t look much like Titus’, but we do sometimes follow tradition to the point that it becomes destructive. The example the comes to mind is that of gender and sexuality. For years, many queer and gender nonconforming individuals have been harassed, discriminated against, and just generally made to feel unwelcome, solely for the reason that their gender or sexuality deviated from some perceived societal norm. Pride is particularly important at this camp, which is happily diverse in terms of sexuality and gender identity.

Bottom line is, we can be destructive without realizing it because we are simply doing what custom tells us to do. No character is guiltless. Marcus, who is never directly engaged in violence, still kills a fly, saying its black color reminds him of Aaron. Though it seems small, Titus is furious at Marcus for this unnecessary death. Later in the play, Aaron mentions that he committed his atrocities “as willingly as one would kill a fly” (5.1.983), making a parallel between his actions and Marcus’. They both willingly did something cruel without a second thought, just on different scales. But surely the child, Young Lucius, doesn’t do anything wrong? He’s, like, what, nine years old? Well he threatens to murder Tamora, for one thing. And in Colin Richmond’s 2013 adaption, the play end with Young Lucius holding Aaron’s baby in one hand, and the knife used to cut the pie in the other (Horrifying Fascination). What happens after can be assumed. His elders model violence, so he internalize and mimics it, just like the kids in Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment. Even Lavinia, who seems as if she is supposed to represent all that is good and pure, says some pretty nasty, racist things to Tamora regarding herself and Aaron. Does that mean that Lavinia deserves what happened to her? Of course not. But as Wonder Woman wisely taught us, it’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. In fact, I daresay that quote works better in the context of Titus Andronicus than it does in Wonder Woman (Thanks, Chris Pine). This is every character’s tragedy. Everyone suffers (and most often dies shortly thereafter). But they’re all trying to do what they think is right, according to tradition or some twisted sense of  “justice” that leads them to brutal revenge. They put custom over compassion. And that’s how we end up with three severed hands, two severed heads, and a stage littered with dead bodies.



Works Cited:

The Horrifying Fascination of Titus Andronicus.” Times Higher Education,
“Meaning, Origin, and History of Name Titus.” Behind The Name: Meanings of Names, Baby Name Meanings,
Secher, Benjamin. “Death, Mutilation – and not a drop of blood.” The Telegraph,
The Shakespeare Book. DK Publishing, 2015.
Chaudhuri, Praumit. “Classical Quotation in Titus Andronicus.” English Literary History Vol. 81, No.3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

What if Henry IV Part One were a Musical?

Shakespeare did not write musicals. He had songs in his shows. ‘Full Fathom Five’ in The Tempest, for example, is a lyric he wrote. But no, he did not write songs. Or musicals. I, however, do write songs. And musicals. Song takes a huge role in Shakespeare’s work though. Henry IV Part One does feature a song sung in Welsh. The American Shakespeare Center also features preshow and interlude music that ties to the show. The campers will be singing and playing music all over the Blackfriars Playhouse stage and they’re going to rock! All the shows are preparing reshow music and they are not to be missed. I am working on Henry IV Part One as the dramaturg and the sound they are creating for the show is exciting. In this vain myself and my friend Theo Teris have written two songs inspired by characters in Henry IV Part One.

A song inspired by Prince Hal and his relationship with Falstaff, entitled “Every War”:
A song inspired by Falstaff, entitled “Put on a Mask”:
Shakespeare has inspired song and musical a like since shows like West Side Story to a more recently published show, the 1980s John Hughes-esque musical Like You Like It. Shakespeare sings. His work inspires and creates a sound world and the all campers and all the audiences are invited to this world!