I don’t want to say I like Shakespeare, but when we visited the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London a couple of years ago, my wife says I acted like “a 7-year-old in a dinosaur museum.”
With his birthday (we think) coming up tomorrow, it’s a good time to talk about the man who may have more to do with what we read today than anyone else.
Some people, seeing this is a Shakespeare post, have already tuned out. That’s a shame. This is what I wrote back in 1999, when I reviewed the movie “Shakespeare In Love” for the Gazette:
Do not be turned off by the word “Shakespeare.” Too many people associate his name with stuffy academics and high-falutin’ productions. Back in the day, though, Shakespeare wrote entertainment for the masses, not the elite; more John Grisham than John Updike. If he were alive today, he’d probably be a television screenwriter.
It’s still true. Hamlet’s uncle kills his father, marries his mother and steals his kingdom. Macbeth kills his king, at the urging of his wife and a bunch of witches, and then slowly goes mad as his doom approaches. Beatrice and Benedick, a pair of smart-aleck independents, find themselves inexorably drawn toward each other as their friends’ romance is torn apart.
This is not bloodless, academic stuff. This is cop shows and horror movies and soap operas.
Sure, the language can be a little hard to follow in places, but it’s still English. In fact, English wouldn’t be English without Shakespeare. Everyone instantly recognizes “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But did you know that Shakespeare appears to be the first to use the phrase “thin air”? Or “the milk of human kindness”? Or “give the devil his due”? Or the image of being so scared your hair stands on end? From “Hamlet”:
“I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”
Biographies of Shakespeare all suffer from the same problem: other than his plays and poetry, we don’t know very much about him. A few property and church records, some legal documents … nothing much to answer the mountain of questions we have about the man.
“The Lodger Shakespeare” by Charles Nicholl, which came out a few years ago, does a nice job of accepting this and working with it. Nicholl takes the only instance of Shakespeare’s spoken words being recorded — a legal proceeding involving a former landlord — and sketches a picture of the Bard’s world in Elizabethan London. He acknowledges that many of his educated guesses are just that, but it doesn’t stop him from telling what he knows and speculating about the rest. (Nicholl also has a similar and I think better book, “The Reckoning,” about Christopher Marlowe; the title refers to Marlowe’s legendary death in a brawl over a bar tab.)
More typical biographies abound; the standard in many corners is “Shakespeare’s Lives” by S. Schoenbaum, and the more recent “Will In The World” by Stephen Greenblatt was well received. I found Bill Bryson’s “Shakespeare: The World as Stage,” part of the Eminent Lives series, to be a good, basic biography with a few new ideas (and at the end, Bryson mercilessly mocks those who believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays).
After reading those, some may be surprised that Shakespeare wasn’t always the great literary behemoth we know today. Even in the decades after his death, many people considered him just another Elizabethan poet and dramatist, and not a great one at that. “Becoming Shakespeare,” by Jack Lynch, traces the rise in Shakespeare’s posthumous fortunes, with special attention given to the actors who performed his work through the centuries and the lesser writers who had no problems with rewriting him when they deemed fit.
And last, a word on Shakespeare’s Globe, the brainchild of American actor Sam Wanamaker, who was startled when he arrived in London to find that there was no permanent monument to the greatest playwright ever to write in the English language. It took more than 10 years to build, and was finished in 1997, and its founders strove to make it as authentic as they could, up to getting a special dispensation from the City of London to have a thatched roof. (The city banned them because they catch on fire easily, which is why we don’t have the original Globe anymore.)
No, this new Globe isn’t the real thing. No, it’s not in the same location as the old Globe (although it’s close). Yes, many of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t even performed at the Globe.
But if you’ve imagined what it was like to see Shakespeare’s work while he was still alive, writing and performing, it’s as close as you’re going to get. And if you love the man’s plays, and the language, and the history, to stand in that place and soak it in … I just don’t have words.
Which makes me as unlike Shakespeare as you can imagine. He would have words.