Ask Philippa: Much Ado About Nothing Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Much Ado About Nothing, written at the end of the 16th century adjacent to Hamlet and Twelfth Night, is a fascinating concoction of merriment and betrayal, sorrow and surprise. Under the leadership of our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, classical works become new works, seen on our stage as if for the first time. In her evocation of Shakespeare’s busy port town of Messina, where the classes jostle, everyone eavesdrops, and nothing is as it seems, Director Jackson Gay has created a special frame for our Cal Shakes production. Much Ado, in her hands, provokes intriguing questions about the roles that are assigned to us, the roles that others think we should play, the roles that are taken away from us, and those that we might hold as dreams deep inside. Come join us – and when you get home, write and tell me what you think!


Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.

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Retrospective slideshow: 25 years at the Bruns

Bay Area favorite Jim Carpenter narrates this retrospective in celebration of Cal Shakes’ 25th year at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Click above to see!

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Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

‘We want to take these great classical plays and feel their resonance in the work we make today. To draw on their deep humanity in understanding our own; and to look forward and backward, bringing our contemporary understandings and situations to reinvent our relationships with them.’ Thus speaks Eric Ting, Obie-award winning Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater.  This year we celebrate the 452nd birthday (and the 400th death day) of this remarkable playwright, poet and bit-part actor, William Shakespeare.

William was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare (leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff – equivalent to town mayor) and Mary Arden (local woman of means). No birth records exist for William in 1564, but the records of the local church in Stratford-Upon-Avon indicate that a “William Shakespeare” was baptized on April 26 of that year. From this we deduce that he was born on or about April 23: infant mortality at that time was very high (25% of children died before the age of 2, and, indeed,  Shakespeare’s three older siblings died in early childhood), which meant that children were not baptized until a few days after their birth.

William was the third of eight children. The very sketchy records of his early life have generated endless speculation as to how he obtained the immense breadth of erudition demonstrated in his plays. Historians surmise that William’s status as a public official’s child entitled him to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which afforded a classical education. His father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 14, however, and he never got any formal education after that point.

In 1582, when William was 18 and dating two women called Anne, one of them, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant with his child. He ditched the other Anne and married Anne Hathaway late in that year, before the birth of their first daughter, Susannah. William soon deposited his wife and family in Stratford – including the couple’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585 – and the playwright went to London to build his theater company and pursue his art, returning to Stratford only when onslaughts of the plague forced the closure of the theaters in London. It was in these fallow years that he wrote most of his sonnets as well as his longer poems.

Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of eleven, and distances were so great then (and the contagion of the plague so great – it was very like Ebola today) that by the time Shakespeare received news of his death, his son had already been buried.  He did not return for the funeral. Hamnet’s twin Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life. It seems that William’s relationship with his wife was distant, even cold. It is fascinating to me that, again and again, Shakespeare wrote about the mysteries and perils of familial relationships, and that many of his plots are based on fathers and husbands perilously mis-hearing what they ought to understand.

Over a period of 18 years, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (give or take two recently discovered and believed to be his, and a couple of collaborations) as well as 154 sonnets. He stopped writing about three years before his death in 1616. Some scholars have speculated that this was because he had nothing left to say: however, I think this theory is highly unlikely when applied to a man of 47 who wrote a late play as gifted as The Tempest. It’s much more likely that he developed Scrivener’s Palsy, a degenerative disease that impeded his capacity to write. If you look at the range of his signatures, they markedly change as his physical state presumably deteriorates. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616 (altered to convey his displeasure at his daughter Judith’s marriage to a man who had at the same time gotten another woman pregnant).

Shakespeare, registered as “Will Shakespeare gent”, was buried on 26 April 1616 at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford Upon Avon. His tombstone is inscribed with the unlikely quatrain said to have been prepared by him:

Good Friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

To this I will presume to add a far more fitting epigraph written by Shakespeare many years before his death: ‘Thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks.’ William Shakespeare, graves at your command have indeed oped and let their sleepers out, giving them life and human ambiguity on stages all over the world today.

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Introducing Margaret of Anjou


Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly discusses her latest endeavor – working with Elizabeth Schafer to bring Margaret of Anjou, “a new play by Shakespeare, to life. Margaret of Anjou will be produced at SF Shakes this year.

anjouImagine Shakespeare as a young playwright in the early 1590s, trying to capture the attention and imagination of Queen Elizabeth I. How would he begin? It’s no secret that women were seen as physically and intellectually incapable of doing what men did – Elizabeth herself was aware of this when she gave her famous speech at the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588: ‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman. But I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too…I myself will take up arms.” Astride her horse, flanked by lieutenants, Elizabeth was the new woman of England, the new woman of history.

Enter Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Rene, Duke of Anjou, and, we believe, Shakespeare’s special envoy to the imagination of Queen Elizabeth. Margaret was born on his stage in the wake of Elizabeth’s Armada speech. Women could be more than chattel – England had before its very eyes a queen who was multi-lingual, a beautiful writer, and an expert diplomat. A queen who’d most likely chosen not to marry because marriage would have compromised her power (and because her father provided a terrible marital role-model!) Now think of Margaret, Elizabeth’s real-life predecessor. Elizabeth hadn’t needed to be a wife in order to have access to power; and, had she been a mother, she might have suffered the heartache that befell Margaret as she lost both her husband and her only son to the forces ranged against her.

Elizabeth Schafer, author of Ms-Directing Shakespeare, theater historian, and Professor at Royal Holloway, London, has collaborated with Cal Shakes’ Philippa Kelly to pirate from Shakespeare’s four plays to give Margaret a singular textual life of her own. Professor R.S. White gave Margaret her world premiere when he invited Elizabeth and Philippa to launch a staged reading with Robert Conke’s Melbourne Acting Troupe, Nothing But the Roaring, in February 2016, sponsored by the Centre for the History of Emotions. Now we are partnering with SF Shakes’ Rebecca Ennals. Our mission: to bring Margaret across the Atlantic for a staged reading at SF Shakes in this important anniversary year. Our play, drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry VI tetralogy and Richard III, uses only Shakespeare’s words to shape Margaret’s journey. It’s being billed at the Caryl Churchill Theater in London this year as a ‘new’ play by Shakespeare and does something we think is important: it proves that Shakespeare wrote a female role that is an ‘Everest’ on par with King Lear.

Historically, Margaret, brought over to England dowryless to secure a relationship between the Duke of Anjou and England, was alluring and (initially) obedient, and it seems that her marriage to England’s Henry VI suited both herself and her husband. However, it took 10 years for her to conceive a child, and, once she did, Henry VI fell into one of what would be frequent bouts of insanity, with Margaret ruling in his place. It was Margaret who led the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses, and her feats, in part, inspired the character of Cersei Lannister in today’s Game of Thrones.

Shakespeare adheres to the beginning of the historical Margaret’s story, but changes its course considerably. Shakespeare’s young Margaret is, like her original, an ingenue, bought and sold; but the playwright makes King Henry VI weak instead of mad. In real life, Margaret became intimate with the Duke of Suffolk (possibly as a retreat from her husband’s madness?) But in Shakespeare’s play Suffolk woos her on behalf of Henry VI at Tours, and the young, impressionable woman falls for Suffolk instead of her intended husband, while Suffolk encourages this love-interest so that he can use her as a puppet to rule the feeble Henry. What we see in our play, Margaret of Anjou, is the young Margaret, complying with her father’s cold sale of her as goods; the new Queen Margaret, intimate lover/conspirator with Suffolk behind her weak husband’s back; the mourning Margaret, grieving for the execution of her lover as traitor; the Amazonian Margaret leading her troops into battle; the monster taunting her defeated opponent, Richard, duke of York; and the raging crone, whose husband and son, prince regent, have been murdered.

Margaret, unlike her theatrical contemporary Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, is never tamed. She looks forward to later formidable female parts like Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, and Paulina.

Please share this post and celebrate with us this year as, with Rebecca Ennals of SF Shakes, we make Margaret America’s Queen.

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O Brave New World! See Photos from Gala 2016


We are inspired by the enthusiasm and generosity of those who attended O Brave New Word, and we’re thrilled by how much their support will fuel the power of creativity for students and communities throughout the Bay Area. Our tally shows a total of at least $473,000 in winning bids for spectacular auction items, in ticket sales, and from generous contributions.

From the dining room to the dance floor, we’re grateful to have had the chance to celebrate with many of you at the event and online.  Click here to see the fun in action.

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A Brief Timeline from Shakespeare’s Life #Shx400

This April 23 marks the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death, and theater lovers worldwide are celebrating four centuries of his legacy. Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly takes us through a very brief timeline and “fun facts” of Shakespeare’s life and works.

Visit or follow the #Legacy400 and #Shx400 hashtags to learn more!

1564: William Shakespeare, his parents’ third-born and first living child, is baptized. The date of William’s actual birth remains unknown due to the high infant mortality rates in England at the time – no child was registered as born until baptized. The date has been designated April 23 to create an attractive correlation with his death, known to be April 23, 52 years later.

Fun Fact: William’s father, John, was a whittawer (a maker, worker and seller of leather goods such as purses, belts and gloves) and a dealer in agricultural commodities. He was a solid, middle class citizen at the time of William’s birth, and a man on the rise.  He served in Stratford’s local government successively as a member of the Council (1557), constable (1558), chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565) and finally high bailiff (1568)–the equivalent of town mayor.  This allowed him to send his children to Stratford’s Grammar School. In about 1577 John Shakespeare’s fortunes began to decline for unknown reasons, and Shakespeare had to leave school at the age of 13.

Fun Fact: most households in Shakespeare’s time made their own beer and ale, and it was quite common to drink them with breakfast.

1582: Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway, 8 years his senior. Shakespeare has been dating  (and some say betrothed to) another Anne: but the pregnancy gives Anne Hathaway precedence in the marriage stakes. Anne’s father, owner of a large, sprawling farm, is affluent enough to provide Anne with a dowry. Many believe that Anne is illiterate, as are most girls of her station: but it is unknown for sure. After their marriage, as is common at this time, Anne moves in with her new husband and his parents in their family home.

1583: Daughter Susannah is born.

1585: Twins, Hamnet and Judith, are born – named after William and Anne’s close friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

Between 1587 and 1592 Shakespeare disappears from all known surviving records. This period is often referred to as the ‘lost years’. Did he leave his wife and three small children during this time? He may have worked as a schoolmaster. But if so, where? The answer is unknown. By 1592, he was living in London as an actor and a dramatist. His family remained in Stratford, living with his parents in John Shakespeare’s family home.

1596: Hamnet dies of the plague. Shakespeare does not return for the funeral. Why not? He may have been informed after the burial, since plague victims have to be buried as soon as possible for the sake of sanitation. We know that at the time it takes three days to get by horse and carriage from Stratford to London – stopping overnight in Oxford and going on to Uxbridge. But a letter (which cost 2 pence to send – a third of an actor’s daily wages) could even take only 2 days.

1597: Shakespeare, now wealthy because of the popularity of his plays in addition to royal patronage (his company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, is Queen Elizabeth’s favorite), buys the second largest house in Stratford, and settles his wife and two remaining children there before returning to London.

1598: Shakespeare writes Much Ado About Nothing, the first play of our 2016 season. “Nothing” is a play on “noting”, a word which in Shakespeare’s day means “to pay attention” (or notice) someone romantically. A woman’s genitals are at this time also referred to as “nothing” because, unlike a man’s, they are not evident (i.e. they are “nothing”) on the outside. So Shakespeare is basically punning on the idea of “Much Ado About Sex.”

1603: Shakespeare writes Othello, fourth up in our 2016 season. The term, “Moor” in Shakespeare’s London refers to everyone of a dark skin tone, and refers to most Africans. The first staging of Othello is performed before  King James 1 in the Banqueting House at Whitehall on the 1st of November 1604. Queen Anne, James’ wife, has a fascination with performing blackface. We might wonder how much of an influence her taste had on Shakespeare’s choice of material.

Fun Fact: Shakespeare offers wisdom for the ages. From cautionary examples of the wisdom of not promoting someone whose talents are superior to yours (Macbeth) to examples of how greatness is not enough (Coriolanus, Othello), to the terrible example offered by King Lear (don’t give your worldly goods to your children if you can’t trust them to take care of you as you see fit, not as they do), to the lessons of love in Romeo and Juliet (love doesn’t cure everything) and in Twelfth Night (don’t judge a book by its cover), Shakespeare offers remarkable insight into many of our life situations.

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A Day at Shakespeare Summer Camp


Stephanie Ann Foster, our Oakland Conservatory Coordinator, reflects on a day at camp.

“How do we do this?” “TOGETHER!”

The opening ritual of conservatory, our morning assembly, is audible all the way out to the street. We dance, we vote on creative ideas for costume days (Dr. Who, the students assure me, is quite the Shakespeare corollary). We redistribute dropped jackets and water bottles—the joyfully flung detritus of young actors who have put all their concentration into combat, improv, and the history class ghost stories that trickle out of Shakespeare’s plays when you poke at them with your (required) pencils.

We come here to try on new selves, and to recognize the pieces of ourselves in others. We come here to break apart texts, and maybe our whole selves while we’re at it.

Then we rebuild.


Registration is now available for our Summer Shakespeare Conservatories. Click here for more information.

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The Quintessential Outsider: Thoughts on Othello

By Artistic Director Eric Ting

Since taking over as Artistic Director of Cal Shakes, I’ve been traveling a lot. My wife and new baby are still in Brooklyn, so, racking up lots of miles. But this is strangely about a different trip, one to Houston for my cousin’s wedding this past December, my cousin who I hadn’t seen in several years, my cousin who (I realized about 10 minutes into the service) was “born again” (a level of devotion not really found in my family #understatement). This is to say that, heading home the next day, I was already of a mind to be surprised by people.

The flight home was nothing special. I like to sit towards the back of the plane, and I like to get there early so there’s room for my bag in the overhead. I settled in, leaning against the window, half-shutting my eyes, waiting for sleep. Eventually a woman with blonde (almost white?) hair settled beside me, and a young man hugging a backpack and listening to music took the aisle. A quick text to my wife: “I LOVE YOU!” The plane taxied, took off, sleep found me.

I awoke from my nap, an hour still to go before landing. There’s that moment when you first open your eyes, when your mind is trying to reconcile your surroundings before sleep with their current state. And something caught my eye.

Now I consider myself a decent man, an honest man. But since my daughter’s birth, I’ve been taken by a new anxiety; and in this moment, my head leaning against the hull of the plane, a woman with blonde almost white hair and a red blouse sleeping next to me, next to her was… a black backpack in an empty seat. A flicker, but nothing to think twice about. But 15 minutes later, and still, an empty seat; 45 minutes later, and we were preparing for landing and still no one; and I found myself seized with this inexplicable fear. I found myself glancing up and down the aisle looking for even a glimpse of this man in a black hooded sweatshirt and can headphones, a man with olive skin who sat there on the aisle as we were taking off but was nowhere to be found and it was all I could do not to reach over and grab that bag and yank it ope—

A month earlier, men with guns and suicide vests had walked through the streets of Paris killing 130 people.

I think of myself as an honest man, decent, fair. And yet, there I was, overcome by paranoia, shutting my eyes and thinking of my daughter. I think I held my breath until we reached the gate.

I chose OTHELLO for my Cal Shakes debut, in part because of the climate of racial injustice across our country–what better play to explore the ravages of white envy in a politically correct era, capturing the subtle and not so subtle extremism that surfaced with and has lingered after Obama’s election? Iago, career soldier, working class, a good and decent man who has opportunity “stolen” from him by a Black man; but who re-commits himself to this general, this friend, only to once more be passed up for a younger man, perhaps even another Black man.

But something else happened after arriving home from Houston: the political rhetoric shifted. And in this post-ISIS climate, the quintessential outsiders revealed themselves. Othello the Black Man became once more Othello the Moor, the Muslim, the stranger in a strange land, who is surrounded by fearful glares and who has compromised himself to participate in this community, and who can never fully trust anything–even love.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It steals our will, but it also bestows permission to do things, to think things, we would never otherwise consider. It feeds on our flaws, it teases them into the open, it lays them naked before us. My OTHELLO will be a consideration of this, of the daily compromises we make to co-exist in a place with others who are not like us, of the manner in which those compromises might eat at our insides, revealing themselves as fear, as rage, as hope, as desire, as paranoia, as faith. This tragedy does not reside in just one man, one marriage, but rather in all of us, even the most honest of us.

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Tickets on Sale for Cal Shakes Gala

City View at Metreon“O Brave New World, That has such people in’t!” – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

With the arrival of our new Artistic Director Eric Ting coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Bruns, we have a lot to celebrate!

Make plans to join the fun at our 21st Annual Gala on Saturday, March 12, 2016 at City View, on the top floor of the Metreon in downtown San Francisco. You can participate in our gala either by attending in person or by sponsoring an artist or community partner to attend.

This exciting event is a little more than a month away – we can’t wait to share all of the details of the night’s festivities. You will be able to bid on exciting new auction items like a glass-blowing lesson and party for you and your closest friends at Glassybaby in Berkeley, or a trip to New York to catch all of the hottest plays on Broadway.

You will be delighted by two different secret performances that will tickle your funny bone. Indulge in our new menu, provided by our new caterer, Grace Street Catering.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks to preview more of the auction items and find out more about the delicious food and entertainment you’ll enjoy.

For tickets, visit

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