Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Unravelling Shakespeare

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, produced by the Strollers Theatre company which performs in the Bartell Theatre here in Madison, Wisconsin (thank you, Project Famous, for the complementary tickets!).

The play, under the direction of Greg Harris, uses the traditional Shakespearean script but takes place in present day with modern (or maybe a bit retro) set design and costuming.  While I’ve seen a number of Shakespeare plays produced live or on the big screen, I have to admit up front that I am no scholar of the Elizabethan era bard. And in fact, if I hadn’t quickly Googled Twelfth Night just before the lights went down and the curtain opened and read the Wikipedia entry, I would have been totally lost as far as the storyline goes, despite the fact that the acting was dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged regardless of whether we (meaning me) understood the plot or not.

Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

Shakespeare is a unique beast in the literary world. The grand master of complex plots, he seems to have generated quite a controversy over who actually penned all those iconic plays. Were they written by the man whose gravestone carries the name William Shakespeare? Or were they, in fact, written by someone else…or perhaps several someone elses?   I had seen a documentary on PBS a number of years ago that made a convincing case for the ghost writer to have been Christopher MarloweOther top contenders appear to be Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and more recently two different women, Mary Sidney and Amelia Bassano (who at one point had an affair with Christopher Marlowe—ah, dear reader, the plot thickens!) among many others.

For those who love a good literary mystery, here are few titles about the authorship of the Shakespearean plays to get you started:

Understanding Shakespeare's Plays

But if you are less concerned with all the controversy surrounding who actually wrote the plays you were forced to study in high school, but just want to understand what they are all about, you might turn to the PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered

This series uses a variety of popular actors to walk the viewer through the plots, subplots, characters, and themes of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.  Joseph Fiennes, who first caught my eye in Shakespeare in Love, narrates Romeo & Juliet; Morgan Freeman tackles, The Taming of the Shrew; and Kim Cattrall helps us understand the motivations in Anthony and Cleopatra.  As of this writing, these and others in Shakespeare Uncovered Series II are available in full episodes on the PBS website.  Shakespeare Uncovered Series I, which focuses on Hamlet, Macbeth, and Henry the V, among others, is available on DVD through Amazon

What I like about this series is that each episode always begins by taking the viewer back to the Globe Theatre in London, but includes clips from a variety of theatrical productions as well as from popular movies based on the various plays. 

Shakespeare does not make for easy reading or easy viewing. But when you think about the fact that this body of work was written (by whomever) over 400 years ago and are still being produced today, it’s really quite amazing. The themes in his plays are so universal that writers often adapt them to modern storytelling, as found in movies as diverse as West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet),  Ten Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew), She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and The Lion King (Hamlet) .

A playwright who is as popular as ever 400 years later… I wonder how many of today’s writers will have that kind of legacy?