I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Staunton, Virginia last month for a whole weekend of Shakespeare. Staunton is a lovely little town in the Shenandoah Valley, with mountains all around. It also happens to be the home of the American Shakespeare Center who performs there at the only replica in the world of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse.
Staunton has another replica building… this one from Stratford-upon-Avon. Indeed, there is a replica of Shakespeare’s wife’s childhood home, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, and it’s a Bed and Breakfast. And the innkeeper’s name is Juliette. And I stayed in Juliet’s Room (there’s also Romeo’s room and William’s Room).
The inn was a lovely place to stay for a wonderful weekend of Shakespeare…. and a wonderful weekend of Shakespeare, it was!
The American Shakespeare Center is a fantastic place. I first visited a few years ago when I saw them perform All’s Well That Ends Well at Blackfriars. I saw their touring group perform A Winter’s Tale last spring. This time, I made the pilgrimage to the Shenandoah Valley to see two wonderful performances at Blackfriars: The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I also took a behind-the-scenes tour of the playhouse. Let me start with the tour.
We learned the history of the original Blackfriars’ Playhouse in London and then we got to check out all parts of this lovely Elizabethan-style playhouse, up, down, backstage, onstage and everywhere in between (be sure to watch the slideshow at the end of this post!). We saw the dressing and rehearsal rooms, the costumes and props (the decapitated man is a prop for their current show, Cymbeline). The tour was wonderful and I highly recommend making time for it if you are in Staunton.
And then there are the shows. They are a lot of fun with great live music before the show, a cash bar on the stage, and lots of energy. There are seats on the stage and audience members are also invited to sit in Juliet’s balcony up above the stage. I can’t imagine it’s a great view of the show from above, but during the behind-the-scenes tour, it was pointed out that “being seen” was a big part of attending the theater in Elizabethan times, so sitting in the box above the stage ensured that you were “seen” by the crowd.
The American Shakespeare Center uses Elizabethan staging practices… so the lights are left on and the players often make eye contact with audience members, drawing them into the action, at least verbally. Sets and props are minimal, costumes are lovely, men are sometimes cast in women’s parts (and vice versa), and the action moves along at a fast pace.
The intermission features more music… the songs often are selected to go along with the show. For example, the Merchant of Venice featured an acoustic version of the Beatles’ song Money (That’s What I Want)… which was pretty funny. And then at intermission there was a spirited take on Soul Man and a faster and faster round of actors and audience members doing the Jewish wedding dance.
The plays were lovely. They were both staightforward renditions. It reminds me very much of the performances I’ve seen on video from Shakespeare’s Globe. I wonder if the ASC intends to ever share their performances on video. It would be a treat. They are beautifully-done by talented actors in beautiful costumes.
The Blackfriars experience is intimate and fun. Because the playhouse is small and the house lights are on, the audience is part of the performance. That’s especially true of the brave souls that sit on the stage. For example, during the Merchant of Venice, Portia and Narissa played with all the men on stage when making derisive comments about Portia’s suitors. The guy sitting in front of me was also pointed to as “the German sponge” (he and his wife were still making jokes about that at the intermission!). It is quite hilarious and adds to the fun atmosphere.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona was fast and furious and of course, it features a dog (available for adoption after each show). As always, the music was fun… I remember at intermission hearing My Boyfriend’s Back. Pretty funny! Anyway, the play was fun, Proteus is a jerk, Julia is heartbroken, Proteus is an even bigger jerk, and then the play’s strange ending was kind of white-washed in this production, making it not-quite-so-unbelievable that Proteus is suddenly turning over a new leaf.
Two Gents and Merchant continue through November at Blackfriars. Also showing now are King John, Cymbeline, and The Lion in Winter. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a weekend of Shakespeare, if you can. ASC puts on plays 52 weeks a year. I think you cannot go wrong at Blackfriars.
Staunton has plenty to offer, as well. I kept busy all weekend, taking a history and architecture tour of downtown, a haunted ghost walking tour (boo!), and seeing the sites from the free trolley around town. I visited the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and presidential library, a wine tasting at Barren Ridge Vinyards with views of the Blue Ridge… oh and I enjoyed my quiet time at the quaint and cozy Anne Hathaway’s Cottage with its delicious breakfasts, friendly innkeeper, lovely garden and resident cats King Lear and Portia.
© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
Why am I sick? Why is he greedy? Why is she a shrew? In Shakespeare’s time, these questions would have been answered using the four humors. I realize that means very little to most people today. In Shakespeare’s world, people were thought to be ruled by four bodily fluids (called “humors”) — blood, phlegm, black bile (also called melancholy), and yellow bile (also called choler). Each of these fluids was believed to have inherent qualities that when in balance brought good health. When the humors were out of balance, illness and behavioral/personality problems resulted.
Medicine focused on bringing the humors into balance. Each humor was associated with moisture and heat. So, to bring them back into balance, the physician might add the opposite quality or take away whatever was in overabundance. For example, heat would help someone suffering from too much phlegm or melancholy (“cold” humors). Bloodletting would help a person with a fever, who must have an overabundance of blood (a “hot” humor).
How do I know all this? I live in a cool place (phlegmatic?!). The Folger Shakespeare Library is, of course, a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers. But there is a whole lot more coolness in the Washington DC area. There is the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Why is this a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers? They currently have an exhibition called And There’s the Humor of It: Shakespeare and the Four Humors.
The exhibition is lovely, with books from the National Library of Medicine’s collection tracing humorism back to its roots in antiquity… Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Humorism, especially as expanded upon by Galen, was a comprehensive system and was used to explain… just about everything. From the exhibition’s website:
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) created characters that are among the richest and most humanly recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood human personality in the terms available to his age—that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors—blood, bile, melancholy, and phlegm. These four humors were thought to define peoples‘ physical and mental health, and determined their personalities, as well.
The language of the four humors pervades Shakespeare‘s plays, and their influence is felt above all in a belief that emotional states are physically determined. Carried by the bloodstream, the four humors bred the core passions of anger, grief, hope, and fear—the emotions conveyed so powerfully in Shakespeare‘s comedies and tragedies.
Today, neuroscientists recognize a connection between Shakespeare‘s age and our own in the common understanding that the emotions are based in biochemistry and that drugs can be used to alleviate mental suffering.
I attended a lecture called “Shrew Taming and Other Tales of the Four Humors” at NLM by Gail Kern Paster, the former director of the Folger and co-curator of the current NLM exhibition. According to Paster, Shakespeare’s audience would have understood life through the lens of the four humors, and there would have been no way for them to separate the psychological from the physical qualities attributed to the humors. So, she said to read Shakespeare “humorally,” that is, with the humors in mind, brings a much deeper understanding of his work.
Paster calls the humors “a code largely opaque and unknown to us” since they have no place in modern medicine and are largely forgotten now. But she says they were pervasive in Shakespeare’s time, and taking the effort to look for the language of the humors (i.e. references to heat, cold, moisture, and dryness) helps decipher meaning in Shakespeare and adds depth to understanding his works.
Paster focused her talk on the humors associated with three Shakespearean characters: Shylock, Ophelia, and Katherine Minola (bonny Kate, aka the Shrew). These characters were selected for the NLM exhibition because they displayed evidence of the “darker emotions” associated with melancholy and choler (much more interesting than boring phlegm which corresponded to a lack of activity).
The humors were thought to literally make you who you were. Because humorism was so all-encompassing, Shakespeare couldn’t help but to write with the assumption that his audience understood the context, implications and references to these things that simply go right over our heads today. However, we can watch for triggers that indicate Shakespeare is speaking humorally… often when he is describing emotions in physical terms.
The Greek physician/philosopher Galen expanded on the humoral system and added a whole host of other things to consider including the environment, place of birth, gender, age, etc. Paster noted that “The power of Galenism is it is so multifactorial… pick your factors and you have an explanation.” So, for example, the taming of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew involves manipulating a number of Galenic elements like diet and activity level to deal with Katherine Minola’s overabundance of choler.
Paster’s talk was fascinating and introduced me to a whole layer of “stuff” in Shakespeare that I had never before heard of. I have to say, I will certainly be on the lookout for humoral references from now on, even if I understand them imperfectly. The thing that amazed me most is that this system was used for about two thousand years, and it is only in the last 150 years or so that it has been almost completely erased. Bloodletting continued well into the 1800s. Think about how much things have changed!
If you live in the DC area, you may want to take a trip to Bethesda to view the exhibition at the NLM. It will be on display at the History of Medicine through August 17, 2012. While you’re there, be sure to take in the very nice (and much bigger) exhibit on Native American medicine (you really need a couple hours to do it justice). The Shakespeare exhibition includes a traveling exhibit that will be touring the country. If you can’t see it in person (and even if you can, actually), check out the excellent website they have put together. For teachers, there are extremely well-done lesson plans for middle and high school, as well as a college-level teaching module. Maybe you will get as interested in humorism as I have!
© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
I love his words. But I also love the stories, and so I can thoroughly enjoy a ballet based on Shakespeare. I saw Netflix offered The Milestone Collection: Silent Shakespeare and I thought I’d give it a try.
It was interesting. It includes brief (most are one reel — about 10 minutes) renditions of seven plays: King John (Britain, 1899), The Tempest (Britain, 1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (USA, 1909), King Lear (Italy, 1910), Twelfth Night (USA, 1910), The Merchant of Venice (Italy, 1910), Richard III (Britain, 1911).
I enjoyed the pace. I found the silent movies, with their lovely music, very relaxing to watch. Yet because the plots are so abbreviated, the stories move right along. Some of the films are incomplete or jump around, but they’re interesting to watch. I like the stylized acting and the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch. Such a different era.
The costumes are nice. I liked seeing actual Athenians dressed in Greek attire in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I enjoyed seeing the Merchant of Venice filmed on location in Venice! Beautiful! Two of the films, King Lear and the Merchant of Venice are tinted with beautiful colors. I don’t know what the process was they used, but the skin remains black and white–only the clothing and some of the backgrounds are vivid. It’s an interesting contrast!
Okay, let’s face it… this is an oddity. I could not always follow the story lines and I admit to fast-forwarding through some of it, but still, I thought it was pretty cool to see these early films!
© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
I just saw The Merchant of Venice in rare form — bare naked. No, the actors were clothed. Here’s a description from the Maryland Shakespeare Festival website:
As always in Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s signature Bare Bard experiments, The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in impromptu Shakespeare. The cast of actors will arrive in Frederick on Friday evening with their lines already memorized, and by Saturday evening, they will perform the full production before an audience—with stunning emotional realism, audience interaction, live music, choreographed dances, and unbeatable storytelling.
Let me explain: the actors met on Friday evening, had dinner, talked about the play, worked through some things on Saturday and then with no rehearsals, performed it for the first time on Saturday evening, in front of a live audience. They performed it once more on Sunday afternoon. And then the actors stayed for a bit afterward to discuss the play and answer questions. And now it’s done. History.
Seriously, this was a pretty incredible experience. It is experimental theater, more in tune with the ways of Elizabethan theater, where plays were produced fast and furiously with little rehearsal and not much in the way of props or staging. Did I say props? Ummm, the only props I can remember in the entire production were the scales and knife that Shylock carried into the courtroom preparing to take his pound of flesh from Antonio. Oh, and the three boxes that Portia’s suitors must choose from to win her hand. Bare Bard, indeed!
Did I mention Shylock? It was very interesting to see this so soon after watching the Playing Shakespeare episode devoted entirely to this character. Shylock was incredible here — played by British actor Stephen Lorne Williams, a Broadway veteran (and currently playing at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia which I posted about a few months ago). I found his Shylock filled with psychological angst from bearing a lifetime of racism.
In the discussion after the play, people talked about anti-Semitism in the play, whether this reflected on Shakespeare himself, the times, or whether we cannot know. I have not re-read the play yet, but my feeling from this production was that Shylock’s pretty much psychotic insistence on having his pound of flesh rather than twice the payment he was due, was due to a lifetime of maltreatment and disrespect. He thought he had a moment of power after a lifetime of powerlessness. Even that backfired on him. Amazing.
And then, of course, the play is a comedy, and the players made the most of many of the comic elements. I especially enjoyed the silliness regarding the errant rings at the end. And there was a great moment where Lorenzo sang to Jessica one of the Beatles’ love songs (I think it was “And I Love Her”). Very funny.
Was it perfect? No, I mean how could it be when there have been no rehearsals. There were some requests for lines, but they were rare, considering. And I didn’t count them as flubs… there were really none. Shylock was definitely the high point of this production, but a lesser character caught my attention, too: Shylock’s servant, Launcelot Gobbo. His internal back and forth between conscience and the fiend… it was both funny and extremely insightful — the perfect role of the jester. I loved it.
If you find yourself near Frederick, Maryland, I recommend that you check out the Maryland Shakespeare Festival. I posted about these folks during the summer outdoor freebie Shakespeare season. They are playing several Bare Bard experiments this season and it is an amazing way to experience Shakespeare. As well as raw and bare, it is also up close and personal: they play in the parish hall at an Episcopal Church. There is not even a stage. The actors were literally a couple feet away from me. Amazing!
© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.