Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare.

Today I am proud to once again take part in “Happy Birthday Shakespeare“.

I am one of many bloggers from all parts of the world who have opted this week to post about William Shakespeare.

The folks responsible for the project (do follow the link I provided to learn more) were wise enough to have not established strict perimeters in regards to these posts. For anyone that enjoys, loves, reads, watches, performs, teaches or thinks about the works of Shakespeare on a regular basis is bound to realize there are thousands of concepts that could be explored. The fact that the Stratfordian’s works mean so many things to so many different types of people, and have done so for such a long period of time is a testament to the power of one of the greatest bodies of work in the history of the English language.

I dare say even Shakespeare’s detractors, (and there are many of them) could actually attack the Bard from hundreds of different angles if they were so motivated. (And often, they are.) In that sense, then, it is clear that no matter what you think of William Shakespeare, there is almost an endless supply of material about which to write and speak.

Today I chose to write about how the works of William Shakespeare expand the two universes of which I am most passionately a member; acting and writing.

To begin with, from an actor’s standpoint, some of the most memorable characters ever to occupy a stage come from the canon of Shakespeare. Even casual consumers of literature could name a few such characters: Hamlet, Richard III, Iago. The list goes on. But those are just the leads of the plays.

As an actor, I love to have something substantive with which to work when I set about the task of giving three dimensions to a character I am playing. Much of this lies in my own imagination and creativity. (If the director is any good that is.) I fill in blanks, create a back story, keep secrets about who I am playing from the audience and even my fellow actors on the stage.

At times this is out of whole cloth and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet much like writing form poetry, the use of a slight road map can enhance rather than hinder that creative process. And while Shakespeare gave us a  fair share of silent torchbearers and messengers with a single line, on many occasions he also provided a tantalizing look into the inner working of the smallest of roles, imbuing them with personality and attitude by way of what lines they spoke, to whom, and when they did so.

Consider the Porter in Macbeth. Ostensibly his character is there to provide a bit of comic relief, and of course, to open the door. However his speech upon being awoken from a drunken slumber is more than mere distraction or plot device, as are the paltry few lines he has in the scene afterward. The lines provide the actor playing the porter with a treasure trove of directions that can be taken when bringing the porter to life. What could have easily been scribbled out as four or so goofy lines, and perhaps with a stage direction to trip over something, (hence providing the brief comic relief), has become in fact a small role that often people will audition specifically to get in a production of that play.

Not all of the smaller roles in Shakespeare are blessed with such a rich monologue, but there are many other examples of smaller roles that could have been dispensed with, or at least composed with less thought  than that shown by Shakespeare. The Gardeners in Richard II. Glendower in Henry IV, Part 1. The Boy in Henry V. The Gravediggers in Hamlet. This list as well could go on, and for that list I, as an actor owe Shakespeare thanks-for his attention to detail even for the smaller moments, thus expanding an actor’s universe.

As I mentioned, the writer in me is also grateful Shakespeare’s legacy.

The playwright invented over 1,700 common English words. Not popularized or mainstreamed 1,700 words. They did not exist at all until Shakespeare used them. Bits of other pre-existing words sometimes were used in such creations, but the fact remains; here we have a writer who was so dedicated to the nature of his work that when a word in all of his language did not meet his requirements, hehad the audacity to create one that would.

That is not to say that Shakespeare was even the only writer of his time to do this. He was not. But he did so with such frequency and in such a bold manner that it’s not a stretch to say he was one of if not the first master of doing so.

As a writer I realize that I cannot hope to bring anywhere near 1,700 new words into existence. One day after much hard work, I may bring a bring a single word or phrase into the lexicon. But to know that even one of the greatest writers in the history of my language invented words all the time, unwilling to be confined be convention and rules is reassuring for a writer like me, not enamored by the status quo.

And who knows, perhaps it’s not so much that even the greatest writer of them all allowed himself to break the rules and create new words. Perhaps William Shaksepeare was the greatest English writer ever because he ignored the rules and invented so many new words.

***

My thoughts and acknowledgement here will not even make a dent in the worldwide consideration of Shakespeare’s legacy this week. But collectively I’ve no doubt that all of those writers, bloggers, actors, educators and artists that have been inspired and changed by Shakespeare will, by sharing their sentiments this week, send the message that William Shakespeare, far from outdated, irrelevant and distant, is in fact still quite current, apposite, and personal. Just as he has been for nearly four centuries.

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    1. Ty Unglebower

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