Friday, April 23, 2010
Late Night Thoughts on Shakespeare's Birthday
The town of Stratford taxed you for every elm tree you had on your property. Oaks? Plant as many as you like. Willows? We're givin' 'em away. Elms? Sorry, that's gonna cost ya. Specifically between one and two shillings per elm. Since a shilling (an average day’s wages for a craftsman) is generally calculated to be between $25 and $30 US dollars, a house with, say, 10 elms on it would be taxed an additional $300 a year, or about two weeks worth of wages.
In Elizabethan England, TH was pronounced T. Anthony? Pronounced like it was Antony. Othello? Otello. (Yeah, I know, just like an Ithalian opera.) Death? Pronounced like it was debt. (Major lost laughs here.) Nothing? Pronounced like it was noting. As in: Much Ado about Noting, which kind of tells you right there that the play is all about misunderstandings. And kind of makes “O, tat tis too too solid flesh would melt” the Elizabethan equivalent of an Elmer Fudd speech.
Hamlet was 33 years old and weighed 220 pounds. Which describes Richard Burbage when he first played the part in 1601.
The importance of stage directions. Claudius is never once called by name in Hamlet. If it wasn't for the fact that he's name-checked in an entrance, you could add another 25,000 books to the Folger library speculating on whether or not he was called Feng.
The unimportance of stage directions. And then there's Innogen in Much Ado About Nothing: mentioned in the opening stage direction, and forgotten for the next two hours.
Funny ha-ha. Of the 12 characters called "Clown" in the stage directions of Shakespeare's plays, six are found in the Tragedies, six are in the Comedies, and the balance are in the Histories.
And Romeo and Juliet would have met on FaceBook. Cleopatra plays billiards, a clock strikes in ancient Rome, spectacles are worn in ancient Britain, and Prince Hector has read Aristotle. If there had been cellphones in 1607, Antony and Cleopatra would have texted each other.
There are no unqualified verbs in a Shakespeare biography. In Chapter 6 of René Weis’ Shakespeare Unbound, “Bound for London,” the following qualifications appear within the space of twelve pages: "perhaps" (7 times), "must have been" (twice), "must have felt," "if" (we have a winner--9 times), "must have hoped," "must have wondered," "would have" (3 times), "would have been," "there can be no doubt that," "probably" (4 times), "would have acquired," "it is inconceivable that," "would not have," "may," "may be" (twice), "may have" (twice), "may not have," "one cannot rule out," "undoubtedly," "we have no way of knowing whether," "it is more likely that," "seems to have been," "it appears," "we can form a fairly accurate idea," "we cannot be sure," "it is not impossible," "we should not rule out" and "just wait till I get to the Sonnets if you want to see Wall Street levels of speculation." (Just kidding about the last one. He never mentions Wall Street.) This is why I can't read most Shakespeare biographies without thinking, "This is a novel, dammit!" And also why, if you removed anything that means “possibly,” “probably,” and “perhaps” from the English language, the average Shakespeare biography would be shorter than this blog entry.