Dennis: I may be a Shakespearean rube.
Nope, not a “rustic,” or a “clown,” or one of the “penny stinkards” who, as my chirpy tour guide of the restored Globe theater told us, would often just whiz on the ground (or the pantaloons of the packed-tight crows in front of them) during a performance. (Thankfully, the invention of the pause button means I’ve never had to hold it for the entirety of Ken Branagh’s Hamlet.)
No, I’m talking about a rube in the sense of “one who came to Shakespeare in the cheapest possible way.”
See, I’m pretty well know (by those who know me) as a “Shakespeare guy” in the sense that I can tell you what play 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man were based on at the video store where I work. (It’s Shrew and Twelfth Night, of course. Duh.) And, yeah, maybe I can whip out a quote or from time to time, usually in an attempt to be super witty and ironic, but there’s a shameful secret behind this supposed Shakespearen smarty-pants-ness.
I really only connected to Shakespeare because of the movies.
It’s funny, but I really can’t remember the first Shakespeare movie I saw. I truly am awful at that, at remembering things in my life. Pleasant things anyway- ask me about the time I kept trying to tell jokes at the little league pool party and then comically leaping into the deep end when everyone looked at me in disdain/disgust and I can tell you what was served for lunch. Great superpower. Anyway, it’s odd that I can’t, but I genuinely can’t think of the first Shakespeare movie I saw. Looking back, I suppose it must have been something school-mandated. My parents, love them as I do, were not culture people, high or low, and I don’t remember any Shakespeare just laying around. There was nothing resembling cable, or VCRs in my childhood (I may not be young), and it’s not like there was Shakespeare of the Week on CBS, so it must have been school. But, again, it’s the damnedest thing- I don’t know what it was.
Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet, I suppose. I remember being ushered into the high school auditorium to watch the film en masse. I think there were permission slips involved, undoubtedly because of the fleetingest flash of Olivia Hussey’s breasts that one time. Except that, even then, I didn’t like that movie. Poor Olivia and little Leonard Whiting were in over their heads with the poetry, and just shrill/bland when they tried to go for it and, of course, I was as in over my head as they were. I was being introduced to Shakespeare at the time- I do remember that the first play was Dream– and that I didn’t get it then.
So what was it? What the hell was first?
But when college hit, and I had two great Shakespeare scholars, alternating year after year, and I started to really get into the plays I know that it was performance that really hooked me in, rather than text. I mean, I learned to break down the texts with the best of them, and still can if pressed, but it was the unprecedented access a course called “Shakespeare and Film” granted me to the college AV lab. More specifically the college’s quite impressive library of Shakespeare productions from around the world (including the BBC’s rather pedestrian, yet unprecedentedly complete roster of TV productions of every work in the canon). I’d go there of a free afternoon, request, say, the Peter Brook 1971 King Lear, pop on the headphones and…well, what was the word? Bask? Revel? Enrapt? (Which is not a word, but you get the point.) I guess, not to be too fancy, I just absorbed.
Oh, and I stole.
You see, each VCR setup was side-by-side with a clunky dubbing VCR. You were supposed, very specifically, to use that grey, chunky monster only to copy brief snippets of the various plays for class presentation purposes. I, being a rebel/sneak/nerd simply started bringing in blank tapes and copying entire movies. I illegally dubbed a few discovered favorites (The Kenneth Branagh-directed TV4 Twelfth Night remained a prized possession, even though the already-shady copy was a washed out blue and the ending was cut off, until you, my love bought me a DVD copy a few years ago). But, getting cagey, and seeing the end of college and my access to the lab coming to a close, started dubbing productions of plays I was unlikely to find anywhere else. I still have, decades later, some raggedy tapes containing the BBC Troilus and Cressida, for example, and John Cleese’s startlingly effective turn as Petruchio in their otherwise middling Taming of the Shrew. (Note to self: play those sometime and see if they still work or have instead turned into undifferentiated petrochemicals.)
I was hungry at that point, you see. I’d seen what a talented actor could do with a mouthful of iambic, and I wanted to see more. Because, as I’ve said, I’m a rube. While some Shakespeare lovers can rattle off the poetry, reveling in the words, the cadence, and, to be honest, often seeming a little pleased with themselves, what always, always sticks in my head, pricks up my gooseflesh and the hairs on the back of my neck, and draws me back to the plays again and again are the snatches of performance.
In fact, my college career was littered with instances of me feeling like a big, dumb (ex-)jock fraud as I sat, straining and breaking out in a cold sweat taking furious notes as my English department cohorts all nodded and smiled and looked so complacently brilliant that I sometimes worried that this whole getting accepted to this particular college thing was some Truman Show-esque secret camera experiment with me as the subject. (“Lets watch as we lull a mediocre doofus into thinking he’s an elite scholar and then suddenly expose him for the completely average in every way dope he is! This week: the James Joyce lecture!”) I can remember discussing Tom Stoppard’s Travesties and being outed as a rube when the intimidatingly brilliant professor took a show of hands on what we thought the play was about, and I was the only one who responded to the idea that the play was primarily about the reminiscences of an old man looking back on his career in the theater. Her piercing gaze flickering in surprise that someone had actually bitten on her opening example (like someone choosing the obvious dummy answer on a multiple choice driver’s test) telling me, in one half-second, what a rube I really was at heart. (See? Great superpower…)
With Shakespeare, I held my ground a bit better, gradually building a bulwark against intellectual insecurity as I began to define myself as “Shakespeare guy.” I took all the classes, read all the books, watched (of course) all the productions, and generally became relatively comfortable discussing any play with any body. What was my secret? How was I able to connect to this subject and, really, few others?
Easy- it was an emotional connection, rather than an intellectual one. I reacted to each play and its characters much as I still did, and do, to those of the films and TV shows I’d devoured my whole life. I responded to individual performances, individual character interpretations and choices and those things stuck; now when I read Twelfth Night (which I maintain under questioning is my favorite play), I think Feste is a tragic character, that he’s secretly in love with Olivia, and that he is truly ashamed of his actions towards Malvolio. Why? Because of that TV4 production where Kenneth Brannagh interpreted it that way, and Anton Lesser acted it that way. Because it was the best production of any play I’d seen until that point. Because it moved me. And while I could delve into textual complexities with (or almost with) the best of them, it’s that emotional connection to an arguably too-sentimental approach that makes me, to this day, say: Feste is my favorite character, Twelfth Night my favorite play.
So, I’m a rube. You?
Elsa: Your background in Shakespearean performance suits me down to the ground, my fool.
You’ve heard me tell this story dozens of times: there was this fella who worked at my video store. He was handsome and bearish and his rare grin made my legs go jelly-soft. He wore shorts year-round and Red Sox jerseys and he recommended the best zombie movies. I had a fierce crush on him but I would never have made a move: what would we talk about?
Then one day when I was in a crabby mood, I came in looking for Branagh’s Hamlet on DVD. No luck. I walked alllllll the way to the Classics section to settle for Olivier. Not there.
I’m sorry to say, I stomped up to the counter to complain: “I came in looking for Hamlet on DVD. Branagh’s Hamlet is out and you don’t have Olivier’s Hamlet. Do you have any Hamlet that is, I dunno, good?”
That zombie-baseball fella smiled much more pleasantly than I deserved. “Oh, I’m sorry. The Branagh isn’t out on DVD yet. The Laurence Olivier Hamlet, well, I always think it’s a little dreary. But if you’re looking for Hamlet —” he rolled his eyes skyward, accessing a mental catalog, and started spouting out a list of Hamlets — old B&W films, TV productions from the BBC, films of stage productions — and detailing which were available on DVD and which were only VHS.
I was riveted, but finally I shook myself and stopped him. This fella was an unexpected resource, and this moment was an unexpected thrill: “I, um, wow. Wow! Okay, that’s great! Forget Hamlet. I just want Shakespeare, but for tonight it has to be on DVD. Can you recommend something for me to rent?”
And he was off. He gave me minutes and minutes of Shakespeare recs without once touching the computer keyboard; this entire catalog was in his head — and some of it was in his house. By the time he’d finished, I was renting two movies and he promised to bring me two more on VHS* from his own collection.
His own collection. I was staggered. I was smitten. I was sunk.
And I walked out of there thinking, “Well, that’s it. I have to ask him out.”
That’s a lesson I keep learning; you’d think I’d know it by now. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Look beyond the binding, the Red Sox shirt, the immediate impact of the painting, the sound of the words trilling over your lips.
But I never do seem to learn it, or rather I keep earning it anew.
My introduction to Shakespeare was so much worse than being a rube: I was a fake. Not even a faker, just a dumb, unwitting fake, like a bad bill passed from hand to hand.
We had great stacks of books towering around the house. Every hallway and room was lined with those chintzy rack-and-bracket shelves because my parents were perpetually seeking the cheapest way to house more and more and more books. That meant anytime anyone moved a piece of furniture down those narrow book-lined hallways, anytime one of their five kids roughhoused a little too hard, every time I ran my clumsy shoulder into a shelf or or swung a too-heavy bookbag (and my bookbag was always too heavy) off an incautious shoulder, a whole shelf of books would come tumbling down. So there were always stacks of books everywhere waiting to be shelved or reshelved.
Among those books, of course, there was Shakespeare: big hardback books, the ubiquitous annotated paperback copies my older siblings brought home from school, and — intoxicating to me — the cloth- or leather-bound antique miniatures that could fit in a small shirt pocket, or nestle neatly in a young girl’s hand. Every so often I would palm one of these fragile books, weirdly certain that I was not supposed to be handling this little treasure (there was a lot of shouldn’t-be and mustn’t-touch in my childhood), and spirit it away to my room where I could wrap myself up in it. I loved the books as much as the words: the brittle foxed pages, the ghost-scent of old attic rising from the paper, the texture of the blue linen or red crumbly leather on my hand.
I would whisper the words aloud to myself as I read. Even as small child, I never had to sound out my reading, but reading Shakespeare, I couldn’t resist: the shape of the words as I spoke them was part of that private communion with these books.
And I didn’t understand any of it.
Oh, I understood the basic outlines of the plots: a pair of young lovers, their marriage forbidden by their families, a tragic double death. A would-be king spurred on by an ambitious wife, a bloodbath, a pair of nightmares, a comeuppance. Twins switched and switching, talking fast and spinning stories, then switching back again, happily ever after.
But I didn’t understand the essence of the plays, the subtleties, the characters, the playfulness on almost every page. I sacrificed all of that to the sheer intoxicating power of the words, those words I first heard when I barely breathed them out into the silence of my room.
When I was old enough to start reading Shakespeare in school, that could have changed. But it didn’t.
I was a bright kid and a good reader. I’d been a bright kid and a good reader so long — and no doubt my teachers were so overworked and exhausted — that no one bothered to see if I understood what I was reading. Not only could I demonstrate basic comprehension of the plot, but I could read the texts fluently, even affectingly. Every teacher latched onto that aptitude early in the semester; whenever we studied Shakespeare, we read aloud, and whenever we read aloud, I read aloud. I spent class hours pattering off great chunks of Juliet (pretty rough on a chubby freshman nerd with ice-cube glasses) or Helen or Lady Macbeth (or Lady Macbeth or Lady Macbeth or Lady Macbeth or Lady Macbeth: in six years, six schools, and three states, I studied Macbeth five times) with lavish praise from the teachers, and even some from fellow students. Each teacher praised me, marked me with an A, and passed me on to another.
Until I was out of school, my “understanding” of Shakespeare was the most superficial, actress-y sort: I knew the words and could sling them out high or low, fast or slow, with great import and no discernment at all. Worse still, I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know: I wasn’t looking for complexity or humor or paradox, just for the immediate thrill of the language flowing over my tongue. I was like one of those know-nothings who hums along at the symphony, tilting their heads beatifically in time to the music without knowing what it signifies. (And of course, I did that, too.)
Then I started reading the plays on my own, reading and reading them, hearing the words and thinking more deeply about what those words meant — not now, to me, but then, to someone hearing them. And what double-meaning they might have. And what unspoken meaning they might have. How did I get all the way through those accelerated classes without ever hearing the word “subtext”?
And now, as you know, I am all about the subtext. I cut through text with a machete, slashing it aside while I scan the ground for the faintest trace of subtext. Though I pore over the texts, usually with the OED and a notebook to hand, and try to suck the last bit of juice out of the words on the page, performances — movies —- are invaluable to me in illuminating the text and exploring different facets of subtext and possibility.
Seeing 37-year-old Sarah Badel in The Taming of the Shrew opposite John Cleese’s brash and occasionally tender Petruchio clarified Katherine for me in a way that reading the play never had. Badel’s Katherine is fiercely intelligent and independent, and she has long rejected the one role allowed her in this narrow world… but now she is aging out of even that one despised role. Soon she will no longer be rejecting, but rejected. The power to reject is still power, but time is taking even that small power from her.
Did Badel (or Jonathan Miller, her director) take that from the text? I don’t think so. But it isn’t precluded by the text, and if there’s room for that interpretation in Shakespeare’s words, then it’s not only justifiable — it’s authentic. And seeing those immortal words played, out over and over, with fresh interpretations and renditions, creating or portraying new facets of old personae, is part of what keeps Shakespeare’s plays vivid and vibrant. And I relish that: the surprise of seeing that, despite our assumed familiarity with the situations and characters, there is always a revelation waiting below the surface.
It’s the same lesson I keep learning, over and over: don’t judge a book by its cover.