Saturday, December 31, 2005

Shakespeare under the picnic table

New Years Eve always reminds me of Shakespeare. Because my worst New Years Eve to date was spent on a Philadelphia train when I was semi-homeless and heading for my ex-husband's apartment with the complete annotated works of William Shakespeare under my arm. My ex-husband wasn't home so I had to go back from whence I came. I was too tired to lug Shakespeare back again so I left the set of books under the picnic table, out of the freezing rain and went to catch a bus, only to have my last five dollars stolen when I gave it to somebody who said he had change.

When I got back late New Year's Day, there was Shakespeare, under the picnic table. I was greatly relieved. This was in the days before easy access to the Internet, before you could just go online and read the complete works of Shakespeare for free.

I fell in love with Shakespeare years before I became a playwright - I wanted to be an illustrator then. I had been exposed to Shakespeare in high school but Julius Caesar is not really the right way to get teenagers interested in Big Bill. I mean, in theory I could see that it was a good play, but who really cared about a bunch of guys in togas babbling about the ides of March?

I was nineteen when I saw the BBC's version of As You Like It on public television. I just couldn't believe how great it was, and in ways I didn't expect. The female characters, especially Rosalind and her cousin Celia, were witty, affectionate and fun, and they win in the end, and the story, though fanciful and even silly in spots, had some great banter and fun situations - like when Rosalind dresses as a boy and then makes hottie Orlando woo her as Rosalind. It really blew my mind.

So I was excited to get A. L. Rowse's "The Annotated Shakespeare" for Christmas that year. It's a handsome three-volume set not only annotated but copiously illustrated too. Thanks to the Internet (how did we make it before the Internet?) I find that Rowse was a big deal in the world of Shakespeare scholarship. He has an entry in the Encylopedia Britannica's Guide to Shakespeare. He died in 1997 and I was surprised to read that he was gay because throughout his Annotated work he really emphasizes Shakespeare's heterosexuality, which I think is still pretty disputable - I think Shakespeare may well have been bisexual.

Less suprisingly Rowse was a Stratfordian - that is, on the question of the identity of the author of Julius Caesar and As You Like It and others he believed that it was a guy from Stratford-on-Avon, the son of a glover and sometime wool merchant. Rowse's family was working class and those of us from non-exalted backgrounds tend to be resistant to Oxfordian (partisans of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford) arguments which are mainly based on snobbery - 'how could Shakespeare know so much about royalty and the law and anything that takes any thought whatsoever when he was working class?' There is an excellent web site, The Shakespeare Authorship Page that answers arguments from Oxfordians, Marlovians, Baconians and all the others.

Another good Stratfordian whose work I discovered via public television, is Michael Wood. His book "Shakespeare" is a companion to his four part series In Search of Shakespeare. He not only demostrates that there is plenty of evidence that the guy from Stratford wrote the plays, he makes a good case that strife between the new Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church had a big impact on Shakespeare's personal life and work. He also provides a reproduction of the "Grafton Portrait" (see above) and speculates that it might be a painting of a young Shakespeare. The young man in the Grafton has alot in common with later portraits of Shakespeare: the big forehead, the heavy eyelids, the sensitive mouth and pointed chin.

There is a belief in the theatre world that the plays of Shakespeare are so great and so popular because of the language. I think this is wrong. Very often the language is so poetic or plain obscure that only people who have spent time studying the plays - like (ahem) reading annotated versions - have a real appreciation of what's being said. And it isn't just not understanding; there are times when what's being said is confusing or misleading.

For example, when Hamlet sees the ghost of his father for the first time he wants to go after him. But Horatio and Marcellus try to hold him back, and he says:

Unhand me, gentlemen. By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!

By "lets" he means (as Rowse helpfully annotates) "hinders" and that made sense to the Elizabethans, but it means exactly the opposite in contemporary usage.

No, I think there are two main reasons for Shakespeare's popularity in the modern repertory. First because of his plots. He borrowed many of his plots, but always added his own details to increase the excitement. That's why West Side Story and Ten Things I Hate About You to come up with just two off the top of my head, are considered remakes of Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew, in spite of using none of Shakespeare's language.

The other reason for Shakespeare's popularity is that he wrote decent parts for women. You can't say that about plenty of contemporary playwrights. Shakespeare's work stands out from so many playwrights for the sheer variety of female parts - from clever Rosalind to innocent Ophelia to crafty Lady MacBeth to stalwart Mistress Quickly to sadistic Goneril. Men still get far more and more various parts of course, but that's to be expected for a time when women couldn't even act on the public stage. Shakespeare had more of an excuse than contemporary playwrights.