I have been cheating lately. A little. Maybe.
The first part of March was pretty busy and I got behind on my reading, so I decided to read some shorter books so as to maintain progress on my 100 book goal. I call it cheating since the page count is low, but it’s only cheating a little when the books were written by Shakespeare, and they’re not so much books as plays with essays and commentary.
I mean, there’s a lot to read into Shakespeare, so even if they’re short on pages the plays are long on meaning.
I dipped back into Shakespeare due to an ill-fated version of The Tempest a friend and I saw at a local college. They turned traditionally male roles into female roles- I’m assuming- in an attempt to explore gender roles, but it ended up feeling like they just didn’t have enough male actors try out for the roles. Add to that the fact that about half the actors seemed to merely be reciting their lines instead of feeling them.
Shakespearean lines are not meant to be merely read aloud in a performance.
And yeah, I get it. Elizabethan English is weird, and iambic pentameter is strange to modern tongues and ears, but Shakespeare done right, with passion and dedication, is timeless. At his worst, the bard wrote plays that we remember and occasionally read 400 years later. At his best, a single play encapsulates the full range of humanity- our humor and sadness, frailties, loyalty, love and betrayal, bawdiness, madness, and every other emotion that makes people crazy and endearing and hated and anything else you can think of.
“Be not afraid, the Isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not
Sometimes a thousand twangling Instruments
Will hum about mind ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again”
– The Tempest, Act III, scene II
Pretty stuff, huh? And these are lines given to Caliban, a twisted, threatening creature of Prospero’s island, and let’s not go into “To be or not to be” or “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks”.
There is a Canadian TV show called Slings and Arrows that covers the trials and travails of a Shakespearean festival (there are three seasons with about six episodes per season, so it doesn’t take long to see the whole thing). Through the show’s run, they perform Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet, and all the way through, the characters- especially Geoffrey (played by Paul Gross)- discuss the meaning of the works, how the actors progress from young character to old during their careers, why the Shakespearean characters react they way they do, and why these 400 year old plays can involve such risk for actors and crew alike.
To quote Joanne Kelly’s character in Slings and Arrows in regards to Romeo and Juliet, “God, this is hot”. Because Shakespeare is hot. And inspiring, and terrifying, and funny, and all the superlatives I can think of all wrapped up into thirty-seven plays.
So far this month, I’ve polished off The Tempest and Twelfth Night. As You Like It and Hamlet are not far behind, and I’m debating with of the plays I’ll read next. Maybe Romeo and Juliet, or one of the historical plays- Henry V, or maybe Richard III again.
After the miserable college production of The Tempest, I watched Julie Taymor’s film version of the same play (which starred Helen Mirren as Prospera in a far superior study of gender roles). It was a little odd, but then, The Tempest is a little odd, too, but in the end is pretty fantastic. I followed this up with Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet (which is my favorite version of any bit of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, although the BBC version starring David Tennant does make me geek out a little. Or a lot). Next on the movie list is Branagh’s versions of As You Like It (starring Bryce Dallas Howard and set in 19th century Japan [I know, sounds weird but it works]) and Twelfth Night, and then the BBC’s version of Richard III.