Today, Thursday, is the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, or his death in 1616, or both.
Preparing for this double event, I have just finished reading “Shakespeare,” by Anthony Burgess, with lavish illustrations, a treasure that seems to have been a college textbook of one of our children.
My lasting impression of Shakespeare is the so-called Chandos portrait, believe to be of the bard, but without proof. All I know is that when you walk into that room in the National Portrait Gallery (closed now for three years of repairs) you see the smirk on somebody’s face, and an earring glittering on his left ear.
I am more than willing to assume it is Shakespeare, thinking of a good writing day he just had, or an assignation ahead of him, or both.
My fascination with Shakespeare stems from having attended Hofstra College from 1956-60 when the absolute best thing on campus (with all due respect to our great sports teams) was the annual Shakespeare Festival, on the stimulus of the school president, Dr. John Cranford Adams, a major authority.
The school had a Globe theater, installed every March. I can still see an undergraduate named Francis Ford Coppola with a hammer tucked into his overalls, working on the sets, and I see a classmate – now known as Lainie Kazan – playing one bawdy role or another.
For all the drama classes I took, and the performances I witnessed in the John Cranford Adams Playhouse, I am still learning about Shakespeare.
Burgess quotes Rev. John Ward’s notebooks as saying that, in retirement in Stratford, Shakespeare had a “merrie meeting” with Michael Drayton and Ben Johnson and ate too many pickled herrings and drank too much Rhenish wine. “He sweated, took cold and died.” He was 52.
Lately, much has been made that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” in 1606, during a major plague. (The Guardian had an article yesterday, citing James Shapiro as the source, and that more than works for me.)
If he could write during a plague, what are mere scribblers like me doing with our time? Blogs? I don’t think so.
Burgess is very good on innuendo and gossip. In this book I learned that Shakespeare took a room for many years in a place run by one Marie Mountjoy. Given my dirty mind, I can only think that if she did not exist Shakespeare would have created her.
Also, I don’t know why it took me so long to discover that a noted writer named William Davenant was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Shakespeare, who often passed through an inn in Oxford where Davenant’s attractive mother worked as a hostess. Davenant himself seems to have advanced the rumor.
Shakespeare clearly lived a busy life, however slight the documentation, and I have no doubt he wrote all the plays attributed to him.
Today, my wife and I plan to watch the latest offering by the National Theatre of London, currently closed down, of course. “Twelfth Night” was filmed during a live performance in London recently, and we saw it at the Kew Gardens Cinema in Queens.
One of the quirks of this version is that Malvolio has switched genders from male to female (Tamsin Greig.) Given that young men played all the female roles during Shakespeare’s time, this is not such a big leap.
Looking out from the Chandos portrait, the smirk and the earring seem to twinkle even more brightly. Shakespeare lives.
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(Link for "Twelfth Night" below, 2 PM Eastern.)
(The trailer for "Twelfth Night," starting today at 2 PM, Eastern. Donations are welcome.)
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023