I went to see The Shakespeare Show (a film of the live performance of the celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death) on Monday, May 23rd, in a packed theater in NYC, right in Times Square. Unfortunately, the film was only screened in select theaters in the U.S. on that one evening, but I’m hoping that there are more opportunities for more people to see it in the future, because it was a tremendous show.
Hosted by David Tennant (who at one point donned a star spangled jacket to play Tuck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Catherine Tate, the actors featured included Benedict Cumberbatch, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, and many others. It was rather like an old fashioned variety show, as we saw various scenes from the plays enacted, some film clips about Shakespeare’s life and times, some comedy skits, some poetry recitals, and some utterly gorgeous dances. The Romeo and Juliet balcony scene from the Prokofiev ballet, with the famous MacMillan choreography, was simply enchanting. And there was a beautiful and chilling duet showing Othello’s murder of Desdemona set to music from Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, his 1957 jazz suite. Of course there had to be a selection from West Side Story, so the Sharks and the Jets did their thing. And “Brush up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate—I think skipping it would have been a violation of some kind of international law. And there was yet more music, some familiar to me and some not. There was something for everyone: hip hop, opera, sonnets set to music, catches from Twelfth Night. We saw a brief snippet of a Zulu Macbeth, and a Kabuki one. Alex Hassell was a romantic and sincere Henry V, Harriet Walter took a tragic turn playing Cleopatra, Judi Dench was a marvelous Titania, and Paapa Essiedu did a fine job with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (after receiving advice on its delivery from many different people on stage, including Prince Charles).
Even though every one of these artistic performances was not entirely to my liking (and it would be hard, I think, to find an arts fan with taste QUITE that broad), I was impressed (and who wouldn’t be?) by the sheer volume and the enormous variety of Shakespeare’s influence on the arts.
The biggest surprise for me was Ian McKellen’s reading of a speech by Thomas More. Not being familiar with it, I missed the details on its origin when he was introduced, and assumed it was from Henry VIII (mentally making a note to myself to finally read Henry VIII, one of the lesser-known history plays). Not so. It’s from another play entirely, I learned after doing a bit of research on it, one rarely performed: Sir Thomas More. Originally written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, it was, much like movie scripts today, revised by several other playwrights, including Shakespeare. In fact, one of his portions exists in his own handwriting at the British Library. (Some scholars doubt this attribution, but if it is good enough for the Royal Shakespeare Company, it is certainly good enough for me.) Here it is, demonstrating that although culture changes and technology changes, people are more or less the same today as they ever were, and that Shakespeare knew it better than anyone. Sir Thomas More is talking down a mob here, making a case for humane treatment of asylum seekers:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
Shakespeare, clearly, is as relevant today as ever he was. The case for mercy has perhaps been made more persuasively, but certainly never more eloquently.
So, on this anniversary year…go see Shakespeare in the Park in the summer months, or take the book off the shelf and read his famous sonnets, or watch a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, or a ballet of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…as Sir Thomas More was once called, Shakespeare’s definitely a man for all seasons. Ben Jonson, his contemporary, pointed it out in the Preface to the First Folio: “not of an age, but for all time.”
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org