Wednesday, April 23, 2014

S is for Shakespeare

credit: Columbia University Library

I know I am jumping ahead a bit, and solemnly promise to go back and do P, Q and R. plus I am cheating on the title, because I had been doing book titles, and here I am with an author, but the circumstances are unique because today is William Shakespeare's 450th birthday, and how could I pass that up?

I have to admit that although I read Shakespeare in high school, I didn't fully appreciate him, and I know why.  It was because we were reading Shakespeare's plays rather than watching them.  It's important to remember these were works for the stage, and in fact plays were seldom ever printed before Shakespeare's time so they existed only in performance. 

I never would have learned to love Shakespeare had it not been for the BBC. Their decision in the late 70's and early 80's to film every Shakespeare play was groundbreaking. Before that only a handful of the plays had been filmed, several of them repeatedly, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Taming of the Shrew, Henry V among them.  But now they were all to be filmed, and being British they had a pool of the best actors in the world to work with. The BBC productions were then aired on PBS stations in the US.  Thus it was my good fortune to sit down one night and watch Derek Jacobi in Richard II.

For the first time I was caught up emotionally in a Shakespeare play. I cared about the characters. The next year they aired Sir Derek's Hamlet and I was even more impressed. 

Another actor did a lot to teach me about Shakespeare too, and that was Ian McKellen, who around this same time did a film of his one man show "Acting Shakespeare".  What mattered here was not only his acting, but the insight he gave to the characters, especially his analysis of the final soliloquy from Macbeth.  For the first time I really started thinking about the meaning of the words themselves.

Since then I have had the opportunity to study Shakespeare at depth in college, to watch and work on some fine productions of his plays, and to watch a number of excellent films as well. (My favorite is probably Kenneth Branaugh's film of Henry V.)

I want to say for the record that I am not a believer in any of the various Shakespeare didn't write his plays conspiracy theories.  The aspersions cast upon his lack of family, biographical information, and education are meaningless, and I could use the same argument to claim that someone of Abraham Lincoln's background couldn't have written the Gettysburg Address. 

I haven't had much luck interesting my children in Shakespeare as yet, although I did run the Battle of Agincourt scene from Henry V for the Boy when he was learning about the battle and the efficiency of longbows vs crossbows.  He memorized the St Crispian Day speech and intends to pull it out if he ever needs lines of Shakespeare for a class.
(Mind you, if you are only going to know one bit of Shakespeare, its a good bit.)

I remind myself though that, as noted above, I didn't find Shakespeare till I was almost 20, so there's plenty of time.

There is an added element to Shakespeare in performance that no other writer matches--for actors they are like marathons--in which they test themselves against every other actor who has played the parts before them. Moreover, for the last 100 years or so, a lot of the best performances have been recorded, so everyone in the audience knows what has gone before as well.  No wonder so many performers consider Shakespeare the ultimate challenge.

So happy birthday Will, and thanks for all the great words.


  1. I was hoping for cake....My teens are hating Shakespeare right now. I actually took a semester of Bill in college as well, and had almost started to appreciate/understand him when it ended!

    1. My daughter is about read Shakespeare in school, exceept not really because it's called "Shakespeare made simple" and it has Will's words on one side of the page, and modern language on the other side, and you know every last kid will just read the transsliteration!

  2. Shakespeare needs to be heard and, with these actors you have chosen, his words become real. thanks for posting. Mary Dell, Grown and Flown

    1. Thank you Mary. My daughter is reading Macbeth in school right now. We talked about how Will was sucking up to King James and how the play is supposed to be jinxed. Having a lot of fun with it.

  3. Shakespeare always reminds me of Joel. "Don't phone me the performance…" ;)

  4. All that on raunchiness on stage during "As You Like It" and how much those high school kids enjoyed the play.
    Those were the days...