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Shakespeare and me
June 16, 2011 - Stephen Browne
My family and I watched the new version of "True Grit" last night, and quite enjoyed it. I thought Hailee Steinfield was outstanding as Mattie Ross, and accordingly consulted the indispensable Internet Movie Database to learn more about her.
Well, well, it turns out after "True Grit" Steinfield starred as Juliet in the newest version of "Romeo and Juliet," currently in pre-production. In my humble opinion, after seeing her in "True Grit" Steinfield may be the only actress of her age who just might could give Olivia Hussey some serious competition for the definitive movie Juliet.
Franco Zeffirelli's version came out in 1968 when I was in high school, and introduced my generation to the idea that Shakespeare could be cool. I can't speak for the ladies vis a vis Leonard Whiting's Romeo, but all of us adolescent boys had massive crushes on Hussey as Juliet.
Zeffirelli's innovation was to use actors about the same age as the protagonists - "She hath not seen the change of 14 years." Previous versions used adult actors, and frankly it stretches credibility to see obviously worldly and mature adults acting so tragically stupid.
"For never was there story that was filled with more woe, than that of Juliet and her Romeo."
One could cite the 1954 movie version with 26-year-old Lawrence Harvey, and 20-year-old Susan Shentall, which I have not seen. Before that there was a 1936 movie with 43-year-old Leslie Howard, and 34-year-old Norma Shearer, which unfortunately I have seen. Part of it that is, the overacting of these otherwise fine actors was so bad it was too painful to watch.
See what happens? Once you get hooked on Shakespeare you develop passionate opinions about how it should be done.
So here's a couple of anecdotes about me and The Bard, and how he crops up in my life from time to time.
I did my fieldwork for my anthropology M.A. among the Filipino immigrant community in central Oklahoma. "Fieldwork" involved going to community events where I ate delicious food, danced with beautiful women, and drank with men who shared fascinating stories and views with me.
Hey, no sacrifice is too great for the Cause of Science.
At one event, the subject of Shakespeare came up. I think it was when one Filipino quoted, "When my love says she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies."
These guys explained to me how Shakespeare, and "Romeo and Juliet" specifically, has a world of meaning for them they thought Americans couldn't understand.
"In the Philippines, if a young couple's families are against each other, they have no chance," was how one man put it. "American kids just shrug and say, 'They'll get over it when the babies come.'"
(And by the way, Hailee Steinfield is part-Filipina.)
On another occasion I took a Chinese woman to see Mel Gibson's "Hamlet." She'd lived in America for some time, but still had problems with English. She was aware of Shakespeare and something of what he meant to us, but had never seen him. So I just told her to sit back and let the language roll over her.
When the movie began she got me to line out the basic plot, who's that guy, and that guy, who killed who, etc.
Afterward we went out to tea and had the most fascinating discussion of Shakespeare I've had to date.
"You Americans, you believe in ghosts?" she asked.
"Well as 20th century rationalists we're kind of not supposed to, but many of us do yes," I said.
So she lined out her take on Hamlet as I sat there gobsmacked. I'd been raised on the late-Freudian interpretation of Hamlet. You know, the notion Hamlet has this Oedipal thing about his mother and that he's a ditherer who can't make up his mind. Olivier's Hamlet (1948) began, "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind," and Gibson explicitly endorsed the Freudian interpretation.
She didn't see it that way at all.
She said, "What? Ghost comes and tells the prince to kill the king? Ghosts lie! All Chinese know that. And Hamlet said, maybe it isn't his father, maybe it's a demon. Good question."
She thought the idea of killing the king on the unsupported word of a ghost was demonstrably insane, and Hamlet was only being prudent to wait until he could confirm or deny the charge against his uncle/stepfather. Everybody getting killed in the end was just unfortunate, but that's just the way things go sometimes.
I said, "Omigod, I think you're right and we're wrong."
I thought she was closer in her world-view to the Elizabethan's who watched Shakespeare's plays than we westerners are today.
Those conversations opened a whole new (or maybe old) way of looking at Shakespeare for me. I think it made me feel more connected to the past of our own civilization, helped me understand why Shakespeare speaks to all peoples, and why he may very well outlast our civilization.
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