Everything You Need To Know About The Tempest

Date: 2015
Posted by: Emma Banks
Cast: Emma Banks, Katie Douglass (voices)
Credits: Emma Banks (produced by, directed by, casting, credits, music)
Duration: 7.00 (including 1.20 of bank screen at the end)

Of all the many sub-genres of Shakespearean videos to be found on YouTube, among the most prevalent and popular are plot summaries. These are of two kinds: some make fun of the plays by cramming as much of the story as possible into a short space of time, usually a minute. Others have a more practical bent, which is to explain what is going on to the bewildered. Clearly there are quite a few young students turning to YouTube for some sort of clear guide to who is who and who does what to whom. It’s Lamb’s Tales for the 21st century.

Here’s a typical example, with an inviting title. Shakespeare’s narrative is explained through a series of crude cut-out figures placed over generic picture backgrounds., accompanied by some text and commentary. It does its job well enough, leavening the the practical business of explanation with some world-weary asides and some fun choices of cut-outs – Gollum as Caliban, in particular. Of course, it doesn’t tell you anything about what The Tempest signifies – but that’s another story.

Links: YouTube page

Ophelia drowns

Date: 2011 (2007)
Posted by: Amy L.
Cast: Amy L. (Ophelia)
Credits: Music: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 14
Duration: 6.10

Here’s a particularly strong example of the many Ophelia fan videos to be found on YouTube. That feels the best way to describe them: videos that recreate Ophelia’s death by drowning that appeals to filmmakers/performers who want to emulate her by imitation. In this example a young girl in a white dress wanders through a wooded landscape (in Northern Ontario), following the path of a river. Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata plays. Gertrude’s lines about Ophelia’s last minutes are spoken over the images, as we see Ophelia stumble, cling for a while to a rock, then slip into the water and drown.

The video is interesting for exemplifying a romantic conception of Ophelia, one with which some identify quite intensely. It also interesting for its literalism. It doesn’t just show us the drowned Ophelia; it tries to show us how she drowned. In doing so it teeters on the edge of the absurd, but to judge from the comments that accompany the video some have found its visual exposition useful. The amateur status of the video, with its faltering technique, makes the Ophelia’s tumbling into a stream close to ridiculous, while at the same time convincing many in its audience through its sincerity. As one comment puts it, “That creek is BEAUTIFUL. I’d drown there. I mean, if I were to drown, that’s not a bad place to be.” The video exemplifies Ophelia as death wish – not something to be indulged in, but as a satisfying fantasy.

The video is dated as 2011, but it appears originally to have been published in 2007 with an introduction by the filmmaker/performer that has been removed from this version and is no longer available on YouTube.

Links: YouTube page

Twelfth Grade (or whatever)

Date: 2016
Posted by: Liv Belcik, S Messing and S-messing Around!
Cast: Sarah Taylor (Viola/Sam Messing), Kristen Vaganos (Liv Belcik), Julian Hermano (Oren Douglas), Derya Celikkol (Tammi Belcik), Jon Steiger (Drew Aguecheek), Adriana Figeuroa (Maria Waites), Evan Neiden (Malcolm Volinsky), Andres Cordoba (Vic Caius), Justin Linville (Curt Slender), Eliot Barnhart (Sebastian Messing)
Credits: Quip Modest Productions. Jules Pigott (head writer/director/editor), Uma Dwivedi, Angela Farooq, Sarah Goodwin, Lee Hittner-Cunningham, Daisy Murphy and Julia Reinstein (developers), Simona Riccardi and Shannen Michaelson (assistant directors)
Duration: Ongoing

This is excellent. Right from the start of the opening episode, in which a kazoo-playing Oren tells us of his favourite bands, then confesses to his room mates that he is utterly in love, one senses a confident directorial hand and a witty retelling of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s own opening has been simulataneously acknowledged, parodied and used as the steeping stone to an original conception.

So, yes, it’s another another web series designed for those who “like Shakespeare and awkward teenagers” (as writer-director Jules Pigott pithily puts it). The set-up is familiar: students using vlogs to share their thoughts with the online audience, with multiple viewpoints achieved through different YouTube accounts in the names of the characters, social media spin-offs and so on. There’s a plot-line that riffs on Shakespeare, so that Oren = Orlando, Sam/Viola = Viola, Liv = Olivia, Malcolm = Malvolio, Drew = Andrew Aguecheek, and so on. The main business involves Viola disguising herself in an all-boys’ school and falling with love with jock Oren, with a range of secondary characters, some with Shakespearean roots, some invented, who flesh out and enrich the narrative. The twists and turns of young love are credible enough, the contrivances (such as characters using other people’s cameras to post vlogs) no worse than Shakespeare was guilty of, and the characters’ frankness combined with naivety is of our age.

What makes this series stand out is the style. The need for the characters to confess to cameras (usually, though not always, in their bedrooms) both constrains and defines such productions, but the production takes every opportunity to play imaginative variations on the theme. So we get musical interludes, conversations held while all we see is a video game being played by the speakers, intercutting between different people’s vlogs, characters answering viewers’ questions, even one episode that takes place completely in the dark. Even the eye-catching variety of their titles pleases (Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Representation of the Ego in Media, Unreliable Narrator, Oren Plays Kazoo for Five Minutes). There is also a satisfying narrative arc, showing as much control over the series as a whole as its individual elements. The performances from the young cast are uniformly good, with lightness and darkness of tone equally well handled.

Twelfth Grade (or whatever) is written, edited and directed by New Yorker Jules Pigott, who engagingly and illuminatingly and rapidly explains how the series is made in the above video. One sees the huge dedication involved, from preparing the scripts, to co-ordinating the performers, to editing and uploading the videos, to keep the social media streams going. And all this for around 1,000 views per episode. That suggests that this is not being done simply for the likes, tweets or followed, but because those involved believe in what they are doing. It’s what separates art from mere opportunity.

This is the second Shakespeare series from Quip Modest productions – the first, Like, As It Is (based on As You Like It), I have yet to see, though apparently it is an apprentice work. Twelfth Grade (or whatever) shows how Shakespeare functions as a stimulus to the imagination, letting ideas fly. It has enough of a debt to Shakespeare’s play to cause smiles of recognition, but it is never weighed down by the association. It has its own special story to tell.

Complete episode list
Quip Modest Productions tumblr site
Twelfth Grade (or whatever) on Twitter
Jules Pigott’s personal site

Kate the Cursed

Date: 2014
Posted by: Kate Minola
Cast: Emily Lubbers (Kate Minola), Julia Buchan (Megan Carpenter), Bryan Versluis (James Wright), Jenna Harman (Britt Minola), Devon Peacock (Hudson Vanderberg)
Credits: Golden Moose Productions. Created, written and directed by Emily Lubbers and Zoe Lorenz
Duration: 30 episodes

Here’s another web series updating Shakespeare to the milieu of the twenty-first century vlogging teenager. In this case it is The Taming of the Shrew, somewhat loosely adapted to give us the point of view of Kate Minola (“your average high school pessimist”), whose friend Megan encourages her to set up a vlog. Kate’s dilemma is that she doesn’t much like people, but her younger sister Britt is not allowed to date unless Kate does so first. The story is then fleshed out soap-wise by bringing in assorted friends and classmates, including James (a soft Petruchio).

Kate the Cursed (great title) is the creation of two Canadians, Emily Lubbers and Zoe Lorenz. It is slickly produced, plausibly scripted and convincingly performed by its young cast. It suffers from the limitations of the pseudo-vlog, because everything must be told through confessional statements to camera that are nearly always in the teenagers’ bedrooms, and there’s only so much textual analysis you can indulge in by looking at the objects they have on their walls. A restrained use of jump-cuts alleviates the sameiness of the shooting style somewhat, and some key scenes take place on a woodland vacation. But it is still people talking to camera, relentlessly, which inevitably palls (though one is not expect to watch such a series all in one sitting).

It has the usual literary web series spin-offs, including Twitter handles for the lead characters, Tumblr sites and Facebook account, and one can only be amazed at the energy and dedication that goes towards production these amateur epics. What does it tells us about Shakespeare’s play? In its way, quite a lot. Its aim is to make Kate understandable and the mistress of her own drama. She steps out of the play to talk in the language of her audience. On the Golden Moose Productions website there are some illuminating statements on why they chose Shakespeare over, say Jane Austen, to structure their series:

Another reason why we did Shakespeare over a full length novel is that there is more freedom with Shakespeare. In a novel, there are set plot points and with Shakespeare you pretty much just have the dialogue. So you can sort of take it to mean what you want.

That’s as good an argument for the Shakespeare adaptation as you could hope to find. Its meaning becomes your meaning. Kate the Cursed is not the best Shakespeare web series out there, but does show why this is such a valid and vital way of interpreting Shakespeare.

And it’s nothing like 10 Things I Hate About You.

Series trailer

All episodes on YouTube
Golden Moose Productions Tumblr site

Macbeth Summary

Date: 2012
Posted by: benben8it
Cast: Ben Todd (commentary)
Credits: Bed Todd (artwork)
Duration: 3.41

Here’s a gem of a summary of Macbeth from cartoonist Ben Todd. It’s the usual quick run through the play’s highlights, turning tragedy into quickfire comedy, but making the plot clear for anyone struggling with iambic pentameter. It’s mostly done with simple static doodles, which seem artless at first sight but which have a peculiar charm about them. The black and white is occasionally interrupted by splashes of red blood, a cheesy photograph of Scotland, and great use of one of the most renowned of all YouTube videos, the five-second Dramatic Gopher, hilariously brought in as reaction to the news that Macduff was born by C-section. It’s fun to watch, but it also makes you think. Life, it tells us, is just a procession of exits and entrances, stabbings and survivals, in which there are only happy endings because we do not know what happens after those endings.

YouTube page
Ben Todd’s Pencil Poetry Tumblr site


Date: 2014
Posted by: SHAKES
Cast: Victoria Smith (Beatrice), Ellis Oswalt (Benedick), Anna Stone (Ophelia), Tim Childers (Hamlet), Cathy Koch (Juliet), Cody Sparks (Romeo)
Credits: Writer/Producer/Editor: Kathryn Orsmbee; Writer/Director: Destiny Soria; Production assistants: Rebecca Campbell, Katie Carroll; Marketing: Nicole Williams; Dramaturg: Clare Thomson
Duration: 12 episodes plus two extras

It is interesting to see what has been happening to the online Shakespeare video over the past four years. In 2012 I stopped adding to this site because I thought it had gone on long enough and there wasn’t much that was new that I thought I could add (I returned in 2016). In part the aim had been to trigger academic interest in an area of Shakespeare film production which wasn’t being considered at all, at least not with any seriousness. But gradually people were starting to take a serious interest, which culminated in the first book on the subject, Stephen O’Neill’s knowledgeable and stimulating Shakespeare and YouTube: New Media Forms of the Bard (2014). But what I hadn’t realised was round the corner, and which O’Neill missed, because the phenomenon was only just starting as his book went to press, was the Shakespeare web series.

It was the great success of the Emmy award-winning web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012/13), with its setting of Pride and Prejudice in modern times told through the individual characters’ vlogs, with social media spin-offs, which sparked a small explosion in web series which treated other literary properties in the same way. Here was a sparkling way in which to use the special features of the online world to bring the classics to a new audience. It was also great fun to produce, as is clear from the spirit of enthusiasm that leaps out from the dozens of these kinds of web series that have now been produced.

Many of these series are adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve listed the main ones in a new Web Series category on the right-hand column of this site, and I’ll be posting something on most if not all of them, in time. I’ve already written about Not Much To Do and Lovely Little Losers, produced by the premier exponents of this new Shakespearean form. But coming close behind them, and with a slightly different apporach, there is SHAKES.

SHAKES is the creation of two Americans, Kathryn Ormsbee and Destiny Soria. It started out as a web series entitled Shakes that mashed up characters from Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet, featuring modern characters living in the fictional American town of Shakes. When they decided to move on to a second series, the first was renamed The Town’s the Thing, with the second given the name Weird Sisters.

The Town’s the Thing shows us the interaction of three couples: Beatrice and Benedick, Hamlet and Ophelia, and Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Nothing Much To Do, which follows the path set by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries in telling the story through direct addresses to the camera (vlogs), The Town’s the Thing is a more conventionally composed drama, without any confessional moments to us the audience. The six main protagonists are a group of friends with different backgrounds (Hamlet’s a lawyer, Benedick is a journalist, Beatrice runs an online news service, Ophelia works in a pharmacy, and so on), with traits that link them loosely to their characters as Shakespeare imagined them (though Juliet as sassy kleptomaniac seems more removed from the original conception than some).

The technique and performances are a little faltering at times (though you can see them learning as things go along), but the overall conceit is capably maintained. The story moves comfortably between comedy and tragedy (with sprinklings of Shakespeare’s words every now and then). The overall effect is to shed new light on Shakespeare’s appeal, as a creator of archetypes whose perennial qualities are proven by how adaptation into this very early 21st-century form seems so natural. A delight to the imagination.

Date: 2016
Posted by: SHAKES
Cast: Channing Estell (Fiona), Melanie White (Octavia), Beth Posey (Tabitha), Alec Beiswenger (Jack), Matthew D. Whaley (Hector), Garrett Bass (Mark)
Credits: Writer/Producer/Editor: Kathryn Orsmbee; Writer/Director: Destiny Soria; Production assistants: Rebecca Campbell, Katie Carroll; Marketing: Nicole Williams; Dramaturg: Clare Thomson
Duration: Ongoing

The follow-up series, Weird Sisters, is more confidently filmed and performed than the first series. It features a new cast and a change of style, with much more camera-consciousness, the central conceit being that the story is being filmed by social psychology student Imogen, with the characters providing her with vlogs. It describes itself as a loose adaptation of Macbeth, focussing on three women roommates – a radio broadcaster, an artist and a law student, each of them residents in the town of Shakes – who gradually reveal that things are rather stranger than might first appear, as they admit to their connections with the supernatural. Having established that they are modern versions of the three witches, the connection with Macbeth rather fades away, which is a disappointment – and a missed opportunity. The series is ongoing, so maybe more connections with Macbeth will emerge. It would give the work more direction and purpose.

These web series productions represent a consideration commitment from amateur teams on a minimal budget, and are reinventing Shakespeare. That’s quite an achievement, and more of us should be taking note (sadly Weird Sisters has attracted few viewers so far). It’s just worth remembering that the more use you make of Shakespeare, the better the outcome is likely to be.

The Town’s the Thing play list
Weird Sisters play list
SHAKES website
SHAKES YouTube page
SHAKES Tumblr site

Lovely Little Losers

Date: 2015
Source: Lovely Little Losers
Cast: Reuben Hudson (Stanley Balthazar Jones), Jake McGregor (Benedick Hobbes), Bonnie Simmonds (Freddie Kingston), Caleb Wells (Peter Donaldson), Jessica Stansfield (Meg Winter), Harriett Maire (Beatrice Duke), Pearl Kennedy (Hero Duke), George Maunsell (John Donaldson), Phodiso Dintwe, Mouce Young, Ella McLeod, Daniel McBride, Kalisha Wasasala, Bronwyn Ensor, Robbie Nicol
Credits: Creators: The Candle Wasters; Writers: Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, Sally Bollinger; Directors: Elsie and Sally Bollinger; Producer: Minnie Grace; Production Designer: Claris Jacobs; Trailer Editor; Editors for the Series: Claris Jacobs, Elsie Bollinger, Minnie Grace, Sally Bollinger; Sound Director: Sarah Jessica Golding; Cinematographers: Claris Jacobs, Harriett Maire, Sally Bollinger; Production Runner: Calum Gittins; Clapper Loader: Elsie Bollinger, Jen Smith, Minnie Grace, Shannon-Mae Read; Lighting: Shannon-Mae Read, Sally Bollinger; Motion Graphics/VFX: Carlo Grunwald
Duration: 84 videos (including trailer)

The most imaginative, ambitious and successful works of Shakespeare on video at the moment are being produced by the Candle Wasters, a four-women creative team from New Zealand. Their first production was the multi-episode Not Much To Do, an updating to Much Ado About Nothing set among high school students in New Zealand. Lovely Little Losers, ingeniously structured as a sequel to the first series with some of the same characters (so you can find out what happened next to Beatrice and Benedick), adapts Love’s Labour’s Lost to the same twenty-first century New Zealand setting, with everyone now at university.

The set-up is that four students (three male, one female) at a Wellington university share a flat and have complicated personal lives, each being losers in one way or another. To impose some order on flat life, they decide to establish some rules, which include a curfew and a ban on all relationships, the central conceit of Love’s Labour’s Lost being that four companions deny themselves the company of women. The unfolding series then shows how impossible it is to live by such rules. The story is told through a series of vlogs and musical interludes, alongside accompanying social media feeds, in which the various characters reveal the thoughts and feelings natural to a generation accustomed to sharing everything and living in the presence of cameras.

The series takes a while to get going, riffing on the characters, and when the complication is added of the flat rules (in episode 14) it feels as forced and unlikely as does Shakespeare’s original. Certainly some among those of the series’ many followers were puzzled, as YouTube comments indicate, but once the premise has been established the series works through the assorted dilemmas and their resolution with wit and style. Every video trick in the book is used, usually self-referentially so, with the series building on lessons learned making Not Much To Do. One does think that the omnipresent camera pushes at the barriers of what even a twenty-first century student might be prepared to tolerate – to a degree that maybe one of the flat rules that might have been imposed could have been a ban on being filmed.

The contrivance of the situation is more than made up for by the freshness of the performances. The students are no more annoying than students have always been from Shakespeare’s time onward, and are played with a vivacity and conviction – by skillful cast – that clearly strikes a chord with followers of the series. The Shakespeareaness lies not only in the plot borrowing and in the use of his songs and sonnets, but in the forensic exploration of love and desire (straight and gay), and in the substitution of visual conceits for literary conceits. As with Not Much To Do, it shows how one way forward for Shakespeare in an online age is to free the plays from the two hours’ traffic of the stage and to break then down into their constituent parts, letting each of these take on a life of their own through sharing.

Lovely Little Losers ran throughout 2015, with eighty main episodes (each 3-5 minutes long), three extras and a trailer. You wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing in one go – it can get a bit samey (all those scenes in the one flat) and cute – but of course you’re not meant to. It’s there to be followed in fragments. The sequel to this sequel, Bright Summer Night (adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream) begins on July 8th…

The Candle Wasters
Lovely Little Losers YouTube playlist
Facebook account
Kickstarter page
Cast and crew links

King John

Date: 2015
Posted by: Hassan Jamal
Cast: B.T. Taylor (King John), Frank Ugochukwu (Messinger [sic]), Dr Lou (Death)
Credits: Homewood & Frankstown TV. Dr D (Camera Upload), Director/Camera (Hassan [Jamal])
Duration: 3.23

Here’s another example from the excellent L.A. Subway Shakespeare Project, the creation of post and playwright Hassan Jamal. The project is a series of black-and-white videos featuring African-American performers shot at metro stops around the Los Angeles. The virtue in the series in how exemplifies the best of ‘street Shakespeare’ – taking the poet’s words and giving them a raw immediacy through placing them in a modern street setting, with passers-by and traffic noises an essential part of the ambience. There’s a compulsion about the renditions, by which the street encourages the verse.

There scene here was filmed close by Leimert Park Crenshaw Metro Station. It’s a little-known passage from King John, specifically the king’s exchange with a messenger (bringing him bad news from France), from Act 4 Scene 2, beginning “They burn in indignation. I repent / There is no sure foundation set on blood” (though there is some free interpretation of the text). They meet on a street corner, while wide-eyed man gyrates in a way that says that either he is made or he knows that those around him are the truly mad (the credits reveal him to be Death). The words and finely spoken (especially by B.T. Taylor) and one feels the power of the exchange even if the precise reasons for it are unfamiliar. The camerawork is shaky, but that only adds to the sense of poetry torn from tradition on to a truer stage.

Other videos in the series are The Merchant of Venice, Othello, another Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Passionate Pilgrim.

Links: YouTube page

Ophelia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet Demo Speed Paint by Leilani Joy

Date: 2014
Posted by: Leilani Joy
Cast: None
Credits: Presented by Leilani Joy
Duration: 12.26

One of YouTube’s major functions – though probably not a function originally considered by its creators – is instructional. There as millions of videos on the site offering illustrated advice on anything from cookery tips to bathroom repairs. The most successful videos are those that combine visual clarity with engaging personality, as many are presented by the expert in question.

Shakespeare sometimes features in such videos, and here’s a good example. Leilani Joy in an American artist offering instruction in how to produce figurative illustrations, of the large-eyed kind. The distinctive touch she uses is speeded-up action (‘speed paint’) of the process. She has a large following, as can be gathered not only from the viewing figures, number of subscribers and the number of comments on each of her videos, but in the confident way in which she addresses her audience.

Her subject for this video is Ophelia (one of her ‘Muses’ series). She introduces her audience to earlier artworks on Ophelia (some classical, so less so), with the assumption that many of those in the audience will know little if anything about the play. She then goes into painting the drowned Ophelia (with tips on water effects), without any further comment on why she has chosen this scene or why it would have any particular appeal. The trope of Ophelia drowned is so embedded in the consciousness that it needs no further explanation. You don’t have to know Hamlet to know Ophelia. The video is striking testimony to Shakespearean iconography and and the handing on of myth.

Oh, and the finished artwork is available for sale.

Links: YouTube page
Leilani Joy’s website

Dr Seuss VS Shakespeare. Epic Rap Battles of History #12

Date: 2011
Posted by: Nice Peter
Cast: George Watsky (William Shakespeare), Nice Peter [Peter Shukoff] (The Cat in the Hat), EpicLLOYD [Lloyd Ahlquist] (Things 1 and 2)
Credits: Beat: Edward Cayce; Sean Barlett: Editing and Illustration
Duration: 2.50

There doesn’t seem to be any easy way of producing a list of what are the most viewed Shakespeare videos on YouTube, but there’s no arguing over which is the most popular of all. Currently boasting 79,272,036 views, this brash jape brings together William Shakespeare and the author of The Cat in the Hat in the promised epic rapping battle. First William Shakespeare fires off some piquant insults (“I’ll put a slug between your shoulder blades / Then ask what light through yonder poser breaks?), then The Cat responds (Dr Seuss himself remains silent throughout) with the expected retorts (“you bore people to death / you leave a classroom looking like the end of Macbeth”). Shakespeare fires back with a spectacularly rapid rap, gaining the others’ respect, only for the Cat to fight back with Things 1 and 2 … So who wins? You decide.

Epic Rap Battles of History is a massively popular YouTube series, indeed one of the leading channels on the site. The brainchild of Peter Shukoff (‘Nice Peter’) and Lloyd Ahlquist (‘EpicLLOYD’), it pits together historical and cultural figures, some fictional and some real, in comic contents that strike a successful balance between goofy humour and credible rap. Indeed the music tracks themselves have been released as successful singles, which along with an accompanying live show hour help support the high quality of the video productions. Others in the series include Darth Vader vs. Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein vs. Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates, and Romeo and Juliet vs Bonnie and Clyde. The series began in 2010 and to date has reached five ‘seasons’, earning a number of Streamy awards along the way.

So what does this tells us about Shakespeare? He’s a guy in tights with a skull who uses weird words but must be honoured nonetheless. He strikes a peculiar balance between clown and sage, someone instantly recognisable yet never quite understood. It’s akin to the confusion that we feel when we look at the disappointing portraits of the man and try to square the balding bourgeois with our feelings of what a poet must look like within. He is pitted against Dr Seuss as one tongue-twister versus another, each playing with words for their own sake, each born rappers. It’s a video about mastery of language. It’s about respect for the man, no matter how he dresses.

There is – inevitably – a behind the scenes video as well.

Links: YouTube page
Epic Rap Battles of History site
Epic Rap Battles of History forum
Wikipedia entry on Epic Rap Battles of History