I’ve just watched episode 2 of Shakespeare Uncovered, a great PBS miniseries exploring several of Shakespeare’s plays. I then took a quiz on the site to determine which Shakespeare character I am and I am Ophelia! Nooooo! For those who don’t know, she is Hamlet’s lover who eventually goes mad and kills herself. This will no doubt require 10 or 12 therapy sessions to unravel.
I am on another Shakespeare kick, reading A Theater-Goers Guide to Shakespeare, which investigates the context and meaning of each of The Bard’s 37 plays. I also have Shakespeare: The Basics on hold at the library. I read In Search of Shakespeare but found I was more interested in the analyses of the plays than in the biographical bits. So I am now on a binge of investigation into the plays’ inner workings.
The episode I watched today was allegedly about the comedies but really just focused on Twelfth Night and As You Like It. It reminded me of the Shakespeare party I organized with my then-friend Stacy Weeks back in the early 2000s. It was a blast.
Since I was familiar with all the plays, I got to choose which one to do. I chose As You Like It, since it’s the most sparkling and engaging comedy. I thought it would be more accessible than the heavier pieces like Hamlet or Richard III. I also must admit that I wanted a play with a juicy female role, and there is no better one in Shakespeare than Rosalind.
We wrote the names of all the characters on slips of paper and put them into a hat. We put all the characters in twice except for Rosalind, which went in once. And I am not ashamed to say that I bent the paper in such a way that I was able to snag it and get the part I wanted! In order to make sure that everyone had a chance to play a good-sized part (instead of assigning some poor sod a part with three lines), Person A would have say Jacques’ lines in one scene, while Person B would take his lines in the following scene. This let everyone have short and long speeches and take part in all the action.
We gathered in Stacy’s living room and dived in. At the end of Act I, Scene I, the collected company turned to me and asked almost in unison, “What the hell just happened?” Everyone was thrown by the language. I translated for them and we forged ahead. At the end of the next scene we did the same. But then everyone got into the flow and it was only occasionally at the end of an act that I would be called upon to summarize. It was beautiful to see how easily people got swept up into the text once they just surrendered. Only a few of them were actors—most of them were people who had only encountered plays as audience members.
My copies of the works of Shakespeare are not annotated. I find annotations extremely annoying. I count on the context to give me the meaning I need, and that works fairly well. If I were to play a character in an actual production, I would do more research, but I find there are plenty of clues in the text for casual reading.
At the end of two hours we had reached the end of one of the acts, I can’t remember which. It was the perfect time to take a break and take the pulse of the group. Did we want to leave it there or press on? To my delight, the majority enthusiastically voted to do the whole play. Only two or three people left due to other commitments.
The second half of the party is something of a haze in my mind due to the large quantities of sugar consumed. It seemed like everyone had brought some sort of baked good as a snack. Stacy’s table groaned under the weight of brownies, cakes, cookies, pies, and candy. And I ate Every Single Thing. Woot! We were all a little tipsy from the delight of the experience and the warped body chemistry.
One of the greatest things that bound our little company together was when we came across little sayings that we didn’t know originated with Shakespeare. This is one of my favorite things about reading his plays. “All that glisters is not gold” is not quite how we say it, but we still say it, 400 years later. It’s amazing how incredibly relevant he remains.
But the whole train came to a halt when “Bob” (I can’t remember his name) started speeding through “All the world’s a stage” and then pulled up short. There was a collective shiver among the group. Bob stood up, cleared his throat, and declaimed Shakespeare’s famous “The Seven Ages of Man” speech:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Sheer brilliance. We all sighed at the end and then applauded Bob. It was gorgeous.
After four and a half hours we reached the end of the play and collapsed in giddy exhaustion. We had an excited conversation about various aspects of the play and especially the character of Rosalind. She is possibly the most clever character in Shakespeare. She is multi-dimensional and fully realized. She’s not like the female characters you find in spy novels, reduced to sexual toys of men. She is a woman and a human in her own right. And she’s funny! As You Like It is brilliant from beginning to end, with a few detours courtesy of the cynic Jacques. I can think of no better adjective than “sparkling.” It is one of the best plays ever written.
I would love to host another Shakespeare party someday but I’d need a partner-in-crime with a comfy living room and I’d need willing participants. People are so afraid of Shakespeare, mostly due to bad high school experiences and pompous stage productions featuring men in tights, but it’s still very accessible. You don’t have to be a genius or an academic to appreciate it. Just look at Baz Luhrman’s brilliant Romeo + Juliet, which was a hit with teenagers. All you need is a willingness to surrender to the text, and Shakespeare will take care of you (though you might want to steer clear of Titus Andronicus for starters :-)).