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Shakespeare Full Circle

by Nate Briggs

(from the Winter 2015 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter)

John Gielgud as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, 1959. (Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

John Gielgud as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, 1959. (Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Seeing a recent local production of Much Ado About Nothing brought me back to the Shakespeare Authorship Question, and, incidentally, the state of live productions of Shakespeare among the many entertainment options that we have available.

For those of you who have not been keeping score at home, there is an Authorship Question that has been moving forward, by fits and starts, since the 1930s. The majority of disputants argue that William Shakspere—a sometime actor, who (at best) attended a few years of grammar school, and (at worst) was actually illiterate—somehow knew Latin, somehow knew Greek, somehow knew things he couldn’t conceivably have known, somehow acquired the largest vocabulary of almost any writer in the English language (including words he invented himself), and wrote works that have been performed and read continually for almost 500 years.

In answer to this “majority report,” we have always had the skeptical, and maybe eccentric, minority (growing a little larger, now) which is persuaded that “William Shakespeare” was simply a name attached to plays and verse to draw attention away from their true author: the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

The reason this controversy comes to mind when discussing Shakespeare in modern times is the easy and natural way that authorship by a member of the Elizabethan court heavily reinforces the sensation I have long had: that, year by year, the “unedited” Bard is becoming accessible to fewer and fewer people when these works are staged.

As a quick example, let’s consider a short speech from Much Ado—Benedick going completely over the top in pleading with his commander:

Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy.

The sense of hyperbole is obvious. Most of the audience can feel it. But — even among this very educated audience of about 1,000—would even 100 be acquainted with the “Great Cham”? Would even twenty know who “Prester John” might be, or where Benedick might have gone to find him?

The appeal of these court plays, when they arrived at a public venue like the Globe, would have been that the queen and her people had already seen them (“As played at the palace! Two thumbs up from Her Majesty!”). They would need to be dumbed down a bit (there were no copyright issues, so everyone could toss in their two pence). Theater managers, writers, actors, and perhaps Mr. Shakspere himself, might have tinkered with them.”

This is only one of hundreds of speeches in the canon that serve to destroy the claim that these were “popular” plays, written for a common audience. Even in Shakespeare’s day, the groundlings—paying a penny to stand in the yard at the Globe for three hours on a summer afternoon—would have had no idea what most of this speech meant. They would have responded in the same way as a modern audience: to the obvious tone of annoyance. Benedick has a strong distaste for Beatrice, and wants to get away from her. That’s how they would have understood it. Strange to think that this could be fare for the workingman. Bear baiting was just up the street. It was cheaper, and far easier to understand.

Those who would have fully understood the references in this speech, and many other similar speeches, were all at the court, buzzing like flies around Queen Elizabeth. A rarified group of men and women, multilingual, university trained, and with the leisure to do things like discuss travel, recall Greek mythology, read history, debate religious thought and consider the meaning of life. They are the ones who would have understood the details of Benedick’s speech and savored it as a kind of “inside” humor. It was entertainment written by one of the cultural elite, for the appreciation of the cultural elite, in the same way that modern universities still offer productions of Aeschylus, and other worthies.

The appeal of these court plays, when they arrived at a public venue like the Globe, would have been that the queen and her people had already seen them (“As played at the palace! Two thumbs up from Her Majesty!”). They would need to be dumbed down a bit (there were no copyright issues, so everyone could toss in their two pence). Theater managers, writers, actors, and perhaps Mr. Shakspere himself, might have tinkered with them. Some might say “corrupted them.”

And yet, despite a multitude of revisions made for a less sophisticated audience, what has come down to us, in our own time, is the most pungent thought, and feeling, and description prepared by a man whose genius not only seems effortless, but who even took the occasion to include current events, court gossip, and political commentary.

The plays began as entertainment for the people residing at their cultural mountaintop. And to our cultural mountaintop they appear to be returning, since the plays—when presented in our time—seem to be in a foreign language when spoken at a regular conversational pace.

They are full of qualifiers upon qualifiers, sub-clauses upon sub-clauses. There are sentences so long they seem to double back on each other. Words are spoken that have long fallen out of use. Other words are spoken that we still use, but which meant something else to Shakespeare. All of this makes a dense flow of the jargon of the Age of Elizabeth, mixed with thick and fast references to mythology, history, botany, names, places and even foreign languages.

The modern, untrained ear is simply not ready for this much semantic freight. In a live theatrical setting, you can hear incomprehension ripple through the entire crowd as small gems of articulate wit fly right over the heads of playgoers who are trying to dip their toes into high culture.

You could say that part of a modern director’s assignment is to make sure that the actors emphasize the “summary” sentences sprinkled through the text—the ones that actually explain what’s going on—so a helpless audience is not completely cast adrift. The small minority of playgoers who do understand all of what the players are saying are only able to stay on track because they are accustomed to coping with this avalanche of wit, either through education or long experience. When it comes to the “full text” plays, once again we are seeing entertainment created by a member of the elite for an elite consumer.

The human situations that Shakespeare presents are enduring and will be of interest to human beings as long as we continue to exist. And yet, the real opportunities will be for those people who can simplify, i.e., make accessible, the classic texts to make them more palatable to a modern audience.

The modern paradox of Shakespeare is that, for the sake of popularity, his works must become less “Shakespearean” while, at the same time, other venues will continue to quietly offer “high culture” to something like an audience of courtiers: a specialized elite watching a form of theater that no one else really understands.

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