“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts …”
-As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7
William Shakespeare was born on April 26th, 1564. 456 years later his plays are still presented on stage, marking perhaps the longest, continuous “Top Ten” streak in human history. Truly amazing. This begs the question, what makes his centuries-old dramatizations so popular to contemporary audiences? The answer is that Shakespeare writes about the human condition, which has never changed, and presumably, never will.
Shakespeare writes about every human emotion. Romeo and Juliet is about love. Hamlet is about greed and murder. Macbeth is about betrayal and the karma of “what goes around comes around”. Midsummer Night’s Dream finds humor in fickle love. Surely there is a play that represents every emotion that we are familiar with today. It is his understanding of human emotion that makes Shakespeare’s work so timeless.
However, most people I talk to dislike Shakespeare. I suspect this is due to the fact that his language style is vastly different than our own. We listen, we recognize the English language, but we haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about. However, if you are able to overcome this language barrier, I’m confident that you will find literally hundreds of stories that will enlighten and entertain you. All it takes is a little perseverance.
I have visited with friends who have young families. Sitting near a child in a highchair, the child will babble something that is complete nonsense to my ear. No nouns or verbs. No recognizable syllables. And yet the child’s mother responds, “Of course you can have more juice, Sweetheart.” What? That stream of sounds was gibberish to my ear, but to a mother familiar with every moment of this child’s life, she can accurately interpret some useful communication from the child. Think of Shakespeare the same way. It may sound like gibberish to you for the first half hour, but if you give it some time, you begin to understand more and more of what Shakespeare has to say to you over the centuries. I find his writing delightfully erudite, and soothing to my intellect.
Some personal examples. When I was in high school, I was required to read Macbeth. The teacher would ask us to analyze what we had read. Anyone familiar with the plot knows that Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to kill his brother, the King, in order to succeed him on the throne. When asked for my thoughts, I admitted that I thought the plot was total BS. I completely rejected the idea that your wife or girlfriend could run her fingers through your hair, and suddenly you would agree that murdering your own brother was a legitimate idea. “That would never happen!”, I insisted.
Many years went by, and the company that I worked for decided to send me to London to teach a two-week computer course. I always try to use my personal time to experience my new environment. I was able to tour a replica of the Globe Theater, which was built on the exact location of the original. That’s when I decided I should see a play while I was in London. And if you only have the time and money to see one play, it seemed logical to me that the play would have to be one of Shakespeare’s presentations. I searched the tourist manuals and discovered that Macbeth was being presented by a young actor and actress who were proclaimed to be the best up-and-coming Shakespearean actors in the field. I attended the play with a local woman who was acting as my personal tour guide. We sat in the theater, the lights went dark, and the curtain rose. I was highly disappointed to notice that there were no props on stage at all. The stage and backdrop were all pitch black. Amazingly, I realized within minutes, that your imagination was able to supply detailed scenery that would be impossible for an indoor setting. Eventually, Lady Macbeth comes out on stage to woo her husband, and seductively suggest a shortcut to the throne. I nearly jumped up in my seat and shouted, “I’LL DO IT! PICK ME! PICK ME!” I was much older now, and I had a better understanding of the way women can influence a man. Let’s just say that the performance that weekend was spectacular, and one that I will never forget.
After teaching my Constitution class in Oregon, I discovered that Ashland hosts a Shakespeare festival that runs from February to November. The friends that I was visiting had personal business to attend to that would require me to fend for myself for an entire afternoon. Not a problem! I purchased tickets to see Shakespeare’s King Lear, which tells a story of an aging King with three daughters, who is trying to calculate what percentage of his kingdom to leave to each child. The two oldest girls fawn over their father in a transparent attempt to curry favor with him. The youngest girl makes it clear that she will do as she pleases, rather than attempt to appease her father’s wishes. She goes so far as to marry a soldier from a different country, specifically to irritate her father. The conclusion is that the King realizes in his last moments that it is the youngest daughter that truly loves him the most, recognizing belatedly that the two oldest daughters were merely sycophants.
I have explained that Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant today because they deal with human emotions that are probably eternal. This production made that ever so clear because the actors were all dressed in contemporary clothing. The foreign soldier that the youngest girl planned to marry was wearing an American military uniform that was ubiquitous during the Vietnam fiasco. The ideas and emotions depicted by the actors are the same feelings that we experience today.
There were bleachers on four sides of the stage, and all the action takes place in the middle, with actors entering and exiting in the corners. Everyone is within a few feet of the stage, making you feel like you are part of what is transpiring. What impressed me the most about this performance was the intermission after the first act. The first act concludes with several people accidentally drinking from a cup that has been poisoned. Several actors beyond the intended victim drop to the floor to “die” as the lights in the theater come up for the intermission. The bulk of the audience hurries to the door to use the restrooms and purchase another glass of wine. I remain in my seat to watch. The stage hands hurry out to remove all the props. Then they return with large mops to clean the floor. They literally mop around the “dead bodies” on the stage. I am fascinated beyond reason. The “corpses” remain motionless for nearly fifteen minutes as the clean-up crew works around them. Finally, the stage hands come out to remove the bodies, carrying them by the arms and legs. I am alone in the audience, but I stand and applaud vigorously in appreciation for their dedication to their craft.
Here are some Shakespeare quotes that you have probably uttered yourself:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:”
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1
“Me thinks she doth protest too much.”
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
(actual quote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”)
“Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!”
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,”
Henry VI,” Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2
I hope that you are inspired to give Shakespeare a second chance. Surely, four centuries of adoring fans should make you curious what all the fuss is about. To get you started, I highly recommend a Great Performances presentation of Hamlet, starring Kevin Kline and Diane Venora. When Kevin Kline begins his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, it as if you are hearing the words for the first time. It is the best version of Hamet that I’ve ever seen, and I have seen many of them.
I also recommend A Midsummer Night’s Dream, again with Kevin Kline. It also features Michelle Pfeiffer as the seductive Titania. This is a comedy in which the gods are playing practical jokes on four couples who think they are in love. Shakespeare was excellent writing drama, but equally adept at writing comedy. If you require additional motivation, I would be happy to watch any Shakespeare presentation with you, acting as your translator so you understand the dialogue of the actors. You should experience as much Shakespeare as you can in your life, before you “are dust and food for worms brave Percy, “.
Henry IV, Part 1, Act 5, Scene 4