Brett Foster and Mark Lewis

And Many More ...

Conversational reflections on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

It's April 23, 2014, and so 450 years ago today (or thereabouts, give or take a day or three) William Shakespeare was born, or "Gulielmus" as he was named in Latin in the Stratford-upon-Avon parish register. When discussing Shakespeare's life, I am fond of saying that his first great accomplishment was not as a playwright and author of Richard III or even Henry VI, which seemed to have a decent commercial run at the Rose Theater, but as a newborn, and involved the main goal that confronts all of us each day—he managed to stay alive. That may sound facetious, but let's see if you still think so once we return to that parish register, and see the noticeably repeated letter "B," for burial, beside a good many names listed shortly after Shakespeare's baptism entry. In the margin, there is written, "Hic incipit pestis." These are the names of Stratford's sudden dead, victims of the plague that struck the village later in 1564. One 18th-century critic and reader of Shakespeare famously exclaimed, "And to think it was all written with a feather!" but really, maybe we should all say, on this anniversary day, "And to think that he avoided dying from the pestilence before he could even say a word!"

Funny, isn't it, Mark, to think of someone like Shakespeare crawling around as a baby? Blubbering and crying and cooing and burping, but not yet able to speak a single English word? It tickles something in our reading, acting, lecturing, directing minds to contemplate such a modest beginning for someone with Shakespeare's expressive capacities and his wide-ranging, depth-plumbing understanding of human hopes and fears and dreams—he could render this understanding in ways ranging from titanic to tender. Yet long before he imagined King Lear cursing the heavens as he stumbled on the heath ("Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!") or gave voice to his Chorus's wish in Henry V—"O for a muse of fire, that would ascend / the brightest heaven of invention,"—he himself was stumbling around as a toddler in his parents' home on Henley Street in Stratford. When he created a memorable speech for the Nurse's garrulous memory of the young Juliet, he was likely remembering the weaning of his own children during the previous decade, but we might as well imagine him squirming and frowning, too …

And she was wean'd,—I never shall forget it,—
Of all the days of the year, upon that day:
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua:—
Nay, I do bear a brain:—but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!

Very likely, too, this toddling Shakespeare fell on his face, as we soon hear that Juliet did:

For then she could stand alone; nay, by the rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before, she broke her brow:
And then my husband—God be with his soul!
A' was a merry man—took up the child:
'Yea,' quoth he, 'dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?' and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said 'Ay.'

Fortunately for all theatergoers and readers everywhere for the last 425 years or so, Shakespeare the grown man also said "Ay" a lot, too—whenever his theater company, first the Lord Chamberlain's Men and then the King's Men, needed a new play from him. He said "Ay" at least 38 times, and maybe more since a few plays appear to be lost ("Love's Labour's Won" anyone?) and others were (usually wishfully) attributed to him. Perhaps he wrote some that have never yet been known to us, although Shakespeare did not seem in his businessman's savviness to give up on much or hold it back; even his problematic plays such as Troilus and Cressida or Timon of Athens eventually found their audiences.

Mark Lewis:
Thanks, Brett, for this opportunity to join you in wishing William a happy birthday—and to imagine him in the human ways ("mewling and puking in the nurse's arms!") that you suggest. I am reminded immediately of the slightly older Shakespeare imagined by Tom Stoppard, careening through the streets of Elizabethan London in the film Shakespeare in Love—one prolific playwright peering into the life and creative process of another. At the same time, I admit that there is something in me that resists specificity in these imaginings of others, however profound. Maybe it is that I have imagined my own relationship to all that is unknown about Shakespeare's life, filling in my own biographical idiosyncrasies to somehow feebly attempt to account for what we do have and know, which are these staggering plays.

To wit: I am thinking these days about a production Love's Labor's Lost that I have been asked to direct for Wheaton's Shakespeare-in-the-Park over (of course) Labor Day weekend and am reminded, Brett, by your mention of Love's Labor's Won that it was, obviously (in my private biographical imaginings), the sequel Shakespeare intended to his undervalued pastoral romp. Berowne returns to woo Rosalind having completed his year of cracking wise to the sick as she has commissioned him to do, and finds her otherwise engaged—probably to some unlikely French guy. Love persists. Hilarity ensues. Mountains more of "three-piled hyperbole" until finally, as the title of the lost play suggests, we are treated to a wedding in the park as the sun sets.

I agree that it is worth only so much to contemplate Shakespeare the man, and I am taken with your charming idea that we "fill in" those biographical mysteries with our own inclinations or wishes. I think it was Charles Dickens who made his literary pilgrimage to Stratford and, upon glimpsing Shakespeare's likeness on a memorial at Holy Trinity Church, said in his disappointment that the great writer most resembled … a bladder. Others who would like their Shakespeare to be fairly radical, subversive, and romantic are often made uneasy by the slightly bloated, mainly bald, middle-class burgher (quite litigious, as contemporary documents show) that the memorial still presents to them today. The bust could almost make you imagine that Shakespeare, if living today, would have given up his life of acting and writing for the theater and taken a cushy position at Halliburton or Goldman Sachs.

Then again, maybe that's going way too far: in Shakespeare's day the public stages, which were typically outside the city walls because London's aldermen suspected them as sites of social instability and all manner of immorality, were much closer in spirit to some of the edgy, small-but-vibrant storefront theaters that take hold in diverse Chicago neighborhoods, rather than the high-culture theaters of corporate sponsorships, of evening dresses and sport coats, of coat checks and pinot grigio at intermission. Shakespeare's and his companies' financial success and eventual royal patronage helped to validate commercial drama as a cultural pastime. (By the second half of Shakespeare's career, some of his fellow actors were family men living in a respectable neighborhood north of St. Paul's.) At that point, though, it was still a quite innovative, socially suspect experiment in mass entertainment. I try to get students to envision Shakespeare's working milieu as less resembling the National Endowment for the Arts or academic conferences, less Kennedy or Lincoln Centers, and more akin to a punk-rock show or an X-Games event, or maybe a flash-mob or a drag-race in Miami Beach with tons of youth watching. Not that horses would have lent themselves easily to drag races, but the youth-culture connection is a real one: those aldermen were often worried about play attendance by London's many apprentices—impressionable, restless, and prone to incitement. However raffish the setting, though, above all we must marvel at the emotional subtlety that could still occur in this unlikely space, that range of theatrical invitation—look back at the Nurse's speech above, and notice that in two half lines, easily missable, we find this comically loquacious character pausing and sort of surprising herself as she finds herself telling a story that mainly involves a memory of Juliet but also involves her dead husband - "God be with his soul! / A' was a merry man." One second you're laughing at this older lady, as you are fully meant to, but during that pause, well, we glimpse a real human sadness there, a loneliness, and it's heart-rending.

So we can learn a great deal about the contexts of Shakespeare's writing and acting lives, but what does it tell us about him? And what do we actually wish to know? The great Romantic critic William Hazlitt felt a discomfort similar to Dickens' when thinking too much about the person behind the authorship of the plays he esteemed so highly: "We often hear persons say, What they would have given to have seen Shakespeare! For my part, I would give a great deal not to have seen him, at least, if he was at all like any body else that I have ever seen." It is almost certainly a good thing for Hazlitt that he lived about two hundred years too late.

So, Hazlitt was afraid of specificities too! Was Shakespeare doughy or debonair? Probably both, I guess. Of course part of our endless fascination and desire to know what we cannot know, and probably some of our resistance as well, is our idea that we each have a unique and deeply personal relationship to these characters and these plays, and by extension to their creator.

Yes, I think that's it exactly. But fortunately, oh my, how the work lives on, just as the young John Milton indicated in his poem in honor of Shakespeare, which appeared in the Second Folio collection of Shakespeare's plays (1632) and was the great epic poet's first publication: "Thou in our wonder and astonishment / Hast built thy self a live-long Monument." In other words, Shakespeare's writings best memorialize the man and, Milton could already surmise, will do so most durably. Being a clever 17th-century poet, Milton also says this is better than an obelisk or "Star-ypointing Pyramid" in Shakespeare's honor, and in any case, we readers may still resemble such a monument since the playwright's works "Dost make us Marble with too much conceiving."

Fortunately the past year or so has permitted me a number of Shakespearean encounters, too, and it feels like a healthy, well-placed regard to focus on and appreciate the writing or the staging far more frequently than I wonder about Shakespeare the person. First, I'm glad, Mark, that you mentioned Arena Theater's partnership with the town of Wheaton for a "Shakespeare-in-the-Park" running of Love's Labour's Lost. The inaugural show last year, As You Like It, was one of the more magical performances of Shakespeare I've seen in a while, in part because of the glorious late summer weather that benefited that pastoral romantic comedy set in the Forest of Arden, and in larger part because of the talented group of undergraduate and alumni actors that assembled to pull off the show. Moreover, since you allowed me to help out with your year-long "Hamlet Project" several years ago, which worked with an all-female cast of talented undergrads, I have felt pretty sure that no collegiate theater tracks with Shakespeare's works more regularly or brings them more sensitively to life. I'm thinking most recently of Andy Mangin's direction of Romeo and Juliet, which somehow managed to envision Verona's crypt space freshly and thus renewed that all-too-well-known ending for me, and also which made the very interesting choice to cast a female actor as Romeo's friend Benvolio, or the somewhat tomboyish Benvolia as she became here, revealing different possibilities in those characters' interactions and motivations.

I've taken particular enjoyment, too, in those times when we brazenly defy our academic disciplinary boundaries, so that your "Acting Shakespeare" class meets up with my Shakespeare literature class. My group learns something about how actors benefit from Shakespeare's speeches being in iambic pentameter, and the somatic or bodily impression that makes. They also learn to appreciate better the scenic construction and pacing of a Shakespeare play, which ultimately helps them with their own analytical approaches. In short, your group helps my group never to forget that these plays were not expressly written for college seminar discussion—heaven forbid! On the other hand, I've enjoyed chances to talk to actors about the complex dynamics of being an actor in Renaissance London—how "rhetoric" was hardly a dirty word, how every theater company had to put their plays before a censor, how actors were so marginalized that they needed a patron to ensure their performances were allowed, and how they were often accused of idolatry or social transgression, thanks in part to sumptuary laws that determined which classes could and could not wear which sorts of clothing. We soon are appreciating together how an actor dressed up as, say, Henry IV or Henry VIII would have made your average Elizabethan Londoner shudder briefly, or maybe throw up in his mouth a little.

Also on Wheaton's campus, the Beatrice Batson Shakespeare Collection sponsored a late-fall screening of Joss Whedon's enchanting black-and-white version of Much Ado About Nothing, set in a Hollywood mansion and full of cellphones and cocktails. Most of us found it a very smart, watchable contemporary take on that never stale comedy. And speaking of film versions, last fall brought a new film version of Romeo and Juliet by the creator of Downton Abbey, although the reviews were decidedly mixed. A Broadway production of the same play, featuring Orlando Bloom on a motorcycle, also left something to be desired for most critics, as did a production of Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke. But other shows drew raves, such as Julie Taymor's spectacle-central A Midsummer Night's Dream in Brooklyn, or last summer's As You Like It in Central Park, whose frontier setting featured Lily Rabe as Rosalind and bluegrass music by Steve Martin. The toast of this year's New York Shakespeare performances, however, has certainly been Mark Rylance in his repertory roles on Broadway as, on alternating days and sometimes on the same day, Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night. King Lear has received fresh attention as well, with the formidable title character played by Simon Russell Beale, Frank Langella, and, currently, Michael Pennington. John Lithgow will assume the role in New York in Central Park this summer.

The past year has seen a string of Shakespearean acclaim in Chicago, too, with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's well-received productions of Julius Caesar, whose contemporary staging was fueled by the recent presidential election season in this country, and Henry VIII, which was thrillingly paced for a play often notorious for a speech-heavy, lapidary quality uncharacteristic of Shakespeare. The summer also saw this theater sponsoring a Comedy of Errors show that traveled to numerous parks throughout the Chicago area, and the year ended with a rarely staged Shakespearean comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, whose postwar English setting under Barbara Gaines' direction gave fresh meaning and cultural context to what we might call Shakespeare's lone "suburban" play. I'm looking forward in two weeks to taking my "English Renaissance" class to the final preview of the theater's Henry V, which will run through June 15. Also ahead this summer, for those who may be in the UK: The Globe will stage Shakespeare's early Roman bloodbath, Titus Andronicus, as well as Antony and Cleopatra, and London's Noel Coward Theater will present an adaptation of the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love; for theater purists resistant to such a thought, it is worth noting that the director is Declan Donnellan of Cheek by Jowl, a London theater reputed for its striking Shakespeare reimaginings.

Chicago is also hosting a range of activities beyond theater performances to commemorate this Shakespearean anniversary both this month and next, including a "Talk Like Shakespeare Day" (today!), a documentary ("Our City, Our Shakespeare") to be shown on PBS, and events at or performances by the Newberry Library, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Chicago Philharmonic. Readers may also be interested in taking the "Will's 450 Is the New 30" Quiz. Nearby at Notre Dame, the very active "Shakespeare at Notre Dame" program is sponsoring a Twelfth Night community reading this Saturday, April 26. And anyone looking for a captivating Shakespearean film would do well to check out two under-the-radar foreign films: Viola, by the Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro, and Caesar Must Die, an Italian film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani that places Shakespeare's Roman power struggle in Rome's Rebibbia Prison. (A widely remarked New York theater production last fall chose a similar setting—a women's prison.)

Of course there has also been scholarly acknowledgment of this big anniversary year. The Shakespeare Association of America, which was founded in 1972 and continues to enjoy significant membership and conference growth, just held its annual conference in St. Louis. A populous program of panels, seminars, workshops, and performances occupied the four days of the conference. President Diana Henderson in a recent letter to association members winkingly spoke, rather than of the death of the author, of the "re-birth of the author" in the case of Shakespeare's anniversary. Shakespeareans need to be wary of pat, unoriginal celebrations for their own sake, an author "readied for aestheticized consumption," but nevertheless, "for those of us in theater, the sister arts, the academy, and the world who choose to associate with one another, I wish us a year of due respect and wonder for the legacies of a man whose words and theatrical practices speak ever more diversely and imaginatively around the globe." Some of the topics discussed at this year's conference included Shakespeare and pedagogy, piracy, legal culture, contemporary fiction, digitization, collaboration, and local, global, and intercultural Shakespeare.

But enough—! We should conclude, since this is Books & Culture, by talking about at least a couple of Shakespeare-related books that have caught our interest in the past year or so. Books, too, are one more way we maintain our encounters with this always elusive, never uninteresting author.

I will lead with Hannibal Hamlin's The Bible in Shakespeare (Oxford University Press), which I imagine will be of great interest to many B&C readers. It is a monograph, surprisingly the first extended critical study of biblical allusion through Shakespeare's plays, from which we will learn an immense amount. It will be the book on this subject, on biblical influence upon Shakespeare, for a long time to come. Hamlin opens with a witty analogy fit for a modern audience: imagine a television show that everyone has watched every week for his or her entire life, and thus seeing certain episodes dozens of times. Your parents and grandparents watched the same show, and it has been watched for thousands of years. There are vast numbers of books interpreting the show, and it is illegal not to watch the show, and your eternal salvation depends on it! "In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England," Hamlin then explains, "the Bible was that show; it was always in reruns, and it never went off the air." Since Shakespeare's culture was "profoundly and thoroughly biblical," Hamlin understandably spends the first part of his book providing readers with different contextual angles—on Reformation biblical culture that influenced Shakespeare and his audiences, on the history of critics' treatments of biblical presences in Shakespeare's works, and on allusion specifically. Readers thus move well informed into more extended treatments of biblical allusion in Shakespeare's plays, with attention across various plays to references to Genesis 1-3, to biblical anachronisms in the Roman plays, and to biblical parody in the character of Falstaff. Two final chapters show how Revelation helps to "establish the apocalyptic atmosphere" in Macbeth, and how Job provides a framework for King Lear's examinations of "providence, justice, and the meaning of suffering." Lacking a voice from the whirlwind, Shakespeare's play may be "even bleaker" than the biblical story of Job. Finally, Hamlin, whose scholarly voice is both erudite and affable, takes an easy stance toward the topic that has preoccupied most "Shakespeare-and-religion" studies from the past two decades or so—Shakespeare the man's own confessional stance. The plays, Hamlin believes, hold little evidence on that particular matter. If we lack evidence on Shakespeare's personal beliefs, however, we do have evidence for his religious practice. Nor does Hamlin wish for his own "faith, disbelief, or doubt" to play a role. Why should it, he says, when authors of studies on Shakespeare's connections with, say, Ovid or Plutarch or Montaigne do not require either a credo or disclaimer: "The principal justification for this study is that it reveals the extent to which the works of early modern England's greatest playwright allude to and engage with the age's most important book."

Considering recent publications more broadly, it appears that the scholarly sub-field of Shakespeare and religion is turning to more varied approaches, and moving beyond the narrower tendency toward confessional declaration and the decoding of the plays for clues of Shakespeare's own beliefs. Titles that come to mind include Richard C. McCoy's Faith in Shakespeare (also from Oxford University Press) and Piero Boitani's The Gospel According to Shakespeare (University of Notre Dame Press). Readers new to Shakespeare's complex religious era, if not necessarily to the plays themselves, will find much of interest in Peter Iver Kaufman's Religion Around Shakespeare (Pennsylvania State University Press).

I am grateful that you passed along Living with Shakespeare (Vintage) to me, Brett. What I think I like most about the book is that amidst the wild unevenness in content and tone in the essays compiled, what shines brightly through in so many of them is personal relationship. Indeed, the extraordinary British actor Brian Cox imagines the playwright as a dear friend in a relationship of more than fifty years. As with a longtime friend, there is both consistency and the variety that a long relationship brings.

As a young actor in New York, understudying Lysander and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Public Theater, I would arrive very early every evening and make my way to my lofty perch to observe F. Murray Abraham onstage alone, silently walking through the part of Bottom, re-investigating every gesture and nuanced turn. His writing on Shylock in Living with Shakespeare has the same kind of humility in it. He offers confident, but not final, words. I like the book least when the tone is chilly and sure; best when the writer seems to be describing a friendship of long standing.

Brett Foster and Mark Lewis are professors at Wheaton College, of English and Theater respectively. They often collaborate on things Shakespearean in Wheaton's Arena Theater. They have also co-taught an intensive (theater- and literature-friendly) "Shakespearience" course at Wheaton's campus in Wisconsin's North Woods, and have participated in a "What Can Scholars Learn from Directors? What Can Directors Learn from Scholars?" seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America conference.

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