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Shakesp-Year: First Encounters

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I went to the library today to get some Shakespeare stuff. I got a few movies, of course, but I also got a book called Will & Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life. It’s a memoir by Dominic Dromgoole, which is a great name, especially for a guy that is the Artistic Director for the Globe Theater. He talks early on about how everybody remembers where and when they first encountered Shakespeare, how they felt about him and what was happening to them as they read or saw or heard their first play. “Hey,” I said to myself, “that sounds like an excellent way to start off this whole project.” So here begins a recollection in two parts of my first encounters with the Bard and his works.

First Encounter: The Lion King

A Young Man's first foray into Shakespeare can be scary

A young man’s first foray into Shakespeare can be scary

I can’t be absolutely certain that this was my first encounter with Shakespeare but I’d guess it’s close enough as makes no difference. Of course, I didn’t know going into the theater that it was based on Hamlet because I didn’t know what Hamlet was. I was 6, I knew it had lions and kings in it. And boy did it make an impression. Looking back I can see how some of the more Shakespearean elements enriched the film for even my juvenile enjoyment. The evilness of Scar, the tragedy of Mufasa’s death at the hands of his own brother witnessed by the helpless prince, even the comic relief in the jungle versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They all blend together with fantastic animation and some of the most memorable songs in movie history to become a timeless treasure. I knew instantly, in the way kids do, that it’d be a favorite for the rest of my life and it has been. I’m excited to do a rewatch at some point in this project and focus on the Shakespearean elements.

And as for where I was at the time and how it shaped me, I’d say that, along with Aladdin, The Lion King is what made me into a film fan for life. I was born in a wonderful time for animated films, a newly energized Disney pumped out classic upon classic and Pixar started a revolution in computer animation. Movies are my hobby and they became a big part of my education. This project stems off of my academic interest in Shakespeare and my own pet interest in how we adapt and change works to suit our own ideas. A lot of crap is given to movies and books that take a well known story and retell it. I’d argue that this is an essential part of our cultural process and one that Shakespeare participated in himself. It’ll be a fun thread to follow throughout this expedition.

Second Encounter: Julius Caesar

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My first introduction to Shakespeare in his standard form came in Freshman year of high school. I’m sure that’s a pretty universal experience, though I’d guess that Romeo and Juliet is the more popular choice. I’m glad that my teacher went down the road less traveled. Though I had some trouble keeping all the people with the same name ending (how many “-us”es did we really need?) I really enjoyed the political plotting and just the idea of the Ides of March was intriguing to me. How many days have their own titles? And the various un-natural occurrences which portend Caesar’s untimely death were fun to see in my mind’s eye. Little did I know that this was a big thing for my buddy Shakes and I have enjoyed following how his characters’ disturbing natures disturbed nature itself. It’s a trope that I can really get behind for whatever reason. Perhaps I’ll discover why as I go along here.

I also saw my first straight adaptation of a Shakespeare work in this class with this play. It was not a current film, though I don’t actually remember which one it was. Maybe I’ll find in the coming year. But anyways, it was fun to see professionals say these tough lines and some real production value on screen. I remember Caesar’s ghost going around the battlefield and wondering at the kind of strange structure that the play had. You’d think the assassination would be the climax but it happens much earlier than all of that. I didn’t know many of these words at that point, of course, but I felt it and that’s pretty cool for a teenager. Shakespeare can do that to you, make you feel something about structure or character or theme that you don’t even have the words for. Hopefully I’ll be able to find the words now in my advanced age of 24. Even if I can’t, though, it’ll be a great trip. Follow along!

Now that I’ve given you my first memories, I’d be interested in hearing yours. When and where did you first meet Shakespeare? How’d it go? Did you get a second date? Leave some thoughts in the comments if you’ve got something to share! Also, follow me on twitter for updates on what’s coming up next in this crazy project of mine and some fun conversation. @Junior1919.


2 Comments

  1. Steve Kimes says:

    My relationship with Shakespeare has been mostly me trying desperately to like him and being disappointed. I’ve read and watched a number of the plays and they were okay, but frankly, too much at one time. I really appreciated King Lear and some of his comedy is a lot of fun. But generally his attitudes, his poetic style, his ideas, even his plots– they have mostly repelled me and made me harder to like him. Of course, he is a brilliant writer and his use of language is without par. But that same use of language makes it more difficult for me to read. I can handle such dense text in a shorter version, but not in huge gulps, especially in a play at screwball comedy speed. Poetry like this is intended to be lingered over… but are the concepts he is expressing worth the lingering? Not for the most part.

    I would prefer to spend time with John Donne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson. I think that Kerosawa’s adaptations of two of his plays were brilliant, and visually Romeo + Juliet is interesting, but still the same silly story. I appreciate what the man has done for English literature. But I’m not much of a fan, myself.

    • Alex Thompson says:

      Interesting! There are some elements of your response here which will become full posts in their own right (styles of performance and the concepts are already percolating in my head). I’ll keep you and others like you in mind when writing reviews of things I see or read or hear, look out for special adaptations that get what I think Shakes can do best right. Maybe some of the less loyal adaptations will be more your style. The Lion King is a good example of a film which is enhanced by it’s Shakespearean connections, something I hope I can bring to light for those that aren’t as familiar with the original or don’t really enjoy it.

      As to your other preferences, I haven’t gone much into Blake or Dickinson, but I took a class in college with my Shakespeare teacher which did some other stuff from the time and really grew to appreciated Donne. He’s a cool dude.

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