In true fashion of like attracting like, my writerly mind has forced me to get writerly friends over the years. These are people that I can debate the merits and disappointments of Gatsby, Shakespeare, trendy books, classics, Greek lit, and anything else over the gamut of the books that plop themselves in my path and refuse to move until I've turned every page.
Hardly any people in my circles or experience have a very polarized reaction to Shakespeare. There are parties in the camps of either it's something "so flipping boring that it will never be worth the time" (I'll place equal blame on these people as high school students AND their teachers for that one) or it's "pure magic." But mostly when Shakespeare comes up, the answer is one big "Meh." No enthusiasm. Maybe one or two plays that are awesome reads (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth... anyone else coming up with Shakespeare they've sat down to read voluntarily?).
But there's a piece missing here.
Shakespeare is pure, unadulterated magic. Period. One day every summer, I get an especially enchanting Shakespeare treat. It has never failed to be a perfect day. It starts with getting ready and being fancy- dresses, skirts, heels (never a great choice, later), curling or straightening or otherwise heat-torturing of hair, fun jewelry, too much make-up. It progresses to a short drive to meet someone whose brain, I swear, mirrors my own. The evening starts with sandwiches. The food never matters but to act as details that I can start the retelling of the night in my head later, details that let me stretch out the wonder that is yet to come. One more short drive. Then it begins to happen.
The drive is always made at dusk or just before. We know to get there early. We pass through iron gates and by a mansion. We smuggle unopened bottles of wine and large cups in our large purses through the gates, smiling sweetly as a plastic wristband grants us admittance. "Bags will be checked" we scoff (as I sweat bullets). We walk a short path. We turn a rounded corner past a glass house adorned with colored glass butterflies. "Those are new," we remark. Every year as we round that corner, my mouth drops open. It looks almost exactly the same every time, but that has not yet failed to elicit the exact same reaction from me. The grass and trees are green. The small pond is murky. The curved bridge over the pond is a brownish red. And small, twinkling lights highlight each of those colors, combine the various textures, and throw back an image powered by my childhood wishes. Glassy water, rough wood, springy grass, all making themselves known to me at a glance. "Fairy lights," we breathe. And just beyond that bridge? A stage. Green and charcoal chairs. We float across the bridge, take our programs from a smiling employee, and find front row seats.
After a quick prance into the surrounding woods to open our wine and check out the newest art installments, we make it back to our chairs just in time for the green show. If this post is a contest to see how many times I can use the word "magic," the green show is one to see how many times the word "Huzzah!" can be uttered or cheered. The answer is surprisingly many. We sip wine, sweat, and watch this transition to a Shakespearean show. Swordplay. Dancing. Ballads and bawdy songs. Gowns, breeches, and leather boots that I covet (even on the men). "Previews" of other Shakespeare plays- Hamlet done in a minute and a half, with Hamlet's father's ghost played by an actor in a white bedsheet. Romeo and Juliet told in ten minutes with West Side Story-style dancing in place of duels and a quiet "Mar-i-a" sung every time Juliet appears onstage. We laugh until our sides hurt, amused that someone else finds this funny. The audience laughs behind us. And then, there is just one more announcement about "non-Shakespearean devices" and the play begins.
There is something to be said for Shakespeare done well. When someone is on a stage in front of me dressed in knee-high leather boots, velvet breeches, and a tunic yelling "I bite my thumb at you, sir!", I am hanging in suspense to hear the retort. When Prospero brandishes his knife in preparation to remove a pound of Antonio's flesh, I notice that I am sitting as far forward in my seat as possible so as not to miss a moment. I look around and notice the same from my companions in the audience. When Portia is mocking and yelling as Bassanio about THE RING, I am laughing so hard I gasp for breath.
As much as I feel like a snob for talking about Shakespeare "done well," there is a monumental difference in watching a performance where actors stutter through the lines and place no emphasis or inflection to help the audience understand what is important or funny. That is hard, painful, and at its worst, boring. Watching a group of impassioned actors who really understand the content of the play perform it in a way that is accessible helps me to understand (all over again every year) that Shakespeare is viable and important, and still relevant in this day.
I laugh and gasp and am immersed in a story much more complex than my brain could devise. I fall in love with characters. On the drive home, we will murmur to each other, "Why can't men really talk like that? I want to hear why I'm like the moon." And that's the best part of Shakespeare for me. For a short time, I can hear men tell women why they're like the moon, and remember what romance was like long before I ever decided I desired it.