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Image taken by Flickr user Robert Occhialini

At a holiday gathering recently an old neighbor stopped by my parents’ house to sit by the fire with us and visit. Gerry is naturally garrulous. He has an opinion on everything and, being well-read and widely traveled, it’s an opinion I respect, even if we often disagree. I’m no shrinking violet myself, but I like to think my days of passionate intensity over fleeting causes are over. But that afternoon Gerry hit on my Achilles heel: “Who really wrote Shakespeare?” He knows all about my Shakespeare obsession, and began by baiting me with a new book he’d read that posited some fancy pants earl or other really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare was barely educated, Gerry said. He didn’t go to college and worked, in all likelihood, as a stable boy for the theaters before becoming an actor. I had heard this argument before and always with a sour face; there are plenty of books dedicated to securing Shakespeare’s authorship, too. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World seems primarily driven to show, through historical context, how Shakespeare could have sponged up all he needed for his plays by paying close attention to the world around him, though James Shapiro’s Contested Will argues convincingly that this kind of biographical criticism is part of what makes the authorship controversy possible. But engaging in this debate with Gerry seemed like a quid pro quo, one of those moments where arguing the points misses the point entirely. I had recently been reading James Shapiro’s work on the authorship controversy, and was auditing a class he was teaching on American Shakespeare. He’d had us read up on Delia Bacon, an American critic who can be credited (or blamed) for giving credence to the idea that Shakespeare, as an uneducated working stiff, wouldn’t have had the pia mater to write his own plays. The debate is inherently classist. Not only do you assume, I argued to Gerry, that only the educated can write great literature (never mind Chekhov, educated in Russia’s horrible public schools, or Mark Twain, who dropped out after fifth grade), but this argument tries to take Shakespeare away from working-class audiences. It suggests not just that Shakespeare wasn’t smart enough to write the plays, but that most audiences aren’t educated enough to understand them. It robs us of our cultural heritage! Let’s just say I only upped the ante from there. I may have equated questioning Shakespeare’s authorship with holocaust denial.

It suggests not just that Shakespeare wasn’t smart enough to write the plays, but that most audiences aren’t educated enough to understand them. It robs us of our cultural heritage!

Gerry left soon after, and I let the fire go cold. Though I rationalized that I had only given as good as I got, I felt terrible for making the argument personal. I didn’t need to insult him, and he was, of course, no holocaust denier. But I made it personal because it is personal. I don’t care, really, who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. But the debate isn’t really about that; it’s about who owns the culture, and who is allowed to interpret it.

Malvolio: By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.

Sir Toby Belch: (aside) Her C’s, her U’s and her T’s. Why that?

—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (II. iv.)

Every summer, when I come home to Boulder, CO to visit my family, we pack up a picnic basket—or rather a picnic backpack—and all walk to the Shakespeare Festival. We’ve been doing this since I was five and my sister, Carla, three. From our house, we walk south (keeping the mountains on our right) through neighborhoods that get crappier as we get closer to campus housing. The streets end at the Boulder Creek, and we cross a rickety metal bridge which had, one particular summer, a nice little bit of Shakespeare graffiti: “To be or not to be.” The other side of the river is thickly foliated, an untamed stretch of woods that hides the ruins of abandoned university projects, like the tennis courts that were turned into a skating rink one winter, which cracked the cement so that the courts had to be abandoned, left to be retaken by trees and vines. We stick to the path that winds steeply back and forth across the face of a huge hill and emerges at the edge of campus. The path is nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh trail, a nickname given during anti-Vietnam War protests. The nickname may have been given by the protesters, or it might have been coined by administrators, referring to the huge influx of Beat writers and hippie kids infiltrating the university from below.

As a kid I hated the steep zigzags of the trail. I’d stop to play “Pooh Sticks” with my sister on the bridge, stoop to gather pebbles when I got tired, and motivate myself, when my legs began to ache, with a TV slogan: “Feel the burn, feel the burn, feel the burn.” When we emerged on the plateau of the campus I saw the Rocky Mountains encircling Boulder Valley, the slate blue stone with massive rock faces so sheer that early miners had named them “flatirons.” We walked west toward the mountains, passing Old Main, the red brick Victorian where the university had been established and the first, tiny graduating class had commenced. Past Old Main the campus opened out to a green plain, an epic lawn whose borders of blue fescue are cultivated for ultimate frisbee players and the idyls of college students—their job, it seemed to me as a kid, was simply to lounge and flirt and read books.

In the diamond-shaped courtyard by the theater my parents would spread out a blanket they’d brought from home and we’d picnic on sandwiches, chips, and Hansen’s soda. A decade later, these rituals remained the same, only the shoes littering the edge of the blanket were much larger and we added screw-top wine.

On the picnic blanket, I’d watch the same foppish, slightly grizzled old man play Shakespeare every year, performing monologues on-demand for children and adults, who sometimes tried to catch him out with a difficult line. I wondered whether, like a musician, he had a stock of memorized pieces, or whether he knew the whole canon by heart, as I aspired to. He was, like most things in the theater, a bit patchy and threadbare up close. He could never quite get rid of his beard and his hair was a faded straw, nearly colorless. But he was also, like the theater, dazzling and eerie from a little more distance. His favorite bit was juggling while reciting one of the Fool’s speeches. There must be a bit of the fool about him in earnest, because he always performs for free. No one knows how long he’s been visiting the festival. It seems he simply showed up one day in costume and began to recite. I imagine that when he dies, his ghost will haunt the place.

My earliest memory of Shakespeare is of sitting on the stone benches of the Mary Rippon outdoor amphitheater, the stage bookended by ancient pine, the sun going down, sparrows swooping through the lights, and laughing when no one else was laughing.

Laughter, somewhere out there in the audience, is the first clue that there’s more going on in the play than meets the eye. The great thing about the fool is that he tells you when to laugh. Just as a priest is not himself a death-dealer, but portends it when he shows up at your bedside, so the fool points out to others the cliff in front of them. In King Lear, this is exactly what the doomed Edmund, who has temporarily taken on the parti-colored rags of a fool and made himself “seem” mad, does for Gloucester, his blind father. Gloucester has had both eyes gouged out by Lear’s son-in-law, yet, unlike the blind oracle, does not receive compensatory insight. Edmund, in disguise, takes his father to what he describes as the edge of a cliff and, just as he has worked Gloucester into a frenzy, forcing him to confront the possibility of death, he pushes him off.

My earliest memory of Shakespeare is of sitting on the stone benches of the Mary Rippon outdoor amphitheater, the stage bookended by ancient pine, the sun going down, sparrows swooping through the lights, and laughing when no one else was laughing.

Only there is no cliff. Edmund as the fool forces his father to look into the void, but when he falls it is not thousands of feet onto bare stone, but just a few, to snowy ground. He is not a reaper. He asks you to look at your own mortality and laugh, though these jokes often evoke more terror than hilarity.

I remember sitting on the hard stone benches of the Boulder amphitheater, the air rarefied with listening. The fool from Twelfth Night was onstage speaking to Olivia. I don’t remember the line, but I remember my parents asking me if I knew what was going on, and turning to them to describe the shipwreck and the twins’ and Viola’s purpose in dressing as a man. I had read the play in my onion-skin collected works and had puzzled over it for days, rolling the names “Viola” and “Sebastian” around in my mouth, but I hadn’t understood the plot until I saw it on that stage. I wished I could rename myself Viola, who, as her brother said, “bore a mind that envy could not but call fair.” It was the first time, outside of one collection of feminist fairy tales my mom bought me, that a heroine I read about was admired for her mind. It is striking in the play that Viola doesn’t use her smarts to look for her brother—who she thinks is drowned—or to woo the count Orsino—who she knows is in love with Olivia—but to make a living and hide her female identity in plain sight. The fool doesn’t like her because she makes Olivia laugh, which threatens his own livelihood. He acknowledges Olivia’s preferential treatment of the “boy” Cesario (Viola’s drag name), who comes wooing on Orsino’s behalf, but he refuses to allow Olivia to mask her attraction to Cesario in the denaturing pleasantries she uses to express romantic love. This attraction is obvious and logical. Olivia is in mourning and she’s had no one to talk to about it. Now she finds a man who not only speaks like a gentleman, a “fallen” one, as Cesario puts it, making him a fit object of her interest, but who has the “smooth cheek” and “rosy lip” of a youth on an island of otherwise older men. The appearance of a pretty young man in her court makes her begin to come out of mourning, because she begins to feel her own life in her veins again.

But Olivia’s passion takes the immature form of coyly drawing attention to her body, asking to be admired: “I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labeled to my will: as, item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.” She is handicapped by the inability to describe her love as anything other than romantic. The fool, on the other hand, sees that there’s something amiss with this overly pretty young man. Meeting Cesario on the street, he comments on the boy’s barefacedness:

Fool: “Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!”
Viola (as Cesario): “By my troth, I’ll tell thee, I am almost sick for one, (aside) though I would not have it grow on my chin.” (III. i.)

I remember hearing a few people laugh. I tried to pick them out of the audience, looking for professors, but as their voices dissipated in the pines they retreated back into the faceless crowd. I wanted to be on the inside, to get the joke. I thought back on what the fool had said, knew there was something dirty in that word “hair,” and that the “beard” the fool was talking about wasn’t just a beard, but what was a beard that didn’t grow on your chin? She is “sick” for a beard because she is in love with Orsino, but more than that, she’d have his beard grow… well, grow somewhere on her, or rather onto her. The line echoes the dirty joke Sir Toby Belch makes to his wonderfully named guest Sir Andrew Aguecheek. When vain Sir Andrew complains about his hair, Toby says nonsense! His hair is fine, “it hangs like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a huswife take thee between her legs and spin it off” (I. iii.). And so, as the fool might say, one joke breeds another.

Understanding one joke seemed to unlock many more, and other people’s laughter was the birdcall I followed into the forest. It told me there was something more out there. When I laughed, loudly, I was always a few beats behind. People in the audience turned on their benches to look, but I shut my mouth and forced myself to focus on the stage. I didn’t want to miss the next joke.

Understanding one joke seemed to unlock many more, and other people’s laughter was the birdcall I followed into the forest. It told me there was something more out there. When I laughed, loudly, I was always a few beats behind.

This is one of the reasons it was important to see Shakespeare performed, and not just to read him. Many of Shakespeare’s jokes seem obscure today; they rely on topical information, or their sexual innuendo relies on bawdy puns that use words no longer circulating in our slang. (For example, while readers of Sleeping Beauty might know that a distaff is that sharp pointy thing that holds the yarn while you spin it into thread, the word has been out of general use since the industrial revolution). Every time I see one of Shakespeare’s comedies I hear someone laugh at a line I’d never realized could be a joke. Shakespeare’s plays are so full of wit that the laughter sometimes bubbles up around the theater like a hidden springs, first in one mouth, and then in another. And after I started getting some of the jokes, I also became aware, with the dirty mind of most young girls, that much of Shakespeare’s comedy was about sex, which only made me love it more.
It’s not that sex jokes appeal to the lowest-common denominator (they appeal to everyone), but that performance, and Shakespeare festivals in particular, have an equalizing effect. On the page, surrounded by annotations, Shakespeare can seem esoteric. Reading Shakespeare scholarship can be exciting, particularly when it participates in unlocking some part of a play’s meaning. But too often approaching Shakespeare as a difficult text, rather than a living body of work meant for performance, means insisting on a single meaning.

I teach composition to undergraduates and often they come into the classroom with this same idea that a text taught in an academic setting has a correct interpretation and that their job is to guess what that interpretation is. (Often they put me in the role of the one who knows that interpretation.) The first step in approaching Shakespeare, as with any text we hope to keep alive, is to feel licence to mess around with it. To try on different interpretations, some as ill-fitting an old pair of bell bottoms and some that make you do a double-take like, damn! I never noticed that line before.

As weird as it may sound to some, interpretations like Gerry’s, that insist only a classy dude and scholar could have written Shakespeare’s plays, come from too much reading and not enough seeing. America has more Shakespeare festivals than anywhere else in the world and thousands of us gather each year, without interlocutors, to watch our favorite plays. Ultimately, I honestly don’t care who wrote the plays, the point is that the success of American Shakespeare festivals is proof that these plays are not merely highbrow, that they in fact require a diverse audience so that, when one kid laughs, the rest of us aren’t far behind.

Tana Wojczuk’s essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, Bomb, Paste, Lapham’s Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Undergraduate Writing Program Writing at Columbia University.

Tana Wojczuk

Tana Wojczuk’s essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, Bomb, Paste, Lapham’s Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University.

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