What do we really know about William Shakespeare?
We know the 37 plays and the poetry, of course, which confirm the existence of one of the greatest literary and psychological geniuses of all time. We know the dates of his birth and death (1564-1616). We (might) have his likeness thanks to the engraving from 1632 that appeared on the First Folio of his plays. We know he was the son of a glovemaker who grew up in the small market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, that he came to London as a young man, and that he worked with several different theater companies from his twenties into his late forties.
Yet none of this quite unlocks the source of the man’s brilliance, or provides us with a fully satisfying understanding of what fed his imagination and enabled him to shape the English language in ways that still boggle the mind. So for this reason above all “Being Shakespeare” – the one-man show written by Jonathan Bate and performed by British actor Simon Callow at the Broadway Playhouse (as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World’s Stage series) – should be mandatory viewing. Anyone both fascinated and mystified by the Bard will, during the course of this two-hour show, begin to understand Shakespeare – the man, his world, and his plays – in a new way.
Bate has structured this loosely biographical show around the speech from “As You Like It” that begins “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts,/His acts being seven ages.” And Callow does indeed give us a “mewling and puking” infant William to start (a survivor of the plague that wiped out the two sisters who preceded him), before moving on to the “whining schoolboy.”
It is in the schoolroom that Callow brilliantly explains the predominantly rote learning of Latin grammar and rhetoric that Shakespeare would have been subjected to, and how in many ways it shaped his writing. We also learn that he was married at 18 (very young for a man of his time), to a woman who was 26 and of higher social status, and that they quickly had a daughter and a pair of twins. Callow speculates on their various stages of passion in excerpts from “Romeo and Juliet,” “As You Like It,” and best of all, from Shakespeare’s long, sexually-charged poem, “Venus and Adonis.”
We learn that Shakespeare worked in the family business, including the hard trade of cutting and dying leather. And we follow him on his first foray to a fantastical, eye-opening, multicultural London at 24. We hear about the years that cannot be accounted for, about his father’s business losses, about his own initial success as a playwright, and about his friendship with the very wealthy and worldly Earl of Southampton, who becomes his patron (and perhaps more).
The infant, schoolboy and lover of the show’s first act evolves into the soldier (or anti-soldier, with Callow giving us a fabulous, honor-mocking, survival-is-all Falstaff); the successful man at his peak (although Shakespeare’s investments in property triggered lawsuits that made him despise lawyers); aging and death.
Directed by Tom Cairns, “Being Shakespeare” has an almost Asian-minimalist set highlighted by an illuminated globe, bare walls ideal for casting shadows and, in the first act, lush green trees suggesting the Forest of Arden, followed by the “bare ruined choirs” of leafless trees in the second.
At Wednesday’s opening Callow seemed a bit off the top of his game early in the first act, but was in fine form by the second. The show’s sound design (a low hum of music and effects underscoring many speeches) was often distracting.
As for Shakespeare’s final exit, Callow tells us there was no great state funeral, just a quiet burial in Stratford. The man himself may have had only seven ages. But his words are for all time.