This coming Saturday, June 30, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra and I will present at Cary's Booth Ampitheatre a concert dedicated to Shakespeare and some of the orchestral works inspired by three of his plays. We will be joined by a talented group of actors who will perform excerpts from these works.
My own interest in Shakespeare began like most people in high school. I loved reading plays at that time. In 10th grade we read Julius Caesar and I read Macbeth on my own. Over the years I read or saw performances of many of his plays but, for whatever reason, Shakespeare dropped off my radar when I was in my 30s. The Bard returned to my life with the 1993 release of Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing. It had been a long time between Shakespearean experiences and as I sat in the theater I soon realized I understood very little of what was going on. Then something happened I call the “seven minute syndrome;” after seven minutes my brain had re-wired itself or installed the necessary software to allow me to understand what was going on. From this realization, I can advise anyone to stick it out for at least seven minutes before they give up on something “good for you” that seems to be unendurable!
Good Question: WHO was Shakespeare?
There is a great deal of controversy about his identity. Some have always doubted that an uneducated actor from a country village could create what is now considered to be the greatest body of literary works in the history of the English language. However, I personally think that it is possible that genius can spring from anywhere. For instance, there is the case of Abraham Lincoln. Our greatest president grew up in extreme poverty and had only one year of formal education.
Why didn’t Shakespeare have copies of his works in his house at the time of his death or mention them in his will?
That question can be partially answered by the fact that each play was written on commission from a theatrical group after which they owned that play. The Bard may not have kept copies of these works because, like many creators, his interest in his works may have ended soon after they were finished. Nevertheless, until there is universal agreement on this matter various names will continue to be proposed as being the true authors of these works, including Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Recently one author even theorized that Shakespeare’s mother was Queen Elizabeth l and that they had a child together! (A dramatic construction worthy of a Tennessee Williams.)
We primarily associate Shakespeare with the Globe Theater, located in London around an area known for prostitution and gambling. At this time, the theater in general was considered to be quite scandalous and for that reason women were not allowed to perform on stage. Therefore, Shakespeare’s female roles were played by adolescent boys or young men whose voices had yet to change. This fact may explain the relative brevity of the female roles. Because of their youth and relative inexperience, you couldn’t expect a young actor to memorize as many lines or recite them as well as a mature actor.
Evening performances were not possible because candle -power was too expensive and dangerous, so performances were given in the afternoon. And since people were supposed to be working in the afternoon, many people considered theater-goers to be shameless slackers.
The visual element was limited because there were no sets. However, as in the Golden Age of radio before television, audiences were great and imaginative listeners. There were beautiful costumes but even that came with some controversy. The aristocrats were always concerned that the actors would go about town in these costumes, pretending to belong to a higher status.
Shakespeare’s works were popular in his lifetime. But like most artists, there was a period after his death when he was considered to be old-fashioned and irrelevant. This began to change with the appearance of scholarly editions of the plays around 1760 and the celebration of his birth during the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. By the beginning of the 19th century, the age of bardolatry had begun. Shakespeare was a cultural icon in England and his fame had spread to the rest of Europe. He was admired by the greatest authors of the day, including Goethe. Haydn seems to have been the first classical composer to honor Shakespeare with his setting of a few lines from Twelfth Night in the canzonetta "She never told her love."
A bit later, both Beethoven and Schubert used the Bard’s words for some of their songs. It is hard to find a playwright or opera librettist of the 19th century that was not influenced by Shakespeare. And though the question is so vast as to be unanswerable, I think it fair to ask, why has this author retained his hold on human imaginations over four centuries?
For starters, Shakespeare’s examinations of the mysteries, delights and vagaries of human behavior have generally struck people as being more “realistic” and approachable than the poetic fancies of a Racine or the forbidding archetypes from Greek tragedy. For modern fans there is something pre-Freudian about Shakespeare’s obsession with the motivations of his characters. He puts his characters on the psychiatrist’s couch and asks “ Why?! How did this happen? Why do you feel this way? Why did you do want to overthrow that kingdom?”
The compassion he shows for his characters reveals to us his non-judgmental conception of humanity. The strong emotions and stark changes of mood in these texts could only come from a born dramatist. Even in his darkest tragedies, there are comic interludes that lighten the mood and provide much-needed contrast. Simply put, Shakespeare presents us with colorful and credible characters we can empathize with in stories filled with poetry and passion.
Is it any wonder that so many composers have found these plays so inspirational and useful as the foundations for musical projects? There have been over 600 large-scale musical works based on the Bard’s works. Our concert this weekend will include some of the best and most famous of these pieces, including Mendelssohn’s sparkling, incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dvorak’s stormy Othello Overture and three musical adaptions of Romeo and Juliet; Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture, a selection from Prokofiev’s ballet and the Overture to Bernstein’s gritty, updated version, West Side Story.
It is likely that for centuries to come, Shakespeare’s romantic and epic visions will continue to inspire music that honors his creative genius and our shared humanity.
“To know the cause why music was ordain’d!
Was it not to refresh the mind of man
After his studies or his usual pain?”
-The Taming of the Shrew, Act 3, Scene l