Collecting Shakespeare

When I was six I started collecting Shakespeare.  That year, Margaret Webster–the fabled director whose production of Richard II during World War II remains the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway–took her show on the road.  She did rep with a small company in high school gyms all over the United States, and I saw Hamlet for the first time.  If you want an account of that tour, her Shakespeare without Tears tells the story.

I fell in love with Hamlet the character, Hamlet the play, and Shakespeare the language.  It’s not such a bad thing to do.  I will still trot off to see any production of Hamlet, good, bad, or atrocious, anywhere, anytime.  Winston Churchill attended a production of the play when Richard Burton was starring in it, and Burton claimed the Great Man said every soliloquy two beats behind him then asked to use Burton’s toilet when he came to the dressing room to congratulate RB afterwards.  I identify with Winnie.

I am not quite that awful, but I do mouth the words.  I admit it.  Every once in a while, I dream I have the lead.  It’s a nightmare in which I am, of course, naked and forget my lines, but it’s a recurring nightmare I look forward to, even so.  Another Hamlet for my collection.  What?  I should imagine I’m playing Gertrude or Ophelia?  Faugh!  If there’s one thing we learn from Shakespeare ( apart from what we learn about our language) it’s that gender is negociable.

When I was a freshman in college and a physics major, I attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the first time and discovered that Shakespeare had written other plays.  I took a year to change my major, transferred to the University of Washington, and was told I’d have to play catch-up.  I couldn’t take anything but English classes for two years.  Oh, don’t throw me in that briar patch!  I took thirty-five credit hours of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related courses.  Nobody advised me otherwise, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  Now I was collecting productions of other Shakespeare plays.  Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to become a Shakespeare scholar or a Shakespearean actor or anything else practical.  My passion was uncontaminated by worldly considerations.

I went on to teach English at a community college for many years and only taught the academic Shakespeare course once.  I did invent a summer school course.  I team-taught it with a colleague in the drama department, and we read the plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was doing that summer then took all the students three hundred miles south to see them.  It was great fun, though my colleague insisted on reading all the big roles himself, leaving me to feed him the lines in class.  The Oregon Festival is very orderly, so I saw almost all of the plays over time, including all three ghastly parts of Henry VI and Titus AndronicusTitus, now there is a play.

One delicious spring I had leave to teach in London for a consortium of Washington colleges, and yes, I taught Shakespeare.  My students saw four productions.  I saw eleven in ten weeks, including two versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the Stratford version, the working-class fairies wore Doc Martin boots and took their wings off after hours.  In Regent’s Park, Puck set the grass on fire.  He stamped it out without missing a line.

Over the years I’ve seen Shakespeare festival productions in San Diego, Stratford, Ontario, and Portland, Oregon, the National Theatre in London, and the new Old Vic, but I’ve never been systematic about the festival hunt, nor did I seek out star productions.  I’ve seen Maggie Smith, Daniel Day Lewis, Judi Dench, and Dustin Hoffman.  They were terrific, but I’m bound to say some of the most moving productions feataured actors whose fame was purely local.  Last year’s OSF Hamlet included the Gravedigger signing the role in American Sign Language.

I’ve seen very bad productions, of course, even at the big festivals, including a dreary Macbeth at the Barbican.  The worst (and funniest) featured Brutus and the conspirators wearing what purported to be authentic Roman costumes of the Republican era.  The costumes looked a lot like diapers, and the actors looked, well, self-conscious.  That was the noblest Roman?  No kidding.  One of the best productions I saw featured helicopters, a revolving stage, and Brutus and the conspirators dressed like Moammar Ghadaffi.

So what does it all mean?  I’m not sure.  I think I’m a better writer for knowing Shakespeare, but I’m certainly not Shakespearean.  I do know I come out of a Shakespeare play with my feeling for the English language refreshed.  After Hallmark cards, tv commercials, and political double-talk (legitimate rape?), English needs all the help it can get.  And I’m still in love with Hamlet.


6 Responses

  1. Love the blog, Sheila. I rate Shakespeare’s plays and the King James version of the Bible as the two masterpieces in the English language. And both are the ultimate crime collections. If it’s been done or even contemplated, you will find it there.

    • Thanks, Pat. There certainly is a lot of crime in the plays, notably Macbeth and Hamlet. I learned a lot about characterization from S. Maybe I learned something about crime and punishment too. Sheila

  2. Pure nostalgia here, Sheila, thanks. The older I get the more I appreciate Shakespeare–and Hamlet of course, though I wouldn’t want to be Ophelia–she got the wrong end of Hamlet. I guess my very favorite is The Tempest–I love the magician Prospero, and in my salad days, I once played Miranda. Ah, brave new world…but where is that world now? My son’s Very Merry Theatre for kids does many Shakespeare plays: shortened, but keeping the language, so kids get it in their bones, a beautiful thing.

  3. It was fascinating to discover that Shakespeare STILL works when you see _Hamlet_ performed completely in Swedish. (Ingmar Bergman’s production, on tour in NYC, back 20 years or so ago.) 🙂 Also once saw _A Midsummer Night’s Dream_ performed by a Brazilian troupe, in Portuguese, and set in the rain forest!

  4. I was looking for more information on the word “faugh”, which I gave seen only in PGWodehouse books; I was led by Google to this article.
    There are several things in it with which I do not agree, but the chief disagreement is the last point this lady makes: reading and absorbing Shakespeare will not improve one’s language, but reading PGWodehouse will and does.
    It has always been a matter of complete astonishment to me that PGW’s books and stories have never, to my knowledge, been a university literature course, and yet he is the one writer who has stretched English written and spoken language.

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