Imagine that you are your 9th grade self. Your third class of the morning has ended and you just desperately want lunch, a nap, and maybe an excuse to skip out early from gym class. As you wait until the last second before walking into your English literature class, you remember that on the schedule for today was the worst possible thing your teenage brain could conjure up: Shakespeare.
Now leave that memory nugget behind. Cleanse yourself from it for the nonce. Imagine that you are now standing on the ground floor of an Elizabethan theater in the height of Shakespeare’s career in the 1600s. The wooden walls are made of three layered balconies stacked like layers of a cake. The carpenters have carved away the roof, leaving the top balcony covered by thatching of straw, moss, and reeds. You move as close to the stage in center of the room as you can to watch as the throngs of people file in around you, and others begin to find their seats up above in the balcony to see the pre-show antics of the actors and patrons. The noises build up until ladies with big skirts are screaming in order to be heard over the sounds of the crowd as they holler out “Shut it! Shut it, hands up if you’re looking for a quick roll around!” Men in fluffy shirts and feathered hats are running around with ale bottles as they push each other aside to get to the big skirted ladies. The show starts; the crowd’s ruckus continues the whole time.
Now would you believe me when I say that both the memory nugget from your 9th grade English classes and the image of the crazy, noisy theater are both experiences with the work of Shakespeare? Crazy, right? In English class when you read the play section by section, you lose out on the funny expressions that the live actors bring to the roles and the quirky nonsense that the side characters throw in with creative licensing.
In the US, we treat theater as a very somber place. High fashion playgoers dress up in their own costumes of tuxedos, Italian leather shoes, formal gowns, and high heels. The audience stays calmly in our seats as the actors do the difficult job of playing to a dry audience. A typical performance of Shakespeare plays tends to be long and in a confusing dialect from years ago, and thus not for the faint of heart. Often, only the most dedicated of literature fans attend such performances.
Here in London, the beautiful Globe Theater that housed Shakespeare’s brilliance was burned down in 1613, leaving behind nothing but a stone foundation buried beneath Georgian-era apartment complexes. The round theater I described above is a 1995 recreation of the Globe, and our class was blessed to see a play there as ‘groundlings,’ peasants who stand on the dirt floor to watch the play for cheap. We will be blessed again on Thursday night when we go see As You Like It!
The Globe Theater has definitely been a highlight of my experience in London so far. Teachers have always told me that Shakespeare is best live and thus, reading it from a script wouldn’t be as moving. When I am a teacher preaching to my students who are desperate for my class to be over so they can take a nap during the lunch hour, I can honestly say that the works of Shakespeare truly are fantastic and moving and beautiful and hilarious when you see them the way they were meant to be performed! On that note, alack I die….of extreme happiness for being in London!