Lion Roars

February - March 2009


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Reeves

Like a Scene from Dickens

Desperately Seeking Shakespeare

by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

In 1975, I spent a glorious summer researching my dissertation at the old British Museum Reading Room. Each day I’d work until 3 or so, then take the Underground to a different neighborhood and explore. One rainy afternoon I rode to the Tower of London: my plan was to walk across Tower Bridge into Southwark and locate the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I stopped briefly at Southwark Cathedral and asked a warder for directions. He didn’t know exactly where the site was, but thought that it lay in the direction of the Battersea Power Station.Globe Theatre circa 1598

This advice agreed with a 1616 engraving of London that situates the Globe due west of the cathedral. Heading westward, I entered a warren of brick-paved streets lined with factories and warehouses that reminded me of the Flats in Cleveland. After some false starts down a few dead-ends, I found myself walking down a narrow sidewalk next to a large, nondescript building that a rusty sign identified as a Courage Ale brewery.

I was about to give up and dry out in a pub when I suddenly came upon a bronze plaque set in the brewery’s brick wall. On this spot, the plaque read, stood the famous Globe Theatre. I took a deep breath and looked around. This was the place, but it was all wrong: obviously, things had changed. The rain-slicked streets and industrial buildings that surrounded me looked more like a scene from Dickens or Conan Doyle than from Shakespeare.

Like most kids, I had heard of Shakespeare long before I actually read him, and like many, I had developed a bias against him. I knew that he had written some “classics” – but weren’t the classics boring and snooty? Although I knew that Shakespeare would someday be part of my education, his high-class writings seemed to have little to do with me. I vaguely assumed that his plays were intended for rich people, British people, or people who wanted to appear rich or British.

The big encounter finally came in Mrs. Kay’s eighth-grade English class, where we read Julius Caesar and the Merchant of Venice in little Signet paperbacks. At first, I had trouble following the language. This scared me because I had always done well in school: would Shakespeare put an end to that by exposing me as the dullard that I always suspected myself of being? It was only when Mrs. Kay read portions of the plays aloud that I learned to relax and simply take in the words – and as a result, those words slowly began to make sense. Gradually, Shakespeare’s language – its vitality, its rhythms, its double meanings and tonal shadings – became an object of fascination, mostly because it was something entirely new. There wasn’t anybody in Findlay, Ohio, who talked like this.

Years later, I learned that this language was also new to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who lived at a time when the expressive possibilities of early modern English were being tested and stretched. Buoyed by Elizabethan prosperity and patriotism, Londoners felt that they deserved a thriving theater no less than the ancient Athenians and Romans. Most playwrights adhered fairly strictly to such classical formulas as the “unities” of time, place, and action, but Shakespeare took a different and more adventuresome path, gleefully mingling times, scenes, and moods. Though the classicists saw him as technically undisciplined, everyday theatergoers didn’t mind his gaffes: by all accounts, his plays were extremely popular. Seven years after his death, when a couple of his theater friends collected his works and published them in the so-called First Folio, Shakespeare was already becoming a “classic” writer.

He certainly deserved it – and yet, something is always lost when this happens. Once a literary work is labeled a “classic,” it can seem less accessible, more remote. It becomes something that children are told to read in school as a necessary – though not necessarily pleasant – step in becoming “educated.” Until eighth grade, I bought into this image of Shakespeare, completely and uncritically.

Mrs. Kay, however, set me straight on that. Shakespeare was no aristocrat, but came from what might be called the prosperous “middle class” of his day. While his plays were occasionally performed for royalty, they were popular entertainment with unusually broad appeal. When Mrs. Kay told us about the “groundlings,” who stood around the projecting stage, I could see myself standing among them, gazing up at the costumed players and munching on roasted chestnuts. I imagined it as a very good time.

When you’re still in school, there’s no telling what lessons will stick with you. My most lasting lesson from Mrs. Kay’s English class was a simple one that still informs my life as a reader and my work as a literary historian: our “classics” usually began as somebody else’s popular culture.

This is certainly true of Shakespeare, who would be astonished to see his transformation from a self-made scribbler and theatrical entrepreneur into The Bard, that revered figure whose bust graces public libraries. Of course, he’s not around to bask in his posthumous glory. Apart from some tourist sites in Stratford, the plays are pretty much all that’s left of him – a fact that hit me with full force as I stared at that bronze plaque in the middle of an industrial Nowhere over 30 years ago.

A reconstructed Globe Theatre now stands where I once stood in the rain by that brick wall. Although I’d love to see this New Globe, I’m glad that I saw the spot before it was made over, when it still reflected the natural evolution of a living city – of Shakespeare’s city. His Puritan-leaning contemporaries wanted the theaters out of town, which is why the Globe, the Rose, and the Swan were all clustered across the river. Victorian Londoners wanted their breweries out of town – not because of sin, but because of the smell. Once again, things change. But don’t such changes always point up the things that truly last? Contemporary playwright and poet Ben Jonson wrote that anyone seeking Shakespeare should “looke / Not on his Picture, but his Booke.” In other words, turn to his pages – or better yet, watch those pages come to life in a performance. As usual, Shakespeare himself said it best: the plays really are the thing.