I went to graduate school in English because I loved fiction and poetry. I left graduate school because, in the words of poet Billy Collins:
“…all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”*
Shakespeare’s opus is especially vulnerable to this kind of brutality: Define bodkin. Unpack that metaphor. Explain the use of alliteration. Was the plot cribbed from Christopher Marlowe? Could Shakespeare really have written all those plays himself?
There is an industry — books, lectures, seminars, podcasts, and more — devoted to finding out what Shakespeare “really means.” Whenever I sit down to read one of the plays, I get sucked into that dark world, descending into the quagmire of footnotes where pleasure goes to die.
During the first session of the Shakespeare Workout, the teachers, Jennie Israel and Paula Plum, said, “It’s all in the text.” My heart sank. They held up a copy of a massive, two-volume Shakespeare Lexicon, familiar to trained actors and scholars but new to an amateur like me. I thought, “Are they sending me to the footnote salt-mines?”
I know it’s crucial to understand the vocabulary and poetic grammar of Shakespeare. I’ve suffered through plays where the actors seem to have memorized their lines without knowing what they were talking about – which meant I didn’t stand a chance.
But this was Shakespeare Workout, not Shakespeare Study Hall. Paula and Jennie wanted us to explore the text with everything at our disposal, which would eventually include dictionaries and such. But first, warm-up exercises to get us out of our heads. We howled, mewed, and guffawed. We mugged, stared, and flailed our arms like those balloon men in front of used car lots. We crouched like monkeys.
Then they threw us into the deep end. One by one, we stood up in front of a small group of strangers, grasping for the chutzpah you need to give voice to W. Shakespeare, without any rehearsal, without knowing what all the words mean. We were doomed to mess up, which was part of the assignment. Paula and Jennie wanted us to fail, learn, and try, try again. The goal was to swim in the text, to have fun with it, to trust it.
They wanted us to play with the plays, or as Billy Collins wrote:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
Step 1: We pressed our ears against the hive of a Shakespearean scene and listened to the howling, weeping, whispering, swearing, threatening, promising, lying.
Step 2: We shaped our mouths to approximate the music we heard.
Steps 3-20: After a line or five, Jennie said, “Stop. What is Juliet looking at?”
“Next victim” said Paula, grinning. And after a couplet or two, she said, “Wait! Now say it again without using your hands.
“Do it with more breath.”
“Do it slower.”
“Do it softer.”
“Say it as though you’re discovering these thoughts for the very first time — not like you’re reciting a speech.”
In twenty minutes, we might have covered twenty lines, but in those twenty minutes of holding the text up to the light, we began to see the colors.
By the time I got up to say my bit, I knew what was coming so I actually wasn’t all that nervous. And it was fun to be interrupted, to be asked to find the light switch and discover that Cressida might be in love with Troilus.
It is all in the text but the text has always been up for grabs. From the first publication in the 1600s, there have been different editions of the plays and poems, and ever since, the “real Shakespeare” has reflected reigning tastes and fashions.
Nor did Shakespeare’s plays spring whole and perfect from that big forehead of his. They were born out of the daily grind of putting on a show. He wrote under pressure and on deadline, cutting and adding lines, cribbing his actors’ best improvisations and embellishments.
Plays do not reside on paper, and they are never really codified. Theater is a sweaty collaboration where bloody conflict is at least as common as blessed communion backstage as well as in front of the footlights. Once the curtain rises, any “text” – variously nipped and tucked, dressed in jeans or doublets – is imbued with the unique voices and choices of the actors, who breathe life into the lines, and never the same way twice.
Every day, somewhere on this planet, actors and audiences are waving at Shakespeare’s name on a very distant shore, 401 years after his death. That’s what I was doing, too, for six happy weeks in a modest rehearsal room on the second floor of the Somerville Armory, waving and blowing grateful kisses to the world’s most successful living playwright.