Category Archives: Shakespeare

The Sourcebooks Shakespeare

These are just brilliant, though I admit I am judging from just two — Othello and Macbeth — which (glad to say as a pensioner, sad to say from the publisher’s viewpoint) I bought last week at the remainder shop at the end of the Devonshire Street tunnel at Sydney’s Central Station. I have been going through Othello with a student in the past few weeks, and that motivated the purchase. I had no idea whether it would be worth the $9.95, but it emphatically was. 🙂

There is a website too: THE SOURCEBOOKS SHAKESPEARE. Read all about them there, and even hear some of the CDs that accompany them.


On Othello, for example, you get speeches and extracts, sometimes in pairs so you can compare interpretations. You may contrast Janet Suzman’s amazing 1987 South African production starring John Kani (left below) with the historic Paul Robeson (right below) interpretation from the 1940s. Even more amazing, there is F Scott Fitzgerald doing a speech from Act I Scene 3, and if that isn’t amazing enough, a recording of Edwin Booth, the brother of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, performing the role in 1890! The CD is beautifully narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi. On top of that are essays on aspects of the play, and a very user-friendly complete edition. Just great!

othello1 robeson

Both images are links…


Posted by on September 7, 2008 in English studies, HSC, Shakespeare


Some Shakespeare sonnets

Not what you associate with YouTube, is it?

Sonnet 38

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rimers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Sonnet 130 is actually very funny: it is a parody of the typical sonnet of the time, an anti-sonnet, but yet turns into a compliment. What do you think of Alan Rickman’s reading of it? Great voice, but is he too serious?

Here it is in 16th century spelling. ſ is “long S”, common up to the 18th century. Looks a bit like “f”.

MY Miſtres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red,then her lips red,
If ſnow be white,why then her breſts are dun:
If haires be wiers,black wiers grow on her head:
I haue ſeene Roſes damaskt,red and white,
But no ſuch Roſes ſee I in her cheekes,
And in ſome perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from my Miſtres reekes.
I loue to heare her ſpeake,yet well I know,
That Muſicke hath a farre  more pleaſing found:
I graunt I neuer ſaw a goddeſſe goe,
My Miſtres when ſhee walkes treads on the ground.
  And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
  As any ſhe beli’d with falſe compare.

This one comes from Australia and works with Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Last, A short movie of Dave Mckean about Sonnet 138:

16th century spelling again. Notice how “u” and “v” are virtually interchangeable. That’s why we call W “double U”.

When my loue ſweares that ſhe is made of truth,
I do beleeue her though I know ſhe lyes,
That ſhe might thinke me ſome vntuterd youth,
Vnlearned in the worlds falſe ſubtilties.
Thus vainely thinking that ſhe thinkes me young,
Although ſhe knowes my dayes are paſt the beſt,
Simply I credit her falſe ſpeaking tongue,
On both ſides thus is ſimple truth ſuppreſt :
But wherefore ſayes ſhe not ſhe is vniuſt ?
And wherefore ſay not I that I am old ?
O loues beſt habit is in ſeeming truſt,
And age in loue,loues not t’haue yeares told.
  Therefore I lye with her,and ſhe with me,
  And in our faults by lyes we flattered be.

Go to The amazing web site of Shakespeare’s sonnets for all the sonnets on a very beautiful site, and more information on each one.


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In Search of Shakespeare

Last August I borrowed on DVD In Search of Shakespeare, made two years ago by PBS and BBC. The PBS site linked there has summaries of each episode, but much more: ideas for teachers, relevant links, documents… Each play discussed in the DVD is illustrated by performances of extracts by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, often in authentic settings. This is a great way to get to understand the conditions Shakespeare wrote for. Another great strength of the series is its very careful contextualising of Shakespeare’s work. Macbeth and King Lear, for example, are seen in the light of the early years of James I, particularly the Gunpowder Plot, a “17th century 9/11”. About Othello, with scrupulous documentation, “we meet black Elizabethans, at a time the government was discussing their repatriation. And in Leicester Guildhall (where Shakespeare’s company actually played) we see him stage a play where the hero is a black man: Othello.” This is a fascinating series, especially valuable for historicist reading of the plays. A few of the findings are controversial, such as that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, very similar in that time to being a secret admirer of Osama Bin Laden today! However, the conclusions are always presented with due care, and none of them is negligible. I’d say it is a MUST SEE!

I am a sceptic when it comes to theories that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. So is In Search of Shakespeare. However, there is a fascinating new book in this rather old genre: The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare (2005) by Brenda James and William D Rubinstein. According to this latest theory, Sir Henry Neville (c. 1562 – July 10, 1615) wrote the plays. Great if you like history and/or detective stories… It MAY be true, but in a way doesn’t really matter. Or does it? After all, the plays remain pretty much as they were.

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Posted by on January 9, 2007 in English studies, HSC, Shakespeare, student help, works/authors


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New addition to writing workshop

I have added a 2003 essay on the NSW HSC module In The Wild, dealing with The Tempest and Tim Flannery’s The Explorers. The essay, an annotated version, and a final draft are published side by side in three columns. Because WordPress does not support this format, I have placed it in Geocities, making plenty of links back to this site. See Neil Whitfield’s English and ESL Pages: Year 12 Module In the Wild 2003.


You may have noticed a change in template here too. Hope you like it.

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Posted by on January 3, 2007 in English studies, esl for students, HSC, literature genres, questions asked, Shakespeare, student help, works/authors, writing


Boxing Day not just about Shane Warne…

…even if Boxing Day 2006 is.

Reading The Weekend Australian I notice that today is the 400th anniversary of King Lear, or of its first production.

IT seems an odd Boxing Day celebration: King Lear performed at the court of James I, its devastating tragedy illuminated by candlelight that festive but wan winter in 1606. Then again, what could be more exhilarating than to see a great Lear — as Shakespeare’s friend Richard Burbage no doubt was — essaying this mountain of a role in a play where the pity and the terror (Lear over the dead body of Cordelia, the blinding of Gloucester) are all but overwhelming…

There were various contemporary resonances that might have been in the air for that Christmas audience 400 years ago. There had been a famous court case in which two daughters had sought to have their father declared incompetent on the grounds of insanity and, according to the English literary critic William Empson, all Europe had gasped in apprehension when Charles V of Spain had abdicated so he could prepare to meet his maker by retiring to a monastery…

Very few actors come within cooee of Lear but the attempt is part of the purpose of being alive for an actor of the first rank. It is an almost purely visceral role, this stubborn ox of a man who has no clue about his own heart and then has it shattered into a hundred thousand flaws.

George Orwell may have been right to say that Lear remains blind, that he never understands a thing. What we understand watching him, however, is the mystery of human pain that is embodied before our eyes.

We are confronted with the essence of the sorrow of the world in the starkest and most blazing poetry ever written.

The eyes of the courtiers would have been dazzled with tears that night in the long-ago court of the Stuart king, but they would have emerged into the night as high as kites.

They would have seen, by nightfall, a king blind, derided and destroyed. They would have seen the Brando of their time burn up the stage of the most glamorous theatre around in a royal command performance. They would also have known they were in the presence of a dramatic god. How they could not?

I wrote about the play — and about two other HSC texts, Billy Elliot and The Truman Show — on my personal blog in August 2006: see Maggie Thatcher as Goneril… There are some links there that may prove useful for HSC students.

In case sceptics are reading this, I hasten to mention that Lear and the two movies mentioned (good as they are) are not all in the same unit in the HSC, nor would I regard them as all being equal.

You may find an informal account of a performance I saw a few year ago at The Bard, a Rabbit, and Ninglun.

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Posted by on December 26, 2006 in English studies, HSC, Shakespeare, works/authors