It Can’t Happen Here

Jason Sanford as Othello and Kevin Kantor (They/Them) as Iago

It can’t happen here: using the far away to get up close in Othello and Twelfth Night

By Stephanie Barbé Hammer

Friends – I’m excited about this season’s productions of Othello and Twelfth Night and I’ve been thinking a lot about the remoteness of their settings. How is where they take place important?

Jason Sanford as Othello and Kevin Kantor (They/Them) as Iago
Jason Sanford as Othello and Kevin Kantor (They/Them) as Iago; ISF 2018

A lot of Shakespeare’s plays do not take place in England and it’s interesting to consider how many of them take place in Italy alone. According to Shakespeare online, not less than 13 plays take place entirely or partially in some Italian locale.

How come?

One obvious reason is that all most important art of this period originates in Italy. Italy was THE place that visual artists, musicians and writers looked to for inspiration and information.  When ISF organized a sonnet slam in Langley in April, we talked about how that quintessential English poem was actually invented and practiced first in Italy and then in France. Italy represented all that is cultured, beautiful (think of the Sistine Chapel!), sophisticated, and intellectual in the Renaissance (think of Machiavelli) so it’s no wonder that Shakespeare set his plays in glamorous, busy cities like Verona and Venice – that so many members of his audience would never actually get to visit. Going to theater – then as now – was a way to imagine yourself in a very different place than the place you lived, a way to travel without leaving your hometown. So, this exoticism would have been very attractive to the curious English audiences of Shakespeare’s plays. Remember these are audiences that know about this mysterious other continent, the “new world” that had been discovered but about which so little was known about. So, they were curious about other climes, and the theater provided them with an imaginary ship to sail to there.


But there is another reason I think as to why so many of the plays are set in a faraway country. And that is to ask questions and make suggestions that would be deemed too uncomfortable if the story were set “at home.”
Portrait of Giuliano de’Medici from the workshop of Bronzino (1503-1572)

Othello is a case in point. According to Wikipedia (admittedly, not always the most reliable source) and a UK Telegraph review of the book The Black Tudors, Africans did emigrate to England and were presences in London as early as Catherine of Aragon. Shakespeare’s interest in the Othello story points to his awareness of the presence of African citizens in England as an uncomfortable topic for his predominantly Caucasian society. What better way to get his audiences to think about emerging ideas of racial identity and empire than by putting the scene at a safe remove? And Italy was the perfect place to choose. A recent review of a scholarly book on Africans in Europe suggests the complex roles that African people played in Renaissance Italy and the complicated racial identities that certain prominent Italians may have had (namely, some of the Medici family). If the film Black Panther’s setting in a mythic African kingdom allows US audiences to think beyond the painful history of slavery in this country, it is possible that Othello’s setting in far-away Venice, may have enabled a way for English audiences to think beyond the immediacy of their own land and history. Othello challenges contemporary audiences in the US on many levels, particularly as we grapple with both Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement. But I think that Shakespeare’s audiences were already aware of (and struggling with) issues of gender, race, and power, although those were not the terms they used. But the historicity of the concerns that haunted those audiences of the fledgling British empire explains both why the play spoke to them, and why it still speaks to us, former colonials, and the peoples impacted by those acts of colonialism.

Helen Roundhill as Viola, ISF 2018
Helen Roundhill as Viola, ISF 2018

Twelfth Night is also set on the Mediterranean, but not quite in Italy. Rather, the play takes place in a pretend country on the Adriatic coast called Illyria. So, given what we just talked about, why not Italy? Here I am guessing that Shakespeare is playing with us, giving us an equivalent of the Forest of Arden – an imaginary space which is culturally recognizable but where anything can happen. Because we are not in England, we can laugh safely at the conspiracy against Malvolio, we can enjoy the gender-swapping role play, and homosocial/sexual overtones of the interactions between the characters. We are on vacation, after all, and anything goes, doesn’t it? This is the Renaissance equivalent to the Vegas vacation where “what happens in Illyria stays in Illyria.”

But does it? How is Viola changed by becoming – even for a short space – a man? What about Olivia and her choice of love object? The joy of Twelfth Night – as is true for many of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that things may open up in surprising and irreversible ways, when we play pretend with who we think we are.

“It can’t happen here,” Shakespeare is saying in these plays and also “But maybe it does and you just don’t notice.” Theater makes us notice the real world we live in by setting before us actual, breathing people who bring what is foreign and other to our doorstep.  Plan your visit to see our versions of these worlds soon!

Stephanie Barbe Hammer

Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a comp lit scholar, poet, and fiction writer who went to her first live performance at 4 (the music man). She has been going to the theater ever since. Stephanie was born in New York City and now lives in Coupeville where she spends her non-writing hours walking and searching for a dry cleaner, a department store, and someone to “tawk” to among the trees.

Discovering Shakespeare’s Forgotten Women

When I think of Shakespeare I don’t necessarily think of women. I think of kings, murderers, and fools, but women? Not so much. Lady Macbeth, sure. Ophelia and Juliet? You bet. But I think of the guys mostly: Hamlet, Brutus, Prospero, Henry the IV, and Lear. Even the minor male characters are memorable: Edgar and Kent, Hotspur, Sir Toby Belch, and my personal favorite, Caliban.

But what if Shakespeare wrote more for women? Who would those women be, and what would they say to us? Those are the questions that Scott Kaiser’s play Shakespeare’s Other Women (playing through January 28, 2018) explores. it’s an ambitious exciting project. It’s also a fun one as Kaiser has thrown a little Samuel Beckett into the mix along with Shakespeare. There are in fact two men in the play along with the 36 forgotten or misunderstood heroines; these two guys ostensibly worked on the First Folio – the published work of Shakespeare’s plays – and they are enthusiastic but somewhat clueless. Like the friends in Waiting for Godot, who sit around and wait for someone who never comes, these two while away their time before heading to a tavern by looking through a box of earlier drafts and plays in progress – Shakespeare’s marginalia, as it were.

In that box they find the speeches of Shakespeare’s other women.

What do they tell us?

A lot, actually. We hear from a dizzying array of female characters: prostitutes and cooks as well as queens, goddesses, mothers, daughters, and wives.

Most exciting to me are women I either had never heard of or who are so completely in the background of their famous husbands, that I didn’t even think to notice them.

Here are two historical figures.


Helena Bonham Carter as Lady Jane Grey.

Lady Jane Grey was queen of England for 9 days, according to Wikipedia.  This brief reign came after the death of Henry the VIII, as his son, Edward VI lay dying at the age of 15. Edward wanted to protect the Reformation from the hands of his half-sister Catholic Mary Tudor, and so he named Lady Jane – his first cousin once removed — Queen. Obviously, this didn’t last long. Both Lady Jane and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed by the irate Mary the First, otherwise known as Bloody Mary (after which the cocktail is named). Lady Jane’s speech seems to clearly echo the determined, highly individualized faith that characterized the Protestant Reformation.

Isis Phoenix as Lady Jane Grey, ISF, Shakespeare’s Other Women, 2018, Photo by Michael Stadler

“Before my God, and all of you assembled/I pray you bear witness that today/I die a true and faithful Christian woman/And that I look this morning to be saved/By no means other than the mercy of my God”

The above quote from the monologue is based on words Jane apparently really said – making this speech all the more powerful. Through drama, we glimpse a real, forgotten woman (so forgotten there is no portrait of her) and we witness (Jane’s word) her restoration as a glittering, important and — at this moment at least — heroic public figure.

Greer Garson as Calpurnia from


The other big surprise was to hear at last the point of view of Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia. In Kaiser’s play, she speaks to us before the dreaded assassination and tells her husband  in no uncertain terms, not to accept the crown that would make him emperor.

“Yea, put it by, with fair humility/And let the Roman people clearly see/You do not seek the yoke of sovereignty/But rather, hope to be a faithful servant/To the Republic as great Pompey was”

Kathryn Lynn Morgen as Calpurnia and G. Kent Taylor as Caesar, ISF, Shakespeare’s Other Women, 2018, photo by Michael Stadler

Reading Calpurnia, I am reminded of the power-hungry men of the present, who if they are lucky enough to have a sensible spouse, would do well to heed their warning against ambition and ego. In Calpurnia, we hear a woman skilled at rhetoric and state-craft, who — if she had not lived under patriarchy — would have been herself a powerful political leader. Calpurnia’s warning – to approach the reins of power with caution and modesty – rings truer now than ever.

Other surprises await you should you venture out to see Shakespeare’s Other Women and it’s a thrill to learn of these female characters, and to learn to know them better.  Tickets available here!

Stephanie Barbe HammerStephanie Barbé Hammer is a comp lit scholar, poet, and fiction writer who went to her first live performance at 4 (the music man). She has been going to the theater ever since. Stephanie was born in New York City and now lives in Coupeville where she spends her non-writing hours walking and searching for a dry cleaner, a department store, and someone to “tawk” to amongst the trees.

What is Shakespeare’s First Folio?

The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio.

Have you heard the news? In January 2018, ISF will expand its horizon into winter programming with the professional premier of Scott Kaiser’s new play, Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues, giving voice to text Shakespeare might have written had he provided more for his female characters to speak.


This timely story weaves together an anthology of 36 new monologues, written in iambic pentameter, in Shakespeare’s vernacular, set in the historical moment upon the completion of Shakespeare’s First Folio of collected works. Shakespeare’s Other Women explores the female experience that exists beneath the surface of Shakespeare’s works, acknowledging the repression of female voices throughout history.  But what is the First Folio?  Why is it important today?

The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two of his colleagues from the King’s Men acting company (John Heminges and Henry Condell, the characters who frame the structure of Shakespeare’s Other Women) put together the first collection of Shakespeare’s work and called it “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.” We now know this collection as Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” Folio refers to the paper size: books were printed on folded sheets in either quarto (folded twice into quarters) or folio (folded only once, in half) formats. Folios were larger and more expensive to print than quartos. They were usually only printed for important texts.


The First Quarto of Hamlet, printed 1603

We know that at least 17 of Shakespeare’s plays were printed as quartos during his lifetime. Printing and copyright were very different in Elizabethan England. It was common for poets to publish their work for public consumption, as Shakespeare did with his sonnets, but plays were printed far less frequently, were not copyrighted to their authors, and certainly were not considered high literature. Shakespeare’s quartos were likely not published by Shakespeare himself, but by colleagues of his from his acting company. Some plays were printed in multiple quarto versions, which differ drastically from one another (compare Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, that is the question” vs ”To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point!”). It is impossible to know which, if any, quarto versions accurately represent what the author intended.

It is presumed that Heminges and Condell used published quartos, actors’ prompt books, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and working drafts to compile the works contained in the First Folio. Without their effort, the 18 plays for which no quarto versions exist (including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night), might have been lost to time. This leaves us to ponder what they didn’t include.  Shakespeare’s Other Women offers one idea.

Shakespeare’s Other Women runs Thursday-Sunday, January 18-28, at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts’ Zech Hall in Langley, WA. Thursdays are Pay-What-You-Will; Friday-Sunday tickets are $15.  Showtimes are Thurs/Fri/Sat at 7:30PM, Sun at 2:00PM.  Tickets available now!

resumeHeadShotOlena Hodges, ISF (Aside) Editor, is ISF‘s Artistic Director and is a founding acting company member.  Favorite roles at ISF include Rosalind (As You Like It, 2010 and 2016), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing, 2013),  and Juliet (Romeo & Juliet, 2011).  Other regional theaters: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Olena received a BFA in performance from Southern Oregon University and is a graduate of Circle in the Square Theatre School.