Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday to a Man of Qualitie

I’ve loved Shakespeare since high school, but not because I was taught him.  As somebody once said, one of the reasons Shakespeare is a great writer is because he’s survived centuries of mandated classroom instruction. (Not bad for a glover’s son with an equivalent high school education, huh?) 

The play I lost my Shakespearean virginity to was The Tempest.  When I was 16, I picked up a Dover Furness Variorum Edition of it for the incredibly expensive price of $2.25, and because I was a cocky son of a bitch when I was 16, I got it into my head that I should direct the play, in the round, as part of the senior year Dramatic Society schedule. Which I actually did, with a lot of uncredited but much-appreciated  help from various teachers during rehearsals.

I listened to this ENDLESSLY.

The only Shakespeare part I’ve ever played on a stage is Benedick.  For one night only.  My old all-male high school was performing Much Ado About Nothing for the all-girl high school we got our actresses from, and the kid playing Benedick refused to do it, so I forget who called me, it might have been my cousin John, but he said, “Listen, we’re doing Much Ado next Friday and we need a Benedick, want to do it?”  And I said sure.  So I learned the part in a week, rehearsed it twice, redirected a couple of scenes because I was a cocky son of a bitch when I was 18, and in the end only blew one speech, ninety seconds before the play ended, where I got all mixed up, and everybody knew I was all mixed up.  It was this one:

I'll tell thee what, Prince; a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No: if a man will be beaten with brains, a' shall wear nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it--

 To this day I don’t know what I said after “I’ll tell thee what, Prince,” it was absolute gibberish, but I said it with such total conviction that my friends in the audience were cracking up, and then the rest of the audience cracked up as well, because the next line in the speech is this, and I nailed it:

-- for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion. 

Which makes this speech the perfect one to corpse on.  He said, with his limitless experience of portraying Shakespeare in front of a live audience.  ;-)

For the record, when I say “Shakespeare,” I don’t mean DeVere or Bacon or Marlowe, I mean (a) a guy with three kids and a wife in Stratford who was (b) a better-than-average actor with (c) a magpie mind that made him (d) listen more than he talked.  A man of quality, which is a pun that is lost on today's audience, because in Elizabethan England the word "qualitie" had a specific theatrical connotation.  When Ariel says in The Tempest, "Task Ariel, and all his qualitie," it doesn't refer to Ariel's characteristics--it refers to his troupe of actors.  (I’ll spare you my “Shakespeare was an actor first and a playwright second” rant, but I will point out that once you remove the man’s works from the stage and place them in the study, it’s only a small step to assigning them to some noble who is more worthy of scholarly attention than a provincial who had to purchase his own coat of arms.)  

Who do I picture when I think of Shakespeare?  This guy: 

This is the Chandos portrait, which is on display in Room 4 of the National Gallery in London.  (It was one of the two portraits I hunted down when I was there; the other was this portrait of Sir Richard Francis Burton.)  Why is it my favorite Shakespeare image?  The earring.  If you want to know why I have my left ear pierced, this portrait is the answer.  To me it looks like a guy I could have beers and shoot the breeze with.  Although since we're both by nature listeners, we'd definitely need a third party to do all the talking.  But I'm sure Will would take it a compliment--if there's one thing that many of his plays have in common, it's the fact that his men always seem to congregate in packs of three.  When they're not traveling by shipwreck.

What would I say to the man if I bought him a drink on his birthday?  (After asking him if today was indeed his birthday?)  I would certainly make some bad pun, which he would top.  I would definitely express my condolences at the death of his son.  I would surely toast him for writing the greatest bad-actor-proof scene in history--the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play from Midsummer Night's Dream.  I would probably hand him a copy of this sonnet, as a meager offering at his secular altar.  And I would profusely thank him for being born when and where he was, and for creating three dozen complicated verbal machines which can, even still, grind their way into our hearts and heads to confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.

Happy Birthday Will.

This post is part of today's Happy Birthday Shakespeare Project.  Click on the link and keep the celebration going.

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