Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Farewell Interview with Stephen Muterspaugh

mutersp_d71_4203At the start of 2017, we said a fond farewell to SF Shakes Associate Artistic Director Stephen Muterspaugh, congratulating him as he began his new job as Managing Artistic Director forJewel Theatre Company in Santa Cruz. Since joining our company in 2010, Steve founded the Shakespeare For All residency program, creating community-based productions featuring first-time actors working alongside professionals in Salida, Modesto, and other Central Valley communities; he directed four Shakespeare On Tour productions between 2012 and 2015; he appeared in two Free Shakespeare in the Park productions (Banquo in 2013’s Macbeth and Leontes in last season’s acclaimed The Winter’s Tale); and he co-directed the 2014 Free Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew. During his time at SF Shakes, he passed on his passion for Shakespeare to hundreds of students through Bay Area Shakespeare Camps, Midnight Shakespeare program, and Advanced Shakespeare Workshop.

We’re so excited about Steve’s next step in his career, and we’re also thrilled he’ll remain a Resident Artist with the company and direct our upcoming Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet this summer. We sat down with Steve earlier this week to talk about his history with SF Shakes, his new job, and what he’ll miss about working with us full-time.

How did you first hear about SF Shakes?

I auditioned for Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2010 and said on my audition form that I was also interested in teaching. I wasn’t cast in the show, but I was called in to teach, and that’s how my journey with SF Shakes started.

What do you remember about that first summer teaching for SF Shakes?

Organized chaos! It was such a whirlwind summer. My main memory of that summer is a student I taught in my first camp who was blind: she was really into Shakespeare’s work, she responded so deeply to it, because of the imagery that his words created in her mind.


Steve as Banquo and Michael Ray Wisely as Macbeth in our 2013 production of Macbeth.

How did you become Associate Artistic Director in 2013?

I joined the staff in 2012 as the Education Programs Manager. [SF Shakes Executive Director] Toby Leavitt saw the work I was doing with the Midnight Shakespeare program in Oakland and thought that classroom work would translate into working with adult non-actors. So she and I designed Shakespeare for All together, and that was the same year I became Associate Artistic Director.

What’s your favorite memory from your time with SF Shakes?

I directed the Shakespeare on Tour A Midsummer Night’s Dream production a few years ago, and we’d been rehearsing for three weeks when we were asked to be part of the Litquake Festival. We performed in a parklet in the City with full costume and props, doing this one performance of the show as part of the Lit Crawl series. Our show was just along the way in between event venues, and we thought it would be a tiny performance, but as we started we had over 100 people watching us on that sidewalk. It got to the point where the audience started blocking traffic–when a cop came up to us and was going to ask us to disperse, someone told him it was Shakespeare and he changed his mind! It was such a beautiful guerrilla theatre moment—we thought we would lose people after 5 minutes and they stayed for the whole hour-long performance.

Do you have moments you’re most proud of?

My experiences teaching Midnight Shakespeare were both extremely rewarding and intensely challenging. Every one of those performances gave me a chance to watch these young adults shine in a way that I had never seen. They really understood better than anyone that Shakespeare’s words are meant to be performed onstage. There was one moment I particularly loved the year that Midnight Shakespeare produced Romeo and Juliet, involving the actor playing Mercutio: his girlfriend’s son had sat through entire show and had a good time. Later the actor brought the kid on stage, with no one watching, and he recited the Queen Mab speech to this little kid and asked the kid to say the words back to him. It was a great passing of the baton from one generation to the next.


Steve as Leontes in last summer’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

What are you going to miss most about being Artistic Associate Director for SF Shakes?

The beauty of my SF Shakes job was that I got to just live in Shakespeare’s words every day. There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t reading the text and getting to delve into it and be a student myself. It was my job to study his work, how crazy was that? I’ll miss having Shakespeare be part of my life every day.

What are you most excited about working with Jewel Theatre?

At SF Shakes we worked on 400-year-old plays all year. Now I get to do at least one brand new show a year and every season is eclectic. Bringing new plays to life will be a big change for me. Also, SF Shakes does one or two shows per season, and now I get to produce five.

What will you take with you from your time at SF Shakes?

All of it! The biggest thing is the concern with social relevance—you have to think about relevance every time you produce a play. Every time SF Shakes would produce a Shakespeare show, we would ask, “Why are we doing this particular play?” I’ll also carry the social justice aspect of SF Shakes’ mission with me.

What are you most excited about when it comes to directing this summer’s Hamlet?

I think there’s so much relevance with the Hamlet story being a surrogate for the uncertainty of America right now. It’s not a 1:1 comparison, but there is a lot of similarity. I feel that when Hamlet returns to Denmark from school, he finds himself thinking, “Where am I? What happened?” I feel like no matter what they believe politically, the entire population of America right now is grasping at that thought of, “Where are we as a nation?” That’s where this play starts, and I’m excited about tracing that journey… as well as Hamlet’s own personal journey throughout the play, of course!

Thank you, Steve, for so many amazing seasons at SF Shakes. We are proud of you, we’ll miss you, and we look forward to working with you again this summer!


Steve (bottom left) poses with the cast of our 2012 Shakespeare for All program in Salida.

Top 3 New Year’s Resolutions for SF Shakes


Ah, another New Year’s Day come and gone. Time to make some resolutions, right? Even year-round Shakespeare theatre companies make them.

Our company doesn’t have a long list, but the items on it are very important to us. In 2017, we resolve to:

1. Celebrate our 35th Anniversary in style.


This year we’re celebrating our 35th birthday as the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival! And while 35 might be a respectable, mature age, we’re determined to have some fun. At the very least, we’re going to have lots of fun digging through old photos and sharing them with you (and asking you to share your photos with us)! We’re also excited to produce Hamlet for the first time for Free Shakespeare in the Park and pop up in some unexpected places with some of your favorite scenes from Shakespeare.

2. Use Shakespeare to create a bright spot in the world.


We believe in the power of the arts to heal: to inspire us, to touch the humanity in all of us, and to bring communities together. Our Free Shakespeare in the Park productions combine the best in the performing arts with beautiful words, beautiful sets, and beautiful costumes, and we present them to thousands of people across the Bay Area every summer. This year, we’re doubly determined to give you the best. We’ll also use our education programs to give students all over California the chance to express and explore their emotions through language and movement. We’re taking that responsibility more seriously than ever.

3. Lose our hearts to San Francisco all over again.


Sure, our Shakespeare on Tour Program may travel across the state, but we are the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival for a reason. We love our hometown. This year, we resolve to fill the City with poetry and entertainment.

Bonus Resolution:

Somehow, we must find a way to make use of at least something from this hilariously labeled box.


And we promise you pictures when we do.

So there you have it. 2017 is going to be a big one. We hope you’ll join us for the yearlong celebration!

Two Households – Love by the numbers in “Romeo and Juliet”

I imagine you’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet. Even if you’ve never seen it, it’s impossible to avoid references to it in popular culture. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t a part of our cultural fabric and riffed on in every type of imaginable media, from children’s cartoons to action movies to popular musicals to chart-topping love songs.


Now try to imagine a time, back in the 1590’s, when those two names weren’t household words. They may have been vaguely familiar to some. Although it was originally an Italian story, English readers might have read Arthur Brooke’s 1592 verse adaptation, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet:

Love hath inflamed twayne by sodayn sight.
And both do graunt the thing that both desyre.
They wed in shrift by counsell of a frier.
Yong Romeus clymes fayre Juliets bower by night.
Three monthes he doth enjoy his cheefe delight.
By Tybalts rage, provoked unto yre,
He payeth death to Tybalt for his hyre.
A banisht man he scapes by secret flight.
New mariage is offred to his wyfe:
She drinkes a drinke that seemes to reve her breath.
They bury her, that sleeping yet hath lyfe.
Her husband heares the tydinges of her death.
He drinkes his bane. And she with Romeus knife,
When she awakes, her selfe (alas) she sleath.

At about the time Brooke’s poem was published, a young poet had just arrived in London and was making a name for himself as the author of Venus and Adonis, which was pretty much the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Every housewife had to have a copy of this sexy little volume.


Fondling, she saith, since I have hem’d thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I’ll be a parke, and thou shalt be my deare:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountaine, or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountaines lie.
Witin this limit is reliefe enough,
Sweet bottome grasse, and high delightfull plaine,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure, and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest, and from raine:
Then be my deare, since I am such a parke,
No dog shall rowze thee, though a thousand bark.

Everyone was waiting to see what this young man would come up with next. Rumor had it that he’d been writing some new poems in the sonnet form popularized by Sir Philip Sidney in his Astrophel and Stella, written in 1591. These new sonnets were different from the Petrarchan ones of Italy. Instead of a 14-line poem that started with an octet of eight lines with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, followed by a sestet of six lines that went CDDECE, Sidney popularized a new rhyme scheme with four quatrains followed by a couplet, that went ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. While Petrarch introduced a problem in the octet and solved it in the sestet, Sidney introduced the problem in the first quatrain, expanded on it, then solved it neatly in the final couplet.

The Petrarchan scheme was very well suited for the Italian language, while this new scheme suited the English language. With its simple construction and its final couplet, the scheme was easy to remember and mathematically satisfying. Soon Sidney’s form had taken off among the young lovers of the city, and we can imagine them slaving away to compose odes for their mistresses.

Peachum drawing

A scene from Titus Andronicus, also known as “the Peachum drawing”

Around that time, Shakespeare seems to have become a hired gun for some of the city’s theatre companies, and eventually joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was for them that he began to write a few popular plays, such as The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI cycle, and Titus Andronicus. But nothing he’d written yet had shaken the theatrical firmament. He was still more successful as a poet.

His sonnets weren’t published until 1609, but a few may have already been circulating among his “private friends” in 1594 when he began to work on a unique play that would capitalize on the new sonnet trend.


First of all, he began it with a sonnet:

Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their childrens end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Not only was it unheard of to use a sonnet as a prologue, he also cleverly embedded the “twos” that were so much part of the scheme into it. Two households. Two foes. A pair of star-crossed lovers. Two hours traffic of our Stage.

Shakespeare didn’t stop there. He surpassed himself by actually including a sonnet spoken by two people – the very first moment Juliet and Romeo meet, they speak a perfect poem together, a brilliant demonstration that the two are destined to love each other. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact this must have had on his audience – it would be like us watching a very clever hip-hop musical like In the Heights, in which one popular art form is combined with another.

Zeffirelli hand to hand

Rom. If I profane with my unworthiest hand,
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips two blushing Pilgrims ready stand,
To smooth that rough touch, with a tender kiss.

Jul. Good Pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much.
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For Saints have hands, that Pilgrims hands do touch,
And palm to palm, is holy Palmers kiss.

Rom. Have not Saints lips, and holy Palmers too?

Jul. Ay Pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Rom. O then dear Saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray (grant thou) least faith turn to despair.

Jul. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers sake.

Rom. Then move not while my prayers effect I take:

(They kiss!)

Well, the audience went nuts for this new play. We know this because an unauthorized quarto of the play was published for the mass market, with an introduction stating “it hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely.” It probably made Shakespeare’s reputation and paved the way for his other great tragedies.

Why do audiences respond to R&J with such enthusiasm? Well, sonnets aren’t the only things about Romeo and Juliet that are mathematically satisfying. Dualities come up over and over again as we consider Romeo and Juliet – starting with its title. Not only does it include two names, its lesser-know subtitle includes an antithesis – the most excellent and lamentable tragedy. It also straddles two genres. In the first half, the play is clearly a comedy, full of rhyming couplets, until its mid-point and the death of Mercutio, at which point it becomes a tragedy, and the couplets all but disappear.

Family symbols

The characters themselves exist in pairs. We have, of course, the two rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Shakespeare also gives Romeo two close friends, Benvolio and Mercutio. Benvolio is non-violent and in favor of a measured approach to life:

Ben. I do but keep the peace, put up thy Sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

While Mercutio is reckless and chaotic:

Mer. O calme, dishonourable, vile submission:
Alla stucatho carries it away.
Tybalt, you Rat-catcher, will you walk?


Each lover has an older advisor who is not their parent – Juliet the Nurse and Romeo the Friar. Paris is presented as a looking-glass Romeo, the lover who might have been. Romeo also has two loves, the unseen Rosalind of the first act, and ultimately Juliet. Even the servants appear in pairs in the very first scene, Sampson & Gregory vs. Abram & an unnamed Montague servant.

The language itself is full of dualities and dichotomies. Scholars have made much of the light vs dark and day vs night imagery in the play. Consider this speech of Juliet’s:

Jul. Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus lodging, such a Wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in Cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close Curtain Love-performing night,
That run-aways eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen,
Lovers can see to do their Amorous rights,
And by their own Beauties: or if Love be blind,
It best agrees with night: come civil night,
Thou sober suited Matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Plaid for a pair of stainless Maidenhoods,
Hood my unman’d blood bating in my Cheeks,
With thy Black mantle, till strange Love grow bold,
Think true Love acted simple modesty:
Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter then new Snow upon a Ravens back:
Come gentle night, come loving blackbrow’d night.
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the Face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in Love with night,
And pay no worship to the Garish Sun.

Farewell scene

Or the farewell scene:

Jul. Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:
It was the Nightingale, and not the Lark,
That pierc’t the fearful hollow of thine ear,
Nightly she sings on yond Pomegranate tree,
Believe me Love, it was the Nightingale.

Rom. It was the Lark the Herald of the Morn:
No Nightingale: look Love what envious streaks
Do lace the severing Clouds in yonder East:
Nights Candles are burnt out, and Jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty Mountains tops,
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Jul. Yond light is not daylight, I know it I:
It is some Meteor that the Sun exhales,
To be to thee this night a Torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone –

Rom. Let me be tane, let me be put to death,
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon gray is not the mornings eye,
‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cinthias brow.
Nor that is not Lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads,
I have more care to stay, then will to go:
Come death and welcome, Juliet wills it so.
How is’t my soul, lets talk, it is not day.

Juli. It is, it is, hie hence be gone away:
It is the Lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh Discords, and unpleasing Sharps.
Some say the Lark makes sweet Division;
This doth not so: for she divideth us.
Some say, the Lark and loathed Toad change eyes,
O now I would they had chang’d voices too:
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence, with Hunts-up to the day,
O now be gone, more light and light it grows.

Rom. More light & light, more dark & dark our woes.

It’s interesting to note that most of the scenes in the play take place either during the night or at dawn. One of the dawn scenes is the Friar’s first encounter with Romeo after he meets Juliet. the Friar’s first speech is a feast of antithetical structure, with each couplet providing two contrasting ideas about the same thing:

Fri. The gray ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check’ring the Eastern Clouds with streaks of light:
And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels,
From forth days path, and Titans burning wheels:
Now ere the Sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer, and nights dank dew to dry,
I must upfill this Osier Cage of ours,
With baleful weeds, and precious Juiced flowers,
The earth that’s Natures mother, is her Tomb,
What is her burying grave that is her womb:
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find:
Many for many virtues excellent:
None but for some, and yet all different.
O mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In Plants, Herbs, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile, that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give.
Nor ought so good, but strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue it self turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.
Within the infant rin’d of this weak flower,
Poison hath residence, and medicine power:
For this being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed Kings encamp them still,
In man as well as Herbs, grace and rude will:
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the Canker death eats up that Plant.

Friar Laurence

In this speech, often cut, Shakespeare subtly buries his theme – as the reverse of comedy is tragedy, the reverse of passionate love is violent hate. It is part of the human condition for one to lead to the other. The Friar preaches moderation:

Rom. O let us hence, I stand on sudden haste.

Friar. Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.

And later:

Friar. These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Note again the use of couplets, antitheses, and parallel construction.

When the Friar’s fears prove true, and Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, Juliet responds with a shower of antitheses:

Jul. O Serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face.
Did ever Dragon keep so fair a Cave?
Beautiful Tyrant, fiend Angelical:
Ravenous Dove-feather’d Raven,
Wolvish-ravening Lamb,
Despised substance of Divinest show:
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,
A damned Saint, an Honorable Villain:
O Nature! what had’st thou to do in hell,
When thou did’st bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous Palace.

The poetry and the rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet, which utilize these dualities, are part of what makes the play so satisfying. Just as the human heart is drawn to the paired beat of the iambic foot – da-DUM – our minds respond to sets of two, as if our paired genetic material needs to understand everything through couplings.


In our upcoming production, I am interested in exploring another set of two in the play – the two generations. On the one hand, we have the older folks, the middle-aged parents and advisors – Lord and Lady Capulet and Montague, the Nurse and the Friar. The Prince could also be of this generation, it isn’t stated. As Juliet says:

Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball,
My words would bandy her to my sweet Love,
And his to me, but old folks,
Many fain as they were dead,
Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead.

The parents’ generation is perceived as slow – hopelessly out of touch with their children. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are brought on by the tardiness of the older generation – the Friar’s message to Romeo of his plan to reunite them is delayed by his brother Friar John and arrives too late.

Lord Montague

A historical Lord Montague.

The younger generation, including Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris, and perhaps many of the servants, with the exception of Benvolio tend to act rashly and quickly. They have a secret life unknown to their parents, described by Lord Montague:

Mont. Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh mornings dew,
Adding to clouds, more clouds with his deep sighs,
But all so soon as the all-cheering Sun,
Should in the farthest East begin to draw
The shady Curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy Son,
And private in his Chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair day-light out,
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.

Ben. My Noble Uncle, do you know the cause?

Mon. I neither know it, nor can learn of him.

Ben. Have you importun’d him by any means?

Moun. Both by myself and many others Friends,
But he his own affections counselor,
Is to himself (I will not say how true)
But to himself so secret and so close,
So far from sounding and discovery,
As is the bud bit with an envious worm,
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate his beauty to the same.
Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow,
We would as willingly give cure, as know.

Juliet and Romeo do not tell their parents about their love, having been poisoned by the ancient feud. Ironically, the generations are divided by the very thing that they have in common. Romeo and Juliet were doomed to die, coming as they did “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes” – in both sense of the word, “fatal.”

The play ends not with the scene you remember, of the two lovers committing suicide. That happens by line 169 of the scene. Almost 150 lines later, the play ends. It’s important not to cut all of those last 150 lines, in which the older members of the community struggle to come to terms with what has happened completely without their knowledge. Of the six young people I mentioned above, only the temperate Benvolio is still alive – and not even in that final scene unless the director decides to include him. This is a massive community crisis, and Shakespeare does not end the play until the families are on the path to recovery.

Cap. O Brother Montague, give me thy hand,
This is my Daughters jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

Mon. But I can give thee more:
For I will raise her Statue in pure Gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at that Rate be set,
As that of True and Faithful Juliet.

Cap. As rich shall Romeo by his Lady lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity.

R&J statue

The Romeo and Juliet statue in Central Park, NYC.

One final note – I believe that the structure of the play itself subtly conforms to the sonnet structure. Once again, let’s hear the prologue. The first quatrain sets up the problem:

Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:

In these lines, we have the first scene of the play, and the older generation’s dilemma – what is to be done about the warring families? In this quatrain we have the Capulets’ attempt to create good relations with the Prince through the Ball and the engagement of Juliet to Romeo. We also have the families’ reaction to the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio and Romeo’s ensuing punishment. The older generation has a high-stakes play of its own going on, and knows nothing about the secret romance.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.

In this quatrain we have the main plot of the play – Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love. Although they aren’t mentioned, we also have the Friar and the Nurse’s involvement in the affairs of the younger generation.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their childrens end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.

In this quatrain, we have both threads, the older and younger generations’ stories, woven together and brought to a climax and resolution, all tidily in two hours.

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Traditionally, the final couplet of a sonnet brings with it some twist. At first glance, this one is the humble request for the audience’s attention that prologues of the time often include. It also brings together the two halves of any theatrical experience – the performers and the audience. Read more closely, it’s also an argument for two essential things in human relationships – patience on one side, and hard work on the other. In order for two pairings of people to get along – two households, two lovers, two generations, actors and audience – patience and toil are both necessary.

I hope, when you come to see Romeo and Juliet, this essay will enhance your enjoyment of the production and let you in on some subtleties that you might not have noticed. And until then:

Jul. Good night, good night.

Rom. Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say goodnight, till it be morrow.


The Story of the Sonnets, for Valentine’s Day

This is the transcript of a presentation I gave on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 at the Presidio Officers’ Club, as part of the Presidio Trust Heritage Program. The sonnets were read by SF Shakes Resident Artists Emily Jordan and Radhika Rao, as well as volunteers from the audience.


This is the story of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So to start off, it’s useful to know what makes a sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets have the following 14-line rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG – Three quatrains of alternating rhymes, followed by a rhyming couplet. Of course, not all of the rhymes of the sonnets work anymore, although in Shakespeare’s day words like “remove” and “love” actually rhymed. (We won’t be reading in Original Pronunciation tonight, but if you’d like a taste of it, please refer to the excellent work of our colleagues David and Ben Crystal.)

The story of the sonnets involves a lot of assumptions. First of all, you have to believe that Shakespeare was a man from Stratford who wrote some plays, and along with those wrote a few sonnets – 154, to be exact. You then have to assume that the sonnets were about himself, and the people he addresses in the sonnets were people that he knew and loved.


You also have to be very interested in the first page of the collected sonnets, published by Thomas Thorpe and dedicated to someone mysteriously known as “Mr W.H.” If, as has been recently very practically suggested by scholars, Mr WH is merely William Holme, a friend of the publisher, then you are truly unromantic. Instead, isn’t it much more fun to imagine that Mr WH was a code name for one of Shakespeare’s patrons, either Henry Wriothesley, the dashing Earl of Southampton, or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, son of Mary Sidney, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, also a famous author of sonnets? A lord would never have been called “Mr,” but maybe this was a way for Shakespeare to pay homage to his patron while keeping his identity private, because as we shall see, the content of these sonnets gets a little racy at times.


William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke

In telling the story of the sonnets, I am going to tell the story as I best like to think it happened, based on both research and imagination. I prefer the William Herbert theory, because not only are the initials in the right order, but Shakespeare’s closest friends eventually also dedicated the First Folio to him. Certain events of Herbert’s life line up very cleanly alongside the arc of the sonnets, as we shall see.


From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The sonnets were published in 1609. They seem to have been written over a period of many years, since the events therein tell, in particular, of the coming of age of a certain fair young man.

In April of 1597, William Herbert turned 17. Could it be a coincidence that the first seventeen poems are addressed in a classic, rather remote style to a young man who it seems the poet has never met, urging him to marry and procreate?


When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use
If thou couldst answer, “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Interestingly, at age 17, William Herbert had already refused to marry once, in 1595 to Elizabeth Carey. Could his mother, the extraordinarily creative and intelligent Mary Sidney, herself a poet of note and a women of great connections, have commissioned a set of poems as a birthday present, one that would encourage her wayward son to do the best thing for the family line and marry Bridget de Vere?


Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.”
So should my papers (yellowed with their age)
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage,
And stretchèd meter of an antique song.
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice: in it, and in my rhyme.

In the first 17 sonnets, Shakespeare writes often encouraging the boy to have children to preserve his immortality, even as the poet preserves him in verse. At Sonnet 18, there is an abrupt shift.


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Suddenly all talk of procreation is dropped, and the boy comes to full and vivid life. From here on out, there’s no talk of preserving the family line – the boy’s beauty will be preserved through the words of the poet, a poet who seems undeniably smitten with his subject. Did the poet and the fair young man finally meet in person?


A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth;
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Was Shakespeare gay, or more accurately, bisexual? There was nothing unusual or scandalous at the time about expressing platonic male to male love through poetry, but that last sonnet, with its “one thing” and “pricked thee out” does seem to hint at something a bit more physical in nature. The fact is, the modern concept of homosexuality didn’t exist at the time, and while sodomy was illegal, it seems quite likely that if you felt like trying something different on the side, and you kept it discreet, you would not be the only one. It may even have been a mark of worldliness, presuming you ended up married to a woman and had plenty of sons. So who knows?


Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired;
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel, hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo, thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

Ben Jonson

The course of true love, it seems, did not run smooth for Shakespeare and his fair young friend. In the summer of 1597, the Privy Council shut the theatres down in reaction to a scandalous play co-written by one of Shakespeare’s friends, Ben Jonson, called The Isle of Dogs. We don’t have a copy of this play anymore, but it may have been critical of the Queen or her advisors, amounting to an act of sedition. At any rate, it’s interesting to imagine that London became temporarily unsafe for playwrights, and Shakespeare fled to his home in Stratford, where he spent the next months writing plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV Parts One and Two – all of which include close and loving relationships between two men, one young and one middle-aged.


When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth–sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

For a while, no matter the struggles that life brings the poet, he takes solace in his love. And then, once more, around Sonnet 33, there is a shift, and the sonnets take on an accusatory tone.


Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy brav’ry in their rotten smoke?
‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace;
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss;
Th’offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.
Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.

The fair young man has done something shameful – but what?


Take all my loves, my love; yea, take them all.
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more:
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee, for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong, than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

He’s taken something of the poets – one of his loves. So there is someone else, someone else the poet loves, and the fair young man has taken him? Her?


That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her,
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suff’ring my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross.
But here’s the joy: my friend and I are one–
Sweet flattery–then she loves but me alone.


Anne Hathaway Shakespeare

And here, rather spectacularly, a third point of the triangle enters the picture. Will’s wife Anne? It seems unlikely, at home raising the children as she was, and probably also attending to a busy malt-making business and other village concerns. No, this lady is part of his London life. We’ll learn more about her later – for now what matters is that she and the boy have been together, breaking the poet’s heart.


Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity; wherewith, being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow;
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.


Time passes – time filled with passion, anguish, and despair. The boy ages, the poet too, and he returns to his theme of immortality through language and love. He also attempts to reconcile the outer beauty of his love with deeds which, though unnamed, often seem to be less than noble.


Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend;
All tongues, the voice of souls, give thee that due,
Utt’ring bare truth, even so as foes commend;
Thy outward thus with outward praise is crowned.
But those same tongues that give thee so thine own
In other accents do this praise confound,
By seeing farther than the eye hath shown;
They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that in guess they measure by thy deeds;
Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds.
But why thy odor matcheth not thy show,
The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.

He also indulges in some major bouts of self-pity.


No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
Oh, if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

And just as the whole thing is getting a bit tedious, another character is introduced.


Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give another place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again;
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behavior; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee, but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee, thou thyself dost pay.

This “worthier pen” seems to also be penning poems to the young man. Shakespeare despairs, but proves he is up for the challenge, answering the new poet’s odes with a matched pair of his own.


Oh, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrecked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive, and I be cast away,
The worst was this: my love was my decay.


Or I shall live, your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die;
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues-to-be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.


George Chapman

Who was this poet? Did William Herbert patronize another writer during this time? In 1598, a classicist named George Chapman became briefly trendy due to his popular translation of The Iliad, published in installments. I can imagine the courtiers a-buzz with excitement as he spun out his episodes, like hipsters waiting for the latest podcast of Serial. Perhaps Chapman was Shakespeare’s rival poet?


Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonishèd.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence.
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.

And so poor Shakespeare finds himself in a poet’s worst possible predicament – outdone in both love and poetry. This brings us to what might be the first break-up sonnet in history.


Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate;
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift upon misprision growing
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

But we’re only on Sonnet 87 out of 154, so clearly Shakespeare was not content to leave it there. He has to get a little judgy.


They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies that fester? Some scholars think this poem suggests that the fair young man’s exploits had finally caught up to him, and he was rotting from the inside – from syphilis, perhaps.


Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are loved of more and less;
Thou mak’st faults graces, that to thee resort:
As on the finger of a thronèd queen
The basest jewel will be well esteemed,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deemed.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
How many gazers mightst thou lead away
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

But Shakespeare had a “bad boyfriend” problem, and just couldn’t stay away. And so he returns to his theme – love, beauty, time, and immortality.


To me, fair friend, you never can be old;
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still: three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived;
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred,
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

Three years have passed. William Herbert would be twenty now, and Shakespeare thirty-six. Shakespeare’s passion has mellowed, his voice has matured, and here, two-thirds of the way through the sequence, we have some of his most beautiful and best beloved poems.


Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely; but by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.
Now all is done, save what shall have no end;
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confined.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Then at Sonnet 126, we see another major shift in tone.


O thou my lovely boy who in thy power
Dost hold time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour,
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace, and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure:
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure!
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

This warning, this incomplete, 12-line poem heralds a departure from obsession over this particular relationship, and the fleshing out of a character, already mentioned, who deserves her very own chapter.


In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

The Dark Lady, as she is popularly known, does not conform to the pale blonde ideal of Elizabethan culture. But Shakespeare finds her black hair and eyes and dark complexion beautiful, and praises her in a series of clever, funny poems.


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go–
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

He refers from time to time to her affair with the young man, but with sanguine humor.


When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.


Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which, like two spirits, do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.
To win me soon to hell my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.


Mary Fitton

The identity of the Dark Lady is more mysterious even than that of the Fair Young Man. (Some believe her to be Mary Fitton, because she was known to have been impregnated by William Herbert. Their infant child dies of syphilis – coincidence?) Toward the end of the sequence, we find one poem that suggests that perhaps the Dark Lady and Will’s wife Anne are one and the same – or perhaps it’s just a separate poem entirely, composed by Will when wooing his wife and included here to round out the story of his love affairs.


Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said “I hate,”
To me, that languished for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that, ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
“I hate” she altered with an end
That followed it as gentle day
Doth follow night who, like a fiend,
From heaven to hell is flown away.
“I hate” from “hate” away she threw,
And saved my life, saying “not you.”

“Hate away” is generally accepted to be a pun on Hathaway, Anne’s maiden name.

The sequence ends with two oddly out of place poems about Cupid, which seem to have nothing to do with the story:


Cupid laid by his brand, and fell asleep;
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground,
Which borrowed from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure:
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure; the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire–my mistress’ eyes.

As I imagine the tale, these two sonnets at the end bring us full circle back to the beginning. Imagine Mary Sidney, seeking to find out if this young poet might persuade her son to marry through sonnets, which were like hip-hop music at the time, a very trendy way to reach a youth audience. But in order to make sure he can handle it, she sets up a test – based on a passage from Marianus’ Greek poems (recently translated by Fausto Sabeo) compose a sonnet ex tempore.

In his play Every Man in His Humour, Ben Jonson has a character who claims to create sonnets ex tempore, off the top of his head. As was typical of the Jonson-Shakespeare relationship, this character is exposed to a lot of ridicule. It’s also quite possible that Shakespeare played this character in the original production. Could Ben have based it on a story Will told him about composing sonnets for Mary Sidney’s son?

Let’s say that Will accomplishes the task, but doesn’t love what he’s done, so he tries again:


The little love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
Came tripping by, but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased, but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

This time he creates a better sonnet, one with a bit more sexual innuendo – and a clever reference to Mary’s husband Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who had been to the waters of Bath as a cure for various ailments. It’s easy to imagine that the Herberts were won over by Shakespeare’s creativity, leading to what seems to have been one of the defining relationships of the poet’s life.


Henry Herbert, William’s father

At the end of the day, does it really matter who these people were, or whether these sonnets are a true story about the poet? They’re still great poems, no matter whether they express Shakespeare’s innermost thoughts. But I think it’s a thrill to read them and imagine them as a glimpse into Shakespeare’s heart – a heart that loved, and was broken, and found both happiness and despair, just like our own.

May your Valentine’s Day be filled with more happiness than despair, but if things do go wrong, try writing a sonnet.

My play Sonnets for W.H., based on the story above, will receive a staged reading as part of our 2015 season. Next month, watch for a post about sonnets and sonnet structure in Romeo and Juliet, our 2015 Free Shakespeare in the Park production.

The Year of the Shrew, Part One: Pastime Passing Excellent


Tim Kniffin (Petruccio) and Carla Pantoja (Katherina) in SF Shakes’ upcoming production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Next week, we go into rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew, and the season we’re calling The Year of the Shrew kicks into high gear. From the moment when we decided to produce this controversial comedy, I have immersed myself in research of past productions, arguments for and against the play, and my own concerns about how to present it. With this production, I want to reclaim the word “Shrew” and tackle the issues of female dis-empowerment in the play head-on. I hope to find in Katherina a damaged proto-feminist, and in Petruccio a reformed misogynist turned male ally – two prickly outsiders finding their way to each other in a culture full of gender-based expectations. And, of course, I want it to be very, very funny. All this must be grounded in the text – we must find it there, because at the end of the day we want to do the play Shakespeare wrote.

Just days away from getting the actors in the room, I still grapple daily with this play. I don’t suppose I will stop grappling at the end of rehearsals, or even on closing night. I ask myself, is it responsible of me as a feminist to produce it? To direct it? To keep it alive in the canon? Or would it be better to let it fall out of favor, a relic of another time? As the Isla Vista murders and #YesAllWomen have reminded us in recent weeks, the violent subjugation of women isn’t some long-distant 400-year-old memory to look back on with laughter. Culture, and how women are represented in that culture, matters. As a woman director who has always loved this play, I feel a responsibility toward it and toward other people who love it. Why does it still fascinate us? Why do women in particular love Kate so much?


Ada Rehan as Katherina, 1877.

The fact is, this is a sexist play. It’s also not a sexist play, but one that subverts its own genre. Understanding and appreciating Shakespeare, to me, means being able to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time. Shylock is a villain and a victim. Hamlet is indecisive and a man of action. Macbeth is powerful and weak. Shakespeare was never interested in two-dimensional characters or situations, and I believe we do him a disservice if we don’t pay attention to what he’s saying around the edges of the genre. He was a commercial playwright who had to write for an existing audience, and at the same time he was doing things no one had ever attempted before. The fact that he remained so commercially successful in spite of his groundbreaking innovations astonishes me.

The Taming of the Shrew reflects its time, a time of many contradictions, in which gender roles were in flux. There was a woman on the throne, and according to the Divine Right of Sovereigns, she was infallible. At the same time, husbands had their own divine right, to punish their wives for perceived crimes without trial or explanation. How could one woman be all-powerful while the rest were lesser humans? Add to this a new idea of the time that marriage should be based on mutual love and respect, along with the rise of women holding property, engaging in business dealings, and getting involved in local politics (for a terrific book on the real life of women of the period, see Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife). All this resulted in cultural shifts around gender roles in the 1590’s that sound pretty familiar to us even in the 21st century.


Elizabethan women at work.

As you know if you follow the #YesAllWomen feed on Twitter, whenever women begin to gain power, there’s a vicious patriarchal backlash. The emergence of “Shrew” plays and ballads in the Elizabethan era was a reaction to the rise of nascent feminism threatening heretofore unquestioned male sovereignty. It’s not hard to imagine Richard Burbage telling his new young playwright to get to work on a play that would celebrate and re-establish a comfortable Protestant patriarchy, a play based on one of the most horrifyingly misogynistic songs ever sung. No, not “Blurred Lines” – a lengthy ballad known as “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife, Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for her Good Behavior.”

To spare you having to read through it, here’s the gist: A wealthy man has two daughters of marriageable age. The youngest is mild, sweet, and sought-after, and the eldest is “shrewish” and violent. A young fortune-hunter comes to town and marries the eldest, planning to “tame” her. The marriage is marked by mutual violence – he beats her, she beats him back, until he finally kills and flays his old horse Morel, beats his wife until he draws blood, then wraps her in the horse’s salted hide until she agrees to obey her husband and demonstrate wifely behavior at a public feast.


An illustration from “A Merry Jest.”

As usual, Shakespeare didn’t adhere slavishly to his source material. He used the basic plot of this and other Shrew folktales – a brash young suitor arrives to marry a shrewish older daughter – but subverts it from the start with an unusual structural choice. He uses a framing device, or Induction, set in an Inn, where plays were frequently performed in provincial towns like Shakespeare’s Stratford.


A modern rendering of an Inn Yard stage.

The first characters to appear are Christopher Sly and the Hostess. Sly is a drunken beggar, a lower-class, powerless male figure. In the first moments of the play, he is scolded by the Hostess, a female business owner, for breaking her glassware. He boasts of his ancestral privilege, insults her, and then passes out at her feet.

“Sly. I’ll pheeze you, in faith.

1st Woman. A pair of stocks, you rogue.

Sly. Y’are a baggage, the Slys are no Rogues. Look in the Chronicles, we came in with Richard Conqueror: therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide: Sessa.”

Here we have what might be referred to as a male Shrew.


An elephant shrew, arguably the cutest of the shrews.

What’s a Shrew? In the animal kingdom, shrews are small vicious rodents, originally believed to have a poisonous bite, who squeak loudly – they’re kind of cute if you find the right photo. According to Barbara Hodgdon’s excellent introduction to the Arden Shrew, “by the mid-thirteenth century ‘shrew’ had come to mean a wicked, ill-disposed, or malignant man’, a definition which by the end of the fourteenth century had expanded to refer to the devil.” This description seems more fitted to Iago than Katherina. By Chaucer’s era, the definition could refer to either gender, and by Shakespeare’s, women had taken on the name almost exclusively.

It’s clear to me what Shakespeare was doing here. His audience arrives expecting a Shrew play, and in the very first scene he gives them something unexpected – a male character exhibiting the traits of a Shrew.


The hostess with Christopher Sly.

A Lord arrives at the inn and discovers Sly passed out on the stage. He mocks the drunkard, but then proposes “killing him with kindness” – bathing him, offering him food and drink, clothing him in silks and dousing him with perfume – mostly for his own amusement, but also seemingly as a sort of social experiment.

Lord. Oh monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies.

Friends, I will practice on this drunken man.

What think you, if he were convey’d to bed,

Wrap’d in sweet clothes, Rings put upon his fingers,

A most delicious banquet by his bed,

And brave attendants near him when he wakes,

Would not the beggar then forget himself?”

I like to think of this tactic as the “Opposites Game” – treating someone in the opposite way they might deserve or expect in order to change their behavior.


Sly awakes, by William Quiller Orchardson.

Sly wakes to the sound of beautiful music and servants waiting on him hand and foot. Treated as a lord coming to himself after a long madness, Sly begins to believe he’s a lord after all.

Sly. Am I a Lord, and have I such a Lady?

Or do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now?

I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak:

I smell sweet savors, and I feel soft things:

Upon my life I am a Lord indeed,

And not a Beggar, nor Christopher Sly.”

Believing he’s a lord, he starts to behave like one, switching from slang-filled prose to a pretty good imitation of the Lord’s evenly-paced iambic pentameter verse. Presented with a group of actors who wish to perform a play for him, as well as a young male page disguised as his long-lost wife, he starts to abandon his rude and socially unacceptable behavior and behave in a way commensurate with how he is treated.


The Amazement of Christopher Sly, 1882.

In our production, the Induction will be set not in a Warwickshire inn, but in a place as homey and comfortable to us as Stratford was for Shakespeare – at a present-day performance of Free Shakespeare in the Park. The Lord will be played as an educated, upper middle class young female house manager dealing with an unruly interloper, with the assistance of her largely female staff.

In the Induction, I hope to explore several levels of power, privilege, and performed social roles. Sly is a white man, but one whose privilege is undermined by poverty. The house manager uses her position of power initially to punish Sly for his rude behavior, then seems to feel something for the man, insisting that he be treated with kindness:

“This do, and do it kindly, gentle friends,

It will be pastime passing excellent,

If it be husbanded with modesty.”


Sly with the page dressed as his wife.

When she decides to have her young male intern perform the role of Sly’s wife, she demonstrates that wifely behavior is a performance, even resorting to an actor’s trick to produce tears on cue:

“Tell him from me (as he will win my love)

He bear himself with honorable action,

Such as he hath observ’d in noble Ladies

Unto their Lords, by them accomplished…

And if the boy have not a woman’s gift

To rain a shower of commanded tears,

An Onion will do well for such a shift,

Which in a Napkin (being close convey’d)

Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.”

The Induction introduces both the Opposites Game (later used by Petruccio with Katherina) and the central theme that all gender-based behavior is in fact a performance, one we engage in to get along in society. In addition, in the mock marriage of Sly and the young man, it’s possible to see marriage as an arrangement that benefits men in which women are outsiders.


Stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte.

As Sly and his “wife” watch, the Players enter and perform the first scene of Shrew, in which we are introduced to numerous Commedia Dell’Arte archetypes (the kind Shakespeare may have also seen in his Warwickshire youth) engaged in a fairly standard romantic comedy set-up. We have a Pantalone figure (Gremio), the young Innamorati (Lucentio and Bianca), the clever Zanni (Tranio), and as well as a befuddled father (Baptista) and a foolish suitor (Hortensio) – and then the actress playing the house manager appears again, this time as Katherina the Shrew. Like Sly, she is noisy, rude, inappropriate, and violent – perhaps demonstrating to Sly the affect of such behavior on others.

At this point in the Induction, Sly, still a bit worse for drink, dozes off, and it’s the last we read of the character in the First Folio version of Shrew. This, of course, leaves tantalizing questions – what happens to him and the other Induction characters? Are they still on stage? In the Anonymous play The Taming of A Shrew, which may be an earlier source for Shakespeare’s play, a first draft, or even a “bad quarto” pirated from live performance, Sly interjects throughout the action. But in Shakespeare’s version, he disappears.

A Shrew title page

The title page of The Taming of A Shrew, 1594.

In our production, he goes to sleep… and imagines himself as the suitor to this powerful, unruly woman Katherina. Perhaps at first he’s having a wish-fulfillment fantasy, imagining himself the sort of man who can tame her. Or perhaps he’s out for revenge against women after his treatment by the Hostess. He certainly enters the play cocky, boastful, and arrogant, very much the Il Capitano archetype of Commedia. But the tactics he uses are not those of the “Merry Jest” ballad – he doesn’t engage in violence of any kind. Throughout the play, the text never indicates that he lays a finger on her. Instead, he uses the Opposites Game – the more Katherina abuses him, the more he praises her good behavior. He gives her the kind of respect her father and the other men in the play have never given her, even when she responds with physical violence. As they continue to interact, they are clearly equally matched, and by Act Two, if we do our job right, the audience will be rooting for them to get together.

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Katherina makes short work of a gift from Petruccio.

This essay is the first in a series in which I’ll share some of my thoughts on the text and how we’ll deal with its thorniest corners. I may see the play one way in my head, but everything changes as soon as the actors are in the room. I look forward to sharing our journey with you.


CASTING FOR JUSTICE: Making Some Mirrors

 “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? …If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

– Junot Díaz

Last year, I wrote a blog post called “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature,” about the necessity of casting for the theatre in a way that represents the audience. Since then, I’ve spoken to many well-meaning directors and artistic directors since who want to pursue policies of gender parity and racial equity in their organizations, but aren’t sure how.  They’re afraid of tokenism, or of offending someone by casting them as the “wrong” thing.  Or they think there aren’t enough actors of color or talented female actors in their communities to allow for the kind of casting policy we’ve adopted at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Or they’re afraid the audience won’t accept a female Othello or a black Hamlet. And so they continue doing what they’ve always done – casting “traditionally,” while saying “I wish I could do what you’re doing.”


Melanie Marshall and Phil Wong in SF Shakes’ 2014 Tour of Julius Caesar.

You see, we did it. We committed to 50% women and 50% actors of color in our Free Shakespeare in the Park cast of The Taming of the Shrew, and we did it. It certainly helped to have my integrity on the line – there’s nothing like being accountable to your community. But here’s the thing – it wasn’t hard. We recruited and read great actors of color for every role, and plenty of them were the best actors for the roles.  There was no “compromising” – a word I hear whispered in fear by white directors whenever casting actors of color comes up. In a play where gender is a central theme, I considered both women and men in opposite-gender roles and thought about what that would mean to the gender dynamics of the play. I found that although I didn’t cast across gender in every role, because I felt it would undermine my own feminist take on the play, I still ended up with numerous roles cast across gender. Our audiences, already diverse, will see themselves reflected on stage this summer.

But the last thing I should do is sit in my office patting myself on the back and sneering at folks still producing heavily white-male seasons. I believe we’re talking about the future of theatre here, and if one of us goes down, we all go down. So it’s up to all of us to help each other out with this stuff, because it’s tricky, and it can be sensitive, and we’ve all been brought up in a very racist and sexist system. We’re all going to make mistakes, because this stuff is very deeply ingrained, but we’ve all got to try harder to do better.

Lisa-Wolpe-and-Chastity Dotson Hamlet

Lisa Wolpe and Chastity Dotson in Hamlet at the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

In January 2014, I had the opportunity to co-present a panel at the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s annual conference with Lisa Wolpe, founding artistic director of Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.  Lisa has been casting critically- acclaimed all-female productions for decades. Her own portrayals of Iago, Hamlet, and Richard III are very nearly legendary.  Lisa and I both wanted to show our audience of leaders from Shakespeare companies across the globe that casting non-traditionally is not only the right thing to do for our society, but artistically compelling.

As I shared at the beginning of our presentation, casting is 90% of the work – actors on the stage are not just people but symbols. Audience members automatically look at the cast for signs of identification. Some of us, the white able-bodied folks, usually don’t have to look very hard. Our empathy doesn’t get much of a workout, because there’s usually someone up there our age, race, ability, and gender – someone who is easy for us to identify with. Women have to stretch further than men, usually, since men are still represented far more frequently on American stages. People of color can get so exhausted by constantly being asked to identify with those who not only don’t look like them, but have historically oppressed them, that they burn out completely and stop going to the theatre. As for people with disabilities, I’m amazed any of them go to the theatre at all.

Measure at OSF

René Millán and Stephanie Beatriz in Measure for Measure at OSF.

There are three types of casting:

  1. “Traditional” Casting. Or as I prefer to call it, “White-male default casting.” This is what you most often see on American stages and in American films. This type of casting is based on the assumption that a white male actor is “neutral” – that he can play anything. He doesn’t symbolize anything or carry a set of codes that refer to his social meaning. He’s the perfect blank slate. White-male default casting also assumes that everyone else – women, actors of color, actors with disabilities – are so full of meaning that just one thing about them completely defines them. A woman must represent all women, a Black man represents all black men, etc. For Shakespeare companies in particular, this type of casting is often justified by tradition – in Shakespeare’s time, white men did play all the roles.
  2. “Blind” Casting. I still hear the terms “gender-blind” and “color-blind” casting used on a regular basis. Here’s the thing – this kind of casting doesn’t really exist, unless the director and the audience really are all physically blind. Because actors are symbols, because we are all trained to see meaning in color, gender, age, and so on, no casting can be truly blind. I don’t care how open-minded and evolved you are as a director, even if you claim not to “see” color or gender, your audience sees it. Your casting choices affect how they see the play, for better or worse.
  3. “Non-traditional” Casting. Or as I prefer, “Intentional” Casting, or Casting for Justice. This type of casting acknowledges all the meaning present in every person. White men aren’t neutral, they’re just as coded with meaning as everyone else. Your deliberate choices resonate with your audience, and they resonate with different people differently. That means if you cast a black man as a servant or a young Asian woman as a prostitute, you have to acknowledge all the cultural baggage behind that choice.


Kathryn Hunter and David Harewood in Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I think there are several sub-categories here, which include:

  1. Casting the way things are: This type of casting highlights problems in our culture. An example: a recent production of Measure for Measure at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in which Isabella was a young Latina and the Duke was an older white man. The less empowered characters in the play were played by actors of color, pointing out the skewed power dynamics and lack of justice in the play. For plays in which race is central, like Othello, or modern plays such as M. Butterfly or Ruined, this type of casting makes a lot of sense.
  2. Casting the way we wish things could be: This type of casting shows a utopian ideal in which race and gender still exist but have ceased to indicate power or relationship. An example: Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatre for a New Audience. The cast was multi-racial, with actors of color playing powerful characters, and traditionally male roles played by women. In a cast like this, an Asian father might have one black daughter and another daughter of Middle Eastern descent without explanation or apology. This type of casting presents the world that we’d like our children to see. (You’ll often see this type of casting in educational tours.)
  3. Casting the opposites: This type of casting includes cross-gender productions, or a production like Patrick Stewart’s Othello in which he was the only white man in the cast (playing the title role). It can serve to highlight problems in society or for comic effect (as when a man in drag plays Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest). Most single-gender productions work a bit differently in that they invite us to deliberately find points of identification with the opposite gender or highlight themes that we might usually ignore. They also allow us the sheer enjoyment of virtuosity – appreciating a flexible actor in convincing drag.


DebraAnn Byrd as Cleopatra at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.

Last year, Lisa directed a reading of Othello at Harlem Shakespeare Festival, with their artistic director DebraAnn Byrd in the title role and herself as Iago, demonstrating this third type of Casting for Justice. As part of our presentation, DebraAnn and Lisa performed a scene from the play. Lisa also directed two colleagues from New York Classical Theatre, Nick Salamone and Sean Hagerty, in a Desdemona/Emilia scene.

Harlem Shakes' Othello

Lisa Wolpe, Mary Hodges, and DebraAnn Byrd in Othello at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.

It’s difficult to put into writing the impact of watching these four skilled actors inhabit roles they would not traditionally perform. The room was transfixed. Afterwards, the actors and audience shared their experience of the performance. Here were some of their impressions:

  • “It reminded me of how great a playwright Shakespeare is – everything you need is in the words.”
  • “I feel like I heard the words for the first time.”
  • “Thank you. This is just such a fantastic play.”
  • “These are just great characters – it doesn’t matter who plays them.”
  • “I see how cross-gender casting isn’t just about being fair, it can actually make the play more interesting.”

I found that watching two women playing hyper-masculine military men coping with sexual jealously brought new resonance to a familiar scene. My attention was drawn to gender-based expectations – the strength men must display according to our culture, their fear of vulnerability or sexual competition. “Performing masculinity,” when portrayed by women, is revealed as a false construct that anyone can put on.

Sean in Richard III

Sean Hagerty as Richard III, New York Classical Theatre.

Perhaps because we’re used to thinking of men in drag as comic relief, the scene in which two men played women talking about their abuse at the hands of men had a particularly strong impact. (The line “These men, these men” rang through the room with piercing pain and irony.) Lisa side-coached the scene in a way that reminded the actors of their characters’ sexual history, experience of domestic violence, and solidarity in a masculine world.

Sean, a bearded white actor in his forties who played Emilia, had never played a female character before. As he said afterwards, “Rather than limiting the play, casting across gender actually opens it up. It plays into the meta-theatricality inherent in the text and makes it somehow more relate-able, more experiential, so that they identify not with a character themselves but with the issues at hand. In that sense it’s almost Brechtian.” In other words, by using actors whose physical appearance signals something completely opposite from the characters, our minds expand, we become more open to new experiences – and we experience a more universal empathy.


Nick Salomone as Dorn in The Seagull, New York Classical Theatre.

Nick, who played Desdemona, is a white actor in his fifties, slender and balding. His emotionally raw performance left several audience members weeping. “As a gay man, I’ve worked so hard at appearing as masculine as possible. I’ve never allowed myself to be this vulnerable on stage. Desdemona let me into a side of myself I usually try to hide.” These white male actors, the usual beneficiaries of traditional casting, delved deeper and stretched further when cast non-traditionally.

Casting for Justice isn’t just about fair and equitable treatment for women and actors of color, although that’s incredibly important. It’s about making the art form relevant for all of us. It’s about expanding all of our minds, freeing us all from the tyranny of received wisdom, and giving us new ways to see the world. Best of all, it’s about making what we see so unexpected that we have to listen instead.

NOTE: This essay originally appeared at Works by Women SF, where Rebecca J. Ennals is a guest contributor.

GUEST BLOG: OUR HEARTS ARE MIGHTY – My Internship at SF Shakes by Sabrina Rosenfield

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(Sabrina Rosenfield, above left, served as a Stage Management intern during the summers of 2012 and 2013, and an Education intern before that. Prior to high school, she attended Shakespeare Camp for many years. She’s now majoring in stage management at Emerson College. She offered to contribute a guest blog about her experience as an intern, and I eagerly accepted. If what she has to say inspires you, our internship application is now available.)

As I’ve gone through my first two months in Boston, studying stage and production management at Emerson College, I’ve found myself thinking about SF Shakes almost every day. For the past two summers, I’ve been a stage management intern for Shakespeare in the Park, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here without those experiences.

In many ways, I feel like SF Shakes formed the intern program around me. When I wanted to do design and stage management for Advanced Shakespeare Workshop, I was able to do that. The next year I became a stage management intern at Shakespeare in the Park. It was an incredible amount of work, but I learned a ton about theatre, and stage management, and myself.

Interns at work

Sabrina backstage with fellow intern Alex in 2012.

As an SM intern, my role changed from rehearsal, to tech, to performance. In rehearsals, I would be on book (during my first college show, where I was also on book, everyone constantly told me how good I was at it – thanks SF Shakes!) and sometimes make rehearsal props (the leek in Henry V as a roll of paper towels wrapped in gaff tape will always be one of my favorites). In tech and performance, I was backstage, doing prop hand-offs, quick changes, and setting up and striking every night. And, for about 30 seconds in Macbeth, I appeared on stage. Don’t let anyone tell you that stage managers don’t want to be noticed – I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.


Performance Interns entertain the crowd with the Green Show “Witchipedia.”

To be totally honest, I had some doubts about going back for the second summer. It’s a lot of hours to commit, and it was hard for me to explain to everyone why I was choosing to not make any money the summer before I left for college. It was a really hard decision to make, and I’m sure I shed some tears my first week of rehearsal, spending long hours in the SF Shakes scene shop while my friends enjoyed their freedom.

By the time we got to Pleasanton I remembered why I had wanted to come back so badly, and why struggling through the long rehearsals was totally worth it. Pleasanton is beautiful, and tech week for Shakespeare in the Park will always be one of my favorites. Stepping onto the Macbeth set for the first time was magical, opening the sliding doors and climbing the ladders. During tech week, we had a two-hour dinner break during which I would eat, read a book, and lie in the grass. It didn’t feel like work – it was warm, and comfortable, and magic. What a fabulous way to spend a summer. In Pleasanton, the nearby Safeway has a Jamba Juice inside it, and I became a gourmet (the Macbeth SM team liked to joke that the angriest they’ve ever seen me was at the inferior Jamba Juice in Cupertino). At night, we did dress rehearsals of the show and in between my handoffs I would hang out backstage with Rainier, Sarah, and Rasika, the three performance interns who played the witches in Macbeth. The times with them backstage are some I’ll always remember.

Hanging Out

That’s Sabrina in the lower right corner, with her Jamba Juice.

Some highlights during my two years as an intern:

– During Henry V, Craig Marker, who played Henry, came offstage opening night snapping frantically and pointing at a roll of gaff tape. It turned out he had split his pants right down the back seam, so we gaffed him back together and sent him back onstage.

– The huge storage container where we store all of our supplies, affectionately called the “bomb shelter” or just the “bomb”, has to be organized just so or nothing will fit. This process, called “Bomb Tetris” is an awesome late-night game I will never forget.

– During the Pleasanton strike for Macbeth, the sprinklers went off. At the time it was the farthest thing from funny, but looking back on it, watching our sound technician Leigh sprint across the field yelling “get the speakers!” is a fabulous moment of theatre I will never forget.


Leigh and his interns at the tech booth in 2013.

The usual stigma of being an intern is that you do all of the work with none of the recognition – but this isn’t the case at SF Shakes. The cast, crew, and staff are so appreciative and it makes working long hours in heat and cold so worth it.

Aside from having a blast, there are two huge things I’ve gained from interning.

The first is the people I have met. I’m still in touch with a lot of interns from the past two years, and there is definitely a bond between us all. When you end up lying down in a parking lot in Pleasanton at midnight, that tends to happen. I’ve also made amazing connections with the SMs and ASMs I’ve worked with. I lived near the stage manager for Macbeth, Justin, so we would carpool every weekend. I’ve been to his house, met his family, and spent countless hours in the car with him. We developed our own inside jokes and, when his assistant Stephanie and another SM intern Amelia joined our carpool, the SM team felt like a real family. Our last weekend before I left, we stopped and got ice cream together. Justin still texts me every so often to check up on me and make sure I’m doing ok on the other side of the country. These are friendships that are worth more than anything.


Intern friends relax backstage in 2012.

The other thing I’ve learned from interning is how to be a stage manager. I already had the interest in high school, or I wouldn’t have done it, but working for an Equity company is miles different from any high school experience. I’ve learned so much from my stage managers Les, Lydia, Justin, and Stephanie. In my stage management class at Emerson, I know a lot more than some of my classmates, simply because I’ve worked in that professional setting. I already know when Equity breaks happen, the differences between straight 6s, 7/8s, and 10/12s, and how long you can rehearse without a meal break. But even more importantly than all of the skills and facts I’ve learned, there is no way I would have known what to do with my life without SF Shakes. Without Shakespeare Camp when I was 8 years, I wouldn’t have gotten involved in theatre. Without being an SM intern, there’s no way I would’ve (or should’ve) decided to study stage management. Theatre is something you have to try before you commit to it. And a summer in the sun with some great people? What a great way to experiment.

So to go back to the question: why intern instead of getting a “real” job? Why work so hard for no monetary compensation?

Answer: because sometimes you have to make decisions with your heart instead of your head. Because some things are worth so much more than money. And isn’t that what theatre is all about anyway?


2012 Interns laugh as the cast of Henry V sings them a closing song of appreciation.