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.

Sonnets1609titlepage

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.

SonnetsDedication

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.

WilliamHerbert3rdEarlofPembroke

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.


SONNET ONE

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?


SONNET TWO

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_Sydney_Herbert
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?


SONNET 17

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.


SONNET 18

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?

SONNET 20

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?


SONNET 27

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.


SONNET 29

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.


SONNET 34

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?


SONNET 40

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?

SONNET 42

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.

AnneHathaway_CUL_Page4DetailB

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.


SONNET 60

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.


SONNET 69

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.


SONNET 71

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.


SONNET 79

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.


SONNET 80

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.

SONNET 81

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

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?


SONNET 86

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.


SONNET 87

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.


SONNET 94

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.


SONNET 96

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.


SONNET 104

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.


SONNET 110

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.

SONNET 116

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.


SONNET 126

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.


SONNET 127

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.


SONNET 130

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.


SONNET 138

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.

SONNET 144

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.

MaryFitton

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.


SONNET 145

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:


SONNET 153

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:


SONNET 154

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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

WHAT WOULD SHAKESPEARE DO? Advice from 400-year-old Players

In August, some sad news spread across the Shakespeare world – Shakespeare Santa Cruz, an acclaimed 32-year-old professional company on the UC Santa Cruz campus, was told by the University that it will have to close in December, unless its board members and fans can manage to re-invent it as an independent non-profit.

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SSC’s 2013 production of The Taming of the Shrew.

SSC’s predicament follows others in the Shakespeare community over the past several years. In 2011, the Bay Area lost its all-female Shakespeare company, Woman’s Will, due to financial struggles. In August of this year, the 36-year-old North Carolina Shakespeare Festival temporarily suspended operations due to financial challenges, and now hopes to raise $100,000 by Oct. 31. Every time we get the news of another struggling or fallen comrade, Shakespeare producers think “There but for the grace of Will…” It could happen to any of us. We all live a tenuous existence, because producing theatre in America means trying as hard as you can not to spend money.

“What is wrong with this country?” lamented one friend on Facebook when I posted the news about SSC. “Ugh, it’s not like this in Europe/South America/Australia” was a common reaction in the community. We rant against the broken system, we watch in horror as our government spends billions of dollars on defense, prisons, and security while the NEA struggles by on pennies, we vote our socks off and donate and sign petitions, but at the end of the day, we live here. We love our country with all its faults, but we believe people can’t live without art. So how are we going to provide it, while staying within our ever-tightening budgets?

Shakes got to get paid

I should probably have one of those little bracelets with the words “What Would Shakespeare Do?” etched into the plastic. I like to think back to the way theatre companies were run when he was around, and the advice he might give if he was here today. I think he’d start with this:

Spend money on people, not stuff. Shakespeare’s company was called the King’s Men, not the Globe Theatre. Today, theatre companies tend to be named after concepts or buildings, not after the artists and managers who comprise them. In Shakespeare’s day, theatre-makers knew that no matter how nice their building, it was the people that made the company. Richard Burbage, the lead player of the Lord Chamberlain’s/later King’s Men, gathered some great people around him – including Shakespeare. Like a sports team, a company would tout the names of its players and compete to sign on a favorite guest actor as a shareholder. Of course, having a talented playwright among the players was also crucial – great actors required great words to speak.

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The modern-day British company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

In the two centuries after Shakespeare, when audience members like Samuel Pepys wrote about the plays they saw, they hardly mentioned the scenery or the costumes. They wrote about the text, the acting, and the actors. Companies were managed by actors up until the Victorian era, which saw the rise of spectacle and design and the building of gorgeous new theatres – and the hiring of administrators to manage them. The age of stuff had begun.

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A Victorian theatre. Stuff galore.

Today, we’re surrounded by stuff. The acquisition of stuff has become a national pastime. Movies are filmed entirely about stuff, with people as supporting players to heaps and lashings of toys and gizmos and stuff. Our experience of a play has become intrinsically tied to the number of women’s toilets in the restroom and the color of the carpet in the lobby. Broadway productions advertise their special effects before the names of their leading actors, and we refer to musicals as “the one with the helicopter” or “the one with the chandelier.”

All this stuff comes at a cost, to our companies and to our society. Just as we should examine the effect of rampant consumption on our world, we should try to get back to an age when art wasn’t all about spectacle. This means a major shift in the way audiences experience plays. As many of our theatre history professors taught us, audiences used to go to “hear” a play. Now we go to “see” one. But audiences still crave great words spoken by great actors – today’s “golden age of television” features thoughtful writing and powerful performances. Even while stuff-driven films and plays dominate Hollywood and Broadway, audiences are turning to television for more people-driven story-telling – and that’s the kind of story-telling theatre does best.

So let’s spend our precious pennies on the people at the heart of the art. To do that, we’re going to have to spend less on stuff. How? Here are some ideas from Shakespeare’s company:

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Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Use a unit set. Shakespeare is about language and the actor-audience connection, not elaborate concepts or fancy scenery. Shakespeare’s company did their shows on a simple wooden framework with many useful elements that worked for a number of shows. Several modern companies have gone the same route. Some site-specific companies get rid of scenery altogether.

Instead of hiring scenic designers to create endless expendable backdrops, let’s hire them to build functional pieces that can be used creatively season after season. In 2014, SF Shakes will use the same basic unit set for the third year in a row – the designer’s task is to adapt it from the bleakness of Macbeth to the comic lushness of The Taming of the Shrew. Designers often thrive on limitations, imagining creative solutions inside the confines of existing parameters.

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SF Shakes’ unit set changes from Henry V to Macbeth with a coat of paint.

Re-use and Recycle. Back in 1598, Richard Burbage and his father, the owners of the Theatre (one of the first early modern performance spaces) had a rental dispute with Giles Allen, who owned the land their theatre sat on. After the lease on the land expired, Allen claimed the theatre building was his as well. Burbage was able to lease a new package of land in Southwark, across the river, but couldn’t afford the timber for a new theatre. In the middle of the night of December 28, 1598, Burbage, carpenter Peter Street, and the other players took apart the entire building piece by piece and carried the lumber across the river from Shoreditch to the new site. In the spring, they re-built it as the Globe. Now that’s recycling!

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Shakespeare’s company had a stock of basic props and a wardrobe of expensive, well-maintained costumes, donated by their upper-class patrons. These costumes were highly valued by the companies of the time and represented a significant part of their net worth. Rather than buying and building new props and costumes for every show, let’s value and maintain what we’ve already got.

Re-using the same old things may not sound very satisfying, but let’s think about evolving the role of guest designer into something more like what the Elizabethans had – a full-time paid wardrobe master. Small and medium-sized companies like SF Shakes usually can’t afford to put designers on staff, but if we were to combine all of our costume design budgets into one position, it would be closer to a reality, providing a designer with a steady source of employment and an artistic home.

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The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Do it with the lights on. I’m stealing this one from the American Shakespeare Center, where all performances are done with early modern lighting – general lighting with no specific lighting design for each show. Shakespeare’s Globe in London also does this, and their new indoor space will be lit only by candlelight. Yes, lighting design can be incredibly cool, but daylight brings its own beauty, and it sure is cheaper.

Design is a beautiful part of the art of theatre, but it’s a relatively new idea, and not one that existed in Shakespeare’s time. If budgets are tight, rather than sacrifice artists, we should sacrifice new scenery, new props, and new costumes, and invite designers to create the whole aesthetic of the company rather than just one show. This does mean audiences will need to adjust to not seeing shiny new visuals every time they attend a show. I’m hoping that in time, seeing a familiar prop or costume might become as fun as seeing a familiar actor.

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Skull (Skull of Yorick). Four seasons with SF Shakes, including Shakespeare on Tour (Yorick, Hamlet, 2010; Cauldron ingredient, Macbeth, 2012), plus numerous Shakespeare Camp productions (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013). Skull is thrilled to make its Free Shakespeare in the Park debut this season. Thanks to Cauldron and Swords for all the fun times on the prop shelves.

With any luck, less money spent on stuff gives us more to spend on people. So how would Shakespeare’s company spend it frugally and effectively?

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The cast of Henry V (2012) – a cast of 14 actors.

Hire enough actors to do the plays justice. Shakespeare’s company had about eight share-holder actors (the core company members), another eight hired guns, plus several apprentices and paid technicians such as the wardrobe master. Casts were about 14-18 actors. For many smaller union houses in America today, a cast that size is impossible. Seen a lot of productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged or one-man Hamlets lately? There’s a reason – fewer actors to pay. Modern playwrights are told to write for casts of 2-4 actors in order to have the best chance of being produced.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s article about SSC’s closing mentions Actors’ Equity salaries and how they’re a large part of the budget. Yes, that’s true – actor salaries and benefits make up a huge percentage of our Free Shakespeare in the Park budget as well. But that makes sense. We’re doing theatre! Paying actors, the heart and soul of theatre from its beginnings, should be the top priority.

In order to produce Shakespeare, I spend a lot of time with a spreadsheet figuring out how few actors we can get away with and still have a production that makes sense and honors the playwright’s intentions. Yes, there have been great 3-person productions of Shakespeare, but I like my Shakespeare with lots of people in it. I like there to be room for interns, apprentices, and masters, so that it’s possible for an actor to start as a spear-carrier and end up as King Lear. That means larger casts, and paying actors.

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Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear. He started as an apprentice at the RSC.

In no other profession do highly-trained, multiple-degree-carrying professionals get asked regularly whether this is just our hobby or if we get paid. Nobody assumes that anyone can walk off the street and become a doctor or a firefighter or a pastry chef. But we get asked that almost every weekend. And it’s not like we’re asking for much – a highly successful and respected local union actor, one who works steadily for most of the weeks of the year, might in a very good year make about $30-40k from acting. Should we resent providing the people at the heart of our art with that small sum? I don’t think so. That’s where the money should be spent.

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Doyle Ott plays the violin as Craig Marker (Henry V) looks on.

Hire virtuosic actors. The actors in Shakespeare’s company could act, dance, sing, fight, play instruments, mentor apprentice actors, write, improvise, and learn lines for 6 different shows a week. Yes, actors are a big line item in the budget, but hiring the right actors brings enormous benefits. Well-trained actors save us money on microphones because they know how to project their voices. They save us money on understudies because they take care of themselves. They save us time in rehearsal because they arrive prepared and ready to work hard. They save us money on musicians because they know how to play music. They save us money on teachers because they also know how to teach. They save us money on therapy because they are generous, humble, hard-working, and love our companies as much as we do.

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Definitely don’t model your business decisions on The Merchant of Venice.

Be financially transparent – and not just to the board of directors. Shakespeare’s actors WERE the board of directors – the shareholders in his company. They were completely responsible for the financial decisions, and since Shakespeare himself made a nice chunk of cash, they were obviously good at it.

Actors get a bad rap for being arrogant, greedy, self-centered, and lacking in basic life skills. And yes, some actors, just like some people in general, are divas who complain constantly and require special treatment. So let’s not hire those actors – if we do, we’re encouraging that behavior. And let’s stop treating the rest of them like irresponsible, wasteful children who can’t read a spreadsheet. Actors are some of the smartest people I know – and they have to do really, really complicated tax returns. Let’s have open conversations with the artists about where the money is going.

An actor recently asked me if he could get a $500 travel stipend on top of his Equity salary. It was not a ridiculous request – he makes about $250-$550 a week before taxes, depending on the number of days he works, and he travels from a long way away. But $500 was simply not in the budget. In fact, our apprentice actors (non-union, post-college actors in their 20s) only make $500 for an entire 4-month run. I explained this to him, and he was shocked  – and quite satisfied to drop the issue. A lot of people, including those working in the company, don’t know the realities of a theatre company budget and what we’re doing with how little. Sometimes we’re told “Just replace it” or “Just write a check.” Knowledge of the real numbers can help everyone in the organization to understand why choices have been made.

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SF Shakes Teaching Artists.

Create a core company. Shakespeare’s actors worked with one another 6 days a week for every week of the year. These guys knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and had the kind of intimate chemistry that creates stage magic. We know from Shakespeare’s will that they thought of each other as family even when dividing up their possessions.

One way today’s theatre companies are cutting back on actor salaries is by having much shorter rehearsal processes. This is tough on everyone involved in the production, and particularly difficult with a two and a half hour Shakespeare play. A few years ago, we cut a week out of our rehearsal period, meaning that we put the show together in just 3 ½ weeks. Working with actors who teach and train together year-round can help make this achievable. SF Shakes has a core company of 20 Resident Artists – casting these actors, who already know each other so well, saves rehearsal time and builds on already-existing relationships.

That said, we shouldn’t stop refreshing our company with new talent – the King’s Men brought in hired players (non-shareholders) for every production. Readings are inexpensive ways to meet new artists, and at minimal financial risk, since AEA stipends for readings are $25-40 plus travel.  We use our Free Shakespeare in the Parklet readings to get to know actors we haven’t worked with before or not in a long while. We only have 5 Equity contracts for Free Shakespeare in the Park, but by inviting artists to participate in readings, they know they’re in our thoughts. We can see what skills they have to offer and how they fit with our developing company aesthetic.

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Kids watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Children’s Fairyland, Oakland.

Produce new plays, but keep the old. Shakespeare’s audiences apparently liked seeing the same plays done again and again. Sometimes a new writer would spruce up an old favorite with some new material – Thomas Middleton probably added some witch scenes to Macbeth, for example – but the focus was more on having a rotating repertory of different plays every week than on re-imagining new versions of successful productions.

These days, it’s very rare for a regional Shakespeare Theatre to keep a show in the repertory after a season is over. Even if a production is a hit, it disappears never to return – and when the same play does return, it’s staged completely differently by a different director.

At Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s The Taming of the Shrew this season, I sat between a woman who was seeing the production for the third time, and a family who was seeing it for the second – in the same summer. At Free Shakespeare in the Park, I frequently meet people who are seeing the play for the second or third time. I wonder if we’re underestimating our audience’s desire to see – and hear – productions again and again. Of course, we should do new productions – Shakespeare’s company added new plays to the repertory regularly – but with a few exceptions, like Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern or beloved productions of A Christmas Carol that return every year, today’s non-profit theatres no longer have a repertory they can return to again and again. Re-mounts save money and make money – they’re worth exploring.

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Hamlet is a pretty good play, I hear. (Carl Holvick-Thomas in the title role.)

Trust the plays. I might be putting myself out of a job by saying this, but in Shakespeare’s time, there were no directors. The playwright gave each actor a “roll,” or rolled-up piece of parchment, on which were copied just their lines and cues. There was very little rehearsal. Actors relied on implied stage directions (“I embrace thee” for example), indications of status, and the relationships they already had with each other to “stage” the plays.

With the rise of spectacle in the Victorian era came the rise of directors. By the 20th century, directors had become the all-powerful decision-makers for every production, and actors, who had been managing theatres and working collectively for centuries, were required to perform according to their preferences. Now each Shakespeare director is expected to put their unique stamp on the play – productions are now called “Taymor’s Titus” and “Zeffirelli’s R&J” rather than Shakespeare’s. It sometimes seems like Shakespeare directors don’t trust the plays for their own merits – they have to propose a unique “concept” for every production. We’re told by marketing studies that our audiences have very short attention spans and might start checking their Twitter feeds if we don’t have enough shiny things to engage them. And maybe deep down we’re afraid we’re a bunch of weird and crazy nerds, nobody except us actually likes Shakespeare, and we have to put a bunch of stuff on stage for people to look at when they can’t understand the words.

We directors can’t lose track of the reason we fell in love with Shakespeare in the first place –  words, words, words. If the audience can’t hear the words, if we direct an actor not to stand when the script says “I stand” because we’ve decided that’s not a unique enough choice, if we’re not there to facilitate the actor-audience connection and getting the heck out of the way the rest of the time, then we’re not serving the art. Besides, stuff costs money – words are free.

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Actor Alex Lenarsky working in the SF Shakes office.

In defense of stuff: Some kinds of stuff makes it easier for people to do their jobs. It’s always nice to have a computer that isn’t 20 years old. It’s great not to stand in line at the restrooms at intermission, and we all like clean, safe facilities to work in. We can’t build scenery without hammers and screw guns, and we can’t make costumes without sewing machines. Stuff will always be with us, and that’s a good thing.

But if you – may heaven bless you – are planning to make a major contribution to a theatre company, please consider contributing to a salary for an actual person. There are a lot of capital campaigns for buildings, lobbies, bathrooms, and all those tangible material things. Fund-raisers know that it’s easier to get people to donate to solid bricks and mortar than to general operating costs, including the amorphous magic that makes an effective artist. If you want to give to something specific, consider endowing a fellowship for an Equity actor for four months of summer employment – that’s about $12,650 including insurance, benefits, workers comp, payroll taxes, etc. Sure, that actor’s performance won’t be around when you’re gone. It won’t stand there as a monument to your love of the arts forever. But it will provide a lot of people with some wonderful experiences and memories, and you’ll know an artist was compensated for helping to create them. Doesn’t that matter more than a bunch of stuff?

“Good my lord, will you see the players well bestow’d? Do you hear? Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” – Hamlet

HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE: Casting Shakespeare for Today’s Audiences

A few weeks ago, in our weekly intern company meeting, I did a session about casting. After we went over the basics of headshots, resumes, cover letters, and interview etiquette, I set them a task – cast the 9 major roles of Romeo and Juliet (Romeo, Juliet, Nurse, Friar, Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio) from a large pile of headshots and resumes. The only parameters were that 5 of the actors had to be Equity, 4 non-Equity. I had carefully selected a stack of about 50 of the Bay Area’s top actors. Half were actors of color, and there were equal numbers of men and women.

The 15 students were divided into three groups of 5. Each had to present their choices, then explain them to the rest of the group.

The first group consisted of 5 bright, talented young people – 4 female, one male, all white. The cast they chose was also all white. They cast men in every role except Juliet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse. When I questioned them why they didn’t think about more racial diversity, or about casting women in some of the men’s roles, they looked startled, then a little sheepish. The young man said, “Oh. Well, we didn’t have much time, so we just did the easy thing.”

Aha.

I understand where these kids were coming from. As a member of the privileged white upper-middle-class, I know it is all too easy not to examine my choices. It’s way easier to go with my culturally programmed, default mental image of a character than cast someone whose face may not immediately come to mind when I think “Romeo.” But those of us in that privileged position have to stop doing the easy thing. We must pause and reflect. We must say “what if.” We must do this about race, about gender, about body type, about sexual orientation – about everything that makes us different from one another. There’s nowhere that I go in my community where all the people are white, or male, or slender, or straight.  But we all know how many films, TV shows, and plays feature mostly people of that description. This homogenization has affected how we all think – Juliet is forever white and lithe with long flowing hair in many of our minds, regardless of our cultural background. But only a very small number of real 14-year-old girls fit that description. How much more fresh and illuminating can it be to see her portrayed differently?

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Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet.

At SF Shakes, we feel incredibly lucky to have the audiences we do. Most theatres are dying to attract the kind of age, economic, and racial diversity that we get in our “theatre” every night at Free Shakespeare in the Park. But the diversity of our audience makes it even more critical, and even more urgent, that we start doing a better job of reflecting that audience on stage.

I’ve heard several arguments over the years to explain why theatre companies in general, and Shakespeare companies specifically, don’t cast more diversely. Here are some of the most common:

1. Shakespeare didn’t write enough roles for women/actors of color/deaf actors/you name it. You’re right. He wrote roles for able-bodied white men only, because those were the people allowed to perform on stage while he was alive. At that time, scores of people also died from the plague and thought everyone in the Southern Hemisphere walked upside down. We’ve learned some useful things since then. Besides, I believe Shakespeare wrote great CHARACTERS, to be played by the best actors at his disposal, and if we were alive today, he’d cast differently.

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B. Chico Purdiman as Benedick and Rebecca Kemper as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2012.

There is a core challenge to running a classical theatre – no matter how diversely we cast, at the end of the day, Shakespeare is a dead white guy. As much as I believe that his stories and characters have universal significance and appeal, I know the word “universal” itself is problematic, because it’s usually the white cultural elite who decide what that means.

Let’s be real, there’s some horrible racism in Shakespeare, and some heinous sexism, and we can’t do the plays without tackling that. But here’s the thing – Shakespeare’s dead, but his plays are living texts. There’s a reason they weren’t published at the time they were first performed – they were constantly changing even then. So I feel just as great about casting a female Hamlet as I do about cutting the line “liver of blaspheming Jew” out of Macbeth.

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Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899. You go, girl.

When I was in high school, I read Hamlet, and something happened. I didn’t relate to Gertrude. I sure as heck didn’t relate to Ophelia. I GOT Hamlet, and if you’d said to me, “but you can’t understand Hamlet, you’re not a guy,” I would have said “yeah, and I’m not Danish either, nor did my uncle kill my dad and marry my mom.” My 16-year-old soul was Hamlet, and that was the role I wanted to play. I think Shakespeare’s words belong to me, and to anyone else who wants to claim them.

2. The audience won’t follow the story if you cast women/actors of color/etc. We have been casting non-traditionally for SF Shakes’ Shakespeare On Tour school and library touring program for 25 years. The kids in the audience, many of whom have never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare, don’t have any problem figuring out who’s who. I recently saw Beli Sullivan, a female actor of color, play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Company, utterly convincingly. Audiences want to see well-performed, well-told stories. Directors and producers should not project their own biases on the audience, or assign them prejudices they may not possess. And if they do possess these prejudices, the play becomes a forum in which to confront them.

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Safiya Fredericks, Beli Sullivan, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Festival.

3. There aren’t any well-trained classical actors of color/women/etc. I’ve heard this one a lot from white directors – “I’d cast diversely if there were any actors of color with Shakespeare experience.” Where do people get experience? From being cast. Besides, who is judging the talent in this situation? Usually a white director or producer, with that cultural bias I mentioned earlier. “Good classical acting” is in the eye of the privileged. Diversity must be embraced on all levels of the organization – if we’re really going to fight bias, the decision-makers can’t be all from the dominant culture either.

There’s an unspoken, insidious feeling in the Shakespeare community that if you have to cast a woman, it’s because you weren’t able to get a man to play the role- and therefore the show won’t be as good. The fact is, there are dozens of talented, well-trained female actors available for work at any given time in the Bay Area – 50% of the casting pool (see the Counting Actors Project for some statistics of how many are working every month). All creative directors have to do is what players in Shakespeare’s time did in reverse – assume that women can play men’s roles, as much as men can play women’s.

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Lisa Wolpe as Iago in Othello at LA Women’s Shakespeare Company.

4. There just aren’t enough actors of color in the Bay Area. I’ve often heard “I want to cast diversely, so why don’t actors of color come to our auditions?” I’ve felt this often myself. According to the 2011-12 annual report, Actors’ Equity Association’s national membership is approximately 85% white – pretty discouraging if you’re a casting director.

There are a lot of class-related reasons for this disparity – whites are still at the top of the income bracket, and when upper- and upper-middle-class kids go to college, their parents can house and feed them while they take unpaid internships at non-profit arts organizations, or support them through the early desperate years as young performers. The result is an artistic elite – largely white, largely college-educated, often subsidized by mom and dad – and fewer actors of color in the casting pool. There are cultural reasons as well – if there are no actors of color on stage, non-white audience members don’t see themselves represented, and it may never occur to talented young people that this is something they can really do.

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Armando McClain as Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare on Tour 2010.

Does that let producers off the hook? No. I spoke to a few Bay Area actors of color who feel discouraged to audition for many companies, ours included, based on what they’ve seen us produce. As one actor said, many actors of color feel they can work more if they head to LA or New York, instead of waiting around for the obligatory August Wilson or David Henry Hwang piece.

We have a responsibility as cultural leaders to make sure our stages represent the population of the Bay Area – not only to reflect our audience, but to demonstrate that artistic expression is a basic human right, and that careers in the arts are open to all.

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Mia Tagano as Olivia, Stephen Klum as Feste in Twelfth Night, Free Shakespeare in the Park 2004.

So enough excuses –  besides reflecting our audience and pursuing social justice, here’s the most important reason to cast diversely:

1. It’s better for the art. As Hamlet says, “holding the mirror up to nature” is the right thing to do. It’s also essential to the work itself. Actors with varied life experiences bring different perspectives on the text, stories and characters. We’ve been performing Shakespeare’s plays for over 400 years. Would we still be performing them if we insisted on all-male casts, if they were only allowed to be performed on London’s South Bank with a permit from the Queen, or if they were never translated into other languages? I doubt it. Constantly looking at the plays from new angles has kept them alive and flexible.

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Top: Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar. Bottom: The RSC’s African Julius Caesar.

When I consider an actor for a role, I’m looking at so many things – the timbre of their voice, the way they move, the way their face expresses emotion, the way the atmosphere changes when they make a choice, the way they engage with the other actors on stage. Race, gender, size, and physical ability are all a part of this. There is no such thing as “race and gender-blind” casting. ALL casting means something, and one must always be mindful of what it means. Actors, as soon as they get up on stage, acquire a set of quotation marks – they are symbols. Their physicalities, their voices, their mannerisms all become a set of signals that the audience responds to, as each member of that audience projects his or her experience onto that actor. It is “easier” to identify with someone who looks, sounds, and acts like you. But it expands your humanity and deepens your empathy to identify with someone who looks nothing like you. (Bitter Gertrude has a great blog post on this topic.)

Can a person of color identify with a white actor? Of course. Can a woman identify with a man? Sure. They do it all the time. But let’s ALL try doing it, say 50% of the time.

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Alex Lenarsky as Celia and Maria Giere Marquis as Rosalind in Impact Theatre’s As You Like It.

Here’s the thing – if we really believe that Shakespeare is for everyone (and at SF Shakes we do, passionately), white directors and producers like myself can’t stand up on stage as privileged arbiters of taste, passing down wisdom from our enlightened perch like beneficial medicine. This will only contribute to the perception of Shakespeare as elite and difficult to understand – a problem that certainly didn’t exist 150 years ago, when even the most illiterate prospector in the West knew a bit of Shakespeare by heart. If we want a better world with more equality for all, we must show women in positions of power. We must show people of color as fully developed, multi-faceted humans instead of stereotypes. We must hire actors of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities, representing all the great diversity we see around us in the real world. Staging Shakespeare as living texts, constantly evolving over 400 years of history, gives us that opportunity.

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Radhika Rao as Brakenbury, Ryan Tasker as Clarence in Richard III, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

We’re practicing some mindful casting with the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet program this summer. We have 50% men and 50% women in the Parklet shows, and 40% actors of color – up from 30% last year. Our upcoming Shakespeare On Tour production of “Julius Caesar” has a rotating cast of 12, 58% women and 42% actors of color. And we’re making a commitment to build on this for all our productions to come. We will strive to improve gender parity and diversity on stage in future seasons, with the goal of 50% men, 50% women, and 50% actors of color in our casts. And we’ll embrace diversity offstage as well – I’ll get off this soapbox regularly to make way for our Resident Artists, who have varied backgrounds and nuanced ideas of their own about Shakespeare, social justice, and theatre.

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Maryssa Wanlass as Casca and Melissa Keith as Cassius in Julius Caesar, Free Shakespeare in the Parklet 2013.

Remember that casting exercise I did with the intern company? The next two groups took a good look at their “Romeo and Juliet” casts. When they presented their nine actors, they had women playing roles like Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio and actors of color playing Romeo and Lord Capulet. They explained their casting in thoughtful ways – instead of “She just looks like a Juliet. She’s so pretty,” or “He was the only old guy we could find, so he has to be the Friar,” they said things like “I had a class with her and she’s so wise. She’d be a great Friar Laurence,” and “His cover letter is so passionate about Shakespeare and he’s done stage combat – he’d be a perfect Romeo.” They were looking harder, thinking creatively, and moving past what was “easy.”

“Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be: all difficulties are but easy when they are known.” – Measure for Measure

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Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest.

Rogues and Vagabonds: Pop-up Shakespeare and the history of performance

Over the last two weekends, we’ve been performing “pop-up Shakespeare” in unexpected locations in Cupertino and San Francisco, as part of the Free Shakespeare in the Parklet project. This is the first time we’ve performed pop-ups anywhere but SF, and I had some trepidation about moving outside the “only in San Francisco” bubble. I imagined suburban police officers with little else to do arresting us all in front of the library, for “vagrancy and incendiary speech-making.”

Maybe I’ve just been reading too much. The latest entry on my summer book list is Nigel Cliff’s “The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America.” I absolutely love its vividly imagined descriptions of what it was like to be an actor and theatre-maker in the two and a half centuries after Shakespeare.

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As Cliff tells it, two hundred years ago, theatre really mattered, and Shakespeare mattered the most. In defiance of the French and German dramas preferred by the upper classes of 18th-century London, middle-class theatrical entrepreneurs reclaimed Shakespeare as England’s native son, deeply populist, a playwright the man on the street could understand. Regular working-class and middle-class people filled the theatres every night. Theatres were part social club, part political gathering, part artistic entertainment. At Drury Lane or Covent Garden, audiences might encounter prostitutes roaming freely among the seats, picnics spread out in the galleries, and plenty of fist-fights. Many times, the tragedy on stage was drowned out completely by the noise from the audience. The next day, fights broke out in the streets about favorite actors, favorite plays, even favorite line readings.

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Theatre riot, 1700s.

Actors and theatre-makers were so influential, so capable of inciting strong feelings, that they had to be stopped. Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s 1737 censorship law, the Licensing Act, reads:

…every person who shall, for hire, gain or reward, act, represent or perform, or cause to be acted, represented or performed any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce or other entertainment of the stage, or any part or parts therein, in case such person shall not have any legal settlement in the place where the same shall be acted, represented or performed without authority by virtue of letters patent from His Majesty, his heirs, successors or predecessors, or without license from the Lord Chamberlain… shall be deemed to be a rogue and a vagabond… and shall be liable and subject to all such penalties and punishments…

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Actresses preparing, 1700s.

Victorianism eventually managed to repress the audience’s boisterous behavior – according to Cliff, Queen Victoria herself chose spectacle over Shakespeare and preferred French melodramas to the native theatre – and the Shakespeare revival died out in England. However, in the 1830’s, Shakespeare was reclaimed and newly adored in America, and again the audiences were full of ordinary people relating to the all-too-human characters. African-Americans in particular embraced Shakespeare over other playwrights, with companies of Black actors performing the Bard to sold-out theatres like New York’s African Grove Theatre – where non-Blacks sat in a cordoned-off section in the back of the house. As Cliff puts it:

Every year, on the Fourth of July, America bonded around fiery rhetoric about its heroic struggle against the English tyrant, and every year Shakespeare was paraded, not as an example of England’s cultural dominance, but as an enlightened ally of the American dream.

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African-American star Ira Aldridge..

Being an actor in 18th and 19th century England and America was a dangerous profession – you were alternately celebrated and reviled, you lived on pennies per day, you might roam from town to town by covered wagon or steamship complete with all the hardships of the frontier. If you were an African-American actor, you were in danger of being attacked by a white mob after the show. There was nothing safe or comfortable about working in the theatre.  In some ways, this is still true – stereotypes of performers are alive and well, and lord knows we still survive on pennies per day (adjusted for inflation) – but thanks to Actors’ Equity Association and standards of ethics for theatre managers, there are at least comforts like travel stipends and health insurance.

But these days, theatre-goers in America have become a little bit like the Victorians. We spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to big-budget Broadway spectacles while neglecting the little theatre doing new plays just down the street. If a good play incites strong feelings, it would be very bad form to get into a fist fight at intermission – or even a passionate argument. When we enter one of the plush theatres downtown, we’re pleasantly enveloped in sotto voce conversation, greeted by courteous ushers, and given the hairy eyeball if we let loose with an unseemly guffaw. Thankfully, many theatres lately have relaxed enough to let us bring in a glass of wine and a cookie, but heaven forbid we arrive with a roast chicken and sausages. It’s a lot more civilized, but it’s kind of sterile. It’s a little too safe. It’s a little too comfortable.

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Curious passers-by in Cupertino.

With Free Shakespeare in the Park, at least there’s no problem with the roast chicken. We remove as many barriers to attendance as possible, but I still see people stand at a distance, or sit at picnic tables far off to the side, as if what we’re doing isn’t for them. They didn’t know about it in advance, or they didn’t get there at 6 am to set up their blankets, or, like one woman I met in Cupertino last Sunday, they’re convinced that this MUST cost money that they won’t be able to pay.

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Galen Murphy-Hoffman with Parklet audience members in San Francisco.

We started Free Shakespeare in the Parklet partially to remove those final barriers. You’re in the audience before you have time to worry about it. You can still walk away, but the stakes are low – you don’t have to find a seat, bring a picnic, plan anything at all. It just happens, and you happen to be there. It lasts 10-15 minutes, then it’s done and you move on. But hopefully you’ve heard something interesting – maybe it jogged a memory or created one, maybe it was just a little unexpected delight. Maybe you’ll come back for Macbeth, because hey, that was pretty easy to understand. Or maybe it was an annoyance! Maybe your day has been interrupted by stupid actors popping up and preventing you from getting your morning coffee unmolested. Maybe we aren’t doing it right unless there’s someone out there who calls us rogues and vagabonds and thinks we’re a terrible influence.

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Galen Murphy-Hoffman and Leighland Hooks in Doctor Faustus.

These last two weekends, we’ve brought scenes from Doctor Faustus and Richard III to Cupertino and San Francisco. In the first (on the theme of “Sorcery”), Faustus rejects philosophy, medicine, and religion in favor of magic, and makes his choice sound very appealing. Right in front of Cupertino Library and Grace Cathedral, he called on the powers of darkness to send him the demon Mephistophilis.

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Galen Murphy-Hoffman as Faustus.

As the director of the scene, one of my goals was to reach kids who are deeply interested in the battle between good and evil, as in their beloved Harry Potter, and want to see plays with life and death at stake. I loved watching the kids in the audience in Cupertino suddenly notice Mephistophilis creeping up from far away down the street – they pointed, and squealed, and whispered amongst themselves.

Nobody got arrested.

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Cupertino Library audience.

In the Richard III scene (on the theme of “Skullduggery”), the Duke of Clarence has just had a terrible nightmare. He did some pretty awful things to put his brother Edward on the throne, and it’s payback time. Watching the scene on a Sunday morning, I was struck by its deep debate about sin and forgiveness. Like Macbeth, the scene struggles with the concept of Equivocation –  is it okay to do evil if you’re doing it under orders from someone higher up the food chain? Is it okay to commit murder in the name of a righteous cause? Is there a Heaven, and if so, who gets to go there?

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Radhika Rao and Ryan Tasker in Richard III.

Richard III popped up in Cupertino right in front of a popular local brunch place. Some of the diners beat a hasty exit, dragging away spouses who looked back over their shoulders as long as possible. Others stayed, laughed, clapped, and asked us questions afterwards. The children especially watched wide-eyed and fascinated by the story unfolding in front of them, too young to know that this sort of thing is supposed to be an expensive indoor activity, observed safely from the dark in your comfy velvet seat.

Nobody got arrested.

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Tristan Cunningham, Brian Herndon, and Radhika Rao in Richard III.

This coming Saturday, July 27 at noon in Cupertino’s Memorial Park, we’ll be performing another bit of Skullduggery, a delightful scene from Measure for Measure, in which the young criminal Pompey does some community service to work off his sentence. He’s apprenticed to the taciturn, intimidating executioner Abhorson, and the two of them are charged with a difficult task – behead the notorious Barnardine, who has decided that he is not in the mood to be executed today. Measure for Measure has a dark, edgy humor that anticipates Macbeth’s Porter scene, and will feature our production’s Porter, Bill Rogue, as Barnardine.

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Bill Rogue as the Porter.

Look for us on the playground near the set of Macbeth. We’ll be the vagabonds, the roaming players, believing that theatre still matters, Shakespeare still matters, and that he’s still America’s playwright and the voice of the people.

Sorcery and Skullduggery: The Return of Free Shakespeare in the Parklet

In 2012, to commemorate SF Shakes’ 30th anniversary of performing Free Shakespeare in the Park in San Francisco, we devised a unique celebration – 30 separate performances of scenes from 30 of Shakespeare’s plays in small parks all over San Francisco– primarily “parklets,” green spaces devised from parking spaces in front of cafes and restaurants. The performances were designed to “pop up” – that is, they were announced only on Facebook and Twitter, and most of the people who encountered them weren’t aware they were about to happen. Suddenly, during the lunch hour, the afternoon commute, or weekend brunch hours, our performers would begin a scene from Shakespeare – about ten minutes long and designed to be self-contained, so that passers-by unfamiliar with the play could still understand what was going on.

At the end of each performance, we announced what had just happened and passed out flyers for Free Shakespeare in the Park. Then we dashed back to the office to post photos on Facebook – not only did we have fans seeing the performances live, we also had a virtual audience following the shows only through the on-line photographs.

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Gabriel McCulloch in Julius Caesar at City Hall.

From the end of July through the end of August, we performed almost daily, using about 75 performers of all ages and backgrounds, including Shakespeare campers, interns, and union professionals. We capped it all off on the 30th day with a community reading of “O for a Muse of Fire” around a bonfire on Ocean Beach, to which all were invited – performers, fans, audience, and a few refugees from another bonfire who happened upon our group.

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Henry V Bonfire at Ocean Beach.

Speaking as the one person who attended every performance and directed a majority of them, it was glorious, it was thrilling, it was a little bit dangerous – everything live theatre should be. It was also exhausting. When asked whether Free Shakespeare in the Parklet will be back again this year, I’ve said yes – but not 30 of them!

How could we not repeat such an exciting and successful experience? And, while repeating it, how could we not attempt to build and improve upon what we’ve done before?

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Jason Kapoor in The Taming of the Shrew at Mission Playground.

This year, we are in the process of planning a total of 15 performances of 9 scenes, plus a communal reading. Three scenes will appear only in San Francisco. Three scenes will appear in both SF and Cupertino. Three scenes will appear in both SF and Redwood City. “Thrice to thine and thrice to mine/And thrice again to make up nine,” as the Wayward Sisters chant in Macbeth. The scenes will revolve around the theme of “Sorcery and Skullduggery” in order to further explore the themes of witchcraft and crime in Macbeth. We will include two of the plays we didn’t get to perform last year – Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part 1 – and also explore three plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, and The Witch by Thomas Middleton.

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Stephen Pawley* in Cymbeline at Cafe Seventy8.

The plays will be presented in roughly chronological order of the time of writing, beginning with Marlowe’s game-changing Doctor Faustus. Christopher Marlowe is an endlessly intriguing character, a sort of cross between Stephen Spielberg and James Bond. Unlike Shakespeare, he was a University man, a graduate of Cambridge. He went from there to London, where from 1587 to 1593, he turned out an incredible string of successful shows before he was killed at age twenty-nine, including The Jew of Malta, Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts 1 and 2, and Doctor Faustus.

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Christopher Marlowe and his fabulous hair.

Not content merely to transform English playwriting, he seems to have also been a secret agent for the Crown, quite possibly spying on English Catholics abroad. While on the one hand he worked for the Queen, on the other he ran into trouble with the Privy Council for “seditious behavior” including atheism. Shortly after he received a visit from Sir Thomas Walsingham about these charges, he was “accidentally” killed in a tavern brawl. Historians have wondered ever since if this wasn’t a little too much of a coincidence.

Arguably, without Marlowe, there would have been no Shakespeare. My favorite kooky authorship theory asserts that in fact, they were the same person – Marlowe wasn’t murdered, but lived, only to disguise himself as the other playwright for the rest of his life.

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Marlowe took the new iambic pentameter verse style that poets such as Sir Philip Sidney had explored in sonnets, and gave it to actors to speak on the stage. As it turned out, iambic pentameter suited the stage very well. In Marlowe’s hands, it had a muscular drive and structure that sounded as natural as a heartbeat. As Bernard Beckerman notes in his introduction to “Five Plays of the English Renaissance”:

Marlowe brought a stunning theatricality to the public playhouse. It was a theatricality that infused both language and action. In the few years leading to the appearance of Tamburlaine, English dramatic style became set, and Marlowe did much to set it. For more than thirty years before him, English playwrights and poets had experimented with stage speech… sometime in the mid-1580s Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd along with him, vitalized blank verse and stormed the stage with it. Whichever of these two men first showed the way, it was Marlowe with his mighty line who hypnotized the London audience.

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Doctor Faustus at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.

Of the top four hits of the London stage between 1588 and 1593, two were by Marlowe – Faustus and the number one hit The Jew of Malta. With these plays and others, Marlowe not only transformed the language of playwriting, he also brought to the stage the Renaissance incarnation of the tragic hero, a man caught between the sacred and the secular. As Faustus sells his soul to the devil, we can see the temptation – he has mastered the other arts and sciences, why not the occult as well? Marlowe makes Faustus’ thirst for knowledge appealing and understandable – as Beckerman says, “That he succumbs to powers greater than his own does not demean his attempt.”

The connections to Macbeth, written a decade and a half later, are clear – not only in the two plays’ shared concern with the occult, but in their ambitious heroes. As with the witches in Macbeth, it’s easy to imagine Elizabethan audiences fearing that Faustus was really calling on dark powers. Even now, his spells send chills down the spine. As he gleefully enjoys the spoils of his new-found power, we feel, as we do with Macbeth, that his comeuppance will be as terrible as his power is glorious.

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Phil Lowery in Macbeth at the Transamerica Redwood Park.

We will present a cutting of the first two scenes of Doctor Faustus this Saturday, July 13, at 12:30 pm in front of the Cupertino Library, and about a week later at an SF location to be announced, featuring Galen Murphy-Hoffman*, Leighland Hooks, Madeline Knutson, and Emily Nappi. (*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)

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Our second scene is from Shakespeare’s early history play The Tragedy of Richard III. Taken from Act I, scene 4, it is an exquisite little one-act all by itself. In it, Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, has been imprisoned in the Tower – he thinks by their oldest brother King Edward, but it’s really due to Richard’s machinations. Clarence pours his heart out to the Master of the Tower, Brakenbury – he’s had a terrible nightmare and cannot sleep, he’s so guilt-ridden over the deaths of the people he killed to get Edward to the throne. It’s all very ominous – it reminds one of Macbeth’s “Sleep no more”– and sure enough, as soon as Clarence is asleep, two murderers appear. And here the play turns deftly from poetic lyricism to comic repartee. One murderer is reluctant, so the other must convince him. Just as Clarence has reflected on mortality, so do the two clowns, until Clarence wakes up and the deed must be done.

Richard III was written in approximately 1592, as a sequel of sorts to the Henry VI trilogy of blockbusters. (We in the 21st century like our superhero movies – for the Elizabethans, the Tudors and Plantagenets were the big box office draw.) Although Richard III is often compared unfavorably to the great tragedies that followed, it is full of delicious scenes and memorable characters.

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Ryan Tasker* and Alexandra Creighton in Richard III at Pizzeria Delfina.

Richard III will be performed at the Oaks Shopping Center in Cupertino, by the big oak in front of Dance Academy USA, at 11:00 am on Sunday, July 14, and on Saturday, July 20 in San Francisco, location TBA. It will feature Ryan Tasker*, Radhika Rao, Tristan Cunningham*, and Brian Herndon*. (*Member, Actors’ Equity Association)

Watch this blog, follow us on Facebook or @sfshakes on Twitter for more information about upcoming Free Shakespeare in the Parklet scenes popping up near you – we hope to see you there!