It's Shakespeare's birthday, or so we like to say. He's 446 years old and doing just fine, very much in his prime. In news from his native land, he's still making headlines even as the election draws nigh. Today, for instance, we learn that Simon Russell Beale will be playing King Lear at the National Theatre, hopefully in 2012. We'll be there, though even Simon will have to go a ways to match Bob Pinney in out tent, the winds howling, the thunder cracking its cheeks on his 70th birthday. I also see that over at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the actor playing Marc Antony has shot himself in the arm with a revolver during rehearsals, which some barolators will interpret as a sign from the gods that Shakespeare should never be played in modern dress. We're not doing Shakespeare at this exact moment (though we'll be back in the tent this summer), but he'll make an appearance on our stage tonight even so. In the third act of Arsenic and Old Lace, Officer O'Hara, a member of Brooklyn's finest, has spent the whole night telling the plot of the play he has been writing. When the lieutenant shows up he looks at O'Hara and says sourly, "O, Shakespeare!"
Like O'Hara, Shakespeare wrote a lot. He seems to have been writing all the time, while also acting and being a partner in the Globe Theatre. But curiously, and very unlike Officer O'Hara, he seems not to have always been enthusaistic about his principal day job. Over and over again he makes bold claims for himself as a poet, but never as a playwright. Indeed, he even famously apologizes for being a man of the theatre in Sonnet #111 where he seems to regard his theatrical life as a kind of stigma:
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.
The lines resonate with anyone who works in the theatre, a profession so regularly obsessive and consuming that it often seems to exlude any other "nature." I won't begin to tell you the many times my marriage has been on the rocks the week before a show opens-- it's fair to say that at these timnes I am nowhere else but in the theater. And that's not always a good thing, as Sheakespeare well knew.
In the previous sonnet (#110) Shakespeare seems to be dwelling on the same theme. He confesses his life as a playwright/actor has led him astray.
Alas 'tis true, I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view
Gored my own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely. . .
That's about as direct a condemnation of the life of the touring actor playwright as you can find-- adrift, narcissistic, clowning, devaluing the inner life, taking liberties with the truth.
But then, Shakespeare says something else about these blemishes on his character:
- . . . But by all above,*
These blenches gave my heart another youth
This too will speak to anyone who has loved and worked in the theater--it keeps you eternally young, it's good for the heart. And that perhaps is defense enough for Shakespeare, and for all of us.
Of course it's not just the theatre that gives us another youth, it's Shakespeare. He's still at it showing no sign of age or decay. "After many a summer dies the swan," sayeth Alfred Lord Tennyson, but he could not have meant the swan of Avon, who is still afloat, still paddling, still gracing our streams, and whose immortaliytt ha been anything but cruel.
Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! We'll see you again this summer at Rock Ledge Ranch. And tonight too, garrulously represented by Officer Patrick O'Hara.