Brett Foster and Mark Lewis

And Many More ...

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

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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.

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