The other day I was trying to exorcise a tenacious earworm the only way I know how, by vocalizing the offending song all the way to the end. So I wandered the house mumble-singing “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard.” My six-year-old daughter, who is far more emotionally astute than she is knowledgeable about ’70s pop, didn’t understand what I was prattling on about, but she wanted to connect with me. As a conversational gambit, she broached another confusing topic she’s heard about all too often and asked, “Daddy, is there a Shakespeare character named Julio?” As she probably intended, that stopped the singing.
“No, honey, there are a couple of Juliets and I believe there’s a Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, but no Julios.”
“Are you sure, Daddy? I think there is.”
“I’m sure, dear. Julio is a Spanish name, and Shakespeare didn’t really write about Spain . . . hang on a second . . .”
Come to think, he did write (allegedly) a play called Cardenio dramatizing an episode from Don Quixote. Long lost, if it ever existed, but current scholarship suggests that it was adapted by Lewis Theobald in the 18th century as Double Falsehood, still in print and containing more than mere vestiges of the original. The people who publish the Arden editions say so, anyway, and so do a lot of others who don’t care that Shakespeare’s name on a book cover sells far more copies than Theobald’s. The hero of Double Falsehood is named . . . wait for it . . . Julio.
Which means that my first-grader is an unwitting Shakespearean savant. I shouldn’t be surprised. She’s pretty enthusiastic about my reading Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories to her–she asks me to, I swear–though she has trouble following the action. We stop at the end of nearly every page of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” so I can explain to her again how Helena is chasing Demetrius, who is chasing Hermia, who is running away with Lysander, at least until the fairies get involved and turn them all around. My daughter drew an adorable chart to help her keep things straight: the title is “The Loveing Games” and all the characters are marked “Winer” or “Looser.”
The night after we made our family foray into Stratfordian arcana, I had tickets for Bring Down the House, a distilled version of the three parts of Henry VI jointly put on by Seattle Shakespeare Company and upstart crow collective. Their subject is the Wars of the Roses, the convoluted, multi-generational dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster that inspired Game of Thrones. Highly popular in their time, the Henry VI plays aren’t frequently produced today–they’re early works without the depth of theme or character possessed by the better-known later plays–but they’re full of energy, making gleeful mockery of the endless disasters they portray. It may be a co-creator who injected them with their distinctive cynicism. Just last year Christopher Marlowe’s name was officially added to the register of Shakespeare’s collaborators, so it’s an ideal time for a fresh look.
The real hook here, though, is that Bring Down the House is a racially-diverse, all-female production. That shouldn’t necessarily be worth remarking, but history, especially recent history, says otherwise. In the year of Why We March, the talented women on stage at the Center Theatre constitute the perfect Shakespearean cast. You have until March 12th to see them, and I recommend doing it if you can.
I had inadvertently primed myself for my evening at the theater with a book I read last month by Harriet Walter. She’s an actress who may be most recognizable from her role in Ang Lee’s filmed adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, but her it’s her extensive stage experience that she’s written about. Brutus and Other Heroines is a meditation on more than four decades of Shakespearean performance, focusing on the myriad gender issues with which she’s grappled along the way. Those issues bob right up to the surface in the so-called “trouser parts” such as Rosalind and Portia, originally played by boys pretending to be girls pretending to be boys, but Walter dives deeper, discovering what a woman can learn when she takes on male roles that include Brutus, Henry IV, and Prospero. Her book is an essential manual for actors and directors, but it also has a great deal to say to any thoughtful person who has a real-life role to play.
Walter uses Shakespeare to comment on more than just gender relations, and not only in her writing. I first became aware of her artistic activism almost exactly a year ago when I saw her perform a speech that addressed the suffering refugees were then experiencing, the same speech I cited the prior year to point out the same injustice, an injustice that has yet to be redressed in 2017 and will likely worsen if our current political administration has its way. Worry about that, and about many other related matters, keeps me up at night. But then I consider all the noble women who are right now using an antique art for their own progressive purposes, including my own young daughter, and for their sake, in my fair mind, I let this acceptance take.