Today is the Ides of March, the anniversary of the date when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a mob of senators in Rome, including his friend Marcus Brutus. My son [amazon_link id="B0006OBPSQ" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ][/amazon_link]Overthinker first learned this at Shakespeare in the Park when he was about six, which led him to believe that ‘senator’ meant ‘murderer’. Scarred for life, I tell you.
William Shakespeare was a playwright who was successful in his own lifetime, who left a legacy of stories and poems that have permeated western society ever since. My own personal introduction to Shakespeare was almost certainly the Olivia Hussey/Leonard Whiting Romeo and Juliet from 1968. It was beautifully produced, and even to a child watching it on a grainy black and white television with poor reception, it was magical and tragic. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the pair were a couple of idiots who had ample opportunities throughout the play to make better choices, but that is the magic of [amazon_link id="0792165055" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ][/amazon_link]Shakespeare.
I didn’t get to see a Shakespearean play in production until high school, when in one golden year I had the role of Peaseblossom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, saw that same production at UC Santa Barbara (where BOTH of the ass’s heads grew. O. M. G.!) and saw a memorable production ‘in the round’ of the Scottish Play in which Lady Macbeth was [amazon_link id="B00443FMKM" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ][/amazon_link]portrayed as a sympathetic character. By the way, Patrick Stewart was the perfect Macbeth in his version.
By that time, I had read most of the comedies, over half of the tragedies, and had skimmed the historicals. I had also made a dent in reading the sonnets. I kept returning to Shakespeare over and over as I grew up and older, bringing life experience to my understanding of the plays, and appreciating the many ways Shakespeare influences the culture I live in.
[amazon_link id="B0038RSJ0U" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ][/amazon_link]I have seen many stage and film productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and have enjoyed most of them from the most true to Elizabethan sympathies to those that were most avant garde. I have argued with Husband over favorite and least favorite versions of Hamlet, the role of Kenneth Branaugh in bringing Shakespeare to the last couple of generations, and whether or not the Much Ado About Nothing with Branaugh and Emma Thompson was sublime (I vote it was).
Since moving to the Kansas City area in the 1990s, I have been blessed to be a regular attendee at Shakespeare in the Park put on by the Heartland Shakespeare Festival,(music plays when you open the link) where one or two plays are performed by a professional acting troupe free to the general public. Each year we make a picnic dinner, call friends and family to join us, and spend at least one evening enjoying the bard under the stars (or on several memorable occasions, under the raindrops). This year’s choice is As You Like It, and I am thrilled because it is one of the few comedies I have yet to see performed.
I have been told that some people “hate” Shakespeare. That may be true. In my experience, “hating” Shakespeare usually translates as “Elizabethan English is difficult to understand and intimidating, and I don’t want to look stupid”, but sometimes the “hate” has another root. Some people were forced into watching or reading Shakespeare’s plays too early or by a poor teacher. Others dislike the human frailty writ large that is a constant theme of his plays.
For those of you who are intimidated by Shakespeare, remember that the people who saw his plays during his lifetime were more like the Monster Truck Rally fans of today than like those who go to the opera. They threw rotten produce at the stage, heckled the actors and yelled obscenities, and were usually thoroughly drunk by (at least) the second act.
With all this in mind, let’s dance today’s dance:
- Do you love Shakespeare’s plays? Hate them? Are you indifferent?
- How many of the plays have you read? Seen on television or in the theater? Seen performed live?
- How many adaptations and spoofs and riffs on Shakespeare have you seen?
- Which are your favorite of the plays? Do you have a favorite type of play (comedy, tragedy, historical)?
- Do you have troubles with Elizabethan English, or are you pretty comfortable with it? How did you get comfortable with it, if you are?
- Before you watch a play, do you read it to refresh yourself on how to think in Shakespearean terms?
- Who do you think is the best Shakespearean actor of modern times (male and female)? What is the best production of a Shakespearean play that you have ever seen?
- What character in Shakespeare’s plays calls to you? What character leaves you cold, or irritates, or offends you?
- Which of Shakespeare’s plays do you think translate worst into modern times? Which translate best?
- Do you believe any of the various theories about who ‘really’ wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Why or why not?
- What do you think about Shakespeare’s handling of female characters? Characters from different subcultures and social strata?
- How often do you notice references to Shakespeare as you wander through life? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Less or more often?
- Have you ever seen Shakespeare performed by a non-English speaking troupe? A non-Western troupe? How did the sensibilities of the new language or culture add or detract from your enjoyment? Your understanding of Shakespeare?
- Many people say that Shakespeare’s plays have “universal appeal”. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
As always, pass this around to your friends and family, add your comment whether you find this the day it’s written or years later, and keep on dancing.
- ‘New’ Shakespeare play rediscovered (4writersandreaders.com)
- All William Shakespeare’s plays translated into Punjabi over 20 years (telegraph.co.uk)
- Is Your Language a Shakespearean Feast, or Have You ‘Stol’n the Scraps’? (motherboard.vice.com)