This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

July 17, 2002 - Shakespeare Cometh

Shakespeare is hot.

Consider several high profile films:
* Kenneth Branaugh's "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," and "Hamlet;"
* Lawrence Fishburne's critically acclaimed "Othello;"
* Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Callista Flockhart in "Midsummer Night's Dream;"
* Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, in "Romeo and Juliet;" and even
* Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love."

What's the appeal? Yes, Shakespeare has stood the test of time. But how come?

Much of it is the pure power of his language.

It's amazing (and a little sad) that most of us get by with fewer than 1,500 words in our speaking vocabularies. Shakespeare INVENTED at least 2,000 words. The opus of his work racks up over a quarter of a million unique words. That's the scope of a good college dictionary.

There's an old joke about why one precocious youngster didn't like reading Shakespeare: "He writes nothing but cliches!"

Here's a sampler of phrases that didn't exist until Shakespeare created them: one fell swoop, in my mind's eye, to be in a pickle, vanish into thin air, budge an inch, play fast and loose, the milk of human kindness, remembrance of things past, the sound and the fury, to thine own self be true, cold comfort, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, and (as Bill Bryson, in "Mother Tongue," put it) "on and on and on and on."

These days, some people find it hard to decode Shakespearean language. This is particularly true for Baby Boomers whelped on the inane linguistic paucity of Dick and Jane. ("Oh! Oh, look! See Jane! See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!")

There's one group that doesn't have any trouble at all, though: the folks that relish the magnificent King James Bible. The creators of this most moving, rich, and poetic version of Scripture were contemporaries of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare happens to have lived at a time of profound change in the English language. "Thee" and "thou" were in decline. The "-eth" ending (as in "he goeth") was then giving way to the more simple "-s" ("he goes"). The "-ed" suffix could be either a full extra syllable ("help-ud") or not ("helpt"). Many contemporaries of Shakespeare grew up speaking one language (Middle English), and died speaking another (modern English, or near enough).

There is, too, the mystery of his identity.

Who WAS Shakespeare? He could have been himself, of course. The facts are scarce. A country boy, born in 1564 in Stratford, England, he may have had a grammar school education. He had a wife and three children. Seven strangely blank years after he turned 21, he burst upon London as a published poet and playwright. He also acted. At his death in 1616, he left his wife his second best bed. In 1623, his First Folio was published. This constitutes almost all that is known of his life.

This same man, the son of a simple country glover (one who makes gloves), displays some incongruous knowledge. He had intimate knowledge of court ritual. His plays drew upon Italian texts not yet translated into English at that time. He referred to law, music, classical mythology -- not generally, but specifically.

This prolific author of sonnet, comedy and drama, left no letters, no diaries. The few documents that do bear his name (and handwriting) are laughably inconsistent: Shakspere, Shaxpere, Shagspere, and so on.

Was he a sheer, native country genius who inexplicably blossomed while simultaneously performing nightly on the stage?

Or was he a front for one Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, classically educated, a diplomat to Denmark's Elsinore (the setting of Hamlet), a lawyer, a man who had a lifelong fascination with actors, whose life was riddled with scandal, and who might well have sought a nom de plume? Edward de Vere died of the plague in 1604, the same year Shakespeare retired from London. Coincidence?

There are other explanations for Shakespeare's enduring appeal. There's the power of his plots. There's "Romeo and Juliet" -- for all those who once were young and defied their families. There's "King Lear" -- for those who are no longer young and now must deal with their families.

There's the power of Shakespeare's characters, and the wrenching, riveting nature of their monologues. What could be more fundamental and profound than ,"To be or not to be?"

Thanks to the generosity of many players -- the Douglas Public Library District (and in particular, the energy and vision of Katie Klossner, our Community Relations Manager), TheatreWorks (the roving company from Colorado Springs), the Gay and Lesbian Fund (for their extraordinary donation of $10,000 to make this event possible), and our many other donors -- we are pleased to announce the absolutely FREE performance of Shakespeare's tragedy, "King Lear."

Where? Under the big top, in the parking lot of the old Safeway (the new Philip S. Miller Library), S. 100 Wilcox Street, Castle Rock.

When? July 24-28, at 7:30 p.m. That's five separate performances.

Cost: that's right, absolutely free. HOWEVER, tickets will be distributed on a first come, first served, basis, and the number of tickets is limited for each performance. We start handing them out at 6 p.m. -- and early visitors will be rewarded by strolling performers.

And after that?

In the words of the Bard, "Our play is done, and we'll strive to please you every day."

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