I do not remember the first time I made the acquaintance of Mr. William Shakespeare, but I believe it was only a short time after I had become acquainted with the skill of reading itself. Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb, was a well-thumbed childhood favorite, and from that book, I learned to love the plots and characters of the famous plays like Much Ado About Nothing and of the not-so-famous plays like A Winter’s Tale.
While these stories adapted from Shakespeare were exciting reads, a new pleasure came from reading the actual plays themselves and admiring the language and the poetry in which the Bard set his plots. I asked for the Complete Works for Christmas one year and can still find all the highlighted passages which I most enjoyed as a teenager.
Although much enjoyment can come from reading Shakespeare, it is an even greater delight to see his works performed. A good Shakespeare adaptation, whether on film or on stage, is always something to be sought out. This week my family and I traveled down to Ashland, Oregon to watch two plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Elizabethan stage there is a recreation of the theater in which William Shakespeare’s troupe performed his plays during the Renaissance. On the first night we watched Merchant of Venice and on the second night we split into two groups to see either Hamlet or Twelfth Night. Being more keen on watching a comedy, I opted for the latter of those two choices and enjoyed myself immensely.
I was far from a complete stranger to Twelfth Night. I had, of course, Charles and Mary Lamb to introduce me to the story. I had read the actual play myself both in high school and in college. I had seen one video production and attended one high school production of it. While I cannot exactly claim Twelfth Night as my favorite play from the canon, it is well ensconced in my top five. The story of Twelfth Night exemplifies all of Shakespeare’s comedic trademarks: mistaken identitites, women disguising themselves as men, and the plot culminating in a wedding (or two, or three).
The chief excitement in watching a story which you already know inside and out is in seeing a new interpretation of it. (Why else do women eagerly anticipate each new film adaptation of a Jane Austen book that has already been filmed multiple times before?) The staging and interpretation of this play was remarkably different from the 2005 film version (starring Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia). While the film version took many elements of the plot seriously, the play in Ashland set out to render every character as absurd as possible.
Dressed in lavish 17th century costume, the inhabitants of Illyria cut capers with great glee. Duke Orsino, instead of being portrayed as a lovelorn Byronic hero, immediately drew laughter as a self-indulgent fop. Olivia, in her spastic attempts to induce Viola/Cesario to love her, alternated between a deep, sexy voice and trills of high-pitched laughter. Sir Toby and the good knight Andrew stole the show with their drunken antics, lolling about the stage on cushions and spouting forth inanities. When Sir Toby tried to exorcise the evil spirit from the much-confused-and-put-upon steward Malvolio, my eyes nearly watered from laughing so hard.
Not all of the puns and pantomiming were clean. The description of the play on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s website warns that “the production playfully physicalizes some bawdiness and sexual innuendo,” and, in truth, every bawdy double entendre that Shakespeare penned for this play was taken full advantage of. The Fool, whenever he was not busy singing with a full-bodied baritone, paraded around the stage with a painted face and an outrageous codpiece.
The humor in this play brought to mind a discussion from the Sunday School class on Christian Beauty that I have been attending. Medieval/Renaissance humor delights in bawdy humor because it delights in the physicality of the human body (a very commendable, anti-Gnostic thing to do). But when does bawdy humor cross the line and become the “coarse jesting” that Paul forbids in his Epistles? I have no satisfactory answer to this question, although I’m fairly certain that this production of Twelfth Night crossed any line that Paul would draw.
For Twelfth Night I had the privilege of sitting in the very front row next to my six-year-old brother Zane. Before our trip to Ashland, my mom had prepared him by reading him a children’s version of the plays we were to see. All of the bawdiness went over his head, but the ridiculousness sent him into such spasms of uncontrolled laughter that we had to shush him once or twice. On the way back to our lodgings, we asked him if he had liked the play. “No, I didn’t like it. I loved it!” he said. My feelings exactly. Shakespeare has won another lifelong convert. Long live the Bard!