Update on Male Mary Sues and the Great Shakesday Wrap-Up

Hey, all! Here’s today’s thrilling Miss Fickle Reader update:

Alert reader Feliza Casano pointed out this week that the male Mary Sue does, in fact, have a name already: Gary Stu. Thanks, Feliza! If not for you, I would have had to get my ass in gear and look it up myself! Another alert reader, the fine poet, editor, and scholar Courtney Bambrick, mentioned that she’d never heard of the Mary Sue character before reading the MFR post last week. Well, that’s because in poetic circles, Mary Sue/Gary Stu is better known as The Poet. Snerk! But seriously, according to info on the Internets (yes, this time I did manage to get my ass in gear), the term “Mary Sue” originated in genre fan fic, so I’m not surprised that an artist such as yourself, Courtney, would be unaware of it. Poets also tend to focus more on self-awareness and less on narrative and ego flattery. There might be poems out there that are pure, unadulterated, unironic writerly wish-fulfillment, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

In a side note, although the male Mary Sue term is taken, I’m officially trademarking the Mary OOOH! as the name for a female character designed to swoon over the fictionalized version of a male author. (Does the “ooh” look better in all-caps and with an exclamation point? I’m experimenting with format…) Thanks for reading, Feliza and Courtney!

Now, on to Shakespeare: Shakesday has come and gone, and we’re still cleaning up in the aftermath of the big party. I realize I haven’t posted anything more on Shakespeare since his official birthday, but in my defense, I’ve had other things on my mind, including Little Fickle’s birthday celebration. (ACK! He’s getting so old!) At this point, Mighty Tiny Bill seems to have completely written me off. He’s been giving me the cold shoulder for days now, and he’s also started trying to scrape an escape hole through his plastic overlay–ala the Shawshank Redemption–using his action figure quill pen. So far, I haven’t told him that plastic is never gonna cut through plastic. (I figure since he’s a genius, he’ll realize the futility of his plan before too long.) But I do have one last comment I should squeeze in before Shakesday is a hazy memory:

After witnessing the glut of Shakespeare worship (also known as “bardolatry,” in literary circles), you might be wondering why we celebrate Shakespeare so vigorously in the first place. Sure, his influence is immense–unless you completely cut yourself off from any sort of human interaction, you’re likely to trip over at least one allusion to the Bard. Sure, he wrote plays that are still performed, revised, adapted, analyzed, and picked over after 400+ years. But is he really so great? Isn’t Shakespeare now just a cultural obsession that feeds on itself? You could certainly see him that way, especially since his name alone carries so much value. No matter how much we parody or mock or include him in goofy ad campaigns, Shakespeare is high brow. I read somewhere once (don’t ask me where–it’s hidden in the fog of grad school past) that students are often pressured by parents or others to take at least one Shakespeare course in college because learning Shakespeare is a mark of the well educated. But is he worthy, at long last, of all our adulation, or is his preeminence just a myth we maintain because we’ve had it pounded into our brains for so long?

My take on the matter is, yeah, he’s worthy all right. Even though I tend to scoff at some people’s blind worship (especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Shakespeareans–boy, were they ever batsh!t crazy), Shakespeare is without question an astoundingly good writer. I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: most people don’t think about Shakespeare engaged in the act of writing. Many, many of us get caught up in that romantic image of the Elizabethan master, receiving plaudits and admiration with his finished book already in hand. Even Mighty Tiny Bill was designed around this concept–he may have a quill pen in his packaging, but his other accessory, the little book, is already bound, and I’m pretty sure during the Renaissance they didn’t sell blank parchment journals. So between the yet-to-be-inked quill pen and the completed magnum opus, we never get a vision of Shakespeare sitting down and composing. As a literary critic would say, he’s always already done, a genius before he writes a word, because we always see him as having written. (“Having written,” by the way, is the state in which the vast majority of writers would prefer to spend their days. The process of writing is brutal and ugly, whereas Having Written allows you to lean back, sip tequila, and wait for the admiration to roll in.) But of course, the truth of the matter is that he DID produce all those words and images and sayings that pop into our heads almost instinctively now. For one moment in time–a few months, maybe a couple of years–the most familiar books in the English language were actively being shaped on a bunch of manuscript pages that went through the usual trimming and padding and ebbing and flowing that all drafts go through. From all the research I’ve read, and from my first-hand experience actually writing things, the overall writing process is the same for everyone. Writing comes out bad and gets better. And yet, when Shakespeare went through the process, his end result was pure brilliance. I have no idea why that is, and the more I find out about the traces he left of his craft, the more blown away I am by his skill.

For example: did you ever wonder where Shakespeare got the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? They seem a bit out of place in a character list full of Horatios and Claudiuses and Ophelias, don’t they? A little less mythic and a little more family name? One day, I stumbled upon the answer to this question I’d never thought to ask before. I was assembling a syllabus for a graduate course I was teaching on Shakespeare and adaptation, and I needed a solid critical article that would go in-depth into Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What I found was John Freeman’s “Holding the Mirror Up to Mind’s Nature: Reading Rosencrantz ‘Beyond Absurdity’ ” which prefaces an analysis of Stoppard by giving some context about the existential angst that marked both the 1960s and the Renaissance. According to Freeman, along with the sense that time is “out of joint” in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows how history works to shut down not just civilizations but whole schools of thought. To support this idea, Freeman points out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were the names of ancestors that Tycho Brahe, famous astronomer and supporter of the earth-centered theory of the universe, included on the title page of his Epistolae. Brahe’s laboratory, in fact, was located across the sound from Elsinore, the Danish city where Hamlet takes place. By incorporating this minuscule but meaningful detail in his play, Shakespeare manages to link the problems of a decaying kingdom with “the agony and self-doubt of an astronomer who desperately tried to save the orderly and reassuring Ptolemaic system from the challenges offered by the emerging Copernican paradigm” (Freeman 21; see below for a link to the article). In other words, Shakespeare used a throwaway detail–the names of a couple of courtly sycophants–to make an allusion to Renaissance cosmology and social upheaval in a play about the loss of identity in a crumbling world.

Now THAT, my friends, is genius.

I say that in all honesty. I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, either. As soon as I read about how Shakespeare had plucked this near-microscopic convergence of place and subject matter, probably recognizable only to a small percentage of his audience, then added it to a play without comment or explanation, and thus expanded the intellectual landscape of his work, I was convinced that Shakespeare’s mind operated in depths of genius that, for most writers, are not only unknown but also unknowable. He worked in the midnight zone of invention, where minds usually collapse under the weight and density of ideas. Over and over again, Shakespeare makes the tiniest of writing elements have immense, perspective-changing ramifications. Surely if Shakespeare didn’t exist, humanity would never have thought that scholars could study a single author for hundreds of years and still manage to discover new terrain and have new insights on his work.

I consider that genius. I also consider it reason enough to celebrate.

Link to Freeman: http://www.pacificcollegiate.com/apps/download/kAYLjiImQDZdTBb99iNH0zxXni2Mey8rv2nYmaCnPbH2sbfZ.pdf/RAndGAbsurd.pdf

Takin’ a Break from the Shakes

I’ve decided I’m going to take a personal day away from all the Shakesblogging. The lead-up to Shakespeare’s 450th has been fun, and I’d like to squeeze in a few more posts about Big Bill’s special day before I move on to something else. But, man, Shakespeare. Anyone who’s ever studied Shakespeare knows that the sheer amount of material out there will crush you to dust if you’re not careful. It’s one of those paradoxes: you can read forever and never run out of things to discover, but you can also lose yourself to the point where you’re adding “Shakes” to every word you can think of and you’re dropping Shakespeare quotes and allusions like you’re larding the earth with your sweaty fat. (Look that one up, and then see if you can excise the image from your mind.) So I’m going to step away from the Shakesporia if you will (Har!) and spend a little time getting to know some other writers out there. And also play the Simpsons tapping game.

By the way, Mighty Tiny Bill says he did indeed emerge from the womb primed to become the Greatest Writer in the English Language and it’s a sacrilege to think otherwise. Just look at this pictorial evidence that’s hanging in the Folger Shakespeare library as we speak:

Baby Shakespeare

That’s George Romney’s “The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions.” (More info on it can be found here: http://collation.folger.edu/2013/12/mr-folgers-most-expensive-painting/) I’ve tried to point out that this painting is not, in fact, photographic documentation of his early days but is instead a fan pic composed in the eighteenth century, when his fame really started to take off. Mighty Tiny won’t hear it and insists that I’m honor-bound to tear open his cardboard backing and let him track down the proof himself, which he can totally figure out how to do on the Internet since he’s a genius. Nice try, I tell him. If I wasn’t going to let you out for birthday cakes and ale, O So-Called Inventor of the Human, I’m not going to let you out now. And I’m REALLY not letting you out if you keep calling me things like Insolent Wench and Pox-ridden Whore when you don’t get your way. So today, Mighty Tiny isn’t speaking to me. That’s peace enough for now.

Remembering the Shakespeares

So today may or may not be (but most say it is) the day in 1564 when Mary Arden Shakespeare gave birth her third child and first son, William. According to the biographical info on Shakespeare Online (http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearesiblings.html), William’s two older siblings, both sisters, died in their infancy, so little William was the only child of the family for nearly two and a half years, before John and Mary Shakespeare had their fourth child, Gilbert. This was an era when babies were often named after their deceased brothers and sisters, so after the first Shakespeare child, Joan, died a few days after her birth, a second Joan, child number five, was born in 1569. Anne Shakespeare (child number 6) died at age 8. The final two sons, Richard and Edmund, lived to adulthood, Edmund arriving about a year after Anne was buried.

I’m going to lay aside the wacky blogger bullshit for a moment and say that, even though I’ve been studying Shakespeare since high school, and seriously studying Shakespeare for most of my adult life, I never learned much about Shakespeare’s childhood. The information was out there, of course, but most of my teachers were far too absorbed in looking at texts, verses, plots, and fictional people to take a moment to discuss who Shakespeare, the writer of all these words, might have been. In fact, most modern and postmodern (and post-postmodern) critical theory deems an author’s biographical details irrelevant and somewhat intrusive. Historical and cultural contexts are far more important to the formation of a piece of literature, theorists say. The linguistic structures a writer uses, the influence the writer has on others–these are the concerns that really matter. When I became an instructor, I based my method of teaching Shakespeare on the models I learned from. Look at these amazing words, I said. Look at these dramatic constructs, these carefully crafted lines, these explorations of human interaction, desire, ambition, madness, despair. Never once did I step back and tell my students, Shakespeare was born into an incomplete family. This wouldn’t have been unusual, since in Shakespeare’s time people had to make do without antibiotics, clean drinking water, and pasteurized milk. For young William, as the third child in a house that was empty of children, as the eldest but not firstborn, life must have a tap dance around loss and potential loss–his parents’ and his own. His identity was constantly shifting: for his first two and a half years, he was an only child. By the time he was ten, he was one of five. Between age 15 and 16, he went back to being the oldest of four children before Edmund came along and restored the second generation’s number to its former state. Today, we like to discuss the psychology of birth order, of being reared in small versus large families, and how children are socialized with and without siblings. Could anyone back then even speculate about such things, when the structure of the family was always an open question? Growing up, how did you figure out who you were if you couldn’t say who in your family would still be around the next time the plague came tearing through?

Of John and Mary’s five children (those who made it through childhood, that is), Joan was the longest lived, followed by William. He was the first to survive and almost lived long enough to bury the rest. While we’re celebrating the birth of the man who created many of the greatest works of English literature, let’s also try to remember that Shakespeare didn’t tumble into the world as a fully grown, fully realized genius. He had a family, and for the next three decades after his birth, which might have happened 450 years ago today, that family was all he was. I invite you to imagine what the world was like before William Shakespeare, when there were only the Shakespeares, John and Mary, who probably didn’t care about amazing words, whose greatest hope was that their third baby would see the first flowers bloom on more than one St. George’s Day.

Shakesday is Coming

Hello, all! We’re counting down the hours till Shakesday450, which is what I’m now calling Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. (MightyTinyBill finds my new terminology pedestrian, but he won’t complain about anything that boosts his profile even in the most infinitesimal way.) To tide my handful of readers over until the day arrives, here are some fun events happening in and around Stratford-upon-Avon that you can check out if you happen to be in the area, or are about to jump on a plane in the next two or three days…

Violent Fun for the Whole Family!

As part of the Birthday Celebrations on Saturday 26 April the RSC will offer a range of free activities for the whole family, including storytelling sessions, stage fighting workshops and the chance to discover how fake scars and bruises are created.


Yes, that’s right: if your grade-schoolers are interested in looking like they just got mugged, come on down! Or, if they’d rather, pop over to Hall’s Croft, where kids can get in the spirit of the Elizabethan age with an activity called Spots and Boils. Note that this isn’t some sort of cultural miscommunication, like a perfectly good dessert being named “spotted dick.” Nope, this actually involves having your children get painted with oozing plague sores.

Spots and Boils

Transform yourself into a plague victim with our face painters and learn all about the diseases that afflicted both rich and poor in Jacobean England.


Just look how much fun that kid is having! Being transformed! By a makeup artist dressed like the Angel of Death! Wake up the kids, Ma! We’re heading for the Old Country!

Hang Out with a Giant, Clothed Female Puppet, Because…Shakespeare!

If you’re not so sure about the sword-wielding and sackcloth, why not catch the People’s Pageant, which is also on April 26th? This year’s celebration will be led by a 20-foot-tall puppet of Lady Godiva (fully clothed–sorry, Shakespervs!). Why would a huge, clothed, marionette version of a famous, historical naked woman be the grand marshal for one of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday bashes, you ask? Why, because both Shakespeare and Godiva came from the English midlands, and because Lady Godiva was a woman…and, um…Shakespeare wrote about women.

I’m not kidding. Those are the reasons the organizers are giving for Puppet Lady Godiva’s appearance. See for yourself…

“There is a natural symbiosis between Godiva’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations – both were famous historic characters from the Midlands whose legends live on in our imaginations,” said Marion Morgan of Stratford Birthplace Trust and co-ordinator of the People’s Pageant.

“Godiva was a strong and principled character, the kind that Shakespeare wrote about, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s five properties – Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Nash’s House, Halls Croft, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage & Gardens and Mary Arden’s Farm – all have strong associations with the women in his life,” she added.


Yes, there’s always a reason to jump on the Shakespeare bandwagon. Got a giant puppet? Metal spikes on sticks? How about some fake blood and black pustules? Climb aboard! We’ll work you in somehow!

Strangers with Sonnets

But perhaps you’d prefer something more genteel. How about a Sonnet Walk? As of right now, you can travel up to London, where Shakespeare’s Globe will re-create for you the courtly art of sexual harassment, leading you around town and “accidentally” running into attention-starved actors spouting Shakespearean sonnets.


If you read that last sentence and thought “I like the idea of paying a professional to stalk me, but London seems too big to provide the suffocatingly creepy, surreal atmosphere I crave,” head over to the Sonnet Walk in Guildford, where, “armed with just a map and a good dollop of bonhomie,” you’ll find yourself “encountering Shakespearean actors in the least likely of places.”


The Guildford Shakespeare Company even includes a “warning” that proclaims, “Enjoyment of Sonnet Walks may be highly contagious, resulting in uncontrollable laughter and a desire to see more Shakespeare!”

Hah! How amusing! On second thought, we’ll be locking the door to our hotel room now. Please text us when the police have cleared the streets of you Shakesloonies…

450 is coming! But when?

This year is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, and countless Shakespeare devotees will be celebrating on April 23rd. Note that I didn’t say his birthday is on April 23rd. Know why? One of the secrets they let you in on when you’re a Serious Shakespeare Scholar is that Shakespeare’s birthday is only assumed to be April 23rd. We have records that say the Bard was baptized on April 26th, and based on how many days it usually took Renaissance parishes to set up baptisms, scholars have settled on the 23rd as the most plausible day he was born. But that’s not the whole story: said scholars (who are inevitably worshippers at the Altar of Bill) also prefer the 23rd as the official birth date because a) we do have records stating that Shakespeare died on April 23rd, 1616, and b) April 23rd happens to be St. George’s Day—the same St. George who is the patron saint of England. So you set up two quasi-mystical effects by naming April 23rd as Shakespeare’s official birthday: the full-circle effect, by having Shakespeare’s birth and death occur on the same day (also handy for those in Stratford and elsewhere already planning Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary in 2016), and the Saint Shakespeare effect, by implying that the patron saint of English literature was born on the feast day of the patron saint of England. That’s a hefty load of significance to drop on one random day in April. But if there’s one takeaway from all this—one thing you can use to irritate Shakespeare nerds and pseudointellectual hipsters alike—it’s that all these amazing coincidences are valid IF Shakespeare was born on the 23rd. The 23rd is a heavily biased guess on the part of Shakespeare scholars. We don’t know when Shakespeare was born, and we probably never will.

Mighty Tiny Bill is starting to get feisty on his shelf. “Of course I was born on St. George’s day!” he squeals in his elfin countertenor. “I am the Alpha and Omega of English letters! Remove me from my transparent prison so you may bow down before me and bask in my Immortal Fame!”

Sorry, Mighty Tiny. You were manufactured, when, in 2005? You have no idea when Big Bill was born. You have no idea when I was born. Your argument is crap. You stay in your Original Packaging.

Mighty Tiny’s plastic box pops up and down on the shelf like microwave kettle corn. I, meanwhile, intend to sleep like a baby tonight.