How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bard

With pomp, with triumph, with revelling.

Even though we’re not 100% sure, April 23, is the day we tend to recognize as William Shakespeare’s birthday. And this one is a big one.  The big 4-5-0.  I can only hope 450 years after my birth my works will be half as popular as Will’s is.

As clichéd as an actor/playwright loving Shakespeare is, I do.  And I don’t care that it is clichéd, because it’s also genuine.  And it also didn’t happen overnight.  I wasn’t huge on him during my formative school years.  We’re not taught true Shakespeare when we’re in high school (and sometimes even in college), because there’s not a lot of people who can do justice to the Bard.  So through my high school career, I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear.  In college, I studied Othello.  I also studied, somewhat independently, but in a collegiate environment The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus.  There is still a lot of Shakespeare I haven’t read, but last year I made a goal to read it all (see Year of the Bard).  I haven’t gotten as far along in that list as I’d like, but I shall continue, and blog my discoveries.

How did I shift from Shakespeare just being some guy we learned about in school to someone I aspire after?  It’s hard to know exactly when it happened, but as I learned more about him, and how he wrote, and how we should (as actors) interpret sentences, grammar, etc., his brilliance shone through.  He’s affected me not only as an actor, but also as a writer.

Shakespeare as an Actor

Shakespeare didn’t have a lot of time between writing and acting.  There was no opportunity to “workshop” a play.  He wrote, they performed.  Sometimes within hours.  So how does one make sure all the nuances of the writer are communicated to the actor?   In the words of course.  We don’t have to dig deep to see what needs to be done directionally if we as actors really examine the words.  Don’t just act blankly, waiting for the director to mould you, but let the words form your character and the director work with that.  Not only is it easier on the director, but you can get a much richer and deeper performance.   I’ve said it before: acting is not just showing up and saying lines.  There’s work.  And it’s worth it.

Shakespeare as a Writer

My writing style has changed since learning about Shakespeare’s writing.  Punctuation means so much more to me.  I tell my kids in P.A.C.K (Performing Arts Classes for Kids) that when they get a script/monologue, to circle any and all punctuation.  The reason for this is two-fold.  I like using drama to teach other skills (for my younger kids, their reading comprehension always grows in the three month period).  I also want them to be aware of when a sentence ends, when something shifts mid-sentence, and when to be excited.  It’s easier for some people than others, and I invariably have some who just don’t know what to do when they see an exclamation mark.  I have my theories (and overuse/misuse is one of them), but I want my kids know what to do when they see a specific punctuation mark.  So writers who don’t have the opportunity to direct your work, how do you make sure your nuances are seen?  I believe a lot of it is in punctuation and sentence structure.  When I write, I don’t write like I would write an essay.  I write the way people talk, so it’s not stiff, so it’s lifelike, so it’s relatable.

Shakespeare as Human

Now I know this is going to sound hokey, but I allow myself to feel, to experience things more deeply, and Shakespeare is behind that.  He’s behind me becoming a better actor, and if I’m not afraid to feel all these emotions on stage in front of a million people (misnomer, more like 70 if I’m lucky), then I shouldn’t be afraid to feel these emotions in front of people I know and trust.

Shakespeare isn’t for everyone.  Someone may get the same results from reading a George R.R. Martin book.  That’s fine with me.  I certainly don’t mean to tell someone they’re not doing things write because they don’t like Shakespeare.  I will ask all who don’t like Shakespeare if it’s because they were forced to read in high school/college?  As we all know, it’s hard (but not impossible) to enjoy something forced on us in order to learn.   Shakespeare is more than a bunch of confusing lines, and words we don’t say anymore, he’s deeper, he’s fuller, and he’s wiser than we give him credit for.

To me, fair friend, you can never be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eye’d,

Such seems your beauty still.

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Year of the Bard: The Comedy of Errors

Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy – Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors was next on my Year of the Bard read list, and despite it being the shortest of his works, I had a hard time sticking to it.  From a reader’s point of view, it is very difficult to keep separate in the mind Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, not to mention their respective twin slaves, both named Dromio.  Now, don’t get me wrong, this type of humour is not lost on me generally.  This is part of the reason I loved Frasier so much – they did this type of comedy quite well.  It just reiterated that sometimes plays are meant to be seen and not read.  I’m quite enjoying this journey through Shakespeare, but until this play, I was content to see it play out in my mind’s eye.  I couldn’t manage it with this short piece.

It’s an important reminder that we don’t get the full picture just from reading a play.  Plays are meant to be seen: the characters are meant to come alive in front of you – living breathing pieces of literature for you to journey with.  You shouldn’t make rash judgements based on scripts alone – for the script is a one-dimensional piece of the three-dimensional world.  So much more is added by the actors, the director, the set, the props, and even the audience.  Directors are wonderful beings who can see the three-dimensional world in the one-dimensional script, and who can guide and shape actors to what they believe the writer’s vision to be.  We like to think actors are great and talented, and the show wouldn’t be the same without them, and that is true in part.  But we must never forget they are being guided by the director, who has patience and foresight to shape what the audience eventually sees.  As a writer who often gets to not only direct my own work, but also act in it, I get special insight not everyone does.  I know exactly what I meant when I wrote what I did.  I know the nuances behind it.  Sometimes I leave nuances alone, for the actor to discover as they develop their character, but the nuance is always there, waiting to be discovered, or perhaps molded in a different way.  Acting is great, and wonderful and is a passion of mine, but if it weren’t for words, all  we’re doing is mime.  Never forget the importance of what words are being said.  If it was important enough for the writer to put in his/her play, it’s important it get conveyed to the audience.

Year of the Bard: Measure for Measure

Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful. – Shakespeare

After quite a long dry spell, during which I was too busy/tired to read, I dove back into The Bard.  The play: Measure for Measure.  I had not heard a lot of this one in my school years, so had no expectations.  What follows is the very basic run down.

Claudio got Juliet (his fiancé) pregnant.  While usually not a big deal, Angelo decides that Claudio should be put to death, and so Claudio is imprisoned for most of this play.  There is a Duke, who is disguised as a friar so he can observe Angelo.  Isabella, Claudio’s sister and a nun-to-be hears of Claudio’s plight and beseeches Angelo on her brother’s behalf.  Angelo says he’ll free him, if Isabella has sex with him.  Isabella refuses, but also knows nobody would believe her if she accuses Angelo.  She seeks advice from Claudio, and he begs her to do as Angelo says.  She refuses.  Angelo had previously been engaged to Mariana, but when she loses her dowry in a storm, he breaks it off.  The two women conspire, and Isabella leads Angelo to believe she will give in to his demands, but at the last minute switches places with Mariana.  The act of consummation pretty much seals the deal on their engagement.  Angelo had told everyone he had beheaded Claudio, when in fact, and unbeknownst to him, he was given the head of a man, who shared physical attributes with Claudio, and had died naturally.  All is revealed.  The Duke, no longer under the disguise of Friar says Angelo should die.  Mariana pleads her case, enlisting Isabella (who at that time still though Claudio is dead).  Angelo is given a reprieve.  Claudio is released.  The Duke asks for Isabella’s hand, but she does not respond.

This play is in the same section as Shakespeare’s other comedies, but apart from some dialogue with Barnardine (a drunk prisoner), I didn’t find it all to be that funny.  Angelo says Juliet’s sin of having sex with Claudio is worse than Claudio having sex with Juliet.  And yet it’s Claudio who is led away to be killed.  Angelo is a hypocrite, and Claudio really is no better.  He begs and pleads that Isabella give in to Angelo, to renounce her vows and her immortal soul to pay penance for the very thing he’s begging Isabella to do. And Mariana, so in love with Angelo, is willing to look past his faults to marry him.  “O my dear lord, I crave no other, nor no better man.”  I am not convinced Angelo fully repented of his ways.   What kind of marriage would that be for the two of them?  How many modern marriages begin this way?  Okay, maybe not exactly this way.

And the Duke!  The Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, but there is no response.  How do you think she would respond?  Would she decline the proposal and take up the habit?  Or would she accept?  I believe she does not accept the Duke’s proposal (would the Duke allow that? Would he respect her choice?). She is a woman who has strength of her convictions.  I mean, good grief, she thought Angelo had gone through with her brother’s beheading and she still joined with Mariana in asking the Duke’s favour on behalf of Angelo.  So no, I don’t think she agreed to his proposal.  And I also think the Duke would respect that.  Maybe I’m being too optimistic.  Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I think whoever plays Isabella and the Duke needs to have those questions answered before they play out that scene.  Maybe Isabella is unsure.  Maybe she needs to have a real heart-to-heart with her mother superior.  Ambiguousness at the end of something is cool for me, as long as there are leanings of a conclusion.  Even though I might not see it, I know there are possibilities out there, and that’s enough for me.

Going back to the designation of comedy.  I can see some formulas that we see in other Shakespeare’s comedies which probably led it to be classified as such.  It’s certainly not a tragedy or a history, but I’m not convinced it should be in the same classification of comedy.  Since I’m still pretty early in the Year of the Bard journey, I’d like to classify it as “miscellaneous”.  There might be other plays out there which deserve the same classification.

Year of the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly. – Sir Francis Bacon

The Merry Wives of Windsor was not on any syllabi in any of my classes, whether in secondary school, or post-secondary.  It is one of the plays I’ve heard the least about.  It’s also the first Shakespeare play I’ve not really gotten into.

The “wives” are Mistress Page and Ford.  Both are pursued by John Falstaff.  Both want to be caught by him, and they conspire to make a fool of him.  Complications arise (as they usually do).  Everything ends up as they should, despite the scheming, and even Falstaff has a relatively happy ending as he’s invited to drink and be merry by his would-be conquests.

The characters didn’t enthrall me.  Not as Shylock had, or Helena, or Viola.  When I’m not invested in the characters, it is subsequently difficult to be invested in their pitfalls and triumphs.

What really struck me, again, was the strength of the female characters.  These women were shrewd, but not shrewish.  Nor were they perfect.  Mistress Page wished her daughter to marry a certain man.  Her husband wished his daughter to marry someone else.  Their daughter wanted to marry someone completely different.  The Pages schemed against each other to make sure they each got their way. (SPOILER: Young daughter wins.)   Both women had a good natured attitude about their trying to “one-up” Falstaff.

In Merry Wives, the women don’t get their way because their women and that’s just how it’s supposed to be, they get their way (that is, they are NOT successfully wooed and bedded by Falstaff) because a) they love their husbands and are faithful; and b) they outwitted the man.

I find in some modern stories in film, TV, and literature that the ending is not suited to the lead up.  There’s almost a new form of Deus ex Machina.  I noticed it especially in LOST.  Kate could do EVERYTHING.  “Oh, I can track.”  “Oh, I can shoot a gun”.  Whenever there was a problem and something needed to be done, guess who suddenly was able to help out.  I’m all for making sure women have a strong voice in all these mediums, but not to the detriment of good storytelling.  Don’t just retcon and say such and such a character has all these qualities because you need to fill a quota.  Create the strong character, and let her (or him) develop naturally.  I find that’s exactly what Shakespeare has done in this play.  None of these strengths were out of the blue, because he had already established these women as intelligent, loyal, and with a great sense of humour.

This play, while not especially enjoyable for me, just reiterated we still need to have more strong, well-rounded women and when we do have these characters, such as Stella Gibson in The Fall, or Sarah Linden in The Killing, the media should not ask “Why do you write these characters?”  These characters are written because such women exist in real life.

Year of the Bard: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

That man that hath a tongue, I say is not man, if with his tongue he cannot win a woman – William Shakespeare

Next on my list of Year of the Bard is The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  This is one I had heard very little about.  I’m pretty sure I know why it’s not readily read in schools.   It would be like watching Judd Apatow’s dirtiest film in grade school.

Seriously though, Judd, you should consider making this one.  It’s right up your alley.

I don’t know if I’ve laughed out loud so much reading Shakespeare than when I read this play (most of it).  It’s very slapstick – perhaps the most of all the plays I’ve read so far, but it’s also got great wordplay (most of it).   One of my favourite lines:

Tut, man, I mean thou’lt lose the flood and, in

losing the flood, lose they voyage, and, in losing

thy voyage, lose thy master, and, in losing thy

master, lose thy service, and, in losing thy

service, –Why dost though stop my mouth?

That’s just a little sample of what you’d expect from this play.

The subject matter however, gives people pause.  Many think this play is one of Shakespeare’s first, and it is in this play he plays around with different themes he’ll go on to use quite successfully, such as women cross dressing.

 The Sum-Up:

Valentine and Proteus, are the mentioned Gentlemen.  Proteus is a lover, Valentine is not.  Valentine travels abroad, leaving Proteus behind with Julia, who Proteus loves, but Julia is reluctant to return the emotion.  Proteus joins Valentine in Milan, but not before exchanging rings with Julia.  Lo and behold, Valentine has fallen in love with Silvia.  Thurio also loves Silvia, but he ain’t no thing.  Proteus takes one look at Silvia (who is kept under strict watch by her father) and falls in love with her, forgetting Julia.  Julia has not forgotten Proteus, and wants to meet up with him in Milan.  She dresses like a pageboy so as not to be accosted on the journey.  Proteus tells Silvia’s father that Valentine intends to break her out, leading Silvia’s father to banish Valentine.  Julia, dressed as the pageboy Sebastian, arrives in Milan and is soon employed by Proteus.  Silvia believes Valentine to be dead.  Julia has to give the ring she gave Proteus to Silvia.  Silvia doesn’t believe Valentine is dead, so she escapes.  She runs into outlaws, and is taken captive.  Proteus and Sebastian follow, and Silvia is rescued.  Valentine is the leader of the outlaws and is able to see Proteus try to convince Silvia of his love, but she will have none of it.  Proteus then insinuates that he’ll force himself on her, and that’s when Valentine intervenes.  Proteus suddenly feels terrible.  Valentine forgives him and offers Silvia to him.  Julia faints, which proves she’s a girl, because of course, boys don’t faint.  Enter Thurio, but Valentine threatens him, and Thurio runs away, renouncing his love for Silvia.  Valentine and Silva are married, as are Proteus and Julia.

You can guess the point where I became a little unimpressed.  Proteus reminded me a little of Romeo, easily swayed in the love department.  And knowing how Valentine felt about Silvia, ignored the bro code, and schemed to get his best friend banished so he could get the girl – even though the girl he mooned over

 He after honour hunts, I after love:

He leaves his friends to dignify them more,

I leave myself, my friends and all, for love.

Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,

Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,

Ware with good counsel, set the world at nought;

Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.

was waiting for him.

Then there’s the whole, “no, don’t rape her, here have her” moment between the men.  Judd, if you do end up filming this play, maybe rework this part.  I’m honestly surprised that the man who goes on to write women so well, would have this in his repertoire.  I wonder how it was received when it was first performed.  Women certainly weren’t as well respected as they generally are today, but with such a strong woman leading the country, I couldn’t image her sitting back and laughing during this part.  Especially a woman who defied everyone telling her to get married and pregnant to save the country.  (Although, I do wonder if part of her expected to live forever and was a little bit of a control freak).

It’s disappointing when a book, or a film, or a play that has you for ¾ of the story loses you in the last quarter, but that’s what happened with these two guys – gentlemen they ain’t!  I also think that we shouldn’t run from a play like this.  We can’t sweep this under the rug because we don’t like the subject matter and forget he wrote about this.  Why did he write this?  Was he testing the comedic water?  Did he crash and burn?  Did people genuinely enjoy this type of degrading humour?  Did he learn his lesson and is that why most of his women later portrayed in his comedies are intelligent and strong?

Year Of The Bard: The Tempest

Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone. – William Shakespeare

Yesterday I finished the first play in my Year of the Bard challenge.  There is no major list I’m following; I’m just starting at the beginning of my Complete Works of Shakespeare, and going play-by-play until I’ve read them all.  First on the list: The Tempest.

Coincidentally, The Tempest was also the topic of the last episode of Shakespeare Uncovered, so some information was foremost in my head; namely, this was quite possibly the last play he wrote (himself), and he left London shortly after.  He died 2 years after writing this play.

With this knowledge, of course readers will look for signs of his retirement in his work.  High school and first-couple-years-of-college me would be flippant.  “Why do we always have to look for ‘stuff’ in novels, poems, and plays?”  Older, wiser me actively seeks them out.  Now that I can call myself a playwright when people ask me what I do, I realize more and more I do write things intentionally.  Drowning Ophelia was written to help me deal with a terrible time in my life where emotional abuse and manipulation ran rampant.  Empty Spaces was written to explore this need in society for people to reach beyond themselves and help, regardless of whether people would appreciate the help or not.  The Courtship of Sarah Chandler was written to help me elucidate how I felt about marriage, and whether I want to venture in (should the opportunity arise).  Just because Shakespeare is entertaining, and was written to entertain does not mean he didn’t write what he wrote for a reason.   For example, I believe Titus Andronicus was written at a time when there was an impending regime change (Elizabeth I was about to kick it, and she had no natural heirs.  Enter James I).

There’s some talk about colonisation, but I was hit more strongly by Prospero’s final address.  At first blush, it reminded me of Puck’s final address to the audience (“if these shadows have offended…”).

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own

Which is most faint.

 I found this most powerful if we think this is the last Shakespeare wrote.  Is he tired?  Had he grown weary of “city life”?

Prospero as a man had been holding onto a grudge for 12 years, only to suddenly forgive those who exiled him.  How exhausting would that be?  The 12 years would be exhausting enough, but to suddenly let go of such a driving force in his life would be like wind going out of his sails.  Everything he had done to that point had been in direct relation to how he was wronged.  Now that he has forgiven, what is he to do?  Despite Prospero and Miranda being “freed”, that is the plan at the end of the play is for Miranda and Ferdinand to be married, so they are no longer stuck on the island, Shakespeare ends the play with them still there.  Why is that?  Is it possible that after 12 years of scheming, there is nothing left for Prospero to do?  After all the years of creating plays, there is nothing left for Shakespeare to do?

 How empty it would feel if there was nothing else for us to do.

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Fear Not The Bard

He was not of an age, but for all time. – Ben Jonson

Last week I participated in Toronto Fringe’s 25-hour playwriting competition.  At 1:00 Eastern, they announced 4 themes each play had to have.  We had until 2:00 Eastern the next day to complete a one act (no less than 45 minutes).

I was eager for the challenge.  Usually when I’m not writing, it’s because I have nothing to write about.  This took that away from me.  As the time grew nearer, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to coherently use the themes they would choose.  And when I got the themes, I methodically wrote them down and actually brainstormed for a moment.  At that point, as it usually is for me, the play shaped itself.  I knew where it was heading, I just had to get it there.  I’m pleased with the results.  I won’t find out if it was a Toronto Fringe winner till Wednesday, but prize, or no prize, I have a new functional script, and plans to use it.

While I was writing, I had my TV on.  I’m not one for silence.  I’m sure I watched a few sitcoms, white noise and such, but as my to-watch list on my PVR dwindled, I saw that I still had most of the episodes in Shakespeare Uncovered to finish.  Prior to this, I had watched the one on Macbeth, and the comedies.  Ultimately, I believe the comedies to be my favourite episode, because it reiterated just how well Shakespeare, who couldn’t actually have women play the roles, wrote women.

But that’s probably a subject for another blog post.

Writing a play while learning how Shakespeare wrote, prepared, etc. was quite interesting, and eye-opening.  I haven’t done a lot of in-depth studies on Shakespeare, especially the writing aspect of it, but my class last year really helped me appreciate as an actor and a playwright just how bright Shakespeare was.  Every little thing he wrote meant something.  There was little to no “filler”.  Every punctuation mark meant something.  Every character was there to contribute something, not just to have a character there.

As a writer, that is something to aspire to.  I’m terrible at filler.  When I was in high school and college, 10-page papers were so daunting to me, because I always felt I could make my point in much less time/space.  Another negative aspect of filler is that your characters and your words need to mean something.  If that’s the service/ware you’re selling, you want to make sure every aspect of it is filling its purpose.

In my Shakespeare class last year, my main problem was lack of word-for-word.  I have a working theory that people who are more comfortable and confident in their improv skills will find memorizing scripts more difficult.  Not impossible, mind, but difficult.  Those people who aren’t comfortable and confident in improv have an easier time making sure every single word is memorized, in proper order.  Saying that, now that I’ve written more and more, and have been lucky enough to at least co-direct my own plays, I understand how important to a writer word-perfect is.  You’ve crafted these words, you know why the character is saying it the way he or she is.  You want to make sure the eventual audience will see what you saw in the character.  So actors: please, please, please, understand that directors and playwrights saying “word perfect” is only 10% OCD and 90% character.  Playwrights: know why you’re writing those words.  Know why your character is saying what they’re saying.  If you don’t know why, the director won’t know why, the actor won’t know why, and the audience won’t know why, and your point is lost.

I also see that some actors (especially hobbyist actors) seems to avoid Shakespeare.  Perhaps he seems too daunting with his tongue twister lines, and aged sayings.  He’s only as scary as you make him out to be.  Even if you are just a hobbyist actor, don’t you wish to be as good as you can?  We owe so much to this man, and he was really the actor’s playwright.  He would write scripts in the morning and give it to the actors in the afternoon.  He’s giving you everything you need to know in your script.  What’s not to love about that?

Playwrights, you must find your own voice, but if you don’t acknowledge, or dig even a little bit into what Shakespeare did, I truly believe you’re missing out on an opportunity to not only find your voice, but also to amplify it.

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