April 24, 2017
When I first decided to write you a letter, I figured I would craft it in your favorite meter. After all, if you are writing a love letter to William Shakespeare, iambic pentameter feels like the right choice to make.
But here’s a reality check: I am terrible at it, though I will admit I really like saying the phrase because it sounds like something out of the Jabberwocky — familiar, yet completely made up.
(Jabberwocky is an amazing poem, the things you miss when you die in 1616.)
Happy birthday (a day late)! For being just over 450 years old you’re still breaking hearts, causing drama, and encouraging laughter around the world. As we wrap up marking the 400th year of your death (sorry!) I wanted to tell you how I felt.
Whew. I’m a little nervous, as I’ve never expressed my love to a dead playwright before.
Here’s the deal. Like many of my generation I probably first encountered you in English class after reading the following words:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
At 14 I hated Romeo and Juliet. I found their love story to be far from romantic and as a teenager a little bit short sighted. I will begrudgingly admit to swooning over Leo and to being awed at how this play written hundreds of years before was turned into a fantastical masterpiece on screen, courtesy of Baz Luhrmann.
Then I got to college where I ran props for a delightful group called Shakespeare in the Dark. My first show my freshman year was a version of R&J where four different women played Juliet, each representing a different aspect of her personality. Even later at one of my first productions of the Shakespeare Theatre Company I saw the play performed as you must have, with an all-male cast.
But my opinion of the play changed this year when I saw the story less about Romeo and Juliet and their forbidden love, but more about the warring parents who ignore their cries for help.
The same story, but different perspectives.
In my lifetime (so far) I’ve probably seen over seventy versions of your plays — I tried to count, but failed miserably — on stage, on screen, and on television. I’ve watched King Lear translated into a family drama about a hip-hop musical empire, been delighted by Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and found a version of Taming of the Shrew that I could tolerate in the teen drama 10 Things I Hate About You. On stage, I’ve found myself transported in a Midsummer Night’s Dream (both at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library) where Puck makes mischief.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
And even within the creativity that your plays affords us mere mortals, there are others who push the boundaries even further. I’ve learned about the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (flipping coins, heads or tails, heads or tails), watched your stories sans words in Synetic Theater’s Silent Shakespeare series, witnessed life beyond Macbeth in the National Theatre of Scotland production Dunsinane, and seen you improvised. With each innovative production I can see the extension of your pen, of the ways in which it touches upon our modern-day decisions and their repercussions.
My dearest, Angelica
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day”
I trust you’ll understand the reference to
Another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play
They think me Macbeth, and ambition is my folly
I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain
Madison is Banquo, Jefferson’s Macduff
And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane
But sometimes these creative decisions move me more than I can say.
Take The Merchant of Venice. In your own day it was filled with anti-Semitic language (one of the times I’ve been disappointed with you Will. See also, Taming of the Shrew). However, authorial intent aside, Aaron Posner’s District Merchants — an amalgam of your original play and his own words — is a conversation on the gender and racial prejudice (and a commentary on identity) that existed during the time of the Civil War through to the present day.
Here is one segment from the play – a soliloquy from Benjamin Bassanio who is a light skinned black man passing as white. He is in love with Portia.
BEN: [Right to us…] I just lied and lied and lied and lied… but I never told a single lie. Every word was true. Except there were also the words I didn’t say, words like… “She’s white.” And “As far as she knows, so am I… “
I feel bad lying to him, but he’d never understand. He’d see her color, and my… betrayal, and that’s it. But I… I won’t just stay where I am, just a part of the damn problem: Another uppity Negro with nowhere to climb up to.
This country is built to drive us all insane. Or people like me, anyway…
But, no, seriously, here’s how it goes: America says, Hey you, here is everything you could ever want, right here for the taking… So you say, Well, great, can I have some of it? And she says, Absolutely, come and get it. So you say, Ummm, just how do I do that? And she says… “YOU CAN’T!”
So you say… But you just said I could. And she says, And you can…! And so you say, But how? And she says, Just Come and Get It! So you say, Really??? And she says, “NO, NOT REALLY!!!”
So, after a while you try something. And America knocks you on your trusting black ass and says, Nope, not that way. So you try something else. Same thing happens. And again. And again. And again and again and again…
And you know why?
Wait, hold up, you do know why, don’t you…?
Because people like me—we don’t know the code. Any of the codes… And we don’t have the key. Any of the keys… We don’t know the secret handshake, we don’t have the special decoder ring, we don’t have a hall pass to the hallways of power and privilege. We don’t even know the rules, and we don’t even know which rules we don’t even know! We’re not in on the game, so we lose it. Every time. If you are playing Hearts but you only know how to play Spades—no pun intended—you will lose. Every time…
[Excerpt printed with permission from the playwright.]
It’s not surprising that the subhead on this production is An Uneasy Comedy.
Before I wrap this up, I want to talk about two things. First, your language. I love how, in all its complexity, it lightly trips along along the tongue of a talented dramatist, with a beauty that pushes and pulls both my intellect and my senses. Your words provide texture in a world that is more than what we see as skin and bone.
Frankly, I don’t care if you have to share credit with Marlowe on Henry VI, the strength of the words remains the same.
You are the man that gave us Lady Macbeth and Titania, showing that female characters (though sometimes creating new archtypes) can be complex and revealing in your own irreverent way. Whether intentional or not you demonstrate the limited choices and roles that are often forced upon us such as seeing Viola assume a male role as Cesario in Twelfth Night or even Portia dressing up to be a lawyer’s assistant in Merchants of Venice. You even show the intensity of a woman’s wrath as seen in Beatrice’s soliloquy in Much Ado About Nothing, where she responds to the unverified judgement and censure put up on her cousin who “talked with a man out at a window.”
Is he not approved in the height a villain, that hath
slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? Oh, that I
were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take
hands and then, with public accusation, uncovered
slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I
would eat his heart in the marketplace.
Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly
count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant, surely! Oh, that I
were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be
a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies,
valor into compliment, and men are only turned into
tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules
that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with
wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
Beatrice will forever be one of the fiercest women I’ve ever had the privilege to know.
My final words on this day are but few. For while I cannot claim to know everything about your life or have read everything you have written, your words inspire and stir the soul. In short, your words describe the very nature of love.
And so, William Shakespeare, rest you merry. I commend thee on the day of your birth.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
William Shakespeare, Sonnett 116