Shakespeare*: past, present & future — Wherefore art thou, Will?
Professor Spivack entered the first day of her entry-level Shakespeare class — which, in a later era, might as well have been called “Shakespeare for Dummies” — and went about setting the ground rules.
We would be dealing with the texts, as written. We would consider the plays and sonnets in the context of the age in which they were written, then discuss their current relevance through the eyes of his female characters.
And, under no circumstances, would we drag her into the baseless battle over whether there actually ever was a “William Shakespeare,” and, if he actually did exist, did he really write what was credited to him.
And while we thought the good professor doth protest too much ... we got it.
She then handed out the syllabus, explained the grading system, and gave us deadlines for the essays we were to produce.
“So,” asked a wag in the front row. “Was it Marlowe or da Vere …?”
“Class dismissed,” Professor Spivack said.
The debate over “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” is no closer to being settled than it was 45 years ago when I was a Dummy in her class — but that won’t stop this particular wild goose chase from raging.
As good luck would have it, the question rises again next week, when the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship hosts a free international online symposium on the anniversary of the birth of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who most Shakespeare skeptics believe to be the true author.
The four-hour event (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Pacific time) will be co-hosted by Earl Showerman, an Ashland resident and member of the fellowship’s board of trustees.
The 2020 annual conference of the SOF was to be held in Ashland this past September, as it had been three times previously, but was switched to a virtual event due to considerations and restrictions related to the pandemic.
In a March 17 episode of the organization’s podcast, “Don’t Quill the Messenger,” Showerman spoke to the lack of serious investigation — both at the time and in several modern biographies — to the details of the supposed Bard’s life.
“Basically,” he said to host Steven Sabel, “it was a conspiracy to suppress any doubt about the attribution.”
Who wrote Shakespeare might still be a matter of debate … but who rewrote Shakespeare would seem to have been decided.
Everybody, and their band of brothers.
Adaptations of the First Folio span any genre and format you could name —from Harold Hecuba’s musical production of “Hamlet,” first staged off-Broadway on an uncharted desert isle in the South Pacific by a troupe of wayward players, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s scholarly reworking of the texts of the First Folio for its contemporary Play On! project.
The commissioned plays were completed in 2019 and gave birth to the ongoing Play On Shakespeare effort, whose mission, as detailed on the OSF website, is “to enhance the understanding of Shakespeare’s plays in performance for theatre professionals, students and audiences by engaging with contemporary translations and adaptations.”
Setting the works of Shakespeare* in contemporary setting, or even taking on the trappings of the style and speech patterns of the plays and sonnets is a tradition all its own — most notably in science fiction since, as Chancellor Gorkon explains to Captain Kirk, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the Original Klingon.”
If there is a contemporary sci-fi hero who could be considered a tragic hero in the Shakespeare*an sense, it would be Tony Stark, the once (and future?) Avenger known as Iron Man — who ultimately takes arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing them, sleeps.
Before that, however, he stumbles upon Loki and Thor having a sibling squabble in heightened language in a forest setting.
“You have no idea what you are dealing with,” Thor warns.
“Ummm ... Shakespeare in the park?” Iron Man responds. “Doth mother know you wear-eth her drapes?”
But if you thought that was already too much of a good thing, fear not. (or, perhaps, be very, very afraid.)
Come this September, “William Shakespeare’s Avengers: The Complete Works,” will be published.
Portland author Ian Doescher — the wit behind such other crossing the streams titles as “The Merry Rise of Skywalker” and “Much Ado About Mean Girls” — has reimagined the four “Avengers” movies as plays.
According to the press material, the series will be “complete with authentic meter and verse, stage directions and entertaining Easter eggs.”
(That sound you just heard was a pair of newsroom staffers — who shall remain nameless, so let’s just call them Nick and Ryan — trying to get in front of each other to pre-order the complete set.)
Shakespeare* might not be around to oppose such esthetic effrontery but, but if he were, he’d have more serious attacks on his legacy to endure — namely being grouped with Dr. Seuss, Kermit the Frog and Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head among artistic touchstones thought to be in need of cultural revision.
In a recent edition of the School Library Journal, experts and educators on the collegiate and high school levels wrestled with the question of whether the playwright should be taught to developing minds.
“Shakespeare’s works,” the article reasons, “are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir.”
The educators quoted in the article debate the merits of teaching the Bard alongside other reading material more in step with a diverse, inclusive culture, as well as considering the underlying question of whether the works should still be considered a necessity in education.
Claire Bruncke, a Washington State high school teacher, has stopped teaching Shakespeare entirely.
“I know we must do better in the (English language arts) classroom to stray from centering the narrative of white, cisgender, heterosexual men,” she says, “and eliminating Shakespeare was a step I could easily take to work toward that.”
The question registers close to home, obviously, through the continuing efforts of the Ashland theater festival with “Shakespeare” smack-dab in the middle of its name to present a slate of offerings that celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion.
Multiracial casts have been the norm at OSF for many seasons, of course, and recent years have shown a widening of the approach as, for instance, women have portrayed characters such as Julius Caesar and Falstaff … while non-Shakespeare productions such as “Oklahoma!” have garnered national recognition for their inclusivity.
None of the four live shows set for the fall portion of the merged on-stage and digital 2021 season are from the Bard, as well could be expected given the chaos of the pandemic and the time needed to mount such a production.
Shows from previous years, however, are being streamed, as will “The Cymbeline Project” — a multi-part digital event that promises to “explore the deceit and the violence of the play within today’s aesthetic and political realities.”
More than 500 years after Shakespeare’s death, it seems, who he was and what he wrote, are as ripe for discussion as ever.
I suspect even Professor Spivack would agree.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at email@example.com
For more information
Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship symposium
“William Shakespeare’s Avengers: The Complete Works”
Harold Hecuba’s “Hamlet: The Musical”