I hear they made a big to-do out of your birthday again this weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon. They lined up concerts and lectures, not to mention country dancing and shop window contests. The main attraction was a parade featuring a giant birthday cake. Not bad for a guy who turned 451 years old this past Thursday.
Of course, hordes of people think you’re fantastic 365 days a year. Really, did any writer/director/performer ever have such a fan base? I think it’s safe to say, Will, that you still enjoy more adoration than Jane Austen, Christopher Nolan and Beyoncé combined. Just look at Central Park. Every summer hundreds of people spend an entire day waiting in line, hoping to get tickets to see your characters strut across the stage. What’s more, professors spend their whole careers publishing papers on your motifs, Hollywood is always coming up with modern adaptations of your works, and inmates put on productions of your plays in prisons.
We, your fans, are all colors, all ages, from all countries. Some of us are native English speakers and some of us aren’t (FYI, your plays are a hit in China and Vietnam). Some of us make money selling t-shirts and coffee cups with your image printed on them. Some of us feel smart when we say your name. Some of us hope our love for you will win points with potential dates. Some of us get a kick out of saying you didn’t really exist. Some of us like to roll our tongues over your poetry. Some of us feel clever when we casually drop your lines into our conversation. Some of us wish we could traipse around in those costumes – the capes and wigs, the black boots and crowns and brocade-trimmed trains. Some of us just love you without analysis. Some of us love you so much we want to bring you back from the dead. In a town northeast of Tokyo, there is a Shakespeare theme park where tourists can wander through replicas of Elizabethan buildings, such as the house where you were born and the Globe Theater. A doll-version of you even tells visitors the story of your life.
I fell in love with you one day in sixth grade. Miss Knerr showed us a black and white film of your Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that was it for me. Around that same time, my best (nay, my only!) friend invited me to go with her to see As You Like It and then Much Ado About Nothing. My father noticed my growing enthusiasm for your work and gave me something of his – a set of your complete works. The musty volumes were so ancient that when I opened them their burgundy bindings crumbled in my lap. I remember staying home sick from school. I was lying on the long yellow couch in our living room and, instead of watching Perry Mason re-runs or an old movie, I held one of my father’s old books and entertained myself by reading about those warring lovers, Beatrice and Benedict. After that, I memorized whole speeches. As Helena, I spewed venom at Hermia for betraying our friendship. As Beatrice, I strutted around my bedroom and gave my all to the “If I were a man” bit.
The summer before I started high school, my parents took me to San Francisco. On the way home through Ashland, Oregon, my dad made a call and snagged three tickets to see Henry VI, part II, the only play that the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival still had seats available for that day. The next year, my parents took me to see Antony and Cleopatra. At the Tudor Guild Gift Shop, my mom encouraged me to pick out a souvenir. I bought a palm-sized plaque that had the Merchant of Venice quote “Young in limbs, in judgment old” printed on it. “Ha!” my dad said when he saw that. He’d been in the navy and believed in rules. He got mad when my brothers and I left the garage in a mess or used his scissors and didn’t return them to his desk. But he saw how passionate I was about you, Will, and he encouraged my interest.
My mom did the same. The summer before my senior year of high school, she planned a vacation for just the two of us. On a hot summer’s day, we set out in her little gold car for the six-hour drive from Beaverton, Oregon to Ashland. With the windows rolled down, we belted out show tunes and laughed. We pulled off at a rest stop and ate crackers and grapes. The next night, my mom made reservations for dinner at an Italian restaurant some distance away. After winding along miles of road lined with so many trees we may have been entering the depths of the Forest of Arden itself, we ate a gigantic meal served one course at a time – antipasto, soup, salad, pasta – a novelty for us as we were used to eating dinners at home with salad, bread and a main dish all on one plate. That same evening, back in Ashland, my mom and I saw your masterpiece,The Tempest, and on the stage, the actors seemed to shimmer with enchantment. The next day, the performer who played Prospero led a group of us on a backstage tour. On the floor I saw a sprig of silver leaves that had fallen from the scenery. I picked it up and imagined I could hear the eerie music of your magician’s isle.
I kept the program for every play I saw at that festival, Will. I imagined that I would go to college in Ashland. I pictured myself falling in love with an actor. I’d work in a café, I thought, until I won my first bit part. If I couldn’t make it as an actress, then perhaps I could be one of the festival’s musicians, playing my recorder in the concerts that were given in the courtyard outside the theater before the evening’s show. I’d need some practice though, and probably a new recorder, since the only one I owned was the brown plastic instrument on which I’d learned to play “Hot Cross Buns” and “Pick a Little, Talk a Little.” Back then, in the early days of my affection for you, I went to church with my parents every Sunday. I didn’t think there could really be a hell, but I had no doubt that there was indeed a heaven where you were comfortably residing. I pictured you among the clouds, still wearing your doublet and tights and holding a pen with an impressive plume. Dying didn’t seem so bad, since it meant I'd get to meet you.
In Stratford-upon-Avon this weekend, visitors could make birthday cards for you. This, dear Will, is my greeting for you, written in your own perfect words. After four decades of loving you, I – like thousands of others – want to say, “Haply I think on thee.”