April 9, 2019 – Prof. Paul Budra, “Shakespeare in the Garden”

Paul Budra
Professor and Chair
Department of English
Simon Fraser University

Paul Budra teaches Shakespeare and early modern literature and has published articles on Renaissance literature and contemporary popular culture. He is the author of A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition and Shakespeare Early and Late: a textbook. He is the co-editor of the essay collections Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel; Soldier Talk: Oral Narratives of the Vietnam War; From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom; and Shakespeare and Consciousness. He is a past president of the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society, former Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and winner of the SFU Excellence in Teaching Award for 2004. He is the director of SFU Publications.



Q&A – “Shakespeare in the Garden
Recommended Viewing: Upstart Crow on BBC Canada

Question: Christopher Gaze of Bard on the Beach has one of the best volunteer programs going. My question is what is the economic benefit of that event do you think approximately in the year because it’s huge. I may even tell a quick story about ‘As You Like It’ how it was designed last year by Bard rather successfully.
Answer: Well, I don’t work for Bard, but I can tell you Bard is going into its 30th year and it’s by far the most successful Arts Festival we have in British Columbia and in Western Canada. It’s one of the biggest Shakespeare Festivals now in North America. Last year, they had over a hundred thousand people come to it, which is incredibly impressive and they’re not taking government money anymore. So, it’s an astonishing accomplishment that Christopher has launched this thing way back when they started with one tent that blew over the wind. So, I think we should be incredibly thankful. It’s a huge boost to the economy. When I go to Bard, I see people come from all over the Pacific Northwest to see these plays. So, the boost to the local economy must be huge. The Beatles’ As You Like It, was the most successful production they ever had. Christopher told me they paid half a million dollars for the rights to the songs and still made a profit. I know! It was what it was one of the most delightful productions of that play I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen an audience so excited and it was an infinitely clever use of the music, so I thought it was absolutely tremendous.

Q: Can you give us an idea of the impact of Shakespeare in North America as a whole?
A: The impact of Shakespeare on North America as a whole. It’s hard to find a major Metropolitan Center in North America that doesn’t have some sort of Shakespeare Festival. Sometimes very small, sometimes large like ours or say Stratford in Ontario, and this goes back as I mentioned, to the 19th century. Shakespeare was huge in America in the 19th century. If you’ve ever read Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry Finn gets on a raft with some actors and at one point floating down the Mississippi, they stop and do plays. This actually happened. Shakespearean actors mainly travelled by raft and by cart to the American West, to the Gold Rush towns, and they would perform, and they were loved. It was said that most Cowboys, if they could read, had two books: The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Audiences would sing along with the important speeches. As I mentioned the actors themselves, the major actors became these rock stars and sometimes it was very difficult for them to perform because they would come out and do the, you know, ‘to be or not to be’ speech . . . . . standing ovation. You have to do the speech again. Sometimes three or four times in a row. So, it was incredibly popular and its popularity continued partly because the education system. I mean all high school kids, and I go to a lot of high schools, they all learn at least one Shakespeare play (should be more) so, it’s continued, and the impact is immeasurable. There is a book called Big-time Shakespeare by Michael Bristol who talks more specifically about this if you want to pursue it. Michael Bristol.

Q: I happened to be in London several years ago and visiting Parliament when there was group petitioning to save the Rose Theater, which they had uncovered in an excavation. I can’t recall ever hearing whatever happened with that. Did they save some of the Rose Theater?
A: So the question here was about the Rose Theater in London, which was uncovered in South Bank, right? Yeah. That’s where Shakespeare had an ill-fated, very short career acting. Before Shakespeare became a part owner of the Globe Theater, which was in 1599, it is true that the Lord Chamberlain’s men would play whatever theater they can get into, so they would play in the Rose Theater, play wherever. I was in London a couple of times last year and I didn’t see any news about it. I walked by the site and I didn’t see any progress one way or the other, so I haven’t heard anything and I follow the Shakespeare news. By the way, if you’re interested in Shakespeare news, follow me on Twitter. It’s all Shakespeare.

Q: In the 400 years since Shakespeare, there have been so many poets and playwrights of great talent that have come and gone. Why has Shakespeare endured? Why do scholars revere Shakespeare?
A: It’s a series of lucky events. We could have lost Shakespeare. The vast majority of plays that were performed in the Renaissance in England in the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t published. So just the fact that he was published makes him a minority. The fact that his friends gathered some of his unpublished place and published them in the first folio after his death is lucky or we would’ve lost that. Then after Shakespeare died, his plays more or less went out of fashion. And in 1642 there was a Civil War and all the theatres were shut. Shakespeare’s family and friends were all dead pretty much by the end of the restoration. And so, this is the reason we don’t have a lot of documents about Shakespeare. Because in 1650, if you found a bunch of papers by some playwright written 30 years ago, you throw it out, right? Who’s he? So, it was just thrown out. In 1616, with the restoration and monarchy being established, the theaters were reopened, and suddenly they needed plays, right? Oh, here are some old free plays. They’re free because they’re old, but they’re not really kind of not so good. We’ve developed. The King had been in France for a while. His tastes had changed. So, if we take these and rewrite them, make them better, polish them up, we’ve got a bunch of free plays. So that’s what they started doing. Famously, they took King Lear and gave it a happy ending. Edgar and Cordelia get married. In Shakespeare’s version, they never meet! You laugh, but that was the only version of King Lear that was performed on the British stage for 150 years. Generations of people grew up believing that happy ending, that’s nice. King Lear retires.
And after that what really happened was the Romantics. The Romantics got a hold of Shakespeare and the Romantics thought of themselves as natural geniuses, not as people who worked hard. And they looked at Shakespeare and went, “There he is! The natural genius!” This unlettered man who churned this stuff out, and they began the cult of Shakespeare. That’s why he was so popular in Germany, because the Romantic Movement really was started in Germany and the Schlegel-Tieck people grabbed Shakespeare and called him, “Unsere Shakespeare” (our Shakespeare) and translated him. And then it just sort of spearheaded and tumbled off.
And then also the French Revolution. When the French Revolution happened, the British started looking around for their own thinkers and writers who were good monarchists. And they said, “ah Shakespeare, good British common sense against those crazy Frenchman” and it became part of the education system and just took off in the Victorian period.

Q: I enjoyed your talk very much. You portrayed Shakespeare as a lamb of the garden and the field. But really his plays have a lot of geographical references to them and also a lot of mythological historical references as well. So, would you comment on that and describe it?
A: Well, I don’t think that is a disparity. I think what you have is that he was a schoolboy, he was educated in Stratford-upon-Avon. You can go to his school and see the actual classroom. Maybe sit at the desk that he was at. In school, boys were taught Latin. The literature was all Latin, and they were schooled mainly in Latin literature, which was mythology and stories. The author that Shakespeare quotes the most often is Ovid, the Latin poet. He would have had Latin verses drilled into him with violence in the school room, right? So, he’s got that. His first plays are probably his history plays, and that was a smart move because there was a great hunger for history once Queen Mary I died and Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. Queen Mary had suppressed a lot of historical presses. And so, he and other playwrights realized, “Wow, people are interested in English History, if we put it on stage…” So, he grabs a couple of big history books like Holinshed’s Chronicles the starts ripping stories out of that. As for the travel stuff, people like my good friend Allan Tarsia try to argue that, well, he must have traveled to Italy. No, no come on. You read this stuff and it’s vague or wrong very often, and you compare it to some other authors who actually did travel to Italy and you see the level of detail that’s in there. Shakespeare is nowhere near. Shakespeare just had a wonderful imagination for place. So, I think, given all those, and throw in the fact that he was a country boy, and went back to the country and owned those gardens and orchards, I don’t think there’s a disparity. One can be an educated person as still grow tomatoes.

Q: Can you give us a comment on the vocabulary of Shakespeare? I recall reading a book called”The History of English”. It was parallel to a TV series at the time. And I remember reading that they used to invent words as a parlor game, and it was in the context of the development of English at the time – that there was this explosion of vocabulary.

A: Yes, there was an explosion of vocabulary in the 15th and 16th centuries. After the Tudor dynasty starts in 1485, you finally have a peace in England for the first time. The Arts begin to flourish, and the English really want to establish themselves against the continent where they have a sense of cultural inferiority because the Renaissance has been going on in Italy for 100 years while England has been having these dynastic wars. So, there’s this catch up that they are playing, a cultural catch up. That’s why we have these authors talking about English and exploring things. You’ll often hear a quote that says however, that Shakespeare invented 3,000 words or invented 5,000 words. No. This is a Victorian thing. In the late Victorian period, the first historical dictionary of the English language was created, the Oxford English Dictionary. There’s a new movie coming out about the making of that, and they wanted to trace the first uses of each word. Well, this was the Victorian period. Everyone read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is one of the few authors for whom there were concordances, word lists. So, they found when they looked for a word, well, it’s probably Shakespeare, and they kept finding it there. Now, what’s happening is many, many old publications from the 15th and 16th centuries are being digitized and put in databases so that we can search them, and every day we find out actually that wasn’t the earliest use of the word, this guy used in 1560 but we didn’t have it in print or it was in a rare book so we didn’t know. So undoubtedly, Shakespeare invented words, but it’s not anything on the scale that you may have been told.

Q: Forgive my ignorance, were there and are there are heirs to Shakespeare?
A: No. His son died very young. His son’s name was Hamnet. And then he had two daughters that married, didn’t have heirs. His last daughter died, I believe, in 1661. So, there are no direct heirs to Shakespeare except perhaps through his brother’s line, but not from Shakespeare’s direct line.

Q: Have you ever done a presentation on the medical mind of Shakespeare?
A: No, I don’t think I am qualified. Having just said that, I have presented on Shakespeare and recent things in neuroscience. The last book I edited was on Shakespeare and Consciousness, which has some neuro-scientific background to it, but I’m not a real doctor. You know, but you’re on the airplane and they say, “Is there a doctor?” And I put up my hand and go, “So what, are you having trouble scanning a certain poem?” Hasn’t happened yet.

Q: Could you just speak a little more of the history of what theatre was like prior to Shakespeare and the difference Shakespeare made in his times?
A: Yes. I mean you can go way back to the Middle Ages and stuff like that. But I think what’s important and a lot of people don’t recognize is the influence that other playwrights just before Shakespeare, had. There were no permanent theaters in England until about 1570, because there was never a population big enough to support the investment. Before that, actors would have to go from town to town because if a town only has 1,000 people in it, you’re only getting two shows out of that town. Then you move on to the next one. But when one of them got up to about 100,000 people, people started building theaters. One of the first ones was called a brilliant name, ‘The Theater’. “Where you want to go tonight, honey?” And they competed with other sources of public entertainment like bear-baiting where you get a live bear and tie it to a pole and sic dogs on it and they rip it apart for entertainment. Very sad. There were actually some theaters built that could do both, put on plays and have their bear baiting on alternate days.
For me, what I think was the most important moment is before Shakespeare 1587. In 1587 two men write two plays which become huge. One is Thomas Kyd who wrote a play called the Spanish Tragedy, which was the single most popular play of the entire period. The most restaged play. It’s a Revenge tragedy with a ghost, has a character called Horatio, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a clear homage to this play. And it was revolutionary because before that play characters very often would just stand and pontificate and Kyd’s characters, they reacted emotionally. Hieronimo, whose son has been murdered, comes on stage and says, “O eyes! no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears; O life! no life, but lively form of death. O world! no world, but mass of public wrongs.” And this broke people’s hearts. The other guy was Christopher Marlowe. Christopher Marlowe’s first play, Tamburlaine, which last August, I did the most decadent thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve always wanted to see this play. I flew to England just to see one play. Cost of the airfare, hotel, meals, divorce proceedings. It was an expensive trip. What Marlowe did, was he used stage spectacle in brilliant ways. He would bring like a cage on stage, or a chariot being pulled by enslaved kings on stage. And the most important thing, and we now know that Shakespeare and Marlowe did some writing together, is Marlowe’s poetry. The Thomas Kyd thing I said, oh eyes no eyes, but fountains prosecutors, boom sort of mechanical. He has his character, Tamburlaine conquer the world through martial prowess, but also through pure poetic seduction. So very quickly, last thing if you’ll indulge me, it is one my favorite plays. The King of Persia hears that there’s this Tamburlaine, this guy who wants to be King, he’s some sort of thief. So, he sends his best general, Theridamas, to get this guy Tamburlaine. So Theridamas and Tamburlaine meet on the battlefield. They look at each other and Theridamas thinks, “That doesn’t look like some thief, he looks like a hell of a hunk of man.” And Tamburlaine says, you know, “I could use a guy like this.” So, this is what Tamburlaine says to Theridamas:
“Forsake thy king, and do but join with me,
And we will triumph over all the world.
I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about;
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.
Draw forth thy sword, thou mighty man-at-arms,
Intending but to race my charméd skin,
And Jove himself will stretch his hand from heaven
To ward the blow and shield me safe from harm.”
And Theridamas goes, “okay.”

Leave a Reply