Archive for April, 2013

Shakespeare and Pals: The Revenge Play

Monday, April 29th, 2013

This is part 4 in a series of entries about playwrights other than Shakespeare during the “Shakespearean” era.

The most popular play of the Shakespearean era was not written by Shakespeare, but by Thomas Kyd. His play The Spanish Tragedy set the pattern for a whole sub-genre of plays that would dominate the stage for the next 50 or so years: the revenge tragedy.


The Spanish Tragedy was a huge hit, enjoying performances long after Kyd’s early death in 1594, and was performed more often than any of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime. It was also popular in continental Europe, especially in Holland and Germany, where it became was the best-known English play of its time.

The influence of The Spanish Tragedy cannot be overstated. The play includes insanity, murder, suicide, conspiracy, and ghosts, all elements that would appear in lesser and greater plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. They all show up in Hamlet, for example.

Speaking of Hamlet, is has been theorized that one of Thomas Kyd’s lost works was a version of Shakespeare’s great play – written approximately 15 years earlier. Kyd may have also written the anonymous play King Leir, about 10 years before Shakespeare wrote his King Lear. So we may owe a lot of Shakespeare to Thomas Kyd.

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #12

Friday, April 26th, 2013

“He who has a true idea, knows at that same time that he has a true idea, nor can he doubt concerning the truth of the thing.” Spinoza

Unfortunately, bozos are equally without doubt.

Shakespeare and Pals: ‘The War of the Theatres’

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
Clowning around on the Elizabethan stage

Clowning around on the Elizabethan stage

This is part 3 in a series of entries about people other than Shakespeare who were writing plays during the “Shakespearean” era.

 In 1599, playwright John Marston, in his play Histriomastix or The Player Whipped, satirized fellow playwright Ben Jonson by poking fun at his sense of pride.

Jonson responded by brutally satirizing Marston’s use of wordy dialogue in his play Every Man Out of His Humor.

And this, as they say, was war. Or, at least, what became to be known as “The War of the Theatres.”

Between 1599 and 1602, Marston and Jonson underwent a great feud through a series of plays. Thomas Decker and Thomas Middleton got in on the act too. They skewered each other’s work, their writing methods, and even their personalities on stage before the London public. Shakespeare is thought to have alluded to the war in Hamlet:

Rosencrantz: Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid for argument unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.

Hamlet: Is’t possible?

Guildenstern: O, there has been much throwing about of brains.

Some have suspected that this “war” was a publicity stunt, but most historians believe that the competition and personal rivalries were very serious indeed.

Although it was short lived. Jonson and Marston apparently made up, since they wrote Eastward Ho together in 1605. However, Marston got the last laugh: Eastward Ho enraged King James with its anti-Scottish sentiment, and while Marston evaded capture, his old foe Jonson went to jail.

Shakespeare and Pals: The University Wits

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Part 2 in a series of entries about people other than Shakespeare who were writing plays during the “Shakespearean” era.

The University Wits transformed the English stage in the 1590s, just before Shakespeare’s career began. They were university educated and were the literary elite of their day. Members included Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele.

The group likely looked down at the young non-university-educated William Shakespeare. As evidence, University Wit Robert Greene is most remembered not for his plays, but for his early reference of the young Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” in his pamphlet Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit.

The University Wits were a raucous bunch, but they brought a coherence and real intelligence and dramatic power to English theater. They had a fondness for heroic themes, and created epic works for the stage.

But they definitely were rowdy. Thomas Nashe received notoriety through his poem informally referred to as “Nashe’s Dildo.”


Thomas Nashe as a jailbird

Robert Greene claimed to have married a well-off woman and to have abandoned her after spending a considerable sum of her money. He lived as a notorious rascal and died from what Nashe called a “banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herring.”


Robert Greene writing in his funeral shroud.

George Peele married a lady with some property which he quickly dissipated. And Christopher Marlowe was an atheist and a spy, and met an untimely end that we’ll get into in a later post.

These writers most definitely influenced Shakespeare. Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde was the source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Falstaff is believed to be specifically parodying John Lyly’s ornate language, when, as he says as he plays the part of Hal’s father in Henry IV Part 1:

Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time, but also how thou art accompanied. For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows, so youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears. (Act 2, Scene 4, lines 403-7)

Civil War Generals Week 2: Horsies of the Fighting People

Friday, April 19th, 2013

[Note: this entry was originally posted on April 12, but mysteriously disappeared.]

Over 1,000,000 horses were killed in the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee’s horses included Lucy Long, Richmond, Brown-Roan, Ajax and, his favorite, Traveller. Traveller, who died in 1871, is buried next to the Lee crypt.


Ulysses S. Grant’s horses included Jack, Kangaroo, Cincinnati, Fox, Jeff Davis, Rondy, and Methuselah. Cincinnati, the son of the famous racehorse Lexington, was Grant’s favorite, and he rode him to Appomattox.

J.E.B. Stuart was one of the few generals who lost all his horses during the war.


1 Plug Ugly A Edward Porter Alexander
2 Dixie B William Tecumseh Sherman
3 Don Juan C David McMurtie Gregg
4 Rifle D Philip Sheridan
5 Pretty E Stonewall Jackson
6 Lookout F Philip Kearny
7 Little Sorrel G Joseph Hooker
8 Moscow H Alpheus S. Williams
9 Handsome Joe I Daniel Sickles
10 Winchester J Isaac R. Trimble
11 Duke, Dolly, Sam, & Lexington K Richard S. Ewell
12 My Maryland L John Sedgwick
13 Grand Old Canister M J.E.B. Stuart
14 Jinny N George Armstrong Custer
15 Fleetfoot O Walter H. Taylor


[Answers: 1) H, 2) A, 3) N, 4) K, 5) C, 6) G, 7) E, 8) F, 9) L, 10) D, 11) B, 12) M, 13) I, 14) J, 15) O]


William Shakespeare and pals

Friday, April 19th, 2013

We tend to view William Shakespeare as writer above all others. What we don’t think about so often is that if there hadn’t been a Shakespeare, his time would still have produced great theater, and perhaps several of the playwrights who are concealed by his shadow would have had their day in the sun.

As it is, the world of Elizabethan theater existed well before our modern concept of an author. These playwrights collaborated, stole from each other, and acted in each other’s plays. Whether they were addressing the same subjects, mocking each other’s style, trying to one-up one another, or even writing a sequel to another author’s play, they were constantly engaged with each other’s work. It’s more accurate to say that the Shakespearean world created Shakespeare than to say that the culture of Shakespearean England was created solely by the Bard of Avon.

In our next several posts we’ll be writing about some of the lesser-known playwrights from the time of Shakespeare. They were certainly an interesting bunch, and we’d like to encourage you to read some of their plays. Many of the ones that survived are available online. And dramatists, take note! It’s been a long while since we’ve seen a good production of The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay or The Battle of Alcazar or Women Beware Women.

"Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern," painting by John Faed, 1851. The painting depicts (from left in back) Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont, (seated at table from left) William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.

“Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern,” painting by John Faed, 1851. From left in back: Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont. Seated at table from left: William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #11

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

“Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” David Hume

Unless you’re a woman  then you can just go ahead and be totally philosopher.

Civil War Generals Week 2: Miscellany

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

General George H. Thomas was a Virginian who chose to join the Union cause. On the day the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, he informed his family in Virginia that he intended to remain in federal service. They promptly disowned him, turning his portrait to face the wall and refusing to forward his belongings. They should have been tipped off years earlier when he broke the law by teaching his family’s slaves to read. Unfortunately due to his Virginia roots, Thomas wasn’t trusted in Washington and he didn’t rise very far.

William Tecumseh Sherman was the death of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston – in 1891! Critical of his fellow Confederates after the war, and close to Sherman, Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. Despite the chilly and rainy weather, Johnston refused to wear a hat out of respect to his friend, and caught pneumonia and died.

Joseph Wheeler is the only Confederate general buried at Arlington Cemetery, in recognition to his service with the US army in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.

Louisiana native Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard grew up speaking French and did not learn English until attending school in New York at age twelve. He opened the Civil War, when, under orders from Jefferson Davis, his batteries began the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. So we can kind of blame the French for the war.

Civil War Generals Week 2: The Band

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

It’s Civil War Generals Week 2!

Civil War Generals – they’re not just generals from history, they’re also a band.

We really hope that they sing songs about bivouacking.

Civil War Generals Week 2: Generals Who Failed

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Today in 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the American Civil War.

In honor of this historical event, we are presenting CIVIL WAR GENERALS’ WEEK 2!

Our first post this week is about two Generals who weren’t as good at their jobs as Grant or Lee.

John C. Frémont: the man who freed the slaves. Or tried to, until Lincoln stopped him.

John_Charles_FrémontAs commander of the Army of the West, and acting without authorization, in August 1861, Frémont confiscated property belonging to secessionists in Missouri and issued an order emancipating slaves. Stunned by Frémont’s actions and concerned they would hand Missouri to the South, Lincoln immediately directed him to revoke his orders. Refusing, he dispatched his wife to Washington, DC to argue his case. Ignoring her arguments, Lincoln relieved Frémont on November 2, 1861. Though the War Department issued a report detailing Frémont’s failings as a commander, Lincoln was politically pressured into giving him another command.

As a result, Frémont was appointed to lead the Mountain Department, where he suffered a string of defeats. In late June, Frémont’s command was slated to join Major General John Pope’s newly-formed Army of Virginia. As he was senior to Pope, Frémont refused this assignment and returned to his home in New York to await another command. None came.

Ambrose Burnside: Popularity only goes so far.

Burnside was very popular in the army and the private sector but not a very good general. He knew his limitations, yet was resigned to serving as commander since everyone liked him so much.

Lincoln thought Burnside could become a great war general. He was wrong. Burnside always had great intentions, but lost most of his battles and today is remembered more for his facial hair than his military career. In fact, his particular facial hair style is the source of the term “sideburns.”