Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday!

No, no one is sure which day exactly William Shakespeare was born. But April 23rd is the day that scholars have decided is the most likely, and celebrations happen around the world in honor of the playwright. And so today we mark the 448th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare.

They've already done the parade and luncheon in Stratford-upon-Avon, and today the World Shakespeare Festival begins. Here's how they're describing the festivities:

"Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in an unprecedented collaboration with leading UK and international arts organisations, and with Globe to Globe, a major international programme produced by Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s the biggest celebration of Shakespeare ever staged.

"Almost 60 partners are coming together to bring the Festival alive. Thousands of artists from around the world will take part in almost 70 productions, plus supporting events and exhibitions, right across the UK, including London, Stratford-upon-Avon, Newcastle/Gateshead, Birmingham, Wales and Scotland and online."

Closer to home, it's "Talk Like Shakespeare" Day in Chicago, with a proclamation from Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. You should totally click on that last link, if only to see the video of Chicago and Illinois-related folks like George Wendt, Dick Durbin, Renee Fleming, Ora Jones and Harry Groener talk like Shakespeare. There's also audio from the Q Brothers to teach you how to talk like Shakespeare with a hip hop twist.

Performances of lauded British actor Simon Callow's one-man Shakespeare show continue (in conjunction with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, but performed at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place) through April 29, plus Ian McDiarmid opens tomorrow in "Timon of Athens" back at the Courtyard Theatre at Chicago Shakes.

Our very own Illinois Shakespeare Festival is open for ticket sales, if you'd like to celebrate Shakespeare by getting your season tied down or making a donation now. They'll be performing "As You Like It," "Othello" and Sheridan's "The Rivals" this summer, opening with a preview of "Othello" on June 26. Ticket information is here.

If you'd like to celebrate Shakespeare in the cozy confines of your own home, I recommend popping in the "Shakespeare in Love" DVD, trying the Zeffirelli "Romeo and Juliet," the 1999 "Midsummer Night's Dream" with Kevin Kline as the most engaging Bottom ever, or the Kenneth Branagh "Much Ado About Nothing," with a luminous performance from Emma Thompson as Beatrice.

One last choice: Paul Collins' "The Book of William,"which follows the path of the First Folios, those much-coveted collections of 36 Shakespeare plays printed in 1624, after they began to be disseminated into the world. Collins tells a lively and compelling story of printers, collectors, museums, shipwrecks and thieves. Fascinating.


  1. I had not heard of "Book of William" before; I thought of seeing if our univ library has it, but then I followed your link and found that it's cheap enough I might as well just buy it for myself. So I did.

    I liked your list of good Shakespeare movies, and want to add a few more; may I? (This could turn into a major hijacking of the comments if others do likewise!) First, I agree with all your choices, and would also single out Denzel Washington in the "Much Ado"; the scene in which he proposes to Emma Thompson and she very nicely rejects him is one of the best acted duo scenes I can recall in movies.

    I would also want to mention both "Henry V"s -- Olivier and Branagh; very different, both rousing pieces of entertainment. And the Trevor Nunn "Twelfth Night," beautifully filmed in Cornwall with lovely performances by (among many others) Imelda Staunton, Toby Stephens, Ben Kingsley, Nigel Hawthorne, Helena Bonham Carter, and Nicholas Farrell. And Branagh's "Hamlet," which goes over the top at times both with cameo casting and with big effects, but gives us the whole play and enacts it well. And both Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen sell their "Richard III" movies with lots of panache. (I'll bypass TV versions, like the BBC series, for now.)

    How about each of us naming the Shakespeare plays that we feel most attached to (I'm trying to avoid "favorite" but I guess that's what I do mean)? For me: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Measure for Measure. (Three obvious ones, plus one not.)

  2. I don't mind in the least if you hijack the comments! I was thinking of that, as well. (Talking about the favorites or the favorite movie versions, I mean.) I considered the Branagh Hamlet, and I'd also like to point out that Paul Scofield is FABULOUS as King Hamlet in the otherwise not-so-nifty Mel Gibson Hamlet. The 1930s Midsummer is also fairly amusing, what with Mickey Rooney as Puck and all. And, yes, I should've remembered Sir Ian's Richard III, which is quite dashing and dramatic. Maybe also Orson Welles' and Akira Kurosawa's takes on Macbeth. In terms of quirky updates, the teen "10 Things I Hate About You" works, "West Side Story" and "Forbidden Planet" probably should be mentioned. And one of the BBC short form Shakespeare Retold things, the Taming of the Shrew one where she (Shirley Henderson) is a nutball conservative MP who wants to be PM and he (Rufus Sewell) is a crazy aristocrat/cross-dresser. What with that and a funny Little Italy in the 50s Shrew at the ISF (directed by Karen Kessler) and a Merchant of Venice at the ISF set in Mussolini's Italy (directed by Joshua Sobol), I am going to have to stop saying I hate Taming of theShrew and Merchant of Venice. I found Al Pacino's Merchant on film (with the divine Joseph Fiennes) dullsville and uninvolving, however.

    Cannot believe I didn't say anything about "Slings and Arrows," either!

    In general, my favorites of the plays are Hamlet, Much Ado, Twelfth Night and... Either The Tempest or The Winter's Tale. WT was so well done last summer at the ISF that it gave me a new appreciation for it. Whereas I'm still waiting for a perfect Tempest, but I think it's out there.

  3. There's a Shakespeare DVD box which I bought a few years back; it's an oddly assorted quartet of films, including the Branagh "Hamlet" already mentioned, the Olivier "Othello" (not recommended, at least by me -- I wish we could have had his legendary Macbeth, which he did at Stratford with Vivien Leigh, instead), that old MGM "Midsummer" with Mickey Rooney, Cagney, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, Joe E. Brown et all (more interesting in this deluxe transfer, restored to its full length and garnished with commentary that explains the participation of Max Reinhardt and Wolfgang Korngold), and the old "Romeo" directed by George Cukor. This is pretty deadly when Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard start murmuring their love scenes politely and slowly in soft focus, but it has its moments -- Edna May Oliver as the Nurse, and especially John Barrymore as Mercutio. I know not everyone goes for his performance, but I love it -- it's a glimpse into that old elocutionary mellifluous-voice way of doing Shakespeare that is otherwise lost to us except (in a later, diluted version) in some of Gielgud's work.

    Actually, with the mid-50s "Romeo" movie now finally available again (Laurence Harvey as Romeo, stunning Italian locations and "copying" of some Renaissance paintings in some scenes), one could do some detailed comparisons of different versions of this play, even without considering Baz Luhrmann.

    I agree that Al Pacino doesn't ignite that "Merchant" movie, but then I have trouble buying that play anyway. But it does have Jeremy Irons (longing unrequitedly for Joseph Fiennes, as which of us would not), and the DVD has an entertaining commentary with the director and plucked-from-semi-obscurity Lynn Collins (Portia) being rather irreverent about some moments. It still falls to pieces with that last scene though, as any present-day production pretty much has to.

    I am also devoted to operas and ballets based on Shakespeare, but I am probably the only one here who is.

  4. Speaking of the First Folios... I wondered if you had looked at my Facebook page and knew what the background image was, JAC. No one has asked me or offered an opinion, and it's been up there awhile. You're one of two people I thought might know.

  5. Make that one person. You stumped me.

  6. A fool or jester with the cap with bells on it (or a fool's cap) was the watermark on Folio-sized paper. So the First Folios were printed on Foolscap. Or there were Foolscap watermarks on the First Folios. (I always thought Foolscap referred to a kind of paper, but now I realize it's actually the size of the paper. I think. In any event, it's named after the watermark that shows up on my FB page.) Read more about it:

  7. OK, thanks. I didn't know any of that. (I thought it was a kind of paper too.)