BY JOANNA CLEARY AND MARIA PRUDENTE
Joanna Cleary: I’m so excited that we’ve agreed to have a conversation on the best-known playwright in the history of English literature– William Shakespeare — in honour of his birthday. As an English and Theatre major, it probably comes as no great shock to hear that I love his plays and sonnets. However, it might come a surprise to find out that I didn’t consider myself a fan of his work until I saw it performed in the theatre. My first exposure to Shakespeare came when my ninth grade English Literature class studied Romeo and Juliet. While I loved the rich images Shakespeare created, I struggled with the unfamiliar language and often grew frustrated because I read the script much more slowly than I read contemporary works. When my class when to see a live performance of Romeo and Juliet, however, I found myself absolutely immersed in the world being created in front of me. I grew to deeply appreciate Shakespeare as one who not only writes about the human condition but does so in a way that allows everything he focuses on – from emotional character development to philosophical questions – to take on an ephemeral life of itself. Now over to you – when did you first learn about Shakespeare?
Maria Prudente: Romeo and Juliet was my first experience too. My first monologue class was a Shakespeare workshop. I began, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” and I remember the creative director of the theatre looking utterly confused. In retrospect, I love that at twelve I didn’t bother to gender the monologue, but in actuality, I just liked it best. I thought it was elegant and beautiful, I didn’t care that a man said it. In my freshman year of high school, I was cast as Rosaline for our production of R&J. I was gutted. I had no lines though I got to wear a special floral head-piece. For a character who never speaks, it was easy to create an interpretation of her because Shakespeare offers us information on “fair Rosaline” through other characters: Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. I am not surprised to hear that you became a fan after seeing his work in the theatre. I support the notion that Shakespeare should be seen, not just read. In terms of writing, what I’ve always liked about Shakespeare is that there is no subtext; the language does the work for you and that, in essence, is the brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing. There is a vast legacy of work to choose from — what is your favorite Shakespearean sonnet or play?
JC: I know it’s a bit of a cliché to cite this as my favourite Shakespearean text, but I love Romeo and Juliet. While it’s often dismissed as overly dramatic and unrealistic, I strongly believe that the dramatic tension and spectacular plotline is precisely what captures the feeling of newfound love in the play. My favourite line of the first act is when Romeo first sees Juliet and declares “[o], she doth teach the torches to burn bright” (Act 1.5.42) — the statement is so simple, but also so profound and bursting with emotion. I completely support the contemporary social emphasis on people knowing how to be independent, I also think that love — platonic love, romantic love, and everything in between — has an important place in the human condition and deserves to be recognized in poetic expressions such as this. Speaking of how Shakespeare relates to the modern world, what do you think are the best contemporary adaptations of his work?
MP: I agree with you that the universal themes of love are why Romeo & Juliet is so captivating. We understand it as kids because they, too, are impulsive, impassioned kids and we nostalgically, sympathetically relate as adults. For me, I measure the best contemporary adaptations of his work by what is most relatable. Whether we are consciously aware or not, what we connect to when we watch The Lion King is what we connect to in Hamlet, and, what we connect to when we watch My Own Private Idaho (a classic Gus Van Zant film) is what we connect to in Henry IV. My favorite is Ten Things I Hate About You as a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. At theatre conservatory, I was selected to perform Kate’s monologue for several hours over several days for prospective students and I resented the fact that Kate wasn’t more like her modern adaptation in 10 Things I Hate About You. In the movie, we see Kat as a feminist figure, and in Shrew, Shakespeare characterizes Katherine as a fiery female turned anti-feminine, submissive wife. Would Kat have said to Patrick, “Humble your pride, then, since it’s useless, and place your hand beneath your husband’s foot? As a gesture of my loyalty, my hand is ready if he cares to use it”? I don’t think so. That’s why I think modern adaptations are important because they spark a bigger conversation. Was Shakespeare commenting on misogyny and feminity in Taming of the Shrew? Do we believe this was his point of view? Did 10 Things I Hate About You try to deconstruct gender and female oppression and correct the characterization of Katherine through Kat? Shakespeare is still challenging us in the 21st century. Aside from comparing modern adaptations, what do you suggest people do if they want to understand and enjoy Shakespeare’s work?
JC: I definitely agree that contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work often help make the material more relatable to people who aren’t familiar with the language or the era in which he was writing. However, I also think that people should also experience performances of his original scripts in order to fully appreciate the nuanced worlds Shakespeare creates through his language; after all, he’s known for being a poet just as much as he is for being a playwright. If there are no performances of Shakespeare’s work playing, I’d recommend listening to his work via audiobook to hear his words being said aloud, which is how they are intended to be heard. I had to listen to an audiobook recording of Othello when I studied the play in my Gr. 10 English Literature class. Initially, I hated that audiobook because it moved too fast for me to keep up, as I wanted to stop every time I came across a word I didn’t understand (which was often) and look it up. However, I gradually came to understand that it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand every word because hearing the play aloud helped me more deeply emotionally connect to the world being created before me. Anyways, going back to your acting background, what Shakespeare character (regardless of sex or gender) have you always wanted to play?
MP: I’m jealous of those boys playing Hamlet. There’s even a play by William Missouri Downs called, Women Playing Hamlet where a woman cast as Hamlet has a massive existential crisis during the whole process. Because Hamlet is so consumed by his masculinity (or lack thereof), it would be fun and challenging maybe to regender him; to flip his questioning his bravery “am I coward?” and the insult of “unmanly grief” on its head. What role would you like to play?
JC: I’ve always wanted to play one of the three witches in Macbeth. Like all delightfully grotesque characters, I think it takes skill to not overdo their persona or characterize them in a predictable way that’s been already been done. Personally, I’m interested in looking at the witches as characters who raise questions on class and status in the play – what does it mean for Macbeth, a member of the upper class, to talk with witches and, later in the play, go as far as to seek them out? What does that say about class corruption? And, if one looks at the witches as symbols of femininity, what do they say about gender roles and dynamics? What does it mean for them to, in a way, seduce Macbeth? I would love to take on a role rich with the potential to explore topics such as these. I also greatly enjoy ensemble work and would relish the opportunity to work with two other actors playing my fellow witches, as it has been my experience that a show is strongest when members of the cast are united. Moving onto Shakespeare himself, however, what’s one question that you’d ask him if you two were somehow able to have a conversation?
MP: I think I would ask how much politics during the Elizabethan era influence him. I think his work verges on the political by way of his characters and it would be interesting if there were specific issues that felt so pressing he needed to write about them. We are living at a time of extreme political polarization so I would be interested to know what he would write about today. What would you ask?
JC: Hmm, interestingly, I don’t know if I would ask him anything. I thought I’d have lots of questions ready in response to you, but nothing seems to be coming to mind. I think perhaps I don’t want Shakespeare himself to influence my perception of his work, as so many insightful and creative relationships between us and him have been built precisely because of the fact that there are huge gaps in our knowledge of his life. That said, I think today is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time pondering the many mysteries of William Shakespeare and re-read some of his poetry, be it his sonnets or his plays. And now over to you, dear readers – we hope that you too can spend some time reading Shakespeare on his 455th birthday!
JOANNA CLEARY is an undergraduate student double majoring in English Literature and Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The /tƐmz/ Review, The Hunger, Pulp Poets Press, Every Pigeon, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Subterranean Blue Poetry, among others.
MARIA PRUDENTE has written about feminist ethics for Manifest-Station and is featured in Grey Wolfe Publishing’s upcoming anthology of nonfiction short stories. Maria is a professional stage and film actress. She received her training from the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and graduated from the American Musical & Dramatic Academy with a concentration in Musical Theatre performance. Maria is the Content Editor at CountrySkyline, LLC and proud member of Actor’s Equity Association. She lives in NYC where she studies Creative Writing at Columbia University.