This past summer I saw a near lifelong dream fulfilled when I went to Stratford and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. I saw the church, I saw the tomb, I saw all the houses. I stood where Shakespeare stood.
Here we are a year later and most of those properties are closed because of the pandemic. When you’re a charity that generates 98% of its own income thanks to 850,000 visitors a year and the universe tells you “Guess what! No more visitors!” hard times are ahead for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT). People I met last year may no longer be employed soon.
The SBT has stated that they plan to reopen the Birthplace itself this summer, but the other properties – New Place, Anne’s Cottage, Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s Farm – will remain closed until “spring 2021” at least. There’s no mention of the church in this article (the SBT does not run the church, so that makes sense). Does anybody know its status? The whole question of church services here in the US has been a hotly debated question, so I really have no idea what’s going on in Stratford.
I don’t know what we can do to help. If we can’t show up and buy our tickets and browse the gift shops it’s going to be an uphill battle. For a second there I got excited thinking that we can storm the online gift shop! But no – the web page says they’re completely closed, unable to accept new orders. Now I’m really sad.
This past week we managed to get away for a little vacation down Cape Cod. Luckily for me the weather a little cold on our second day (I am *not* a ‘sit on the beach all day’ person!) we got to wander around and shop.
Look what I found! Well, look what my kids found. They’re well trained. I wasn’t even paying attention but one of them came out of a random store and said, “They have Shakespeare in there.” Show me, show me now.
In my many years of doing this I’ve seen and collected all kinds of Shakespeare stuff (the original name of this blog, long-time readers may remember, was called “Such Shakespeare Stuff”). Often as gifts, sometimes from random sources (my boss once bought me Shakespeare band aids because he saw them and thought I’d get a kick out of them), but rarely do I buy stuff for myself. Rarely do I justify spending money on myself, especially for stuff I clearly don’t need.
Unless it’s a tchotchke I hadn’t seen before. I suppose I must have known that this existed, somebody surely told me about it at one point or another. But it’s first time I saw one up close and personal and I had to have it. My wife asked, “What are you going to do with that?”
“Take pictures of it and put a post up on the blog,” I told her. “And then it goes in the candle drawer with all the other candles.” This one actually has some practical use 🙂
I took him to the register and the woman behind the counter said, “Did you see our other Shakespeare items?” It dawned on me that I was wearing my “Shakespeare’s England” hoodie and my “A plague on neither of your houses” mask standing here buying a Shakespeare candle, so I may have been wearing it on my sleeve a bit. Unfortunately, all she really had were things I’d already seen – finger puppets, refrigerator magnets, and so on. But I didn’t have the candle yet. Now I do! (Turns out he’s available on Amazon if you won’t be in Cape Cod anytime soon and, like me, simply must have him!)
We have Disney+ in the house, and we also have a teenage girl in the house who hasn’t ever outgrown what I call the “Broadway Baby” phase of her development where she doesn’t just know every word to every song, she knows the back story of every ensemble dancer. So when she bounded downstairs this morning (while everyone but me is still asleep) asking, “Can we watch? Or do we have to wait until everybody is awake?” it was like Christmas just for her. So I sat down and let her fire it up, like opening a present on Christmas eve.
Within five minutes I decided I didn’t like it. So, always in search of fresh Shakespeare content, I’m not throwing away my shot. I did not expect my world to be turned upside down. (Yeah, I’m probably gonna keep doing that.)
This will actually be the third way we’ve seen Hamilton. I’m not counting buying and memorizing the soundtrack. I mean seeing.
The first came very early, when it was still in its “phenomenon” phase and everybody was going crazy. Knowing that we were never going to see it on Broadway, yeah, we watched the bootleg version. People have mixed feelings about this, I understand. Personally I always want to know what the buzz is all about, and am willing to pay the tradeoff of having at least some information. When you memorize a soundtrack before you see the play your brain often does funny things as it tries to piece together what’s happening. Getting to see it, even in poor quality, gives you some scaffolding on which to hang those songs.
Well, then it came to Boston, so we had to go.
THAT, my friends, is an experience. Shakespeare has generally taught me a habit – I like to know the story before I go in to live theatre. Too much dialogue and plot can be easily missed in an environment where you can’t pause and rewind, or even leave over to ask the person next to you what just happened, because then you’ll miss something else. So I sat down to Hamilton knowing all the rooms in which stuff happens.
The lights go down, the actors come out, the music starts….and it was fucking amazing, pardon my non-PG13 language. I heard I’m allowed one F-bomb. The opening number of this show is a “Holy shit, we’re here, this is happening, this is beautiful” experience. The way the sound echoes around you. The way something is happening on every part of the stage. It is an absolute spectacle. (Not enough people talk about the choreography in this show. I think it’s one of the best parts, to be honest.) It is overwhelming. You could watch again and again, paying attention to a different background dancer every time.
And now this morning, here I am watching that same scene on tv. With closeups and camera work. The whole sensory bombardment is just gone. The scale and grandeur of the huge opening number is replaced with closeups on faces, presumably so the audience that’s never seen it can go, “Oh, ok, that’s Burr…and that’s Washington, and that’s Jefferson….” and file it away for later. Meanwhile there’s fifty people behind them dancing their lives off and all you see is a couple of them crossing through the shot every now and then.
It’s then that I realized, this is exactly what we’ve been talking about with Shakespeare for years. What’s the difference between a live Shakespeare show and seeing it on film? I have always been a big defender of film versions. Now I’m rethinking that whole position.
Shakespeare isn’t a musical, though. And there aren’t background dancers, usually. The focus is generally on the one or two people that are talking, or killing each other. I think that does translate well to film. Unless there’s a spear carrier having a left shark moment, you’re probably not going to miss much if they’re not in the shot.
Big modern stage musicals like this are very different. Everything is happening at once and the audience has to say “What am I going to look at?” and try to take it all in. Now it’s all about direction. Somebody’s made that decision for you. One of the best choreographed scenes in the play – the “rewind” song (my daughter has everything memorized, I do not) – is an obvious example. Live, it takes a number of seconds to realize what’s happening and the magnitude of what they just did on stage (it is quite impressive). On film, Angelica looks in one direction and the camera cuts in that direction to let the audience know, “Here. You need to look here, here is the important bit.”
There are advantages here, of course. I remember once reading a quote from Ian McKellen about the difference between theatre and film. He said, paraphrased, “In theatre it’s all about the voice. On film it’s all about the face.” That makes perfect sense and it’s still true here – I spotted Angelica rolling her eyes and thought, “The people in the background wouldn’t get to see that.” Rarely though does the plot of the story hinge on an eye roll.
I’ve always said that we have to treat Shakespeare on stage and Shakespeare on film as two different things (even when it’s “Shakespeare on stage, filmed” :)). Usually, I mean the expectations of the moviemakers, and how they have to appeal to a different audience (much like turning a book into a movie and how you have to appeal to the people that have read the book while not losing the people who haven’t). Only now do I think I really understand the difference between have been talking about when they behave like seeing it live is really the only way to go, and film is a very distant second.
I wonder how this experience is going to change how I see Shakespeare now? Hamlet, King Lear, and the other great tragedies don’t count – I’ve seen so many of those now that it’s more about seeing each individual interpretation. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. But I haven’t seen most of the histories live (or at all, really) and I’m curious now how different the experience might be.
The other day I was bemoaning the fact that I had no good video of Robin Williams really doing Shakespeare. Sure, he would inevitably through some random references into his rambling on just about every talk show appearance, but knowing he went to Juilliard, it did little but whet the appetite for more.
Well I have to say, I’ve been doing this blog for 15 years now and I still come across resources that are new to me. How about Robin Williams Dick Cavett improvising a Shakespeare play for about 5 minutes? Hmmm, how to explain Dick Cavett to the younger crowd. Before Jimmy Fallon was Jay Leno, right? And before Jay Leno was Johnny Carson? Well before Johnny Carson was Jack Parr. Dick Cavett was a writer for the Tonight Show right in that Parr->Carson time period. He did a lot more than that, including having his own talk show (featured here), I just wanted to put this in some sort of historical perspective. The date is 1979, and the current event they mention, Three-Mile Island, was a nuclear disaster.
True it’s not “real” Shakespeare, but you can play count the references – you can see Dick Cavett trying to keep up by hurling bits and pieces of memorized monologues at Robin. For a period at the beginning I wondered if Cavett was going to get to talk at all, every time he opens his mouth Robin just takes off again.
I don’t like working from home. It’s not so much the distractions, it’s that I am in control of the distractions. Odd, right? If I’m in control of the distractions I should be able to limit them. And that’s why I don’t like working from home, because that’s what I’m bad at. Example? We have a kitchen at work. I have a kitchen at home. I know at work if I get up and go to the kitchen every half hour, people are going to notice. But at home the only person stopping me is me, and I go easy on myself.
The same is true for background noise. I’m one of those people that tells myself “I work better with noise in the background.” So the television is always on. But I’ve learned from years of practice that it has to be a certain kind of television. It has to be interesting enough that if I pay attention to it I’ll like it, but not so interesting that I care if I miss anything, you know? So while there might be an endless supply of Shakespeare to stream, it doesn’t fit that latter category. You have to pay attention to Shakespeare. Same with Netflix originals.
You know what’s great for this, though, is sitcoms. Binge-watching old sitcoms. There’s countless hours of them, they’re just entertaining enough that you catch a joke here and there that makes you smile. But the world isn’t going to end, you’re not going to lose the plot forever, if you get up and walk away for twenty minutes.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I noticed something very interesting. There used to be a lot of Shakespeare in these old sitcoms. It’s fairly obvious that any sitcom set in a high school would inevitably do a Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet episode. And Frasier was full of references, but a show about two over-educated snobs is really just on level one when they break out the Shakespeare. They’re just getting started.
But then I started watching Grace Under Fire, the 1993 Brett Butler sitcom about a divorced mom who is a recovering alcoholic trying to escape an abusive relationship. Sure enough, Shakespeare shows up by the third episode! A good amount, too, as Brett and her friend end up at a college party, where at 35 they feel way, way too old for these college boys, until she finds herself in a Shakespeare quote-off with one of them. A few episodes later there’s a reference to the town’s production of Macbeth as well, again allowing Butler to throw some quotes into the script.
I got to wondering what purpose Shakespeare serves in these shows. On the one hand it’s public domain so the writers can help themselves without worry. But to what end? For a Shakespeare joke to go over, the audience has to get it. Which is probably why we only ever get Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth references. They’re the ones people remember most from high school English class.
It’s also interesting to consider the context of the reference. In the Butler’s show it’s clearly there so we know that despite her circumstances she’s intelligent and well educated. But what about something more modern, like Friends? I’m reasonably sure that every Shakespeare joke in Friends – and there’s maybe only three of them? – was at the Joey’s expense. As in, “I haven’t heard Joey stumble to get words out like that since that time he played Macbeth.”
I can’t think of any more recent examples, but I also don’t watch as many sitcoms anymore.
So I’m left wondering, were sitcoms “smarter” decades ago? By that I mean did writers assume the audience would be more likely to get the reference? Or am I reading too much into this?
Who else has a good sitcom Shakespeare reference? I was going to say “the older the better” but that’s only evidence for my point. If you’ve got new stuff, stuff that’s still on tv, I’d love to see it. I want to see if there’s anything to my theory.
Star Trek : The Next Generation doesn’t count 🙂 – not only is it not a sitcom, but a show starring one of the world’s most well known Shakespearean actors in an ongoing story arc teaching an android about what it means to be human is hardly an unbiased example.
I know M*A*S*H had a few (thinking of Hawkeye performing Richard III most notably) but what about Taxi? How about the goofier ones like Three’s Company?
I’m straying dangerously into Bardfilm’s territory now so I expect him to come in and school me at any moment. But I’m starved for content and hadn’t written anything in a while, so take that, Professor!