Brush up your Bard

Susan Miura

 

Shakespeare had little choice but to be a poet, as Elizabethan theater was, above all, the staging of language. Shakespeare’s actors at the Globe Theatre frequently would perform on a bare stage, dressed in costumes cast off from their wealthy benefactors and brandishing minimal props. It was up to the playwright to create the set and setting for the play, whether simply (such as when Rosalind in As You Like It declares, “Well, this is the forest of Arden.”) or otherwise.

Shakespeare preferred otherwise. He toyed with language, often building elaborate stage directions into his dialogue. When he was at a loss for an utterance (which was rare, as Shakespeare’s vocabulary, culled from his writing, included 17,000 words) he invented one. He is credited with having conceived more than 1,500 neologisms, including such now-common words as watchdog and assassination. What results is a torrent of sounds, some familiar, some archaic, some nonexistent outside their lone appearances in single sentences. Let us open Twelfth Night and select a passage at random: “Of what validity and pitch soe’er,” Orsino says, deep into his “If music be the food of love” speech. “But falls into abatement and low price, even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy that it alone is high fantastical.” Soe’er? Abatement? High fantastical? It would take a scholar to untangle this thicket of dense prose, and actors and audiences are rarely scholars.

As a result, despite Shakespeare’s enduring popularity, performances of his plays regularly involve actors speaking lines they do not understand to an audience that does not comprehend. Shakespeare is, necessarily, literary, as the transient nature of theater cannot completely do his words justice. It is not enough to simply see a Shakespeare play: His audiences must also be willing to sit at a long table with a dictionary, several folio editions of the playwright’s work, a half dozen additional reference books and the telephone number of a very bright Shakespearean scholar to help out with the trickiest passages. Shakespeare either requires commitment or incomprehension, and far too many performers and audiences choose the latter. It is a testament to the power of Shakespeare’s plays that audiences can still draw so much pleasure from theater that they hardly understand; it is a similar testament to the plays that they survive so many misconceived productions.

Spoken properly, the words of Shakespeare lay claim to their vast influence. These are, after all, the very passages that have become among the most quoted in history, from Miranda’s declaration “O brave new world” in The Tempest to Hamlet’s bitter “What a piece of work is man?” Not an actor, nor an audience, nor a critic, nor any human born in the western half of this world goes through life unscathed by Shakespeare. He intrudes into every aspect of our lives, his plots and words emerging from sources as diverse as the starlets in porn films to the soliloquies of Klingons. His plays are freely adapted into modern variations of themselves: The Taming of the Shrew, for example, has become both the musical Kiss Me Kate and the high school hijinks comedy 10 Things I Hate About You.

 

Rhino Entertainment Company’s Word Beat label, which has in the past specialized in collections of recordings of famous historical speeches or readings of beat poetry, has taken the logical step of compiling a recording of Shakespeare’s wordsñthey are, after all, as essential artifacts of history as Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech or Jack Kerouac’s readings from Mexico City Blues. Rhino’s collection, titled Be Thou Now Persuaded: Living in a Shakespearean World, is voluminous: four CDs of assembled monologues and dialogues, plus two additional CDs that contain a complete reading of Romeo and Juliet. Performers include Sir Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, both of whom built their sizable reputations upon their popular adaptation of Shakespeare. Olivier can be heard calling out “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” from Henry V, a role that he virtually defined until Kenneth Branagh’s film version; Welles, however, is represented by his bizarre film adaptation of Macbeth and speaks in so thick a Scottish burr that it may cause listeners’ ears to bleed. Celebrity cameos abound, from Paul Robeson to Vanessa Redgrave, and occasionally the compilation’s editors seem more starstruck than careful: their inclusion of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s wild histrionics from the film version of The Taming of the Shrew couldn’t possibly be the best performance available, could it?

These lapses are rare, however; most of the dialogue found on Be Thou Now Persuaded fascinates, representing not simply Shakespeare well spoken but also a dizzying variety of interpretations. For example, Hugh Griffith’s reading of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from The Merchant of Venice is deliriously melodramatic. Griffith bites into his lines with audible pleasure, his chewing undoubtedly snapping up vast chunks of scenery as well, and he punctuates his character’s scorn with jagged cries of “Revenge!” As hammy performances go, Griffith’s is a joy, and his utter commitment to the text of the monologue grants Shylock a weird dignity. The character could be reduced to an anti-Semitic caricature, but Griffith makes the merchant irresistible by virtue of his bluster. “If you prick us,” Griffith intones gloomily, “do we not bleed?”, but Griffith sounds as though he were bleeding already.

Cyril Cusack’s performance as Gloucester from King Lear, however, weighs heavily with gravity. Cusack’s thin voice, cracked with age, sighs out a frightening observation: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,” he says, voice growing flat with resignation. “They kill us for their sport.”

Shakespeare supports these extremes, allowing performances that threaten to shake a theater’s foundations and send a cloud of bats fleeing its rafters; allowing as well solemn declarations, made with only a hint of emotion, in which the terrible beauty of Shakespeare’s words are made the main player and carry both the drama and the emotion of a scene.

While it is hard to know if Rhino intended this boxed set for the general market (it is difficult to imagine a teenage girl on a school bus merrily listening to her Walkman and mouthing the words to Titus Andronicus), Be Thou Now Persuaded is a terrific resourceñit is neither literature nor theater, but somewhere between the two: richer and livelier than words on a printed page, but more permanent and accessible than a performance. It is a pleasure to listen to as well, because Shakespeare’s words, read aloud, are wonderful storytellers; the CD separates them into small chunks of text, each making small, eloquent points. These are not sound bites; they hint at deeper meanings and larger themes, with a single sentence carrying as much meaning as can be found in an entire presidential debate. These are words of substance that Shakespeare, by way of Rhino, hands us, and as they grow familiar with repeated listenings they also grow more complex. These snippets of dialogue function as poetry should, demanding as much from their listeners as they provide. With Shakespeare, that which is demanded, like that which is provided, is enormous.