Four centuries ago today, William Shakespeare died. Four centuries and fifty-two years ago, he was also born.
A big part of why I got into theater was because of a presentation on Shakespeare that happened at my grade school when I was only eight, when a theater professor from the local university came to give a presentation to the third-graders at my school. He talked a little bit about Shakespeare and about theater techniques in Tudor England – I remember especially he showed us a nifty piece of stage business that he said they used to have a fake “dog” onstage; he had a piece of fur that he draped over his arm, then worked his arm like it was a puppet of a little lapdog he was holding. We were all fascinated.
Then he closed with Marc Antony’s big speech from Julius Caesar. He told us a little bit about the plot – how Brutus had been one of the people who killed Casesar, and how everyone was mad about that now. “So can you all pretend to be Romans?” he asked us. “You can shout good and loud, before I start, because you’re all angry about Brutus. Go ahead, and then I’ll start.” And because we were eight-year-olds being given license to shout, we got way into it, shouting “boo Brutus! Down with Brutus!” or whatever.
He let us go on for about ten seconds or so, and then in this big, booming voice, he shouted “FRIENDS! ROMANS! COUNTRYMEN! LEND ME YOUR EARS!”
I have never since seen fifty-odd third-graders go from loud and boisterous to dead silence that quickly. I listened as he recited the rest of the speech, occasionally gesturing at the robe which he had on the floor to stand in for Brutus; and I remember thinking that I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but I didn’t care, because I knew in my bones that it was really, really important.
…Shakespeare wove his way in and out of my life after that a few times; I saw a god-awful production of Hamlet starting Richard Thomas at Hartford Stage when I was sixteen (when Laertes ran onstage at one point in camouflage tights and carrying an Uzi, I decided the production didn’t know what it was doing). I’ve seen Henry VIII as part of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park festival. I’ve seen a lot of off-the-wall takes on Shakespeare plays in various off-off-Broadway venues – a Mad Max influenced MacBeth, and another MacBeth which added references to Fast Food Nation and cast various restaurant mascots in the various roles. I was nearly beaned in the face when a Mercutio lost control of a quarterstaff in a college production. I was floored by a free Romeo and Juliet in Tompkins Square Park when their Juliet actually played the part as a giggly tween – the kind of giggly tween Juliet really was – and it woke me up to the part anew. I made a point of seeing Dustin Hoffman in Merchant of Venice on Broadway, and I saw David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing in the West End. I’d flown to London expressly to see the show, and had come almost directly off the plane to the theater (I mentioned that fact to David Tennant outside the stage door, when I was in the throng waiting for autographs, and he stopped signing my program for a microsecond to marvel at that, thank me and ask me how I was coping with jet lag). Earlier this month I saw David Tennant again as Richard II, as part of the “King and Country” repertory the RSC has now at Brooklyn Academy of Music, and when an actor friend offered me a spare ticket to the Henry V performance a couple weeks later, I said sure.
That actor friend is someone I had met through being a stage manager, and my life was set off on that particular path by that presentation back when I was eight.
Ironically, I have only worked on one Shakespeare play; a gender-bending production of Hamlet, with a brilliant actress playing Hamlet as the princess of Denmark. Ophelia was still a woman, and Horatio was still a man; it did all sorts of interesting things to the way Hamlet’s scene in each were played. There’s also a little scene where Polonius comes to Claudius and Gertrude with the news that he’s discovered Hamlet and Ophelia’s affair – it’s usually a bit of a throwaway scene, but this time it got played for some comedy, and I was delighted at how fresh the script could still be. But the audiences didn’t need the gender-bending to react to one of the biggest plot twists – each night, during the final duel, when Gertrude unknowingly drinks from Hamlet’s goblet – which Laertes has poisoned – at each night, at every performance, people in the audience gasped.
Theater is a path that has not always been kind to me, and at this point I’ve pretty much retired from theater. I know that I’d be doing a lot better off financially if I chose a different path. Sometimes I’m still bitter about that. But instead, what I got was tales like that – where words written four centuries ago can so grip a person such that even though they know that the woman they are seeing is clearly pretending to be the Queen of Denmark, and is clearly drinking water out of what is most likely a plastic goblet spray-painted gold, they will still gasp with shock because she has poisoned herself.
I went back to London a year after seeing Much Ado, and made a point of visiting the Globe Theater. I wanted to see more of the backstage, but there was a troupe rehearsing that day – when I went, there was a whole festival of various regional theaters from around the world who’d all come in to London to do various Shakespeare plays in their own native languages. We’d dropped in right when the troupe from Afghanistan was wrapping up their rehearsal for Comedy of Errors, so we could only walk around in the house a bit. The guide gave us all a basic Tudor-England-theater 101 talk, about stuff I’d already known, and then let us wander. I looked up at the richly painted proscenium and the Tudor Rose painted on it, thinking of the prologue from Henry V – “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”
In case Shakespeare’s ghost was listening, I quietly whispered to him – “thanks for everything, you jerk.” And smiled and walked out.