So I missed Shakespeare’s birthday. Or the probable date of his birth. Sorry Will, I was busy with my life. However, since it was your birthday over the weekend in your honor I'll bore my already sparse readership with the list of your plays that I think are your top five:
1. “Macbeth” - I think I’ve already posted about why I love this play. No, perhaps not, I think I just talked about the weird sisters. This play, for me, is first and foremost one that evokes a certain type of atmosphere. There is a large element of gloom and despair in the highlands of Scotland. I’m continually amazed by the outcome of not only of the truthfulness of the predictions of the weird sisters but also by how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are swept up by personal greed and how quickly they regret these unforgivable deeds that lead them to their end. A sad story, but very clever, especially since Macbeth is defeated by a man who is not of woman born (how can it be???). And of course like most of Shakespeare’s work, completely historically inaccurate.
2. “Measure for Measure” - If I could be a teacher this is the one Shakespearean play I would be sure to teach. This is a problem play and contains, well, problems for which there are no easy answers. It evokes the question of what price would you pay, or what would you give up, to save someone’s life. Plus it also delves into the topic of trust and hypocrisy in politics/leadership – always a contemporary theme. And sex, there's always sex. This would definitely be my number one if I weren’t from the same clan as Macbeth.
3. “Hamlet” – Yet another play where I wait for a different outcome that never seems to happen. I enjoy the argument over whether or not Hamlet was being cruel to Ophelia when he told her, “Get thee to a nunnery.” Fortunately DN1 and I are in agreement so we don’t have heated arguments against each other, we just agree to disagree with those scholars who say that Hamlet is being mean to the poor girl. I disagree! Hamlet cares greatly for Ophelia, and he sees what is going down in the palace – mostly because he is out to seek revenge – so he wants her to leave and get to a safe place, and perhaps stay away from all men in the future. But he never wants her to drown herself, poor thing. And if you like “Hamlet” then you must read Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
4. “King Lear” – So great and timeless that Akira Kurosawa wrote a Japanese version, “Ran,” and Jane Smiley wrote A Thousand Acres, a Midwestern version. Of course if you actually research the play you will find that it is loosely based upon true events chronicled by Holinshead (and of course so is Macbeth). Hey, nothing Shakespeare wrote is completely his own, it’s all about interpretation, right? I’ve long considered writing my own version of Cordelia’s time spent in the cell and what she thought while she awaited her death. Another tale of loyalty, fidelity, madness, compassion, fratricide, and greed.
TIE 5. “The Merchant of Venice” – The infamous pound of flesh. Historically accurate in its portrayal of Jews, who during the Middle Ages were relegated to the role of banker because it was deemed a sin for good Christians to deal with money and who were then reviled for their banking power. Poor Shylock, how else would one expect him to act? This is a problem play for me because it has such deep ethical issues. And to Al Pacino, if you’re reading my blog, sorry big guy, but I didn’t really care for your version of the play, although I did try.
TIE 5. “Othello” –A play about race relations. A topic that will be explored continually because pride in self is not taught because we judge others based upon what they look like and not who they are. Othello suffered from insecurity based upon his race and believed that a white woman could not love him because as a Moor he was deemed inferior in the white community. And damn that Iago, he sure didn’t help the situation. SPOILER ALERT - The best performance of the death scene is in “Stage Beauty” with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. Amazing.
Part of liking Shakespeare is becoming familiar with his work. I don’t believe that it is easy for anyone to love Shakespeare right away. It almost seems necessary to become familiar with the play first by reading it several times. What has worked for me is to read the play out loud, then watch it on DVD or video and read along whilst watching. The speech inflections help so much with comprehension, and of course every version is different because it is always based upon a director’s vision.
And excuse me for a moment while I get up on my soapbox -- I know that “Romeo and Juliet” and “Julius Caesar” are great plays in their own right, but come on, can we change the high school curriculum already?!? They taught these two plays to me, probably to my mother, and now to my kids. I appreciate that Shakespeare is timeless, but what a drag that they never change things around! No wonder so many people fear Shakespeare, because we’ve got generations of school kids who tell each other that Shakespeare sucks (or their teacher sucks) and then his plays are greeted with revulsion and trepidation in the future. There are so many great plays with such wonderful contemporary issues, why stick with these two? I may just have to become a teacher and mix things up a bit with the curriculum developers.
Perhaps when I finish reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare my top five may change. Perhaps not. Who knows. Well, I will when I’m there, but I’m not there yet, because it’s still now. So until then...caveat lector.