Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English
Thursday, February 14th, 2013

So, have you picked up your ticket for the Center Stage Series “As You Like It” yet?

Alas, I haven’t, since I’m in London leading the northern half of the ACM London-Florence program. I say “alas,” because I genuinely regret not being there to see the fourth on-campus Shakespeare production of the year — which (if my research assistant Ellen Amundson’s (‘13) research is accurate) makes this the “Shakespeareanest” year in Luther’s 150 year history.

And the Acting Company, in cooperation with the Guthrie Theatre, does great productions. For a number of years now, they have performed a Shakespeare play at the Guthrie during January. Thanks to some good fortune, and Luther Programming Director Tanya Gertz’s hard work, we are part of their small follow-up regional tour.

I could write about a number of those past productions, but I’ll just say that one of the single most memorable Shakespeare speeches I have ever heard, in 45 years of attending professional performances, was the Acting Company’s Marc Antony grieving over Julius Caesar’s dead body.

Still, I have my consolations for missing “As You Like It.” Since arriving in London a couple of weeks ago, I’ve seen three Shakespeare performances, and I expect I’ll see at least another half dozen in the next few weeks. Two of the productions, “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night,” were “original practice” Shakespeare productions that derive ultimately from the reconstructed Globe Theatre. “Original practice” means that all the roles are performed by men. The costumes are constructed with seventeenth-century techniques and materials. No velcro or snaps, but pins and stitching and natural starches. And the music and dancing are as authentically Renaissance as the troupe could make them. They claim that this is the first time ever that authentic Renaissance instruments have been used in a West End theater production.

(By the way, have you picked up your ticket for the Center Stage Series “As You Like It” yet?).
It was quite interesting seeing these all-male productions within a week of seeing an all-female Julius Caesar set in a contemporary women’s prison. It would seem that the two approaches could hardly be more different—one all concerned with historical authenticity and the other with innovative approaches.

But what most hit me about all these performances was the rather obvious fact that Shakespeare’s language has a prominence that overshadows every other aspect of the production. Shakespeare constructs memorable stories and characters, and he has a marvelous sense of scenic construction (to put this crudely, he puts the right characters on the stage at the right time and in a revealing sequence). But it’s the language that makes all that brilliant dramatic construction possible.

And the amazing thing, despite our cultural clichés about Shakespeare being “hard,” is that when we hear the language spoken, it’s very often as transparently clear as contemporary English.

When you’re watching “As You Like It” — I presume you’ve gotten your ticket — you’ll hear a few really famous speeches (“All the world’s a stage ...”) You’ll see some remarkable moments (In an original performance, you would have seen a boy playing a woman who dresses up as a man who then pretends to be a woman). You’ll consider environmentalism and a retreat to nature. You’ll find yourself thinking hard about love and the qualities that make for good relationships. But perhaps most of all, you’ll find yourself immersed in wonderful words and phrases and paragraphs that create pictures, evoke emotions, reveal ambiguities and thrill along your nerves in the same way that music does.

Give yourself that pleasure. Maybe you deserve it, after a hard January and some taxing weather. Or maybe it’s just a gift.