"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.

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?