"On hill, in dale, forest or mead" : Shakespeare and an Eco-Conscious Life

An interesting article fell into my inbox this morning: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth. The article discusses a mother rediscovering her own love of the natural world through her daughter, whose natural biophilia has not yet been stifled, who loves grassy fields, ocean waves, and bumblebees. The article makes suggestions on how to foster a child’s interest in nature, creating life-long habits of conservation — and the author chooses to frame these modern concerns with a quote from Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” from Troilus and Cressida. Though Ulysses means it, in context, more cynically than does the author of this article, it still made me think about the implications of pairing Shakespeare’s words to ecological concepts.

The idea of getting back to nature runs through a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. From Midsummer to Cymbeline, wild forests provide a place for the snarls and tangles of life to work themselves out to healthy resolution. There may be dangers (or meddling fairies), but if you’re a good-hearted soul on an honest quest, you can get through the darkness, reunite with long-lost relatives, win back ancestral titles, successfully woo your lady-or-lord-love, and return to your previously scheduled life in peace and merriment. The OCS’s production of As You Like It, currently touring, highlights the peace and comforts of the country life, drawing the audience into an idyllic world far removed from the conniving politics and superficial concerns of the urbanized court. The shepherd Colin declares, “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” Would that we could all be so contented.

The (perhaps nostalgic) affinity for country life presented in Shakespeare’s plays probably shouldn’t be surprising to us. He was, after all, more a country boy than a Londoner like Ben Jonson. Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 16th-century was a town of about 2000 people, close to expansive forests and to the picturesque Cotswold hill ranges. Beyond seeing the biographical connections, however, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s yearning for the green world more personally, based on the experiences of late-20th- and early-21st-century living. Shakespeare’s world was pre-Industrial, but only just. Like us, Shakespeare lived in a world that was rapidly urbanizing, where pollution was becoming a major concern, where the health of those in the inner-cities was in decline. Then, as now, changes in climate and weather patterns disrupted food production and threatened the livelihoods of those dependent on the soil or the sea. We may worry about offshore oil platforms and the ethics of farming corn for ethanol, while people in 1600 worried about sheep enclosures and fishing rights, but the basis of concern is the same — How do we use our land? How do we weigh profitability versus responsibility? How can we make the best decisions, not just for ourselves, but for future generations?

I wonder if there’s a way to enrich this connection. How can we integrate Shakespeare into the green movement? Perhaps this connection can provide another in-road for students, another way to demonstrate Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to them, as the millennial generation is more likely to be concerned with conservation, renewable energy, and responsible stewardship of the land than previous generations have been. If we can show them that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate care about the green world, too, it might be another opportunity to catch their interest (and I always like finding those).

Just for fun, what’s your favorite quote from Shakespeare about the natural world?

Titling the History Plays

The Staunton Newsleader’s review of 2 Henry IV opens by criticizing the play’s title.

For a man who had more than his share of creative chops, William Shakespeare could come up with some pretty dull titles. The “Henry Whichever, Part Whatever” plays are chief examples, as their titles absolutely fail to reflect, or even hint at, the theatrical glory lurking behind them.

This statement caught my eye because the same idea came up here on the blog a couple of weeks ago, when I talked about 1 Henry VI. Are the titles of the history plays really that great a barrier? It strikes me as a slightly odd criticism — it’s not like Hamlet or Othello give you any more to go on as titles. Is it the numbers that people find intimidating? How might a different title alter perception of the play?

I’ll refrain from giving too pedantic a lecture about playhouse traditions and the early modern publishing industry, and simply say that there’s really no way to pin this exclusively on Shakespeare, as he may well not have been responsible for titling his own plays during his lifetime, and he certainly hasn’t controlled what we call them in the centuries since his death. Many of the history plays appear under alternate titles in Henslowe’s Diary or with variations in the titles between different printings. Additionally, many of the histories did have fuller, more descriptive titles in their printed forms. I submit, for your consideration:

  • Richard II, alternately (in the 1615 quarto) The Tragedy of King Richard II, with new additions of the Parliament Scene, and the Deposing of King Richard
  • 1 Henry IV, alternately (in the 1598 quarto) The History of King Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff
  • 2 Henry IV, in full in the Folio The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Containing his Death and the Coronation of King Henry the Fifth
  • Henry V, alternately (in the 1600 quarto) The chronicle history of Henry the Fifth, with his battle fought at Agincourt in France, Together with Ancient Pistol
  • 2 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1594 quarto) The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the Tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the crown
  • 3 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1595 octavo) The The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixth, with the Whole Contention between the two Houses, Lancaster and York
  • Richard III, alternately (in the 1597 quarto) The tragedy of King Richard the third Containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of the detested life, and most deserved death, or, in the Folio, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, with the Landing of Earl Richmond, and the Battle at Bosworth Field.

More descriptive, certainly, but also perhaps a bit too cumbersome for easy marketing purposes. There’s a lesson in here about what publishers thought would sell a book, what audiences had made popular (is Ancient Pistol really the highlight of Henry V?), and it might be something teachers of the history plays would find worth exploring with students. It’s also worth noting how many of those titles “give away” major plot points and character deaths — the very things we consider “spoilers” today. (I will, I’m sure, be encouraging profitable discussion on these matters in next year’s Henry V study guide).

So, just for fun, I propose a game. Retitle the histories! Keep it to, oh, seven words or less — something more like how the comedies or romances are conventionally titled — so we can aim for the happy medium between the short character-based titles and the lengthy expository titles (glorious though those are). What do you want to emphasize out of the play? Who do you think is the central figure, or what’s the main event? Play with me in the comments here or on Twitter.

My suggestions so far:

For Henry V: simply, Agincourt
For Richard II: The Deposition of the King
For 1 Henry VI: A War Won by Witchcraft

As far as 2 Henry IV is concerned, our own Dr. Ralph Cohen, who directed the play, suggests these alternatives in the season program: Fat Jack and the Two Harrys or The Flim Flammer Knight’s Dream.

I’ll compile everyone’s suggestions into a later post, and we can talk about what everyone finds most interesting, most pertinent, or most marketable for these plays, judging by the proposed titles.

"On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue" – The Spanish Tragedy

One of the best things about theatre in Staunton is the opportunity to see so many rarely-performed plays. Not only does the OCS make an effort to include selections from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, predecessors, and successors in the repertory — this year alone, we’ve had Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Massinger’s The Roman Actor in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, with the 1790 Wild Oats by John O’Keefe currently playing and Thomas Heywood’s 1631 Fair Maid of the West opening in October — but related programs in the area have also taken to branching out in a similar fashion. The theatre department at Stuart Hall, headed by a graduate of the MLitt/MFA program, has in the past performed plays like John Lyly’s Gallathea alongside more traditional Shakespearean fare. The MBC program often trends towards the revival of obscure plays, whether by Shakespeare or by his contemporaries, and this year will be no exception, with productions of The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1587 play by Thomas Hugues, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a 1599 city comedy by Thomas Dekker, both upcoming in the fall.

Last night’s selection, put forth by the University Wits, was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, generally considered to be the forerunner for Hamlet and any number of other plays in the revenge tragedy genre. As such, this play is fertile ground for thinking of the chains of inspiration and derivation in early modern theatre. (Thesis project, anyone?). As director Asae Dean noted in the program, and as I noticed while watching the play, you can see in Spanish Tragedy the seeds of many other plays. I thought of the unapologetic vengeance of Vindice, from Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. I thought of the brother-sister relationship in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I saw Iago’s cunning, Titus’s devotion to wholesale destruction, the concealed passions of so many lovers meeting by moonlight. I was also put in mind strongly of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at a moment where Hieronimo comments on the nature of acting:

That we do as all Tragedians do:
To die today for fashioning our scene
The death of Ajax or some Roman peer–
And in a minute starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.

Though Stoppard’s play obviously derives from Hamlet, he seems to have borrowed from Kyd when Guildenstern complains that actors “die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life…because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat.” The Spanish Tragedy thus becomes a sort of echo-chamber, not just to a viewer with a broad experience of early modern theatre, but with ripples that come down to the present day as well.

Though Spanish Tragedy is most often linked to Hamlet, I found myself thinking not about the similarities between the plays, but of the differences. The connection between the two plays is strong, but in many ways, it appears to be one of inversion rather than replication. The ghost of Don Andrea, who appears at the beginning of the play (and remains onstage for the duration), doesn’t affect any of the action as Hamlet’s father does; though the people responsible for Don Andrea’s death do pay in the end, his death isn’t what they’re paying for. The revenge belongs to another character, for another death. The play-within-a-play isn’t meant to out anyone watching it; it’s designed as a trap for two of the actors. A father mourns for a son, not a son for a father. The people left standing at the end of the play occupy wildly different places in the plot than those left at the end of Hamlet. The biggest difference, though, is how much Spanish Tragedy struck me as a play of passions, whereas I’ve always felt Hamlet to be much more cerebral (and a little bloodless). Wooing and love-play in Hamlet take place off-stage, or before the play begins, but in Spanish Tragedy, the audience gets to see it — Horatio and Bel-imperia have some wonderful romantic teasing, and the awkward advances of Balthazar are plainly presented for the audience to cringe at. Though such fleshy interests are in Hamlet’s mind, we never see his mother and stepfather-uncle in their private moments, nor do we see Hamlet court Ophelia — all we get are the remnants in the form of Ophelia’s love-tokens. Shakespeare’s doing something interesting there, turning the physical inward, making the audience imagine or remember along with Hamlet, rather than allowing us to experience the moments as we do in The Spanish Tragedy.

The Spanish Tragedy is a play I’d read several times but never seen before, and as I watched the show, I remembered several of the things we’d discussed when reading this play in the Contemporaries class at Mary Baldwin. Many of the things we’d identified as “problems” in class seemed perfectly natural on the stage — most notably the ending play-within-a-play, where each of four characters speaks in a different language (none of them English). The text of The Spanish Tragedy indicates that “this play of Hieronimo, in sundry languages, was thought good to be set down in English more largely, for the easier understanding to every public reader,” but it does seem clear that, in performance, it was done in those sundry languages. As a reader, you wonder how this can possibly work, but on the stage you discover that, since Hieronimo has helpfully explained the plot (which unsubtly mirrors the plot of the play they’re all in) in a previous scene, it really doesn’t matter if you can’t understand what they’re saying. You get the idea, and they move along to the homicides rapidly enough that the strange tongues don’t become tedious. The bloodshed at the end does lean towards the absurd, but — similar to The Revenger’s Tragedy — I was entirely okay with that. The entire play has an edge of the ridiculous to it, which the cast embraced rather than embarrassedly shying away from. Like Revenger’s, The Spanish Tragedy dances on the thin line between high tragedy and black comedy, and I find that juxtaposition delightful.

I’m sure I’ll be working with these connections a lot over the next year, as I prepare a study guide for Hamlet, which will necessarily involve looking at Hamlet‘s antecedents and at the revenge tragedy genre as a whole. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see such an energetic and committed production before I begin that work — it’s always great to have a live production in mind from which to draw inspiration. If you ever have the chance to see this play in performance, do so — you won’t regret it. If you’re looking for a non-Shakespeare play to produce, consider it — this play is well-worthy of revival. And if you’re in Staunton, you can still see the University Wits’ production tonight, 7:30 PM, at the King Theatre at Stuart Hall.

History’s Mystery

Last evening, Shakespeare at Winedale, a summer program at the University of Texas at Austin, made their annual trip to the Shenandoah Valley to perform 1 Henry VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse. This performance concluded their season, which also included Twelfth Night and Macbeth. The MBC MLitt/MFA program enjoys a great relationship with this troupe — several students in the program have come from Winedale, and director James Loehlin guest-taught courses on dramaturgy and directing last fall. The Winedale performances are always high-quality and exciting — and often they’re the first chance, or among the first chances, for students new to the program and the area to see a full-length production on the Blackfriars stage.

The production was energetic and a lot of fun — more fun, I think, than most people think of the history plays as being. Some of the best comedic moments came from the depictions of the French aristocracy — it’s always fun to realize that the joke stereotyping the French as cowards goes back hundreds of years (no offense to any French nationals or expatriates reading this blog). The students really committed to the absurdity of those roles, and the fight/chase scenes were some of the funniest I’ve seen — they really made great use of the discovery space.

Before the show started, James Loehlin commented on 1 Henry VI perhaps being an odd choice — except for this theatre. The Blackfriars, as part of our Rise and Fall of Kings series, performed 1 Henry VI in the winter of 2009, followed by 2 Henry VI this past winter, and to be followed by 3 Henry VI in the upcoming Actors’ Renaissance Season. Dr Loehlin asserted, however, that the Winedale production might have been the first ever in Texas, however, at least to the best of his knowledge.

So here’s my question — Why? With only a few exceptions — 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III coming to mind — teachers and production companies alike tend to shy away from Shakespeare’s histories, yet these plays were some of the most popular of the early modern stage. Why is that? Is it only that we don’t conceive of the Plantagenets as part of our cultural heritage in the same way that 16th-century Englishmen did? Or is there something else we find unsatisfying about the history plays? What makes so many people conceive of the Henrys as less of a good show than Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Now, I’ll freely admit that I come to this from a strange place. I’m a historian at heart. I love history, I love reading books on history, I could draw you a genealogical chart of the Plantagenet dynasty. So I find interest even in the “duller” or “worse” history plays — like, many would argue, the Henry Sixes. I like being able to “follow along,” and I like to know what’s coming. As we left the theatre following 1 Henry VI last night, a friend and I were laughing, shaking our heads at Margaret and Suffolk. “Ohhhhh, it’s only going to end in tears,” I said. “Tears and pirates,” supplied my friend. “Yup. You might think you’re going to ‘rule both her, the king and realm,’ but really you’re going to get your head cut off. By a pirate.” I like that I can appreciate the play’s place in the greater story.

This appreciate goes to another part of why I enjoy the histories so much — they really were real people. However fictionalized they are, however compressed or altered they might be for the stage, there’s honest truth behind them. Real motivations for their actions, real passions, real rivalries — real events that shaped the course of Europe. We get them through the lens of Shakespeare’s position as a sixteenth-century Englishman, but that’s part of the history, too. I’ve never understood people who think history is boring — it’s all sex and violence and intrigues, the very stuff all our most successful media propagates.

So I don’t think it’s just my innate nerdiness that makes me think these plays are better than they get credit for. There’s so much good action and good language that so often gets overlooked. I know a lot of people will call the language of the Henry Sixes inferior to that in Hamlet, or even in Henry V, and that might well be an accurate assessment — but I didn’t notice that while I was watching the production last night. I was enjoying myself too much to think about making a comparison to other work. There’s potential for so much comedy (albeit some of it rather dark) and so much high drama. In the arc of the English histories, you get drunkards, robberies, sex scandals, pirates, witches, demon-summonings, popular rebellions, brutal assassinations, duels, sieges, and battles — none of this is dust-dry recitation of historical facts. These plays are the stuff of blood and power and life.

What do you think? Do you like the histories? Not like them? Haven’t had enough chance to see them to know if you like them or not?

Not just of an age, but for all time — and all people

I’m responding today to a post over at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s blog, about something that was brought up at the International Shakespeare Conference last week. The crux of the debate — as I gather from that blog post, not having been in attendance, myself — is over the accessibility of Shakespeare. This whole post comes with a caveat that I haven’t read the papers in question here, and I didn’t hear the presentations; the extent of my knowledge is what I’ve gleaned from the blog posts about them — which in itself relates to the issue.

The two sides of the debate come down as pro- and anti-proliferation of Shakespearean scholarship through new media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. One side has taken up against the “deprofessionalism of the field of Shakespeare studies,” concerned that every time some yahoo makes an un-informed tweet, he unconsciously maligns those of us who have spent years informing ourselves, writing papers, and thoughtfully discussing Shakespeare’s works — as though the respect our field earns and deserves is determined by some kind of average, and input from the low end of the scale is bringing down the median. On the other side are the pro-proliferation group, the bloggers, the Tweeters, the scholars who have taken their act onto the Internet superhighway. This side advocates using new tools to reach more people, to facilitate discussion, and to make connections.

The blogger whose post led me to the debate posed the question, in regard to Shakespeare BT’s blog: “What do you think a blog like this should accomplish? How should the public be able to interact with Shakespeare?”

Honestly, the ideas behind this debate sort of bewilder me. Just that phrase, “how should the public be able to” sets my teeth a bit on edge — the idea that it’s up to the scholastic community to determine how the public should be allowed to experience Shakespeare is bizarre. There’s no “should” about it — they can interact with Shakespeare however they want. (I’m even hating using the pronoun “they” here — I’m part of “they,” I’m not just a scholar, I’m an audience member, too, and I was an uninformed enthusiast for years before I took a single class on the topic). Shakespeare doesn’t belong to robed denizens of ivory towers — he belongs to everyone. He isn’t something to be hoarded, held close, only let out in carefully controlled dribbles — he should be shared, joyously, as much and as often as possible.

This next statement is going to sound so ridiculously cheesy, and I sort of can’t believe I’m putting it out there into the ether, but — Shakespeare is like love. You don’t have any less of it just because someone else has more.

It’s also worth pointing out that when Shakespeare was writing his plays, he wasn’t writing for the PhDs. Most of his audience consisted of Joe Averages, the groundlings, the workers on holiday, the apprentices skiving off from their chores. The man himself didn’t have a degree to his name; he wasn’t one of the University Wits. He wrote for people of all kinds, all social statuses, all levels of education and intellect. How can we justify rarefying Shakespeare more than he rarefied himself? You don’t need a degree to enjoy Shakespeare or to have an opinion on him.

And so I fully embrace the proliferation of Shakespeare studies (as you may be able to tell from this blog or from my Twittering). The Internet is the new medium of public discourse, and Shakespeare needs to be on it. Are there people on the Internet spouting off extremely uninformed opinions and asserting incorrect factoids? Absolutely. A quick delve into Yahoo!Answers is enough to make almost anyone despair of hope for the future of the human race. But I don’t think I personally, or the organization I work for, or the field of Shakespeare studies as a whole loses anything by their comments. If anything, every one of them is an opportunity for us to reach out and educate. No one loses by that.

At the OCS, we don’t believe Shakespeare is beyond the reach of anyone. We firmly believe that all people can and should have Shakespeare in their lives. We are all about taking down the velvet ropes and making Shakespeare fun and exciting for absolutely anyone.

A good example: I spent my Saturday afternoon helping Sarah with our workshop for the Federal Executive Institute’s Leadership Conference. In one of our activities, as part of examining body posture and what message it sends, we asked the participants to look at four of their peers and determine who of those four, based on physical cues, looked most receptive — who would be most likely to listen to us talk about our plans for the OCS and perhaps invest in us. One of our participants decided to judge on clothing, and he asked why we would think someone dressed in a T-Shirt, shorts, and sneakers would be interested in Shakespeare. Sarah responded that he was exactly the sort of person we want interested in Shakespeare.

The Internet angle, though, is something we’ve discussed a lot recently, as the OCS has been launching itself onto Twitter and into the blogosphere. Where is the line between acceptable informality and degradation of quality? How do we want to present our organization? Just because we have this opportunity doesn’t mean we should treat it lightly — but there’s no reason to flee from it and try to keep the field of Shakespeare studies rutted in the past just because we’re not quite certain what the future will look like yet.

I’m interested to hear from others on this debate. I know my personal opinion may be shaped in large part by the fact that I am a young Shakespeare scholar. I came of age during the advent of the Internet; I barely remember life before instant messaging. So, for me, this matter seems incredibly obvious. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of new ways to reach the rest of the populace? And I think this attitude is what I see in most of my peers, the new generation of scholars, freshly-minted, who likewise grew up using the Internet as a font of knowledge and as not just a way but the way to disseminate ideas.

So — What do you think? What side of the debate do you fall on? Though, honestly, just asking that question here is somewhat leading — if you’re reading this blog, that’s a bit of a tell as to where you stand on the matter. But share your thoughts! I’d love to hear them.

Conversations: Spreading the Love of Shakespeare

Yesterday was a day of interesting conversations for me, though they all strangely centered in on the same general theme: spreading the love of Shakespeare.

I started my day by interviewing three of the touring troupe actors for the study guides I’m working on. One of the questions I’ve started asking everyone is: “When and why did you first fall in love with Shakespeare? Tell me about the experience.” All three of the actors I talked to yesterday fell in love, as I did, pretty young. Denice Burbach, currently rehearsing for Rosalind and Lady Macbeth, had the earliest start — she told me about learning to write her name in the audience while her mother was rehearsing as Kate, and she described the later revelation (while her mother was playing Gertrude) that Shakespeare wasn’t difficult or obscurely poetical — it’s just words, like people say on the street. Jonathan Holtzman, our Macbeth, described reading Julius Caesar “over and over and over again” when he was 12 or 13, after wanting to find out what that “‘Et tu, Brute?'” thing was all about. And Chad Bradford, this season’s Orlando, described the moment in high school when he realized you could laugh at Shakespeare, during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after having studied Othello and Caesar in his classes without experiencing any real emotional response.

For me, it’s an easy question. I picked up Romeo and Juliet when I was 11 — I couldn’t tell you why, except that I’ve always been a voracious reader. No book was long safe in my presence. There’s a gift shop at the beach where my family vacations that always has a few shelves of “summer reading” books, and R&J was there. I spent the rest of that vacation memorizing Juliet’s balcony speech and declaiming it from the back deck of our beach house. When we got back home, I dragged out my dad’s 1972 Riverside Shakespeare and just started devouring. (Side thought: Ever noticed how we use the language of consumption when we talk about reading? Voracious reader, devouring a good book, eating it up if we love something. Hmm — there’s something in there about literature sustaining life).

Talking to those three actors was a blast. I love that that’s part of my job — I enjoyed it when I interviewed some of the resident company earlier in the summer, and I enjoyed it yesterday, because it’s so great just to watch them light up when they’re talking about how cool a particular line is, or how they pushed through a difficult scene. Denice and I both said how much we love working in a place where this is what people really care about, this engagement with the text, experiencing it as something alive and vibrant and to be talked about.

Then I spent the afternoon with the rest of the education team in a think tank for Julius Caesar. We’re attacking this play in the hopes of giving teachers a better way to approach it, since we hear from so many teachers who hate it but “have to” teach it (it’s not required in the curriculum in Virginia, but it’s the play in the 10th grade textbook that almost everyone uses). Now, the idea that teachers are teaching Shakespeare when they hate it just horrifies me. They’ve got the ShakesFear, and they pass the ShakesFear on to their students, who become convinced that Shakespeare is everything we who love it know it isn’t — boring, out-of-touch, inaccessible.

Almost invariably, the actors I interviewed yesterday related their characters to modern life, in some way or another, without any prompting. Jonathan talked about finding the kindness inside a tough, mOCSuline guy, and about the challenge everyone faces in life between doing what’s morally right and what’s expedient and gets you what you want. Chad related Orlando’s poetry writing to the existential angst of every teenager who’s ever been in love with someone who doesn’t know he or she exists. Denice summed it all up, so succinctly and so wonderfully, saying, “Shakespeare writes humans.”

How do I know, from my own experience, that Shakespeare isn’t inaccessible? I use one of my cousins as an example. When I was 14, I was playing Outlaw #5 in my high school’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and my extended family came to see me. My youngest cousin, trooping along with her two older siblings and their mom, was only 5 at the time. She sat through the whole play and loved it. Did she understand every single word? No. But she followed the plot, could answer questions about it later, and laughed through the whole performance. So, really — if a five-year-old can pick this stuff up and enjoy it, there’s absolutely no reason (at least no good one) that a fifteen-year-old can’t do the same. The critical difference, I think, is that no-one had ever told my five-year-old cousin that Shakespeare is boring. No-one told her it was too hard, too unreachable. So she didn’t know. She had no mental walls against it. But I think a lot of high-schoolers have started building up those walls — aided and abetted, sometimes, by teachers with the same walls in their own heads.

This was all actually another part of the discussion I had with Chad and Denice. Chad talked about how he thinks schools tend to present things like literature as very black-and-white, giving the impression that what you see on the page is what you get and all that you get. But really, “It’s about using our imaginations. I think that’s a key thing,” he said. I agree — I think too many teachers don’t present students with options, like “You can read the speech this way, or this way”, “How is it different if he can overhear her?”, “How does that line change if you direct it to the audience?” These are the questions I ask teachers to think about in my study guides, because students should know that Shakespeare comes with options. He isn’t a monolith; there isn’t One Right Way to experience his works.

This idea led into talking about how we enjoy being allowed to find Shakespeare fallible, even though we still think he’s the best. I’ve been saying this since I read enough of his contemporaries’ works to form an educated opinion on the matter — some of Shakespeare’s work isn’t as good as Marlowe’s or Middleton’s or Jonson’s best. But there’s just plain no-one who can touch Shakespeare’s best. Still, though, it’s important not to deify him — Shakespeare was just a guy, and he wasn’t the only writer in town. You can argue with him, you can disagree with him, even across the space of 400 years. I think if we could get this message to more students, they might find him less intimidating and more approachable.

So here’s what I want to know, Internet friends — When did you fall in love with Shakespeare? What convinced you that it was worth the while? Was it in school, or in performance, or on your own? Tell me about your experience. And how do you think that sort of love and energy could be better brought into the classroom?

Immortal Longings — YCTC 2010 Session 2

I spent this afternoon at the performances of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra put on by Session 2 of the OCS’s Young Company Theatre Camp. While I’m always excited to see the YCTC shows, I was extra-enthused, since these are two of my favorite plays.

Today’s performance — in a Blackfriars Playhouse again crammed to overflowing with parents, friends, former campers, grad students, OCS actors, and members of the Staunton community — began with a choreographed pre-show performance involving all of the campers. Eastern-influenced music played as the campers presented a stylized version of Cleopatra’s death scene. A line of campers in theatre blacks and red scarves formed a chain and acted out the striking of the asp, in a development of an activity that originated weeks earlier, at their auditions. The effect was visually striking and quite impressive. After that, we saw Alexi S. as Shakespeare, trying to pen the Battle of Actium, and eventually deciding — despite actors engaging in combat and building ships out of their bodies — to leave the famous battle out of the play. The pre-show demonstrated some of the skills campers acquired in their Master Classes during the last three weeks, including Elizabethan dance, belly-dancing, combat, and details of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions. The pre-show culminated in a song based on a poem that Jane J. wrote for the “What You Will” talent show, detailing the plots of each show.

Doreen then stepped up to give her general introduction, acknowledgments, and inspirational speech. She summed up this session with the word “abundance,” referring to the prolific creativity of the campers. Having seen so many talents demonstrated in the pre-show, I think she definitely picked the right word. Two campers then presented a more traditional pre-show for the OCS. This pre-show also gave me a new favorite knock-knock joke — but there’s a physical component, so you’ll have to ask me if you see me around town. ;)

The first show of the afternoon was Julius Caesar, directed by MFA Candidate Laurie Riffe. The show began with a version of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” modified to reflect Roman patriotism. I was impressed by the energy and vigor which the campers infused into the show. While all the campers put in great performances, I particularly liked the Cassius, Rose B., who played the role with wonderfully choleric charisma. Caesar’s death was highly stylized and set to drumbeats, and it packed quite an emotional punch when Caesar, stabbed by the conspirators, stumbled into Brutus’s arms, only to receive the final blow. Another interesting staging choice was the decision to have Caesar’s Ghost watching the suicides of Brutus and Cassius from the balcony — I suspect drawing inspiration from Brutus’s line “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords in our own proper entrails”. Overall, Caesar was an exciting show — anyone who’s ever accused that play of being boring ought to take a cue from the YCTC cast.

Antony and Cleopatra, Part 1, directed by father-son team James and Thomas Keegan, opened with a rendition of “Midnight at the Oasis” that drew laughs from the crowd. In this cast, Hannah M. portrayed the fiery Queen of Egypt with mercurial excellence, and Margaret C. made a powerful pint-sized Antony. I was really impressed by — and glad for — the decision to cast a female actor as Antony. This production made fabulous use of the space and its possibilities. One great joke hinged on the use of diagonals: Cleopatra, all the way in the downstage-right corner, tells Antony, entering at the upstage-left corner, “stand farther from me”. Antony then made a wonderful “where’m I gonna go?” gesture, to audience appreciation. All of the actors used the audience well, particularly the comic Enobarbus, played by Rachel B., who aligned herself with those sitting on the gallant stools at every opportunity. This cast didn’t shy from the sexuality in the play, which seemed to shock some audience members, but clearly delighted others (myself included). The production ended, halfway through the play, at the moment of broken fellowship between Octavius and Antony, with an epilogue written by the students. With the cast on-stage, the key players from Part 2 came out to receive significant prop or costume elements from their counterparts. This technique was a wonderful way to link the productions and help the audience out for the beginning of …

Antony and Cleopatra, Part 2, directed by Jeremy West. Jeremy described his cast as “uninhibited”, and suggested that it was something adult performers could learn from the kids. The play opened in similar formation to the end of Part 1, using lines from the epilogue set to drumbeats. These drumbeats continued throughout the production, almost beating out the remainder of Antony and Cleopatra’s lives. Daniel H. and Rebecca R. threw themselves into the tragic fall of history’s famous couple, but the production was not without humor. Shakespeare puts moments of levity around both deaths, and the campers embraced those. One particularly neat staging trick — that Jeremy West admitted had come to him from James Keegan — was the way they lifted Antony up to Cleopatra’s monument. Instead of actually bringing Antony up on the stage, Cleopatra and her handmaidens dropped a rope where they stood, but not off the front, but rather towards the back, at the same moment that another rope appeared where Antony was in the discovery space. The women pulled up on their rope as the discovery space curtains swung shut, giving Antony the time to go up the stairs and crawl under the curtain at the back of the balcony, making it appear as though he had been pulled straight up. As someone who has previously cringed watching an Antony scale the frons scenae, wondering if I was about to see disaster, I really appreciated this clever approach to a difficult bit of staging.

All three shows were wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon. I’m just sorry the summer’s over, but I’ll be eagerly awaiting next year’s camps. Best of luck to all of our campers in the upcoming school year!

He words me, girls

Language. How do we use it? How should we use it? Are dictionaries and grammaries tools for effective use, helping to guide and shape language for clear and precise use, or are they paper prisons, hemming in the English language from its natural inclination to metamorphose with the times and to assimilate new influences?

This debate has been going around the internet a lot lately, thanks in part to Ms Sarah Palin attempting to “refudiate” one thing or another. She isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, to bring up the idea of language’s fluidity, though. Whether by creating new words or by using old words in a new way, changes to the English language have long been a subject of both scholary and popular concern. The existing commentary, as with anything on the web, ranges from inane to thought-provoking, and I’ve been enjoying reading what others have to say. Thus far, however, I’ve resisted the urge to explicate my own feelings on the matter every time I see it mentioned on Twitter or on a blog, lest I develop a near-terminal case of ‘someone is wrong on the Internet‘.

Need food for thought? I offer the following:

What all of the above leave out, however, is something I consider tremendously important: rhetoric.

Verbing a noun — or nouning a verb, or any sort of similar syntactical confusion — isn’t just a modern device. Much as I’m sure some pundits would like to, it’s not something to blame on technology, the media, texting. The ability to Google something is a recent development, but the ability to use a noun in that way isn’t. It’s a rhetorical figure of speech called anthimeria, and it comes to us all the way from Classical Greece (as so many of the good things in life and language do). It can be a sign that a character is either of very high intelligence or very low, depending on whether the word-play illuminates or obfuscates meaning.

Other related devices exist — catachresis, the use of a word in a context that differs from its proper application (“the elbow of his nose” being a good example); acryon, the use of a word repugnant or contrary to what is meant; enallage, the subsitution of inappropriate grammar; metaplasm, intentional misspelling; hyperbaton, reordering of words for effect — anthimeria is just my persona favorite, and it’s also the one that’s recieved the most focus in recent years. (The portmanteau, while not a rhetorical device by strict definition, falls into this category of wordplay as well). What’s true of anthimeria is true for them all, though — there’s a difference between using such devices intentionally, to demonstrate real skill with language, and using them by stumbling unintentionally into them.

A character of high intelligence uses these word-changing devices purposefully. It demonstrates the ability to use language creatively, and it indicates that the character is capable of divergent thinking. In Shakespeare, characters who use language in this way are often rulers, monarchs, leaders, but may also be the wits and the thinkers of the play:

A character of low intelligence uses the devices accidentally. In this case, the wordplay tends to go along with what we think of as malapropisms (though the term is anachronistic for Shakespeare). The character is generally unaware that he has used a word incorrectly; the misuse derives from an incomplete grasp on the language. The character is not intentionally breaking rules; the character does not know what the rules are and so cannot use them effectively in the first place. In Shakespeare, clowns use anthimeria in this way:

  • Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet,–” says Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Odours, odours,” corrects his beleaguered director Quince. Bottom’s mistakes will continue throughout his performance, including the mistaking of “deflowered” for “devoured.”
  • Is our whole dissembly appeared?” — Dogberry, in Much Ado About Nothing. Also “O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this,” and many, many other examples.
  • “To be brief, the very truth is that the Jew, having done me wrong, doth cause me, as my father, being, I hope, an old man, shall frutify unto you— ” Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, who might be trying to say any number of words that would make sense, and instead comes out with one that means nothing He also misuses “defect” for “effect” and refers to Shylock as “the devil incarnal.”

So, Ms Palin, yes, you are like something out of Shakespeare. But not, I think, in the way you intend (or hope).

For me, I believe as I always have — before you can break the rules, you need to prove you can use them correctly, first. I think a lot of the beauty of the English language is in its fluidity, in how creatively and how inventively we can use words — but that’s no excuse to think well of onesself for ignoring the rules entirely. The thing of it is — the options are so much greater, so much better, if you do know when to play by the rules and when to throw them to the wayside. There’s so much more you can do with language, if you know what it is that you’re doing. We ought to value words, however we use them.

Conquering the Fear

A friend asked me this question, and I thought I would blog about it to get my thoughts out, and to see if anyone reading has some input:

For an adult whose only experiences with Shakespeare were in high-school (and not good), but who wants to get into it and start reading the plays, where should she start? What plays are the most accessible, the least frightening for someone who was given rather ham-handed interpretations of Julius Caesar and Hamlet more than a decade ago?

My first response to her is that, really, if she wants to get into it, she should go see some shows if at all possible. Shakespeare is meant to be seen more than read, and I think she’ll like it better, follow the plot better, understand the language better if she’s hearing and seeing what’s going on.

But, barring that — My inclination is to tell her to go to the comedies. While they definitely have their own challenges — a lot more 16th/17th-century slang, for one thing — I think they’re also less intimidating. I’m definitely going to suggest Midsummer — it’s a play that kids’ companies go to for a reason. The plot is pretty straightforward, the ideas are simple and fun, the language is beautiful but not too convoluted. I’m also inclined to suggest Much Ado, but personal preference may be influencing me there. I also feel like the earliest comedies, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors, might be a good starting place — sure, those plays have their flaws, but the comparative simplicity might work well for conquering someone’s fears of Shakespeare being too dense or too complicated. The regular meter in those plays might also help her get over the idea that iambic pentameter is a scary thing.

Any other suggestions? What do you think are the most accessible plays for an apprehensive adult?