It is a question I am asked routinely; and yet, I never feel able to answer this question fully. For me, Shakespeare is visceral. His words seem as close to me as my own heart beat. But to respond to this question with such excessive sentimentality (in New York, we would employ the Yiddish word: “schmaltz”), or with the reply: “How not Shakespeare?” seems utterly pompous and pretentious, but for me it is utterly true.
Only recently have I come to enjoy the exchanges which follow the inevitable “So, what do you do?” question. When I was but a wee Shakespeare diva, I used to be quite shy in acknowledging my Shakespeare habit. Instead, I would say: “Theatre” or “Literature” or some other vagueness. Over the years, however, like so many a Shakespeare heroine, my “strange love grew bold,” and I have finally found my voice. Now, when people inquire, “So, what do you do?” I beam brightly, and declare: “Shakespeare.”
And, then, of course, I wait for the reaction. Trust me, there is always a reaction. ‘Shakespeare’ is one of those terms that will always prompt a rejoinder. I would argue that few words in the English language inspire or invite such immediate responses as ‘Shakespeare’ does. Like his quartos, these reactions come in good and bad varieties. The reaction may even be ugly, but it is never, ever indifferent.
Everyone has an opinion about Shakespeare - and a desire to share that opinion, too, apparently. I can honestly say that I have never known a single person to respond by merely saying: “Oh, really?” and then press the conversation on, as I once imagined they might do if I held a different occupation, as say, a pediatrician or a botanist. (No offence to pediatricians or botanists intended.)
I did test this theory once, in fact, and came to realise quite swiftly that pretending to be a botanist is not the best idea -- particularly if you are not quite sure what a botanist does, exactly. I think when I replied rather weakly to further questioning with a faint: “Something with plants?” I may have given myself away on that occasion.
Lately, I have started to chronicle the myriad, and often humorous, reactions I have received upon informing a new acquaintance that I “do” Shakespeare. Here is a small sampling:
“Shakespeare? I love that guy! Genius. 'Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow,' Yeah, yeah! But, let me ask you’s somethin’. How that guy get so smart?” – Cabbie from the Bronx
“Oh, I love that line! Y’know. The one about the bumble bees. Y’know, 'To be a bee, or not to be a bee.' I totally get that. I get tired of buzzing around, too.”– Waitress in a diner in Washington, D.C.
“Shakespeare? He’s about life.” – Hip hop artist from Brooklyn
“My daughter absolutely loves all that stuff. She’s dead clever. Always got her head in book. I do encourage her, but I am concerned that some of that Shakespeare can be a little inappropriate for children, I think. Like that one scene, where Frodo is attacked by that giant spider? That was really scary and graphic.”
- Woman on transatlantic flight from Birmingham to Newark, New Jersey
“I think Shakespeare is the greatest writer of my country. Are you Ethiopian, too?” – Taxi driver in Atlanta
The most sublime example of my “Why Shakespeare?” encounters is a moment in April 1990, during the annual Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations, standing atop The Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
As I stood overlooking that idyllic river, swans gliding by in the distance, His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales asked me: “Why have you chosen Shakespeare? What has brought you to study Shakespeare here in Stratford-upon-Avon?” I will confess that I was as stunned by the question, as much as I was by the speaker. That was 20 years ago, and I am still searching for the answer.
Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations, 23-25 April 2010, Stratford-upon-Avon. Annual Parade and Procession, 11:00 a.m., Saturday 24 April 2010. More information: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/birthday.html