The Shakespeare Thing

Mpepper/ August 9, 2020/ Uncategorized

If you follow me on Twitter, you know my handle is @sh8kspeare. Why? Well…

Shakespeare has had an influence on my life from early days. My best friend’s mother introduced me to his work; she even made me a lovely sign with Ophelia’s quote from Hamlet IV.v: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” That sign remains on my bookshelf to this day, 30+ years later.

So I read the stories as a child, and I saw that one episode of Moonlighting… But like many Americans, I did not come face-to-face with the actual works until high school. Interestingly enough, I had no trouble with the language. It felt second nature to me, possibly because I must have heard it, or something like it, before then. We did Romeo & Juliet my freshman year of high school, and our class rewrote it into a Mafia context (well before Baz Luhrmann, I might add). I was Lord Capulet, wearing my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and with my hair in a ponytail. We filmed the play, and for the rest of my high school days, freshman would come to me and say, “You’re Lord Capulet!”

We acted out some Julius Caesar, and I was Cassius. I was the Third Witch in MacBeth. And I got to do some of both Hamlet and Ophelia when we read Hamlet. I also got to be Viola in Twelfth Night. None of this as true performance, mind; all semi-acted in English classrooms (excepting that Romeo & Juliet, which we performed and recorded in a library study room). Still, I found it exhilarating. Despite having many friends in drama, I was too shy to sign up for drama classes, so this was as close as I was going to get.

Until Winedale.

My final spring at the University of Texas at Austin, a couple of my friends recommended I sign up for Shakespeare Through Performance. Even though they’d both taken this class, they did not warn me what it truly was.

I didn’t need another English credit, I just needed something to fill out my schedule so I could get my financial aid (I had to have a full course load to qualify), so I went for it. And ended up as part of the Shakespeare at Winedale program. To this day, it remains one of the best experiences of my life, and I only wish I still lived close enough to be involved.

Each spring, Doc Ayers would choose a play and the students would learn and perform it. Not on campus, however, but at “The Barn.” Winedale is out in the middle of nowhere and consists of a house/dormitory and a miniature Globe Theatre (as well as other buildings). On weekends, we would go live together at this house and practice and rehearse. There were many late nights sitting out on the porch and singing. We got by on very little sleep. It was amazing.

On top of everything, I was fortunate enough to be in the class that was putting on my favorite play: Hamlet. But not the standard Hamlet. We were going to do the First Quarto (Q1). In that version, Polonius is called Corambis, which was my part*.

The thing about Winedale is that it is such an experience that it can’t be articulated. It has to be lived to be understood. You form bonds there that are for life. You take away with you something that cannot be obtained in any other way or circumstance. It is truly life changing.

Shakespeare at Winedale, Spring 1998 (Hamlet, Q1)

In fact, I was able to use that experience later on when asked to teach Shakespeare at a summer camp in Massachusetts. The camp was called College for Kids, and it was for ages 9-14. Each summer I chose a different play. The kids and I would read and discuss it. Then I would give them the choice to either learn and perform the original or rewrite it. Hamlet was my first year. Subsequent years were Romeo & Juliet, MacBeth, and Taming of the Shrew. I’ll never forget the camp director telling me, “I’m getting calls from parents. They keep saying, ‘I don’t know what that teacher is doing, but my kid won’t shut up about Shakespeare’ and ‘I wish they’d taught it like this when I was in school.'” I count that as success! And I owe that to having experienced Shakespeare in a marvelous way at Winedale.

The other thing about teaching Shakespeare—it was an unexpected side effect—was how it opened the door to other discussions. When I was teaching Romeo & Juliet, a student tentatively raised his hand and said, “My friend’s brother committed suicide…” Another student, sensing an opportunity said, “I went to camp with a girl who would cut herself. I don’t get why she did that.” Whew. Big topics. But Shakespeare had given them an opening to talk about something they otherwise might not have felt comfortable bringing up. So we discussed it. And when I taught Taming of the Shrew, a girl asked, “Why is this considered funny?” So we talked about that, too—about gendered comedy, but also about forms of abuse in relationships. And, yeah, I did show them that episode of Moonlighting.

It wasn’t all seriousness. My MacBeth students turned the play into a comedy about Banquo [Banquet] frozen dinners. My Hamlet students created a dark comedy called Denmark High. We had a great time.

When I left Massachusetts, I came to a town where the local Shakespeare group met with me to ask about how I taught Shakespeare. Eventually they created a program that goes into the second-grade classrooms as well as a summer camp. And all of this is rooted in my time at Winedale.

Shakespeare has colored my life. I’ve seen a number of shows at the actual (well, reconstructed) Globe in London. I edited some versions of the plays while working in publishing. I have outlines for YA novels that stem from Shakespeare as well. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think or say a line from one of the Bard’s plays. Then again, so many words and phrases come from Shakespeare that many people don’t realize they’re quoting him. Did you know he made up the word “manager”? Go ahead and find more words created by Shakespeare here. You might be surprised.

I won’t say Shakespeare is for everyone. I will say the themes in his works, the drama—those are universal. Which is why his works endure both in their original form and via a multitude of adaptations. I recall telling my Hamlet students on that first day: “Imagine you’re away at college. You find out your dad has died, so you have to go home. Then you find out your mom married your uncle.” The look on their faces was priceless. “Ew!” a few of them said. Then I added that final layer: “AND… your dad was king, and you were the prince. But now your uncle is king?” That’s soap opera-level sudsy right there. Those kids were all in.

Many people find Shakespeare stuffy or simply incomprehensible. But he was the Spielberg or Nolan or [insert big-name director here] of his time, producing blockbusters designed to draw a crowd. We revere him now as a literary genius, but he was really just trying to tell stories that would sell. The fact that they not only sold but endured? It’s only what every author and creator can wish for.

*I was Corambis the first night. On the second night, I was supposed to play the murderer in the play within a play, but our Hamlet skipped two pages of script and the play never happened. So I was only seen onstage as a servant later that night.

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