Shakespeare, Conspiracies & Boycotts, oh my!

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, led me your ears.

(Note, this is a corrected update)

This has been a crazy (and I mean it in the literal sense) week regarding Shakespeare & conspiracies. I’ve been meaning to write this blog post since last Tuesday, after what I was sure would be a calming of the storm, but the crazy is spiraling out of control. Someone is going to get hurt, all because of a Shakespeare play.

In case you have been blissfully unaware, this year the New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production is Julius Caesar; a very modern production, with Caesar having blond hair, a blue suit, and long tie. The play is aimed at a modern audience who just happens to have a sitting president that has dyed blond hair, and seems to only wear blue suites and long ties.

This is not the first time a Shakespeare theater company has depicted a sitting president as Julius Caesar. My friend Jason reminded that in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis also produced a modern retelling of the story, this time with a black man in a dark suit as Caesar. I’m sure if we were to go back in time, we’d find other theaters doing the same thing to other leaders. Modernizing Shakespeare is nothing new. What is new is the outrage this particular production has sparked.

The outrage, the distorted news stories, and silly boycotts are all clear examples of something I have talked about in the past; the dumbing down of America. Though I cannot now think of a better example than this one. It seems everyone is getting this play wrong, and asserting things that are not true, simply because the have not bothered to read the play. Hell if they had bothered to read this cliff notes we’d all be better off. So before we get into the conspiracy and boycott, let’s talk about Julius Caesar, the play.

Julius Caesar is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s first plays to be performed at the newly constructed Globe Theater. Shakespeare’s audience would have been fully aware of the history of Rome, and the controversy surrounding the emperor’s murder. It was a subject of debate at the time and continued to be debated up to the early 17th century. Dante put both Brutus and Cassius, the two main co- conspirators, in the 9th circle of hell as traitors, but by the 16th century, philosophers like Philip Sidney thought Brutus was brave by trying to save the republic (spoiler, he didn’t). Shakespeare seemed to weigh in by giving his audience a play that showed the assassination and its aftermath; both bloody, and both seemingly pointless.

Here is a mini version of the cliff notes version of Julius Caesar:

Several members of the senate, fearing Caesar has become too powerful, decides the only course of action is to assassinate him. They think they will be “greeted like liberators” to quote anther modern politician, but they are not. Anthony, horrified by what they have done, gives a moving speech in which repeatedly calls Brutus “honorable” but clearly means the opposite. The speech works, and results in its intended effect; the crowd calls for the blood of those who killed Caesar. The conspirers, now fearing for their lives ,flee Italy only to be hunted down by Anthony and Caesar’s nephew, Octavius. Realizing they cannot win, Brutus and Cassius kill themselves. In the end all of the conspirers are dead and Roman order is restored.

There are several lesson this play gives us, all of which seem to be lost this week. The first is the error of the lust for power. The Senate, fearing they are losing their collective power of privilege, decides to take it upon themselves to grab it back. And in doing so, act worse than the leader they all fear. The second, is assuming the end justifies the means, or assuming you are in the right. The conspirers are so determined to “save” the republic they assume all will agree with their actions, even if it means getting rid of a beloved emperor. The people turned on them because they miscalculate how the deed is taken by the masses. Thirdly, this play shows what happens when there is a loss of balance of power. When one part of any government becomes too strong, the other side pushes back. Julius Caesar demonstrates this cycle with no defined winners. I could do a whole post about this one topic alone, but we will skip the analysis for another day. My main point to this brief outline is to assert that this particular play is not about the assassination of a leader; rather it is an argument against the assassination of a leader. Anthony’s moving and often-cited speech, along with the death scenes of Brutus and Cassius, are proof of this claim. Anyone who tells you differently has not read the play. And here my friends, is where my ranting begins, or in the words of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know, “here is where it gets crazy”.

Last weekend Fox Faux News reported that New York’s Public Theater was hosting a play depicting the murder of Donald Trump. Clearly knowing nothing about the play, or the history of modernizing Shakespeare, the news site reported this as part of an alarming trend of how the left is disrespecting the president. How they did this straight faced is beyond my comprehension. They seemed to forget this happened to Obama in 2012, and clearly have selective amnesia when it comes remembering that many on the left put up public signs with illustrations of nooses that read “Hang in there Obama”. Where was Fox’s outrage then?

But, it gets even crazier. Last week’s Twitter hashtag game #ShakespeareSunday’s theme coincidentally was ‘Rebellion”. For those who don’t know what I may be talking about, every Sunday hundreds of people engage in a Twitter hashtag (#) game hosted by a an amazing lady (not several as noted before) with the Twitter handle, @HollowCrownFans. This game was started when the first of the BBC Hollow Crowns series aired, and we’ve been playing ever since. The rules are simple. Each week a theme is picked and players use the theme to quote Shakespeare; more often than not, accompanied by a picture that links the quote to our modern world. This is our way of demonstrating Shakespeare’s relevance to the modern world. Because last week’s them was “Rebellion”, Twitter was overrun with bard quotes and Star Wars pictures and memes.

Henry IV, Part 1 Act 5

But, because of the dumbing down of America, Trump supporters smelled a conspiracy between the players and the Public Theater. A call to boycott the hashtag rose up among them. Some even tried to warn New York taxpayers that their money was being used by a group that sought to undermine our democracy by disrespecting our president. Let me put this another way, there are some some on Twitter who think @HollowCrownFans, a private Twitter handle, is owned by unknown left leaning public entity. That’s how fucking crazy this is getting! And now, these same people are trying to connect anything from a playwright, who has been dead for over 400 years, to the anti-Trump movement. This is how insane and ignorant this is getting.

Shakespeare in the park is not only being disrupted and boycotted by Trump supporters, Delta Airline and Bank of America have pulled their support of the theater, even though the play is not a celebration of the death of a leader. Nor is it a call to assassinate the president of the United States. If anyone at Delta or B of A had bothered to see the play they’d know this.

The media is not helping. The News Week’s author, on writing about the production, admits he has not viewed the play. He quotes the director as saying “ Julius Caesar is a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means”. Yet this quote is lost on the author who ignores it and goes on to talk about how the critics have a point. No. They. Do. Not. The director, by choosing to Trump as a stand-in is warning us that, no matter who is in charge, we must always let democracy rule. How much more clearer can this message get?? Yet the author goes on to talk about his own reading and understanding of the play, but his later message is hollow because of his argument against the production of a modernized version of the play. This author claims to have taught Shakespeare, yet he is ignorant of the history of modernizing the plays and worse, shows his ignorance of why plays are often modernized. We modernize them in order to show how relevant Shakespeare’s work is even today, and historically human behavior has not changed much over time. By modernizing Shakespeare we keep him close to us and allow him to continue to teaching us many much needed lesson.

There is no doubt that America is divided today and any little spark tends to result in a firestorm. I get it. But this catering to the dumbing down of America by the media and big businesses is only adding fuel to the fires. I cannot help but laugh at those who are boycotting Shakespeare as they are allowing their own ignorance and hate to shine for all to see. Yet, by the same hand, I fear for our country, as episodes like these are further dividing our country.

No there is no big conspiracy. Shakespeare doesn’t hate Trump, #ShakespeareSunday is a just game for fans of Shakespeare to enjoy, and Julius Caesar is not a celebration of murder. Oh, and I have a new game for you. Its called, #GetoffTwitter&GoReadaBook.

Shakespeare and the first Gothic novel


I’m a big fan of Gothic novels, much to the amusement of my friend Michelle who patiently waits as I scour bookstore shelves in search of a good Gothic read. It does not say much about our American bookstore literary acumen that I have to do this but I have yet to ask for recommendations from an employee without getting that deer- in- the- headlights look. Though a special nod must be given to the employees of Reno’s Grassroots Books for looking the term up and suggesting titles based on their new gained knowledge. Two of the ladies gave me several suggestions, but alas, I’ve read them all.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this genre, let me give a brief description:

A novel that (usually) uses medieval buildings and ruins, castles or monasteries equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. There must be a ghostly or paranormal element to the story, otherwise what’s the point of using castles and ruins? The original Gothic novels offered some mystery or twist but the modern Gothic almost always offers a twist.

Some of the best-known Gothic novels:

The Monk
The Turn of the Screw
Jane Eyre
The Thirteenth Tale

There is even an American sub-genre, Southern Gothic that includes two of my all time favorite novels: Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Life, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gothic novels begin appearing in the late 17th century. It has been widely assumed the genre started with Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 The Monk and was quickly adopted by other writers because of the success of The Monk. Lewis’ novel touched on varying taboo subjects such as rape, blasphemy, incest, and devil worship. It was sharply criticized by the elites and the Church.

Can you imagine the outcry over this? Modern church members wanted the Harry Potter books banned; I can’t begin to imagine what they would have wanted to do with the book or even Lewis himself. But even with the outcry  it was a hit with the general public and remains on the list as the best Gothic novel of all times.

Though The Monk is accepted as the greatest Gothic novels ever written, and mentioned as the first, it is in fact not the first Gothic novel. This honor goes to Horace Walpole and his short novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, first anonymously, as a “found” Italian manuscript and then after becoming a best-seller, as a novel by Walpole (to the disappointment of the general reading audience who thought they had been reading a semi-true account of some long ago Italian horror).

Horace Walpole, 4th earl of Oxford was born in London on September 24th, 1717 and died on March 2, 1797. Walpole was a celebrated writer and collector, though his passion for collecting became an obsession. Walpole bought a small villa in Twickenham in 1747, where he spent years adding turrets, battlements and cloisters. The estate became known as Strawberry Hill. It was here that Walpole housed his collection of curios (more on that in a minute), pictures, and a large library. He opened it up to the public and it is thought that Hill was the stimulus for the Gothic resurgence in English architecture.

Straweberry Hill The villa that became a castle
Straweberry Hill
The villa that became a castle

Today, Walpole is remembered for two things: his prolific letter writing (over 3,000 and counting have been collected) and his supposed offer of payment to anyone who would bring him Shakespeare’s skull. You may remember I wrote about the story of Shakespeare’s missing skull and how an 18th century story, A Warwickshire Gentleman is the only “proof” that Shakespeare’s grave was robbed. It said that Walpole was the one who put the idea out there, yet the folklore says that when presented with the skull, he drew back in horror and declined to purchase it. Given that Walpole as we know from his letters, venerated Shakespeare and had a taste for the macabre, it is strange that he would recoil in horror. On the other hand, actual grave robbing may have been the line even he refused to cross. But then again, it is so far as we can tell, just a story, so I shouldn’t speculate on his motives for declining such an offer.

Yale University houses a digital version of a 48-volume collection of Walpole’s letters. Thankfully they allow users to search through them by category, date, and subject matter. I spent most of the morning reading letters that mention Shakespeare. After just a few minutes it became clear this man idolized the Bard. One of most humors letters I read concerned the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, one of Walpoles’ contemporaries. In the letter, Walpole is exchanging ideas about the famous actor. He argues that while Garrick is a “great” actor, he is terrible writer. “His prologues and epilogues and forty such pieces of trash are below Mediocrity.” He then goes on about Shakespeare: It is said Shakespeare was a bad actor; why do not his divine plays make our wise judges conclude that he was a good one?

I am not sure I follow his argument but I did notice his use of the word ‘divine”. This type of description can be found throughout Walpole’s letters. So, given that Walpole worshiped Shakespeare, would it surprise you to learn his idolatry bled into his work of fiction? Of course not.

I don’t want to give too much away in a review of The Castle of Otranto. I read it last night not know much about it myself, other than Walpole borrows from Hamlet. I don’t want to spoil the unease you may feel when first reading about the sinister plot that begins to unravel early in the novel. The basic plot centers on the castle of the Prince of Otranto. His son is killed on the way to his wedding and very quickly paranormal events shape the next few days. Something is haunting the castle, but what and why are only reveled at the end.

To say this play is based only on Hamlet is wrong. Whoever wrote the foreword for the Di Lernia edition must have never read beyond Hamlet. Walpole calls upon many of Shakespeare’s plays in this short novel. The Prince of Otranto’s wife is named Hippolita, an obvious take on Hippolyta from A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The friar who runs the church next to the Castle is a mirror image of the friar of Romeo and Juliet. One of the guards who is tasked with the unfortunate job of explaining a haunting to the unbelieving Prince has a touch of Dogberry in him. There is even a take on Robert Greene’s charge of Shakespeare as an “up-start crow”. Whoever weds Isabella, it shall not be Father Falconara’s started-up son”.

The only Hamlet like elements of the play are the many deaths either shown or recounted. Death by poison, drowning, and mistaken murder by blade are found in this novel. And like Hamlet, all these deaths seem to stem from a prince who cannot keep his emotions in check.

The Castle of Otranto is an entertaining read, though at times it is unintentionally funny. I don’t know if its because as a modern reader I found the “horror” element lacking or because it is truly absurd. Walpole wrote that the idea for the book came to him in a dream. Perhaps like most dreams, what scares us in our sleep sounds silly when we recount the tale. And speaking of dreams, Mary Shelly also claims it was a dream that prompted her to write her own Gothic novel. The Castle and Frankenstein have another common thread. Both are about “monsters” but the real monsters in both come in human form.

I recommend reading the novel for its Gothic historical value and for the pleasure of seeing how many Shakespeare references you can spot. But if you really like reading history from the perspective of the time, I suggest finding some time to read The Yale collection of Walpole’s letters. In them, there is much ado about everything.

Works cited

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto Di Lernia Publishers, e-book edition
Horace Walpole, The Correspondence with Cole, Yale University online edition

Works Referenced

Rev Charles Langston Vicar of Beoley A Warwickshire Gentleman The Argosy, online thanks to Google Books.
Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford, Encyclopædia Britannica online edition


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