Adventures in History and Romance

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Today is the day traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare's birthday, and I'm happy to be among the throng of folks blogging today in his honor. I touched on the whole was-he-or-wasn't-he-Shakespeare argument in another post last year. Today I only want to talk about Shakespeare the entertainer.

My appreciation for Shakespeare began in high school, I suppose. As a soon-to-be English major, I could appreciate the beauty of his language, and was beginning to have an inkling of the power of his works. But I can recall vividly the moment when I began to love Shakespeare. It was when I attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice at the Folger Theater in the late 1980s. Kelly McGillis played Portia, and she was fantastic, as were all the cast. But what stands out the most for me was the man who played the clown, Launcelot. I remember him specifically because his delivery of his lines was so natural, so easy, that I actually understood every word, every nuance. That's no easy thing to pull off when acting Shakespeare. To think that Shakespeare can actually be understood -- by a casual audience member! (I had not read the play before seeing the production.) And it was entertaining, too. For me, this was an absolute revelation.

From then on I have sought out performances of Shakespeare plays, always hoping for a great show, one where the actors truly understand and communicate their lines. I've sat through plenty of misfires, to be sure, but some great performances as well.

In September 2010 I was finally able to make it to England and do a bit of the Shakespeare "pilgrimage." I visited Stratford-Upon-Avon, naturally, and also toured the Globe Theater in London, where I paid extra for a seat (and a cushion) and took in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.  I loved Stratford, of course. There is so much fantastic history there, and I was impressed at everything that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is doing. But it's always during a live performance that I feel closest to the Bard. That night at the Globe, with the stars twinkling overhead, the audience seemed as exuberant as the cast. As I was sitting in the audience, happily entertained (and marveling at the stamina of the groundlings), I thought once again how truly enthralling Shakespeare's plays can be. His works are endlessly fascinating and often amazingly profound, to be sure. But at times it tends to be forgotten that Shakespeare was primarily an entertainer. And that was surely his own desire all along.

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