In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, the fine people at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have asked bloggers to write about how Shakespeare changed their lives.
Here it goes.
A few years ago I was asked to take part in a panel discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The panel consisted of two PhDs and myself (MFA in acting from The Old Globe). I was to be the creative voice in the discussion. Despite the fact that I had understudied one production of Midsummer and played Oberon in another, I allowed myself to get inordinately nervous about the whole thing. The other men were older; they were professors; they had written books. I was in my early thirties; I acted in and directed Shakespeare’s plays. I knew I was qualified to be there, but my guts teemed with insecurity.
Everything was fine, of course. The conversation was easy and enlightening. But about halfway in, something extraordinary happened. One of the men made a tangential comment about the unsatisfactory forgiveness scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was just a quip. If I hadn’t been paying close attention, I might have missed it. But I did hear it, and it led to an epiphany: I had an insight into Shakespeare’s plays that this man might never have. As an actor, I understood the final scene of Two Gents because I had played Valentine. I knew why and how Valentine forgives Proteus because it was my job to do it. Each night, during the run of the show, I had to stand there, raw, under the weight of the violence he attempted to inflict upon Sylvia and the betrayal he had enacted upon me. And then I had to forgive him. Which meant I had to create a character capable of that forgiveness. Each night, in the midst of all that hurt, I had to say the words “Then I am paid.” Each night, I had the privilege of feeling the way mercy bursts forth and flows when the stakes are that high. I had never delivered a paper on Valentine. But I had been Valentine.
Of course, I didn’t say any of this. But my contribution to the discussion became more robust as the obvious came into sharp focus: when discussing art, the artist’s perspective is particularly valuable. This was the moment I realized I did not need the permission of the academic and/or critical worlds to discuss––indeed, to do––my work. I say realized, but I mean finally felt, finally understood, finally believed.
Academia is appendant to the the art world at best. It’s not the other way around, as so many aspiring artists learn while in college. I realize this might sound obvious, and, yes, we all know it intellectually. But most young artists receive their first training in a hyper-critical, overly-academic world. It’s like having the grotesque beast-child of Harold Bloom, Kenneth Tynan, and that freshman film major that thinks he knows everything about every piece of art ever created constantly breathing down your neck. You might be surprised by how many young playwrights reflexively refer to Aristotle, only to produce yet another mediocre play. But while Aristotle is available as an occasional prescription, Shakespeare is ever-present as structural scripture. Prescriptions are set; scripture can be interpreted in many ways.
I changed my approach. I no longer wasted time reading every scholar’s point of view on a forthcoming character or play. I knew how to create a character. I knew how to direct a play. It turned out I was the expert––the artist, who actually acts, who actually directs, who actually creates. The characters got better. The plays got better.
I even changed the way I used director’s notes. I only wrote them if I felt they were actually useful to the audience. Other than that, I simply found poems that helped set a particular tone. Here’s an example from a recent production of Pericles:
No one believes in the calm
of the North Wind after a time
of rage and depression.
No one believes the sea cares nothing
for the shore or that
the long black volcanic reefs
that rise and fall from sight
each day are the hands
of some forgotten creature
trying to touch the unknowable
heart of water.
This fragment of poetry came to mind after repeatedly hearing Marina deliver her lovely line, “When I was born, the wind was north.”
Around this same time, I had been thinking about the inscription on Shakespeare’s coat of arms: Non Sanz Droict. Not Without Right. It seemed so insipid for the world’s greatest writer. I knew the history, and perhaps why Shakespeare wanted to use it, but becoming a gentleman certainly wasn’t novel within his circle of friends. Was it a request from his father? I didn’t know, but it just didn’t sit right. I almost fell in with those who believe he abandoned it at the outset. But then there was that pesky joke in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. I found it unlikely that even a man with an ego the size of Jonson’s would use a joke that the vast majority of the audience wouldn’t get. I believed Shakespeare must have used the inscription, at least for a time. But why?
Then it occurred to me that the direct translation we have all learned was probably not the actual sentiment of the phrase. I did some searching and quickly found that others felt the same. Of all the similar suggestions out there, this one stood out: Of My Own Merit. This was the William Shakespeare I had come to know: the man who did not need the safe harbor of the “university wits,” and so quickly abandoned their style; the man who constantly defied the rules of dramatic structure, and so let loose the greatest plays in history; the romantic among classicists; the writer and speaker of that gutsy alternate epilogue in Henry IV, Part II; the man who knew he needed nobody’s permission to do his work.
Non Sanz Droict became my motto, my slogan, my mission statement, my credo. That’s one way Shakespeare changed my life.