Tuesday, April 21, 2009

2D or not 2D?

It is my great joy to write this piece to honor the 445th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth, 23 April, 1564.

Curiously, although I read "Julius Caesar" and "Macbeth" in high school (I was one of the three witches), I cannot say I truly discovered the wonder of Shakespeare's art until about eight years ago. For most who harbor aspirations of the writing life the 'canon' of Shakespeare's work - indeed, the man himself! - looms so frighteningly large that one is unquestionably intimidated and too, too many of us skirt round him altogether. He is a colossus in the tide of literature, yet his 'thees' and 'thous' and scrambled syntax trip our tongues and make us giggle in discomfort.

Hearing one of his plays or sonnets is quite confusing to the uninitiated ear. We suspect the players have extraordinary talent to make sense of and 'con' all those lines! Modern film productions of the plays do not always help, either. I do wish there were many DVDs available with subtitles to make this work more approachable although I do wonder what it says about us that people listened to these plays hundreds of years ago so eagerly that Will Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was commercially profitable?

As well, I wonder at the perspicacity of both Rafe Esquith and his youngsters, fifth graders at a public school in Los Angeles for many of whom English is a second language, who learn and perform one of the Bard's plays every year to international acclaim. Yes, they have tackled "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."

So, what broke through this wall of intimidation for me and prompted me to approach these works? Actually, the question should be "Who broke through ...?" A player, one Robert Lindsay, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in various international productions (Captain Pellew in A&E's 'Hornblower' series for one.)

At my son's urging I checked out a VHS copy of a 1982 BBC/TimeLife production of "Much Ado About Nothing" starring Robert Lindsay, happily, as Benedick. Almost immediately, in the first scene, Mr. Lindsay's delivery of a single line tore down all my trepidation about approaching this literary canon. As his buddy Claudio questions him about his opinion of the young Hero, Benedick asks, "Would you buy her that you enquire after her?"

The abhorrence evident on his face and in his tone could have been attributed to a number of conditions surrounding sixteenth century courtship and marriage, but I saw it as revulsion at the very idea that a woman was considered chattel, tangible property to be bought and sold. The hint this gave of the mind behind the plays stopped me in my tracks. And so it began.

I am but an amateur, but even so I agree wholeheartedly with Robert Graves who said, "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good..." Once, on a plane, a woman and I discussed literature and I shared my belief that William Shakespeare's work has endured because it deserves to endure. What is that cliche? He is "a proven performer." He always delivers. My experience enforces my opinion that a bad production of a Shakespeare play is still much better than many films today.

The essence of the power of William Shakespeare's work for me is summed up in a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "The universe is wide. In us it is deep." My experience with these plays and sonnets (remember, I am a novice) is that at some point in every exposure to them I feel that something in the depths of myself has been touched, has been given breath, has risen. A portion of another William's work, William Butler Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion," applies here I believe: "Heart-mysteries there ..."

Some mystery deeply hidden rises to life. Some mystery of life unfolds as yet others remain enfolded.

Perhaps this is the sort of experience that led the noted scholar Harold Bloom to assert that William Shakespeare is responsible, in drama, for the "invention of the human." These heroes, heroines, villains, and clowns are not cookie-cutter, paper-doll, masked characters. They are everything you are and everything I am at our highest and our lowest, our most comical and most tragic.

Though only Juliet speaks the question, " ... wherefore art thou ...", Will Shakespeare's art asks us time and time again, "Who are you? Why are you you?" Juliet knows the answer does not lie in those surface characteristics of name and physique. How two-dimensional! What is the mystery of you?

I think Juliet speaks this immensely important question because Shakespeare's model for her was the woman he loved, a woman shrouded in mystery whose presence in his life, it seems to me, constantly affirmed his courage to explore, if you will, 'Wherefore art thou Will?' This woman, this 'Dark Lady', he believed to be the embodiment of fairness, kindness, and truth - truth being beauty as Keats wrote.

Juliet asks her question from the height of her balcony. Court poets of the era often placed women above, out of reach, but Shakespeare, I believe, was sending a different message for does he not find a way for Romeo to climb to that same height? Does not Juliet later provide a rope ladder for her love? William Shakespeare depicted his love on the plane whereon he believed she lived, a higher plane of consciousness, and in Sonnet 105 he adjures us, "Let not my love be called idolatry." This is no idle show. No, indeed.

William Shakespeare chose time and time again, for more than half his mortal life, to be guided by his love, his Muse, whom he praises in Sonnet 105, lines 5 and 6: "Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind/Still constant in a wondrous excellence." His answer to this kindness, excellence, and constancy is in the remaining lines of that quatrain: "Therefore my verse, to constancy confin'd/One thing expressing, leaves out difference." Near the end of this sonnet he proclaims the "wondrous scope" this constancy affords.

In devotion to his Muse he dared to reach for a heightened consciousness. He dared to leap into those "Heart-mysteries there." Given the intrigue and turmoil of court life and the Reformation I do wonder if, perhaps, his creativity was his saving grace?

Recently as I read his Sonnet 137 which begins, "Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes," I began to realize that this sonnet is the Bard's assessment of his own reaction to characters modelled upon his love! If I may be so bold, I think he is telling us, "In things right/write-written true my heart and eyes have err'd/And to this false plague are they now transferr'd."

It helps me to know that performances of his writing made even Will himself stop and remember that the beauty up on the stage was a stage beauty, a painted boy if you will, because I am always knocked off my feet at some point by his work. With his players, his illusions and allusions, his dialogue, he gave us humanity and love.

So, since I am already on the ground, I think I will bow to the wisdom of William Butler Yeats:
"...Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Top photo: Bas relief honoring William Shakespeare, the Candler Building, Atlanta, GA
Middle photo: Bud of a William Shakespeare 2000 rose from David Austen roses
Bottom photo: Shakespeare's 'globe' and books, gifts from my son

DVDs I recommend, for starters: "Slings and Arrows," Seasons 1-3; Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard," and his performance as Shylock in Michael Radford's production of "The Merchant of Venice," and, yes, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" because I suspect it captures the intensity of 16th century London even as it's set in 20th-21st century California.


BrianC said...

No comments allowed on your April 1 post? Hmmm, my screen wasn't showing a comments button for that date . . . I was going to ask about the last photo - A statue of Anubis in Atlanta?

Di Mackey said...

You would have loved my Shakespeare classes back home in NZ. I was a 'mature' student and loved it all so much more for that, I suspect. Lovely post xo

Barbara said...

Brian, Anubis was quite a head-turner, but he is likely simply, literally, a walking advertisement for the King Tut exhibit at the civic center.

Hello Di! So glad you stopped by and, yes, I think it is much better discovering Shakespeare as a 'mature' person - I don't have all that 'stuff' to unlearn!