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Frank H. Wu

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Why Watch Shakespeare: All the Stage's a World

Posted: 11/27/2012 3:28 pm

This year I finished a project I began more than half a lifetime ago. I finally watched every one of William Shakespeare's 38 plays performed in a theatre. (That includes such rarities as King John, Cymbeline, and Timon of Athens, but excludes the doubtful specimens Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio).

I share this news not as a boast on my own behalf but instead to assert that the Bard belongs to all of us. I began my effort in earnest when I read the late Allan Bloom's manifesto, The Closing of the American Mind.

The book was a key text in the so-called "culture wars." The University of Chicago professor penned the improbable best-seller a quarter-century ago. He argued against both logical positivism and rock and roll music, blaming them for the end of civilization.

As a teenager, I wondered about Bloom's thesis. He seemed to assume that high culture and popular culture had to be antithetical and openness to new ideas meant failing to differentiate excellence from mediocrity.

The man from Stratford demonstrates why the opposite is true in both respects. Here was an author, acclaimed as the greatest ever. Yet he had to compete with bear-baiting as entertainment. He introduced so much language that was original but turned into idiomatic speech. (Incidentally, I am not persuaded by the cult of anti-Stratfordians who advance the conspiracy theory that the individual called "Shakespeare" could not have written that for which he has received credit. Bloom assailed relativists who accepted everything as true and equal. He is wrong that willingness to consider intellectual possibilities leads to embracing nonsense.)

The groundlings who crowded into the Globe Theatre of sixteenth-century London, risking disease, standing for hours, demanded a diversion. They were given it without fail. Titus Andronicus can still more than compete with any Hollywood offering in terms of gore and lust, not to mention gory lust.

As for me, I had attended Hamlet in high school. That is the right time in one's life to be introduced to the doubting Dane. I decided shortly thereafter to complete the cycle.

The history plays especially show how the particular is universal. Shakespeare borrowed from multiple sources, improving them dramatically. In doing so, he transformed what was thoroughly English into what could be appreciated by people around the world.

Richard III is a beloved villain who engages audiences by inviting them into his schemes, showing the terrible potential of self-invention. But there also is a complicated backstory of relationships that, if they are not cut out of the evening's narrative altogether, must be diagrammed in the playbill to explain the intricacies of royal succession.

Shakespeare encompasses infinite promise. Scholar Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) suggested that the "upstart Crow," in the description of an Elizabethan-era critic, invented our conception of human identity. He did so in a manner that allows -- requires -- so much interpretation.

Among the many versions of Romeo & Juliet I've witnessed come to a star-crossed conclusion are a strictly traditional-dress version, including young men playing both title characters (sans décolletage) and a fat old man playing the Nurse; another adaptation featuring a frame story of four students in an exclusive all-male prep school discovering the script, then deciding to act out the romance for themselves; and a very conventional staging, except with an Asian American who has made a career as the female lead.

None of this is to slight the accomplishment of cinematic versions. Baz Luhrman's 1996 big-screen extravaganza, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes (replacing Natalie Portman, who appeared too authentically young for comfort), is an excellent introduction to the canon. The spectacle inspires further study. If it eventually leads a viewer to the erudite revisions of the Oxford Shakespeare edition, then all the better.

At his best, Shakespeare is accessible. The iambic pentameter may take a moment to become accustomed to, but it has a natural rhythm and rhyme. The after-dinner speaker who wishes to impress turns to Shakespeare for a quote, even now. As W.E.B. DuBois, America's first public intellectual who was a "race man," declared, "I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not."

The words know no bounds. Michael Kahn, the impresario behind the Shakespeare Theatre in the nation's capitol, the finest company performing classical works in the United States, once put on King Lear with a deaf Cordelia. The deserving daughter employed sign language; the Fool was her interpreter.

Even the problems of Shakespeare become opportunities. Merchant of Venice, with its background of anti-Semitism, was a comedy in its time. Perhaps inspired by Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, its depiction of the money-lender, Shylock, humiliated, and his daughter forced to assimilate are meant to inspire ridicule of the subjects and applause for their fate.

Our remedy has been to make Shylock the star with an actor who is a star. He upstages his tormentors. For example, Broadway presents us Dustin Hoffman in what is not the title role.

I have enjoyed Othello with Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: Next Generation fame, in a role reversal: the soldier Moor, portrayed by a muscle-bound Stewart, was white; the faithless Iago and the faithful Desdemona were black. I've been thrilled by Macbeth, the Scottish play, as understood by Akira Kurosawa, the masterful Japanese movie director who turned it into Throne of Blood, brought back once again to the stage, culminating in the usurper shot through by his own men, doubled over with arrows protruding. I was troubled by Measure for Measure set in early 1960s Mississippi, with a half-black, half-white cast that made a drama about gender and power an even more troubling reflection on miscegenation and civil rights. I laughed out loud at Much Ado About Nothing, placed in a latter-day Italian American diner, with Leonato's brother replaced to salutary effect by a spouse who was in every scene and who voiced a few crucial lines.

The terrific contemporary directors I've seen in action include Mary Zimmerman, whose Pericles at the Shakespeare Theatre, was visually spectacular, and Rob Melrose, whose Troilus & Cressida of American generals camped out in Afghanistan, produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, made me wonder why it is not offered more often. They are the type of vital artists upon whom Shakespeare depends. Without them his legacy is academic.

I like to talk theatre. I have never been involved in drama directly, but there is always a need for good audience members. To be a fan of live theatre, or in the quaint phrase, "legitimate theatre," is to embrace life itself. No virtual reality yet captures the same feelings as people before you inhabiting a world at once artificial and actual -- and I hope we never progress to the point of giving up that exhilaration.

 
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