Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's Shakespeare's Birthday!

It's Shakespeare's Birthday! Yay! Will is 450 and still going strong. I like to imagine Shakespeare transported from his time to our own, suddenly dropped down one evening onto a busy street in London or New York or -- why not? -- Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo. Amid the whizzing cars, beneath the blinking stars and plane lights in the sky, by the tall buildings and the strangely clad peoples of all hues, he stands astonished for a moment. But just for a moment. Then, like Malcolm McDowell as the time-traveling H. G. Wells in Time After Time, he quickly pulls a tablet (paper, not a drug) from his pocket, and starts taking notes. "My tables! Meet it is I set it down." He walks a block, glancing and scribbling all the while, then enters a building that, for some reason, bears his name on a signboard. If he's in
Kalamazoo, it's Shakespeare's Pub, and he sits down and orders some ale, from a woman whose legs he can see. By God! She brings him a bottle of Oberon, and he looks at its label approvingly (even while wondering why the bottle has valuable paper stuck to it). If the city is New York or London, it's a building of another sort. Will crosses the lobby floor, and then, just as he opens an inner door, following some instinct or some muted and magical sound, an usher stops him. "Please," says the fellow. "I'm sorry, no one can enter while the play's in performance." Ah, Will thinks, nodding. I must wait for the jig. But before that door swings entirely shut he hears a voice, in accents to him unknown, rolling from the center of a room of rapt listeners, saying -- what? "I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past!" Or, "I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter!" Or, "How now, my hardy, stout, resolved mates, are you now going to dispatch this thing?," Or the tremulous sound of a flute, and a few words of a song: "Nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange." And the sound of several hundred people laughing, murmuring. He recognizes that sound. He's last heard it in Blackfriars. He thinks, By Gis and St. Geronimy, that's MY stuff!

Why do we still read Shakespeare? It's only people who don't read Shakespeare, or don't see him in performance, who ask that question. "Shakespeare: Revealing People To Themselves Since 1564." Or, at least, since about 1590. (We're not sure at quite what age Will began his revelations.) Shakespeare's best representation of the human is his Caliban, mired in dark passions, a prisoner of anger, resentment, and occasional despair, who still can speak poetry and yearn for beauty. "In dreaming . . . the clouds methought would open, and show riches, ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd, I cried to dream again." Or wait! It's Lear, whose stuborn self-regard is ripped from him along with his possessions, leaving him, in age, to confess to the unhearing storm that he should have shown more love to others. "O, I have ta'en too little care of this! . . . Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, and show the heavens more just." Or it's Othello, who sees, at the end, how his choices have tricked him, how he's thrown away everything he valued, and who now, with terse eloquence, accepts the loss: "Let it go all." Nothing that was human was foreign to Shakespeare, and he gave best, eloquent voice to the multitudinous crowd he both recognized and imagined. He was incapable of drafting a flat character, a stock type, even when he tried. Silly Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a dancing ninny plucked from a humors comedy, grows full dimensions in one single line. After hearing a snatch of a love song and another man's comment about a woman who adores him, Sir Andrew says sadly, "I was adored once, too."

Shakespeare is not only for everyone, he is everyone. A friend at an Israeli university writes that in Jaffa, today's celebration includes "the As You Like It exiles wearing hippie clothes" and "singing Beatles songs," Lady Macbeth "lighting 450 candles on a huge birthday cake," and "a gay Caliban" cavorting with a "Trinculo and Stephano clad in Hassidic costume." This is appropriate. Happy Birthday, Will! Your plays are sea-changed, but still rich and strange; still a prism through which all our colors can shine. Have some cake(speare).

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