The Muse: How Shakespeare Inspired My Love of Rome (and Vice Versa)

First of all, sorry for missing the “watch this version of the play” addition for this weekend. I was… indisposed. Coriolanus really only has one easily available version, and that is the 2011 version with Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, and Vanessa Redgrave. If you can track it down, Tom Hiddleston’s version of Coriolanus is remarkable, but that’s going to involve… internet detecting. Go forth.

Anyway. On to this week and… *fanfare*… JULIUS CAESAR.

Julius Caesar is not really my favorite play. For that, I have to admit I’m something of a Hamlet fangirl, with Much Ado About Nothing as my favorite comedy and Henry V as my favorite of the histories. But, Julius Caesar occupies a very, very special place in my heart and always–always–will.

It’s the play that got me into Shakespeare. It is also the play that got me into Roman History. And, in a way, they fed into one another. A latent love for both led me to this play, which set off a life-long love bordering on obsession. If not for my very real love of having primary sources at my fingertips, I would certainly have devoted my life to the oh-so-problematic men and women who have captured my heart. Men named Scipio and Agrippa, women named Agrippina and Fulvia, Vestal Virgins and Centurions and… *sigh*

I love Rome.

But back before the passionate love of both the Bard and SPQR, I was just a little girl who loved stories. I can’t even begin to remember the first time I heard Shakespeare quoted or a Roman mentioned. Maybe it was myth–my mother loves Greek myths and, conveniently, so did the Romans–or maybe it was seeing ruins when I was two on a family visit to Turkey (my imagination has always tended to adore old things). I couldn’t tell you. But both Rome and Shakespeare were living in my head from a very young age, latent obsessions just waiting for… something to set them to growing.

Enter: Friends, Romans, Countrymen…

Yeah. That single speech. But, you know, what a speech. What a skillful manipulation, a Masterclass in politics and rhetoric and, of course, writing. Mark Antony is… glorious in that moment. And when I read it, I fell in love. With Antony (which persists to this day, despite a greater understanding of the historical figure). With Rome in general. And with the man who wrote the speech to begin with: William Shakespeare.

I don’t think I fully understood what I was reading at the time. I can’t even fully remember if I read the whole speech at once or if it was a vague series of clips that somehow coalesced into a weird… blob of adoration. But I know it was the speech. I know because I was fifteen before I read the whole play all at once (weird, I know, but it happens). Friends, Romans, Countrymen… Lend me your ears…

It’s so marvelous. Sublime, even.

That speech turned a general awareness and admiration of Shakespeare into a real love (which made me so very popular at school…). I picked up the sonnets. I learned the famous speeches. I (tried unsuccessfully) to enjoy movie versions of the plays (I was still young, and I think maybe Branagh wasn’t the easiest start). Wishbone was still much more my speed, if you want to know about how old I was when this was going on. And I started reading the Dear America books, as well as the royal princess spin-offs (the Cleopatra one left me a bit twitterpated, I tell you), which spawned not into a huge love of historical fiction (I do dabble, though) but of history. And that love, that historical crush, on Mark Antony–spawned by the speech, remember–turned into a voracious love of all things Rome.

I even took Latin in high school instead of something really useful, like Spanish. I live in South Florida, and I do not speak Spanish. Because I took Latin. Which I also do not speak.

I guess I don’t really have anything to say that this whole thing leads to. Just that this one speech in this one play led to such an important part of my life. An important part of me. And next month, when A and I go to Stratford, I will finally–finally–get to see it live. With a lady as Antony, too, so no weird transference of historical crush to actor is in danger of happening. Trust me, it’s happened before. I, like everyone else I know, watched Rome when it came out.

Anyway. This is it for me today. I’ll be back on Friday to pair the play.



The Fourth Annual Goodtime Bestie Theater Vacay! (aka StratFest 2018)

Heyo, everyone! Welcome to this year’s ramp-up to our annual trip to Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Festival. For those of you new to the blog (hi!), or not necessarily new but weren’t with us last year, this is how we prepare for our theatrical experience:

Monday- Introduce a play we’ll be seeing by saying something (hopefully) interesting about it.

Friday- Pair the play.

Saturday- Suggest performances of the play that are available via streaming, Blu-Ray, etc.

Sunday- Something silly about the play. (Though this year, we might forgo this particular venture rather than scour the internet for something sillier about Coriolanus than the name of the play, aka The Anus Play.)

As A is on vacation currently (yes, both of us pretty much went on back-to-back vacations before Stratford. We are young. Who needs to save for retirement?), I’ll be starting first and–depending on her wishes–perhaps doing the first two weeks while she finishes out with the final two. I’m not sure which plays she’s elected to do (one hopes for The Tempest, at the very least), but I have claimed historian’s prerogative and selected Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. Because it’s Rome.

I love Rome.

First up, I want to do Coriolanus. And I want to talk about the historical nature of the play, such as it is. The play, like most anything Shakespeare wrote set in and around the world of the Roman Republic/Empire, is at best loosely historical (Shakespeare was a firm believer in story-first historical fiction), with Titus Andronicus being entirely fictional and Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra more clearly reflecting historical facts. Coriolanus, however, is a much more… interesting play, at least with regards to historical accuracy. This is because, while it follows the historical sources somewhat closely (i.e. Plutarch and possibly even Livy), we actually have to question the historical sources themselves.

Oh, yes. This is happening.

When people talk about the sacking of Rome, they’re usually talking about Alaric’s sack in 410AD. But the history of Rome is actually book-ended by devastating sacks about 800 years apart. The earlier sack occurred round about 390BC (this is dependent, in many ways, on which dating system was used in each source. Livy used Roman dating, Polybius used Greek, etc etc.) following the disastrous Battle of the Allia, in which the Senones (a Gallic tribe) just whupped the Roman Republic and proceeded to sack the city itself. It devastated the Romans, who if nothing else, never actually believed they would lose, and instilled a centuries-long terror of the Gauls that was only really put to rest with Julius Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix. Someone had penetrated their walls. Someone had pillaged their city. Wounded their own sense of invulnerability (especially since they’d had to *gasp* BUY OFF the enemy to leave them alone).

More importantly, it destroyed their records. There is some debate as to whether the city itself was ever burned or destroyed (archaeological debates are the best kinds of debates, people. Everyone brings their ceremonial whip and fedora and it gets dirty), but records were absolutely lost.

Have you ever noticed how early Roman history reads more like myth than history? Romulus literally disappears in, like, a whirlwind and ascends to the heavens as a god. The next couple of kings conveniently represented the piousness and craftiness of Rome (while Romulus represents the pinnacle of Rome), then all the kings get conveniently awful so the Romans are justified in overthrowing them. Tons of battles are won by the valor of a single man. And lots of Romans conveniently mirror their Greek counterparts. Basically, it reads like a narrative constructed with a very specific theme in mind: Roman greatness.

And what does this mean for good ol’ (not-so-good) Coriolanus? It means we have to take the very sources Shakespeare used–the sources the Romans themselves constructed in the aftermath of the Gallic sack, determined to create a thematic narrative–with a hole bag full of salt. Shakespeare actually changed a relatively small amount of the sources he borrowed from (names, a couple details, a more definitive end only hinted at, etc), but he took them at face value. This is the right of any historical fiction writer, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fictional interpretation. It isn’t history. Sometimes, sources have an agenda. In this case, Rome wanted to create a through-line between its founding through to the Republic and the Gallic sack.

Funnily enough, not long after this, when the sources were much more definitive, Rome decided that they were no longer living in the ‘golden age’, when men were men and a man’s word was his bond. Rome had a relationship between martial and pious that was pretty uniquely Roman, and the parts of their history they were able to reconstruct tended to align all their heroes in perfect unity with these ideals. Coriolanus, then, is a representation of a perfect fall from grace and redemption from the ideal Roman man. He is anti-populist (at a time only shortly after Rome had shucked off the monarchical yoke) and turns against Rome due to his arrogance but is ultimately unable to let it be destroyed (conveniently through the purity of Roman women, but that’s another story for another time), like a true Roman man.

And, of course, the play is set in a time when fear of the Volscians was very, very real. They had, after all, overrun Latium and threatened Rome itself. And given Rome’s love of the single hero standing between Rome and ruin (or a single soldier charging out and, through his courage, inspiring his fellows to win battle), it only makes sense that, in the character of Coriolanus, Rome flounders but is ultimately restored to a place of strength by adhering to its core principles. (It should be said that, in the original sources, what happens to Coriolanus is completely unclear. Shakespeare found the single version that gave a definitive end since, you know, plays need endings.) It’s very, very Roman.

I love Rome.


A Post! A Post! I finally wrote a post!

Hello! Salutations! Top of the morning (literally) to all of you, since it’s just after midnight on Thursday. Yes, I know I’m woefully late on this post. You’ll forgive me, yes? I’m trying not to force posts out when my mind isn’t in it, so as not to inundate you with crap.

Oh, hell… that’s not it. I just get lazy and forget to post, and then I spend a couple days coming up with a suitable excuse. I’m not very good at keeping on top of blogging, I’m afraid. I’m barely adequate at keeping on top of household chores, and those keep the house clean, clothes on my back, and food on the table, so…


An update on Killing Mercutio before we get any further into today’s festivities! I’ve finally finished the latest (and hopefully last) round of cuts. I mean, I suppose that any publisher worth their salt will have me go through this again (and again and again), but for now… I think the novel is in its best form. It’s at 113,850 words, down from just shy of 120k. Six months of pouring over 45 chapters (and an epilogue), looking for places to make cuts. Phew. I’m glad it’s done. With the new query, we’re finally ready to send this thing out again!

Now. On to what has been taking up my time. As you may know, I’m working on some serious worldbuilding. Like, building a from-scratch world into which I will place characters and write a story and do all these amazing things. You know, the kind that gives way to coffee table books about the world’s history and geography and the like. Middle Earth and Westeros and the Malazan world. Not quite like Sanderson’s Cosmere in that I don’t intend to write books with only hints of the greater world within the stories. I’ve got maps, notebooks, some characters, a vague idea of a story, and years worth of work left to do. It would be so nice to be able to go to a store and pick up a worldbuilding kit that helps you design cities and nations and continents and histories, etc, but that doesn’t exist yet.

However, I have found a really cool site that is helping me somewhat. At least, it’s helping me store everything online and asking some cool questions for me to ponder, the answers to which inevitably end up taking me down a fun track. I’m also reading a lot of history books (right now, Ancient Egypt has become a pretty big influence since maat, or the truth and order of things, is such an important part of their entire society), which I cannot recommend enough. But since books are the purview of Boozy Books, I thought I’d share the website I’ve been using. There’s an alright free version that I find is most helpful for characters rather than world, but the $10 a month (well, $9, but I round up) has a lot more. I’m actually thinking of trying it out and seeing if I like it.

Edit: I just realized I never posted the site. Oops. It’s here–

I admit, though… I still wish I could walk into a Target and pick up a box, and when I’ve completed everything in the box, I have a world. Because trying to come up with a world that doesn’t feel like I created it specifically for a story (i.e. the story is one of many within the world. And it exists outside of the story entirely) is  hard, yo.

We should all come together and make one of those. Then we could sell it and be rich. And have amazing worlds.


Shakespeare Saturday: Manners!

Hey guys! Brief interlude into the world of Shakespeare today since it’s my one day off from NaNo and I’m using it to watch Golden Girls and have eggnog spiked with Scotch. I rarely drink, so this is a banner day for me.

Whenever I have some time, I like to check out the Folger Shakespeare Library and see what’s up there. You’ll have noticed how many times I share their articles and whatnot. I was upset I couldn’t go with my family when they took a trip to DC earlier this year. They ended up not going to the Folger, but still…

So, given my time today, I decided to do a bit of reading and came across these great articles about Elizabethan etiquette. When you read the first words of this one, you’ll know exactly why I immediately thought we needed a Lord Walsingham’s Kingsmen-type thing. That link is part one: here is part two.

Who do you think should play Walsingham?


Monday Muse: A Good Day

I had a good day the other day.

I also had a bad day the other day, but given my own issues, that’s not really a surprise. Extended periods of isolation always cause bad days, and with the BF out of the country for work, I’m by myself most of the time.

So let’s focus on the good day.

I’ve been building a world for a couple years now. After years of reading Malazan, ASOIAF, and pretty much anything Brandon Sanderson, I decided I needed to see if I could replicate some of the amazing detail in their worlds. OK, so Westeros is not actually as detailed and deep as the other two, but it’s still well-developed and a good example of using history to build a world. Which is definitely something I enjoy doing. I have several worlds based on or in history.

But that isn’t what I wanted to do with this world. I wanted something built from scratch. Obviously, it would be influenced by this world, by details I know and things I’m interested in, but I didn’t want it to be a fantasy corollary of something, like ASOIAF and Medieval Britain. I’d been playing around with a theogony for a while, with twin creator gods based on balance creating a third entity and thus bringing chaos into the universe. Originally, I wanted to play around with the twins and their relationship with their sister, but eventually, I realized having that sister create her own planet would be so much more interesting.

After all, that planet would reflect all the chaos inherent in its creator.

So, Esmeihiri was born.

On to that good day. I want to keep it brief since I spent so much time telling you that I wanted to build a world, and if I keep it brief I’ll avoid going into massive amounts of detail about that world. Detail I am 100% sure none of you really want to read about.

I have officially named all the biggest nations, created a character bible, and a worldbuilding tome! I sat down the other day and put it all together, and it was such an amazing feeling to have it all done! I’m in possession of a political map and a geographical map (though I still have to finish up that political map), a slowly developing cast of characters, and a few subplots as well as a massive overall arc.

Things are moving apace. And now I have a place to gather it all. It’s like an Esmeihiri Atlas!

That was my good day.


Silly Sunday: Late Victorian Screw-Ups

OK, hi! Hello! Ciao! Merhaba! More hellos.

So, today is Sunday. That means it’s time for something silly. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of silly in my feed, so…

How about a cool history lesson?

I don’t know if you know this, but the Victorian’s had some weird ideas about behavior. Some people wouldn’t even say the word trousers, preferring to call them the “southern necessity”. And Victorian men found table legs so provocative, they covered them all the time. It was a weird time.

Don’t mess up. Read this: Victorian Etiquette Screw-Ups.


Boozy Books: Getting Ready for The Return of Shakespeare-a-palooza!

Hey, guys! Sorry this is late. Even more sorry that it doesn’t actually include a book pairing. But I just realized we hadn’t actually announced anything, and I feel like that’s on us.

Well, of course it’s on us. It’s our blog.

I had an idea that I was going to pair Washington’s Farewell this week. (If you watch The Daily Show, yes. The one featured on The Daily Show that one time.) It felt right given my Muse from Monday (for the record: since then, Jefferson and I commiserated over the amount of religion in our government. He was not pleased.), and I am just about finished with it. In fact, I could tell you what I would pair with it now; I just couldn’t write a summary without finishing it. I mean, I could…

Washington gave a farewell address. He had two people from the opposing camps help him write it. Included in this speech were wisdomy bits like “don’t form political parties” and “don’t be isolationist but also don’t be interventionist”. Everyone nodded, said, “That Washington sure is a smart cookie”… and promptly ignored it. Seriously. We were involved in a war by 1801. The only reason we weren’t in one sooner was… you know… the other war that had just ended a few years earlier and from which the United States was really just recovering… (For the record, that war–the First Barbary War–wasn’t really interventionist per se. We were paying tribute, there were pirates, trade was impacted, and we’d already tried a peace treaty. So… maybe not the perfect example. But we were already moving west, too. Manifest Destiny existed well before the term was coined.)

We like war. Always have. Knowing us, always will.

Drink Whiskey. In honor of Washington personally putting down the Whiskey Rebellion.

OK. Moving on.

The reason today’s pairing is a little slapdash is because, well, A and I are preparing for the Third Annual Shakespeare-a-palooza, now featuring people other than Shakespeare! It’s one month out from our trip to Stratford, Ontario and, for those of you who haven’t been with us since the beginning, that means we’re going to spend the next month discussing, pairing, and making stupid jokes about four of the plays we’re going to see next month in Stratford. While we’ll review all of them, we’re going to focus on two of the Shakespeare plays and two non-Shakes plays we’re really looking forward to.

First up will be A, who’ll be discussing Twelfth Night. I’ll follow with Timon of Athens. Then A has decided to discuss Guys and Dolls (musical actress that she is), while I’ll discuss Tartuffe since Molière stole the show last year and we felt like we’d missed an opportunity to go in depth on our favorite writin’ Frenchman. (OH MY GOD. WHY DID I DO THAT?! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?) Yes, we’re skipping Romeo and Juliet.

You guys know why.

I’ll see you Sunday!


Monday Muse: This is Getting Difficult

I am having an increasingly difficult time not talking about politics these days. Like, it’s gotten to the point that I shout at my cats (poor creatures) and construct elaborate imaginary audiences with our Founding Fathers because I can’t keep it in anymore.

James Madison and I recently bonded over the Second Amendment. Seriously. I’m not going to tell you what the conversation was about, but if you know anything about Madison’s feelings on the nature of our military, you know what it was about. It was a good, cathartic moment for me.

James Madison also looked like his character in Hamilton. I don’t know why, but it feels less weird to imagine the character than the real guy. Plus, the real Madison was 5’4 and it would feel weird to look down at a Founder.

I don’t know. I’m weird.

It’s a cathartic experience for me. Someone does or says something, I conjure the proper historical personage, and I get out how I feel. I yelled at Hamilton the other day about not making enough provisions to reign in the banks; he yelled back that he was just building a system, it was those that followed who allowed the system to grow out of control. He also got really upset to find out what Andrew Jackson did to his bank. Seriously.

(Anyone who knows me knows that the one thing about Hamilton’s early death that really upsets me is losing out on an elderly Alexander Hamilton kicking Andrew Jackson’s ass over the closing of the bank. I combine it with the Brooks/Sumner cane incident in my head, and it. Is. Glorious.)

Maybe I really am crazy. I don’t think so. There has to be a school of psychology that advocates the creation of imaginary constructs in order to deal with overwhelming emotion. If not, I recommend it. It’s especially handy if you know how that person would argue back. Not knowing that makes it an exercise in confirmation bias. Which doesn’t really help.

But, seriously. Without doing stuff like this, I think I might become a ball of anxiety and anger. I need to do it to function.

And it’s the reason this blog has yet to descend into historical and political ramblings that reek of desperation and despondency.

On occasion, I also apologize profusely to George Washington.

Well, I’ll be back on Friday to talk about books. It might be a historical book. I take solace in the study of the past.


Shakespeare Saturday: Ira Aldridge

Heyyyoooo! Welcome to today’s Shakespeare Saturday! While Nerd Cactus languishes in Twitter time out (our on-going battle of three days), we’re definitely not going to forget how we started: a blog about how much we like to read, write, and talk about Shakespeare (and giggle at funny internet pictures). Well, actually, we started as a couple of women who love Shakespeare but kinda hate Romeo and Juliet, so we were going to take matters into our own hands and make Romeo and Juliet great again. But the blog happened pretty soon after that (writing platform woo!), so… let’s get back to basics while Twitter is being dumb and ignoring me…

So, did you know that, once upon a time, it would have been considered HILARIOUS and perhaps even sacrilegious to have a black man play Othello? I am pretty sure people would’ve been less freaked out by a woman playing the role… especially once the Restoration happened and actresses started banging the King on the reg (See: Nell Gwynn). It wasn’t until 1997 that a black man played the role at London’s National Theater, and remained one of the final roles in which it was perfectly acceptable for men to don black face (See: Anthony Hopkins). But one of the first black men to play the role on the stage was a man named Ira Aldridge… back in the 1800s. And, England excepting, he was rather celebrated for his turn as Othello, the Moor of Venice (who later turns into a character in our novel, which I’m saying here because literally NO ONE has picked up on it yet).

Anyway… I’ll let this article discuss it, but do be sure to pick up a biography when you’ve got a chance.


Boozy Books: Stamped From the Beginning

Greetings! In our effort to keep Nerd Cactus woke (can I use that term?), this week’s Boozy Books features on the latest rage-inducing book I’ve read about the way America has, well, f*cked over minorities, and African-Americans in particular. Because, newsflash: we have f*cked over minorities, and African-Americans in particular. And if you don’t know that, you are apparently not woke. (Again, can I use that term?) You are also part of the problem.

Now, I know this here Nerd Cactus crowd is of above average cultural and literary awareness (I’m sure you’ve all read King John), so I’m sure none of you are unaware of the problem. But that doesn’t mean that you are exempt from learning about and actively contributing to undoing the problem. And a book like this one, which describes how the very laws of our nation were written to keep one group of Americans — namely the black ones — inferior, is exactly the sort of eye-opening read you’re going to need.

But… be prepared to do some reflecting. And be prepared to feel like you’re being attacked, because Ibram X. Kendi argues that, well, pretty much all of us are some form of racist. Yes, even black people, and yes even people who protest the systemic racism at the heart of America. Hell, even President Obama is not exempt from Kendi’s definition of racism, which posits that there are two kinds: segregationist and assimilationist, the latter of which is far more insidious. (There is a third group of people, as well, whom Kendi calls the anti-racists, and this is the group we should all aspire to be a part of.) Segregationist racists are the more obvious, the racists that we all look at and go, “Hey now… f*ck off, racist!” But assimilationist racists… they’re often the very people fighting for progress. Even W.E.B. duBois and Frederick Douglass (who is being recognized more and more) do not escape Kendi’s definition of racism.

The heart of the argument in this book is that racist action actually precedes racist thought because racist action stems from self-interest. Basically, in an attempt to rationalize our actions, we create systems of thinking that then crystallize the thoughts and actions in cultural identity. And any attempt to undermine racism must not enshrine the supposition of black inferiority as truth or it is, itself, racist.

What Kendi does is to give us historical “tour guides”, for lack of a better phrase, to take us through all of American history (from Cotton Mather all the way to modern thinkers) and discuss how racist action and thought have been conflated for so long, and how racist ideas of the inferiority of blacks (born as an explanation of slavery being good for Africans, who needed salvation) has been woven into the firmament of our entire national identity. It is a powerful read. But it is also an easy one, so long as you are willing to give it your full attention.

So, you’ll want to get yourself a glass of wine and just nurse it while you read, preferably in a leather chair with a smoking jacket and a pipe. Or, you know, whatever you need to do to be able to focus on such an important book. Because this is an important book, and it needs to be read.

We’ll be back tomorrow with some Shakespeare!