This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.
I know that ol’ Will Shakespeare has been sitting comfortably upon his pedestal for the past few centuries, but sometimes we have to step back and remind ourselves of two things:
One: Shakespeare’s work contains a certain levity that implies that he didn’t take himself too seriously. I’m not prescribing opinions to him when I say that, but I am saying that his work is chock-full of seriously bawdy, sexist, and racist humour that prompts me to believe that he was havin’ a laugh while writing the words that have inspired us all this time.
Two: The love of Shakespeare does not require you to start wearing horn-rimmed glasses and elbow patches (although the latter is highly recommended), or take your own study of Shakespeare too seriously. In my opinion, it’s perfectly acceptable if one’s motive for watching R&J is to see Leo, rather than watching for the Shakespearean content exclusively.
Likewise, I enjoy taking my guilty pleasure of reading celebrity gossip to the level of reading it in a Shakespearean context. Preferring not to read into the speculative biographies (“Didn’t you know that Shakespeare was gay?”), I take pleasure in the scandals within the plays themselves and those that inevitably erupt during their production.
This started with an obsession with Antony Sher’s biographies and theatre diaries, Year of the King, Beside Myself, and Woza Shakespeare!: I got to learn about the gritty research he did in interviewing murderers for his role as Macbeth, and enjoyed unfolding his complex colleagues-and-lovers relationship with now-husband, RSC Chief Associate Director Gregory Doran.
Last summer, I got to read some seriously scandalous stuff, less related to Shakespeare but rather focused on the sadomasochistic life (and published diary) of 20th century dandy-cum-theatre-critic Kenneth Tynan, which I highly recommend.
Today, I feel no shame in telling you that I am anxiously awaiting David Weston’s book about his time as Ian McKellen’s understudy on the American tour of Trevor Nunn’s production of King Lear. Covering McKellen: An Understudy’s Tale is said to revolve around the escapades of a cast that includes a napping principal actor, an “arrogant” Romola Garai as Cordelia, and another actress vindictively enjoying a negative review given to another actress. But were Goneril and Regan any less vindictive? Did Cordelia’s principles not set her on a high-horse that led her sisters to order her death? In a production most notable for Sir Ian’s dropping trou, as it were, I can’t wait to hear all the juicy gossip that will doubtlessly be as entertaining as the scandals that abound Shakespeare’s tragedy itself.
Loving Shakespeare does not make me a more noble reader: it simply proves that my taste for scandal knows no bounds!