23 April 2009

How Could I forget?

It's Talk Like Shakespeare Day! Today is 445th anniversary of his birth. It is also the 387th anniversary of his death, as he seems to have died on his birthday, or so tradition tells us. Here's a link that will give you hints as to how best to speak like the Bard. if you're not up to that, go read Hamlet, or watch a version of Hamlet, as long as it is not Branagh's.

In honour of this great day I will ressurect an old play I wrote (or perpetrated) years ago about Bill. I wrote in back in the day when I was a teaching assistant. I tried to get my fellow TA's to get together with me to put on this play as a lecture, but they declined. The inspiration came from years of hearing professors giving their strange ad often contradictory ideas about the man, and the idea struck me of what a weirdo Shakespeare must have been for all these things to be true about him. So, without any further ado, here are a few of the opening scenes.

Looking for Bill


Bill and me


22 short plays about Shakespeare

Stage: A lectern, preferably solid, so the lecturer may remove items from underneath it. A table and a chair. Bill is already sitting there, his head leaning on one hand, in the other hand he holds a quill. He looks either like he is deep in thought over his next word on the page, or as a puppet waiting for some strings to be pulled. On the table there is an inkwell and some paper. Two screens are in the background: one to show projections, one for shadows. Enter the lecturer. He steps up to the podium, and carefully arranges his notes, pours himself a glass of water. Clears his throat.

Lect: We are here tonight to study William Shakespeare and to examine the question: what is Shakespeare? He looks over at Bill sitting down at his table. Bill does not change position or acknowledge that he is even being watched. (Alternative: Bill looks back, spreads his hands and either through word or gesture says “Don’t ask me”.) After all has been said or done, what can one say about this man, William Shakespeare, and where should we begin? Is it even proper to refer to “Shakespeare” as a man? After all, the name “Shakespeare” is very often used in reference to his written works.

Lecturer thinks a bit.

Lect: Be that as it may, we’ll begin with Shakespeare, the man. Most of what we know for certain about Shakespeare the man can be condensed down to these few facts and dates.

On the wall behind the lecturer there appears the list of facts of Shakespeare’s life. Lecturer pauses for a moment.

Lect: This list is pretty much everything we know for certain about the personal life of the man. We have no idea what he may have felt or thought about any of this. The facts go like this. He was born in 1564, possibly on April 23rd, The first son and the third child to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. He was married on or around November 27 1582, at the age of eighteen to Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. Their first child, Susan, was born May 26, 1583. On February 2nd, 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet died August 11, 1596. Susanna was married to a John Hall, June 5th, 1607. Judith married Thomas Quiney February 10th, 1616. Shakespeare himself died, possibly on April 23rd, 1616, although we aren’t certain, but having him die on the same date he was born sort of rounds everything out nicely, and academics like that sort of thing, and was buried on xxxx.

The dates fade from the screen.

Lect: Beyond these things, what we know about Shakespeare, and the reason why we are so interested in this man, is that he wrote.

At this point Shakespeare abruptly comes to life. He dips his pen in the inkwell and begins to write on the paper.

Shakes: writing. Dear mother

Lect: That is, he wrote poems and plays.

Shakes crosses out the lines he has written and starts writing again.

Shakes: Hamlet says: "Dear mother."

Lect: He wrote 39 known plays, in whole or in part, one of which, Cardenio, is now lost.

Shakes: Darn. I really liked that one, too.

Lect: In addition he also wrote two epyllia, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, 159 sonnets, two other long poems and a few other assorted poems. All this was written over a period of approximately 23 years, in what we now believe was this order. The dates of the plays and poems appear on the screen behind lecturer. The plays were written for and acted by the company Shakespeare worked with and also partly owned, The Lord Chamberlain’s men, later the King’s Men, lead by actor Richard Burbage. Enter Burbage. He bows and waits for his part to begin. The years 1601 to 1606 appear to have been the highpoint in Shakespeare’s writing career as it was in this period that he wrote what are often thought to be his greatest plays: (Dates change to just the four great plays and the years in which they were written. Lecturer indicates screen with a pointer) Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The reason why these years produced so many great works is unknown. Take Hamlet for instance. Some critics believe that in 1601, Shakespeare, at the height of his artistic genius and creative powers, sat down to write the world’s greatest play. Deliberately.

Shakespeare stands. A light from overhead shines down on him, giving him an angelic look. He strikes a messianic pose.

Burbage: Coming forward, slightly awed. Will, what has happened to you? And where does that light shining off your face come from?

Shakespeare: Solemnly. As he speaks he slowly raises his arms into a cross between “come unto me” and crucifixion. I, William Shakespeare, in this year of our lord 1601, or thereabout, at the height of my artistic powers and creative genius, will now sit down and write the world’s greatest play. Choir of angels sings an “amen” in the background as Burbage sinks to his knees or kowtows in some kind of religious tableaux.

Lect: Scene resets while he is talking. Shakespeare at the table in deep thought, Burbage off to one side a little. Other critics believe that Shakespeare may have written Hamlet in honour of his son, Hamnet, who had died five years earlier. Date reappears. Shakespeare’s head now falls down to the table, and his shoulders shake as though weeping. The basis for this theory is the fact that Hamlet and Hamnet sound alike. Sort of.

Burbage: Coming forward. Concerned. Will, what’s happened to you? Why are you sobbing so inconsolably on your paper?

Shakes: Raising his head. It is my son, my son! Rising. Oh, Hamnet, Hamnet! Never shall you be forgotten! In my next play I shall make you immortal! As he continues he begins passionately and ends petering out in confusion. In your honour I shall write a story of a man with your name or something like it who seeks to avenge his father’s most foul murder but in doing so is haunted by ghosts, driven insane, becomes a murderer himself and is eventually basely murdered as he enacts his own revenge....He sits again looking puzzled. Scene resets.

Lect: Some other critics believe that Shakespeare was almost incidental to the writing of the play, and the play was almost a kind of inevitable conclusion to the social, historical cultural and artistic forces that were just there at the time. Shakespeare sets his quill on the paper in front of him and stares at it.

Burbage: Coming forward. He sounds a little confused. Will what’s happened to you? And why are you staring at the quill on your paper?

Shakes: Apparently, if you leave it alone, it will write plays by itself.

Burbage: Oh. Joins Shakespeare staring at the page. See anything yet?

Shakes: Nope. Scene resets.

The next exchange is an alternative to the one above:

Lect: Some other critics believe that Shakespeare was almost incidental to the writing of his plays, and that the plays are an inevitable conclusion to the artistic, social and cultural elements of his time. The real driving forces behind the writing of these plays are the forces of history, with Bill merely being the one holding the quill.

Enter the forces of history. He looks like a wrestler, masked, dressed in black leather, arms bare, and “history” written across his chest. History is snarling all the time. Probably the same guy who’ll be the executioner later. He pushes his way past Burbage and over to Shakespeare. He grabs Shakespeare in a headlock with one brawny arm while he grabs onto Shakespeare’s quill hand with the other, and forces him to write on his page.

Burbage: Coming forward, acting as though nothing strange is happening. Perhaps he’s reading some pages. Will, what’s happening? Working on another play?

Shakes: From History’s armpit. Oh yeah. Should be done real soon.

Burbage: Well, that’s nice. Is it going to be one of your better ones?

Shakes: I think historical determinants are in favour of such a conclusion.

Scene resets as History exits.

(End of Alternative Scene.)

Lect: Still others regard the dating of this particular play a little differently. Some believe that the around that time a rival acting company had revived a play by Thomas Kyd called the Spanish Tragedy, which was drawing audiences away from Burbage’s Globe playhouse. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in an effort to get those audiences back.

Burbage: Coming forward, A little forceful and perhaps desperate. Will, what’s happened to you? Your plays aren’t packing them in any more! The people are going to the Spanish Tragedy down at the Swan, and all our seats are empty. We need to do something, fast.

Shakes: Thoughtfully. Spanish tragedy...Spanish tragedy... Pause for more thinking. Is that the one with the ghost?

Burbage: Yeah, and the one guy who wants to avenge a family member’s murder.

Shakes: So he pretends to be insane so he can get closer to the killer.

Burbage: And he also puts on a play to help fool the killer into a false sense of security while he is really trying to further his own vengeful scheme.


Shakes: Y’know, I think that kind of gives me an idea. I’ll work some of that and rewrite that other play from a few years back.... thinking What was it called? It sounded like my son’s name, sort of. Ham... Ham....

Burbage: Hamlet?

Shakes: The same. They smile and shake hands on the idea. Burbage retires. Shakespeare resumes his seat and usual pose.

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