Lá breithe sona duit, a Shakespeare!

This blog is part of Blogging Shakespeare’s Happy Birthday Shakespeare celebrations, even if it’s a bit late. 

My relationship with Shakespeare, I think, comes in stages. It’s very strange from an Irish perspective, given that ‘Introduction to Irish Drama 101’ begins with Captain MacMorris and ‘What ish my nation?’, and where Shakespeare is usually associated with Junior and Leaving Cert literary texts (unless you were doing The Merchant of Venice, who DIDN’T watch Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet as per of their Junior Cert study? Really?), and where you would only go to see Shakespeare in performance if he was on your state exams.  To be honest, to be an Irish person interested in studying Shakespeare positions you as an antiquarian in some people’s eyes, and that’s sad — because his work is just as vital as any modern playwright’s.

poor Captain MacMorris

But anyway. Them stages.

So, like any other child in school, I first encountered Shakespeare there. (And yes, it was Romeo and Juliet and yes, we watched the Baz Luhrmann film in class. I think we watched it twice, come to think of it.) I remember not really giving a fig about studying English or theatre at that age,  as I was more into Art and History. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t know it. I do remember really getting into Romeo and Juliet — but back then in secondary school, it was uncool to actually admit something like that and so I kept it to myself. I remember my shock and laughter after we read this speech in class:

 And since that time it is eleven years;
 For then she could stand high-lone; nay, by th’ rood,
 She could have run and waddled all about;
 For even the day before, she broke her brow,
 And then my husband—God be with his soul!
 ‘A was a merry man—took up the child:
 'Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
 Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
 Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and, by my holidam,
 The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay.’
 To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
  I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
 I never should forget it: ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ quoth he;
 And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay.’

(before anyone buts in: we were all fourteen / fifteen and didn’t know any better. There.) It was a shock to me that a play that was about four centuries old could be puerile, could be shocking, could be funny. Come to think about it, I saw a production of the same play two years ago by NUI Galway’s drama society, and the most that people remember from that production was the final scene, and how gut-wrenching and sad it was. I had never seen it played so slowly, so painfully.

Fast forward about two or three years later from that classroom, and my first experience on the stage at all. This was Macbeth, and after a laughable audition as Lady Macbeth, I was cast as the Porter. Now, I was sixteen years old, but despite the director’s best attempts, I could never get the hang of what ‘equivocator’ meant. That production, despite my inability to play drunk and speak Shakespearean verse correctly, was the beginning of my love affair proper with my youth theatre and with theatre in general, and whereas for me and my generation of youth theatre folk it would take the following year’s The Crucible to fully grasp that love, that Shakespearean production was the start of something. (I do wish someone had actually come along and told me how cool the Porter was though — what the hell lads, what the hell)

If we skip the Leaving Cert, the next time I encountered Shakespeare was in my second year of college. I left a very popular lecturer’s course on classics and Renaissance  theatre after the first day because I was dismayed that he wasn’t going to discuss Shakespeare’s plays in depth (the other course *did* give you that option, and I ended up taking it, which was my best grade for that semester. Yuss!). But what I really learned about studying Shakespeare at university was how liberating it actually is. You can approach Shakespeare from any angle, from any perspective, from any time period. That’s why I’m so interested in contemporary performance of his plays — it never ceases to fascinate me how many different ways in which you can approach them. One of my best friends staged an all-female production of Hamlet this year, even. It can be done.

this really has nothing to do with Hamlet, but here’s a nice picture of Fiona Shaw playing Richard III, everyone. woo, Fiona Shaw

I wrote an essay on sexuality in As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew that year (we’re still in second year, everyone), which drew upon S&M, a brief mention of psychological rape, and theatricality. I thought my seminar leader would think it was weird. That essay ended up winning me a departmental prize that year. (Safe to say, he didn’t.) Since then, I’ve conducted research projects on magic realism and the metatheatrical in Shakespeare, and also on contemporary performances of  Cymbeline, which sprung from the former project. And working on those projects has consolidated for me what I want to pursue with my life, and indeed pursue in terms of further research.

It is now late into April. It’s in the middle of my exams, the weather is nice, the World Shakespeare Festival is in full swing, and in a few months’ time I will be starting postgraduate study in Stratford. I am genuinely excited about what the next year will bring. Hell, I’m proud to be the resident Shakespearean among my friends.

Happy birthday, Shakespeare!