Skip the SparkNotes! The Key to Understanding Shakespeare

Special Features   Skip the SparkNotes! The Key to Understanding Shakespeare The cast of the Bard-centric Something Rotten! sounds off on the importance of William’s work and how to make it more accessible to audiences everywhere.
Christian Borle in <i>Something Rotten!</i>
Christian Borle in Something Rotten! Joan Marcus

When Brian d’Arcy James steps onstage as Nick Bottom at the St. James Theatre and defiantly declares, “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” he’s met with cheers and applause. Such a response is typical, nay, expected, when a seasoned Broadway performer delivers the punchline to a cleverly written number. Yet, in this case, there’s another reason the song elicits the uproarious reaction. For better or worse, many audiences share the sentiment.

The work of the Bard can be difficult to comprehend. John Cariani, the actor-playwright who appears as Nigel Bottom in the smash and actually drew inspiration for his own Almost, Maine from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, feels the confusion stems from the fact that “a lot of his plays aren’t very good. And I don’t think that’s dissing the Bard at all. I think that’s just saying that there are some plays that feel cobbled together by other people ... and don’t make a whole lot of sense. They have gorgeous elements and images and poetry, but as a whole, they don’t quite hold together. ”

Brad Oscar in <i>Something Rotten!</i>
Brad Oscar in Something Rotten! Photo by Joan Marcus

On the other hand, Brad Oscar, the production’s Nostradamus, says the cause of misunderstanding couldn’t be more obvious: “It’s always the language, right?” As Something Rotten!’s lyrics purport “he has no sense about the audience [and] makes them feel so dumb.” Oscar agrees, “It’s so dense. We don’t get it.”

Still, the cast feels it’s a problem we need to fix. Shakespeare’s work is the foundation of much modern literature; he's also a genuine master of language. “He takes earth-bound, tangible things and blows them up with poetry,” notes Cariani, who cites Shakespeare‘s verse “The quality of mercy is not strained.” “That's what mercy is... I get it now. How cool is that?!”

Making the poet’s work accessible begins with winning over the youngest generation, “by having them go to see as much Shakespeare as they can,” says Edward Hibbert, currently appearing as Lord Clapham in the tuner.

John Cariani, Brian d'Arcy James and Heidi Blickenstaff
John Cariani, Brian d'Arcy James and Heidi Blickenstaff

Heidi Blickenstaff (who plays Nick’s wife, Bea) suggests kids attend a festival or theatres that produce multiple works—like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a venue she frequented when she was younger. “Not only do they have the great shows that they do, but also they have programs where the actors teach the young people.” Programs like Shakespeare in the Classroom and Plays in Conversation offer a deeper exploration of the text and themes present in the season’s plays.

If, as Oscar suggests, the issue is the language, James argues technological advances and directorial creativity have already begun to help. “There’s all kinds of possibilities to put new spins on [his work … or to] contemporize it and to make it accessible,” he says. “[Today,] you can see a production of a classic play that he wrote and not necessarily have to feel shunned by the form…or the language of it.”

“It’s really important for us to remember that just because [the original presentation of these plays] happened a long time ago, [it] doesn’t mean that those feelings and ideas that people had are different [than now],” explains Cariani. These stories chronicling love, jealousy, battling enemies and inner demons, and ultimately, finding yourself “are the same stories we tell in all of our superhero movies.”

Christian Borle
Christian Borle Photo by Joan Marcus

In the case of Something Rotten!, the comedic look at the playwright’s life and times presents Shakespeare himself (the Tony-winning Christian Borle) as a Billy Idol-esque rock star, outfitted in guy-liner and skin-tight leather pants—“[which] help in ways that you can’t even imagine,” laughs Borle—in an effort to make him a personality-type we all recognize.

Oscar thinks the arrogant treatment is a bit of a catharsis for audiences “because he is so impossible for some people [to understand] and some people seem to hate him so much. It’s fun to be able to make fun of him, certainly.”

John Cariani and Kate Reinders
John Cariani and Kate Reinders Photo by Joan Marcus

Comedy aside, the cast acknowledges the exaggerated version of the man they’re presenting in their show is a version of him nonetheless. “This person was indeed a person, as opposed to some kind of myth,” says James—and they’re hoping that that awareness has some type of influence on the crowd. “Hopefully, that can be an entrée for people—especially young people—to say, ‘Well, what exactly is Shakespeare?’ and it can give them the confidence to pursue [study] without feeling like it’s so sacrosanct.”

In an effort to help kids do just that, writers Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell packed the show with references to his work. Nick Bottom, Portia, and Shylock are all names pulled from Shakespeare’s canon. Blickenstaff points out the name of her character, Bea, is a take on Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. The script and score cite lines from Sonnet 18, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Richard III. “People…don’t actually understand how many references there are,” says David Beach, who plays Brother Jeremiah. “They come back to see the show [again] to get more references.”

“I think people will always enjoy [a] show a little more if they have some knowledge,” says Hibbert. “If they have a vague understanding of the story of Hamlet [or] the references to Romeo and Juliet, [our show] is like a more entertaining [version of] CliffNotes.”

“I see tweets all the time from students…[who are] sitting in class and actually recognizing things [within Shakespeare’s language] from Something Rotten!” shares Borle. “I think that kind of recognition factor engages them more in the actual study of it.”

To that end, the show’s message, “to thine own self be true,” (plucked from Hamlet) earns a full song and dance. In presenting the text through music, the cast feels they can open a new door for these scholars, as well. “Hopefully, [our show] has made the musical theatre nerds more into Shakespeare fans, and the Shakespeare fans more into musical theatre nerds,” says Blickenstaff.

It’s not just Something Rotten! Several notable musicals are adaptations of his work, including The Boys from Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors), Kiss Me, Kate (The Taming of the Shrew), All Shook Up (Twelfth Night), and West Side Story, which Beach mentions watching with his daughter, so as “to show her how it’s an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.”

Given that we’re still reading, watching, and musicalizing his life and work four hundred years after his death on April 23, 1616, maybe it’s a sign that we don’t “hate Shakespeare” as much as we think. With our constant efforts to revitalize his work, we can eventually turn kids from viewing him as “something rotten” to something revered.

Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a writer and theatre enthusiast based in New York. For more information, including additional writing samples, he encourages you to visit MattSmithTheatre.com.

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