The rise and fall and rise
of William Shakespeare

A rambling by Tom Knapp,
November 1998

Hi, my name is Tom, and I like Shakespeare.

Sure, an appreciation of the Bard is in vogue these days. But I can honestly say I liked Shakespeare before Kenneth Branagh singlehandedly made it fashionable again. Let me give Ken his due credit, however: he brought me back into the fold after I'd thought I'd lost the faith forever.

The latest incarnation of Shakespeare -- Shakespeare in Love, now making its second run through U.S. theaters as movie fans wait in anticipation for the results of a host of Oscar nominations -- has rekindled my zeal once again with its sheer audacity, its passion and the beauty of words both new and old. It also left me with a new, peculiar kind of melancholy ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I grew up with the average kid's dread of Shakespeare, whom parents and teachers alike used as the ubiquitous bogeyman to frighten bad children who didn't do their homework. So imagine my surprise when my seventh-grade English teacher made the class read A Midsummer Night's Dream ... and it didn't suck. In fact, I quite liked it!

The next year, my new English teacher led us through Romeo & Juliet with a delight for exposing to our extreme embarrassment every single bawdy joke and double entendre spilling from the Nurse's gap-toothed mouth. Did I ever expect to be laughing hysterically at Shakespeare? Of course not!

And so it continued through high school. A play a year, hardly torturous. I looked forward each year to the Shakespeare unit, but was never inspired to delve beyond the assigned reading.

Then came college. As an English major, I was required to take a semester of Shakespeare, and I approached the class with enthusiasm. That eagerness was quickly squelched, however, when the professor decided to cram every bloody play and a heapin' stack of sonnets into a single term. By the end of finals week, I was so sick of Shakespeare I sincerely hoped to never cross his path again.

For the next four or five years, I got my wish. Then Leslie, an actress who spent a too-brief summer in my company, made me watch Henry V on video, released a few years earlier by some new guy, something Branagh. Hell, Leslie didn't even watch it with me. She simply pushed the tape into my VCR and went upstairs to sleep. I sat down on my sofa, rather glumly, wishing that I could skip the movie and sneak upstairs after her ... until the first few minutes had passed in the young Henry's court.

Before I realized it, I was engrossed. By the end of Henry's "St. Crispin's Day" speech on the field of Agincourt, I was ready to lift a sword and slaughter a few Frenchmen myself!!

Next came the colorful, passionate 1993 version of Much Ado about Nothing, which went even further to prove that Shakespeare, filmed properly, could be fun. Branagh, perfectly teamed with his then-wife Emma Thompson and a motley assortment of famous and not-so-famous actors, brought that light-hearted play to life with such vigor that I immediately redevoted myself to worship at the altar of the Bard.

I began seeking out other well-done film versions, discovering the rousing Taming of the Shrew as filmed in 1966 by Franco Zeffirelli, as well as Zeffirelli's 1968 version of Romeo & Juliet, which still sets the high mark for that particular play, and his much-later, gritty version of Hamlet (1990) starring Mel Gibson. I found the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1968 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring a young Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg and David Warner, and the RSC's 1974 version of Antony & Cleopatra starring a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart. Branagh kept churning out some excellent Shakespeare (including Othello and yet another Hamlet) and Trevor Nunn in 1996 released an exciting, star-filled Twelfth Night.

The recent remake of Romeo & Juliet, starring teen idols Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, proved that Shakespeare's stories really do stand the test of time. Set the story in a modern, gang-torn coastal city in southern California, and the power of the play still shines through. Modern plays like Good night, Desdemona (Good morning, Juliet) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead showed that Shakespeare can even stand being rewritten for the sake of a new story. Various renditions of his plays on small theater stages and Renaissance faire grounds regularly recast and revise the classics, making tragedies into comedies, sending the past into the future, and doing whatever else the imagination can conjure. (Some of these efforts are not so successful as others, mind you, but the attempts are still worthy of note.)

Which brings me back to Shakespeare in Love. Let me state for the record that I would pay good money to see Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow enact the entire Romeo & Juliet with the flair they exhibited in those brief snippets included in the film. I'll also note that, while the movie includes very little historical truth about young Shakespeare and his sources of inspiration, the poetry and passion of its telling makes the story a welcome addition to the body of Shakespeare lore.

When I sat in the theater to see this movie for the second time, I was struck in particular by the reactions of the people in Shakespeare's 1593 audience, all of whom were seeing Romeo & Juliet for the very first time. These people hadn't had to read the play in school. They hadn't read the Cliff Notes version to cram for a test. They hadn't seen various watered-down versions of the story co-opted into other genres and media. In short, they didn't already know the story by heart when they paid their penny and shuffled onto the straw-filled mud surrounding The Curtain stage.

I envy them that. What an experience it must have been to be swept away by the story of young romance, the comedy which dominates much of the play's earlier portions, the drama as the gulf between the two young lovers seems insurmountable, and the certainty with which they must have half-expected (despite foreshadowing by the Chorus at the play's introduction) the Friar's plan to work and the story to end with the typical "happily ever after" conclusion.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons Shakespeare in Love works so well. While inspiring Shakespeare's pen to write his much-needed play, his "real-life" romance with the unattainable noblewoman Viola was an unknown factor. I hadn't read this one back in that hellish college semester, y'see, so I didn't know how it would turn out in the end.

Unfortunately, being among the rabble at a Shakespeare original is as beyond my reach as eternal happiness was for Juliet and her Romeo. I suppose I'll have to be content knowing that, perhaps somewhere in the back of this fictional Shakespeare's imaginings, Romeo did find long life and happiness with Ethel, the pirate's daughter.

[ by Tom Knapp ]