Sunday, April 24, 2016

400 Years Since We Lost Billy Shakespeare

Purveyor of dirty jokes for more than 400 years

April 23rd (yesterday) marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

What an absolutely strange relationship we have with Shakespeare.  And by "we", I mean everyone dwelling the planet who has to wrangle with the English language, and, therefore felt the impact of the man that people in tweed jackets call "The Bard".

What other writer can you say "I got my Masters in X", and people simply nod in understanding?   Who else did every one of us start reading in middle school and carry on reading after college?  What other 17th Century playwrights have you seen lately?  Who else coined more phrases and uses of phrase than Billy Shakes?

And, let's be honest, when you see Shakespeare performed well, an all too uncommon happenstance, it's a phenomenal experience.  But it's the theater troupes around the world who've all seen their bit of Shakespeare who are aware of the heights the words can reach if they can pull the performance out of themselves.  Hell, one of the best performances I ever remember seeing on stage was, of all places, "Shakespeare on the Rocks" when they used to do live, free Shakespeare in Austin in Zilker Park, and the actor playing Lady Capulet went bonkers on her few lines.  There are no small parts.

And who do people find more torturous to read?  Struggle to listen to in live performance?  Find more dull?  Yet are willing to pay good money to see?  Why do perfectly sane actors put on 17th Century replica costumes and parade on replica 17th Century stages repeating lines written 4 centuries prior, and already done to death in high schools, colleges, summer stock, and anywhere you can name where there's a stage?

And, like anyone who spent more than a high school class with Shakespeare, I find it hilarious that we're all reading 400 year old Shakespeare dick jokes out loud in class with no sense of what we're saying, and feeling classy as hell as we do so.

Shakespeare's bust adorns so many desks, Bruce Wayne unobtrusively keeps one in his study which is secretly the switch to open the door to the Batcave.

Yet, it's hard to believe most people would just read Shakespeare on their own, unless school drove us his direction.  This is where the work of learned scholars, the tastemakers and guardians of culture hold sway.  It's the hip, hipster who knows it should have been Kit Marlowe we should all be reading instead, right?

His stories were never original.  That wasn't really the drill in Ye Olden Dayes of Theatre.  You were telling familiar histories and legends for the modern era in a manner acceptable to the masses.  This was the mass entertainment there on the River Thames.

But it's been that carefully managed promotion of Shakespeare that has given the modern world a shared language and cultural touchstones beyond religious iconography and liturgy.  When we say "Band of Brothers" or "What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks?" - we can all summon the common experience, something brought to us by including Shakespeare in the common curriculum, rather than letting us split apart as a cultural Babel, which seems to be our native mode.

Anyway, there are much smarter people who know Shakespeare far better than myself saying much more significant things about the man 400 years after the man's departure from this plane.

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