“One of the tasks of a lifetime is to become familiar with the great plays of Shakespeare.” – Roger Ebert (January 24th 1997 Hamlet review)
This quote from Roger Ebert’s review of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet has stayed with me since I first read it. It has circulated through my mind over the intervening 20 years and is the impetus for this project. My friends know of my admiration bordering on adoration of Branagh, particularly his Shakespeare films. But while Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations have deepened my interest in the Bard and my understanding of some of his works, it was not the genesis of my affection. It’s hard for me to say exactly when it did begin. My oldest friend Chad remembers taking note of me for the first time in and English class in Junior High as we read Shakespeare aloud.
“I remember the apprehension of going to Junior High. This was a new building for us with the 6th grade. In our English class, we were going around the room and reading reluctantly from Shakespeare. Some of us read with an air of boredom to make it clear that we were cooler than this. Others read with trembling fear that we would be laughed at. I remember when the reading reached a gangly young guy with tousled brown hair. Suddenly the entire room changed. Who was this weirdo? He read Shakespeare as if he was on the professional stage or reading for an old-time radio show. There was drama, intrigue, and thinking back maybe different voices for different characters. This is how I met Rob Dunkelberger. We would not be friends after this meeting. I had some growing up to do. I needed to be less worried about what everyone thought. When we finally did become friends in high school, it was like soul mates meeting. We share the same exact birthday. I know he’ll always be my friend. That weirdo that loved Shakespeare so much.” – Chad Raymond (April 27 2017 e-mail)
What was the Play? I’m not sure, Probably Romeo and Juliet, but it may have been Julius Caesar. I know it wasn’t Hamlet, that was tackled in High School with Mr. Orvik. But somehow I think I must have had an interest before then. What Junior High kid is inspired to try and bring meaning and emotion to Shakespeare spontaneously after listening to classmates attempts to make it indecipherable? I doubt that without some foreknowledge of Shakespeare and performances of Shakespeare that would happen. So where the kernels of this affinity began is a matter of speculation on my part.
I assume that it must come from an unlikely fascination with older forms of entertainment. Ever since a boy a fan of old movies of old books, probably beginning with old monster movies, that story well documented at the below address.
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, led to reading Sherlock Holmes. The comedic silliness of P.G. Wodehouse led to a longing to have been an Edwardian era man of leisure, with a public school background, putting on plays and throwing dinner rolls at Binky and Cyril in the Drones Club. Perhaps Shakespeare comes with being an Anglophile. I was always much more interested in a British Costume film than a western as a child. I suspect I was early on establishing a desire to be well read and someone who enjoyed the more sophisticated things in life. Cary Grant over John Wayne, Woody Allen over Jerry Lewis, Monty Python over I don’t know, Ernest goes/does/slips in… Movies? Now this is when I was younger, not that many of these things don’t still hold true, but I have learned to embrace my American heritage as well. But at the time getting dirty on the trail on the back of a living breathing horse took backseat to a dinner party at a country estate in merry old England. Perhaps the roots of my Shakespeare attraction can be traced back to this desire from and early age to achieve a level of intellectualism that no other ten year old had ever longed for. I remember from an early age, probably six or seven, hoping for a tuxedo for Christmas. Where I imagined I might wear such a garment I can hardly fathom now. We certainly didn’t make a habit of dressing for dinner, frankly I’m not even sure my father wore pants to the dinner table most of the time, certainly no one was looking for me to show up in tails. But I digress, the short of it is that being an obviously odd child, one out of step with my Dukes of Hazzard loving peers to say the least, I developed some eccentricities.
One of which would appear to have culminated in a familiarity with Shakespeare by the age of twelve before being introduced to it in any formal educational setting. That is unless I’m forgetting some 1st grade play in which they had the six year olds mount a production of The Tempest for a spring concert, but I doubt that is likely. Though I can not remember where or when I was introduced to Shakespeare’s work, I can neither remember not knowing who Shakespeare was and what his place in world literature was. Perhaps that is how it is for all of us. Perhaps this is a piece of knowledge that is passed down through genetics or is a form of instinctual knowledge we are born with. As a baby Kangaroo upon being born instinctively climbs into it’s mothers pouch, do humans instinctively know who Shakespeare is? If born an American do we automatically, without any coaching what-so-ever, dismiss it and avoid it at all costs? Perhaps that last comment is a bit unfair, but it does seem in today’s world that intelligence is seen as a mark of oddness. Something to be scoffed at and made fun of. So is it any different than a Junior High classroom in the 1980’s? Are we not seeing on a grander scale that microcosm? Where displaying a desire to do more than just read the words on the page to fulfill the requirement, is deemed the act of an uppity intellectual?
Now I can make no bones about the fact that my desire at a young age was born more from a desire to be that upper class intellectual, than a real thirst for the actual knowledge. I am as guilty as anyone at that age of trying to affect a personality type I idolized. But as I have grown older I have become aware that my desires for this knowledge that comes with being well read is more and more at the heart of my longing. People seem to view reading Shakespeare and Charles Dickens as some sort of elitism. But Shakespeare and Dickens are not elitists. They were the Stephen King’s of their generations. These were the most popular writer’s of their times. These were not writers who wrote only for the well educated and upper classes. These were writers who wrote for all people, the Butcher, the Baker, even the Candlestick maker as well as Kings and Queens. What makes them seem like elitist is their language, Dickens is harder to read today than Stephen King is, because the meaning of words has changed. There are words we no longer use, there are words that have new meanings different from the meaning used in the text. Life was also different, the everyday tasks and tools of life in those days are not ours and so everything seems foreign in a way. Well Shakespeare even further removed from our time multiplies these issues by a factor of ten. Dickens requires a little more concentration and a little more focused attention, with that, one can sit and within a chapter or two be quite able to read along and follow the narrative. With Shakespeare we must rely much more heavily on annotations to the text. We need definitions, explanations of myths and historical references that were perhaps common knowledge in the 16th and 17th century but now in the 21st are unknown even to students of these disciplines. Therefore they take more effort, more focus, more commitment on the part of the reader. So why bother?
“You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council” – HenryV
There is witchcraft in the words of Shakespeare. There is an eloquence in his most perfect passages the like of which we shall not see again. There is within these texts such beauty, such humor, such nobility, that these individual words take on meanings and powers far surpassing their own simple definitions. I have always felt that words are important. I have at times been ridiculed for using words that others do not know. I never purposely use words others don’t know, I just use the words I know as best I can to say what I want to say in the best possible way. I believe in the power of words, I believe that words mean something and that we should use the proper words to say as precisely as we can what we mean. I hate the argument “you know what I mean”. I always want to shout back “say what you mean!”. Words matter, don’t use them casually, whatever you want to say there are words for it, use them. There are the perfect words to express our meanings to each other, and then there are the perfect words to express our emotions. That is where Shakespeare lives for me. His ability to put together words in such a way as to create an emotion. The more we read, the more words we are exposed to the more ideas we come in contact with, the closer we come to being able to express ourselves so that we are understood and the more able we are to understand others.
“I have of late –but wherefore I know not– lost all my Mirth” – Hamlet
How much more beautiful is that passage than saying “I’m kinda feeling down.” It is in search of that beauty that I begin this quest. It is a search, to understand not just the well known tales, but all of Shakespeare that I embark on. I do not know how long this journey will take, or ultimately what it will look like at it’s completion. For a destination so far off, the entire path cannot be known at the outset.
I will start with a general plan and see where it takes me. That plan, surely to be altered and fine tuned along the way is this. I shall read a play, the order of which shall be determined by my mood, or by an upcoming opportunity to see a performance of a certain play. I will be utilizing the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of the plays. After I have read the play I will then screen whatever film/video/live performances I can find. Not always exhausting all option, but when possible viewing at least two, and frequently more. I have in my archives a complete collection done by the BBC of Shakespeare’s plays, so at minimum no matter how infrequently it is performed or has been adapted I shall be able to screen each play once. The purpose of the multiple screenings is to gain as much insight into the plays meaning as possible and also to explore the idea of interpretation. Along with interpretation I plan to look as well at inspiration. So when I am reading The Taming of the Shrew, I will also likely screen the musical Kiss Me Kate in it’s intended 3D format. I will also watch the Atomic Shakespeare episode of the TV series Moonlighting. When I read The Tempest I will also screen Forbidden Planet as well as the contemporary set Paul Mazursky film starring John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. At this the beginning, my plan is that each play and it’s adaptation will lend itself to one blog post. I may find that I feel more than one blog is required to do each play justice or I may find that only some plays, such as Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet requires more than one post. In addition, I intend to also explore more general Shakespearean programs and will likely do additional blogs related to those. Things such as Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, it could be included in the Richard III post but it is also an exploration of Shakespeare in general and could be it’s own post. Likewise, the film Shakespeare in Love, obviously there is a strong connection within in that film to Romeo and Juliet, but that Play has so many adaptations already that it might be better to address it on it’s own. I shall see where the road takes me, for it is the journey itself that is the adventure, not it’s end.
I invite everyone to follow along as I tackle this task of a lifetime. I encourage comments and suggestions, corrections, differences in interpretations, theories, jokes, lewd drawings and as always mix tapes or Spotify playlists. Read along with every entry or just check out your favorite plays. If you are performing in a Shakespearean play let me know when and where and of course complimentary tickets are always welcomed. I am excited to begin this enormous undertaking, I expect to go it alone, but would be thrilled to find some friends along the way, old and new. I welcome open and lively discussions in the comments so don’t be shy.