Several of you have been kind enough to inquire about a mid-day, luncheon series talk I gave this week at the Richmond Circuit Courts building, and to post my remarks. We began, at the request of my host, with a little overview of what it means to be an actor as well as serving full time with a theatre company. What’s it like? It’s amazing. How so, they asked? And come to think of it, why Shakespeare? What's the big deal with Shakespeare? (A frequent question, and a good one.)
A little illustration served, just then, with explanations of vested engagement in "play," by the audience, in the moments that happen when we share a common space together. (Benedick and Macbeth)
"I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behavior to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love!" and,But one main thing, you learn about people. From the plays, and in meeting so many audience members. You know inherent things about where people are from, mostly by how they sound. You know, instinctively, when you’re being lied to. Maybe not about what, but you know. Actors know acting when they see it.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more..."
That all seemed a useful jumping-off point for a talk on acting, Shakespeare, and the courts:
Acting, Shakespeare, and the Courts
After as many performances as we've given, both locally and touring twenty-three states, you also begin to get a feel for what life must've been like for Shakespeare’s acting company: to tour, to visit towns repeatedly and see familiar faces, to be that traveling actor, is all very exciting. Perhaps we even vicariously felt a little bit of what it must've been like to be Shakespeare. A little bit.
Can you slide that understanding now, of a writer, an actor, the keenest insight of his day, perhaps, into the world of justice and the courts? Shakespeare was no stranger to the English court system. But can we know his views on justice and the courts through biographical record?
His father, John Shakespeare was bailiff or constable of Stratford—more ceremonial than we think of it, but a prominent member of the town. As bailiff, it’s possible John Shakespeare would have welcomed traveling players to town--one theory of how young William became so interested in players and playing…Were some invited to the Shakespeare's home?
….John eventually fell on tough times, some of his own making---he dealt illegally in the black market for wool, at the time highly regulated. Three courts were involved, from the Court of Common Pleas in London at Westminster, to the Court of Queen’s Bench, (representing her perhaps, but not quite as regal as it sounds) —to the Court of Record in Stratford-Upon-Avon. John once presided over the last of these, and now faced it as the accused. But I’m sure that would never happen today...
John's opponent? His brother-in-law, Edmund. Who having loaned John a bond to help him in lean times, later refused payment and kept John's inheritance. Here’s what’s interesting here: John had once so loved his brother-in-law that he named his youngest son (William’s brother)----Edmund. In William’s play of King Lear, an evil character named Edmund steals the preference, patrimony and even the love of their father. Further, he steals it of the King’s Court itself! Autobiographical? Maybe. But interesting! Bailiffs, constables, judges, witness and testimony. The Shakespeare family even had a lawyer, between 1588 and 1590, arguing one case in London. (It was settled out of court.)
By the way, Shakespeare’s siblings all together? Anne, Joan, Edmund, Richard, Margaret! …..and Gilbert. Well, five out of six isn’t bad. In fact, the plays are full of references to people William most likely knew, and who are mentioned in surviving legal documents.
The Mountjoy’s, from whom he rented an apartment, and whose father was sued by his son-in-law for not paying a dowry. Shakespeare is recorded as giving testimony. Montjoy is a reputable character in Henry V. And on and on. Familiar names from William’s life, some of whom end up legal trouble. Montjoy’s case with his fellow French? Too long to debate here.
Court references are also interesting when we recall that Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the law schools themselves, likely with the playwright in the cast.But what about the playwright’s views on justice? Many of you know “the quality of mercy is not strained.” It of course comes from The Merchant of Venice.
Which we'll turn to that most famous of legal speeches in installment two. (It was an hour-long talk)