Imprimis: Link and Tidbits, 29 April 2011

A birthday and a wedding have dominated the Shakespearean news cycles (and my Twitter feed) over the past week — Did you celebrate either? Both?

Finally, I want to wish all the best to the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Their Royal Highnesses Prince William and Princess Kate. “Heaven give you many, many merry days!”

My Birthday Tribute to Shakespeare

Today, bloggers from all over the world are celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday by sharing how Shakespeare has impacted their lives — Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for putting this project together.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at the age of eleven, when I picked up Romeo and Juliet on a whim. I was vacationing with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, strolling through a shop that had a table full of “required summer reading” — encouragement for vacationers to get a start on schoolwork. Never one who needed much encouragement to read, I decided Romeo and Juliet looked like something worth trying, and my mother, far from expressing bemusement at my choice, agreed, saying she thought I’d really like it. I started reading my first Shakespearean play on the sandy shores of Corolla Light, and by the end of the week, I was standing on the back deck of our rental house, declaiming Juliet’s balcony speech in my swimsuit for the benefit of my parents and a gathering of seagulls.

And that was pretty much it. From then on, I was hooked, and I couldn’t get enough. My mother started searching out Shakespeare productions every summer, and we toured all across Virginia in pursuit of new delights. I appropriated my father’s Riverside Shakespeare and spent hours poring over it, stretched out on the floor of my bedroom, reading King John, the Henry VIes, and Troilus and Cressida, just because I wanted to. I begged my 8th grade teacher to let us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream out loud, and I thoroughly frightened all the boys in AP Brit Lit 12 with my perhaps over-enthusiastic rendering of Lady Macbeth. In 2004, I made my first trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t my first exposure to the company — I’d seen them as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express years earlier, doing Much Ado about Nothing in Charlottesville — but I was giddy at the realization that I could sit on the stage in such a gorgeous theatre. In college, I took up with an extracurricular Shakespeare performance troupe, which not only gave me the opportunity to act in and to direct some great shows, but which also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve had in my life — amazing people I might never have met if we hadn’t shared a love for Shakespeare’s words.

Fourteen years after that first encounter on the beach, I live in what was once a dizzy daydream for me: I got my BA in English and History at William & Mary, I hold a Master of Letters in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin College, and now I get to work for the American Shakespeare Center, where what I do all day long isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. I get up excited to go to work in the morning, and I’m happy to go to bed tired at night. I’m far from alone in this — I don’t know how many places there are where so many people voluntarily work so hard for so many long hours, just out of sheer love for what they’re doing. I feel so privileged to be part of a truly wonderful and dedicated community — and here again, as at William & Mary, I’ve made incredible friends, who are part of my world wholly due to our mutual love for Shakespeare.

With all of that, the impact that Shakespeare has had on my life is clearly huge. Shakespeare gave me not just a source of entertainment or a focus of study, but a career. My eleven-year-old self had no idea what she started when she opened up that text for the first time, and there are still some days I can’t believe my good fortune.

That impact goes far beyond my scholastic path and my budding career, though. I’ve come, over the years, to appreciate so much about Shakespeare — the wordplay, the rhetoric, his clever use of the space — but what attracted me at the first, and what still sticks with me more than anything, are his characters. Shakespeare populated his plays with such vibrant people, who are so real and so very human. Their words, their thoughts, and their emotions have thoroughly permeated my life. As a teenager, I looked to Beatrice, Kate, and Silvia for strength, for assurance that wit and spirit were valuable traits in a woman. I’ve long borrowed Helena’s words about Hermia to describe myself: “She was a vixen when she went to school, and though she be but little, she is fierce,” and the quote accompanying my picture in the yearbook as a senior in high school came from Beatrice: “But then there was a star danc’d, and under that was I born.” Last year, suffering from a broken heart, I took comfort from Adriana and Julia. In higher spirits in more recent months, the great queen Cleopatra has been my inspiration. I think about the rhetorical cleverness and persuasive power of Mark Antony and Henry V when I speak and write. These magnificent characters always have something to say to me, and there’s always something new to discover within them.

So, happy birthday, Bill. Thanks for bringing so much delight into my life, for filling my world with the most amazing people, both fictional and real, and for providing me with a passion worth giving myself over to. Here’s to your next 447 years.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 22 April 2011

Just a few tidbits from the past couple of weeks:

  • Ever wondered what your brain looks like on Shakespeare? Now you can know! Scientists have conducted neurolinguistic experiments to suss out just what Shakespeare’s rhetoric does to the processing centers of your brain. It turns out that the brain enjoys the challenge of unusual syntax and receives a satisfying reward when it unravels Shakespeare’s linguistic riddles. Cass says: Scientific proof that my obsession with rhetoric is well-founded!
  • This article on Shakespeare and leadership cites our very own Director of Mission, Ralph Alan Cohen. The ASC works with the Federal Executive Institute several times each year to train government officials in leadership techniques, and we welcome any other corporate institutes to sign up for our leadership workshops.
  • This thoughtful essay examines the poignancy of Shakespeare’s perspective on parenting in The Tempest.
  • A new approach to Shakespeare and queer theory: “Rather than referring exclusively to homosexuality, ‘queer’ should encompass everything and anything odd, eccentric, and unexpected, such as the fairy queen Titania falling in love with the donkey-headed Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or King Lear’s complicated take on the limits of the human.”
  • An appeal for aid from a substitute teacher, hampered by educators who are letting their students get away with reading “modern translations” of Shakespeare. Sarah says: This breaks my heart. What I want to do more than anything in the world, is reach the teachers who fear Shakespeare and get them past it and into the realm of comfort, so that their students–our future audience members and–more importantly?–leaders will be able to speak well and appreciate deep text and the humanity Shakespeare so well portrays.

And don’t forget: Shakespeare’s 447th birthday is tomorrow! Join us at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton on Saturday, from 10:30am-1pm, or at the Playhouse on Sunday, from 4:30pm-6pm, to celebrate with the ASC.

"A fine volley of words, gentlemen, and quickly shot off" — Two Gentlemen of Verona

Yesterday afforded Stauntonites a rare opportunity — not just the chance to see the little-performed (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the chance to see two different productions of it in the same day. Mary Baldwin College’s MLitt/MFA Acting I class undertook a new challenge this year: mounting a 90-minute production as a culmination of the semester’s work. Directors Matt Davies and Colleen Kelly split the class into two casts, and both directors worked with both sets of actors at some point during the rehearsal process. I entered the Playhouse full of excitement, because — as my colleagues know and don’t hesitate to tease me about — Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of my pet favorite plays. I have a bizarre affinity for it and will vehemently champion its worth to any nay-sayers. Because companies produce this play so infrequently, however (it joins Cymbeline and Pericles as the least-performed comedies at the ASC), I haven’t had the chance to see a production in several years. As such, this opportunity was a real treat for me. The day reminded me just why I love this play so unabashedly, but it also reminded me why I think it deserves more study, to tease out the troubles it contains.

Seeing the play twice in one day illuminated the challenges that Two Gentlemen of Verona presents. I’m not just talking about the very odd relationship dynamics in the final scene — though I will get to that — I’m talking about the play as a whole, which juxtaposes quick, snappy banter with moments of real emotional searching and distress. Two Gents uses, more than any other play of Shakespeare’s, the device of stichomythia, the rapid alternation of lines between characters. You can see it at play in sections of The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors comes close to using it as overwhelmingly as Two Gentlemen of Verona does, but nowhere else do as many characters volley words back and forth so much and so often. Both productions kept up the speed, using the stichomythia as an indication for delivery, but it was the first production that took that as their cue for the whole play. The first production had a broadly comic, slapstick sort of feel. They embraced the ridiculous situations, the bad puns, and the delightful humor of the clowns Launce and Speed. This approach definitely highlights the laughter, and it makes for enjoyable viewing

The trouble, though, is that the play also has real poignancy to it, and the rapidity of the language can sometimes overwhelm the need to let the characters have a little space to breathe. It’s easy, certainly, to play Two Gents just for laughs, and all of that stichomytha encourages the temptation. When your focus is on speed, on the back-and-forth of quips and cutting remarks, you can get a barreling-on effect. This approach is good in some ways, but I think that it ultimately undersells the characters.

For anyone unfamiliar with the play, what happens is this: Valentine and Proteus were best friends back in Verona. Valentine left first to join the Emperor’s court in Milan, where he fell in love with the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Silvia. Proteus initially stayed at home with his love, Julia, but when his father sends him along to Milan, he also falls in love with Silvia, and he decides to betray both Valentine and Julia to get her. Proteus exposes Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia and gets Valentine banished. Julia, meanwhile, dresses like a boy and takes off for Milan to find Proteus. She discovers Proteus wooing Silvia (who is having none of this nonsense), but, despite her anguish, becomes his page in order to be near him. Silvia runs off to the forest to find Valentine, but gets kidnapped by brigands (the same who have made Valentine their chief).

This play is consumed by relationship dynamics — lovers, friends, parents, masters and servants — and in order for relationships to sell, the actors can’t succumb to the temptation to play only for laughs. There are too many moments that lay open the characters’ hearts and minds to the audience, and I thought the second production of the day hit these quite nicely. Julia’s decision to crossdress and to flee to Milan becomes less a gimmick and more a dire decision when you see her maid Lucetta genuinely worried for her safety, and it comments on her relationship with Proteus to hear Lucetta telling her, in stark honesty, that he’s just not worth it, warning her that (as the audience by now knows he has) he might have changed his mind. Silvia demonstrates fierce loyalty, not only to Valentine, but to Julia, a woman she doesn’t even know, as well. Her language when she chides Proteus for his deceit is as delightfully invective and as strong as anything that comes out of Kate’s or Beatrice’s mouth. Valentine has to convey his love for Silvia whole-heartedly, especially in his woeful post-banishment speech, or else he just comes off as a dope. Proteus, more than anyone, needs to show some emotional depth, or else he’s an entirely unsuccessful protagonist. We need to see him struggle with his decision to betray his friend and his lover, and his monologue in 2.6 walks an actor through his rationalization. During that monologue, the audience needs to see the discovery happen within him — to see him brush off hesitation in favor of lust, to see him talk himself into doing very bad things.

All of that emotional investment pays off — or, at least, it should — in the final scene. Proteus, following after Silvia, “rescues” her from the brigands, but when she delivers him another stinging set-down, he tries to rape her. Yes, rape. Yes, in a comedy. Valentine rescues Silvia and berates Proteus for his betrayal. Proteus repents, and Valentine (in strict accord with the rules of homosocial male friendship) accepts his apology and offers Silvia to him. Yes, he offers his fiancee to the man who just tried to rape her. Julia faints, then reveals herself, Proteus decides he loves her after all, and they all live happily ever after.

This is a weird scene, but the underpinnings of the relationship dynamics can clear up a lot. I could go on and on about it, as it formed a large portion of my Master’s thesis (and if you ever want to get me chatting for a good uninterrupted forty-five minutes or so, just ask) — but here I’ll confine myself to the considerations that were in my head last afternoon and evening: There are two ways to stage this. You can either move really fast, embracing absurdity, sending up what appears to be a completely ridiculous reversal. Or, you can let the moments be awkward and uncomfortable. You can let it be troubling. In my opinion, the latter is the better option. I see Two Gents as having as much of a problem ending as, say, Measure for Measure — and the great thing about problem endings is you don’t have to solve them. They have permission to be conflicting.

I was delighted when the second performance’s Silvia reacted so strongly, so negatively, to Valentine attempting to give her to Proteus. Silvia has no lines after Proteus’s attempted rape, but I don’t think that’s an error or an oversight on Shakespeare’s part, nor do I think her silence necessarily implies consent to what’s going on — either the attempted handing-off or Valentine’s reclaiming — not any more than Isabella’s silence in Measure for Measure implies her consent. I think her silence is conspicuous. Valentine acts precisely as he should in the dogma of male friendship, which had been, since the time of Aristotle, a codified relationship, considered the purest and most fulfilling of any human bonds. Many philosophers promoted the idea that “friends hold all things in common” — including, sometimes, wives. Not that you could have them at the same time (usually), but if your friend falls in love with your girl, the honorable thing to prove your devotion to him is to offer her up, as Valentine does. The supremacy of this homosocial dynamic was a familiar trope throughout the Middle Ages, and you can see it at work in other plays of the early modern period — Endymion, Damon and Pithias, The Maid’s Tragedy — but during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was starting to fall out of fashion as a desirable relationship model. Throughout Two Gents, Shakespeare twists the standard language of male friendship around in a way that I believe is satirical. The end scene is not a promotion of this ideal, but rather an exposition of the trope’s flaws. Silvia’s silence calls attention to the problem of leaving women, romantic love, and sexual desire out of the equation. Sending the final scene up for pure comedy not only glosses over the very real problem of the attempted rape, but also discredits the underlying complexities of Shakespeare’s criticism.

I don’t know if the Acting I class will attempt the same experiment again next year, with two directors sharing two casts of the same play, but for this year, it definitely provided me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on one of my favorite plays. Seeing two different productions throws a lot of moments into stark contrast — and one of the main tenets of ASC Education is to try scenes different ways, discovering what effect different choices can have. Congratulations to both casts on all their hard work!

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 8 April 2011

Greetings, all — I hope your April has started well. This week we have a smattering of links, several focusing on Shakespeare’s influence outside of the scholastic world:

  • We’d like to give a shout-out to the Empty Chair Theatre Company, a production company based in Arlington, Virginia, founded in 2007 by Julia Sears and Elizabeth Nearing, both veterans of our ASC Theatre Camp (Young Company Theatre Camp, or YCTC, as was). Many of their staffers are also alums of our program. This summer, they’ll be producing Twelfth Night and Titus Andronicus, and word is they’ve even snagged a night performing at the Folger Theatre. The company also has a blog, if you’d like to keep up with their projects. We are so proud of our camp alums, and we wish them so much success and joy in their endeavors. Doreen says: I can attest to the professionalism and high standards that these women value in their work, and I respectfully consider them colleagues and collaborators, both philosophically and creatively, in the endeavor of making of dynamic Shakespearean theatre.
  • The NY Times claims that Shakespeare invented teenagers — What do you think?
  • Utah Shakespeare has delved into using performance to teach Shakespeare. One teacher comments that students who normally “would be sitting in the back twiddling their thumbs or punching someone next to them” are engaged by and interested in more active learning processes. Imagine that!
  • This article details some of the ways scholars attempt to date Shakespeare’s plays. It has an Oxfordian bent, though, trying to re-date plays to correct for de Vere’s 1604 death. Cass says: And blatantly ignoring topical references and plain common sense, while they’re at it.
  • BigThink.com is hosting a month of “How to Think Like Shakespeare.” The project is designed to imagine how “studying Shakespeare enriches the various disciplines—from neuroscience to business to psychology and beyond.” Author James Shapiro is among the panel of experts commenting on Shakespeare’s applicability to many different realms of life.

And no, I’m not even acknowledging that Anonymous travesty.

Pluck It Down — Experiencing 3 HENRY VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse

Overheard at the Playhouse last Saturday night, in escalating probability of physical violence ensuing:

  • “Yeah, I’m not sure I can sit with you. Not if you’re wearing that rose.”
  • “There are way too many Lancastrians in this building. We need to even the odds.”
  • “Is she wearing one of each color?” “Must be a Warwick.”
  • “I side with winners, thank you.”
  • “Traitor!” “Oh, you can talk.”
  • “Oh, sure, wear the murderer’s color.”
  • “I can’t believe you’re wearing Henry’s colors.” “I’m wearing Margaret‘s colors.”
  • “Who won in the bracket?” “Well, no one, yet!” “But who won the semi-final? Richard didn’t win. Margaret. Margaret won.”
  • “Who wins? Tell me who wins!” “We do!” “You do not! Henry of Richmond is not a Lancaster! He’s from a totally different house!”
  • “Who is left standing at the end of this play? Who is left standing? You answer me that!”

As we say in the South, “Them’s fightin’ words.” The occasion which precipitated these verbal volleys was the closing night of 3 Henry VI, from our Actors’ Renaissance Season. To encourage the rivalry between the Houses whose conflict drives the plot of the play, the box office sold white Yorkist and red Lancastrian roses, so that any and all could proclaim their loyalties. The box office staff informs me that they sold over 60 roses that night, so it would appear that many of us feel quite strongly about the question of which branch of a centuries’-extinct dynasty should wield monarchical authority. I witnessed two fistfights (mostly joking) nearly break out, saw lovers managing to sit side-by-side while wearing different colors, and overheard, during both the pre-show and the interlude, any number of slurs, challenges, and insults, thrown about by a proud and suddenly partisan audience.

What fascinated me about the ambiance of the evening was seeing how involved nearly everyone in the audience had become with the family drama of the play. Admittedly, a closing night audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse can be a bit of a stacked deck, because it tends to draw in a lot of regulars, a lot of MBC students, a lot of friends and families. Last weekend, we had the ASC’s touring troupe in the house as well, along with large Little Academe groups in from Penn State Harrisburg and Baldwin-Wallace College — so it was an audience predisposed to be riotously joyful. Certainly this success speaks to our wonderfully skilled actors — I also overheard several people saying they’d never seen better performances out of this group, that the show left them constantly and literally on the edges of their seats, that they were exhausted by the sheer emotionality of the performances. 3 Henry VI is definitely an ensemble show, and this ensemble did a thoroughly captivating job making such a large cast of characters compelling. Rather than following a single, straightforward rise and fall, where causes have prescribed effects, 3 Henry VI exists in a more chaotic and haphazard universe. The play is a series of great moments, all belonging to different people, and so the cast must work together to wring emotional response from the audience each time someone new triumphs or flounders. The twists and turnabouts, rocketing from extremes of sympathy to revulsion, would test the ability of any actor, and ours met the challenge admirably.

Another reason for this active audience engagement is that the story itself is just so good. Shakespeare was working with great material, so it’s easy to see why history plays were among the most popular and most-often-produced in the sixteenth century. Admittedly, the Henry VI plays, written so early in Shakespeare’s career, do have their flaws, but a large gulf can exist between the technical merit of the script and the visceral enjoyment experienced by the actors and the audience. If the ASC has proven anything in the last three Actors’ Renaissance Seasons, it’s that these plays can be just as crowd-pleasing and energetic as the more widely appreciated plays in the canon. Even at the ASC, we perform fewer histories than any other genre, because of the popular perception that the public won’t receive them as well as effervescent comedies or psychologically wealthy tragedies, but so many recent productions, 3 Henry VI among them, have put the lie to that assumption. On Saturday night, the Playhouse was electrified, sizzling, the audience members enraptured by the events unspooling in front of them. The feeling at intermission was more akin to that of a major sporting event than a typical theatrical performance. I’m so glad that I live and work in a place where I can heatedly argue the succession of the English crown in the fifteenth century on a Saturday night — and have dozens of others in on the discussion as well — a place where these events still resonate through their theatrical mirrors, where people have come to care enough to pick one rose over the other and to defend their choice vigorously.

For what it’s worth, I do have to confess a personal stake in the affair: I am a descendent by blood of the House of York, I wear the white rose, and I wear it proudly.

Shakespearean March Madness: Our Champion

After over a month of voting and debate, after five rounds of combat, our initial 32 competitors have left only one standing:

Queen Margaret, the she-wolf of France, the tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide, reigns supreme over all Shakespearean combatants.

In a stunningly close final match, Margaret and Henry went blow-for-blow all weekend. For a while it looked as though Henry just might pull victory out of his back pocket, but Margaret got a powerful second wind yesterday. In the end, she won over Henry 27-23, demonstrating the tenacity and ruthlessness that sees her through four plays and decades of war. Margaret demonstrated no mercy throughout the tournament, mowing down Hermia, garroting Goneril, outwitting Iago, and enacting sweet revenge on “that valiant crookback prodigy,” Richard III. The readers have spoken, and you think Margaret is the toughest, roughest dame in the house.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the polls and discussions during the past month! This tournament has been so enjoyable to operate, and I hope you’ve all had as much of a good time as I have. I think next year I’ll start taking nominations for the brackets in February to see if you’d like some new blood in the mix.

Shakespearean March Madness: Final Match

This is it, folks — the final round of Shakespearean March Madness, the battle for ultimate supremacy. How did the Final Four turn out? Queen Margaret, after a bloody, vicious battle — and this one went back and forth for days, believe me, they really traded blow for blow — eventually gets the drop on Richard III and takes a 26-20 victory over her arch nemesis. Henry V had an easier win over Titus Andronicus (29-14), using his superior battlefield knowledge, his cooler head, and his supreme capability for delivering inspiring speeches to spur his troops to victory.

Final Match: Queen Margaret vs Henry V

Who is Shakespeare’s ultimate fighting champion?

  • Queen Margaret
  • Henry V

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This poll will remain open until Monday, when we will crown the winner of our Shakespearean March Madness tournament. Let the game begin!