Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English
Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Over the summer I enjoyed my daughter’s wedding and I attended a slew of Shakespeare plays, including “Twelfth Night,” “Richard III,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
A really observant reader might wonder if that’s really what I did in summer 2012 or whether I’m merely reprinting my September 2011 Chips column. Because, yes, it’s true: Over the last two summers I have seen my two daughters get married and I’ve racked up repeated sightings of some classic Shakespeare plays.
But this was not deja vu all over again –all was new, and new and new. I find that both weddings and plays have some of the effect that Enobarbus attributes to Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra:”
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety. Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (2.2 244-247).
These last two summers, at both the weddings and the plays, I became intensely aware of voice. We don’t very often get to hear real voice—the voice that arises out of the body and speaks the whole person. Some pastors exhibit it, and so do some politicians, although the effect is lessened to crippling if you think you’re being more or less lied to. Teachers all ought to have it, but it is shocking how many don’t. Go to a professional academic conference, or even to a Luther faculty meeting, and you hear thin, inarticulate sounds, mumbled mumblings, or separate words with no context.
Thus one of the greatest rewards for attending a play is to hear a trained, committed body pour out meaningful, convincing words. Some fast, some slow. Some poured out in a blended, harmonious scoop, and some built around a single important word.
“The young (male) lover in the Ashland (Ore.) Shakespeare Festival “Troilus and Cressida,” lamenting that his first sexual encounter with the woman he has been panting for is suddenly reversed by the political decision to trade the woman for a Trojan warrior held by the Greeks: “How my achievements mock me!” In his own performance, the long, stretched out achievements indicts the man for his sexual exploitation. It wasn’t rape, much less a legitimate rape, but it wasn’t unselfish love, either.
Or the tumbling repetitions of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare “Richard III,” convincingly played by a woman: “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue brings in a several tale, / And every tale condemns me for a villain” (5.3 3695-97).
All of us could work on our voice, and all of us could use some help with that work. At Luther there are courses focused on speaking and others on acting, and there are many other courses that require presentations and performances. We have a Speech and Debate Center, now with a new name and housed in a more visible location in the library.
But over the summer I decided that Shakespeare is one of the best voice teachers around. Pale, flaccid words can be performed theatrically, but they tend to sound hollow and make us embarrassed at our drama.
Great words – words that are carefully chosen and exactly placed, and, in Shakespeare’s case, sometimes invented to fit the immediate need – push a body to discover its full speaking potential.
I don’t pretend to have the VOICE but one of the great experiences of my life was reading those two Shakespeare sonnets outdoors on Bentdahl Commons every noon last fall semester. (If you’ve forgotten, or missed my “performance happening,” see .) What an education, at least for me!
So, yes, Shakespeare tells great stories, and you’re going to have a number of opportunities this year to hear these stories—”Much Ado About Nothing,” “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” will all be presented live on campus, plus some movies. And, yes, Shakespeare exhibits a deep understanding of human character, of cultural particularities, and of large ideas.
But he also gives voice lessons.