Welcome, everyone! How’s everyone’s day going so far? Done something Bardy with your time? Read a play, watched a play, watched a movie of a play, pretended you know what King John is about? (All y’all Shakespeare trivia champs out there know what I’m talking about.) At the very least, have you used a Shakespeare quote/phrase ON PURPOSE at some point throughout the day?
If not, there’s still time. Comment here with your favorite Shakespeare line and you’ve got yourself covered. Heck, I’ll settle for your favorite play as favorite line might be too difficult. I know it would be for me.
I wanted to do something special today, it being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and possibly, also, his birthday, but obviously not 400 years on that one). Thing is… a lot of the big topics, we’ve already covered. We’ve written about how he totally wrote his plays, Shakespeare’s fools, why you need to see Shakespeare live (or at least a taped performance), Shakespeare and gender, and even given examples of some of our favorite movie adaptations of Shakespeare. And I’ve definitely talked about why I love Shakespeare. Seriously, amidst the silly pictures and the article round-ups keeping you lovely people abreast of all things Bard, we’ve written some cool stuff.
We’ve even discussed why our generation isn’t too stupid for Shakespeare, which seems to be a prevalent theory among older generations. In fact, you should take some time and go back through our Shakespeare Saturday posts (just search Shakespeare Saturday and they’ll pop up) because some of them are pretty damn good. The one on Queen Mab’s speech as it applies to Killing Mercutio was a particular favorite of mine.
But if we’ve talked about all that… what should we talk about on this special day?
Well, I thought… let’s talk about Richard III. Everyone else will be talking about how amazing Shakespeare is (OK, so will I), so I want to talk about the play I have the hugest problem with. (Well, this one and The Merchant of Venice… but we’re writing a whole musical about that problem, so I think we’ll work it out.) The play toward which, as well as it is written and as much fun as it must be to perform (and that I am really looking forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch tackle), I will forever carry a little nugget of rage. Which is weird, because, not long into the play, one of the historically correct aspects of the narrative — Richard III having Lord Hastings executed — involves a member of my family being killed for no other reason than he got in Richard’s way. That’s how much I dislike aspects of this play. It makes me defend Richard III, who killed family! (To be fair, so’s Richard. Everyone was related during the Wars of the Roses. Seriously. It was pretty much just a huge family feud.)
But I’m not here to talk about how inaccurate it is. Not really. We all know Richard III wasn’t a hunchback (he had scoliosis, yes, but it wouldn’t have given him a hunched back) and didn’t have a withered arm, and there’s really no proof he had the Princes in the Tower executed (and, really, he was the one person who benefited least from their deaths), and he was, like, two-and-a-half when Somerset (another ancestor of mine, actually) was killed at St. Albans, and he definitely didn’t kill Clarence (or talk Ed 4 into doing it) in a vat of wine (and there’s actually evidence it strained the relationship between King Edward IV and Richard), and he didn’t kill his own wife’s father and former husband (though both were killed in battles involving Richard, there’s… no proof he was the one who killed them). As evil and conniving as Shakespeare’s Richard is, it’s no surprise everyone celebrated the coming of Richmond (Henry VII) at the end of the play (well, that and Shakespeare would have to have been an idiot to do otherwise; Richmond was Good Queen Bess’ grandfather). But even Shakespeare didn’t take Richard’s valiant qualities away from him. Though “a horse, a horse, my kingdom…etc” is often quoted as a sign of cowardice, in context, the line is Richard wanting to go back into battle. If there’s one thing we know about Richard III, it’s that he was a brilliant, brave soldier who loved his family. And even Shakespeare could only take half of that away from him.
What I want to talk about today is an article I was recently shown and really enjoyed. It discusses a lot of what I’ve already mentioned here, but brings in a really interesting element: that Shakespeare, being Catholic (there’s a lot of “Shakespeare was a secret Catholic” arguments/conspiracies afoot), wrote Richard III as an allegory about the succession in a time when Elizabeth I was growing older and said succession was a concern. And, more importantly, that the eponymous King was actually an allegorical representation of Robert Cecil, the Queen’s trusted adviser, who, along with his father (Richard Attenborough in Elizabeth), was fighting for a Protestant successor (namely James I). The article is here and you should totally read it because it’s an interesting argument. I don’t know that I buy Shakespeare as a secret Catholic because, though there are obvious Catholic themes throughout Shakespeare’s works, I think he was mostly a storyteller first. Hamlet, for example, needs those Catholic themes for the ghost to work. But I could definitely see Shakespeare writing about the undue influence of the Cecils upon the Queen, especially considering what bad advisers had wrought throughout the Tudor years.
Anyway… what this article really made me consider was how we interpret Shakespeare. (And, yes, I realize I’m getting a bit long here, but c’mon, it’s a special day!) What contextual meanings have risen and fallen throughout the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death? Did Elizabethan audiences really look at Richard III and know Shakespeare was writing about Robert Cecil? Does that mean a modern interpretation could have, say, a Dick Cheney-esque Richard? Or could a modern audience look at a character like Macbeth, broken by what he has done for ambition’s sake, and see modern politicians? Did Colonial Americans see George III as a stand-in for Richard III? We know John Wilkes Booth saw Lincoln as a tyrant and we also know his favorite role as an actor was Brutus in Julius Caesar (although, funnily enough, his debut was as Richmond in Richard III). For 400 years, new meanings have risen and fallen, and audiences have taken new and ever-changing interpretations away from Shakespeare’s plays. To a teenager, Romeo and Juliet might be romantic, but an adult might only see the tragic, stupid decisions of two young people getting them killed. I know my opinions on The Taming of the Shrew have changed drastically over the years as I grow and my worldview changes.
I’ve already talked about Shakespeare’s timelessness, but that article really brought it to light for me. We see so many things and understand so many different meanings in Shakespeare both alone and as part of a greater audience. We turn to him for romance, for sorrow, for joy, for ambition. We turn to him for greatness and for woe, for amazing insults and, I admit it, potty humor (SO MANY FART JOKES). There’s deep psychology and sublime ridiculousness to be found in Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes both at once. And, even after 400 years, we’re still uncovering new layers and finding new ways to appreciate his words.
Basically, William Shakespeare may have been dead for four centuries, but the Bard is immortal.
PS- In case that amazing ending wasn’t enough for you, here’s an update on the This Be Madness bracket. I have had to choose between my absolute favorite plays, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, in the final and it was, I can assure you, a far more difficult decision than it really had any right to be. In the end, however, I was forced to go with Hamlet. Why? Because, as much as I love Much Ado, the part of it I adore is Beatrice and Benedick and, strictly speaking, they’re a subplot. So the main plot — Hero and Claudio — gets overshadowed by what Shakespeare intended to be secondary and, as much as I love it, that means Hamlet, which is strong throughout (and gives us some of the finest speeches known to man), must be given the nod. Go ahead and check out the finals and learn who won (I won’t spoil it for you) here.
PPS- This really cool article came up as I was writing this and I wanted to share it with you. Theater snacks! What did people eat at the theater in Shakespeare’s time? Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it definitely wasn’t popcorn.
Seriously. I’m done now. Forgive me for writing so much. And do read everything I’ve linked to! They’re all quite good and prove, I think, we here at Nerd Cactus aren’t just lushes who constantly read drunk! (But, just in case you really wanted my recommendation for today, I’d say you can never go wrong with a good ol’ English ale!)