Happy Birthday to the Bard
For a guy who likely never advanced beyond grammar school, who made up words, and was once called an "upstart crow" by a critical peer, Shakespeare's done pretty well for himself. Almost certainly the most produced playwright of all time, and likely the most quoted as well, the Bard continues to be a cultural, literary, and theatrical icon almost 400 years after he lived. Today, as we commemorate what is considered to be the anniversary of both his birth and his death, we asked three colleagues who spend their days knee-deep in Shakespeare to reflect on what the playwright has meant to them professionally and personally.
Teri Cross Davis at a reading by by Yusef Komunyakaa. Photo by Mignonette Dooley
Teri Cross Davis, poet and poetry and lectures coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library
My first encounter with Shakespeare was with his sonnets, when I peeled a collection away from a shelf in my basement. My mother’s poetry books from college were musty, some pages stuck together. But still the allure was the language; it spoke of another time, another place. As I grew older, I found refuge in that language. While others in my ninth-grade English class would cringe when called upon to read Shakespeare aloud, I loved it, falling easily into the poetry’s passion and lyrical beauty (further cementing my English “nerd” status). As a budding poet, Shakespeare’s sonnets were also my first introduction to poetic form. And while I have learned of so many other forms, from villanelles to bops, the sonnet still resonates with me. It’s the heartbeat, da-DUM, da-DUM, a rhythm so elemental as to be soothing and intoxicating, which is why I read Shakespeare to both of my children while still in the womb. Only recently my husband, a poet and English teacher, was preparing a lesson on Romeo and Juliet for his ninth-grade class, when he stopped and began to read aloud the prologue. And the language rose above the din of toddlers and dirty dinner dishes and a barking dog, carrying me to a tale of two star-crossed lovers, really, just two kids in love. In thinking of that moment, I recognize Shakespeare’s work is always inspiring because what transports me, impresses me, influences me is the Bard’s timeless ability to let what’s simple be simply stated, elegantly.
Vilma Silva. Photo by Jenny Graham
Vilma Silva, company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
In high school I was introduced to Shakespeare through The Merchant of Venice. It was difficult language to understand. I wondered what could be worth such effort! But the story was compelling. Then, in Act 4, Portia asks of Shylock, “What mercy can you render him Antonio?” to which Gratiano interjects, “A halter gratis; for God’s sake, nothing else.” I thought, “A halter gratis?” I don’t know why those three words so caught my imagination. I paused, and then in the way that a constellation emerges from a wash of stars, I understood that what Gratiano offered was to hang Shylock, and for free! I was floored by the elegance of the language juxtaposed by the viciousness of the meaning. And I was hooked.
That revelatory moment sparked in me a curiosity and appreciation for how Shakespeare creates an essentially different but mystifyingly understandable language that expresses the human truth of Juliet and King Lear. But what made me fall in love with him are the ways in which he reveals himself. What “manner of man” would give Queen Katherine of Aragon a vision of her crown restored in eternal life? Or would return the long-lost Thaisa in Pericles to the grieving living? Or move Prospero from a desire for vengeance to a state of grace, forgiving his foes, renouncing his magic and releasing his slaves?
Last year I had the great fortune of playing the title character in Julius Caesar, a journey I had not imagined in my wildest dreams. With every performance, I marveled at the complexities of the arguments, the stunning marriage of the personal and the political, and the entanglements and costs of leadership and ego that remain with us today.
I am currently playing Lady Capulet and in 1996, I played Juliet. I was recently asked which of the two roles was my favorite. I thought for a moment was stumped. I love each in its time and hope for many more to love in the time to come.
Joel Jahnke. Photo by MSU/Kelly Gorham
Joel Jahnke, artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks
My first brush with Shakespeare unfortunately was in a high school English class sitting at our desks reading Julius Caesar. The words seemed completely foreign and it was the antithesis of exciting theater. Flash forward years later when I found myself handed the reins of a gem of a theater company called Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP), whose mission was to bring Shakespeare and other classics to the farthest reaches of Montana with an emphasis on rural communities who would not otherwise have the opportunity [to see theatrical productions]. Given my background, I leaned toward the "other classics" in my directorial choices, mostly because I was in love with Molière and felt more comfortable there. But Shakespeare was tempting. When I realized I was going to stay with MSIP, I knew I had to jump in and direct a Shakespeare. I picked up Twelfth Night, cast ten phenomenal actors, and launched a love affair that has lasted the rest of my life and continues to grow with each experience.
I have directed 20 of his magnificent plays and produced several others. Shakespeare has changed my life and has been the focus of my career. With every production, he continues to feed my soul and provide our audiences with exciting, vibrant theater. Who would have thought, right? But like all affairs of the heart, we are often surprised by the attraction. What has done it for me is that he is always exciting, often unpredictable, romantic and brutal, funny and heart-wrenching, poetic and earthy. But the key to this and any relationship is that I trust him so much. He has never let me down. Any answer you ever need when directing one of Shakespeare’s plays can be found somewhere in the five acts.
More importantly, his plays work, time after time. Our company performs in some pretty extreme locations, all outdoors and under natural light. But I have seen farmers and ranchers travel for miles to watch Shakespeare on a butte 45 minutes from the nearest town whose population is 17. I’ve seen 650 people carrying blankets and picnic baskets to watch a play on a baseball diamond, increasing the population tenfold, if only for one spectacular summer evening. I met two kids sitting under a mailbox on a dusty road in anticipation of our company coming to their town. They were "waiting for the Shakespeare," they told me. Ask those people. They get it.
I don’t know how many more of his plays I will direct, but I guarantee that I will cherish each one as I have those that have come before. You see, it wasn’t until I directed Shakespeare that I began to feel my work start to mature, find its own voice, allowing me to capture my own sense of style. And my confidence has grown with each production. Shakespeare has proven to be a good partner and I’m a much better director, theater artist, and person because of it. “Was not this love indeed?”