Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How Shakespeare Saved My Life

This is a little different than my other "books that changed my life" posts in that it is more about a body of work than a specific. The book to the left is the one I own. The Riverside is a very good edition. I think I bought it for a Shakespeare class in college (and I think it cost about $200 10 years ago from the college bookstore.) I would recommend it for around the house and for the notes, but really if you're going to read Shakespeare, you're going to want a little more compact of a volume. You're not going to lug this bad boy on the bus with you.

I came to love the work of William Shakespeare a little late. It was in high school. I would love to be able to say that it came from a passionate teacher struggling against a complacent faculty and apathetic youths to instill a love of life in their students. If anything, the public school teachers I had who even touched Shakespeare did far more to keep me from ever having any interest in his work. Actually it was my buddy, New York Rob, being subversive, as was usual for him.
We had a scene to throw together for an acting class, and, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, Rob came to me and said "Hey, you remember that film, My Own Private Idaho?" That was how he got my attention. We did a scene from Henry IV of Falstaff and Hal talking about Hal's impending meeting with the King (who is also Hal's father.) Falstaff has misguided notions of what the King might say and Falstaff is either drunk or hung over (I forget which.) It's a scene of a dissolute man trying to cling to his only tenuous link to the top feeders. It's a sub-plot about the transition from depraved youth to respectable adulthood and the damage that transition causes. It's also one of the sub-plots in Shakespeare that resonates with me very directly then and now.

In college, we had the opportunity to take a weekend Shakespeare Intensive course with a man from Shakespeare & Company, one of America's heaviest hitting Shakespeare programs. I had recently come from a relationship that was abusive and in which I was cheated upon. We were to choose a short monologue from Shakespeare, one that resonated with us. I chose one of Leontes' early monologues in The Winter's Tale where he is deep in his jealous obsession. The weekend was structured in such a way that the first full day we worked on the emotional connection to the text and then, on the second day, we went over how to do thorough and rich text work, both of which are of the essence in Shakespearean acting. It's a lot of work, but so very rewarding.
So the first day was showing how to tap a huge stream of emotional power and the second day was teaching how to focus that power. I remember there being a lot of tears as the instructor walked the students through their monologues, asking a few key questions here and there to get them more focused on their own connection. When it came time for me, I remember completely falling apart, rather, if you'll pardon the expression, dramatically. I came to realize that I had within me the capacity to be Leontes. It was one of the great warnings of my life, "Turn back and go down that road no further." Then came another one of the great lessons of my life. The instructor told us, at either the end of that day or the next morning, "Many of you may find the work we've done this weekend to be therapeutic in your lives. But remember, the therapeutic aspect is a side effect. The true purpose is to make great art."

Later in college I performed a section of Richard III (the wooing of the Lady Anne scene) and as I applied this work to that scene, I realized that given the right circumstances and experiences, I have within me the capacity to be Richard III. Everyone does. I became aware that the human experience is expressed so well and so comprehensively in the works of Shakespeare. I became and remained passionate about it.

Also in college, I went to England and saw The Winter's Tale on the RSC stage. I went to Shakespeare's grave twice (once to see it, and once with a girl I had a crush on at the time to watch the sunrise in the graveyard outside of the church on our last morning in Stratford.) I bought Antony Sher's book, The Year of the King, which is his journal from an RSC production where he played Richard III. It is one of the books I would most recommend to actors. Or to anyone else for that matter. England almost drove me mad in obsession for Shakespeare. For a time I had a rubbing from Shakespeare's grave above the head of my bed:
Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
I know I've written Whitman-esque lists about the marvelous works of Shakespeare before on this blog, but I'll do it again. It is the stuff of life, and to immerse one's self in it is to sink your digits into the very loam of existence. There's love lost and found, kings murdered, friends stabbing friends in the back, cannibalism, witchcraft, shipwrecks, storms, hallucinations, potions and poisons, lawyers, drunkards aplenty, Puritans, sword fights, bears chasing people, boars attacking people; there are babies, wars, beheadings, mistaken identities, justice, injustice, loved ones dying, hated ones dying, ghosts, some of the most beautifully written English in the history of the language, and vast amounts of double entendres - and so much more. If I were to name the greatest authors in human history, I would probably have Twain, Poe, Dickens and Wilde. But without a moments hesitation, Shakespeare would top the list. He is unmatched. Giussepi Verdi, one of opera's greatest composers, penned several operas around Shakespearean works.

Also in college, I was in a production of the Scottish play which won awards, and went to a west coast college production week in Humboldt. It was a great honor, although I guess not great enough for me to have any memory of what the awards were. Anyway, there was another production of Macbeth in the week long festival, and, of course, we all went to see it. It was the single worst thing I have ever seen on a stage. I think this stepped up my passion even more. Knowing that 1) horrible, passion killing, stereotype-confirming productions of Shakespeare are out there and 2) there are also winning awards, kindled in me the spirit of the fervent good Shakespeare booster. This has a lot to do with why I am such a classicist today. This is sort of how I began down that road.

After college I worked for Shakespeare Orange County. Although I've had a lot of great jobs in my day, it was hands down the best job I've ever had. In the day I would work the ticket booth, and just before showtime I would go up and run the lights. I remember working The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, and Hamlet (although it seems to me there must have been more.) I worked as either the Stage Manager or Assistant Director for Hamlet in college (I can't remember which. I worked one of those two positions in so many productions in college.) Directly after college SOC did a production of Hamlet. The guy who played Hamlet was one of my closest friends in college. I was immersed in Hamlet for almost 2 years and it was such a great delight. Tom Bradac, who was the creative director of the company, was one of the great influences on my life.

I mean the title of this post quite literally. Had I not discovered Shakespeare for myself, I might be a reader, but it would probably not be material of any quality. I might have lived just as long with as many creature comforts as I've enjoyed, but I would not have relished near as much. I certainly would not have the love of language that I have.

If you've never dug into Shakespeare before, what on Earth are you waiting for? There is a rich banquet readily available to anyone with a library within a day's journey or anyone sitting in front of the internet.


  1. thanks Paul, that was a nice throwback to work I haven't thought about in a while. (though I think we were slightly offset in our timing it brought back a lot of my own experiences too.)

  2. Very Motivational - thanks. My son was very excited over Hamlet last Spring and he truly passed some of the infection on to me. I memorized one of Shakespeares love sonnets in college but I've long forgotten it. We read Othello but it didn't take with me. But when my son came home after assisting in putting on a production of Hamlet in India, with all his excitement and especially insight I took notice. After reading this post, I'm now hoping to join in as you immerse in Hamlet in the upcoming Reading the Classics Together.

  3. Hey, cool. Yes, I am also very much looking forward to that classic in the series.

  4. Paul, I just ordered for less than $5 a used copy of the Riverside Shakespeare 2nd Ed. Supposedly in Very Good condition. Thanks for the recommendation. For reading with you I do have a nice paperback of Hamlet but for "around the house and for the notes" how could I go wrong.

  5. You've just illustrated nicely how online used book sellers have made the world a better place. Thank you for that.