Note: This appeared in the print-only Marshall Independent TV Guide
The first Shakespeare play I ever saw when I was a boy, was “The Tragedy of MacBeth,” with Maurice Evans and Dame Judith Anderson (1954). It’s still one of my favorite plays, running neck and neck with Henry V, though I prefer the Roman Polanski version with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis (1971).
Shakespeare, together with the King James Bible, is one of the gems of the modern English language. It’s been noted English changed more in the two centuries between Chaucer and Shakespeare, than it has in the four centuries between Shakespeare and us, as if we weren’t meant to lose touch with the Bard. The dialect is a bit archaic and we need a glossary of old words and expressions to follow some passages. There have been pronunciation shifts that make some wonderfully ribald puns inaccessible, but even without special study you can just sit down and let the language roll over you.
Shakespeare’s appeal goes beyond the English-speaking world. Akira Kurosawa adapted “MacBeth” to the samurai era in “Throne of Blood” (1957).
Filipinos have quoted Shakespeare at me, (“When my love says she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies”) and explained how “Romeo and Juliet” is more meaningful for them than Americans.
“Here if a couple’s parents don’t like each other they just say, ‘Oh they’ll get over it when children come,’ but in the Philippines if their families are against each other, they have no chance.”
I took a Chinese woman to see “Hamlet” once, and got an unforgettable lesson in Shakespeare.
The fashionable interpretation of Hamlet is a man who could not make up his mind and caused the tragedy by dithering. She didn’t see it that way at all.
“Ghost comes and tells prince to kill the king?” she asked. “You got to be crazy! Kill the king on the unsupported word of a ghost? Ghosts lie! All Chinese know that.”
She thought Hamlet was taking reasonable precautions to ascertain whether the ghost really was his father, and was telling the truth, and the result was simply unfortunate.
I think she’s right and we’re wrong.
If I haven’t lost you by now, you must love Shakespeare, or are intrigued about this guy you’ve heard about all your life and would like to know more. Here’s your chance.
I just caught the first two episodes of the series, “Shakespeare Uncovered” on PBS.
The first was Ethan Hawke preparing to play MacBeth and researching the character. The second was Joelly Richardson talking about two cross-dressing roles, women who disguise themselves as men in two of the plays: “As You Like It,” and “Twelfth Night.” (To make it even more complicated, in Shakespeare’s time it would have been boys playing girls, disguising themselves as men.)
Hawke tells you how he’s prepping to play MacBeth. He looks at movie versions back to Orson Welles’. He talks to actors who’ve played the roll, asks them to read for him, and explain how they see it and how they’ve done it. He talks to Shakespearean scholars for details on the life and times of the Bard.
He pulls out all the stops and talks to a psychologist who has interviewed hundreds of murderers. This guy is awed at how Shakespeare got MacBeth’s affect after he’s murdered King Duncan just dead on.
And he briefly, too briefly, compares how Shakespeare took liberties with the historical MacBeth as recorded in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577).
I wish he’d done more with this, as Isaac Asimov did in “Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.”
Hawke mentions the historical MacBeth did not murder Duncan, but killed him fair and square on the field of battle. He didn’t mention that MacBeth’s wife is never referred to as anything but “Lady MacBeth,” perhaps because her name was Gruoch, and she was the grand-daughter of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. (It means something if you’re Irish, trust me.)
But never mind, Shakespeare is a broad subject, to put it mildly. If you go to the series’ website http://www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/ you’ll see they’re going to do this with a lot of the plays.
There are also lesson plans for grades 9-12. Ignore these, they’re boring.
Get the kids a good video of the play, anything done by Kenneth Brannaugh. Get an annotated copy of the play with glossary.
You might use Asimov’s guides for background. He’ll tell you where Shakespeare edited history for political reasons, and when he was shamelessly sucking up to the King.
And by all means get two books: “Shakespeare’s Bawdy” by Eric Partridge, a systematic listing of every dirty joke in the plays, and “Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Wit” by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen. They’ll be hooked for life.