Billy Shakes, Superstar
By Robert Faires
APRIL 26, 1999: He's hot, he's sexy, and he's dead. Okay, okay, you've heard that line before, and no doubt it's lost some of its charm from having been applied to every moderately alluring deceased male celeb from Jim Morrison to Liberace. Still, it's very apt for the subject of this piece, and for what it's worth, you probably haven't ever heard it applied to a guy as dead as this guy. I mean, this guy's really dead -- a full 387 years in the crypt -- so for him to be hung, as it were, with the adjectives "hot" and "sexy" ... well, that's saying something.
Of course, the subject in question is William Shakespeare, Elizabethan actor and playwright and longtime enemy of high school English students everywhere, who turns 435 this week (April 23) and at that ripe old age is enjoying the sort of career revival and media feeding frenzy that the modern media usually reserves for graying pop icons like Burt Reynolds and Tom Jones. How hot is he? What with the slew of new cinematic adaptations of his work -- the '99 scorecard includes fairly straight versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream (directed by Michael Hoffman), Titus Andronicus (directed by Julie Taymor), and Love's Labours Lost (directed by longtime Bard booster Kenneth Branagh), plus several looser adaptations, mostly for those kids out there, including 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew at a high school prom), Near in Blood (Macbeth on the high school gridiron), O (Othello in the college hoops scene), and Hamlet (the melancholy Dane in a corporate setting) -- the Bard will have screen story credit on enough pictures to make Joe Eszterhas weep. And being the subject of a movie that just nabbed the Best Picture Oscar (and has raked in $90 mil to date) hasn't done anything to cool Bill's standing in Tinseltown. As far as the Dream Factory is concerned, Shakespeare is volcanic.
And that's only Hollywood. In his homeland, the Bard of Avon is not only packing them in at the new incarnation of his Old Globe Theatre (as exact a re-creation of the Elizabethan playhouse as the late 20th century can afford), he's also boasting a new title: "Briton of the Millennium," conferred on him by his countrymen in a recent nationwide vote. Top Dog of the last thousand years of English history? You'd have to go nova to be any hotter.
As for sexy? Well, as incarnated in the person of Joseph Fiennes in the aforementioned box office smash, he is. The playwright hero of Shakespeare in Love is young, virile, intense; his jaw is sharp, his eyes are dewy, his lips full; and he does a nice job of filling out a pair of tights. Given those physical attributes in combination with his onscreen displays of passion -- those torrid kisses, the soulful gazes, his ardent way with a sonnet, and that seductive method of unwinding a woman wrapped in gauze -- I think it's safe to say that, allowing for differences in individual taste, this Shakespeare is sexy.
So the Bard is back, so he's suddenly joined the ranks of the Leos and the Matts and the Bens, so Billy Shakes is as much a man for the 1990s as the 1590s. So what? What does this really mean? What will come of it, other than the deluge of media analysis already seen in every publication from The New York Times ("All the World's a Stage, Ruled by Guess Who," March 18, 1999) to Texas Monthly ("Shakespeare in Lufkin," May 1999) to, well, this rag, as writer after writer surrenders to the temptation to weigh in on this latest surge of popular interest in the scribbler Shakespeare.
Well, perhaps not much, if history serves as any guide. The cinema has had feverish affairs with Shakespeare before: in the mid-Thirties, when even James Cagney muscled his way into a Shakespeare picture; 1944-56, when Olivier and Orson Welles brought a handful of the Bard's tragedies to the screen; and the late Sixties, when Franco Zeffirelli delivered a lusty one-two punch with his Burton-Taylor Taming of the Shrew and his Whiting-Hussey Romeo and Juliet. And if you look back to the days before pictures talked, you'll find film adaptations of Shakespeare plays by the dozens -- more than 50 in the years from 1908 to 1917 alone. Every time, though, filmdom's ardor for Shakespeare has eventually faded and a period has followed when the playwright's work has gone all but unfilmed. The current romance has proven hardy, if you trace its start back to Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in 1989, but the affair hasn't been so sensational -- with Hamlets toppling Titanics at the box office and merchandising bonanzas from Othello actionfigures and Midsummer Night's Happy Meals -- as to suggest that it won't ultimately ebb and vanish.
And when or if that happens, it won't mean that we'll lose Shakespeare altogether, only that we'll lose him in the local multiplex. He'll still be able to be found where he's always been found, in the place where he himself labored: the theatre. In the playhouses, Shakespeare's popularity has never really lessened. His prominence in the world's great theatrical centers may have waxed and waned from time to time, but his plays have always been staged somewhere, and so they continue to be. In Austin, you can count on seeing 8-12 Shakespeare plays produced every year, with groups such as the Austin Shakespeare Festival and the Austin Free Shakespeare Society wholly devoted to producing the Bard's works.
Theatre people will never stop staging Shakespeare's plays because they will never exhaust the possibilities within his texts. These dramas contain stories so deeply rooted in the essence of the human condition that they transcend the author's age and culture. And because of that, they are also infinitely adaptable, capable of being shifted to other times, other lands, without their fundamental truths being lost. Similarly, the playwright's language, while often formal in structure and archaic in expression, is so luxuriant in rhythms, in imagery, in patterns of sound, that it allows for a myriad of variations in the way it is spoken. And the characters are as complex as the language they use, their actions and motivations typically a tangle of human impulses that run from one extreme to the other. To explore these stories, these conflicted human beings, this dense and beautiful speech, is a challenge that fires the hearts of theatre people and as long as there are people who live for theatre, there will be productions of Shakespeare's plays.
That said, it seems as if this current fervor for the Bard is, to coin a phrase, much ado about nothing. Shakespeare is as dead as he has been for almost four centuries and is arguably no more -- or less -- hot than he has been in previous eras.
Maybe, but let's not forget that other adjective: sexy. As goofy a tag as that might be to drop on the English-speaking world's premier playwright, that may be the one truly new thing in this current hubbub over the Bard -- and the key to what might change in our perception of Shakespeare in the new millennium.
Think of the William Shakespeare you saw when you were first introduced to him. Probably it was the Will of the familiar Martin Droeshout engraving, from the first collection of the Bard's plays in 1623. This Will's head perches atop a stiff, high collar like a soft-boiled egg on a plate. His eyes bulge under a high rounded brow and curved eyebrows so thin they appear plucked. His nose has a hint of a point to it, as does his upper lip, which dominates his lower lip with a somewhat sullen V. He has a delicate moustache and a whisper of a soul patch and a waterfall of hair cascading from his bare crown over his ears. The face is such a mix of masculine and feminine features that it looks to belong to some androgynous, oddly ageless figure. Committed to neither age nor gender, this Will seems fuzzy, indistinct. And his blank expression only heightens the feeling; he seems absent of passion, cool, remote. You can no more imagine him planting a big wet one on Gwyneth Paltrow than the man in the moon.
Prior to the arrival of Shakespeare in Love, it is this distant figure that most of us associate with the name Shakespeare. The idea that the man in this portrait was someone who performed on the stage, who wrote out of his own keenly felt experience, who was a lover, a husband, a father, and knew all the complicated swellings of the heart that come with those roles, was strange, unlikely. He appears divorced from feeling and, by extension, divorced from experience. His work -- those plays so revered across the centuries and the world's cultures, those lines and expressions that form so much of our common wisdom -- must have come from somewhere other than his own journey through life. He must have been one of those geniuses whose mental processes are beyond the ken of us regular folk. Or some kind of a playwriting machine.
Such attitudes distance us not only from Shakespeare the man but also from his plays and poetry. They make them the work of some demi-god, who observed us blind mortals from his seat in the firmament and with celestial pen captured us in all our folly. They rarefy the plays, stamp them with the mark of "Art," and set them aside for the cultural elite. And, as anyone who has experienced one of Shakespeare's plays produced in the expansive, all-embracing spirit in which they were written can attest, these plays may be art, but they are for all people.
The custodians of Shakespeare's legacy -- the people of the theatre and the teachers of English in our educational system -- haven't always done the best job of communicating this idea. Some have staged the Bard's work in ways that make the plays seem stuffy and arcane, fit only for scholars of Elizabethan double entendres. Some have taught his plays as if they were carcasses in a biology lab, to be dissected and all their clever innards -- rhyme schemes, apostrophe, rising and falling action, alliteration -- identified and labeled. In these cases and others, Shakespeare and his work have been sucked of their life.
Shakespeare in Love -- whatever else you may think of the film -- gave us a Bard with life in him. His tousled hair, his ink-stained fingers, his impulsive chases, his writer's blocks, his drunkenness, and, yes, his sexiness, all marked the playwright with life, with the feelings and folly to which every one of us can relate. This Will is a man whose art flows from his grounding in the sweat and mud and flesh of this mortal coil. And as the film intertwines the text of Romeo and Julietwith its clever romance of young Will and Viola, the beauty of the familiar Shakespearean text blooms anew, our appreciation of it is rekindled.
As drama, Shakespeare in Love may be only a confection, an ingeniously witty spin on one man's history and his art. But as a vehicle which can communicate to the mass culture, it may yet be something more substantive. It may be the medium by which our society begins to absorb the idea that William Shakespeare was a man. If this paragon of playwrights, this marble monument to the theatre, this Man of the Millennium can be scaled down to human size, made a more approachable figure, given lines in his face and a voice and desires, then perhaps it will make his plays even more attractive to audiences, to students, to all those people heretofore intimidated by the immensity of his reputation. If so, then, we may well have a Will Shakespeare who at age 435 is hot, sexy, and very much alive.
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