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The Ides Of March Madness: 'Who's Gonna Stop Prospero?'

Paul Edward O'Brien, a stage actor, poet, and oncologist, delivered a Game Day-style analysis of how William Shakespeare's plays would match up in a tournament bracket.
Wesley Moore
Paul Edward O'Brien, a stage actor, poet, and oncologist, delivered a Game Day-style analysis of how William Shakespeare's plays would match up in a tournament bracket.

What if William Shakespeare's plays faced off in a tournament, like basketball squads spewing Elizabethan verse? That's the idea behind a bracket that pits 32 of the bard's plays against each another, in a contest arranged by New York's New Victory Theater.

Much like the NCAA basketball tournament that inspired it, the theater has been tallying votes and updating its bracket on its road to Stratford-upon-Avon.

But for some Shakespearean scholars, merely emulating the college tourney's machinery is not enough. There must be a method to the madness. And for stage actor Paul O'Brien of Charleston, S.C., that means breaking down the matchups not only by the plays' popularity but by their characters.

"Iago's got mad skills," O'Brien notes in discussing the villain of Othello, "but let's face it, he still hasn't learned how to be a team player."

O'Brien created a Game Day-style analysis, sharpening the bluster of sports talk with incisive literary criticism as he broke down the bracket's four "regions" of Tragedy, History, Comedy, and Problem.

Here are some of our favorite excerpts:

"Yea, sure, Falstaff doesn't always come ready to play, but hey, you got Hotspur coming off the bench. Gimme a break! Henry IV wins and then beats the Romans, who really just don't have their act together enough to go too deep in this tourney."

"As for Comedy, here's some comedy: Twelfth Night over The Tempest. Are you crazy? Who's gonna stop Prospero when he's in the zone? Viola? The Duke? Malvolio? Malvolio??"

"I'll take Hamlet by a couplet at the buzzer."

O'Brien's full breakdown of Shakespeare's plays was recently featured on the blog You Do Hoodoo? by Wesley Moore, who heads the English department at Charleston's Porter Gaud School. Moore says O'Brien is a former student who's had "an interesting career" that currently includes acting, poetry, and oncology.

Moore also convinced O'Brien to give a dramatic reading of what we'll call his "Shakedown."

O'Brien gave his analysis early in the New Victory's Shakespeare tournament. As of this weekend, the tourney is down to its championship rung – the finals pit Hamlet against Much Ado About Nothing, in a true contrast of styles. If you're interested in voting, you have until Monday at noon.

The biggest upset so far would seem to be The Tempest's second-round loss to Twelfth Night – a result, possibly, of Tempest cruising after an early trouncing of Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Another first-round matchup pitted brutality against guile: Titus Andronicus vs. Othello. We can only assume Othello spent a lot of time at the free-throw line in that one.

The New Victory Theater's Shakespeare championship bracket pits <em>Hamlet</em> against <em>Much Ado About Nothing</em> in the final.
/ New Victory Theater
New Victory Theater
The New Victory Theater's Shakespeare championship bracket pits Hamlet against Much Ado About Nothing in the final.

If you're surprised by the Cinderella-story aspect of Much Ado's presence in the finals, you're not alone. A commenter on New Victory's Facebook page suggested that a 2013 film adaptation of that play might have helped it build support. Another simply stated, "I call shenanigans."

The theater insists the results reflect the voters' choices.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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