The good that men do (sometimes) lives after them
April 23, 2014 1:28 AM   Subscribe

Today is the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth - "...The centenary of Shakespeare’s birth fell soon after the theatres reopened with the Restoration of the monarchy, following the period when the Puritans had closed them down for the duration of the Civil War. His plays formed a staple part of the repertoire, but those of Beaumont and John Fletcher were performed more frequently. Shakespeare only pulled ahead of the pack in the Georgian era. It was around his 200th anniversary, under the auspices of the great actor David Garrick, that he took on his status as National Poet and exemplar of artistic genius...." More here
posted by marienbad (31 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps this is the year I'll finally sit down and read a few of the plays I never got around to, like Othello and The Tempest. Slowly, out loud, looking up all the footnotes. Finally read all of the sonnets, straight through. It always strikes me with awe to realize how much our language was influenced by Shakespeare. A favorite phrase of mine that first came into English through Shakespeare is sea change.
posted by Sarah Aeget at 2:07 AM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Note we don't know Shakespeare was born on the 23rd of April - just that he was baptised on the 26th. Tradition holds that he was born and died on the same day, which happens to also be the patron saint of England, St George's day - fitting in nicely with his role as "National Poet and exemplar of artistic genius".
posted by iotic at 2:14 AM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

We know very, very little in terms of hard facts about him - not even what he looked like. Bill Bryson's "Shakespeare: The World As Stage" does a good job of collating what little we do know and dispelling some of the ridiculous theories around him.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:27 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

In high school the first work by Shakespeare we read was Romeo and Juliet, which is to this day the only work of his I've been exposed to that I don't like. The experience soured me on Shakespeare for awhile. I assumed (as young teens are want to do) that I would hate his other work and dreaded the next one.

Luckily the next one was A Midsummer Night's Dream and, while I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, it rekindled an interest in me. I believe next was Julius Caesar which I liked, but it wasn't my favorite (we read a lot of good literature that year).

Then the big one, the one that made my 15 year old self realize "Hey, maybe this Shakespeare guy isn't all hype". We read Hamlet. After that I was sold. The teacher I had at the time was actually a GOOD teacher (a fairly rare thing in my school) and she taught us some history of Shakespeare's day and age and made sure we had good translations of the original work.

So I started to do my own research and truly learned about the culture Shakespeare was in and gained an appreciation for the motives behind his various works. This was when I I reread A Midsummer Night's Dream and deeply appreciated it as a comedy and not Some Other Boring Love Story.

I think Shakespeare was the the perfect storm of writing talent, creativity, and satire. He could write love stories, comedies, and dramas with equal ferocity. It certainly doesn't hurt that to some degree he is shrouded in mystery (we used to love messing with one of our teachers about the conspiracy theory of Shakespeare actually being Francis Bacon)

One of my fondest memories is getting to see A Merchant of Venice performed at Shakespeare in the park.
posted by Twain Device at 4:29 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I taught fifth grade, I always taught Macbeth for a couple of weeks. We didn't read the whole play, but did go over the story and read a lot of choice bits. I'd generally wrap it up by showing Throne of Blood. I worked in a relatively conservative school in Texas, but for the most part the reaction went over really well. I'd occasionally have parents coming to me and asking what I was doing in class because his son was talking about Shakespeare when previously he'd not shown a lot of interest in talking about school.

Shakespeare is the best, but it is so easy to sour it for people, especially if you start them with R&J in high school. It's not a bad work, but it's foreign enough to students that trying to get them to connect with the work just because they're young like the protagonists is kind of stupid, considering how foolish the protagonists are. Macbeth is the closest thing Shakespeare has to an action/revenge movie with some cool supernatural stuff thrown in. If you start with that, kids get it immediately because they're aware of all of the tropes, you're not trying to make artificial connections between the lives of the characters and the lives of the students, and it's just pretty damn cool to boot.
posted by nushustu at 5:12 AM on April 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

I have never been able to enjoy reading Shakespeare. However, seeing his work performed live on stage is awesome.
posted by COD at 5:17 AM on April 23, 2014

COD, I love Shakespeare, but I know that he is a tough nut to crack for most people. My advice is always to watch the Kenneth Branagh movies of Shakespeare plays for a fantastic way to get through them once. You have pretty people with nice voices in lovely landscapes, and you're done in 90 minutes.

Then you can go back and crack a book, and linger over the fancy rhyming, or go down the rabbit-holes of footnotes on his crazy language.

I haven't watched the last one, which was apparently only on HBO in the U.S., but here's the list: Henry V (1989), followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006).
posted by wenestvedt at 5:34 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The real secret is that all of Shakespeare was written by Francis Bacon, but not the 17th C Bacon, the 20th, who was aided by the time traveling technology of Roger Bacon, as part of the Grand Design of the sinister League of Bacons.

I know it sounds crazy, but it explains so much....

I won't thell you the truth about Christopher Marlowe, because it would blow your mind.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:55 AM on April 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am occasionally poked fun at by my friends (all in good fun, I love them dearly) for once getting neurons crossed and saying "Yeah but Shakespeare's work was all written by Kevin Bacon"

I can still see the laughter in their eyes at my goof.
posted by Twain Device at 6:03 AM on April 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

This month I'm singing in Richard III at the Rose Theatre, which means that tonight I get to go do Shakespeare where Shakespeare did Shakespeare. Still not over it. I will never be over it.

For those seeking a way into Shakespeare: the best way to read it is out loud. It is just so much goddamn fun to speak. Henry V for example, the Chorus's opening speech, or the amazing "once more unto the breach". Out loud, by yourself or with friends. (My Dad and I used to read Shakespeare together when I was a kid.)

Having also just lost all my writings from about the past ten years (stolen laptop/dead backup drive), I am sharply reminded just how lucky we are to have so much of Shakespeare's work, especially the First Folio, which his friends and colleagues worked so hard to put together. We have so few plays that survive today from the late 1500s/early 1600s-- fewer than 500 I think?-- considering that for any theatre about 40% of the plays staged in a year would be new work. And that's not even getting into the other forms of stage entertainment like jesting (stand-up comedy, basically). So little survives by which we may know the minds of our equivalents on the Elizabethan or Jacobean street.

We are incredibly lucky to have Shakespeare, and I am glad we have him.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:47 AM on April 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

Macbeth is the closest thing Shakespeare has to an action/revenge movie with some cool supernatural stuff thrown in. If you start with that, kids get it immediately because they're aware of all of the tropes, you're not trying to make artificial connections between the lives of the characters and the lives of the students, and it's just pretty damn cool to boot.

Funny you should mention this. In fact, my dad was in a run of Macbeth that just wrapped up at the Gamm Theater and they had gotten a grant from the NEA so they could do a program of morning matinees for school kids, including some really poor, inner-city schools. He has some great stories about the just amazed, awed reactions they would get from some of the kids, some of whom had really never even seen live theater before.

After the show, the kids would get a Q&A with the cast, and after that the kids would get asked to go back to school, and take some videos of themselves delivering lines from the play and upload them to Instagram. If you want to see some high school kids really getting into Shakespeare, here's the video the theater put together, editing together a lot of the kids' response videos with a few backstage videos of the professional cast.
posted by mstokes650 at 7:36 AM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Every once in a while I will stumble across an obviously smart guy who thinks Bacon or somebody else wrote Shakespeare's plays. (This page includes Walt Whitman and Mark Twain in the club, but the only one I can reach on my bookshelves and grab ahold of is Manly Hall.)

When I type into the google search box "who doesn't believe that shakespeare wrote shakespeare's plays?" I don't get a concise list. Does anybody know if all the X-files shakespeareans have been filed in one place somewhere?
posted by bukvich at 7:53 AM on April 23, 2014

I should clarify, I don't actually believe Shakespeare=Bacon, but its a fun running joke/Illuminatiesque conspiracy joke.
posted by Twain Device at 8:02 AM on April 23, 2014

If you get an opportunity, check out the BBC series, The Hollow Crown. Ben Wishaw and Patrick Stewart are spectacular.
posted by juiceCake at 8:23 AM on April 23, 2014

The real secret is that all of Shakespeare was written by Francis Bacon, but not the 17th C Bacon, the 20th, who was aided by the time traveling technology of Roger Bacon, as part of the Grand Design of the sinister League of Bacons.

Bah. The Bacons were *supposed* to only get 12 regenerations.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:28 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

My introduction to Shakespeare was Julius Caesar, a traditional introduction in the old days (now it's more often Romeo and Juliet -- a very plot-driven play -- used in schools because teen love. But J.C. was the standard a hundred years ago because it was the play of his with mostly male characters, so back when school-going was a guy thing, they'd read this play, and the tradition continued, mindlessly, until R & J started being the go-to Shakespeare starter in the 70's, I think.

It was 7th grade. I didn't get it; I didn't like it.

In fact, I didn't start loving Shakespeare until I started teaching him to public school kids.

My recommendation is to read one of his plays before you see it, live or screened. Use the Folger's Edition, and puzzle it out by reading all the footnotes on the left-hand page. Then you'll really get the play when you see it.
posted by kozad at 9:13 AM on April 23, 2014

Bah. The Bacons were *supposed* to only get 12 regenerations.

Every time someone writes "BACON!" in a thread on vegetarianism, the League of Bacons gains another life.

Slightly more seriously, I'm seeing King John this summer, and I'm pretty excited. I've seen a lot of Shakespeare, but this one has eluded me. (I suspect there are Reasons for this, but I'm still excited.)
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:26 AM on April 23, 2014

I won't tell you the truth about Christopher Marlowe, because it would blow your mind.

He's a time-defying vampire who hangs out with Tilda Swinton?
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:57 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

the most fun I ever had with Will was when we had an active meetup group here in Seattle that would get together to table read the plays. we'd switch parts after each scene if need be to mix things up. saying the words aloud, hearing the interplay of the characters as one would anticipate the next line, but without the pressure of stage direction was really a wonderful way to experience the plays.
some folks would put on a highbrow RSC accent, others would read it dryly without much inflection, but everyone had a great time and came away with a greater understanding of the artistry and the language.
i've been away for years and perhaps the group still meets. i would recommend the experience to anyone should it be in your power to do it.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:10 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm currently sitting in an auditorium full of public school kids who had the day off from school but came in to see Midsummer Nights Dream. I love Shakespeare and I love hearing the kid roar with laughter at a joke written 4 centuries ago.
posted by Uncle at 11:34 AM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

We visited London in 1997, and left for home just a couple of days before the new Globe Theater opened. I was swooning with distress about missing it, but we toured the place as a lame substitute.

A door to the main theater was open so we wandered in to look at the seats and at the stage. The company were rehearsing at the time, so no one was looking while I took a few snapshots and panoramic photos. Then someone noticed, and yelled at me, and we slipped out in the hallway and scuttled away.

I haven't been back, but I lovelovelove the fact that the theater was rebuilt so you can still see those plays performed to this day, four hundred and fifty freakin' years later.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:52 AM on April 23, 2014

If you get a chance to go to the Globe, go as a Groundling (especially to a comedy). I was like, "How am I going to stand for four hours craning my neck up and enjoy a play?" But dude, it turns the play into a really intimate, immediate, and physical experience, when you're in a mosh pit with all these other people and you're all gasping and drawing back together. Fastest four hours I've ever spent in my life, and the most suspension of reality I've ever experienced at live theater. (I saw "As You Like It.")

I also saw one in the lords' seats and mostly it made my butt hurt and it wasn't nearly as engaging sitting far back and having the stage just up in its usual frame instead of up in your face.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:25 PM on April 23, 2014

I always find appreciation for Shakespeare comes gradually and carefully (if at all). School is usually to blame. I had an amazing teacher for Othello when I was 17 who made me rethink WS entirely. It all came down to Othello's master line: "keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."

Though, I still prefer Marlowe.
posted by rockyrelay at 2:00 PM on April 23, 2014

Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, the best introduction to Shakespeare's work I ever read. It was Asimov who opened up Hamlet for me, by explaining the nature of the central conflict, and some of the historical background. The library had two incredibly dog eared copies that are now gone, and the book is somehow out of print, but you can still get it used.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:43 PM on April 23, 2014

If you get a chance to go to the Globe, go as a Groundling (especially to a comedy).

Seconded. I've been to the Globe many times, and the only time I've ever felt sort of "meh" about it was when we had seats in one of the lords' boxes. Every other time I've been a groundling right up against the stage, and it's always fantastic. I'm seeing Titus Andronicus with Mrs. Example next month for our anniversary, and I cannot wait.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:16 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think I ever truly got Shakespeare until I'd directed several of his plays. Oh, I thought I got Shakespeare, but every time I've directed another one of his plays it makes me realize 10 things I missed about each of the other plays I've directed.

For me, its not enough to hear the words spoken out loud. They need to be spoken out loud by somebody who understands the play, the characters, and the words. Sometimes, this is impossible (there's a few brief sections of The Tempest, for example, where we're unsure what he's referring to) and the actors just need to make their best guess.

One of the problems when you wrestle with Shakespeare is that the words look like ones you should be able to understand without looking them up. I use "Wherefore art thou Romeo" with my students as an example of this. When I ask them what it means, they typically initially say "where are you, Romeo?" Of course, "wherefore" means "why," which is (not coincidentally) the only way to interpret the line such that it isn't a non-sequitur in context.

But there's dozens of examples of this. Even when I work with experienced actors, its not unusual for me to ask "did you understand anything that you just said?" and discover that the answer is "actually, no." Couple that with the fact that some characters are liars, some are sarcastic, some are misinformed and some are just plain stupid and you'll see actors make some bizarre choices.

Once, while Assistant Directing a uni production of Much Ado, I watched the actor playing Don Pedro get into a shouting match with the director (an RSC trained gent who'd worked multiple times with Olivier). The actor kept playing his scenes with Hero as if he couldn't keep his hands off of her ass. When the director told him to stop doing this, the actor exploded and mentioned that he could find "half a dozen pieces of textual evidence to prove that Don Pedro was courting Hero." The director patiently explained that, yes, Don Pedro talks about courting Hero, but in context he's offering to do it as a ruse to secure her for Claudio. The actor wasn't having it and stormed off. He was as wrong as wrong can be. The director read the role for the rest of the rehearsal and we heard how Don Pedro could sound with a genuinely great actor in the role.

Anyhow, I've now seen every play in the standard canon played live (plus Two Noble Kinsmen, but neither Edward III nor either the modern reconstruction of Cardenio or the Second Sheperds version of Cardenio) and I've gotten to direct 11 of them. I learn something new every single time and will probably be wrestling with this old, dead man until I'm also an old, dead man.

Happy birthday, you bastard.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:31 PM on April 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

Joey Michaels - very interesting, thanks!

(there's a few brief sections of The Tempest, for example, where we're unsure what he's referring to)

Curious - do you remember which bits?
posted by iotic at 4:39 PM on April 23, 2014

Curious - do you remember which bits?

Almost entirely individual words, but one I recall...

Caliban offers to get them "Young scamels from the rock." We're not certain what scamels are, but contemporary scholars assume its some sort of bird or fish. All we know for sure is its something edible.

We played it like Trinculo and Stephano thought scamels were the best food thing ever in the world.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:55 PM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Northrop Frye on Shakespeare is also an excellent read.
posted by juiceCake at 2:12 PM on April 24, 2014

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