We first met in Illyria, during my freshman year of high school (“Twelfth Night”). In subsequent years, I ran into him in imperial Rome (“Julius Caesar”), saw him in Scotland (“Macbeth”), and accompanied him on the ramparts of Denmark’s Elsinore castle (“Hamlet”).
I am speaking, of course, of William Shakespeare, who is said to have died 400 years ago today.
I still have that marked-up high school text of “Hamlet,” which I studied at Ashley Hall under the gimlet eye of Miss Betsy Keith: the iambic pentameter carefully scanned, Miss Keith’s trenchant observations penned conscientiously in the margins, the occasional definition scrawled above a difficult word.
Shakespeare in those days was a labor, but not of love.
It’s still the same for most high school students I know, who view Shakespeare as a duty, not a delight. Even well-read adults of my acquaintance are reluctant to read a Shakespeare play for pure pleasure.
This is understandable. The vocabulary is daunting (quick: what is a “bare bodkin”?), the plots confusing, the cultural references opaque. And then there are all those rhetorical devices. A dash of stichomythia, anyone?
Since high school, however, I’ve had the good fortune to spend lots of time in Shakespeare’s company — studying his works at Oxford and seeing them staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, co-authoring a book, working on productions for the late theatrical impresario Joseph Papp in New York, and lecturing far and wide.
The more experience I have had with Shakespeare as a supple and dynamic craftsman of the theater, the more I have come to appreciate what he has to offer us, living four centuries later in a world that is politically, economically, spiritually, and technologically vastly different from his.
I would never diminish the value of close textual study and thematic interpretation, and I think memorizing a soliloquy or two is a fantastic exercise. But in my experience, Shakespeare comes to life far more vividly on the stage than on the page. His plays should be treated not as sacred texts, inviolable and permanent, but as scripts to be enlivened by the human voice, embodied by the human person.
My old boss, Joe Papp, observed, “You must always remember, when reading all the words about the playwright and his plays, that Shakespeare’s words came first and that in the end there is nothing greater than a single actor on the stage speaking the lines of Shakespeare.”
Mr. Papp was right. Confining our experience of Shakespeare to reading the text of a play is like confining our experience of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to perusing its score: the music is lost. While a symphonic score, or a theatrical script, provides the scaffolding for artistic expression, the beauty and meaning of art is created most vividly through human performance.
Or to pinch a line from “Hamlet,” “The play’s the thing” — not, in this case, to catch the conscience of the king, but to awaken the enthusiasm of Shakespeare fans everywhere.
A well-acted Shakespearean performance lifts us over the obstacles of archaic vocabulary and baffling cultural allusions.
In turning the two-dimensional idea into a three-dimensional reality, actors powerfully convey the profound emotional truths embedded in Shakespeare’s works.
Take “The Winter’s Tale.” To the reader of the text, King Leontes’ sudden suspicion of his wife, Hermione, seems irrational, even inexplicable.
In performance, however, a raised eyebrow, a touch of the hand, a bit of verbal innuendo, and we understand in a visceral way how a vulnerable ego might be drawn into tragic misunderstanding.
So on this 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, playwright extraordinaire, do yourself a favor and bring him back to life onstage. Go see a local production, if there is one at hand, whether it is a high school performance or a Spoleto event such as last year’s “Romeo & Juliet.”
Borrow the DVD of Kenneth Branagh’s film of “Henry V” from your local library. Download the audiobook of “Othello” or “Twelfth Night” from audible.com.
Or simply open up your high school text of “Hamlet” and begin reading aloud.
You’ll be surprised at how very alive Shakespeare is.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Kirkland Cahill, a Charleston resident, is the co-author, with Joseph Papp, of “Shakespeare Alive!”