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Five Good Answers from a Shakespeare Scholar

The following Q&A with Shakespeare scholar Dr. Gail Kern Paster appeared on the PBS Engage blog on April 2, 2009 as part of the "Five Good Questions" series.

When we found out King Lear was airing on PBS' Great Performances we sought guidance from an expert: Dr. Gail Kern Paster, director of the Shakespeare Folger Library and renowned Shakespeare scholar.

In addition to collaborating with PBS Teachers to help educators bring Shakespeare into the classroom, Dr. Paster answered five of your questions here on Engage. Read her answers about King Lear, fools, and so much more. And if you missed the broadcast of Ian McKellen's stellar performance, you can watch King Lear online.

1. Which of Shakespeare's works have you found is easiest to use to engage young students who are encountering his writing for the first time? Which, by contrast, is the most difficult? Jamie

Like all great works of art, Shakespeare's plays can be read and understood on a variety of levels depending on the maturity and experience of the reader. For engaging younger students, I'd say that it's a toss-up between Romeo and Juliet (often the first Shakespeare play taught) and Macbeth. Students are not likely to encounter a difficult play like Measure for Measure until college. A deep understanding of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays--Twelfth Night, with its subtle melancholy and emphasis on unrequited love--might prove pretty inaccessible for younger students, though the Folger Theatre's 2003 production of the play emphasized the play's broad comic potential and was very popular with our student matinees.

Why Romeo and Juliet? One answer is simply that the two chief characters are very young themselves, secretly in love, and finding it impossible to communicate with their inattentive and uncomprehending parents–parents who clearly have their own agendas! Another reason is that Romeo and Juliet are omnipresent in our culture, so that encountering them in their own words is like meeting two old friends for the first time. Romeo and Juliet is full of some of the most exquisite love poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote, and young students find it moving and thrilling. They understand the recklessness and impetuosity of the lovers, their need to keep their love secret not only from their feuding parents but–in Romeo's case–from their best friends who simply are not in a position to understand how you could, as Romeo says, feast with your enemy. And younger students understand the role of a figure like the Nurse–the sympathetic adult to whom you can confide your deepest secrets.

Why Macbeth? At least on a first reading, Macbeth seems to be morally quite unambiguous in its portrayal of good and evil. In such a reading, the witches are figures of evil, and Macbeth simply succumbs to their temptation and his wife's proddings to kill King Duncan. Young students find the witches' incantations easy to memorize and fun to recite. Young students at the Folger Student Shakespeare Festivals love to dress up as witches and recite their verses. Student audiences at our 2008 production of Macbeth–co-directed by Aaron Posner and magician Teller–loved the supernatural effects, the gruesome objects pulled from the witches' cauldron, and were deliciously frightened by Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. The special effects for that scene included a bloodstain that not only would not wash away but spread over Lady Macbeth's nightgown, to leave her soaked in imaginary blood.

2. What was the most outrageous or compelling performance you're aware of that locates one of his 400+-year-old plays in someone's "present"? How does PBS's upcoming King Lear production reflect the times we live in now? Laura

The June 2, 2007 issue of The Onion makes wonderful fun of the prevailing tendency in theatrical productions to transpose the original settings of Shakespeare's plays to more contemporary times and places. The headline reads "Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended." And the opening line says, "In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English tradition, Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced his bold intention to set his theater's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in 16th-century Venice."

I've seen Timon of Athens set in corporate America by Michael Kahn's Shakespeare Theatre Company here in Washington. Michael Almereyda's 2000 film of Hamlet–with Ethan Hawkes as the prince--moved the play to contemporary New York with Denmark becoming the name of a corporate kingdom. Director Richard Loncraine's brilliant 1995 Richard III–starring Ian McKellen in both the stage and film versions–set that history in 1930's England, with Richard becoming a despotic fascist.

And of course Baz Luhrmann's magnificent 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet took place in a modern megalopolis that resembled at various moments Miami, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and other cities. Lord Capulet looked for all the world like a mobster, and John Leguizamo's Tybalt was his volatile hit man. Luhrmann's transposition strikes me as one of the most daring and effective–since he made liberal use of visual puns and allusions from the entire Shakespeare canon, which the clever viewer can see in the background. The movie is entirely aware of the legendary status of the lovers, conveyed by the megastar power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and their often-naive rendering of Shakespeare's verses. It is entirely aware of its own lateness both in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet and in historical time–400 years after the original performance. And it plays with enormous sophistication with gender, suggesting Mercutio's erotic competition with Juliet for Rome's love by casting the delicate-featured Harold Perrineau as Mercutio and having him do a fabulous cross-dressed performance at the Capulet ball. Because the movie is so sophisticated and inventive about its own post-modernity, it is a great pleasure to watch and it is a wonderful way of waking up what sometimes seems to be a tired classic.

3. Do the characters/plot in King Lear or any of his other plays reflect people/events that occurred in Shakespeare's own personal life? Kathy

Gloucester's reference to "these late eclipses in the sun and moon" (1.2.109-110) may refer to eclipses that Londoners might have seen–a solar eclipse on September 27, 1605 and a lunar eclipse on 2 October 1605. Edmund was the name of William Shakespeare's youngest brother who became an actor too and died in 1608. These are topical allusions, and scholars use such allusions in all of Shakespeare's plays to try to date them.

One interesting historical parallel to Lear is a story Shakespeare may or may not have known about an Elizabethan courtier named Brian Annesley who had three daughters, the youngest of whom was named Cordell. The oldest daughter Grace tried to get her father declared incompetent but good daughter Cordell protested to the authorities and seems to have been victorious over her sister and her husband. In his will the father left most of his property to Cordell.

The larger question–whether Shakespeare's life can be found in his plays–is much debated by scholars and especially by biographers, and has been ever since the eighteenth century. But the results can only be speculative. The plays do not offer convincing or reliable evidence about Shakespeare's religion (was he Catholic or a Catholic sympathizer?), his political leanings, or his views on marriage. Given the amount of time he spent away from Stratford pursuing his career as actor and playwright in London, most of us would love to know a great deal more than we do about that!

4. Although the Fool provides comic relief, he seems to be the wisest of them all. Where does he gain his all-knowing sense of wisdom? Annmarie

The Fool gets his wisdom from Shakespeare!

But seriously: a fool or court jester was a member of a royal or aristocratic household. King James I (in whose reign King Lear was performed in 1607) brought a fool named Archy Armstrong with him to England when James succeeded to Queen Elizabeth I's throne in 1603. (You can read about him in Wikipedia and get a good sense of the real life of one jester.) In Twelfth Night, the Countess Olivia keeps a fool named Feste in her household and he–like the Fool in King Lear–is given broad permission to be rude, flippant, sarcastic, and witty to his betters with the idea that such permission allowed the fool to speak truth to power. But, aside from his status as household servant, such fools had no real social position or power–so their ability to be candid and impertinent came with a cost.

Shakespeare uses the Fool in King Lear as a choric figure who tells Lear uncomfortable truths about what his abdication from power and authority mean for Lear himself as King and for his loyal servants living in a newly tyrannical regime. But notice that Lear ignores, or pretends to ignore, the Fool, even though he does understand the Fool's powerlessness and vulnerability as a mirror to his own.

So one answer to the question is that tradition–literary tradition and royal tradition–gives the Fool his wisdom. Another answer is that Shakespeare uses this mysterious figure–who can be any age, old or young–to voice truths that cannot be realistically assigned to any other character. The contemporary counterpart to the Fool would probably be a stand-up comedian.

5. To leave the Leary queries for the nonce
Permit me toward the Histories to stray
In Richard Second, Thomas Erpingham
Palavers with My Lord Northumberland.
Is this the same good old commander who
At Agincourt with Harry Monmouth strove?
I do believe such great longevity
Was rare for any medieval cove.


We couldn't resist a limerick:

There once was a baby named Erpingham
Whose nanny got tired of burping 'im
So she gave him a scone
Which he licked 'til 'twas done
And developed a habit of slurping jam.

The historical figure Sir Thomas Erpingham (1355-1428) had a good long life, but appears as a speaking character only in Henry V. The Dictionary of National Biography, which I accessed online, has a good essay on his long career, serving first under John of Gaunt, and then under King Henry IV and finally under Henry V with whom he fought at Agincourt. There he was responsible for positioning the archers. Since it was the archers who gave the English their strategic advantage, Sir Thomas must have had an important role at the battle.

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