In Love With Shakespeare


Joel Short



Triangulating Shakespeare

"About any one so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong." --T. S. Eliot (Eliot 107)

Like all great artists, William Shakespeare is thoroughly conscious of his medium. His plays consistently call attention to the theatrical. "With Shakespeare the actable and the theatrical are always what come first" (Frye 5). In fact, the metaphor of performance is central to the Shakespearean canon. "When we are born we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools," Lear declares to Gloucester ( 178-179). "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, II.vii. 139-142). This self-referentiality reflects a concern that the audience not be passive in its participation, and that the boundaries of the theatrical experience not be restricted to the stage. Shakespeare layers connotations and meanings into his plays that reward the self-conscious auditor.

Though much of our modern entertainment seeks to make the auditor oblivious of the medium, Shakespeare’s plays demand a sophisticated self-consciousness on the audience’s part. Part of the pleasure of viewing a Shakespearean play such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in recognizing the irony of its self-contained mini-dramas. In the "Pyramus and Thisbe" scene, Shakespeare satirizes theatrical convention. At the same time, however, he satirizes the naiveté of the audience that doubts the transforming power of the imagination. As Shakespeare continually points out, the acts of performing and viewing are not confined to the theatre. Life reflects the theatre just as the theatre reflects life. Furthermore, when taken seriously, great theatre can change its audience. For this reason, Shakespeare seeks to make viewing a conscious act. The full benefit of the theatrical experience is felt only when the auditor recognizes his role.

Clearly, in Shakespeare’s view, life is very much like a play. For one thing, all human beings are actors, or as Hegel says, "free artists of themselves" (Bloom 6). As "real" as we perceive ourselves to be, Shakespeare’s great characters demonstrate that personal identity is an assumed role, a fabrication. We are all playing characters. When the mad and weather-beaten King Lear declares himself "every inch a king," his exclamation is a melancholy reminder that power and authority are based upon image and ceremony. "There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office" ( 153-155). Also assuming roles, the Athenian lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream play parts assigned to them by Oberon. Their exploits in the wood suggest their participation in a play which they cannot perceive. Puck reinforces the impression, calling attention to the trials of the Athenian lovers as a "fond pageant" (III ii 114). Though they cannot control their passions, they may rationalize them. Their identities are arbitrary, illusions fabricated to give meaning and order to the chaos of emotion and experience.

As Prospero observes "we are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep" (Tempest, IV.i. 156-158). Though the world of the theatre is ultimately insubstantial, it reminds us that our lives are fleeting and uncertain. And that ultimately, we are dependent upon imagination and illusion for meaning. Through Shakespeare’s plays, the audience discovers first hand this faculty of illusion, as we are swept up into the realm of imagination. At the same time that this is going on, the audience witnesses characters having the same experience. As the Athenian lovers awake from their midsummer night’s dream, the line between dream and waking is blurred. "Are you sure That we are awake?" Demetrius asks (IV.i. 195-196). When reassured, he suggests, "Let’s follow him, And by the way recount our dreams" (IV.i. 201-202). They have become subjects for their own entertainment and instruction. Their imaginations will continue to transform their memories until their adventures become personal legends. The audience has a parallel experience as the play ends, when Puck bids them to think "you have but slumb’red here, While these visions did appear... this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream" (V.i. 425-430). Shakespeare’s play is a dream, a fantasy that will continue to live in the memory. But it is more than just a "shadow." And we, the audience, are also actors. The temporary illusions of the play can have long-lasting effects, altering what we think and feel.

Reading Shakespeare

Reading is a solitary affair. At times, it can be like entering a dark, sound-proofed room and closing the door. In the void, words flop around in the mind but leave only vague impressions. And yet, at other times, the experience of reading seems more vivid than that of living. Every devoted reader has at least one text that has changed the way that he perceives the world, that has made living a more conscious and absorbing occupation. The difference between the two experiences is, of course, imagination. And perhaps no text worth reading requires as much imagination on the part of the reader as that of a play.

Though difficult, I find reading Shakespeare the most rewarding method of engaging the plays. The text is Shakespeare’s contribution. But in the moment of reading, artistic authority is equally shared with Shakespeare. As Northrop Frye advises:

In reading the play try to reconstruct the performance in your mind: assume your directing the play and have to think of what kind of people you would choose to act what parts, and where you would place them on the stage and get them on and off. (Frye 14)

The key to performing Shakespeare lies in interpreting and imagining the text. Within this framework there is a great deal of flexibility. Nevertheless, there are usually essential qualities that define any particular Shakespearean play, qualities directly derived from the nature of the text itself. For this reason, reading a Shakespearean play is essential preparation for judging a performance. When I saw the Cal Poly Theatre Department’s recent production of Romeo and Juliet, I instinctively reacted against the slow and methodical pace. My reading of the text led me to imagine a love affair where events happened so quickly that they spun out of control. For me at least, the couple’s mutual love seemed too intense and pure to survive. As Bloom opines, "Love dies or else lovers die" (Bloom 88). It is impossible for Romeo and Juliet to sustain their love indefinitely. As they grow older, time and circumstance must cool their passion. But the lovers are forced into a crisis while their love is still fresh and all-consuming. From this perspective, any performance of the play that fails to capture the desperate quality of the pair’s mutual love is a failure. Personally, I found the methodical and stylized love affair portrayed in the recent production unmoving.

When it came to performing myself, the text provided crucial insight into my characters. My task was to interpret and then convey meaning and emotion. When assigned the role of Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and later the Old Shepherd in the Winter’s Tale, I had not yet read the plays. I read my specific lines before I read the texts as a whole. Upon reading the plays, I gradually gained new insight into my roles. Peter Quince’s Prologue to the "Pyramus and Thisbe" scene is a jumbled speech: the character places emphasis in the wrong places. Upon initially encountering the lines, my impression was that Peter Quince was a rather clever character, who intentionally misspoke is lines in order to offend with impunity. Instead of saying, "Our true intent is all for your delight. We are not here that you should here repent you," Quince says, "Our true intent is. All for you delight, We are not here. That you should here repent you..." (V.i.114-115). Throughout the play Quince’s speeches are saturated with malapropisms. He is too ignorant to use language as skillfully as I had originally assumed. Instead, his strange speech is the result of memorizing words without understanding meanings, a practice all too common in Shakespearean amateur productions. Therefore, had I the acting skill, and had I memorized my lines better, I would have acted the part of nervous bumbler. As it was, no acting was required.

Likewise, my interpretation of the Old Shepherd’s character in The Winter’s Tale changed as I reread the passages where he appears. Initially, his crotchety speech, "I would there were no youth between ten and three and twenty..." seemed just an expression of senile exasperation. Only when I entered into Act IV did I begin to sympathize with his rural concerns. The Old Shepherd’s passionate devotion to the sheep-shearing festivities gave me insight into his common world, where missing sheep are a major concern. Perdita enriches his simple existence with flair. As Dr. Marx pointed out, a single sentimental reference to his deceased wife is highly suggestive of the Old Shepherd’s tender loneliness. Finding the child is a moment of renewal for the Old Shepherd and his son, a life and hope affirming experience. For that reason, I emphasized the line "This is some changeling" (III.iii. 114). For the shepherd, the child truly is a magical gift, a new reason for living. Within this context, the Old Shepherd’s crucial line takes on new meaning: "Thou meets with things dying, I with things newborn" (III.iii. 109-110). When I spoke that line, I tried to put into it all of the emotion that an old widower might feel at the sight of a child. The line is an acknowledgment of the life cycle, tinged with bittersweet memory and a sublime hopefulness.

The secret to connecting with a text is imagination, but this process can be greatly assisted by the influence of other perspectives upon the text. Critical essays can often be a great help in distilling the essence of a text. The most helpful essays frame a text for a reader, helping one past his own personal prejudices, and enriching the imagination with a new context for understanding. That was certainly my experience with many of the critics we read this quarter. Perhaps because I read him in order to present his essay, or maybe because I had heard him speak on television before and found his personality intriguing, I was particularly entranced with Harold Bloom’s essay on King Lear. Bloom’s essay prepared me to appreciate the sublime aspects of the great tragedy. In an odd way, my conception of Bloom tinged my perception of Lear. The patriarchal sublimity that Bloom found in Lear, I found in Bloom. Like Lear, Bloom is egotistical, opinionated, paranoid, and yet lovable. It is not difficult to summon visions of Bloom on the moors, cursing the winds of political correctness with abandon. It is quite possible that Bloom envisions himself that way. That was my clue into Lear.

Viewing Shakespeare

Shakespeare intended his plays to be viewed. It is only on stage that the subtleties of gesture and tone can be explored, creating myriad meanings to illuminate the text. This is one reason that Shakespeare’s plays are the height of literary experience: they are almost endlessly suggestive and adaptable. All that is required is imagination and the suspension of disbelief. We get used to television and the movies feeding us every image. But watching a stage performance emphasizes the essential nature of the texts. The plays are lies that tell the truth, and we become more conscious of this fact when we view a bare stage where the sets are steel frames. To hear an actor muddle or belabor his lines breaks the illusion for a moment, and then we wonder how we were ever fooled. But moments later, we are sucked up again into the world of illusion.

Because Shakespeare’s plays are so open-ended and adaptable, every production of a play has countless artistic decisions to make. The best productions find creative ways to elaborate upon the basic themes and ideas of the text. For instance, in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s friends laugh at his death, assuming it to be one of his jokes. This interpretation emphasizes the dangerous irresponsibility of Mercutio’s light-heartedness. Even his friends do not know when he is serious; no wonder his enemies do not know how to take his jokes. Luhrmann’s Mercutio heightens the ambiguity of the character. By casting the movie’s only African-American for the role, Luhrmann’s production emphasizes Mercutio’s outsider status. Furthermore, Luhrmann stresses the homoeroticism lightly suggested within the text’s Queen Mab speech, and by Mercutio’s jealous concern for Romeo’s love-life, as the already feminine Mercutio dresses in drag for the costume ball. I found these interpretations interesting and appropriate twists upon a familiar story.

The plays are wide open for interpretation. Nevertheless, I found some productions anathema to my conception of the text. Brook’s King Lear provides a nihilistic interpretation of the play, presenting an unlovable King that almost merits the disregard of his daughters. By taking away my sympathy for the characters, Brooks deprived me of an emotional response to his production. Ironically, this tactic confirmed my "Bloom-based" interpretation of the text. Lear must be lovable; if we cannot identify with him then we cannot share in his despair or his redemption.

Those were my responses to viewing as a reader. As a performer, the primary psychological effect of viewing another performance is over-confidence. Whether good or bad, watching other people perform makes me believe I would make a good actor. Years of television and movie viewing tends to give one the illusion that he can act: but artistic judgment and theatrical ability are distinct talents. When actually performing, the temptation to imitate other performances is great. I found myself unconsciously imitating Dr. Marx’s characterization of the Old Shepherd from the 510 productions. Reviewing my performance, I find that I copied his intonation and emphasis on certain lines. But the best assurance of originality is a bad memory. Viewing others perform has taught me the importance of freshness. I am drawn into a performance when it sounds like the actors are thinking up their lines as they go along, that each line follows as a response to what has gone before. It was the lack of spontaneity in the Cal Poly Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet that made me detached from the action.

Performing Shakespeare

The value of performance is the opportunity to make one’s own personal interpretation of the text. It is the ultimate partnership with Shakespeare. Performance brings a palpable energy to the text, as the actor tries to find a way of connecting with people and words that are far from his own experience. "It’s difficult, certainly, and you’ll do some stumbling at first, but eventually the play will take off on its own, and you’ll feel that you’ve released something in your mind that’s alive, but something too that you can always call home" (Frye 14).

I found my personal connection with the text at Swanton Ranch. There were many advantages to traveling to Swanton Ranch for our production. It allowed me a chance to get away from the distractions of routine, and focus upon a single goal for a weekend. I honestly believe that the retreat gave our work a freshness that it might otherwise have lacked. Also, the "camp-like" atmosphere was useful in developing team-work and camaraderie. Because most of my group drove up in one car, we got to know each other a little on the way, which made working together more fun and productive. But the camaraderie was not confined within the groups. Being in close proximity to other productions gave us inspiration for our own. I was particularly interested in the Lear production, which filmed on the same beach as us. Watching Joe/Lear run around cackling and frolicking in character provided some great comic relief. There was even some intra-production consultation going on as to how to stage and perform the scenes. I advised Joe to use his own voice instead of the affected cronish one, as I felt it would give his performance a greater intensity. The majority over-ruled me, and Joe did an excellent job.

Like Lear’s, our own production adopted the trial and error method. Act III, scene iii from the Winter’s Tale is the turning point of the play. The play divides into two halves around this scene. The scene contains aspects of the destruction and despair of the play’s first half, as Antigonus exits pursued by a bear and the ship wrecks; but is also points the way to the restoration and rebirth of the last half, as the kindly Old Shepherd discovers "a very pretty bairn." The significance of this scene is easy to overlook, and our amateur adaptation unintentionally emphasizes this turning point. Quite by accident, we achieved an atmospheric effect which contributed to this thematic idea. When we filmed the early parts of the scene at night, the lack of light created a very stormy setting. Placing these early shots up against the scenes with the Shepherd and his son, where light is glaring off our faces, created a stark contrast which emphasizes the transition from despair to hope, from dark to light.

This "trial and error" process is rewarding. The very act of performing brings to light ideas and phrases that might get overlooked in reading or viewing a scene. The repetition that practice and performance required made me notice new details in my speeches. "It was told me I should be rich by the fairies," is a line that I had read and never really considered until I began to perform it. The old man is obviously deluded if he believes that the Perdita and the gold came from the fairies. But could the line mean that the fairies told him that he would be rich someday? That would be an interesting twist. In that case he would a very peculiar and fascinating old man indeed. But I felt him to be so from the first, which is why I requested the role. At any rate, the action of performing immediately puts one into sympathy with the characters. We chose to have my character make his entrance by climbing down a hill, spouting his lines. Climbing up and down that mountain time after time to get to the place where I could begin my descent certainly put me in the mood to spout my angry lines. I empathized with the old man, consigned to wander over those cliffs in search of his sheep; especially early Sunday morning, when we filmed our final "takes" in order to avoid the glare of the sun coming over the mountain.

Though perhaps trite, it is nonetheless true that the truly skilled make their work appear easy. Watching Olivier perform Hamlet makes performance appear effortless. Actually performing however, while exhilarating, is also very humbling. "If we offend it is with our good will..." It is difficult to evoke emotion over fictional events and characters that seem so distant to my own experience. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that I felt an affinity for the Old Shepherd by the time I was done. Shakespeare’s characters live forever, because they are fundamentally human. Standing there beside the sea, leaning on my driftwood staff and watching the other students perform their parts, all the effort seemed worthwhile. To paraphrase Northrop Frye, I had released a living creature in my head.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1932.

Frye, Northrop. On Shakespeare. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.


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