Kings and Queens: Shakespeare’s Histories


Productions of Shakespeare’s histories rely strongly on the casting and staging, far more I think than the comedies. The source material is denser, drier, and often requires that the actors convey a wealth of information to the audience about past or off screen events. While the casts are often small, each actor usually portrays several characters, so it requires much more focus on the part of the audience to keep track of events. I’m sure someone, somewhere tried Game of Thrones style sexposition – putting graphic acts on stage to distract from the dull but necessary context, but it’s not the usual option. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has just concluded the Henriad: the plays concerning the reign of Henry IV and the rise of Henry V. They pulled it off with a strong style that shows an increasing dedication to production values, especially in stage combat and cultivating talent.

While Shakespeare worked to convey history (and as a historian it’s incredibly fun to compare his version to what we know or think from our point in time), he knew his audience would not stand for a dry recitation of kings and their accomplishments. As with much of his work, the histories come alive in the secondary characters, the side stories and counter stories.

Most of the histories hold more than a little darkness: rebellion, regret, murder, or loss. Shakespeare must always walk a line between irreverence and displaying the rulers’ humanity. Take King John, who contemplates killing the young prince who may one day supplant him, only to change his mind. The boy falls to his death during an escape attempt. Was this history or a fabrication to protect the notion of kings as divine and noble? The line of pure evil is skirted but rarely passed (Richard III being the most notable exception). The Henriad has its own sways between good and darkness. Rebels and villains rail, fight, lose and keep fighting. Treachery abounds. More than one noble hero, or prince, falls.

The Henriad focuses its side stories on Falstaff and his cronies, strengthening the story and making it more human since we’re given the regal side of the war beside the common. Falstaff and his clowns reflect the larger story in microcosm but in a funhouse mirror way that helps to understand the weight of the events through a comical and base reflection. The impact of their slackened duty has a real effect, helping to show the weight of Prince Hal’s own wasted time.

Henry V, portrayed throughout the cycle in the Colorado festival the last two years by the same actor (as Falstaff was in 2014), is a complex man. Torn between duty and the desire to enjoy his youth, Shakespeare made a great effort to show Henry’s complexity as he moves from Prince Hal to king. Bit by bit he rejects youthful folly, sometimes with two steps forward and then one step back, to become a conquering king whose rousing speeches (in Henry V) are some of the most quoted in Shakespeare.

I’ve been attending plays in Boulder for some time and lately the company seems to have taken a strong step forward in quality. The players are talented and the direction strong. I’m anxious to finish out the canon in the next few years and see where Boulder goes with the remaining plays on my list.




Shakespeare is one of those traditions I struggle with. As a Literature major, I see the inherit value in the plays, in their study, and I can always return to the themes he worked in. At the same time, those themes are problematic when you consider the mores of the characters against modern sensibility.

The romances are my favorites as they walk the line between tragedy and comedy. By design, they’re more complicated. I never tire of a Midsummer’s Night Dream or the Tempest, but this weekend I got the chance to see Pericles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and it bore the same level of consideration as the others.

First, let me say that I’ve never read Pericles. My professors were just obsessed with Hamlet and King Lear. I think I wrote ten papers on each of those before I graduated. They’re also clear masterworks, there’s no denying that. My relationship to the comedies is also clear: they lend themselves to modern interpretation. The romances though deal with heavy themes.

The OSF playbill gave me some context: that Pericles was immensely popular in Shakespeare’s time, so much so that it was chosen to be the play they reopened with when the Puritans lost their sway. Pericles becomes difficult when you look at it through the modern lens: a daughter is bargained, a woman turns to villainy for petty jealousy, and a near rapist is forgiven without punishment and even rewarded for this “honorable” turn. In this, and in the deus ex machine turn at the end, Pericles is an immensely Greek play and Shakespeare shows his classical leanings.

Yet the story remains compelling, and it does prove less male centric when the focus turns from Pericles himself to his daughter, Marina. In both heroes, there’s an emphasis on their virtue, that by the nature of their natural goodness, they can overcome the terrors the gods have allowed to occur.

The relationship of the gods to the play is one I could ponder for hours: though oft invoked, their intervention is scant and delayed, almost as though they mean to say “Sorry about those twenty years. We were busy.” In this there is also some of what you find in Much Ado about Nothing’s emphasis on the purity of women in that it’s Diana, virgin goddess, who intervenes (and perhaps Her intervention might have differed had Marina now remained chaste).

Regarding the production itself, Ashland always excels. The stage work in Pericles was simple and yet incredible, especially a scene where a pull stage of silk is whisked away to leave the hero shipwrecked. A swaying platform, used to mimic a ship’s pitch and yaw was utilized to great effect, particularly when used to demonstrate Diana’s temple statue, requiring the actress to balance, unmoving for the entire scene.

Pericles itself is a balancing act. It could be played for tragedy or comedy and it would be very easy for the production to sway every way. Ashland did right by it, though as with any of the romances, I’ll need several more viewings to feel like I’ve truly understand it which for me, is what makes it timeless.

Violence In Context


I’ve been really into the street level superheroes: Daredevil, Black Canary, Green Arrow, etc. Watching the television shows built around them has me thinking a lot about violence as a storytelling device, how it permeates pop culture, when it’s an effective storytelling device, and when it’s not.

Violence is so very different on the page. Seeing a scene in a Charlaine Harris novel brought to life on True Blood could make a bloody moment unbearable for me to watch. Unnecessary gore can detract, particularly when it arises out of context. The street level heroes are working the same way, especially Netflix’s take on Daredevil.

The fight choreography is brilliant, definitely a driving point for why I kept watching. The excessive violence was the counter: it made it hard to stick with the series. The question I kept asking myself, as my writer brain kicked in (like it always does, pesky obsession), is whether or not the violence is essential to the story?

In some cases, I’d say no, but for Daredevil, I squeaked out a yes, even as I recoiled from the gore. Daredevil’s world is a violent one. He deals with street level crime and high level corruption. His villains range from stereotypical thugs to suited racketeers willing to get their hands dirty or worse, flip from calm to murderous, which makes them terrifying. The series infused each character with violence, with one or two noted exceptions, and where it touched a “good guy” that character is changed by their actions. Even romantic scenes keep you on the edge, awaiting the terror.

So much violence in fiction washes away the consequences, the physical and emotional impacts it leaves on the characters. Daredevil did an excellent job of letting the wounds linger, both in the form of bandages and stitches, but also in the characters’ psyches. Inflicting violence is portrayed as being as weighty as suffering it.

What I’m Watching – Gotham


Been catching up on Gotham over the last week. I’ll admit I wasn’t interested when they announced it for various reasons: mostly because a adolescent Bruce Wayne didn’t sound very compelling. Gotham, as a city, has always held a fascination for me, but I wasn’t sure a show about Batman without Batman would hold my interest. I tried the first episode a while back, and wasn’t hooked enough to return, but a friend told me to stick with it, and the show has improved over time.

One thing I’ve noted is how Jim Gordon is slowly making a difference. Here and there, his altruism is shining a bit of light into a dully lit space. Characters I’d given up on as fully corrupt are responding to him a bit, showing some good under the blanket of gloom.

The sets are excellently chosen, just the right mix of modern and classic New York. There also seems a dedication to rolling the technology back just a little: about fifteen to twenty years. Cell phones are common, but the televisions are CRTs, not flatscreens. Computers don’t play a very big role in research.

The show’s true strength is in the characters, in the ways they entangle across the city’s map, and in the way those threads get jerked along. The creators are smart to have a broad ensemble to call on, and it helps that they’ve picked talented leads. I also can’t say I’m unhappy to see Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen, characters I loved from the Gotham Central comic, included. I’ll give the show the rest of the season, if only to see how they handle the main, mob war plotline.

What I’m Playing – Bloodborne, a Lesson in Gothic Defeat


Played a little Bloodborne this weekend, a brutal game in the Dark Souls model (and on that same engine). Like any Dark Souls game, I died. A lot. Repeatedly. The repetition is rewarded however when you learn, get smarter, and fight smarter. Bloodborne teaches you. I learned pretty quickly that werewolves aren’t to be fought in pairs.

More than the combat, the style of the game, a gothic setting, a downright creepy soundtrack (that I bought for playing during dnd), and the just overall look of it on the PS4 has me captivated.

Like any Dark Souls game, the exploration is fairly open. There are nooks and bits of landscape off the beaten path, which is one of my favorite features. It reminds me classic RPGs like Ultima or modern ones like Skyrim, where you can pick a direction and just wander (albeit while swinging an axe or firing quicksilver bullets).

Not much time for video games lately, but I’m excited to give this a deeper look.

Food and Grief: Things That Shape Us

I lost an old friend this week. More specifically, I lost an old friend’s mother, a very sweet woman who I hadn’t seen in a number of years, but who left a lasting impression on me. It’s got me to thinking about how we grieve, the rituals we perform, both public and personal.
Were I Greek, I’d make koliva, which I’ll probably make anyway. The lengthy process gives you something do to, something for your hands while your mind works through what’s happened and what you’ve lost.
Food and grief go hand in hand for me. Sushi, of all things, as far from my heritage as that is, always comes up. It’s one way I have of mitigating sadness.
I’d never had sushi before my grandmother died. She was a remarkable, intelligent woman in a world where being intelligent and shockingly well-read was frowned upon. She liked to hide her brilliance in an affected hick manner. People underestimated her constantly, and I don’t think she really cared. The last memory I have of her is at a family reunion. She walked up to me with a cigarette in one hand and a red Solo cup of box wine in the other and said “Why David Ray, how you doing, you little shit?”
After she died, I had a dream. In it I was at sushi with her and my father. I was aware of other tables in the restaurant, but could not see them. They only made themselves known by the slight chink of wine glasses and silverware on the granite tabletop. We were all elegantly dressed, in a way so different than I’d ever seen Grandma. The waiter would occasionally come, offering us a dish. The last time I saw him he announced, “This is the only fish of this kind in the world. This is the only time you will have this dish.”
Grandma laughed at something dad said and I looked at her, realizing that she was dead, that I was dreaming. I understood instantly I did not want to wake up, because she’d be dead again, and gone from me. The moment I thought it, she winked at me, and I awoke.
I’m a vegetarian these days, but I’ll still eat sushi on occasion. I’ll eat it whenever I’m mourning, when I’m sad, or need a reminder of how rare and beautiful a thing life is.
Here’s a koliva recipe, if you’re interested in trying it sometime:

Photogenic Memory: Thinking the Past Was Better Than it Was

One of the pleasures in having a history degree is getting to look for anachronisms in pop culture, period movies and shows that slip up and use the wrong music, etc. The thing with history, especially ancient history, is that it’s always in flux. We’re always revising what we think we know about a place, people or time – new information comes to light every day. History, like any other science, is prone to bias and should be self-correcting by nature.
Being a fantasy writer, ancient ruins hold a particular fascination for me, and yet they never seem to measure up. I seek out obscure temples and sites, like Brauron near Athens, which was a big inspiration in my latest book. But of course the ruins themselves aren’t very impressive: a few columns, no walls, in a marsh. What’s left barely echoes what was, or might have, been. I spent the brief time I was there watching the school children weave their way across the site as the groundskeepers worked tiredly to keep the green from overwhelming the scant, brown remains ancient of Artemis’s Bear Sanctuary.
Yet even in that, there was inspiration. In fantasy we inflate, make bigger and bolder a character’s experiences. A writer’s job is to reflect reality, but also to manipulate that reflection to tell a better story than what’s happening around us.
Ruins and history work much the same way. We twist and inflate them. Sure, history can inspire fantasy, but it doesn’t have to align. I’m always a bit confused when someone says epic fantasy needs to be “historically accurate.” After all, there’s nothing historically accurate about wizards throwing fireballs or dragons incinerating towns. So there’s clearly a line between being historically accurate and telling a good story and clearly a limitation if you allow historical accuracy to overwhelm a fantasy novel’s potential.
We correct our study of the past to correct our understanding, but also to adjust for biases. We can never truly know what it was like to be one of Artemis’s Bear Maidens. We can imagine, and that imagination can be informed by what we know of the time and place.
It took me a long time to stop writing academically when I wrote creatively. It’s taken even a bit longer to realize that a certain level of historical accuracy can provide verisimilitude, but freeing myself from that constraint and adding bolder elements makes my books better. When we try to force a fantasy novel to conform to a past we don’t fully understand anyway, we’re limiting ourselves. The two things are separate. They can be divorced. Let history inform fantasy but not dictate its laws. You’ll get a more interesting story that way.
Note: the photo above is not Brauron, but from Ephesus. All my Brauron photos are missing from my hard drive.

We Need Diverse . . . Everything Really, But Let’s Start with Comic Books

Diversity in fiction gives a reader the chance to see themselves in a character. It opens more readers, more consumers, to the work. Simultaneously, a diverse work reflects the actual world. None of us live in a state of white, straight, non-disabled people, all alike, no differences.
Reading about characters and lives that are unlike your own experience is important to growth, but when you’re considered outside the norm, and there’s no representation, that’s all you get. You’re given an experience that while different, never aligns to your own.
As someone who writes YA with diverse characters, I’ve been thinking about my own experiences with representation, so I want to talk about the Flash. Specifically, I want to talk about what the Flash meant to me when I was fifteen, when DC ran the Pied Piper’s coming out story.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, with parents who shielded me from anything that they thought might increase my likelihood of self-acceptance. And while they did their best to inject my world with BB guns and tackle boxes, they overlooked the books, and I grew up surrounded by them.
While the stories I lost myself in provided escape and perspective, they also left me lonely. There was no representation, just hints, just subtext. I parsed Tolkien for signs that maybe Merry and Pippin were more than just friends. I ripped through Tad Williams’ the Dragonbone Chair, hoping without evidence that maybe the protagonist and the elf prince had a bit more going on than just companions in an adventure. There were hints, always hints, but I needed more.
I was happy and disappointed to read Gene Rodenberry’s novelization of Star Trek the Motion Picture where Kirk states clearly that he has no problem with homosexuality, but that he’s strictly heterosexual. On one hand, it validated me. One of my heroes accepted me. And yet it also left me still alone: one more person accepted, but did not understand me.
When I could find a gay character as a teen, they were usually evil, deviants or serial killers. Yes, I was missing a support system (this was a world before PFLAG or the Internet), but I was also missing representation and that crucial character to whom I could relate.
When Pied Piper came out to the Flash as he’s discussing rumors of the Joker’s sexual orientation, it was a very big deal. This wasn’t a time period when outing yourself was a casual thing, and more telling is the gossip Wally’s engaging in about the Joker. He’s a crazy villain, so let’s throw gay on top of his faults. It’s a trope that still persists in fantasy, that gay = deviant or evil.
For DC, Piper’s outing was a major step. He was taking a risk, that he might lose his friend by telling Wally he was gay. It was something I struggled with. Something I still feel (even if I couldn’t care less now). 

Hartley, the Piper, wasn’t the first. Marvel already had Northstar, and DC had Extraño, years prior, but neither were characters I could relate to. Northstar was an asshole. Extraño was a flamboyant stereotype. Neither was a character I could see myself in. Piper isn’t a hero. He’s not an A-lister, but he’s there, and I clung to even that like a life raft.

As for the Flash, he faced his homophobia, and wasn’t afraid to put his arm around Hartley and call him a friend. It was acceptance from a major hero, and it was also representation. It helped that Hartley was reformed, that his orientation wasn’t tied to his villainy. Reading that issue made my tiny Oklahoma world just a little bit bigger. I felt a less isolated, I got to see that being gay didn’t have to make me fit a stereotype or cost me friends. I could be someone other and still be a part of the world and comics fandom. It gave me a place to run to when my real life squeezed too hard. That representation enriched my world, diversified the DC universe, and solidified at least one lifelong fan.
Piper makes his television debut soon. I’m anxious to watch, hoping they get him right. Comics are about big dreams, heroes running through a fantastic world. It’s always great to know there’s room in that world for someone like me.

A Little Halloween Nostalgia: Mexican Moon

Concrete Blonde was one of those bands I discovered on my own. They had a sound like nothing I’d heard until then, and it resonated with a lonely proto-goth in Oklahoma. I was absolutely thrilled when Bloodletting was re-released a few years ago with the French chorus version of the title song.
Now it’s twenty-five years since I discovered the band, and I’m letting them play while I prep the house for the Trick or Read book event. I had to stop and write this, wanted to share what their music meant to me and how it’s changed for and with me.
Mexican Moon was their last album that I recalled (barring a greatest hits and B-sides compilation a few years later), and it came out when things with my first love were really coming to an explosive end ( I was nineteen, half redneck and half drama queen, there was no other possible outcome),so the CD always held some slices of bitterness for me.
It got a nice redemption a few years ago, when I heard it in Greece. We were in Dimitsana, having breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning and for some reason they were playing Mexican Moon at a low background level. I realized I had outgrown so much of my anger, so much of the frustration I’d felt when the album first came out. And though many of the songs themselves are angry, I was able to just enjoy the music.
Now that day in Greece is a memory, and a good one. I’ve moved past it, and even past the relationship that took me to Dimitsana in the first place.
I’m not that kid anymore, that broken ghost of a boy, but I still enjoy his music from time to time.

David’s Timeline of Marvel Comics Must Reads

I put this together for Lisa and Jenn. It’s my timeline of Marvel must reads for anyone trying to catch up modern Marvel History who wants to augment the movies. A few notes: I left out some great series that while I loved, didn’t really fit in. I also left out the Hulk crossovers because I don’t really follow the character. Also, I labeled all the Cosmic crossovers as “Guardians” since that’s where that team came from. I may edit this as I go. Where I’ve mentioned a specific writer, that means I highly recommend their work.
New X-Men by Grant Morrison (X-Men): Read all of this first.
Captain America by Ed Brubaker*
Madrox by Peter David
Avengers Disassembled (Avengers)
          Young Avengers: (Two Volumes, Sidekicks and Family Matters)
House of M (Avengers/X-Men)
          X Factor by Peter David*
          Ms. Marvel*
Decimation: House of M’s Aftermath (X-Men)
Uncanny X-Men by Ed Brubaker: Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire**
Annihilation (Guardians)
 Civil War (Avengers)
                    –            The Death of Captain America
Annihilation: Conquest (Guardians)
          Guardians of the Galaxy by Abnett and Lanning*
Messiah Complex (X-Men)
Manifest Destiny (X-Men)
Secret Invasion (Avengers)
Dark Reign (Avengers)
          Invincible Iron Man*
War of Kings (Guardians)
Utopia (Avengers/X-Men)
Siege (Avengers)
          Journey into Mystery*
Realm of Kings (Guardians)
Second Coming (X-Men)
The Thanos Imperative (Guardians)
Fear Itself (Avengers/Thor)
Schism (X-Men)
          Wolverine and the X-Men*
Young Avengers: Children’s Crusade
Avengers vs. X-Men (Avengers/X-Men)
* Indicates a series that runs on through several of the subsequent crossovers so should be read in chunks, not in consecutive order.
** Indicates a limited run within an ongoing series.

For Jenn in regards to loaning:
Blue – Indicates Trade I Own
Green – I own some or most
Red – I don’t own, recommend digital