Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful: Shakespeare and the Neo-Puritans

Shakespeare Penn
The Offending Portrait

Years ago, I read a certain interview with Sir Peter Hall. (I have since tried to find it many times, to no avail.) If I recall correctly, he talked about the crazy ways Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes directed and performed. This wasn’t a complaint. He made the point that, thus far, the undeniable quality of the plays has rendered them indestructible. He said something like this: Shakespeare is somewhere smiling; you simply cannot take him down.

But just a few months ago, a group of Neo-Puritan English majors at the University of Pennsylvania did just that. They took down Shakespeare. That is, they righteously took down a portrait of Shakespeare. His race, gender, and possible religious perspective lacked sufficient identity credit. Not even his ambiguous sexuality earned him indulgence.

Not surprisingly, these students learned their religion from the English department faculty. It’s they who originally voted to replace the offending portrait. Also not surprisingly, the faculty had a hard time coming up with an alternative. After all, this was Shakespeare they were trying to replace. Frustrated by the delay, the good students took matters into their own hands, and the space is now sanctified by a picture of Audre Lorde.

UCLAThis religious revival can be found on campuses throughout the country, and Shakespeare is a favorite target. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only four of the top 52 universities and colleges in the country currently require an in-depth course on Shakespeare. Finesse your schedule just right, and you can get a degree in English literature from UCLA without ever reading the greatest writer in the English language. Where identity is the doctrine, English departments are the seminaries.

But it’s important to understand that, where Shakespeare is concerned, identity politics aren’t really the issue. They’re just the current weapon of choice in a centuries-long, fascinatingly strange movement to unseat the bard. I say movement, but that sounds too organized. Phenomenon is a better word. Shakespeare has weathered everything from scholars trying to take credit for his work to conspiracy theorists trying to credit others with his work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf highlights the odd tendency of frustrated people to turn their frustration on Shakespeare––even people who have no connection to the literary or theater worlds.

Why? Because Shakespeare is, without question, the best. They hate Shakespeare because his work is so objectively good.

Graves Shakespeare QuoteYou see, it’s not that Audre Lorde is unworthy or shouldn’t be studied. No. Study her. English literature contains many more voices than it had or allowed in Shakespeare’s time. Make room for them. But here in 2017, like it or not, Shakespeare is still the greatest artist with a pen. Pretending that’s not true is perilous, sure, but it’s also stupid. Students who study literature-sans-Shakespeare learn an art and craft without experiencing its best practitioner. That’s just crazy. To excuse that omission because of Shakespeare’s race and gender––that’s even crazier.

Perhaps your attitude goes something like this: “Well, now you know how women and minorities have felt for millennia.” Fine. You can say that all day long, but at the end of the day you’re still just a bigot making value judgments based on race, gender, and religion.

Anyway, the numbers seem to suggest that the slow excommunication of Shakespeare is under way. And, who knows, perhaps they’ll eventually rid themselves of this insensitive writer who so crassly stands out as better than everyone else.

For my part, I hope they succeed. Again, I think they’re crazy for doing it. But I sincerely hope they succeed.

The Puritans of Shakespeare’s time tried to shut down theaters in the name of the church. The Puritans of our time are trying to turn theaters and academies into their churches. I say get Shakespeare out. Kick him to the other side of the river. Let him build a new Globe. He’s good at that.

In the middle ages, a nearly dead Western theatrical tradition found a new ritual from which to emerge inside the churches of Europe. When it was no longer allowed there, it didn’t die. It flourished because it was set free. Western theater was born again.

For too long our academies have tried to make Shakespeare preach their myopic socio-political sermons. Unsatisfied with the success of that project, they’ve now turned to disparaging him, just like the frustrated Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.

Good. Let them. Set Shakespeare free. His works will emerge from academia untarnished, showing that Peter Hall was right about their indestructibility. And free from the zealotry of these Neo-Puritans, the plays will be more beautiful than ever.

Shakespeare has faced off with Puritans before. He beat them then. He’ll beat them this time too. Let them do their worst.

He’s still smiling.

Billy

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Make Dust Our Paper: Shakespeare’s Birthday 2013

shakespeareIt’s Shakespeare’s Birthday. It has become a regular holiday for me. I always feel compelled to write about it in some way. You can read previous Shakespeare related posts here, here, and here. But this year I’ll just share a few passages that have been on my mind lately. Enjoy.

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KING LEAR. I feel this more with each passing day.

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

TIMON. For more than a year now, I have been drawn to Timon. It is so rare in Shakespeare for a leading character to spiral into a complete loss of hope. Macbeth clings to power. Iago clings to destruction. Timon clings to nothing.

I have a tree, which grows here in my close,
That mine own use invites me to cut down,
And shortly must I fell it: tell my friends,
Tell Athens, in the sequence of degree
From high to low throughout, that whoso please
To stop affliction, let him take his haste,
Come hither, ere my tree hath felt the axe,
And hang himself. I pray you, do my greeting.

RICHARD II. I used to think of Richard as being forced into depth of character. I now think the play is much more interesting if the depth is there from the beginning. Along with the rashness and pettiness.

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings

CLEOPATRA. She is simply the most amazing female character Shakespeare wrote. I am convinced that he couldn’t stand young men playing his tragic heroines. This passage is the most blatant clue, but there are others.

saucy lictors
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune: the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.

PROSPERO. This passage never gets old.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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Non Sanz Droict

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.

––Philip Levine

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.