Monday, 22 August 2016

WS ABC Richard III - Special memorial Blog

                                            Richard III

Today, August 22nd is the 531st anniversary of the death of King Richard III. This king, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, was killed at Bosworth Field, Leicester, UK trying to defend his country from the usurper, Henry, Duke of Richmond. Although this minor aristocrat was one of several who claimed the throne, he was the one who succeeded.
                                             Henry VII
Henry was a direct descendant of Henry V's wife, Catherine, who, after this king's untimely death from dysentery, married Owen Tudor, one of her serving men. Owen's son, Edmund became the father of the future Henry Tudor, Henry VII.

Richard III (1452-1485) was the younger brother of Edward IV and played a key role in helping his brother regain the throne from Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses. Richard was appointed Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of Edward IV's, son Edward V when Edward IV died in 1483. Soon after, Edward V and his brother, Richard Duke of York - 'the Princes in the Tower' - disappeared and Uncle Richard was crowned King Richard III.

He was suspected of killing his nephews so that they could not inherit the the throne even though, due to their illegitimacy, they would not have been allowed to do so in any case. 

Bosworth Field, Leicestershire, today.

Richard III's 'White Boar' flag at Bosworth Field today

'Richard's Well', Bosworth where he was reputed to have drunk   before his final battle. (Author's photos)

Richard reigned for only two years, 1483-85 but despite his popularity in the north of England, he was unable to win broad-based support as king. When Henry defeated him at Bosworth Field, this was his second attempt. Richard fought and died bravely and even Henry VII's official historian, Polydore Vergil, described Richard as a valiant warrior.

Shakespeare, whose play Richard III has permanently blackened Richard's reputation, has written the best and most effective piece of propaganda ever. Our William had vested interests in doing so. Assuming he wished to keep his head on his shoulders, or at least stay out of the Tower of London, Shakespeare had no choice but to describe Richard as 'a bottl'd spider, that foul hunch-back'd toad.' How could Shakespeare have written that his queen's grandfather, Henry VII, an anointed king, had killed another good and anointed king? Richard just had to be a 'foul defacer of God's handiwork.' 

Statue of Richard III today outside Leicester Cathedral (left) and his tomb in thee cathedral below.
(Author's photos)
Interestingly enough, even though Richard reigned for only two years, he is one of the most studied and intriguing of English kings. For many years there has been a thriving international Richard III Society and much noise was made when this maligned king's body was found buried below a parking lot in Leicester in September 2012. His body was found below the letter 'R'. His remains were re-interred in Leicester Cathedral complete with full royal and religious honours in March 2015. 
            King Richard III in the centre of Leicester today.

I will write more about the man and Shakespeare's ever popular play, Richard III, later in this blog, i.e. when I reach the letter R. Please, kind gentles, do be patient.

Will return to Shakespearean cartoons next time.
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WS ABC Part 19 - Shakespeare Cartoons

There are many ways of judging how popular a writer is or for how long his/her name and reputation stay with us over the years. This may be done through the quantity of their sales; how many times their books are turned into films or plays or perhaps, how many of their most famous lines and quotes enter the language on a regular basis.

If we take the above criteria into account, it is obvious that our Will beats them all. His name is known by all, his plays have been turned into dozens of films and speeches and lines such as, there's the rub, pomp and circumstance, it was Greek to me and he has eaten me out of house and home have become a standard part of our everyday parlance. 

And not only that, but dozens of authors have used Shakespearean phrases as the titles of their books. William Faulkner took The Sound and the Fury from Macbeth, J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan wrote Dear Brutus, Somerset Maugham took Cakes and Ale from Twelfth Night and Dorothy Sayers wrote a novel called Gaudy Night, its title coming from Antony and Cleopatra. 

Perhaps another way of judging how perennially popular the Bard is, is to see how many times, the Man from Stratford and/or his plays and sonnets appear in cartoons in newspapers and magazines. If you look at Google, you will find pages and pages of them. I have chosen only a few here to make my point. What is interesting is, that even if the reader cannot identify the exact speaker or action in the cartoon, he or she will recognise that it is based on Shakespeare and his works.

Which play and character appear the most in these cartoons? From a quick survey of the many I have looked at I have come to the conclusion that the "To be or not to be" speech and the graveyard scene from Hamlet are the most popular with cartoonists.

Here is a sample selection: 

Note: This idea has appeared in several variations.

And now for the graveyard scene:

And as it says at the end of the "Tom and Jerry" and other cartoons, "That's all folks!"

Next time, more cartoons from the Sonnets, Richard III et al.
Comments: and

Friday, 19 August 2016

WA ABC Curse and Shakespeare - part Two

Perhaps the most famous curse in the Shakespeare canon is not a specific profanity hurled at someone, but a curse connected to a whole play. The play I am referring to is Macbeth. In the world of the theatre it is considered to be extremely bad, and even dangerous to mention the name Macbeth back stage or while the play is being performed. Instead it is usually referred to as 'the Scottish' or the 'M' play' or something similar. Just don't call this play by its name. Why? Throughout the history of this play's productions, many terrible and fatal things have happened.

* During the play's first performance in 1606, Hal Berridge, the    boy playing Lady Macbeth, died backstage. According to    
   tradition, our Will took over and played the part.

* In 1672 in Amsterdam, the actor playing Macbeth used a real    dagger and in front of the audience, killed the actor playing    

* In 1865, the newly re-elected President Lincoln met up with a   few friends to read the play. The following night he went to   
  Ford's theatre and.... the rest is history.

* In 1937 at the Old Vic theatre in London, a 25 pound weight   
   came crashing down from above the stage narrowly missing   
   Laurence Olivier who was then playing Macbeth. During this 
   same production, the director and the actress playing lady  
   Macbeth were involved in a car crash and the famous    
   actress, Lilian Bayliss died of a heart attack on the day of the      dress rehearsal.

* In 1942, the actor John Gielgud produced a very fatal version    of the play. Three actors - Duncan and two of the witches -      
   died and the set designer committed suicide.

* In 1947, the actor, Harold Norman was stabbed to death as 
   someone had substituted a real  dagger for the false one.

* In the 1950s in Moscow, actor Paul Rogers, playing Macbeth,    clashed so violently with Macduff that his claymore    
   (broadsword) flew out of his hands. It stuck in the seat where    President Kruschev was destined to sit three hours later.

*In 1954 in Dublin, the company manager broke both of his    
  legs; the stage electrician electrocuted himself and the actor    
  playing Banquo committed suicide. 

* In 2001, in a production by the Cambridge Shakespeare   
  Company, Lady Macbeth hit her head; Ross broke a toe;   
  Macduff injured his back and two trees fell down which   
  destroyed the set.

* Other Macbeth calamities include: 
   Charlton Heston suffered from severe burns when his tights,      accidentally soaked in kerosene caught fire.
   Actress Sybil Thorndyke, playing Lady Macbeth  was nearly      strangled by another actor.
   Paul Schofield, Orson Welles and Stanislavski were also   
   injured in some memorable way.

* However, all of the above pale into insignificance in 
   comparison to what happened in 1849 in New York. Two 
   different and rival dramatic companies both staged Macbeth      one evening. A riot broke out between the rival groups of   
   spectators and as a result, TWENTY PEOPLE died!

Is there a cure for this curse? Fortunately there is. 
Anyone found uttering the 'M' word in a dressing room has to leave the room, turn around three times and ask for permission to re-enter. They may also be asked to quote a line from Hamlet, (Act I, sc.iv) "Angels and ministers of grace defend us."
                *                    *                    *                   *

Finally, there is the famous curse that is written above Shakespeare's grave in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon. This curse was probably written to prevent anyone disturbing the grave in order to use this site for another burial. The following true story proved that this curse worked.

In 1852, Delia Bacon, (1811-1159 an American English literature teacher from New Haven, Connecticut, sailed over to England to prove that Sir Francis bacon (no family connection) was the real author of Shakespeare's works. One night she entered Shakespeare's church in Stratford with a pick and a spade, with the idea of digging him up. One look at the curse written on the stone above his grave persuaded her otherwise. 

She returned to her lodgings, became ill, and later sailed back to the USA. There she wrote a long 600-page boring book,  Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespere Unfolded, a tome that sold very few copies. Soon after this she went mad and died in an asylum. Her book became the first serious book tat claimed that our Will had not written the works attributed to his name.
Some curse!

Next time, to lighten up, a few Shakespearean cartoons.
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Saturday, 13 August 2016

WS ABC Part 17 Shakespearean Curses -1

OUR FRIEND MR. SHAKESPEARE WAS DEFINITELY NOT A GENTLEMAN, at least, when it came to using, er, ripe language, curses and bawdy in his plays. Many academic tomes and popular works have been written about this, but within the next few paragraphs, I'm going to just give a cursory outline about this salacious aspect of the Bard's writings. 
Language changes. In Shakespeare's time, cursed or curst usually meant: bad-tempered, cantankerous, cross and irascible.
For example, the peevish Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew is referred to as, Kate the curst and Lady Percy in Henry IV (Part 1) talks about thick-ey'd musing and curs'd melancholy,when referring to how her husband has been treating her.

Bearing this in mind, it should also be remembered that our William was one of a dozen shareholders in the Globe theatre. That meant that if they were to show a profit, they would have to pack the crowds in. The population of London during his lifetime was about 200,000. This meant that a) his theatre had to have a fast turnover of plays, b) it had to show plays that were attractive so as to rival other theatres and forms of public entertainment, such as bear-baiting and c) the plays themselves had to be 'crowd-pullers.' As the saying goes, "bums on seats is cash in pockets." This was as true then as it is today when it comes to talking about public entertainment - as well as for financing colleges and courses etc.

To make sure that the crowds would indeed be pulled in, apart from writing some of the finest English that has ever existed, our William had to appeal to the lowest common denominator and write some pretty humourously ribald scenes which contained colourful curses, intimate insults and extreme execrations. Without going into the subject too deeply, these expletives were not deleted and a large percentage of them were to do with sex, love and marriage.
On the first page of one of my favourite Shakespeare reference books, Shakespeare's Insults: Educating Your Wit, Wayne F. Hill & Cynthia J. Ottchen say, "People need insults. Most people behave so abominably that they cry out for abuse. Charity moves us to meet this need. Abuse is a form of attention, and a little accommodating attention makes anyone feel human again." The authors go on to say that "Shakespeare gets the last word," and he certainly does. Who else could include enough blasphemous gems such as valiant flea, foul and ugly witch and whoreson cullionly barbermonger to fill a 308 page book? It is true that many of the Bard's choicest obscenities are dated. Who today would feel insulted if someone hurled king of codpieces at them or called them a most profane coxcomb?
However, it is only recently that we have been able to appreciate and be fully aware of, i.e. to see, hear and read the full range of the Bard's oath-filled quill. When another of my favourite Shakespearean reference books, Shakespeare's Bawdy was published in 1947, its editor, Eric Partridge, wrote in the 1968 edition, that when this book first appeared, only one thousand copies were printed at the cost of two guineas per copy. Partridge noted that for this sum you could then buy forty-two Penguin paperbacks.  Fortunately this book sold well and today it is easily accessible via your local bookstore, as where I bought mine or through Amazon etc.
A result of this prude attitude meant that school copies of Shakespeare's plays were heavy bowdlerised while scholarly editions of this period often omitted sexual glosses. Even the first edition of the important and (almost) all inclusive Oxford English Dictionary (1888-1928) ignored much of WS's more evocative sexual vocabulary. (On a personal note, my own school 1955 edition of Macbeth was given this treatment in II.iii when the Porter praises and curses the effect of strong liquor, saying that it makes and mars the drinker, it sets him on, and it takes him makes him stand to, and not stand to.") It was only in the 1960s that a more liberal attitude to the Bard's sexual references and ripe language became more accessible in school editions and other academic works.   

Next time: A cursed WS play and how Shakespeare's own  personal curse affected an American school mistress.

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Saturday, 6 August 2016

WS ABC Part 16: Comedy & Comic Relief

In A Shakespeare Companion, F.E. Halliday says that Shakespeare wrote fourteen plays which appear in the Comedy section of  the First Folio (1623). Since then, scholars have divided them into four sections. Those written between 1593-97 include:

                                    From the 'First Folio.'

The Comedy of Errors
The Taming of the Shrew
Two Gentemen of Verona
Love's Labour's Lost
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Merchant of Venice

Much Ado About Nothing
The Merry Wives of Windsor
As You Like it
Twelfth Night

All's Well That Ends Well
Measure for Measure

The Winter's Tale
The Tempest
(Note: 'Cymbeline' is listed as a tragedy and 'Pericles' isn't listed at all.)
And they all lived happily ever after - the Kenneth Branagh film                            of "Much Ado About Nothing," 1993.

In addition to the above chronological breakdown, the comedies may also be divided up into Early Comedies, (Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew etc.) Romantic Comedies Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It etc), Problem Comedies (Measure for measure, All's Well That Ends Well) and the Dark Comedies.

Comedy in Shakespeare does not usually mean side-splitting hearty laughter jokes or Laurel  and Hardy style pranks. As Sir John Davies writes, Shakespearean comedy is not that of 'loud laughing' but of 'soft smiling.' It is also more likely to be the final situation where order has been restored to a romantic couple or a family or two after they have been through a tough time. This may have been the result of mistaken identities and disguises, (the shipwrecked Viola falling in love with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria in Twelfth Night) lovers' quarrels, (Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) or separation and unification (separation of the twins in The Comedy of Errors).
             A case of mistaken identity - Titania and Bottom in 
                           "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The classical solution to the aforementioned and other unhappy situations is the ultimate discovery of the truth by the main characters often resulting in one or more marriages in the final scene. This means that plays which include some very grim scenes such as The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure are usually categorised as Comedies. In the first play, Lorenzo and Jessica are given the "special deed of gift" forced from Shylock, while in Measure for Measure, Claudio marries Juliet and Duke Vincentio sues for the hand of Isabella.

Sometimes the solution to the lovers' problems may be brought about by an outside source, such as a clever priest or a clown who is in fact wiser than the people he works for. In Much Ado About Nothing, it takes Friar Francis to bring about the reconcilliation of Claudio and his now estranged and reportedly dead fiancee, Hero. Similarly, WS also uses this same 'clever friar' device in Romeo and Juliet to bring the young lovers together, but unfortunately this does not lead to the same happy conclusion.

One of the most important aspects of WS comedy is that it often pokes its head into the middle of his Tragedies as well.
It is as if WS realised that his audiences needed to see some comic relief to lighten up the tragic stage. Many of his Tragedies contain comic scenes which apart from adding yet another layer to the plays also inform the audience of another important part of the plot. There is the country bumpkin who breaks up the tension in Antony and Cleopatra; the comments made by the ribald nurse in Romeo and Juliet and of course, the well known examples from Macbeth and Hamlet.
         The drunk Porter in Polansky's film of "Macbeth," 1971

In Macbeth this comic relief comes after Macbeth has killed King Duncan. It is in the middle of the night and the drunken Porter gives a long soliloquy about the affect of strong drink. After being asked by Macduff:

What three things does drink especially provoke?
The garralous Porter replies:
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep and urine.
Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes;
It provokes the desire but it takes away the performance.

From here, the Porter continues with his humorous speech about the power of drink until he is stopped by Macduff who asks him whether he can speak to Macbeth.
Laurence Olivier in his own 1948 production, contemplating on                                            the skull of Yorick.

Another classic example of comic relief occurs towards the end of Hamlet. In the last scene of Act IV, when Gertrude gives a 
graphic description of how Hamlet's girlfriend, Ophelia, "the poor wretch," who has been found drowned. In the next scene the action jumps immediately to a churchyard where two clowns, i.e.grave-diggers, are philosophising about Ophelia's death and the affects of water and death. They also exchange grim riddles, such as:

Clown 1: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason,   
                 the shipwright. or the carpenter?
Clown 2:  The gallows maker, for that frame outlives a thousand 

This dark humour continues when Hamlet and Horatio come and after further word play and puns with the gravediggers, Hamlet finds the king's jester's skull and begins the speech,
"Alas, poor Yorrick! I knew him well..." From the gravediggers' witty exchange, Hamlet then talks about death and that all men, great or small, including Alexander [the Great] and 'Imperious Caesar' in the end are transformed to dust and clay.
Thus Shakespeare finds humour, even black humour, in all situations; the romantic, the politic and even in where it is least expected - in death.

Next time: Curses.
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Sunday, 31 July 2016

WS ABC Part 16 The Wicked Uncle Claudius in "Hamlet"

Food for thought:
CLAUDIUS in "Hamlet" is a strange name for one of this play's central characters considering that this man was a Dane and not a Roman. WS did write about another actor called Claudius, but this one was Julius Caesar's servant and so the name, Claudius, seems apt there.
                                 Basil Sidney as Claudius

I have called Claudius, the 'Wicked Uncle' in the title of this blog but was he really such a bad man? It is true that he murdered his brother, the King Of Denmark - "a Hyperion to a satyr" to become king in his place and he also seduced the dead king's wife, Gertrude to become his wife. In addition, he is out to murder Prince Hamlet, but does this make him a 100%
evil villain?
                                  Clare Bloom as Gertrude

Even though WS describes him as an "incestuous,murderous, damned Dane," "a vice of kings" and a cutpurse of the Empire,"
his love for Gertrude does appear to be genuine. At the end of Act IV he says in a long speech that

                          She's so conjunctive to my life and soul
                          That as the star moves but in his sphere,
                          I could not by her.
                                 Derek Jacobi as Claudius

He is honest enough to recognise that his "offence is rank" and that it "smells to heaven" but that he will not mend his ways with God because he refuses to give up what he has gained from his murderous activities. He is willing to pay the price for what he has done. C.L. Stockton says that in some ways he is more heroic than Hamlet. He manipulates fortune, takes what is not rightfully his but remains unapologetic. In contrast, Hamlet's conscience is torn about killing Claudius and because of his anguished vacillation -"To be or not to be" - six innocent people die before he finally makes up his mind to remove his uncle from this"mortal coil."
     Claudius minutes before "shuffling off this mortal coil."
Both Claudius and Hamlet believe that the end justifies the means and as Stockton says, they 'both ultimately sacrifice humanity and humaneness in the acquisition of their goals.'

However, the main difference between the two is that Claudius is wrong and Hamlet is right. It is Claudius who has deliber-ately murdered, lied and seduced to become king, whereas Hamlet, who has also murdered in order to achieve his aims, has done so at the price of his agonised conscience. In contrast to his step-son,  who seeks contrition and absolves himself of guilt before he dies, Claudius has subverted his conscience, does not seek or receive any absolution and will burn in Hell. Hamlet will spend his eternal life in Heaven.

When we first meet Claudius, he seems to be a moderate and confident ruler. His speech is smooth, perhaps a little too smooth, too glib as he uses such phrases full of oxymorons such as: "wisest sorrow,"  "defeated joy and "with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage." It is only in Act III that he reveals his guilt, and then it is only in a brief speech to Polonius:

Polonius: 'Tis too much prov'd, that with devotion's visage,
                 And pious action, we do sugar o'er
                 The Devil himself.
Claudius: O 'tis true!
                  How smart a lash that speech doth give my                 
                  The harlot's cheek beautied with plastering art
                  Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it,
                  Than is my deed, to my most painted word.
                  O heavy burden. (Act III. sc.i) 
            Hamlet wondering if to kill his wicked Uncle Claudius.

Claudius may be associated with Macbeth, another tragic hero  and tortured king with a conscience. In Who's Who in Shakespeare, Peter Quennel and Hamish Johnson say that 'Claudius is Shakespeare's most complex, and subtly rendered, villain.'

Finally, in the original 12th century Historica Danica by the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, Claudio was called Fengo and he incestuously married Agrippina. She then murdered him so that Nero could become the emperor. WS may have based his play on this or from one or several derivatives, such as Ur-Hamlet, possibly written by his contemporary, Thomas Kyd, but lost in 1594, or from a French play written in 1570, which appeared in Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques.

Next time: Comedies & Comic relief.
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Sunday, 24 July 2016

WS ABC Part 15 - Cleopatra

If a modern newspaper were to sum up Antony and Cleopatra, it would probably say something like:
           Beautiful Queen of Egypt takes her life:
          Found dead in bed clutching a snake.        
         Cleopatra shattered by the death of her 
                        lover, Mark Antony

So who was Shakespeare's Cleopatra? To sum up his play in a few words, Cleopatra was the Queen of Egypt and the mistress of Antony, one of the rulers of ancient Rome. She traps him in a 'strong coil of grace,' and gradually saps his resolution as he becomes more and more besotted by her. Eventually this leads to his total ruin. When he loses the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra's ships desert him and he retreats to find solace with her in Egypt. There he commits suicide and dies in her arms. For her part, Cleopatra does not want to be exhibited as the prisoner of Antony's arch-enemy, so she takes the easy (?) way out and allows herself to be poisoned by a deadly snake.

This play, which has been categorised as a 'problem play' but is more often referred to as a tragedy was probably written in 1606-07 by Shakespeare. He probably based it on Plutarch's Life of Marcus Antonius which was a part of the larger Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Sir Thomas North had translated this into English thirty years earlier and much of this latter work found its way into WS's play.

One aspect of this drama is that ot the compression of time. Here, WS had to squeeze several decades' worth of events into a few hours on the stage while he also took some licence with the characters. Mark Antony is far older than the character he  played in Julius Caesar and Octavius Caesar, a minor part in the latter play, is now a major player. Cleopatra's attendants, Enobarbus and others, like Banquo in Macbeth, are Shakespearean creations, but the major historical events depicted really did happen.

Apart from various representations of Cleopatra on coins, as statues and carvings, we don't know what she really looked like.
All we do know is that Antony fell for her in a big way and that over the past few hundred years, she has always been depicted both in paintings and in film as a very beautiful and alluring woman. (See pictures here and in Google.)

As Norrie Epstein writes in Friendly Shakespeare, 'this play is five acts of hyperbole.' Everything in it is 'overripe to bursting. It's the most voluptuous play that Shakespeare ever wrote.' What we have to keep remembering today is that this major female role was played by a young boy - a boy whose voice hadn't yet broken. Apart from anything else, this meant that there could be no physical intimacy on the stage. All of the play's sexuality had to be poured into the luscious imagery that to quote Epstein again, 'beggars the imagination.' Therefore, the whole success of this play depended a great deal on the boy who acted this demanding role. 

This was true here as it was in his other plays which contained strong female characters such as Lady Macbeth,  Portia (The Merchant of Venice) , Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and Katherine (The Taming of the Shrew).

Finally, as can be seen in this blog, one of the most fascinating aspects of Cleopatra's story is how did she die? Did she commit suicide by being bitten by a poisonous snake as some of the many of the paintings shown here depict, or did she use another method to 'shuffle of this mortal coil?'

Many Roman writers, including Virgil, say she poisoned herself with a snake, whereas Galen, the famous Greek physician, wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that she poisoned herself by introducing poison into an open wound. Two hundred years after Cleopatra died, the Roman historian wrote that Cleopatra died a painless death. More recently, Christophe Schaefer, a professor of ancient history, said in an article (2010) that he is certain that from his research, Cleopatra did not use an asp and that she probably died from a combination of hemlock (like Socrates), wolsbane and opium. And what did WS's source, Plutarch write? He said we can't know the truth except that she definitely did commit suicide. 

However she died, there is no doubt that Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. Since 1908, there have been over eleven film and TV versions produced, some based on the play, and others less so. In 1972 Charlton Heston played the role of Antony, but the most well-known film, loosely based on the whole story, was shown in 1963 and starred Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Antony. This superbly lavish multi-million dollar (overlong?) production was both praised and panned by the critics. However, if you enjoyed this extravaganza or not, it certainly wasn't Shakespeare.

Next time: Claudius, the original wicked uncle from 'Hamlet.'
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