Happy 450th Birthday to William Shakespeare!

Today, April 23, 2014, marks the birth of William Shakespeare, exactly 450 years ago. Shakespeare’s process of play writing began in 1591 with Henry the Sixth, Part One and ended with the The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613, three years before Shakespeare died, on his birthday, in 1616.


William Shakespeare (April 23, 1564-April 23, 1616).

However, I would bet that at no point in his illustrious career did Will ever dream that over 400 years later, his plays would still be read, studied, performed, and brought into mediums that did not exist in his day, such as television and film.

I would like to focus a bit on the latter two, as well as music and songs inspired by Shakespeare. Each of Shakespeare’s plays was at one time filmed and shown on BBC, and these versions can sometimes be found on DVD. And of course, movies of Shakespeare’s films have made their appearance as well. Laurence Olivier did many Shakespeare films, and he did some stage acting as well. However, I think that Olivier’s version of Hamlet, may be one of the earliest filmed versions of the play.


“Alas, poor Yorick!” Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet.

More recently, Kenneth Branagh directed, and usually starred in, film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. These are the ones that I own and have watched countless times. His first one was Henry V, where Branagh played the title character, in 1989. These were followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006). Henry V, Much Ado, and Hamlet were film adaptations of the full play; and as Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, the movie is 242 minutes (4 hours and 2 minutes) long, and split onto two DVDs or two Blu-ray discs. However, it is the best and most comprehensive film version of Hamlet that I have seen yet, and it is well worth the time spent watching it.

Love's Labour's Lost-Branagh

A scene from Branagh’s musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Branagh’s version of Love’s Labour’s Lost is in the style of a 1930s musical. The dialogue in between songs is strictly Shakespeare’s words, but included are song and dance numbers to famous musical songs such as “I’d Rather Charleston”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” among many others; not to mention that there is also some tap dancing in iambic pentameter. As I mentioned, the dialogue is Shakespeare’s, and so is the plot, it’s just set in a later time period with musical numbers that move the story along. Still a lot of fun to watch.


Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the film version of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

A 1966 play by Tom Stoppard called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a comedic play told from the viewpoint of the two title characters, who are of course, somewhat minor characters, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play was made into a movie in 1991 starring Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Richard Dreyfuss as the Player, and Iain Glen as Hamlet. The play and the movie are both hilarious, and it is a brilliant retelling of Hamlet seen through the eyes of his two friends, who really don’t know what their doing in Elsinore to begin with.

And in 2012, Joss Whedon did a version of Much Ado About Nothing. The movie is in black and white, was filmed over a span of a few days at Whedon’s home, and takes place in the present day, but using Shakespeare’s language. The film includes Clark Gregg (Don Leonato), Nathan Fillion (Constable Dogberry), Sean Maher (Don John), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Acker (Beatrice), Fran Kranz (Claudio) and Jillian Morgese (Hero).

Benedick and Beatrice-Whedon

Alexis Denisof (Benedick) and Amy Acker (Beatrice) in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.

There was also a new version of Romeo and Juliet released last year with Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the title characters.

The Broadway musical “Kiss Me, Kate” was adapted from Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. This show had many wonderful songs, however my favorite one is a song called “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. It’s a fun song, with many puns using the title of Shakespeare’s plays, and the song is enjoyable even if you’ve never seen the play, though it is a good show and I do recommend it. There is also a longer version of the song; the one in “Kiss Me, Kate” is shorter. It’s good too of course, but if one were going to look for this song, I would suggest finding the full version of it.

Kiss Me, Kate

Movie poster for “Kiss Me, Kate”.

Speaking of musicals and songs, the musical “Hair” has a song called “What A Piece of Work Is Man”, which of course is from Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. The song uses Hamlet’s entire speech from this scene and puts it to music, and even though it doesn’t rhyme as most songs do, it is done beautifully.

One more note on Shakespearean-themed songs: in the late 1990s, there was an animated television show called “Histeria!”, it aired on Kids’ WB and was a show about history and historical events that were told in a factual, yet humorous way. They did one episode on famous writers, and this of course, included Shakespeare. The cast then did an entire song where they told the plots of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t believe that show is on DVD, but one may be able to find the song somewhere, maybe on YouTube or something like that. Anyway, it’s a great song if you can find it.

The Comedy of Errors-Folger Edition

Folger Library Edition of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.

I’m certain that there are some stage, film, television, and song adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that I did not mention here, and of course, any of them are worth checking out. And I encourage anyone, if you have never read one of Will’s plays, pick one up. If you think you won’t understand it, I have seen versions of his plays where they have the original text alongside modern English. Read the modern English, and then go back and read it the way it was originally written, and you’ll see that Shakespeare’s language isn’t too hard to grasp, and that in fact, many things that he said then, have the same meaning and translation today.

And if you, like me, have read Shakespeare’s plays, keep doing so, and continue to find ways to share his work.

Ben Jonson was a contemporary playwright of Shakespeare’s; Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men, often performed Jonson’s plays at the Globe. Upon the death of Shakespeare, Jonson wrote a long, touching, and beautiful poem in memory of William Shakespeare. Just Google: Ben Jonson’s poem about Shakespeare–and you should be able to find it.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson.

I will end here with a poem that I wrote about Shakespeare. However, I will preface this by saying that I am writer, but I am not a poet. So I know that this poem isn’t among the greatest, could have probably been a lot better, and certainly pales in comparison to Jonson’s poem. I have a deep level of respect for poets and their ability to take words and phrases and transform them into beautiful and visionary verses, rhyming or not. And I love to read poetry, but writing it is a whole other animal, and not something I excel in. Yet, I decided to give it a shot, so here it is:


Birthday Ballad for the Bard


In Stratford-Upon-Avon was a boy born,

on April twenty-third, fifteen sixty-four.


For John and Mary Shakespeare

having lost two daughters previously,

now had their first son to hold dear.

The oldest of six was he.


However, no one yet knew what treasures William Shakespeare would bring,

to the world on and off the stage.

For he was to teach us that ‘the play’s the thing’

and his wonderful wit would soon fill many a page.


He was married to Hathaway, first name Anne,

Susanna was their first child, then the twins Judith and Hamnet.

And so in order to support his clan,

William left to find trade in his talent.


In London, Will found the King’s Men

and joined their acting troupe.

Full plays he would write for them with ink and pen,

he was a well-respected member of their group.


His first play was Henry the Sixth, a history,

and from here would he write thirty-six more.

Will also composed a total of four works of poetry.

Not to mention his sonnets; all one-hundred and fifty-four.


Most noted for his dramatic works though,

Shakespeare presented us with some of today’s most well-known plays.

Many words and phrases to him do we owe.

We use them to these very days.


Amongst his famous histories

were Henry the Fifth and Richard the Third.

Characters like Falstaff gave us comic memories

and the past brought to life through Will’s every word.


His comedies include such celebrated titles as

Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

To make us laugh, these and many others written he has,

with frivolity as their collective theme.


Tragedies by him of course are well-noted,

giving us Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.

Darker plays, though often well-quoted,

of usurpation, ill-fated love, and death.


Will gave us lore as timeless as he is,

and as legendary too.

For his words and wit, ageless ‘tis,

Gentle Shakespeare, we owe much to you.


These characters, and these plays, all are Shakespeare’s,

and timeless, he will last much longer, than even another 450 years.



Happy birthday Mr. William Shakespeare!  And now, to use my favorite stage direction by the Bard…

(Exit, pursued by a bear).



The Ladies of War

In June of last year, I did a blog post on the Lady Hawkins titled “Death of A Lady”. She was one of five Lady Boats that were built as luxury liners, yet ended up partaking in World War Two. I wrote about that one Lady Boat in particular because my great-grandfather, Ervin Oscar Allen, was one of the many people who perished when that boat was sunk by a U-boat in World War Two. I mentioned the other Lady Boats, yet only fleetingly.

-Lady- Liner Voyages

Advertisement for the “Lady Liners”.

However, in doing more research, not only on the Lady Hawkins, but the five Lady Liners in general, I realized that it doesn’t seem right to focus on only one of the ships, when the other four also took part in the war, and suffered losses as well. So here, I want to focus on the other four Lady Boats; I will not go into much detail about the Lady Hawkins as I have already written about her, and anyone who is interested may go back to that particular blog to read about her.

All five boats were named for the wives of Elizabethan British admirals that had a connection to the West Indies. They were owned by Canadian National Steamships Co. Ltd, and built by Cammel Laird & Co.

The Lady Liners were built for Canada-West Indies service, and consisted of two different lines: an eastern-route one and a western-route one. Three of the five ships, Lady Nelson, Lady Hawkins, and Lady Drake were the three eastern-route ships. They could each carry 130 first-class passengers, 32 second-class, 56 third-class, and 120 deck passengers. They also had 4,179 square feet available for general cargo, with an additional 554 square feet for refrigerated cargo.

On the western route were the Lady Somers and Lady Drake. Both weighed 4,665 tons and could accommodate the same number of  cabin passengers as their sister ships, yet carried no deck passengers. Their general cargo space was 4,760 square feet, with 594 square feet for refrigerated cargo.

Lady Somers

HMS Lady Somers.

The five ships shared roughly the same overall dimensions; 437 feet long and 59 feet wide. They had four oil-fired boilers that propelled them along at the speed of 15 knots. The total cost to build the five ships was $8,106,542.32.

Lady Nelson at 7,970 tons, was the first ship built and was launched on her maiden voyage out of Halifax on Dec. 14, 1928; Lady Hawkins (7,988 tons) and Lady Drake (7,985 tons) soon followed her.

All five ships served as luxury liners from their launch until the war began. Flags were raised and lowered everyday in a formal ceremony. Captains and service officers wore uniform frock coats when sailing and when arriving at a home port. Dinner was a full-dress affair, and was announced by a cornet playing “The Roast Beef of Old England”. A two-week, roundtrip cruise, typically ran at $95. Lady Somers offered a “honeymoon special” during one summer, for $85. Liquor was plentiful and cheap; one captain became legendary when he appeared on the bridge of his ship while at sea, demanding to know where his ship was.

However, the Lady Boats entered into service just as the Great Depression sat in, which dramatically affected their revenues. Nonetheless, their futures were assured by the outbreak of WWII, and their sparkling white had to be painted in a duller wartime gray.

Lady Hawkins

HMS Lady Hawkins.

For the first year of the war, the Lady Boats were unaffected. However, in October 1940, the Lady Somers was requested by the Canadian government, who converted her to an auxiliary armed cruiser. She became the first Canadian merchant ship to go to war, and she assisted in enforcing the blockade against occupied Europe. Less than a year later though, she was sunk in the Bay of Biscay,on July 16, 1941.

The Lady Hawkins, under the command of Captain Huntley Osborne Giffen, was the next one to meet her unfortunate fate, when she was sunk on January 19, 1942. Commanded by Kapitänleutnant Richard Zapp, U-66 torpedoed Lady Hawkins off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. She set sail on January 16th with 321 passengers and crew; 71 of them survived after spending five days adrift in the only remaining lifeboat, whose maximum capacity was 63.  Seventy-six of the survivors made it into the lifeboat, yet five of them lost their lives before they were rescued by the S.S. Coamo.

Lady Nelson

HMS Lady Nelson.

Two months later, in March 1942 the Lady Nelson was torpedoed by U-161, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Albrecht Achilles, alongside the coast of Castries, St. Lucia. Like the Lady Hawkins, Lady Nelson was struck by two torpedoes. The first one struck  Lady Nelson, while the second struck a British ship. The first torpedo sunk the Lady Nelson immediately, and killed 15 passengers and three crewmen. She sank in a shallow harbor and was eventually refloated and repaired. In April 1943, the Lady Nelson was converted into Canada’s first hospital ship; she was commissioned on April 22, 1943, carrying 515 beds and completing 30 unscathed voyages by February 1946, bringing home 25,000 wounded men.

Lady Nelson hospital ship

HMS Lady Nelson fitted as a hospital ship.

Lady Drake was now under the command of Percy Ambrose Kelly, who only four months earlier had survived the Lady Hawkins catastrophe. Kelly commanded the lifeboat and rationed the little bit of food and drink available to them. He was later hailed by the other Lady Hawkins survivors as a hero and they credited him with saving their lives. For his bravery and leadership after the sinking, Kelly was subsequently awarded the Lloyd’s Medal For Bravery, and he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

On May 8, 1942 Kelly would relive the tragic events of the Lady Hawkins sinking, though on a lesser scale. Whilst traveling from Bermuda to St. John,  Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch’s U-106 struck the vessel. Lady Drake sank slowly; twelve people lost their lives, yet 260 made it to the lifeboats. One survivor would later recall that, “Nobody even got their feet wet.”  A liner was spotted coming toward the lifeboats the next morning at dawn. It came toward them at a high speed, before sailing away just as quickly. It was the Queen Mary sailing on her way to New York. She had been pressed into service as a fast troopship, and could not stop for the survivors because of the danger posed by lurking submarines. As she sailed away however, her lamp repeatedly signaled, “I will report…I will report.” On the third morning, an American  minesweeper, USS Owl, picked up the survivors and took them to Bermuda.

HMS Lady Drake.

By now, four of the five Lady Boats had been sunk, thus convincing the Canadian Royal Navy that there was a need for escorts. Now, when the Lady Rodney sailed, she was accompanied by an RCN corvette. She remained the only Lady Boat not sunk during the war, even though she did have a few narrow escapes when spotted by U-boats. By the end of the war, Lady Rodney had safely transported nearly 60,000 troops and 66,000 passengers.

She was captained by Edward LeBlanc and had quite an ordeal when it came time to paint the ship gray. While traveling south from Montreal, a radio message announced that war had been declared against Germany, thus the crew began to paint the ship gray. However, when they reached Bermuda, they were told that Canada was not at war and that no changes were to be made, so the crew painted the Lady Rodney back to her original white while en route to the Bahamas. But when they reached Nassau, they were informed that Canada was now at war and that the ship would have to be painted gray.  Captain LeBlanc was not very pleased about the third repainting of his ship in the short period of only a few days.

HMS Lady Rodney.

In the end, Lady Nelson and Lady Rodney were the only Lady Liners to survive the war. Postwar, in 1946, they were used to bring war brides and their children home from Britain to Canada through Halifax. These expeditions were called Diaper Specials and they continued for one year. They were sold to Egypt in 1952 for $750,000. In Alexandria, they were refitted and repainted, and then used to carry passengers in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Lady Nelson was renamed Gumhuryat Misr, for Alexandria’s Khedivial Mail Line. In 1960, and for the same company, she was renamed again, this time she was called Alwadi. She was broken up in Egypt in 1968.

Lady Rodney was renamed Mecca, and then was ultimately scuttled in 1967.

Gumhuryat Misr

Gumhuryat Misr, formerly Lady Nelson.


Mecca, formerly Lady Rodney.