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23 April 2008

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!


For Shakespeare, England, and St. George!

First, let me state that I am not one of those people who believe that William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry were written by someone else. Nor would I dare to offer such a scurvy insult on this 444th anniversary of his birth—which is also the 392nd anniversary of his death.

It would be ridiculous to rehash his biography in the brief space of a blog post, particularly when that information is so readily available from a plethora of sources. But, for anyone who is entrenched in the camps that fervently believe that a “nobody” could never have written such glorious, deeply insightful, universal and transcendent works of literature—Shakespeare wasn’t exactly a nobody.


John Shakespeare's house in Stratford Upon Avon

His recusant Catholic father, John Shakespeare, had worked his way through Stratford’s political system. He began as a tradesman, a whittawer (one who worked in white leather goods), and got himself elected to various local offices, becoming an alderman and a bailiff, the highest office in the town. He was a gentleman who was eligible for a coat of arms; a prominent and respected figure in Stratford.


John Shakespeare's coat of arms

Some scholars like to point to William Shakespeare’s scant schooling as proof that he could not have penned such brilliant works as are attributed to him.

However, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Shakespeare would also have acted, as part of his education, either in Latin plays or in oratorical declamation, the latter a crucial part of the performative training in classical rhetoric. William's own education was not likely to have been affected by his father's fluctuating fortunes. . . . Certainly, given John’s status in the community, his four sons would have gone to Stratford’s grammar school where their education would have been free. Before that William would have attended “petty school” from about the age of five to about seven, learning to read.

At the King’s New School, Stratford’s splendid grammar school, William would have learned an immense amount of Latin literature and history, perhaps using the Latin–English dictionary left to the school by John Bretchgirdle who had baptized him. Among the works that Shakespeare later used as sources for his plays are a number that he would have read as part of his grammar-school education: the history of Livy, the speeches of Cicero, the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the tragedies of Seneca, and the poetry of Virgil and, above all, Ovid, who remained his favourite poet. The range of Latin writing that formed the curriculum was, by modern standards, vast. The mode of teaching, by a good teacher assisted by an usher, was one calculated to ensure the arts of memory, facility in composition, and rhetorical skills.

So, William was not the country rube that some academics would like to depict. I like to think of him as an extraordinary sort of sponge, soaking up everything around him, from the plays performed by the traveling theatre troupes that visited the Stratford of his youth, to everyday interactions among the people he encountered and observed throughout his life.

But enough about Will; you can celebrate his birthday by exploring his biography and his writing on your own. I want to hear from you. Do you enjoy the works of Shakespeare? Some more than others? Do the contemporary attempts to impose “concepts” on his plays ruin the experience for you, or enhance it? How has Shakespeare shaped your own reading and writing experience? (As I occasionally have difficulty plotting, I admire him for cribbing his plots from other sources! And now, contemporary writers crib their plots from him!)

25 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

The details on his education are fascinating, Amanda, and do go a long way to explaining his "sources."

Once again, doesn't this reflect the idea that people tend to think about life (Shakespeare's education) based on their experience. I believe that the early side of the Boomer generation were the last to be taught Latin as a standard part of their curriculum and even then that was mostly in Catholic and private schools.

Here's is my question for you -- How long has there been a contingent that think Shakespeare did not write the plays?

Since I have an obsession with stories that make me feel better about the universe, I prefer Shakespeare's comedies. I have never seen Hamlet or Macbeth (read them, mind you, but never seen them on stage) because the tragedy in them is too much for me.

That said, I have seen most of the film versions of Romeo and Juliet and still like the Franco Zeffirelli version the best.

Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is high on the list oo. Have not read the play itself but have watched that movie more than once if only for the St Crispin's Day speech.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Maggie Robinson said...

I just read a terrific (and short) book on Shakespeare by Bill Bryson. For those of you who might feel overwhelmed by the "big" bios, this is a great book to reacquaint yourself with what little we know of Shakespeare the man and his times. I highly recommend it.

I've read/seen many of the plays. Romeo and Juliet has probably lasted best in my mind.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, I'm not entirely sure when the movements began to "discredit" Shakespeare as the author of the works that 90% of us attribute to his quill. I think that at least as far back as the 19th c., there were the Baconites, who were sure that Francis Bacon was really the author. During the 3rd quarter of the 20th century, a Shakespeare aficionado could hardly spit without hitting someone who was sure that the Earl of Oxford (de Vere) was the true author. Over the years, other names have been propounded as well.

I find all of Shakespeare's plays to be universal, even the histories, and his so-called "problem plays" and his "romances" (like THE WINTER'S TALE -- and I for one, find Hermione's role incredibly moving). I do have a personal and deep affinity for THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (no snarky comments, but I have played Kate numerous times and even produced the play for the theatre company I headed some years ago. I relate tremendously to the dynamic of the Minola family; growing up, my kid sister was the apple of my father's eye and could do no wrong no matter how badly she behaved, while I always got in trouble for doing the same stuff, or being outspoken about something.

The Zefferelli version of "Shrew", though, with Burton & Taylor, even though it was supposed to be such a great inside joke because it mimicked the volatile nature of their marriage(s) -- was pretty awful, mostly because the text is ripped to shreds and shoe-horned into strange places (the brilliant -- as WS wrote it -- wooing scene is broken up by a lot of noisy running around the house) and because Taylor's acting (she could never hold a candle to Burton's talent) is so weak.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Mary, I just wrote a blog post on Scandalous Women about Delia Bacon who wrote a book in 1856 about a secret society headed by Sir Francis Bacon that wrote the plays. She was one of the first Baconites if you will. The experience of writing the book contributed to her eventual insanity. One of the first men to question whether he wrote the plays was actually a friend of David Garrick no less.

My favorite Shakespeare adaptation on film has to be Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, as well as his Henry V, although I love Olivier's as well. My least favorite is Olivier's Hamlet because of all the needless Freudian crap he imposed on it.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The first Shakespeare I really LOVED -- in high school, I think -- was Twelfth Night. The combination of love and melancholy, and the first, for me, of his gutsy girls in tights (Viola definitely a predecessor to my Phoebe in Almost a Gentleman). I still love the comedies, where the misunderstandings are resolved in a "green world" of the forest. But King Lear -- oh, lord, that's really something. The tragedy of not having a roof over your head -- oh, I know, there's way more to it, but the simple tragedy of being stripped naked in the rain. I think there's always a natural, bodily core to Shakespeare that gives heft and breadth to the figured language.

As for "the Stratford man" (as detractors call him) not having written the plays. I guess I don't care who wrote them. But my husband sometimes wonders why, after he left the stage, he never showed any need or desire for words or wit.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam wrote: "But my husband sometimes wonders why, after he left the stage, he never showed any need or desire for words or wit."

Burnout? Syphillis?

Pam, I, too love TWELFTH NIGHT and LEAR. Unfortuntely I've never seen an entirely successful stage production of either, due to seriously spotty casting. But there's a TV version (BBC?) of LEAR starring Laurence Olivier and it's an absolute clinic in how to play Shakespeare. Olivier makes every word, every intention absolutely crystal clear. It's one of his finest performances, I think.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

There was production of Lear a few years ago on PBS that I liked very much.

Other productions I've loved:

The Royal Shakespeare Company doing A Midsummer Night's Dream, maybe a decade ago. The characters go through doors and windows placed around the stage and find themselves in different levels of reality. But they speak the words... well they speak the words like it's their language. Wow.

And in 2002 there was a wild strange Cymbelline in New York, done by something called Theater for a New Audience. I wept when they sang "Fear No More the Heat of the Sun".

And a gazillion years ago, we caught a movie of Hamlet on TV, with Nicol Williamson (and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia) that we thought was wonderful.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

For film adaptations, I love the Zeffirelli R&J, liked the Branagh "Henry V" and adored his "Much Ado..." with Emma Thompson. I HATED his "Hamlet" (film and performance).

There was an insanely self-indulgent performance a few years ago at Lincoln Center: the usually marvelous (but always scenery-chewing) Canadian, Christopher Plummer as Lear. The rest of the ensemble were utterly clueless actors who had no idea what they were saying (you all know that's one of my pet-test peeves).

Oh -- and who can forget the production of "Shrew" at the Delacorte in Central Park in the summer of 1977 starring Raul Julia and Meryl Streep (a touchstone pair of performances that to me was one of the greatest nights of my theatregoing lifetime). At Cornell, Jimmy Smits (an MFA candidate at the time) was (sorry, dear wonderful Raul) the best Petruchio I ever saw, but his Kate was crap.

Actually I had a fantastic Petruchio when we did the show in 1993. Tim Gable, wherever you are, we miss your talent on the stage. That guy was the only person I have ever known who I would describe as a "natural" when it came to the interpretation of Shakespearean verse, making it utterly comprehensible in thought, meaning, action, and intention.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Keep posting -- this is fascinating. I have not read any Shakespeare in years. Maybe tonight!

5:27 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Maybe we should all read some Shakespeare tonight -- even if it's only one of his sonnets, to honor his birthday.

Or at the very least, quaff a glass of ale! Or "small beer."

5:42 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Pulling out my little antique bound sonnets even as we speak. I LOVE all of Shakespeare's work and I tend to think he DID write it.

Great blog though! Love every little thing I can learn about him.

I spent a summer in Stratford on Avon when I was 12. We stayed in a youth hostel, took classes at the theater, attended jousts at nearby Warwick Castle and generally had a fantastic summer.

I agree that Olivier's Lear is the quintessential Lear! Amazing! Saw Patrick Stewart do Macbeth and he was mesmerizing.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doglady, I saw Patrick Stewart do Shylock in London some years ago. Sinead Cusack was Portia. Have you ever seen any of the "Playing Shakespeare" sessions (I know they were put on VHS several years ago; I don't know if they're on DVD now as well). John Barton, who was one of the preeminent teachers/coaches at the RSC conducted recorded master classes with a group of RSC actors, including Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and Roger Rees. I remember one session where Batron assigned the same speech (Shylock's -- I think it was the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes...?" speech) to more than one of the actors (maybe he gave it to all the men that day), so that he could make a point about how a role can be interpreted in many ways. I remember Suchet talking about how it had special meaning for him because he was Jewish and he brought his own background/identity to the role.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I took a wonderful Shakespeare class in college (and wrote an essay on King Lear that ended up winning a Shakespeare essay contest) but have seen very little performed. I did see a very good, I think, student production of Othello, kind of partial-opera (but Desdemona couldn't sing so she said her lines to music when it was time to "sing") at my current university about 5 years ago.

I like the idea of reading some Shakespeare tonight. And on that note, I am off to find my book of sonnets. Thanks for the post Amanda, and now I am inspired to check out the films you've mentioned...since I can't go back 31 years to the Delacorte :(

8:11 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Oooh, Amanda, thanks for the heads up on the Playing Shakespeare sessions. I have not seen them, but will try to find them now. I would love to have seen Patrick Stewart play Shylock! I LOVE his voice.

Was Suchet's performance of Shylock mesmerizing? I cannot imagine bringing all of that personal history to the role and not doing it wonderfully!

I have sung Desdemona and Juliet and studied Lady Macbeth's role in Verdi's Macbeth. Those are some meaty roles and I really enjoyed them.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Amanda! And very timely for me, as I'm off in the morning to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland for five days. We're seeing "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Coriolanus" and four non-Shakespeare plays, including an Indian classical drama. We'll see more Shakespeare when we go back in August (I go twice a year with a writer friend--the festival runs nine months in three theaters and not everything runs at once so you have to twice to see the whole season).

I was actually talking about favorite Shakespeare plays with another friend at dinner tonight. I started with "Much Ado", "Henry V", and "Hamlet," then added "Measure for Measure" and "Troilus and Cressida," and he said I was naming so many it was getting silly.

The three roles I always think I'd love loved to play are Beatrice, Viola, and Juliet. I still do the Willow Cabin speech for vocal warm ups before I do an book event.

12:55 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Congratulations, Jessica, on that "Lear" essay. Did you save it?

Tracy, You HAVE to let me know how "Midsummer" is at Ashland. We're seeing it in June!! My hubby and I are taking about 3 weeks off to ride cross-county and back on his motorcyle and I told him that I always wanted to go to the Oregon Shakes. Fest. I ordered our tix on the phone and now I have them in my hot little hands (well, in our travel folder). We'll only be there for 1 night and MND was the only play of WS that's being performed that night. I'll be very curious to hear how "Coriolanus" is, too. [I can't remember how to do the itals. rather than quotation marks -- Kalen taught me, but I can't find my crib sheet].

Doglady, I'm always fascinated by the opera versions of Shakespeare's plays. I saw a production of "Otello" at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago and it was dreadful (but that adjective refers to the performances and production elements and direction). Silly me, but as a trained Shakespearean actress I expect the opera singers to act, and even at the Met, it's rare that someone can do more than just stand there and sing.

I'd love to hear from some of you opera singers on how the plots of the operas based on Shakespeare's plays differ from the scripts of the plays (apart from the libretti being in another language, obviously) -- what scenes are cut, for instance,or what characters are eliminated?

4:26 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I didn't read any sonnets last night but my friends and I went to Keens Chophouse to toast the Bard. Keens has a long association with the theater. The Lambs Club used to meet their in its infancy.

My favorite production of Shakespeare will always be Antony Sher's performance in Richard III at Stratford that I saw in college, along with Roger Ree's Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. It was one of the best Stratford seasons I've ever seen. I would love to go up to the Stratford Festival in Canada. I haven't seen any good Shakespeare in New York in years.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I hated Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, too, Amanda.

In general I hate those gymnastic little Hamlets who can't say a line except while leaping up on the furniture or hanging from the finials. Nicol Williamson, otoh, plays Hamlet as rather a wonk -- mired in his dissertation, perhaps. And (okay, I can already imagine your boos and hisses) I will confess to liking Ethan Hawke in the barely-Shakespeare Almereyda film version. Hawke's mooncalf adoration of the ghost of his father (a very macho Sam Shepard) worked brilliantly for me.

We can probably agree on the gorgeousness of this song, tho:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them, - ding-dong bell.


I can hear Alfred Deller singing it as I type.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Amanda, somewhere in the depths of my undergrad files (the essay was written in Fall 1996 and I am almost at the end of my Ph.D. now so you can imagine the volume of old papers) I do still have the essay. It predated my possessing a computer so I don't think I have the electronic file. It was about how the Fool is actually the wise one and the King is a fool and looking beyond their titles to see their true characters.

Thanks again for a great post and especially the information on Shakespeare's education. I've never been one to doubt that he wrote it all, and this is marvelous evidence to refute the naysayers.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, you're right about the boos and hisses; I can't recall one "revisionist" Shakespeare adaptation that I liked. Mostly because they purposefully do away with all that cumbersome poetry that no one understands anyway. (hope everyone gets my ironic and snarky tone). It's rare that the language is respected, and that the actors know how to deliver it.

Jessica, I've always loved the conceit or paradigm in the Lear/Fool relationship (and it's pervasive in other literature as well) that the fool is actually the wise man.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Me too, Amanda, I can't reall one reivsionist version of a Shakespeare play that I liked. I went to a couple productions at the Straford On Avon-Canada Theatre and I felt totally ripped off.

When the company called and asked me to complete a survey on R&J I told them what I thought---they were flabbergasted. The responded with "revisionist" productions are so much more cost effective than the costume drams...

I'd say by the number of empty seats in the audience, they should have gotten a clue...

We are Shakespeare purists and an ART DECO version of R%J doesn't work...Juliet a flapper? Romeo in a white suite with spats? Yuck!

6:56 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

And by the way, I apologize for the typos in my post above---I've had two glasses of a great merlot and am settling down to read The Twelfth Night. ;-)

7:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Gosh, I never mind the costumes of any era. Ian McKellan as Richard III in generalized 30s fascist drag... ok by me. I almost always feel that if the line readings are good the plays embrace the concepts (I remember liking a very stoned Robert Downey Jr. in that one, but then, I always do, so I don't know if I can defend that).

And as long as I'm confessing to outre Shakespeare I've liked, I actually found things to like in Julie Taymor's Titus movie. In truth, I found Anthony Hopkins' performance a lot more restrained than he ever is as Hannibal Lector -- but then, the Titus movie didn't have Jodie Foster doing her self-righteous quivering thing.

While as for the Almereyda Hamlet, confession #2 is that Hamlet is such an enormous play -- it does seem to me that his lines count him "a king of infinite space" -- that I find it exhausting and need to take it in pieces.

My husband (the skeptic about the Stratford man) loved loved loved Stephen Greenblatt's big, informative biography, Will in the World, btw, and I intend someday to get to it...

7:48 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I've been meaning to read WILL IN THE WORLD for a long time, now. But I have 2 other books on Shakespeare that I was given as gifts over the past couple of months, SHAKESPEARE THE THINKER and ON PLAYING SHAKESPEARE, so I'd better get to those first.

Kathrynn--I feel your pain!!! An art deco production of R&J doesn't quite cut it for me (and, evidently 99.5 percent of the viewing population). I have seen (and been in) countless productions of Shakespeare in modern dress (I recall one production of Midsummer where the 4 lovers were in pastel-colored Izod Lacoste polo shirts (which wasn't bad) but the rest of the cast was costumed in haphazard contemporary fashion and the minute the play began my first thought was, "they couldn't afford to rent costumes." And I saw a production of R&J where just about everyone was wearing shapless and voluminous robes, which looked not only like exactly what they were, but were insanely out of place and not a production-values "statement" of any kind. A friend described the costume design as being "from the early Choir-obean period."

The NY Shakespeare Fest. productions at both the Public Theater and the Delacorte have in the past couple of decades been very fond of clothing the actors in costumes that are all over the chronological timeline, from black dusters (often in leather) to zoot suits to art deco and Edwardian silhouettes (I mean all in the same production!) thereby employing the sledge-hammer metaphor that "Shakespeare is universal and evergreen."

One of my personal faves (not!) is the production of "Troilus & Cressida" (I played Helen of Troy), where the stage was painted to look like a football gridiron and the Trojans and Greeks were costumed as opposing football teams, complete with helmets! The actor playing Achilles refused to wear his while delivering his lines. I had to wear a clingy blue 80's disco dress in the opening of the show where the director thought that Shakespeare hadn't told the story well enough on his own, so he imposed a "pre-show" where Paris kidnapped Helen (football hero kidnaps prom queen). And in Helen's one scene, I had to wear a teddy and thigh-highs and one night, my left boob fell out of my costume. Naturally, it would have to be the night that the chairman of the board of the theatre company was in the audience!

4:50 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I once saw a production of R&J at Stratford in England, where Juliet wore headphones and read a copy of Vogue before she tore them off to "Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds" and then during the ballroom scene there was an extended sequence where Mercutio played the electric guitar, danced a frantic disco dance and then jumped into a pool!

Thankfully all of the Shakespeare productions that I was in were period appropriate.

5:09 AM  

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