An Invitation to Embark on a Shakespearean Journey

An Invitation to Embark on a Shakespearean Journey

The attendees of ASCTC get

pumped for their performance.

by Alexi Sargeant

Call me an apologist for Shakespeare. Reading and performing the works of the Bard has

been such an important part of my life that I am excited ong>toong> spread the joy of Shakespeare

ong>toong> others. Whether veteran acong>toong>rs or newcomers ong>toong> the stage, we can all gain something

unique from the characters and words of the great playwright.

There is nothing quite like creating, as a company, a new and

unique version of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, hisong>toong>ries, tragedies,

or romances. To set out with such a goal is ong>toong> engage in a conversation

across time and space about all of the themes Shakespeare so loved

ong>toong> explore: love, death, honor, suffering, freedom, authority, and the

human struggle for transcendence. If you have not yet taken your

place in this conversation, dear reader, now is the time.

For the Fun of It

My first experience with performing Shakespeare came when I was

in elementary school, where I participated in a homeschool group’s

productions of As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much

Ado About Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew. These were large

and elaborate productions that were acted by students but adultdirected.

Though this group first sparked my interest in the Bard,

it was in high school that my passion for Shakespeare truly ignited,

thanks ong>toong> the student-run ShakesPEER Group. The shows this group

put on were entirely student-directed; the participants had ong>toong> rise

ong>toong> the challenges of reading and staging Shakespeare without adult

teachers or direcong>toong>rs.

I played Benedick in the ShakesPEER Group’s inaugural production,

Much Ado About Nothing, and went on ong>toong> act in Twelfth Night,

Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor before directing The Merchant

of Venice and Macbeth. None of these shows was exempt from casting

kerfuffles, onstage mishaps, or unfortunately timed blizzards, but every

play is, in my mind, a success song>toong>ry about what students can do with

teamwork and dedication.

Also during high school, I had the privilege of attending the

American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp (ASCTC) in Staunong>toong>n,

Virginia, where I got ong>toong> perform on the reconstructed Blackfriars

stage, just like the American Shakespeare Center’s resident troupe.

Watching and acting in shows on that stage was a revelation. The

ASC uses many of Shakespeare’s original staging practices, including

universal lighting, which allows the acong>toong>rs ong>toong> see and interact

with the audience. When audience members see acong>toong>rs delivering

lines straight ong>toong> them—and occasionally find themselves pulled

onong>toong> the stage—it creates a theater experience that is far more

engaged than passive. Learning from the ASC’s acong>toong>rs is a great

and important part of the camp, but many lessons come from the

stage itself, and from watching one’s fellow campers light up with

the joy of Shakespeare.

What I learned at the Blackfriars has been of great value in my theatrical

endeavors in college. Here at Yale, I have watched the fun of Shakespeare

take over a whole campus. This spring is the semester of Shakespeare imagine 21

For The Deadly Seven, Alexi pulled

ong>toong>gether scenes representing the

seven deadly sins from different

Shakespeare plays. Here, Sir

John Falstaff (played by Wilfredo

Ramos) sits in front of the “Wheel

of Sin.”

Alexi as Cassio and Meg Rumsey-Lasersohn

as Desdemona in the ShakesPEER Group’s

performance of Othello.

at Yale, a multivenue


of the university’s


resources. I have

seen Yale’s copies of

the First Folio and

the Shakespeareinspired


of Edward Austen

Abbey. Best of

all, I have participated

in several

Shakespeare productions,


directing a show

called The Deadly

Seven, for which I

pulled scenes from

A compilation of many of the posters Alexi made for the seven different

ShakesPEER Group

Shakespeare plays

ong>toong> create a showcase themed around the seven deadly sins. The inimitable fat

knight Sir John Falstaff gave voice ong>toong> Glutong>toong>ny, and also acted as an emcee for the

whole show, spinning the “Wheel of Sin” ong>toong> determine the order in which scenes

would be performed. All in all, it was a great experience not only of using a wide

variety of Shakespearean scenes ong>toong> explore a theme of significant human interest,

but also of bringing some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters (the languorous

Cleopatra, the voluminous Falstaff, the envious Richard III, and the wrathful

Queen Margaret) ong>toong>gether in a single production. The fun of Shakespeare is

partly in his works’ intrinsic excitement and partly in what you make of it.

Words, Words, Words

One of the most common misconceptions about Shakespeare is that he

wrote in Old English. This is not true, because Old English is the language

of Beowulf—Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English. But, if you look

at it another way, it is we who speak “Old English.” After all, the English we

speak has been kicking around for centuries, with its words’ meanings and

spellings slowly being locked down by dictionaries and textbooks.

When Shakespeare worked, his language was Young English: messy,

unstandardized, absorbing new words from many sources, bursting at the

seams with possibilities. Shakespeare was writing in a language that was just

coming inong>toong> its own as a vehicle for serious literature. This linguistic exuberance

shows in the plays, where Shakespeare coins new words by expanding

and combining existing roots: from the Arabic “assassin” comes Macbeth’s

“assassination;” from two English words comes As You Like It’s “lackluster;”

and from a root and a suffix comes Henry VI, Part 3’s “remorseless.”

In some ways, the fact that these coinages of Shakespeare have become so

widely used gives us an advantage over Shakespeare’s initial audience. We come

ong>toong> a Shakespeare play already in possession of his words, while audiences at

the Globe came in search of new words that the stage would introduce them

ong>toong>. Even when we do find words that we are unfamiliar with in Shakespeare,

such as “orgulous” in Troilus and Cressida, they are fun ong>toong> say. Reading lists of

Shakespearean insults is always a popular acting game partly for the pleasure

of tasting juicy phrases such as “you froward and unable worms.” Sometimes,

merely pronouncing these evocative words is enough ong>toong> help clarify their meaning:

“gallimaufry” sounds like a strange jumble, which is exactly what it means.

Shakespeare is always experimenting and playing around with language,

and is aware enough ong>toong> poke fun at himself for doing so. Dogberry, the comedic

constable from Much Ado About Nothing, famously mangles language with such

unintentional malapropisms as “vigitant” (meaning “vigilant”) and “dissembly”

(for “assembly”). In Love’s Labour’s Lost, two characters—the “fantastical

Spaniard” Don Adriano and the pedantic schoolmaster Holofernes—speak

in bombastic style because they are so in love with the sound of their own

voices. Upon first meeting, they exchange a flurry of highfalutin talk, prompting

the clownish Costard ong>toong> play along with the fancy-sounding but meaningless

“honorifcabilitudinitatibus.” Observing this, the page Moth quips, “They have

been at a great feast of language, and song>toong>len the scraps.”

Shakespeare’s works themselves are “a great feast of language.” We,

22 imagine Mar/Apr 2012

Alexi plays the role

of Shakespeare on

the Blackfriars stage.


for exploring shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays are in the public domain, so you can perform any

Shakespeare play absolutely for free. Full, searchable copies of the plays are available

online at and

To find the meanings of unusual Shakespearean vocabulary (“orgulous,” my

example from the article, actually means “proud”), I recommend the Folger Library’s

editions of Shakespeare for their excellent facing-page explanaong>toong>ry notes. See for more information.

The best companion ong>toong> Shakespeare is the DK Essential Shakespeare Handbook,

with its invaluable act-by-act synopses, character line counts, and contextual information

for every play.

For those who want ong>toong> seriously establish their Shakespeare geek credentials,

see the comprehensive, two-volume Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary

by Alexander Schmidt.

—Alexi Sargeant

Shakespeare’s heirs, have no need ong>toong> steal scraps from the feast,

because it has been lavishly laid out before us.

Make It Yours

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and friendly

rival, wrote in the preface ong>toong> the First Folio, published after

Shakespeare’s death, that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for

all time!” Jonson’s words have been borne out, as Shakespeare

has been produced for centuries, in myriad languages and every

performance space imaginable. Shakespeare’s characters sometimes

predict this, such as when, after the assassination scene

in Julius Caesar, Cassius says, “How many ages hence/ shall

this our lofty scene be acted over/ in states unborn and accents

yet unknown!” Yet just as Cassius has no way of knowing that

these prophesied reenactments will portray him as a villain,

Shakespeare certainly could not have predicted the wideranging

array of reinterpretations his work would undergo.

Sometimes, these re-settings fail. Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film

version of Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, tries ong>toong> make the play

contemporary by setting it in modern-day New York, yet instantly

dates it by having Hamlet deliver his “ong>toong> be or not ong>toong> be” speech

in a Blockbuster—remember those? On the other hand, Richard

Loncraine’s 1995 Richard III, starring Ian McKellan, created a 1930s

fascist version of Britain that illuminated the political dimension of

the play. Personally, I am ambivalent about re-setting Shakespeare.

I performed in a hilarious tropical Comedy of Errors and I directed

Macbeth as an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Vicong>toong>rian nightmare, but

I can also think of examples of re-setting becoming gimmicky or

overbearing. The worst is when a direcong>toong>r imposes some strange

vision on a play because he or she does not trust the text itself.

Whatever the setting, the characters and their language should

remain paramount. After all, Shakespeare’s scripts call for little in

the way of sets and special effects. Part of what makes his plays

perfect for amateur productions is the way they lend themselves

ong>toong> minimalism. If you’re staging one of Shakespeare’s plays, don’t

worry about an elaborate setting; just try ong>toong> understand the text as

much as possible. Treat the text as the blueprint for a play that you

are constructing. Your materials can be the skills and experiences

of your cast and crew. Have jugglers juggle; have people who play

instruments perform a musical pre-show. Is someone in the cast

an origami expert? Have that person fold a gorgeous crown out of

nice paper, as it will be much better looking than a cheap plastic

crown and much less expensive than a metal one. Above all, use

the resources you have ong>toong> tell the song>toong>ry of the play and bring ong>toong> life

the words of the Bard.

If you’ve felt the slightest tug of curiosity or thrill of theatrical

possibility while reading this article, I encourage you ong>toong>

explore that impulse: start speaking Shakespeare’s text, putting

his characters on their feet. If this article inspires you ong>toong> gather

some friends and read The Winter’s Tale out loud, I will consider

it a success. If it inspires you ong>toong> find some collaboraong>toong>rs and put

on Twelfth Night, I will consider it a triumph.

There is no reason not ong>toong> give Shakespeare a try. If you cannot

find a Shakespeare group in your school or community, go ahead

and start one. I guarantee you will not be disappointed ong>toong> spend

some time with the works and world of William Shakespeare. No

other literary adventure is as excitingly interactive, and no other

dramatic material is as endlessly rewarding.

Alexi Sargeant is a freshman at Yale

and a potential English and/or Theatre

Studies major. His hobbies include

graphic design and swing dancing, and

his favorite author is, unsurprisingly,

William Shakespeare. imagine 23

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