Friday, April 23, 2010

Loving Shakespeare

Poor William Shakespeare.

So many folks automatically make a face when they hear his name. I used to work with a woman who would wrinkle her nose and announce loudly, "I hate Shakespeare," the moment she heard me refer to him. Never mind that she hadn't read anything by him since leaving high school many years earlier. She hated him and that was all there was to it.

Me? I love the guy. He was funny, he was brilliant, he was amazing. He had a vocabulary of over 60,000 words. Most of us - then and now - do well to have 20,000 words (and we all use far less in our everyday lives).

This guy loved words. He breathed words. He ate words three times a day and for his bedtime snack as well. I bet he moved in a constant cloud of words - in his head, on his tongue, in his heart.

And the phases and words he gave us! Chances are with so many of them that Shakespeare said it first. What the dickens! The game is up! For goodness sake! Vanished into thin air! Tongue-tied! Fair play! Seen better days! In a pickle!

It's Greek to me (yes, his words) why Shakespeare has such a bad rap.

In defense of Shakespeare, it's not his fault. He has often been badly taught by too many poorly prepared teachers. Not understanding the Bard themselves, they pass their own confusion and disdain on to their students, who, like my former coworker, end up hating Shakespeare. I still remember the "Meet the Teacher" night several years ago when Sam's literature teacher for the year brandished with great glee a CliffNotes edition of Julius Caesar, reassuring us that it would make Shakespeare "so much easier" (apparently for her).

A pox on both her houses! I wanted to send her packing.

As luck would have it, I had good fortune in abundance when it came to Shakespeare. Before I ever started high school, I had a summer camp cabin mate, a year older and infinitely wiser in the ways of high school literature, advise me that the way to "get" Shakespeare was to read him out loud for the rhythm and feel of his dialogue. She was right. Second, I went through high school during a magical era that, looking back, I can only call the Golden Age of English at Hayes. Kay Hearn, Steve Tobias, Arlene Gregory, Roberta Rollins - these were my guides to Shakespeare (and others). Shakespeare wrote plays that spanned the breadth of the human experience and I am forever indebted to those teachers for helping me glimpse the depth and reach of his writings.

There was no such as thing as too much of a good thing when it came to Shakespeare, as far as I was (and still am) concerned.

Part of the reason Shakespeare sets our teeth on edge is our own fault. We forget to put him in the right context. We pigeonhole his plays into tiny, airless slots of formality. He suffers from an overabundance of High Culture.

Put yourself in Elizabethan England. Performances were held at the Globe, an open air theatre. They were held during the day because there was no night lighting. If you had money, you sat in the galleries to watch. If you had a lot of money, you sat right on stage. If you were one of the masses, as most playgoers were, a penny bought you the right to stand on the ground at stage level. There were no elaborate sets, few costumes. There was no acoustical engineering, let alone mics, amps, and sound systems. Lines were shouted. The pace was fast - the actors had to hold the audience's attention as well as move the play along so it would be done before darkness descended.

So you had this sea of humanity (plays were well-attended in Elizabethan London), many of them mere feet away from actors strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, members of the audience calling out comments and adding to the dialogue, and everyone - everyone! - talking about the play as it finished and the audience exited in waves. Shakespeare was the talk of the town as well as the toast of the town.

And what did we do to poor Will Shakespeare? We slowed him down. We put him in a suit and tie, or at least a velvet doublet. We made him sit up straight and comb his hair. No wonder so many bid him good riddance once they finish high school lit classes.

Far too many are hoodwinked into thinking of Shakespeare as this creaky ancient incomprehensible dead dude that has absolutely nothing to say to us in our modern world, when in face he has everything to say.

Several years ago, a group known as Shakespeare Express performed "The Taming of the Shrew" at our local college. The troupe was known for its fast-paced, minimalist but accurate performances of Shakespeare's works. They performed in Gray Chapel, where our Symphony plays. Gray Chapel was the perfect venue, because the seating begins right at the stage's edge, not unlike the Globe in Shakespeare's time. Some audience members were seated on the stage. The actors played without sound equipment and with the simplest of stage props. They performed at breakneck pace and they were superb. I had two seventh grade boys with me that night - an age and gender notoriously considered "Shakespeare inappropriate" - and they were both blown away by a work written some 400 years earlier.

I wish more young people met Shakespeare that way, instead of through (shudder) CliffNotes hawked by the teacher. It is high time we had a Shakespeare immersion program in this country. I can imagine troupes of actors barnstorming from town to town bringing Shakespeare - the real Shakespeare, the plays as he meant them to be performed - to all of us.

I like to think of Will Shakespeare in our era. I bet he would be on Facebook. For sure he would love YouTube. A blogger? Maybe not. After all, the play's the thing.

Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally celebrated April 23rd, and this year marks his 446th one. I'd love to have a cake with that many candles on it for him. I'll settle for a cupcake.

And that's the long and the short of it (yep, you got it - he said it).


Small Town Girl-13 said...

haha i'm one of those people that makes a face. He is a great poet but toooooo confusing. we just got done with Macbeth. YUCK

April said...

Sorry--Macbeth is my favorite play!