Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blogging Shakespeare - AS YOU LIKE IT

NOTE: this post is written in response to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Happy Birthday Shakespeare project.

Look, I'm not knocking JULIUS CAESAR.

But JULIUS CAESAR may well be the play by William Shakespeare that least appeals to teenagers: a bunch of old guys in togas, dealing with affairs of state.

Sure, there are impressive speeches - that Brutus is a tricky one; and some spooky prophesying - beware the ides of March - but no humor, no romance, no sex. It was probably the no sex that recommended it to whomever decided it would be the right play with which to introduce a high school English class to the works of Shakespeare.

My response at the end of the semester was, "so, that's Shakespeare. Huh. Big deal."

But when I was nineteen I happened to switch the television to the local public broadcasting station and AS YOU LIKE IT was on. Oh, Shakespeare - and I almost switched to another station but I noticed something - this play was very different from JULIUS CAESAR. Here were two women bantering and joking around with each other just as I did with my friends. And lusting after cute guys like me and my friends. And then after some family drama the women run away together (taking along the droll court clown.) They disguise themselves and meet interesting people and have witty conversations and adventures and fall in love with cute guys.

Rosalind and Celia seemed implausibly, miraculously modern to me in spite of their language - which to my surprise I was able to understand with little trouble.

I didn't read this quote from Robert Graves (author of "I, Claudius") until years later but at that moment I would have agreed with him that "Shakespeare really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is good."

I was now a complete Shakespeare fanatic and on the road to eventually becoming a playwright. Immediately after the show I tried to read every play by Shakespeare. And in those days you couldn't just go online and read them all any time of the night or day, you had to go to the library, and my small town library did not have every play written by Shakespeare. But my boyfriend gave me A.L. Rowse's "The Annotated Shakespeare" for a Christmas present.

There's nothing quite like AS YOU LIKE IT in Shakespeare, but really, is there anything like AS YOU LIKE IT on the stage ever - even now? Only television shows like I Love Lucy or The Mary Tyler Moore Show had anything close to AS YOU LIKE IT in terms of fun, high-spirited female camaraderie.

The television production of AS YOU LIKE IT that I happened to see starred Helen Mirren as Rosalind, and it was part of the BBC's The Shakespeare Plays series. In the 1970s the BBC decided to do every single play by Shakespeare and I say bless the BBC! I saw my first performances of so many of Shakespeare's plays during this series, at a time when I could not afford to go to the theatre much - although I did see a wonderful free performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM on the Philadelphia waterfront.

Helen Mirren was 33 when she did the BBC production in 1978, a bit old for the role, but who ever could do it better? She will always be Rosalind to me. Watch and enjoy: