Entertainment

In Love With Shakespeare

His plays are more popular than ever. To be or not to be a fan of the Bard is not in question.

John Bemrose July 5 1999
Entertainment

In Love With Shakespeare

His plays are more popular than ever. To be or not to be a fan of the Bard is not in question.

John Bemrose July 5 1999

In Love With Shakespeare

Entertainment

His plays are more popular than ever. To be or not to be a fan of the Bard is not in question.

John Bemrose

Shakespeare, it seems, is everywhere these days—playing as many roles as he once did as an actor. There’s Shakespeare the scriptwriter, beloved of Hollywood: the wordsmith behind half a dozen recent films. And then there’s Shakespeare the mystery man, the subject of a renewed debate about who the Swan of Avon really was. And don’t overlook Shakespeare the lovable young artist—the razor-witted hero of Shakespeare in Love so intensely captured by Joseph Fiennes. This is probably the most prominent Shakespeare of all just now, viewed by millions, many of whom no doubt think they are having a real Shakespearean experience, whatever that might mean. Never mind that 95 per cent of this delightful Oscar-winning story is pure invention, or that the bits of Romeo and Juliet that are used wouldn’t fill 10 minutes in a K-Tel “Best of the Bard” selection. This is the season to glorify Shakespeare and the facts be damned.

Yet the phenomenon is hardly new. Bardolatry, or the excessive admiration of Shakespeare, has been breaking out regularly in the nearly 400 years since his death. People have been buried with his plays and gotten married to his sonnets. The great 18th-century actor, David Garrick—the most dedicated bardolator of them all— had his picture painted with one arm draped chummily around Shakespeare’s bust, as if the two had just tottered back from a night on the town. Perhaps at this very minute some Hollywood producer is contemplating a similar memorial, and why not: Shakespeare the scriptwriter has proved a gold mine. From the sumptuous excesses of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through Romeo + Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, Looking for Richard and the upcoming Titus Andronicus, the bard has put some extraordinary stories on the screen. And what’s more, the man doesn’t object to rewrites and never asks for a penny of royalties.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s Stratford Festival must be feeling grateful to Shakespeare the pornographer. Hoping to encourage a younger-than-middle-age audience, the

festival has run a series of fairly lurid newspaper ads. The one for A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows Titania, the Fairy Queen, suggestively on her knees before an ass-headed Bottom, while the caption purrs, “Lust in the Woods.” It seems to be working: there has been a 40-per-cent increase in first-time patrons over last year.

The Bard has found more reverential treatment in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, a brilliant, though sometimes exasperating study of the plays by the great American literary critic, Flarold Bloom. This 1998 tome has sold briskly, spreading the gospel around North America. “The more one ponders and reads the plays of Shakespeare,” writes Bloom, “the more one realizes that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe. How he was possible, I cannot know.”

Of course, people who have been put off Shakespeare by hambrained English teachers or tedious productions of his plays might well suspect that the current fuss is just another media con job. There may be some truth in this: even genius is subject to the whims of fashion. But to credit Shakespeare’s current revival solely to good public-

The greatest of Shakespeare’s characters have escaped the plays that gave them birth

ity would be like giving weather forecasters credit for the weather. The evidence has been building for several centuries now that Shakespeare’s plays have worked themselves into a very deep layer of human consciousness: people keep returning to them as to an essential, endlessly renewable resource.

Critics have long tried to explain this appeal. They point to Shakespeare’s prodigious originality—the tidal wave of genius that tossed up Othello, lago, Lear, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Bottom, Malvolio and a host of other indelible characters. The greatest of them seem to have escaped the plays that gave them birth: Hamlet strides through our minds as the very archetype of the thinking, anguished, modern man, crucified on his own self-awareness.

For Bloom, Shakespeare is a revolutionary writer responsible for no less than what he terms “the invention of the human.” By this he means, in part, that Shakespeare was the first author to bring the private, self-focusing side of people into literature and therefore into general knowledge. According to Bloom, his plays show that a person, grappling with the challenge of becoming self-aware, might change. In other words, Shakespeare’s view of life was dynamic: he imagined a complex, volatile freedom that might lead as readily to destruction as to grace. His characters demonstrated this so thoroughly that we have, in a sense, come to see life through Shakespearean eyes: we have become Shakespearean characters. “Shakespeare will go on explaining us,” writes Bloom, “in part because he invented us.”

This is heady stuff, but there is another, more plebeian side to Shakespeare: the successful entertainer and businessman, living by

his wits amidst cutthroat competition. His Globe Theatre (he owned 10 per cent of it) had room for up to 4,000 spectators, which makes it twice as large as the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont. To keep filling it—theatres then were as hungry for new work as cinemas are now—Shakespeare churned out a phenomenal two plays a year, a pace that may well have contributed to his early death at 52 in 1616. Ironically, Shakespeare himself seems not to have stirred up much bardolatry in his own lifetime. While a few astute contemporaries praised him—his friend, playwright Ben Jonson, famously wrote that he was “not of an age, but for all time”— there is evidence that his actors were a lot more popular than he was. While Shakespeare’s own death was scarcely noted, the demise in 1619 of the great tragic performer Richard

Burbage (for whom Shakespeare had created Hamlet and other roles) plunged London into mourning.

Forty years later, Shakespeare’s reputation was at a low ebb. The tastes of theatregoers had swung to the salacious wit of Restoration drama. Writers pillaged Shakespeare’s plays for ideas and characters. They even “improved” them with rewriting: King Lear was given a happy ending, while the Fool was cut out altogether. Romeo and Juliet was turned into a play about Roman politics and retitled The History and Fall of Caius Marius. And the addition of songs and dances lightened up Macbeth, while the play’s poetry was made clearer and more genteel. Macbeth, upbraiding a servant, no longer said “The devil damn thee black, thou creamed-faced loon!” Instead, he smoothly asked: “Now, friend, what means thy change of countenance?”

Yet thanks to the labours of astute critics, actors and theatre managers, Shakespeare was gradually rediscovered as the native English genius, whose work was increasingly said to tower over flashier but less substantial foreign drama.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the texts of his plays were restored—and given increasingly elaborate productions with huge crowd scenes and tricky special effects. Playing Hamlet in the 1740s, David Garrick wore an unusual wig. In the scene where Hamlet is terrified by his father’s ghost, the actor pulled a concealed string, causing all his hair to stand on end.

In the 20th century, there has been a steady effort to strip Shakespearean production to the bare essentials. An English movement to return to the spare, thrusting stage and minimal scenery of Elizabethan times was carried to Canada by director Tyrone Guthrie and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The revolutionary, highly effective wooden stage they created for the Stratford Festival in 1953 remains one of the most beautiful in the world—and the inspiration for other stages in North America and England.

Great and even good productions of Shakespeare are rare. But when the right director and performers are at work, and the gods are smiling, a new version of King Lear or Twelfth Night or The Winter’s Tale can become one of those experiences by which the rest of life is measured. And whenever the established theatres seem to be resting too comfortably on their Shakespearean laurels, there is sure to be a band of hungry young actors putting on Hamlet in some anonymous warehouse. Perhaps the Prince of Denmark wears a toque and dirty overcoat: but there is fire in his eyes as Shakespeare’s words come burning forth afresh. At such times, bardolatry is the only religion. E33