We Love Shakespeare
In the annabelle poll, Shakespeare was mentioned four times in the Biggest Waste of Time category. Put a dagger through my heart, why don't you? No other author has had a greater impact on my life than that Brit with the goatee and funny ruffle collar, and it astounds me that there are people in this world who don't appreciate his genius as much as I do.
Okay, maybe I'm a bit biased. I admit I'm one of those sickening Anglophiles that is drawn to anything with a Union Jack on it like a hound to a fox. When I was a ten, I begged my "mum" to take me to the beauty salon so I could get the Lady Di haircut. I had high tea in the afternoon and went around saying"bloody"this and "bloody" that. And, I was sure that the day my prince was to come, he was going to ride up in an Aston Martin and be an Englishman that looked just like Pierce Brosnan from Remington Steele. I couldn't understand why destiny dumped me in a dry, desert landscape called Texas, and not my beloved England.
Around this same period, I decided I not only wanted to be British, but I also wanted to be a British actress. I aspired to be Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Glenda Jackson, and Julie Christie - all rolled into one. As far as I could discern from public television, the source for my English culture education, all of the great English actors were great stage actors and they all toured around the countryside performing Shakespeare for the masses in theatREs called The Globe. To my chagrin, my hometown amateur theater company performed musicals like Bye, Bye, Birdie, in the eighth-grade school auditorium. My dream of tomato-tossing groundlings and verse-speaking players would never come true.
So, you can imagine how delighted I was when my ninth-grade English teacher announced the class would be reading Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Gasp! My prayers had finally been answered. However, her way of teaching Shakespeare was vastly different from how I imagined English schoolchildren learned Shakespeare. I envisioned jaunts to the theater to witness his text in action. Or, famous guest actors would come to the class to act out scenes and then answer our questions. Or, the students would act out scenes themselves - that would have been brilliant! Instead, she explained how he wrote his plays in iambic pentameter (da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum). This put about half the class to sleep. We were assigned to memorize Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" speech. Then, each one of us had to go up to the podium and regurgitate the speech to the class. This put the other half of the class to sleep, including our teacher. Why she thought this would be a great introduction to the playwright many consider to be the greatest Western literary figure ever is beyond me. Had I not been an Anglophilic aspiring actress, I would have cast aside the bard forever and studied Neil Simon instead.
Fortunately for me, after college I moved to New York City and found a group of like-minded bardolaters. Our very British leader, Rosey Hay, guided this group of roughly a dozen participants through Elizabethan England. We discussed everything from their mindset being based on the Great Chain of Being (a hierarchy system with God at the top followed by angels, demons, mankind, animals, plants, minerals) to the ideology of rightful kingship seen in all of Shakespeare's history plays. We studied the rhetorical complexity of Shakespeare's thoughts, antithesis, irony, imagery, the way he had his characters build lists to help them resolve thoughts. Iambic pentameter was explained as more than just a heartbeat, it was a rhythm in the character and if a character went off his or her rhythm, we understood the character was grappling with some pretty heavy emotional stuff. We became familiar with Alexander Schmidt's Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary: A Complete Dictionary of All the English Words, Phrases, and Constructions in the Works of the Poet, because just knowing the gist of a thought is not enough to truly appreciate it.
Rosey also brought in wonderful guest lecturers. Patsy Rodenberg, head of voice at London's National Theater and author of Speaking Shakespeare and The Right to Speak, taught us how to "breathe" Shakespeare's words and speak the speech with integrity as opposed to laying on our modern-day judgments and pop psychology (reminder, there were no therapists in Shakespeare's time). Richard Crawford, a fantastic movement teacher and founding member of NYC's Flying Machine, conveyed to us the importance of feeling the words in our bodies and how there is no room for generalizing in acting, especially in Elizabethan drama.
We kept coming back to the workshop because we all shared a passion for the work. Once I had a taste of Shakespeare's brilliance, I didn't want to go back to life without him. Patsy Rodenberg would repeatedly say Shakespeare is a "lifetime's work," which sounded intimidating at first, but became gloriously apparent the more I delved into his world.
Looking back on those five years I spent in a studio every Saturday afternoon for four hours, I realize I wasn't just studying Shakespeare. I was basically going to church - the Church of Will. There isn't an author or work of literature out there that has given me a greater community of compatible truth seekers. I haven't found characters I can relate to that are as separate, richly drawn, and human as those that Shakespeare has created. I haven't found a sharper mirror that says, "Here, reflect on this."Most importantly, before meeting Shakespeare's characters and living through their heightened predicaments, I don't think I knew what it meant to feel deeply. Maybe that's why Shakespeare intimidates so many. We live in a world where feeling deeply means being truthful, and that's not very fashionable these days.
And what's more....
Even if you are not an actor or an English lit major, there are compelling reasons why you should be familiar with Shakespeare. Imagine this scenario: You are at a cocktail party and someone holds up a human skull (ok, this is a Halloween cocktail party) and starts to speak to it, calling the skull "Poor Yorrick." You are sympathetic and ask, "Who is Yorrick, was that your Uncle who just died?" Cue laughter and under-the-breath comments about your dumbass-ness.
Now, if you had read Hamlet, or at the least seen a stage or movie version, you would have known that "Poor Yorrick" was a reference to a joker's skull Hamlet finds in a graveyard. Allusions to Shakespearean plays come out at cocktail parties because so much of the Bard's imagery is a part of our cultural literacy. Ignorance of even the most popular references to Shakespeare is like not knowing who John, Paul, George, and Ringo were.
There are so many other similar references in our collective consciousness, that it truly behooves you to learn, once and for all, what "Out, out, damn spot!" really means! (Hint- it's from Macbeth.) Or how about where the phrase "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" came from? "Et tu, Brutus?" anyone?
If you are a Shakespeare Virgin, here is the place to start:
The easiest way to dip your toes into the lake of Shakespeare is by watching a movie version of one of the plays. It will get you used to the sound of the Shakespearean language and music in the comfort of your own home. Here is our list to get you started:
Shakespeare-On-Film, Sarah's Picks:
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead - Based on genius Tom Stoppard's play, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth - this film made me want to be an English actor.
- Shakespeare in Love - Again, Tom Stoppard, with Gwynnie and Joseph Fiennes- and Ben Affleck acting in a supporting role, which is what he's better suited for.
- Romeo + Juliet - Baz Luhrmann, with Leo and Claire as the fast and furious lovers.
- Romeo and Juliet - Franco Zeffirelli, with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting because they were the age range of the actual characters.
- Henry V - Kenneth Branagh, because he was 29 when he made this, a14-year-old Christian Bale plays Falstaff's boy, and Emma Thompson enchants as Catherine.
- Richard III - Laurence Olivier, because every actor tries to do Shakespeare like him, see the real thing instead, with Claire Bloom as Lady Anne.
- Richard III - Ian McKellen, Nazi undertones gives a good example of how to put a modern twist on Will's text, and Kristin Scott Thomas as a drug-addicted Lady Anne is so entertaining.
- Twelfth Night: Or What You Will - Trevor Nunn with Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Stephens, and Steven Mackintosh, and I've had a crush on Toby Stephens ever since.
- Much Ado About Nothing - Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, tanned and in love...Ahhh, the good old days! Keanu Reeves is suprisingly not annoying.
- King Lear - 1997 television adaptation of the play with Ian Holm as King Lear, best example of showing the gritty desperation of Shakespeare's characters and their frailties - not for kids who haven't studied Shakespeare.
Shakespeare-On-Film, Alisa's Picks:
( I like to watch movie versions more than stage versions. My list is a thoroughly pedestrian list, and admittedly incomplete. But here are my picks. -AW)
Hamlet - I hate to admit that I totally dug Mel Gibson as Hamlet in this adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play. This version is clear and concise with beautiful sets.
Romeo+Juliet - The 1996 Baz Luuu-hrman movie was gorgeous. Claire Danes said that she cried when she did the dying scene with Leo. I couldn't get over John Leguizamo's cool gangster portrayal of Tybalt.
Romeo and Juliet - the 1968 film fed into my adolescent visions of love and its tragic consequenses.
Recommended Reading & Reference Books:
- Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom - Mr. Bloom, The Bardolater, explains how Shakespeare, unlike any other playwright before him, created "so many separate selves."
- Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg - Here, the voice instructor for the Royal National Theatre teaches us exercises and rules that let Will's words be spoken with truth and greater understanding.
- Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary (Two Volumes) by Alexander Schmidt - Every classroom that has Shakespeare on the curriculum needs this dictionary that proves knowing the gist of a thought is not enough to fully appreciate this guy's stuff.
- The First Folio of Shakespeare 1623 by William Shakespeare - Published after Shakespeare's death, this still lets a student see the words as the people saw them back in Shakey's time.
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