Confessions of a Classical Actor: I hate Shakespeare, too.
(is now the best time to tell you that I’m playing Queen Margaret in Real Live Theatre’s new Shakespearean play about Queen Margaret?)
I am a sympathetic non-breather, so basically, if you stop breathing, so do I. This makes it really hard to be around, for example, free divers (but only when they’re diving) and actors. Actors are the worst breathers. Which is odd, because characters are so full of breath.
Most of the time, when people tell me Oh I hate Shakespeare, I say Oh, I do too.
Which is weird, right? Because as a professional classical actor, as a director, as a voice coach, as a human on this earth, it’s weird for me to hate Shakespeare. But I really do.
Or rather, I hate the bullshit way we talk about him. Why do you love Shakespeare?
I love him because of the beauty of his language.
I love him because no one else has so captured the essence of humanity.
I love him because of the power of his stories.
The language isn’t beautiful. My bounty is as boundless as the sea. My love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite. Ok, fine, that’s really, really beautiful. You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate, as reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air, I banish you.
Ok, someone please tell me what about that is beautiful. Structurally, sure- but when spoken aloud, I can’t really find the beauty in the image and smell of dead rotting carcasses. The language is sometimes beautiful. Sometimes, when a character is talking about something beautiful (love) they do it in a beautiful way (my bounty is as boundless as the sea). But most other times, the language is not beautiful- it calls up images that are raw and base and ok, honestly gross.
Alright and really, no one else has captured the essence of humanity? Where did we go wrong? Why is a really old, white man the only one who has “captured” humanity. I am honestly not a huge fan of David Mamet, but are we saying that there is no semblance of humanity in any of his plays? Or in Sarah Ruhl’s, or Yazmina Reza/s, or Duncan MacMillian's? Did George Bernard Shaw really have no clue?
And on top of that, Shakespeare’s stories are not his. He stole them. He took existing work, and adapted it, and changed it, and sometimes, as with Richard III, really messed up historical perception. The Montagues and the Capulets were actual historical political parties in the 12th century that had become folklore by the time Shakespeare decided to commandeer them. It would be a bit like me deciding to write the story of Tristan and Isolde today, and 451 years from now, people giving me the credit for inventing the story (Sorry, Wagner).
I hate this idea we have of Shakespeare— this untouchable playwright, who wrote such beautiful stories about the human condition.
So when someone tells me Oh I hate Shakespeare, I say Oh me too. But I love his plays.
His plays are the easiest to perform, to direct, because they are simple, they are good. Characters say what they mean, and mean what they say. His characters don’t require backstory: the actor playing King Henry doesn’t need to know what King Henry had for breakfast, the actor needs to know the lines. Because Shakespeare didn’t write “characters.” He wrote real people, who sometimes speak beautifully, but who usually speak grossly. He didn’t write the “most real” real people- he wrote people who are simply real, who are so simply real that they don’t have to prove it. And because he didn’t write original stories, he could just follow the people, without using them as pawns in order to establish a world.
Please, please don’t tell me you hate Shakespeare unless you have seen a production where his writing isn’t regarded as sacred, where his words aren’t treated with reverence, where his characters are played as people, because otherwise you haven’t seen Shakespeare; you don’t know him.
I love Shakespeare’s plays because they are easy. You don’t have to play them: they play you.
And so, when we are in rehearsals for our new Shakespeare play, following Queen Margaret through the histories, I just have to let go. I just have to find the breath and breathe it.
Of course, this makes things very hard. I said earlier that actors make the worst breathers, and it’s true. We like to pull back, to keep our breath shallow, because if we give in, if we breath deeply and vulnerably, we get swept up; and if we get swept up, we might get swept away.
Shakespeare is limiting. Shakespeare’s plays are freeing.
Written by Monica Giordano, RLT Company Member