Friday, September 24, 2010

Playing Dress-up with Shakespeare


When I was a kid I remember my sister getting Dress n Dazzle for some birthday or other and feeling rather envious. Dress n Dazzle were these very fancy dress-up clothes for little girls (not slutty I might add, which was a plus). Perhaps this is what made me realise the pretend games we played were WAY more fun if we looked the parts. Or maybe it just began an obsession with clothing. They may be two sides of the same coin. But somewhere around the age of 7 or 8 I found that pretending was not enough-- there had to be tangible evidence involved to make it somewhat real.

Around the same age I also saw my first Shakespeare play-- Mel Gibson's "Hamlet." I don't believe the two experiences were at all connected and I remember my dad explaining much of it to me so I don't believe it was this particular film which led to the very odd habit I developed of dressing up in costume as often as I could get away with. And I don't mean Halloween-type dressing up like a ghost or a witch-- I mean painstakingly designing and sewing costumes by hand. Period and fantasy-style costumes. And this habit lasted until after I returned from the UK and found it much too hot to wear frocks on my bike all summer. Nursing has forced me to wear slightly more practical clothing anyway. But part of me still very much misses my big dresses and they are lovingly tucked away in my closet despite being rather threadbare.

You might assume that, like all kids, I was merely imitating what I saw on tv. Most of the time watching television is really like window shopping at home. Almost everything you watch is telling you what to be and how to dress. It's the most effective consumer training-tool and social engineering program out there. So you might imagine my dress-up habit was a result of television's power of suggestion, and I just happened to be nerdier than your average kid in what I watched. Except, unlike the kids watching YTV and dressing like Blossom, my motive for this kind of dress-up was the opposite. Not intentionally. I didn't say to myself, "Gee everyone looks like Blossom this year, I think I'll go be Juliet instead..." I had my just-like-Blossom phases the way everyone else did and eagerly awaited the paper on Wednesday and Friday so I could get my dose of the "oo gimme gimmes" from the flyers. Being Juliet was different. It meant nothing to anyone else and everything to me. It was not about being like the rest of the world or rebelling against it; it had no reference to this world at all in fact--it was entirely about creating a different one.

Having gotten through Hamlet at age 7 I felt perfectly capable of handling Romeo and Juliet at age 10. I remember phoning one of my wee school friends after and telling her all about it in raptures and realising that she's only listening politely and wasn't at all interested. That year I asked my teacher if, instead of doing my research project on an animal, I could maybe do it on Shakespeare-- the man himself. I even went down to the library and read all about Elizabethan England and took tons of notes, before my teacher decided I really needed to just do an animal like everyone else in the 4th grade. Thanks a bunch public school education. But the interest stuck and grew stronger because of my indignation and some time around 12 I found the sonnets. Mom had a terrific old fashioned volume of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, with a deep blue, gold embossed cover that was all scuffed and fading, with yellowed pages. To me it looked Elizabethan. I used to carry it around as part of "the look." And it was from this that I learned Shakespeare wasn't just fancy, old fashioned theatre. It was poetry. The holiness taught me by George MacDonald now had a language.

Then my parents took me to a real play. Needless to say I dressed the part when I went, in my aunt's old hippy dress which on me (because I was still quite small and short) looked nearly medieval. The experience of a real play completely changed my life, and if the "oo gimme gimme's," and the "just-like-so-and-so's" hadn't turned my ambitions from Shakespeare's stage to Hollywood's meat market then, well I wouldn't have wasted so much damn time.

The play was Romeo and Juliet-- which is not really one of my favourite plays at all, but the particular play was not the important part. The important part was the dynamic experience of the theatre, the collective play acting which happened not only on stage between the actors but between actors and audience. We were ALL in the play. It was magic. It was like church.

Now don't get me wrong, much as I love Shakespeare, I'm not suggesting that the theatre is "worship"-- or at least when it is, it is very bad theatre, just as church which is too like the theatre is really very bad church. But the English theatre has it's roots in liturgical practice and much of what we do in church, however solemn, is really play-acting. I don't say this to suggest that it isn't real or true-- precisely the opposite in fact.

What we do, physically, makes us who we are. We make it real by doing it. I don't mean this simply in a religious sense and this is not a discussion of good works versus faith. I mean everyday we make choices which make us more who we are. We are co-Creators and our life's work is ourselves. We are continually becoming who we are eternally. That is the essence of free will. And I cannot help but think this impulse to "play dress-up" is actually a universal aspect of our natures manifesting our creative relationship to God. But it has been perverted from a temporal process to an end in itself. Which is not only dangerous for the soul, but disastrous on a socio-economic level too. We change clothes, jobs, houses, relationships as fast as the trends demand of us, consuming as we go instead of creating anything lasting for others to share in.

My paper, as far as I have thought about it, is about Shakespeare and Mimesis--mimesis being not only that process which an actor goes through as he becomes his character, or Richard III goes through as he puts on a mask of evil, but something we ALL do everyday of our lives without being aware of it. Every time we pick out what to wear, every time we post a status on Facebook, every time we say something to make the person next to us on the bus laugh: we are creating who we want to be for those around us. This is not a lie, but it can be a dangerous game. If we are not careful, we can objectify the mask, give it meaning of its own beyond ourselves and then it will have power over us. This is the nature of sin.

I think Shakespeare understood this deeply. As a man of the stage his life's work was in wearing masks and he certainly knew very well how deeply disturbing it can be for an actor not to know where his character ends and he begins. Hamlet, Richard III and many others, all put on a mask which overcame them and ultimately destroyed them. Now, their masks were different from the ones which slowly creep into our hearts and strangle us from within. For a start, Hamlet was aware of his mask and voluntarily, consciously, put it on as a means to some other end. But the power was no less potent because its end was not in creation but in destruction. In control, not freedom. And while our own sinful masks are much more subtle in their method their objective, whether we are aware of it or not, is the same as Richard's and Hamlet's: death.

But I think Shakespeare knew the solution. I think he knew how to control the mask-- master it, and use it for salvation instead. I think the secret is in the dynamic of the theatre, the collective making of a play in which we all plays parts together, parts written for us by Someone Else, but which are ultimately and uniquely our own as well.

Now I just need to do the research to see if I'm right ;)


Brief Update

Okay, okay it's been a while. I kept meaning to pick up this thread again, but shortly after I posted my last I realised that I had a LOT of studying to do because I had decided to go back to school and finish up my degree, which meant re-learning Latin 100-- or rather teaching it to myself-- over the summer, since I took it 8 years ago and would not have a clue where I was in Latin 200 if I didn't.

So for anyone who isn't aware via the continual panic-stream that has been my facebook status for the last two months: I am getting a degree in Honours English. That is, literature. Lucky me! I love literature! I have only my final year to do (though I will be taking 2 years to do it so I can actually SEE my kids and not spend triple my tuition on daycare). Also it's been a while and though I am only technically taking 2 classes (Latin and an Honours Theory seminar) I am already busy doing homework every.single.minute. Yelling at Georgie to get off the table whilst I translate "Me neca!" And pausing for the billionth time in my reading of Zizek to take the knitting needles off Theo so he doesn't end up poking Georgie in the eye.

So what am I doing now? Well I'm preparing to do homework actually. But before I embark on my next post I felt I needed to explain why I hadn't continued with this particular blog thread. I will continue with it now-- as part of my homework. You see, in addition to my seminar and my Latin I am also writing my Honours graduating essay. This is a 40-50 page research paper which the Honours students write before graduation. I could do it next year but I want to finish it up this year so that next fall it's just classes and I actually have a hope of graduating by the end of 2011. (11 years ain't so bad for finishing and undergrad is it?). Also I have been rather looking forward to this project because I get to pick the topic. It's pretty intense-- like the undergrad version of a Master's thesis. But I'm still looking forward to writing on something I really care about.

This actually ties in with my blog thread too because, as it happens, I will be writing on Shakespeare. My prospectus is due in a couple of weeks and I am planning to write a rough draft this weekend so I thought I'd kick off the weekend (since I'm stuck at home anyway) enjoying some wine and blogging about Shakespeare-- to get my brain moving.

SO here I go...