I went to help celebrate William Shakespeare’s 452nd birthday Sunday, taking a without-incident Metro ride to Union Station and walking past Senate buildings and the Supreme Court, where a man proposed to his fiancée, accompanied by two half-bichons and a photographer.
This particular bit of whimsy and romance seem entirely in line with celebrating the Bard’s birthday, an event that took place at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the headquarters of all things Shakespeare in the United States. True, Shakespeare was English-born — about which there is no controversy, though the debate about who wrote the plays and the sonnets remains alive among certain scholars, essayists and forsoothers.
Few people at the birthday party brought the subject up, never mind the ones who seemed to be enjoying the day the most: children of all ages, accompanied by their parents. Children seem often to take to Shakespeare’s plays in performance as naturally as dogs swim, in spite of the many adults — especially those who write syllabi and curricula — who insist that Shakespeare is too hard, and then prove the point by making the study of Shakespeare boring and impenetrable.
When you encounter Shakespeare in the building that houses most of the lore and the plays and the studies, see the books, the paintings, the exhibitions and the busts, you’re likely to be impressed in a kind of academic, so-much-knowledge way. But on this Sunday afternoon, children arrived with feathers on and soon got busy inscribing, painting, drawing and putting on costumes, making faces all the while.
Casey Kaleba, who stages the battles, swordplay and duels for Folger performances, demonstrated the role of weapons in Shakespeare’s plays. Hundreds gathered around a makeshift tent and stage where Kaleba explained that “there is violence of some sort in almost every Shakespeare play,” using swords long (but not broad), pikes, knives, lances and bare hands. “There are beheadings, knife wounds, appendages chopped off and eye gouging,” he said. The crowd learned that the swords used as props are not quite as heavy as they look and appear, also that when it comes to depicting fights and duels and battles, artifice is all.
“Let’s go see the books,” one father suggested. “But what about the pizza?” he was asked, assuring us that we are in the 21st century after all.
The Folger — which is celebrating not only Shakespeare’s birthday but 400 years of Shakespeare under the umbrella of “The Wonder of Will” — is the kind of place where the Bard’s words and life cast a spell over all who enter there, or just hang out.
This is the place which is a kind of official record of Shakespeare’s life and works, where during the week scholars pore meticulously over books from the 1600s, including the First Folio, and write books and essays themselves, giving off the odor of a long time ago.
This is a place where the best way to encounter Shakespeare — on the Elizabethan stage — does its magic too.
This is a place where the Elizabethan garden seems to mimic gardens of the past, and where, on his birthday, the queen — that would be Queen Elizabeth I, her magnificent redheaded majesty herself — walked the grounds and presided over the proceedings, including the cutting of a birthday cake. Quite a few folks dressed up as courtiers (some with wristwatches) and there were many Juliets and smaller princesses on hand.
The exhibition “America’s Shakespeare,” on view through July 24, shows how the Bard is as much ingrained in our own country as it is in England and Great Britain. Avon, you may have noticed, is a popular name for American towns.
On a day like this, as you walk through the building, see the books, the busts and the paintings, listen to Elizabethan music and the clang of swords, you think of the plays — not just as words in a book, but alive. You think of how people first encounter Shakespeare. I had to study “Julius Caesar” in high school, and was suitably unimpressed and bored. But a few years later, in college, I encountered a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the University of Oklahoma, where football was and remains king. It starred old-timey actors George Grizzard and Barbara Baxley and was full of energy. I became and remained an acolyte.
The plays are gifts that keep on giving, because they are both old and modern at the same time, like a time machine that carries all the information you might ever need to know about what it means to be human.
Shakespeare all but invented theater as we know it and still practice it. “The Taming of the Shrew” will be done by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in May. With the Bard, we always come full circle.
View Jeff Malet’s photos of the event by clicking on the photo icons below.