Today marks Shakespeare’s supposed 450th birthday (“supposed” because there are no records of his actual birth date, though all sorts of fancy schmancy scholars and historians have basically agreed that he was born three days prior to his baptism on 26 April 1564). As a teeny sapling of 25, I am quite overwhelmed by Shakespeare’s (literary) longevity—he’s exactly 18 times older than I am!
To commemorate this momentous day, I decided to put together a list of my three favourite Shakespeare plays—for now. And, since I’m a teeny sapling Shakespeare scholar, I’m even going to try to explain why I love these plays so much (but do prepare yourself for what will essentially be a super gushfest).
Twelfth Night; or, What You Will (1601-2)
Songs! Shipwrecks! Disguises! Mistaken identities! Faux bromance! Copious references in Shakespeare in Love! Music being the food of love—or what you will! What’s there not to love?
Apart from the entertaining and downright fun nature of the play, this is one of my favourite comedies because the romantic relationships are given time to grow. Yes, many of the characters still fall in love at first sight, but we have some genuinely quiet moments between Viola (disguised as Cesario) and Duke Orsino. There’s a wonderful exchange in Act 2, scene iv, where Viola speaks under the guise of a man, on behalf of all women:
Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.
(Of course, this isn’t entirely true—men do indeed love truly and deeply—but I love the insight these lines provide on both Viola’s frustration and loyalty.)
Malvolio is also a fantastic character—his Puritan beliefs and behaviour are completely undermined when he thinks Olivia loves him (a sentiment that’s the object of a household prank) and becomes, well, rather foolish. The malleable qualities of human nature? Shakespeare’s got it covered!
On a final note: the sooooooongs! The lyrics to Feste’s final song is wonderfully ambiguous, and depends a lot on its musical setting to shape the overall stance of the play. ‘O Mistress Mine’ is also super special because three musical settings survive from Shakespeare’s time: the consort (a Renaissance term for “ensemble”) setting in Thomas Morley’s First Booke of Consort Lessons (1599), a keyboard setting by William Byrd in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (1609-19), and John Gamble’s Commonplace Book (1659). Before you think my excitement is unwarranted and verging on pathological, let me say that there are practically no surviving musical settings of Shakespeare’s ‘songs’. Try to pretend that, 400 years from now, everyone has access to all the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s songs, but only one of those lyrics actually come with the melody and accompanying music. How exhilarating! (Okay, you might still think my excitement is pathological. And why Taylor Swift? I know nothing about popular culture music and thought about the inaccurate reference to Romeo and Juliet in “Love Story” and panicked, okay?)
If you’re interested in seeing Twelfth Night and can’t find a production near you, I highly recommend Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film adaptation (starring Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Stephens, and Ben Kingsley), which is a great deal of fun and does a whole bunch of awesome cross-cutting between scenes and using musical amazingness to stitch it all together and I will stop now before I start keyboard-smashing about my PhD thesis in glee.
Richard II (mid-1590s)
I don’t know how they teach English history in Englandland, but I vote they do so through Shakespeare’s history plays. (And then you can spend hours in the classroom discussing what wasn’t historically accurate—kinda like a massive game of spot the differences!) Richard II is my favourite history play (though it’s closely followed by Richard III), and although it was written after the second tetralogy (dubbed The War of the Roses), the action in this play is what starts it all.
Why Richard II? The poetry, my dears, the poetry. Richard’s string of speeches during his deposition in Act 3, scene ii never fails to sway me—for the sake of all things holy, give the man his rightful crown!
Unfortunately, I don’t have much else to say about Richard II at the moment, except that Ben Whishaw does a stunning job in BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012), and that I was fortunate enough to see a cinema screening of David Tennant’s Royal Shakespeare Company production (2013). Try to check out the former if you can—it’s followed up with the rest of the Henriad tetralogy (1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V), which are all wonderful screen adaptations. (Incidentally, the composer for both parts of Henry IV, Stephen Warbeck, wrote the music for Shakespeare in Love and also composes for The Globe.)
This play deserves its own series of blog posts (and website and mailing list and Facebook page!), so I’m afraid I’ll have to save my thoughts (and all my overwhelming feelings) for those. In the meantime, check out Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film (his directorial debut!), set in a modern-day “place calling itself Rome”. Excellent stuff.
And here ends my little tribute to Shakespeare on his supposed birthday. If you have any thoughts on the man, the plays, the poetry, please share them—I’d absolutely love to know the role(s) the Bard has played in your life!