Today is one of the more commonly accepted birthdates for William Shakespeare, so he gets a turn here on the blog tonight. Happy 450th, Will! Isn’t that a milestone?
I thought about posting one of my favorite of his sonnets, the one we used as a reading at our wedding, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments…” But then I thought that might be too expected, and instead I considered some of my personal history with the bard. Don’t worry, I won’t go into it all here. Ain’t nobody got time for that! But I do want to share one anecdote.
When I was in high school, my boyfriend took me to see Henry V at the cinema. At the time, all I really knew of Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet and scraps here and there of historical data and maybe a play fragment or two. I had heard of Othello and Hamlet and Macbeth but hadn’t read them yet. I had heard of The Taming of the Shrew because Moonlighting had done an episode called “Atomic Shakespeare” that my parents had recorded on their VCR and let me watch one day when I was home, sick, from school — since I’d already watched it at my grandparents’ house with my aunt.
I had no familiarity with any of Shakespeare’s histories at all.
So this boy took me to see Henry V because a friend of his had told him how good it was. As far as mainstream American audiences were concerned, this was our first really good look at a young and really good-looking Kenneth Branagh. And, in my memory, the movie was an unusually modern and accessible Shakespeare Film.
I fell, a little headfirst, in love.
Not with my boyfriend. Not even with Branagh, though I did come out of the movie with a little bit of a crush on him. Not with Judi Dench’s acting, though it was marvelous, and not with Christian Bale — then a teenager and adorable to my eyes because he was about my age and also, clearly, a really good actor. (I felt sickened looking at his character’s corpse on the battlefield.)
I fell in love with language. With the manipulation of it by Derek Jacobi, the Chorus. With Brian Blessed’s enormous stage presence when he said, “Tennis balls, my liege” — a line that still cracks me up when I think about it. With the overwrought and latently anxious descriptions of “a most excellent horse.” With Emma Thompson trying to say “neck.” With the two bishops whispering conspiratorially in a torchlit corridor at the very beginning of the film. With Lord Scrope, whom I felt so bad for because I was a teen and susceptible to his gothic face, and I was heartbroken by his betrayal, and I felt torn when they arrested him, though his treason be “another fall of man.”
The part that stunned me the most, though, was that even though I’d never read the play, watching the movie, I understood nearly every sentence. And it was here that I began to understand why Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen more than read. The idea that language could make more sense to me — to me, a lifelong avid reader whose favorite toys as a child were actually books — that it could be more familiar to my brain on a stage rather than on a page was startling to say the least.
Henry V broke open a floodgate for me, and with every piece of Shakespeare I read after that, I was able to read more and translate less as I went along. My self-confidence flourished.
So instead of sharing one of the many technically astute, even perfect, sonnets (such tiny masterpieces), I want to present here a part of Henry V. So many glorious speeches to choose from — Hal was the first motivational speaker I ever knew — and the one I’ve picked is the very first one in the play, the Prologue. It’s about what actors do on a stage in front of an audience, yes, but it’s also about what we as writers do, embroidering stories on the imagination, creating something, everything, from nothing but incorporeal thought.
It’s Derek Jacobi in a black trenchcoat, backstage, lighting a single wooden match.
Oh, a Muse of fire, indeed.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.