Shakespeare and ‘The Lion King’

Last Sunday, I had the great good fortune to be able to indulge a passion that holds only a slightly less dear place in my heart than my love of Shakespeare: my love of musical theatre. The Lion King touring company was performing in my hometown of Richmond, so I made the trek down out of the mountains to see it. This sort of show is about as far from what we do at the OCS as you can get — pure, beautiful spectacle, on an enormous stage, mic’d and amp’d for a few thousand people — and it’s glorious, using song and color to convey emotion and energy. The audience contact is different from we do it here, but it’s still there, even in such a large venue — you get brought in a bit when the animals come down the aisles during “The Circle of Life”, “One by One”, and other songs, and characters like Zazu and Timon take jokes out in frequent asides. I also think The Lion King is one of the greatest examples of creative stagecraft: the puppetry, the choreography of aerial ballets and wildebeest stampedes, the costumes that allow the audience to see both actor and animal at the same time, the use of lighting, shadows, and backdrops to convey savanna, jungle, and wasteland — it’s so delightfully inventive, a real indulgence of imagination at work.

I know a lot has been written about the connections between Shakespeare and The Lion King. This is not news. Many, many people have drawn the connection to Hamlet — and it is there, if only in the broadest strokes of the plot. Evil uncle kills dad, usurps throne, pays for it in the end when dad’s ghost tells son to take revenge. But beyond that familial tangle, there’s actually not a lot else that’s tremendously similar. Sarabi doesn’t take up with Scar, Nala doesn’t drown herself, and no neighboring lions decide to declare war on their way across the Pridelands toward the Masai Mara. More importantly, the emotional quality of The Lion King is markedly different (unsurprising in the movie, aimed at younger audiences, but they could have chosen a darker direction with the musical). Simba doesn’t stick around like Hamlet does; he doesn’t fall into an existential depression or feign madness; he doesn’t turn on Nala or murder Zazu. He may be in the same position as Hamlet as far as the plot’s concerned, but he is not a character in Hamlet’s mold. The musical does draw in some quotations — “There’s the rub”, for example — but it still doesn’t dwell on quite the same ideas and psychological explorations as Hamlet does.

I’ve seen great arguments, though, for the story really having more similarities with 1 Henry IV. Simba, the renegade heir who spends all his time loafing around with irresponsible freeloaders, has to remember his duties and take his place as the honorable heir to the throne. On an emotional level, Simba’s story seems a lot more like Hal’s than like Hamlet’s. His response to stress isn’t “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt” or “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” — it’s “Hakuna Matata”. Feeling he’ll never live up to what he’s supposed to be, Simba runs away from the burdens — only to find that, ultimately, he will have to “pay the debt [he] never promised.” It’s still not a perfect comparison, obviously — Hal’s dad is quite alive during 1 Henry IV, whereas Mufasa has to stir his son to greatness from beyond the grave (and Mufasa, with “Remember who you are; you are my son, and the one true king”, manages to be a lot more succinct than Henry IV does in his sit-down with Hal in 3.2).

What struck me on Sunday, though, was how The Lion King contains echoes of a different Shakespeare play from the point of view of a different character. For Scar, this story is Macbeth. He disrupts the natural order of succession, and the earth itself revolts against him for it. In the disturbingly vivid scenes where the vibrant Pridelands turn into a barren desert, the joyfully leaping antelope turned skeletal, the waters receding and leaving cracked rocks in their wake, I couldn’t help but think of lines from Macbeth, in the conversation between Ross and the Old Man, describing the unnaturally dark sky, the inversion of predatory order, and Duncan’s horses going mad. When Sarabi tells Scar there is no longer any food because he has forced the lionesses to overhunt and the herds have moved on, I heard Ross telling Malcolm and Macduff:

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

The moral message here is the same: upset the natural order, disrupt the Circle of Life, and everything you sought to gain will turn to dust and decay in front of your eyes. Scar also has troubles with his own line of succession; though he has no Lady M, he makes a play for Nala, keenly aware that without sons of his own, his usurpation is for naught. Consider these lines from “The Madness of King Scar”, a song not found in the movie, only the musical:

Scar: What did my brother have that I don’t have?
Zazu: Do you want the short list or the long?
Scar: Whatever!
Zazu: Well, he had adoring subjects… a loving family… a devoted queen…
Scar: That’s it! I need a queen!
Zazu: A what?
Scar: A queen, man! A queen! Without a queen, what am I? A dead end, no line, no descendants, no future. With a queen, I’ll have cubs… Immortality will be mine! Immortality will be mine!

Hearing those lines, I had Macbeth in my head, saying:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

These thoughts continued to percolate on my drive home. Okay, so if it’s somewhere between Hamlet and 1 Henry IV for Mufasa and Simba, and if it’s Macbeth for Scar, then what is it for Nala? There’s not a perfect analogy. Nala’s a very martial heroine, and martial women in Shakespeare tend to be villains, or at the very least, rather morally ambiguous characters (Joan la Pucelle, Queen Margaret, Goneril and Regan, etc). Nala, on the other hand, is in many ways the moral center of the play. She’s aggressive, defiant, and proud, but never self-serving or deceptive. The closest analogy, I think, is Cymbeline, with Nala as a more pro-active Imogen. Both leave their homes to escape oppressive usurpers (the stepmother Queen and Scar, respectively), both suffer some sort of sexual harassment that spurs the journey (adultery for Imogen, threat of rape for Nala), both find the lost heir in the wilderness (Guiderius and Arviragus to Simba). It’s a stretch, to be sure — but that’s where my mind went.

Now, do I think Disney had any of this deliberately in mind when they created The Lion King? No. As Duane at Shakespeare Geek once pointed out, the creators noticed the Hamlet connection and modeled at least a little on the similarities, but that certainly doesn’t seem to cast the movie or the musical as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s story. And while others have commented on the connections to 1 Henry IV and Macbeth, I’m fairly certain I’m the first person to write publicly drawing any connection between The Lion King and Cymbeline. (If I’m not, please let me know, because I want to know who else out there may be as dotty as I am). But a writer, an actor, a designer can still be inspired by something, even if he or she isn’t consciously imitating it, and there doesn’t have to be a deliberate attempt at re-invention for an audience to hear the echoes. There’s something to the universality of all of these stories, to the themes and tropes that cycle to prominence again and again — and that show us, even through the use of lions, what it is to be human.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round of 16, Pt 1

A new week, a new set of matches for Shakespearean March Madness. Before we begin the Round of Sixteen, here are the results of Round 1.3:

takes a narrow 21-17 victory over Oberon, proving that the fiery rebel has as little patience for fairy magic as for Welsh superstitions. Macbeth handily wins over poor Toby Belch (31-6), whom we can only hope was soundly smacked around but not actually killed, and is now drinking off the shame and sorrow of his defeat. In a surprise victory — at least it surprised me, even though I was supporting her — Katharina takes a commanding 25-11 lead over Cassius. And finally, Doll Tearsheet‘s pub-brawling prowess gives her the win over Richard II’s eloquence (26-9). Those two feisty females join Lady M in the Round of 16, so despite Queen Margaret’s nigh-unbelievable loss to The Bear, I can at least be glad that my gender’s not going down without a good fight.

Today, the first two face-offs from last week’s champs: Henry V vs. Titus Andronicus and Iago vs. Prospero. All four of these blokes made it to the Elite 8 last year (and Titus and Henry actually squared off in the Final Four) — so in 2012, at least two of them are going home disappointed (if not in pieces).

Round of 16: Match 1: Henry V vs. Titus Andronicus

Who wins the battle?

  • Henry V
  • Titus Andronicus


Round of 16: Match 2: Iago vs. Prospero

My picks will, as always, be in a comment. Don’t forget to vote for Round 1.4, which I’ll be closing out tomorrow — there are some real nail-biters in this set, so every vote counts!

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.4

Welcome back for the final installation of our first round. Before we introduce the competitors, here are the victors and losers from Round 1.2:

Coriolanus enjoyed an early lead, but ultimately lost 25-20 to Titus Andronicus; these Roman heavyweights pitched a violent and well-matched battle, to be sure, but the man who sacrificed a few dozen sons advances. Antony takes a handy victory over Jack Cade, 27-9; Cade might have gotten a few licks in, but Antony knows nothing better than how to handle an unruly mob of peasants. Prospero‘s magic gives him the edge over the Duke of York in a 21-15 victory; the Duke put up a good fight — maybe it will be down to his son to avenge his honor? In Round 1.2’s closest battle, Lady Macbeth just barely ekes it out over Aaron the Moor, 19-18. The fiendish queen uses ruthless wiles to put down the unapologetic evildoer and advances to the Round of 16.

Here’s the bracket as it stands after the first 8 matches (click to expand):

Shakespeare Education: Shakespearean March Madness 2012

Who else will advance to the Round of 16? Time to decide: Entering the ring today, we have: a true battle of ferocious wits, Shylock vs. Beatrice; the prowess of the Moor of Venice against the agile mind and fearless arm of a Plantagenet, Othello vs. Philip the Bastard; self-sacrificing faith against self-preserving cowardice, Cordelia vs. Jack Falstaff; and a courtier’s well-trained rapier against a mountain man’s brute strength and natural skill, Tybalt vs. Guiderius. Need a refresher on who any of these characters are or what they might bring to a battle? Revisit their bios.

Match 13: Shylock vs Beatrice

Who wins the battle?

  • Shylock
  • Beatrice


Match 14: Othello vs Philip the Bastard

Who wins the battle?

  • Othello
  • Philip the Bastard


Match 15: Cordelia vs Jack Falstaff

Who wins the battle?

  • Cordelia
  • Jack Falstaff


Match 16: Tybalt vs Guiderius

Who wins the battle?

  • Tybalt
  • Guiderius


These polls will be open until early next week; don’t forget to vote on Round 1.3, also still open.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.3

Before I introduce the next 8 contestants to the ring, here are the results from Round 1.1:

Paulina makes a good show, but loses 40-11 to Henry V. Much though it shames me to announce it, Queen Margaret, last year’s champion, gets knocked out in the first round by The Bear. This match was about as close as they come — 28-26 for the final score — but the ursine competitor got the upper paw over the she-wolf of France. (Here in the office, Graphics Designer Lauren Rogers wants everyone to know that she’s put her money on The Bear to take home the title). Iago pushes ahead over Tamora, 30-22; the Queen of the Goths’ guile put up a good fight, but wasn’t enough to overcome the wily machinations of her opponent. And finally, Richard III dominates over Cornwall in what was very nearly a shut-out, 43-3. Cornwall may be vicious, but Crookback Dick’s resolve and intensity give him the edge.

And now, for Round 1.3, the next set of combatants are: Hotspur vs. Oberon, Macbeth vs. Sir Toby Belch, Katharina vs. Cassius, and Doll Tearsheet vs. Richard II.

Match 9: Hotspur vs. Oberon

Match 10: Macbeth vs. Sir Toby Belch

Who wins the battle?

  • Macbeth
  • Sir Toby Belch


Match 11: Katharina vs. Cassius

Who wins the battle?

  • Katharina
  • Cassius


Match 12: Doll Tearsheet vs. Richard II

Who wins the battle?

  • Doll Tearsheet
  • Richard II


This set will be open through the end of the week.

Don’t forget to get your votes in for Round 1.2, which will close Thursday — a few of those matches are running really tight. Make your opinion known and help your favorite to victory!

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.2

With yesterday’s matches off to a rollicking start, it’s time to bring on the next eight contenders for the title of Shakespeare’s ultimate fighting champion. In the ring today: in a battle of the Roman heavyweights, Titus Andronicus vs. Coriolanus; two masters of the mob, Mark Antony vs. Jack Cade; the magical Prospero vs. the ambitious Duke of York; and the ruthless Lady Macbeth vs. the conscienceless Aaron the Moor. Who should advance to the Round of 16?

Match 5: Titus Andronicus vs. Coriolanus

Who wins the battle?

  • Titus Andronicus
  • Coriolanus


Match 6: Antony vs. Jack Cade

Who wins the battle?

  • Antony
  • Jack Cade


Match 7: Prospero vs. Duke of York

Who wins the battle?

  • Prospero
  • Duke of York

Match 8: Lady Macbeth vs. Aaron the Moor

Who wins the battle?

  • Lady Macbeth
  • Aaron the Moor


As before, my picks will be in a comment. Do you have a favorite up in this round? Let us know who you’re cheering for! You might win over some new converts and turn the tide of battle.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.1

It’s March 1st, and that means we welcome the first eight competitors to the field. Up today: Henry V vs Paulina, Queen Margaret vs. The Bear, Iago vs. Tamora, and Richard III vs. Cornwall.

Match 1: Henry V vs Paulina

Who wins the battle?

  • Henry V
  • Paulina


Match 2: Queen Margaret vs The Bear

Who wins the battle?

  • Queen Margaret
  • The Bear


Match 3: Iago vs. Tamora

Match 4: Richard III vs. Cornwall

Who wins the battle?

  • Richard III
  • Cornwall


An interesting starting field, with a lot of villains squaring off against each other. My picks will be in a comment, so as not to unduly influence anyone else’s opinions. Who are you voting for? Who should advance to the Round of Sixteen? Let me know! Rally support for your favorites, and remember — there’s nothing so convincing as good, solid, text-based evidence. These polls will be open until early next week, so there’s plenty of time to build enthusiasm for your picks.

Let the games begin!

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Meet the Competitors

Welcome back to another year of Shakespearean March Madness, a no-holds-barred, anything-goes contest for supreme domination of the Complete Works. What matters more, brain or brawn? Guile and cunning or rallying armies? Might or magic? You get to decide — and at the end of the month, we will crown the 2012 Champion.

On this, the last (and bonus) day of February, I’d like to take a few minutes to introduce you to this year’s competitors. Thanks to everyone who made nominations — your input has definitely changed the line-up from 2011. I think we’re in for some exciting matches!

1. Aaron (Titus Andronicus)
Also Known As: the Moor
Weapon of Choice: scimitar, psychological warfare
Bio: A man of the south who somehow ended up in Scythia, Aaron keeps company with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. His list of evil deeds is long, and he proudly boasts of it. There seems to be literally nothing he won’t stoop to perform, including stabbing nursemaids and convincing his lover’s sons to commit rape, dismemberment, and murder.
Quote: “Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,—
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.”

2. Beatrice (Much Ado about Nothing)
Also Known As: “this harpy” (epithet courtesy of Benedick)
Weapon of Choice: wit
Bio: A witty and warm-spirited lady of Messina, Beatrice’s clever wordplay and merriness cover hidden depths. Benedick accuses her of being “possessed with a fury,” and when Claudio dishonors her cousin Hero, Beatrice demonstrates a capacity for boundless rage. Beatrice’s words are sharp enough — “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs” — but proper provocation might turn her into a real contender.
Quote: “Is he not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands; and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour, –O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.”

3. Cassius (Julius Caesar)
(Sponsored by Alexi Sargeant)
Also Known As:
Weapon of Choice: cunning language, Roman legions
Bio: A political discontent with “a lean and hungry look”, Caius Cassius Longinus unsettles even the great Julius Caesar. Cassius’s actions lead to the most famous assassination of all time and up-end the Roman Republic. A capable general in his own right, with a canny awareness of the political scene, Cassius might have won the war against Antony and Octavian if not for his colleague Brutus’s missteps. This man, bold, nigh-fearless, and secure in his convictions, is not an opponent to take lightly.
Quote: “For my part, I have walk’d about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night,
And, thus unbraced, COCSa, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seem’d to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.”

4. Cordelia (King Lear)
(Sponsored by Alexi Sargeant)
Also Known As: the third daughter, Queen of France
Weapon of Choice: honesty, virtue, French armies
Bio: Best known for her failure to flatter her father, Cordelia may not be much of a diplomat, but that doesn’t stop her from taking the field against her own sisters, leading the armies of France to battle. Courageous in her convictions, Cordelia will go to any length to rescue her father from the usurpation of her sisters.
Quote: “Our preparation stands
In expectation of them. O dear father,
It is thy business that I go about.
Therefore great France
My mourning and important tears hath pitied.
No blown ambition doth our arms incite,
But love, dear love, and our ag’d father’s right.”

5. Coriolanus (Coriolanus)
Also Known As: Caius Martius, “thou Mars”
Weapon of Choice: Roman legions
Bio: Coriolanus begins his career as a celebrated hero-general of the Roman armies, but he can’t play the political game as well as he can manage the battlefield. When the fickle city turn against him, his quest turns to one of vengeance that puts all of Rome in fear. He allies with his former enemy, Aufidius of the Volscians, and the Roman senate thereafter speaks of his unstoppable power and military prowess, fearing his retribution as they would a god’s.
Quote: “All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! you herd of—Boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d
Further than seen and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese,
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
All hurt behind; backs red, and faces pale
With flight and agued fear! Mend and charge home,
Or, by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe
And make my wars on you”

6. Doll Tearsheet (Henry IV, Part 2)
Also Known As: Mistress Dorothy
Weapon of Choice: knife
Bio: A wench of the Boar’s Head, Doll has been through more than her fair share of barfights and has had to chase off unwelcome customers. Scrappy and uncowed by the soldiers and mercenaries who frequent Mistress Quickly’s establishment (or by the local sheriff), Doll can curse, cavort, and cudgel with the best of them.
Quote: “Away, you cut-purse rOCSal! you filthy bung, away! By wine, I’ll thrust my knife in your mouldy chaps, an you play saucy cuttle with me. Away, you bottle-ale rOCSal! you basket-hilt stale juggler, you!”

7. Duke of Cornwall (King Lear)
(Sponsored by Jason Dempsey)
Weapon of Choice: dagger, sword
Bio: An ambitious man, Cornwall acts quickly to support his wife Regan’s bid for power. A swift, no-nonsense decision maker, Cornwall throws Kent in the stocks for insulting him, then later puts out the Duke of Gloucester’s eyes as retribution for taking King Lear’s side. Merciless, bloodthirsty, and power-hungry, Cornwall has no shame in bloodying his own hands to further his goals.
Quote: “Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?”

8. Duke of York (Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3)
(Sponsored by Alexi Sargeant)
Also Known As: Richard Plantagenet, earlier the Duke of Gloucester
Weapon of Choice: sword, armies, the House of York
Bio: The man at the center of the Wars of the Roses, the Duke of York challenges Henry VI for the throne. After serving in France and trying desperately to hold onto England’s possessions there, and then serving as Protector of the Realm during Henry’s bouts of madness, York decides he can manage affairs better than the weak king. His conflict with the Lancasters defined decades of English history, and though he never wore the crown he craved, his actions set the stage for his sons to establish a new (if short-lived) dynasty.
Quote: “From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head:
Ring, bells, aloud; burn, bonfires, clear and bright,
To entertain great England’s lawful king.
Ah! sancta majestas, who would not buy thee dear?
Let them obey that know not how to rule;
This hand was made to handle naught but gold.
I cannot give due action to my words,
Except a sword or sceptre balance it:
A sceptre shall it have, have I a soul,
On which I’ll toss the flower-de-luce of France.”

9. Guiderius (Cymbeline)
(Sponsored by Jennifer Jones)
Also Known As: Polydore
Weapon of Choice:
Bio: The son of Cymbeline and thus a rightful prince of England, Guiderius was stolen as an infant by a banished courtier, and has been raised, along with his brother, in secrecy, under the name Polydore. A mountain man with a royal heart, Guiderius is responsible for killing and beheading the evil Cloten. Rough around the edges, Guiderius matches his noble spirit with powerful physical might, a quick temper, and an utter lack of pity for his enemies. Even when facing execution for killing Cloten, he stands bold and resolute, proudly proclaiming his deed as right and just.
Quote: “To who? to thee? What art thou? Have not I
An arm as big as thine? a heart as big?
Thy words, I grant, are bigger, for I wear not
My dagger in my mouth. Say what thou art,
Why I should yield to thee?”

10. Henry V (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; Henry V)
Also Known As: Prince Hal
Weapon of Choice: broadsword, inspirational speeches
Bio: The royal rebel, Henry begins as a dissolute prince whose “reformation, glitt’ring o’er” his faults turns him into one of England’s most celebrated monarchs. He becomes a valiant warrior at a young age, assisting his father in throwing down rebellions. He also knows how to use language to stir the hearts of other men, inspiring acts of valor even in the face of despair. He leads his army to victory at the famous Battle of Agincourt, using tactical skill and sheer willpower to overcome formidable odds. Last year, Henry made it to the finals. How will he fare in 2012?
Quote: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood […]
On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. […]
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'”

11. Hotspur
(Sponsored by Colin O’Grady)
Also Known As: Harry Percy
Weapon of Choice: broadsword
Bio: Son to the Earl of Northumberland, Hotspur’s battle prowess is such that it makes King Henry IV wish that “it could be proved that some night-tripping fairy had exchanged in cradle-clothes our children where they lay.” He defeats many noble Scots in battle and takes them prisoner, then later thumbs his nose at the Welsh prince Glendower. Hotspur is bellicose by nature, never at ease, ever-restless, and with the skill on the battlefield to support his warlike desires. The foil to Prince Hal, Hotspur demonstrates intense focus, military acumen, and a fiery hunger for victory.
Quote: “I thank him, that he cuts me from my tale,
For I profess not talking; only this—
Let each man do his best: and here draw I
A sword, whose temper I intend to stain
With the best blood that I can meet withal
In the adventure of this perilous day.
Now, Esperance! Percy! and set on.
Sound all the lofty instruments of war,
And by that music let us all embrace;
For, heaven to earth, some of us never shall
A second time do such a courtesy.”

12. Iago (Othello)
Also Known As: ancient Iago, honest Iago
Weapon of Choice: rumors, dagger
Bio: His nature forged by jealousy and malevolence, for Iago, nothing will do but the complete annihilation of those he sees responsible for his frustrations. He demonstrates no remorse for his deeds, and no care for any innocents swept up in his plots. Iago crafts his words to make Othello believe his wife has betrayed him and to spur Cassio into engaging in a drunken brawl. When his wife exposes his crimes, he murders her without a flinch. Last year, Iago made it to the Elite 8 — Will he advance farther this year?
Quote: “Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.”

13. Jack Cade (Henry VI, Part 2)
Also Known As: John Mortimer
Weapon of Choice: violent mobs
Bio: Set up by the Yorkists to make trouble for the Lancasters, Jack Cade swiftly sparks revolts in England that threaten to unseat civil order entirely. On a platform of anti-intellectualism and alcoholism, Cade promises the poor of England power over their elite rulers. The fury he incites leads to multiple stabbings, beheadings, and beatings throughout Kent. What’s more, Cade has endurance; his sponsor the Duke of York says of him, “I seen this stubborn Cade oppose himself against a troop of kerns, and fought so long, till that his thighs with darts were almost like a sharp-quill’d porpentine.” This black horse could prove a powerful spoiler for many of our heavyweights.
Quote: “The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it: men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.”

14. Jack Falstaff (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; The Merry Wives of Windsor)
Also Known As: Sir John
Weapon of Choice: sack and sherry
Bio: A notable coward who nonetheless makes it safe through several wars, Falstaff’s tactics are more of avoidance and petty crime than of might or valor. He commits literal highway robbery only to be re-robbed by Prince Hall, avoids battle whenever possible, fills the ranks of his army with degenerates and diseased men, fakes his own death then tries to claim credit for the slaying of Hostpur — and yet he always comes through in the end, with a certain cunning instinct for self-preservation. Can Falstaff buy, bribe, and bully his way through Shakespearean March Madness?
Quote: “Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.”

15. Katharina Minola (The Taming of the Shrew)
Also Known As: Kate, “plain Kate, bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst”
Weapon of Choice: household objects, an open palm
Bio: Constantly overlooked in favor of her younger sister, Kate has had a lot of time to build up a lot of rage. She’s not afraid to strike those who displease her, whether her sister or her suitor, and she once broke a lute over a man’s head, causing the hapless would-be instructor to suggest that she might make a good soldier. Feisty and fearless, Kate is undaunted by the world’s disdain and will come out with fists flying.
Quote: “I’ faith, sir, you shall never need to fear;
Iwis it is not halfway to her heart;
But if it were, doubt not her care should be
To comb your noddle with a three-legg’d stool,
And paint your face, and use you like a fool.”

16. Lady Macbeth (Macbeth)
Also Known As: Queen of Scotland
Weapon of Choice: drug-laced possets, possible demonic intervention
Bio: Married to a Scottish thane, Lady Macbeth has high ambitions. She engineers the assassination of King Duncan after inviting evil spirits to remove all womanly tenderness from her body. When Macbeth fails to leave the murder weapons, Lady Macbeth takes them back herself so that she can “smear the sleepy grooms with blood” to implicate them. Lady Macbeth suppresses compassion, gentleness, femininity, and weakness, all in the name of working her and her husband’s way to the crown. Lady M was another Elite 8 contender last year; will her ruthless cunning advance her further in 2012?
Quote: “When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

17. Macbeth (Macbeth)
Also Known As: the Thane of Glamis, the Thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland
Weapon of Choice: daggers, broadsword
Bio: Initially one of King Duncan’s trusted thanes and a hero of battle, Macbeth, consumed by a prophecy that he will be king, murders Duncan in his sleep. Macbeth then goes on to engage in wholesale slaughter of anyone and everyone that might be a threat to his reign, including his friend Banquo and the wife and children of the mistrusted Macduff. He thus earns a reputation as “bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name.” Ambitious and bloodthirsty, Macbeth continues fighting even when the odds and fates turn against him. Like his wife, Macbeth made it to the Elite 8 in 2011; will he murder his way to the top this year?
Quote: “I will to-morrow,
And betimes I will, to the weird sisters:
More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d.”

18. Marcus Antonius (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra)
Also Known As: Antony, Antonio
Weapon of Choice: Roman army, Egyptian navy, rhetoric
Bio: Protege to murdered Caesar, Mark Antony describes himself as “a plain blunt man,” though Cassius calls him “a shrewd contriver.” Cassius, fearing his power, wants him dead along with Caesar. Following Caesar’s death, Antony first stirs the common people against Brutus and Cassius and then defeats their powers at Philippi. Though he later worries that his love for Cleopatra may have unmanned him, with one of his officers stating that “those his goodly eyes, that o’er the files and musters of the war have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,” Antony nonetheless takes on Octavius’s forces with the courage of a true Roman.
Quote: “I will be treble-sinew’d, hearted, breathed,
And fight maliciously: for when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I’ll set my teeth,
And send to darkness all that stop me.”

19. Oberon (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Also Known As: King of the Fairies, King of Shadows
Weapon of Choice: magic, charmed flowers
Bio: King of the Fairies, Oberon possesses mystical powers in abundance. When he argues with his queen, their conflict affects the weather, upending the seasons and destroying crops. He controls the mischievous Puck and directs his actions, and his actions against Titania demonstrate that once his ire is raised, no deception is too low for his revenge.
Quote: “What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.”

20. Othello (Othello)
Also Known As: The Moor of Venice
Weapon of Choice: sword, pillow
Bio: An accomplished and capable general, Othello wins the trust of the Duke of Venice so wholly that the Duke sends him against the Ottomans to defend the island of Cyprus. Othello feels secure in the good opinion of the Duke and his advisers, having earned a powerful and noble reputation for himself. Othello’s weakness is in a jealous temper, which causes him to lash out violently; when this thread is plucked, Othello becomes hot, intemperate, and murderous.
Quote: “Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak, — such was the process.”

21. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)
(Sponsored by Alexi Sargeant)
Weapon of Choice: sterling willpower, eloquent words
Bio: A noble lady and attendant to Queen Hermione, Paulina is nonetheless tough as nails and fearless for her own safety. When King Leontes goes mad with jealousy, she risks her own life to try and save her queen and the queen’s infant daughter. She defies threats of torture and presses her case when everyone else in the court shrinks back from challenging their king. With an iron will and a rapier tongue, Paulina demonstrates that bravery and valor don’t only occur on the battlefield.
Quote: “It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.”

22. Philip the Bastard (King John)
(Sponsored by Alexi Sargeant and Tim)
Also Known As: Philip Faulconbridge, Richard Plantagenet
Weapon of Choice:
Bio: The illegitimate son of Richard Lionheart, Philip the Bastard marries a quick wit with a strong arm. When he learns of his misbegotten royal heritage, he immediately takes up with his uncle John against the French-supported claim of Arthur and Constance. The Bastard demonstrates both political cunning and military prowess, beheading the Duke of Austria in revenge for his father’s death and leading the English armies against Philip of France, making a far stronger showing than King John himself. A rare non-villainous illegitimate son, the Bastard also serves as a roundabout moral compass for the play, musing that England does more damage to herself with internal strife than any foreign enemy ever does to her.
Quote: “Ha, majesty! how high thy glory towers,
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry, ‘havoc!’ kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other’s peace: till then, blows, blood and death!”

23. Prospero (The Tempest)
Also Known As: the former Duke of Milan, Master to Ariel and Caliban
Weapon of Choice: magic (learned from books)
Bio: Exiled by his own brother, Prospero has had thirteen years on an island to hone his magical talents, and now he commands great and terrible elemental powers. With the help of the spirit Ariel, he can summon great storms, bewitch minds, and inflict pain; he also employs elves, goblins, and other spirits to do lesser tasks for him. His tempest creates “wild waters” and a sky that “would pour down stinking pitch, but that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek, dashes the fire out” — but his control is great enough to bring the ships only to danger, not to destruction, as he wills. Prospero’s magic got him to the Elite 8 last year, against considerable odds — will his luck hold in 2012?
Quote: “Go charge my goblins that they grind their joints
With dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard or cat o’ mountain. […]
Let them be hunted soundly. At this hour
Lie at my mercy all mine enemies:
Shortly shall all my labours end, and thou
Shalt have the air at freedom: for a little
Follow, and do me service.”

24. Queen Margaret (Henry VI, Parts 1-3; Richard III)
Also Known As: Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England, “she-wolf of France,” “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”
Weapon of Choice: English armies, womanly wiles, curses
Bio: Married young to King Henry VI, Queen Margaret quickly despairs of her husband’s weakness and grasps the reins of power for herself. When the Wars of the Roses start, Margaret herself leads the Lancastrian armies to victory. Her fury grows when Henry VI disinherits their son to appease the Yorkists, and she wages war without his consent. She taunts the fallen Duke of York with a handkerchief dipped in his own son’s blood and gives him a paper crown before helping Clifford stab him to death. When the Yorkists gain the throne, Margaret lingers on, cursing them with misery and destruction — all prophetic invectives which come to pass. Margaret is a force of nature, fierce in defending her interests, brimming with bitterness, willing to throw off her woman’s role and assume power for herself. Can last year’s reigning champion defend her crown?
Quote: “I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York.
What, hath thy fiery heart so parch’d thine entrails
That not a tear can fall for Rutland’s death?
Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad;
And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus.
Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance.”

25. Richard II (Richard II)
(Sponsored by the good folk at Pursued by a Bear)
Weapon of Choice: monologues, English armies
Bio: Often dismissed as a weak king, there’s more to Richard II than meets the eye. Crowned at a young age, Richard demonstrated courage and determination in his youth and grew into an absolutist monarch. Analytical by nature and keenly intelligent, Richard stands solidly for his beliefs, and he makes his usurper dance a merry dance before he can claim the throne. Securely cloaked in the Divine Right of Kings, Richard believes that his power and his actions are ordained by God.
Quote: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.”

26. Richard III (Henry VI, Parts 2-3; Richard III)
Also Known As: Duke of Gloucester, Dick Crookback, misshapen Dick, “Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog”
Weapon of Choice: sword, daggers, barrels of wine
Bio: Born misshapen and deformed, Richard declares that “since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.” He shows himself vicious and brutal in war, cunning and malicious in peace, stirring up rumors so that his enemies turn on each other, and not hesitating to betray those who have supported him in the past. Though he assists his brother to victory in the Wars of the Roses, Richard always keeps his eye on the prize for himself. He hires murderers to kill his brother Clarence, usurps the throne of his nephew, young King Edward V, then has Edward and his brother killed, murders the relatives of Queen Elizabeth, poisons his wife so he can marry another, and executes his erstwhile friend Buckingham. Last year, Richard made it to the Final Four but lost to his eternal rival, Queen Margaret. Will his fortunes be better this year?
Quote: “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.”

27. Shylock (The Merchant of Venice)
Also Known As: the Jew of Venice
Weapon of Choice: law, bonds
Bio: Proud and clever, Shylock strikes back at a world which holds him in disdain and disregard. Uncowed by the prejudices leveled against him, Shylock stands firm, taking revenge for wrongs done to him and defiantly scorning all appeals. His methods may be cruel, but so too have his conditions been. Will Shylock take a pound of flesh from his opponents in Shakespearean March Madness?
Quote: “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer
‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it?”

28. Tamora (Titus Andronicus)
Also Known As: Queen of the Goths, Empress of Rome
Weapon of Choice: her sons
Bio: Taken prisoner after a war with Rome, Tamora seeks vengeance on Titus Andronicus for her eldest son’s death and for her humiliation in the streets. Once she becomes Saturninus’s Empress, she uses her power to orchestrate the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter and the deaths of his sons, then taunts him for his losses. She callously ignores Lavinia’s begging, instructing her sons, “Away with her, and use her as you will, the worse to her, the better loved of me.” When she gives birth to a mixed-race child with Aaron, she orders the babe killed rather than have it expose her infidelity. Pitiless and merciless, Tamora gives no quarter because she never received any.
Quote: “I’ll find a day to massacre them all
And raze their faction and their family,
The cruel father and his traitorous sons,
To whom I sued for my dear son’s life,
And make them know what ’tis to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.”

29. The Bear (The Winter’s Tale)
(Sponsored by Lauren Rogers)
Weapon of Choice: being a bear
Bio: Most famous for exiting, the infamous bear of The Winter’s Tale acts in accordance with nature, making a snack out of hapless Antigonus.
Quote: (The bear being unable to speak for himself, we offer the testimony of the Clown) “And then for the land-service, to see how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone; how he cried to me for help and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman. But to make an end of the ship, to see how the sea flap-dragoned it: but, first, how the poor souls roared, and the sea mocked them; and how the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than the sea or weather.”

30. Titus Andronicus (Titus Andronicus)
Weapon of Choice: the Roman gladius, kitchen utensils, baked goods
Bio: Titus initially wins victory over the Goths, losing 21 sons in the bargain. He stabs another son for the crime of defiance. He cuts off his own hand because he thinks it will save two other sons from execution. He slays Tamora’s two sons and bakes them into a pie, then holds a dinner party where he feeds them to their mother, then kills his own daughter and stabs Tamora to death. Titus’s ruthlessness, callous disregard for human life, and murderous fury took him to the Final Four last year — Will he make it to the top in 2012?
Quote: “Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow’d dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on;
For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be revenged:
And now prepare your throats.”

31. Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night)
(Sponsored by Ben Ratkowski)
Weapon of Choice: sword, sack, trickery
Bio: A drunkard knight who’s past his prime, Sir Toby nonetheless retains a fearsome temper and a talent for inciting discord. He revels all night in defiance of the steward Malvolio, then sets up Malvolio’s humiliation; when he hears Malvolio disparage him, he can barely contain his anger. He later sets Cesario and Sir Andrew to fight each other, and ultimately takes the worst of it in a fight with Sebastian. A brash, crafty wildcard, Sir Toby may have tricks enough up his sleeve to advance in the bracket.
Quote: “O, for a stone-bow, to hit him in the eye! […] And does not Toby take you a blow o’ the lips then?”

32. Tybalt Capulet (Romeo and Juliet)
Also Known As: King of Cats
Weapon of Choice: rapier and dagger (trained in the Spanish style)
Bio: Choleric and hot-tempered, Tybalt defies the Prince and his uncle Capulet to pursue his feud with the Montagues. Mercutio describes his fighting prowess in great detail, noting his advanced technique and lightning-fast ability. Tybalt defeats Mercutio in a duel, provoked by Mercutio’s taunting and Romeo’s apparent cowardice. Tybalt hates peace as he hates hell, and he fights with nigh-unparalleled skill.
Quote: “This, by his voice, should be a Montague.
Fetch me my rapier, boy. What dares the slave
Come hither, cover’d with an antic face,
To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?
Now, by the stock and honour of my kin,
To strike him dead, I hold it not a sin.”

And, the bracket itself (mostly randomly-generated, though I did tinker to avoid any first-round repeat matches) — Click to expand:

Shakespearean March Madness 2012

So, those are our 2012 Shakespearean March Madness competitors. Who are your picks for the Final Four? Who do you think will reign supreme as Shakespeare’s ultimate fighting champion? One of last year’s favorites, or a Cinderella story? Let me know, here or on Twitter!

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 24 February 2012

A few notes and points of interest from the world of Shakespeare studies this week:

  • London’s Globe Theatre has awarded its first PhDs to Sarah Dustagheer and Penelope Woods. These women are both friends of the OCS: Woods presented on audience studies at our 2009 Blackfriars Conference, and Dustagheer observed an Actors’ Renaissance Season, giving presentations to the MBC MLitt/MFA program on the differences between playing the Globe and playing the Blackfriars Playhouse. Congratulations to them both, and to the Globe for enacting this joint degree-awarding venture with Queen Mary, University of London, and King’s College London.
  • The new “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” exhibit at the Folger Library challenges the notion that early modern women didn’t write (or, as Virginia Woolf famously asserted, that, if they did, they must have been driven mad by the frustrations of it). The exhibit celebrates such notable female authors as Veronica Franco, Lady Anne Clifford, Lady Mary Wroth, the Mancini sisters, Aemilia Lanyer, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, and (my personal favorite early modern woman) Lady Mary Herbert. If you can’t make it to DC to see the exhibit in person, selections from it are also available online.
  • This week, the OCS welcomes alumni from Dartmouth College for a weekend of entertainment and scholarship. Peter Saccio, the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth College, was the editor of A Mad World, My Masters for the Middleton Complete Works. Saccio gave a public lecture last night, detailing some of the textual oddities of the script and what that can mean for the stage, and will give several private lectures to the Dartmouth group throughout the weekend.
  • Education Week featured an article on the challenge educators face when attempting to tie their lesson plans to Core Curriculum Standards. “Their current materials fall short, and there is a dearth of good new ones to fill the void.” OCS Study Guides (now available on!) feature not only guidelines for fulfilling Virginia’s Standards of Learning, but also the U.S. Core Curriculum Standards.

As a final note, remember that you still have a few days to get in your nominations for the 2012 Shakespearean March Madness. I’ve already heard support for Hotspur, Cassius, the Duke of Cornwall, and Richard II. Pitch your pick for this no-holds-barred brawl here.

OCS Study Guides now available on

The Education Department is pleased to announce the transfer of 10 full-length Study Guides to, a site which allows both for PDF downloads and for print-on-demand hard copies of the text. This is a vast improvement over our old system, and will increase both the visibility and the accessibility of OCS educator resources.

Much of the credit for this transfer goes to OCS Senior Graphic Artist Lauren Rogers, who not only helped get us onto the website, but also redesigned our covers into this far-more-attractive format. The idea comes from Wordles, which we advocate as a way into the text for some of your particularly Shakespeare-skittish students, since they demonstrate how few words in a play or in a given speech are actually unfamiliar. Lauren found the visuals of the Wordles appealing, and she took it from there, giving us these fabulous new covers:

Yesterday, we received our own hard copies, which Sarah will be taking down to Orlando and displaying at the Shakespeare Theatre Association Conference. They’ve been the source of much delight and merriment in the office:

All of next year’s Study Guides — Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, along with any mini-guides — will go directly to Lulu. I’m so looking forward to the opportunities this new integration will present for us.

"The pancake bell rings, the pancake bell! Tri-lil, my hearts!": Shrove Tuesday in Early Modern England

Nowadays in America, we know today — the day before Ash Wednesday, 41 days before Easter — as Mardi Gras, a festival of extravagance and delight, with traditions passed down to us from the French and Italians. From the bayou to Rio, the Carnival season ends in a triumphant celebration of life and laughter, with parades, parties, fantastic costumes, throwing of beads, and yes, some degree of inebriation.

But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries in late-16th century England, this day was something different: Shrove Tuesday. And on Shrove Tuesday, you ate pancakes. Why pancakes? Because they involved many of the rich foodstuffs — sugar, fat, flour and eggs — whose consumption was restricted during Lent (which Anglicans still observed, despite the break with the Catholic Church). It was also a day to gorge yourself on meat and drink, to clear the larders of all those things you couldn’t eat during Lent and couldn’t afford to let spoil in the meantime.

This tradition is the subject of several scenes in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, where the apprentices of the City of London look forward to a great feast:

Firk: I’ll lead you to victuals, my brave soldiers. Follow your captain. Oh, brave! (Bell rings). Hark, hark!

The pancake bell rings, the pancake bell! Tri-lill, my hearts!

Oh brave! O sweet bell! O delicate pancakes! Open the doors, my hearts, and shut up the windows. Keep in the house, let out the pancakes. Oh, rare, my hearts! Let’s march together for the honor of Saint Hugh to the great new hall in Gracious Street Corner, which our master the new Lord Mayor hath built.

Oh, the crew of good fellows that will dine at my Lord Mayor’s cost today!

By the lord, my Lord Mayor is a most brave man. How shall prentices be bound to pray for him and the honor of the Gentlemen Shoemakers! Let’s feed and be fat with my lord’s bounty.

Oh, musical bell still! Oh Hodge, o my brethren! There’s cheer for the heavens: venison pasties walk up and down piping hot like sergeants, beef and brewis comes marching in dry fats, fritters and pancakes comes trolling in in wheelbarrows, lemons and oranges hopping in porters’ baskets, collops and eggs in scuttles, and tarts and custards comes quavering in in malt shovels.

Enter more prentices.

Whoop! Look here, look here!

How now, mad lads, whither away so fast?

First Prentice:
Whither? Why, to the new great hall. Know you not why? The Lord Mayor hath bidden all the prentices in London to breakfast this morning.

O brave shoemaker! O brave lord of incomprehensible good fellowship! Hoo, hark you, the pancake bell rings.

Cast up caps.

Nay, more, my hearts: every Shrove Tuesday is our year of jubilee, and when the pancake bell rings, we are as free as my Lord Mayor; we may shut up our shops and make holiday. I’ll have it called Saint Hugh’s holiday.

Agreed, agreed! Saint Hugh’s holiday!

And this shall continue forever.

Oh brave! Come, come, my hearts! Away, away!

Oh, eternal credit to us of the Gentle Craft! March fair, my hearts. Oh, rare!

As someone who has had the “oh, rare!” honor to play Firk in a production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday (directed by Casey Caldwell back in 2010, as part of his MFA), I can verify that this scene only works if you embrace its jubilant madness entirely — much in the spirit of Shrove Tuesday or its modern descendents. You have to let the good times roll over you and indulge thoroughly in the exuberance — and there’s something marvelously freeing about giving yourself over to that on stage.

But, as a scholar, I enjoy what this scene tells us about the historical celebrations: Firk gives a detailed menu, listing what the prentices can look forward to at their feast; the ringing of the bell to announce the holiday has historical precedence; and the freedom to “shut up shop” for the afternoon is likewise chronicled elsewhere. Dekker thus provides social historians with a glimpse into Shrove Tuesday’s place in the religious and celebratory calendar of early modern England. The tradition lives on — pancakes are still a typical Shrove Tuesday meal in many Anglican and Lutheran communities, and several cities in England still hold pancake races on the holiday.

So — Who’s up for some pancakes?