State of the Art

10 things you need to know about Shakespeare

William Shakespeare composed in his own words.
William Shakespeare composed in his own words. KRT

I loved Shakespeare from the day I saw “Julius Caesar” at 14. (You’ve gotta see one of his plays first; you can read them later, when you understand his style.)

My classmates and I were caught up from the moment Caesar got stabbed. Gore spurted everywhere; when Brutus said “Let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood,” you could have washed a circus elephant in that fountain. And the guy playing Caesar kept his eyes open from his last gasp to the moment Mark Antony covered him up 180 lines later. That was acting!

The Swan of Avon croaked his last on April 23, 1616. (I used to think he and Miguel de Cervantes, the two greatest writers of their era, died on the same day. Then I found out Spain and England were using different calendars at the time.) So in honor of the 400th anniversary of his death, here are 10 random impressions about the Fabulous Will.

1) Of 38 plays that survive under his name – he wrote all or part of at least 42 – none flat-out stink. Even the snoozy “Two Noble Kinsmen,” which expands a narrative in “The Canterbury Tales” to appalling length, contains some gorgeous poetry. “Titus Andronicus,” the bloodiest and least philosophic of his tragedies, has the power to shock. His genius dozed, but it never went completely to sleep.

2) Most overrated of the presumably great plays: “Antony and Cleopatra.” The pair take forever to die, say everything multiple times, behave like besotted high school students – which is kind of the point, though not very interesting – and are surrounded mostly by dull and indistinguishable supporting characters, except for conscience-stricken Enobarbus. People who love this play find the title characters grandly tragic; to me, they are tragically bland.

3) Most underrated of the plays: “Timon of Athens,” possibly because it relates so strongly to our times. A wealthy Greek gives all he has to help his friends, who turn on him when he’s penniless and let him starve. He ends up homeless, living in a cave and cursing humanity, and dies alone. Shakespeare never wrote a bleaker play about human relationships, which may explain why it’s so seldom revived.

4) He loved dirty humor. Robert Krueger, the last Democratic U.S. senator from Texas (1993), taught me Shakespeare at Duke University in the 1970s. He emphasized the naughty puns, such as Mercutio’s reply when the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” asks the time: “The bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.” Or the moment when, just as Iago has begun to tear down Othello’s self-confidence, a clown shows up to make fart jokes.

5) Speaking of “Othello,” the hardest part to play in all of Shakespeare is Iago. It’s enormously long, third in the canon behind Hamlet and Richard III. Iago wears a different face in public and private until the last scene and can never show other characters his true self; he must seem the friendliest and most accommodating guy to everyone but us. I have seen “Othello” twice in person, owned five recordings and watched half a dozen filmed versions, and no Iago has fully convinced me.

6) As for “Hamlet”.... The longest of the plays (3776 lines), the most philosophic, one of the highest in body counts (eight corpses, not counting Hamlet’s recently dead dad) and a trap for actors. Worst Hamlet I’ve seen onstage: William Hurt, who paused in the middle of lines for “naturalness” and thus became ultra-phony. Next worst: Ralph Fiennes, whose Hamlet seemed scarcely more humane than his Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List.”

Worst Hamlet on film: star/director Laurence Olivier. His performance smelt of the stage, and he cut minor characters and other people’s speeches – though never his own – while starting his monologues in voiceover and then shouting aloud. Underrated Hamlet: Mel Gibson, whose doomed Dane was sympathetic and intense (if not always cerebral). Best Hamlet: star-director Kenneth Branagh, in the uncut film version that illuminated nearly every moment of the text.

7) You can skip the long narrative poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” You cannot skip the 154 sonnets, the greatest body of work in that 14-line Elizabethan form ever assembled. (Try to hear a recording.)

8) Yes, William Shakespeare wrote his own plays. People who think he didn’t, usually because he didn’t have a full traditional education, claim authorship for Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere or Queen Elizabeth I, all of whom died 12 to 23 years before Shakespeare. (Presumably, they left “King Lear” and “The Tempest” on the shelf for people to perform later.) Francis Bacon has also been suggested, but he outlived Shakespeare by a decade. Apparently, after becoming anonymously acclaimed, he decided to stop writing plays.

Two reasons that this controversy, which didn’t arise until the mid-19th century, makes no sense: Except for the Queen, the others were writers and had little reason to hide behind the pen name of a real person. And no one has claimed authorship except Shakespeare, publicly or privately, during their lives or posthumously – except in a Monty Python sketch.

9) A more interesting theory: Shakespeare worked on the poetic King James Version of The Bible, an English-language translation begun in 1604. Wouldn’t the monarch have asked his greatest poet to take a hand? Shakespeare was 46 when the work was finished in 1611; if you look at Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning is “Shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” Wooooooo!

Alas, the 1560 Geneva Bible version of Psalm 46 apparently had the same words in almost exactly the same position. Ah, well.

10) It’s OK to get help. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare remains my favorite one-volume anthology of all the comedies, dramas, histories, romances and non-theatrical poetry; it offers not only copious footnotes but helpful introductions. (You can get a used paperback copy for less than $10 plus shipping on Amazon.)

But if I were starting to read Shakespeare from scratch, I wouldn’t be ashamed to try No Fear Shakespeare. It’s run by Sparknotes, a teacher’s bane because lazy students go there to cheat on papers. But it offers side-by-side renditions of the actual text and a modern interpretation of it.

The point of reading any author is to enjoy yourself, right? And when you know what Shakespeare’s saying, he’s not just a dazzling poet or a soul-deep dramatist – he’s a lot of fun.

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Shakespeare right now

Want to dip into some drama this month? Try these:

The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare consists of 38 plays recorded in their entirety over about 100 compact discs. They come with scene-by-scene breakdowns in little booklets. While you can find individual performances that are better – notably in the Caedmon recordings – this set now sells for less than $400. Not cheap, but something you can listen to over a lifetime.

If you prefer DVDs, try the BBC Shakespeare Collection. Amazon tells me you can get this box, which contains films of all the plays except “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” for $226 – but you’d need an all-region player to handle the European release. (Those cost about $100 nowadays and are well worth the price, as you can play DVDs sold in Europe and Asia.) You can also find individual sets of the main histories, tragedies and comedies, as well as individual plays. Again, not always the best, but a worthy collection overall.

Live Shakespeare is harder to find around here. Chickspeare, the all-female troupe that performs his work occasionally, will do a “Hop, Drop and Roll” event at 8 p.m. April 23, performing six short Bard-inspired plays at NoDa Brewing Company, 2229 N. Davidson St.

UNC Charlotte will do the final event in its “36 in 6” celebration, which led up to this anniversary with events related to 36 of his plays. The final night, titled “As We Like It: A Celebration of Shakespeare in Honor of the 400th Anniversary of his Death,” is April 23 and offers performances of scenes and songs from the play, followed by speeches by Shakespearean experts and a post-play reception.

If you want to see a full performance of a Shakespearean play, head down to Columbia. The South Carolina Shakespeare Company will do “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” his comedy about Falstaff’s would-be romantic affairs, April 21-23 and 27-30 in free shows outdoors at Finlay Park Amphitheatre. Time your visit to see the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work at The University of South Carolina’s Ernest F. Hollings Library, where it will sit through May 1. It moves to the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh May 7-30.

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