The Brightest Heaven of Invention: Hailing the Bard of Avon’s 400th Anniversary

Maybe Shakespeare? The Cobbe portrait, image from Wikimedia Commons

The men of Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s Sea of Lentils are frequently cold; the Englishmen are ruthlessly mercantile, capitalists of the first water, striding through worlds new to them and making of the lands and their people new markets and new buyers and new money–enough new money to build empires and to stand–and prevail–against the might of the Spanish Armada. They were a pragmatic set of folks, those Englishmen whose blood now infuses my veins, and likely not prone to flights of fancy or grand gestures of beauty;  Michael Guasco, in his article “‘Free from the Tyrannous Spanyard?’ Englishmen and Africans in Spain’s Atlantic World,” comments that “English seamen were pragmatic entrepreneurs.”1 It is certainly the vision of England and its folk that sings out through the pages of Sea of Lentils: pragmatic, practical, often cold: we grim, determined folk, who grit our teeth and get done what must be done. But, at the same time as Benítez-Rojo’s hard-headed capitalists were beating back the Spanish (while doing business with them, of course), a young actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon, possessor of a golden imagination, was taking up a quill. That young man was one William Shakespeare, and his oeuvre continues to speak to us today.

Also maybe Shakespeare, older: the Chandos Portrait. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard for me to say, even now, just how much Shakespeare and his works mean to me. I am dyslexic; reading came slow and painfully hard, each word a misshapen thing to be committed to memory so I might, if I were lucky, know it when I saw it again. Then, as now, I had a good memory–for stories, plotlines, action, words that came together to form a living thing. In ’95, I think, or maybe it was ’96, PBS ran Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 vision of Shakespeare’s great Much Ado About Nothing. I watched, and it was magic, words of fire writ larger than life on our small tv. I had to read it–I had to know it, intimately, as well as it’s possible to know anything.

There was no one to read it to me, and so I, mostly illiterate, able to read and write my name (I did have a good memory, after all), took to the shelves, and got down our vast and unused Complete Works. I like to say that I learned to read on Much Ado, though perhaps it were more accurate to say that I learned to read on the index, pushing myself through words bigger and grander and stranger than any I’d seen before. Within three years, I’d read the Complete Works (Titus gave me nightmares; MacBeth was glorious, but, I knew, historically inaccurate). Even now, when people tell me Shakespeare is hard to understand, I’m startled: I’ve always found him, well, ultimately relateable, a man of his time who has somehow managed to become timeless.

Now, because he was my first literary love, it is to Shakespeare’s plays that I return in times of stress or strife: even if I feel broken, I know that there’s a play for it, somewhere, a word that might turn my day and give me the courage I need for another charge at the windmills of capitalism. (I know I just mixed my authorial metaphors and I don’t even care!)

I love Shakespeare in “traditional” productions (I celebrated today by watching Henry V, from the BBC’s Hollow Crown, and crying my eyes out), and I love Shakespeare in contemporary ones. He’s one of those rare jewels whose works are, I think, pretty much perfect whenever and wherever and however2 they’re set–as long as they’re acted well and lovingly, they’re fabulous. The first Shakespeare I saw live was Midsummer Night’s Dream, at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin: Hippolyta was a flawless ice queen businesswoman; Demetrius was an L.L. Bean wearing, lantern-toting yuppie dork, and Puck was, for the duration, the sole aim and desire of, I think, everyone attracted to dudes. Live theatre can make gods of mortals, and, in Puck’s case, it did.

I’d hoped, this 400th anniversary, to be able to partake of the events. At least there will be free ones, come summer: Grant Park Symphony Orchestra will perform Shakespeare in the Park this summer, concerts of Shakespeare’s words set to music. I plan to go. And, in the meantime, I’d like to believe that someone out there will take this 400th anniversary and use it to get to know the snarky, funny, probing words of an actor from Stratford who died so long ago and whose words remain so alive, and so current.

1 Guasco, 3.
2 They’ve been performed, well and lovingly, at the Jungle at Calais and at a refugee camp in Jordan, among other places.

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