“I love the fact that the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet technically doesn’t exist…” We asked Six Questions about Shakespeare to Melissa Barrett of South West England-based Sun & Moon Theatre

Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?

“After Twelfth Night finished in November 2017, we took a break over Christmas, but it’s hard to not reflect on ideas, even when you’re meant to be taking a break. At the moment, we’re looking at Romeo and Juliet, as David (my Co-Artistic Director) and I have a tendency to flip back and forth between plays that we’re itching to do. In 2016, David was eager for us to do The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in 2017 I was keen to do Twelfth Night, and now he has a strong urge to do Romeo and Juliet – a play driven by youth – while we’re still fairly young!

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“We’re getting so much from working on Romeo and Juliet, especially in terms of exciting conversations in these pre-production stages – it feels like striking a match before the candle lights up. We’ve re-read the play, re-watched some adaptations – including the 1936, 1968 and 1996 films, and even an adaptation of the ballet – for inspiration, and chatted about past productions we’ve seen, discussing what works and what doesn’t (for us) in all of these adaptations, and with the play itself. Our intention is also, while we cut the script, to compare the Quartos and the First Folio while we edit, in order to create a script that we’re happy with. Finding our production concept is currently dominating conversation, as Romeo and Juliet is so frequently done that it is tricky to find a concept that really excites or feels unique without being gimmicky. But more importantly the goal is to find a concept that feels fitting right now for audiences today, and yet also feels like a Sun & Moon production, as we’ve been exploring and building our identity as a company over the last few years.

Our summer open-air show is As You Like It. We’re excited about this one as, truth be told, we’re not big fans of this play, and we are hoping by doing it ourselves we will understand why people love it. We have a concept that we’re looking forward to getting our teeth into, and already we are finding wonderful moments within the play as we begin our text sessions with our actors.

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What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?

“I think I would have been surprised by how Shakespeare is such a huge part of my life, and that it would invoke such wonderful conversations between friends and loved ones. I’ve had chats about characters, themes, the plays themselves, which could have gone on for hours and hours. When I was first introduced to Shakespeare at 13, when beginning Year 9 at school, I had been warned by others that Shakespeare would be really hard and really boring. To my absolute surprise, I loved it (I give a lot of credit to my old CGP Macbeth book). It felt like a world had opened up and my imagination was captured. I loved reading text that could have so many possible meanings, and exploring such fascinating, layered characters. Did I know at 13 that I would have loved working with Shakespeare so much that I’d do a Staging Shakespeare Masters degree and that I’d set up a theatre company revolving around it? I definitely would have been surprised, but hopefully in a positive way.

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“Being more specific, and based on what we’re doing now, I would have been stunned that different versions of the plays exist – Quartos and Folios – and how editors have such an impact on how audience and readers perceive the plays. I first discovered that in my third year studying English at university. Younger me would definitely have been surprised by how much I love the First Folio and how I use it as a tool in acting and directing. It is such a joy of a text to use, and I love how many discoveries you make and clues/inspirations you get from just looking at First Folio edition (or even a Quarto!). It is like a mini director in the text offering guidance.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?

“Interestingly enough, it may well be the character I most recently played, Viola from Twelfth Night. I remember asking a professional who would come in to work with us on monologues while training with Year Out Drama, a lovely man named Alec Wilson, which character I should consider for speeches. He recommended that I look at Viola, as I seem like a natural Viola. For some bizarre reason, I didn’t follow up on that until four or five years later, when I was cast as Viola in a production while training for my MFA. I suddenly realised what Alec was talking about – that part fit me like a glove.

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“I can relate to Viola. While cross-dressing Rosalind feels more like a natural extrovert, Viola is a natural introvert like myself, who has to play an extrovert in a character like Cesario, and does enjoy this taste of liberty via performance (until things go wrong). I relate to Viola’s empathy, her compassion for others, her diplomacy, her passion, her love for her family, and her personal neuroticism – like me, she’s a dweller who worries a LOT, and has to force herself to not think about it: ‘Time thou must untangle this’. She is a quiet figure, but when it matters, boldness will come to her and she is no pushover – I hope that is me too. On a more trivial note, like Viola, I am no athlete (always had Ds for PE at school), and identify with her terror at being in any kind of physical fight. It’s why we had a boxing scene early on in which she fails against another woman (Orsino’s household, in our interpretation, were all women pretending to be men, partly to highlight Orsino’s denseness) and why we usually cut the ‘A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man’. We didn’t want her argument to be gendered. Our philosophy was, ‘Viola, women can fight, but you can’t’. Playing her in our own production throughout 2017 was an absolute joy.

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“There is the touch of the Hermia in me too – five foot two, in a very loving relationship, but prone to passion and fieriness when crossed, inherited partly from my loving, yet fiery-natured Irish family… ‘Though she be but little she is fierce’. A touch of fiery Hermia spirit helps when running a theatre company!”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?

“‘A good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow, but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon’ (Henry V). It partly inspired the name of our company.”

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What’s your favourite Shakespeare-related fact, myth, story or anecdote?

“I love the fact that the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet technically doesn’t exist. It has become so engrained in our culture that it gets called ‘The Balcony Scene’, when not once is a balcony mentioned. We’re currently debating whether or not we have one in our own production! It allegedly emerged in Thomas Otway’s play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius, which was inspired heavily by Romeo and Juliet. Otway staged his equivalent scene ‘in the balcony’ and David Garrick used a balcony in his staging of Romeo and Juliet. It’s one of example in how much I love that productions in their place and time can have such a significant impact on cultural consciousness, to the extent that Juliet’s balcony via her ‘house’ (Casa di Giulietta) is an attraction that tourists flock to every year, and that there is even a Juliet Club, in which people write to ‘Juliet’ and get replies from volunteers who answer as ‘Juliet’ – a mythical character. That in itself is fascinating, as it all started when people left letters by Juliet’s ‘Tomb’ back in the 1930s, and the caretaker was so moved that he sent replies, starting this wonderfully bizarre movement. The power of Shakespeare is phenomenal sometimes.”

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?

“I love Classic Hollywood so I have a tendency to cast people in my head who couldn’t possibly be cast because they’re no longer around, and that style of performance is long gone. I’m a big fan of the film The Philadelphia Story,  and watching Katharine Hepburn in that, I would have loved to have seen her take on Beatrice, perhaps with Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart as Benedick.

“Sticking to  Much Ado,  and being more realistic in terms of casting living performers, I love Damien Lewis and Sarah Parish’s performances as Benedick and Beatrice in the Shakespeare Retold adaptation. My partner and I always say that we wish they could play the roles in the actual play. Plus I recently read an interview with Helen McCrory and she said she’d love to play Beatrice opposite Lewis (her husband since 2007) as Benedick. They’d be fantastic.

“Oh, I can’t stop now! I saw Charles Dance recently do a talk and I asked him which Shakespeare roles would he love to perform that he hasn’t played yet, and he said Malvolio, Titus and Jacques – I would love to see him play all three!

Melissa Barrett is the Co-Artistic Director of Sun & Moon Theatre, which she founded with her partner, David Johnson. They will be touring with Shakespeare’s As You Like It in July 2018.

Thursday 21 June – University of Exeter North Piazza, Exeter
Saturday 30 June – Coleshill Organics, Oxfordshire
Sunday 8 July – The RSC Dell Open-Air Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 14 July – St George’s Park, Bristol (Bristol Shakespeare Festival)
Wednesday 25 & Thursday 26 July – Poltimore House, Exeter
Sunday 29 July – Queen’s Drive Space, Exmouth

Go here to find out more about Sun & Moon Theatre.

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Marooned boats in a magical woodland: Butterfly Theatre’s The Tempest at Bristol Shakespeare Festival 2015

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves, Butterfly Theatre’s production of The Tempest is a dynamic and exciting take on the play that benefits from its outdoor setting in Bristol’s Leigh Woods. It is one of the many innovative shows taking place this July as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

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The performance starts deep in Leigh Woods, as singing actors in yellow mackintoshes beckon the audience to pass under a symbolic sea. After this energetic beginning, the audience enters local artist Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, comprising five fishing boats stranded in the woods. The Tempest’s themes of power, reconciliation and magic certainly resonate deeply here among the trees.

The cast of seven guide the audience through a promenade performance where maintaining the momentum is a key element. Prospero (Julian Protheroe) is masterful, surveying his island from a boat’s deck. His relationship with Miranda (Georgie Ashworth) is warm, and Miranda shrieks with appropriate girlishness when she falls for a wide-eyed and earnest Ferdinand (Owen Pullar).
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Ariel is played compellingly by Gail Sixsmith whose powerful movements convince. Caliban (Elliot Thomas) incites pity, but his raucous comic scenes with Trinculo (Matthew McPherson) and “Stephana” (Kate Ellis) excite much laughter amongst the audience.

Though truncated, the production remains faithful to the outlines of the play-text and makes good use of the boats for dramatic effect. The soundscape created by Jonnie Harrison is an interesting mix of drums, instrumental music and singing. And the effect of the music appearing as if from among the trees adds to the magical, slightly eerie atmosphere.
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A play like The Tempest benefits from the unusual outdoor setting, and Butterfly Theatre manage to keep the standing audience happy throughout as the drama and magic unfold amongst the boats.

All images by Elle de Burgh

The Tempest in Leigh Woods ran from 11-17 July.

To find out more about Bristol Shakespeare Festival, go here.

To find out more about Butterfly Theatre, go here.

To find out more about Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, go here.

Much Ado About Something as Shakespeare’s legendary lost play Love’s Labour’s Won surfaces in Stratford – or does it?

Love’s Labour’s Won is famously listed as one of Shakespeare’s ‘lost plays’. However, some academics believe it is in fact not lost but is actually an alternate name for another play, in the way that Twelfth Night is also called What You Will. The RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran appears to believe this theory and goes one further to suggest that the much-beloved Much Ado About Nothing is in fact the missing play. Re-designating Much Ado as Love’s Labour’s Won and pairing it with Shakespeare’s other screwball rom-com Love’s Labour’s Lost for the first time forms the basis of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s 2014 winter season.

Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett as Beatrice and Benedick.

Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett as Beatrice and Benedick.


Love’s Labour’s Won
 sees Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry both making their return to the RSC to play the bickering couple of Benedick and Beatrice, with Edward Bennett returning for the first time since stepping into David Tennant’s shoes to play Hamlet during the London run in 2008.

Director Christopher Luscombe has set the play in 1918 as soldiers return from World War I and used local Tudor house Charlecote Park as his setting. Set designer Simon Higlett had the task of recreating this historical home on stage and he has done a marvellous job doing so. It looks and feels as if you are stepping into an episode of Downton Abbey with the luxious main set featuring a grand piano and a beautifully decorated large Christmas tree.

The production’s handsome Downton Abbey-esque set.

The production’s handsome Downton Abbey-esque set.

Edward Bennett plays Benedick with great wit and comedic timing. In particular the ‘gulling’ scene, where he overhears about Beatrice’s love for him, is full of laughs as he is humiliated by his peers. A personal highlight sees Benedick being semi-electrocuted inside the Christmas tree.

Michelle Terry is more than a match as Beatrice. Just as sharp-tongued and funny as Benedick she stands as a perfect match for Bennett’s returned war hero. Terry holds her own as the feisty and independent heroine. When the couple finally unite the romance pours out of them onstage and they are without a doubt the true and unpredictable love story of the play.

Claudio (Tunji Kasim) and Benedick.

Claudio (Tunji Kasim) and Benedick.

A notable mention should go to Sam Alexander as the villainous Don John. He appears on crutches, having been injured in the war, which helps his bitterness and hatred shine through.

The play raised many laughs from the audience and none more so than the scene of Dogberry and Verges interrogating Borachio and his co-conspirators regarding their roles in the thwarted marriage of Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and Claudio (Tunji Kasim). The hectic confusion is played out perfectly on stage, helped along by the brilliant idea to stage it all within a small portion of the set.

The marriage of Claudio and Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst).

The marriage of Claudio and Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst).


Much Ado About Nothing
– I mean Love’s Labour’s Won – is well-staged, well-acted and a perfect companion for the Love’s Labour’s Lost. It runs until 14 March 2015.

Go here to buy tickets for Love’s labour’s Won.

What did the UK media make of Maxine Peake’s Manchester Hamlet? Shakespeare Magazine reviews the reviews…

The idea to take on the iconic role of Hamlet, Maxine Peake told Creative Tourist, came after she worked with Royal Exchange Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom on a 2012 production of Miss Julie. “We’ve got this opportunity now where there’s no boundaries,” she suggested, “so we’ve got to challenge ourselves, perhaps even to the point where we overstretch ourselves.”
As Creative Tourist puts it, Peake was “adamant that this part has got absolutely nothing to do with gender-swapping for shock’s sake.” But it must have been clear from the start that gender (or ‘gender-bending’ as the Telegraph helpfully put it) would be the principal lens through which many critics and punters would experience this production.
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Several reviewers pointed out this was the first time Hamlet has been played by a woman in a high-profile production since Frances de la Tour in 1979. Susannah Clapp (Observer/Guardian) gave as good a summary as can be found of the rich theatrical story Peake’s performance belongs to: ‘There is a long, strong tradition of women performing the role,” she writes. “Sarah Siddons took it on in Manchester in 1777. Victorian actresses, amateur and professional, played the part regularly. Sarah Bernhardt, the first actress to be filmed in the part, declared it should always be performed by a woman.”

Frankcom told Creative Tourist that “Prescribed notions of gender – what is female, what is male – are all in flux at the moment … with our Hamlet, Maxine’s Hamlet, she’s creating a character that’s as much male and as much female.”
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However, Peake’s Hamlet was for many reviewers very much a prince, rather than the intended royal-human-in-flux. To Polly Gianniba describes it was “a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince.” Michael Billington refers to Peake’s Hamlet as ‘he’. Additionally, Polonius – or Polonia – was played by, and as, a woman (Gillian Bevan). For the Telegraph, this was confusing: “If Hamlet remains, technically, male in this reading – why make these added distinctions?” And one was left wondering whether The Independent reviewer joined the dots of his own thinking when he wrote “We are not used to seeing a woman play Hamlet. The result here is a powerful and yet curiously domestic production.” The suggestion seeming to be that ‘woman’ equals ‘domestic’. Although perhaps this ‘domestic’ sense came from the decision to largely excise the Fortinbras plot, the thread that brings the wider political world into the play’s family drama.
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Fortinbras’s removal was Billington’s “main reservation” about the production, whilst Gianniba enjoyed the production enough that “anything left out feels inconsequential.” When a production minimises Fortinbras, as has often been done before, it usually indicates a focus on personal, rather than geo- politics.

Hamlet, more than many plays, is an intensely ‘personal’ experience. The character invites the audience’s identification through soliloquy and the expression of existential crisis. Having catalogued the staging (in-the-round), costumes (Chairman Mao suit, Bowie haircut for Hamlet, according to the Manchester Evening News and others) and expressed an opinion about the verse speaking – any reviewer in need of a point-of-view must finally fall back upon his or her own inner Hamlet and see how the new suit fits.
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On these traditional terms, Peake pleased most reviewers. But it’s interesting to wonder who might be “shocked”, as Peake put it, by seeing a woman playing Hamlet in 2014. To an extent, coverage of this production is several degrees removed from the intense, often violent commentary on gender in this year of Beyoncé as ‘FEMINIST’, GamerGate, and the mixture of celebration and death threats that greets any new female re-imagining of Marvel superfolk. Nonetheless, perhaps that is this Hamlet’s wider, personal-political context. Susannah Clapp suggests that, with this and previous productions, “Frankcom is in effect creating England’s first mainstream feminist theatre.” And if a woman playing Hamlet still has the power to shock, or even confuse, an audience in 2014, then the political, like old Hamlet’s wronged ghost in the play, may have been this production’s sustaining energy.

Photography by Jonathan Keenan

Go here for more on Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Gaze in wonder at visionary poet and artist William Blake’s spellbinding paintings inspired by the works of William Shakespeare

This week we’ve been celebrating the 28 November birthday of William Blake (1757-1827). Although perhaps best known for his poems and for writing the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, Blake was also a visionary painter, one whose was often Shakespeare-inspired.
Here is Blake’s ‘Pity’ (1795), inspired by the evocative but mysterious line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “And pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast…”
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Blake also illustrated more conventional scenes from Shakespeare – although often with a supernatural dimension. Here’s his version of Hamlet encountering his father’s Ghost (1806).
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Brutus and the ghost of Julius Caesar is another haunting Shakespearean scene from Blake (1806).
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And here we have Richard III on the night before the Battle of Bosworth, assailed by the ghosts of his victims (circa 1806).
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Blake also painted Oberon, Titania, Puck and the other fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this beautiful and dreamlike tableau from 1786.
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And Blake even turned his supremely versatile hand to a portrait of Shakespeare himself (circa 1800).
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William Blake was a poet, painter, printer, visionary, mystic – and Shakespearean. Portrait by Thomas Phillips (1807).
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Thank you to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education for showing us the link between two great English literary Williams – William Blake and William Shakespeare.

Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford.
Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at Tate Britain.
Fnd out about Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education.

Dame Janet Suzman has learned some amazing things from 50 Years of Shakespeare – listen to the full audio here!

For Ben Spiller, Artistic Director of 1623 theatre company, the Shakespeare Highlight of 2014 is the evening he hosted with Dame Janet Suzman in September.

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“Dame Janet is one of the greatest Shakespeareans of our time,” Ben says. “She’s played nearly every female role in the canon, directed Othello with a multiracial cast in South Africa when apartheid was in force, run masterclasses at LAMDA and in prisons, edited Antony and Cleopatra, and written books on performing Shakespeare and the role of women in drama.”

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Ben describes Dame Janet as “one of the most inspirational people I have met” and he was delighted when she visited his home city of Derby to share her experiences with his Shakespeare Night regulars and newcomers.

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“It was a professional and personal highlight for me,” he says, “to share the stage with this incredible woman, whose intelligence, skill and humanity are second to none. As if things couldn’t get any better, her acceptance of the invitation to become 1623′s patron was a dream come true.”

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You can listen to the complete audio of the evening with Dame Janet here.
You can find out more about 1623 theatre company here.

Prepare to lighten your wallet and boost your brain… It’s the Shakespeare Magazine Beautiful Bard Books Roundup

Seeking Christmas gift inspiration? Why not treat a fellow Shakespeare fan (or yourself!) to one of these beautiful Bard-related books. All prices are RRP for UK editions, but if you shop around you may well nab some of these for less (especially in eBook formats).

Shakespeare for Grown-ups
Subtitled “Everything You Need To Know About The Bard”, SHAKESPEARE FOR GROWN-UPS by E. Foley and B. Coates is already a firm favourite in the Shakespeare Magazine office. It’s a fun, handy reference guide that will fit nicely on your shelf between Bill Bryson’s ‘Shakespeare’ and Ben Crystal’s ‘Shakespeare on Toast’. An eminently readable intro for anyone who wants to find out what Shakespeare’s all about, it’s also a great memory refresher for those returning to the Bard in later life (like the Editor of Shakespeare Magazine, for example).

Out now, priced £12.99 Buy ‘Shakespeare for Grown-Ups’ here.

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Opening with the vivid and ultimately heartbreaking reimagining of a medieval childbirth, JULIET’S NURSE by Lois Leveen sees US novelist Leveen give a poetic new voice to one of the most memorable supporting characters in all of Shakespeare, namely the Nurse from ‘Romeo & Juliet’. Watch out for an interview with Lois in the very next issue of Shakespeare Magazine. Meanwhile, you can read the opening chapter of ‘Juliet’s Nurse’ here.

Out now, priced £16.99 Buy ‘Juliet’s Nurse’ here.

Station Eleven
Post-apocalyptic science fiction conveyed via dreamlike prose with a Shakespearean soul, STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel won instant acclaim and a National Book Awards nomination. Opening with a stage performance of ‘King Lear’ that eerily foreshadows the global tragedy to follow, this is definitely one of the year’s must-read novels.

Out now, priced £14.99 Buy ‘Station Eleven’ here.

Forensic Shakespeare
Firmly placed at the more academic end of the market, FORENSIC SHAKESPEARE by Quentin Skinner (no, the title doesn’t refer to Crime Scene Investigations) eloquently explores the idea that the Bard skilfully employed judicial rhetoric in the poem Lucrece and in some half-dozen of his most famous plays. A good one for Lawyers (obviously), Law students and anyone keen to sprinkle their dinner party conversation with some judiciously selected pearls of Shakespearean legalese.

Out now, priced £20 Buy ‘Forensic Shakespeare’ here.

R&J pulp cover Othello pulp cover
Underneath their cheekily mashed-up cover art, PULP! THE CLASSICS – OTHELLO and ROMEO & JULIET by William Shakespeare are readable, no-frills editions of two of the Bard’s Greatest Hits – and the perfect student stocking filler.

Out now, priced £6.99 Buy the Pulp! The Classics editions of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘Othello’ here.

PLUS! COMING IN 2015…

Cover Image - The Tutor
THE TUTOR by Andrea Chapin comes recommended by no less a Shakespeare authority than James Shapiro, who deems it “a terrific achievement [that] allows us a glimpse into the workings of Shakespeare’s mind and heart.” A wonderfully entertaining adventure set during the young Will Shakespeare’s infamous ‘Lost Years’, it should please fans of ‘Shardlake’ and ‘Shakespeare in Love’ alike.

Released 26 March 2015, priced £7.99 TBC Pre-order ‘The Tutor’ here.

Shakespeare gets a Pulp Fiction makeover with this irreverent cover art for new paperback editions of Othello and Romeo & Juliet – and we have 5 sets up for grabs!

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A glowering, ruffed-up Mr T as Othello? An inescapably post-teenage Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Romeo & Juliet? It can only mean one thing: William Shakespeare is receiving a cheeky remix from Pulp! The Classics.

With lurid, genre-splicing cover art from David Mann, the series already includes editions of classic novels like Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but Shakespeare is the first playwright to join their ranks.

And a spokesperson for Pulp! The Classics tells us they hope to release a complete set of Shakespeare titles in due course.

Priced £6.99, the Pulp! The Classics editions of Othello and Romeo & Juliet are on sale at bookshops from Thursday 6 November.

But if you don’t want to shell out your hard-earned groats, we have FIVE pairs of the Shakespeare titles to give away.

To be in with a chance of winning one simply send an email to us at shakespearemag@outlook.com with ‘Pulp Shakespeare!’ in the subject line.

Don’t forget to include your name, address and contact number. Closing date is Thursday 13 November – best of luck!

For more on Pulp! The Classics, check out their website here or follow on Twitter: @pulptheclassics

London is currently the undisputed Shakespeare capital of the world according to the new issue of Shakespeare Magazine

The latest issue of Shakespeare Magazine is now available completely free.

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Yes, that’s right. The fourth issue of Shakespeare Magazine celebrates Shakespeare’s London (with guest appearances from Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Shakespeare in Love). Also this issue: Shakespeare in the mountains of California, New York’s Shakespeare rapper and a plethora of Shakespeare Disasters.

Read Issue 04 of Shakespeare Magazine here.