Happy Bard Day!
If you don't already know, Shakespeare is a chronic condition. Once the Bard is in the blood, he's there for life, and the afflicted simply has to learn to deal with the cravings for iambic pentameter and profoundly human characters. Fortunately, books such as the newly published Living With Shakespeare can help manage the disease.
For this collection of 40 essays (Vintage Books, 528 pp., $16 [paper]), editor Susannah Carson solicited contributions from an intriguing array of the usual suspects – actors, directors, scholars, and writers – as well as, most surprisingly and refreshingly, several creators of comics. The results range from broad appreciations of Shakespeare's artistry and appeal to deep investigations of specific plays. Many share their early encounters with Will's works – James Earl Jones hearing his Uncle Bob recite a speech from Julius Caesar in a Michigan cornfield, Isabel Allende at age 9 losing herself in a leather-bound Spanish edition of the complete works given her by her stepfather, Germaine Greer doing the same, also at 9, in a "fat, red, cloth-covered, cheapo Victorian edition" in her Australian home, Alan Gordon watching Mr. Magoo as Puck in a Sixties cartoon version of A Midsummer Night's Dream – though a few admit to being put off by the Bard initially by schoolteachers who sucked all the drama and poetry out of him – as Sir Anthony Sher puts it: "the plays were made to seem boring, lifeless, almost incomprehensible." A couple of the essays here do a fair job of channeling that attitude, but blessedly, only a couple. Most throb with a personal passion for Shakespeare's work, the sense of a life transformed by exposure to his plays.
Which essays speak most fervidly to you may have to do with the stage of your own Shakespearean addiction. Those still new to Will's charms may be most taken with the general reminiscences, such as Allende's and Gordon's. Some of the best in this regard come from the comics writers, with Peter David hilariously recalling his frustration at seeing Baz Lurhmann's film of Romeo and Juliet with a cinema full of clueless teens and local hero Matt Sturges (House of Mystery, Jack of Fables) providing a delightful recap on his butting heads with the Bard while attending UT. Those hungering for a deeper understanding of the plays will find much food for thought, especially with regard to Othello, explored in three successive essays, and The Merchant of Venice and Coriolanus, discussed at length in two each. Those curious to know why some plays exist in multiple versions may find an answer in the piece by Jess Winfield, a co-creator of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), who finds in that play's evolution clues to why one Hamlet might be half as long as another and have different wordings in the speeches. Those wondering how one approaches staging a Shakespeare play can get an in-depth look through Cicely Berry's essay on directing King Lear, Karin Coonrod on staging Love's Labor's Lost, the members of the Fiasco Theatre Company giving a peek behind the scenes at their acclaimed staging of Cymbeline, and Julie Taymor on adapting The Tempest to film. Then, those with a yen to know what it is to inhabit those impossibly complex characters of Shakespeare's can find more than a dozen different perspectives in what are arguably the most consistently readable and valuable contributions to the book: Sir Ben Kingsley on the "extraordinary responsibility" of playing Hamlet and the parallels with playing Gandhi; James Earl Jones on the necessity of nobility in Othello; Ralph Fiennes on the "uncompromising" nature of Coriolanus; F. Murray Abraham on the dangerous turn in Shylock; Eve Best on unlocking Lady Macbeth's sexuality and Beatrice's sudden acceptance of Benedick's love. Against the odds, these actors manage to describe the characters from inside Shakespeare's lines, getting us to see how their humanity is revealed through literary and dramatic technique, and how an actor's mastery of that transmutes words into some of the richest expressions of humanity ever created.
The thing is, if this Shakespeare stuff has meaning for you, you're going to find yourself yearning for more of it, and if you can't get it on a stage, you might as well get it from something that will deepen your appreciation of the plays themselves and the ways in which they are breathed into life. This collection is a satisfying way to feed your desire for more Bardishness, and on the day that the world celebrates the Swan of Avon's birth, doesn't it make sense to improve the way you're living with Shakespeare?