Questions For Shakespeare
Bill Cain spent months researching and writing Equivocation, a play that imagines a crisis in Shakespeare’s creative and personal life. He’s spent more time revising the script for production. Here is the playwright sharing what he’s learned about this immersion in Shakespeare—and about the questions he’d ask him, if he could:
Working on this play about Shakespeare has been a journey into his life and my own life from the perspective of what matters.
From the point of view of history, Shakespeare is invisible. As Equivocation says, “He’s the only major writer whose very existence is a question of debate.” He lived in an age in which there were enormous moral questions, and people who took stands on those questions have left their mark on the world. And Shakespeare was invisible, in that sense.
My question for myself is, do I wish to live an invisible life or do I want to make a mark on the world? When I saw the names of those who had been tortured and killed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot, written on the walls of the Tower of London, I had an immediate sense of the power of commitment of these people—what they were willing to die for and what they were willing to put their names on. Shakespeare was not such a person.
There was a debate when I was in England, “Is Shakespeare a millstone around the neck of British culture?” I think it’s a very good question. There’s a speech in Equivocation that strikes me as apt. Cecil says to Shag (Shakespeare’s name in the play): “You make them happy, but not so happy as to reject their unhappiness. You make them angry, but not so angry as to inspire action. You reduce all of reality to spectacle, making action unnecessary, even impossible. . . . You’ve kept the willing suspension of disbelief and gotten rid of the moral demands.”
Watching Shakespeare is never a call to action. You sit back and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
Many scholars are writing now about the “coded messages” in the plays. I’d like to ask Shakespeare, what was the code? Did you believe in God? What did you find sacred? Because you always took both sides of everything, what finally mattered to you? Not where you came down in terms of Catholic or Protestant, but where you came down in terms of speaking truth to power.
You were in an extraordinarily powerful position; you were the king’s playwright. But you were not Lear’s fool; Lear’s fool told Lear the truth. Did you see yourself having that position in the kingdom, and if so, what was the truth you were trying to speak? What if the genius on the king’s payroll had stood up and said, “Enough of these killings.” Yes, you wrote a play called Henry VIII, but in it you don’t tell the truth. Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of people and he’s presented in your play and in the history of England as this jolly old man. What about the murders?
Knowing that whoever wrote the plays was a genius, I wonder what his human life was like, and if he got to those human, personal issues that art is for. Art isn’t a way to disguise; it’s a way to speak. It’s a way to say, in concentrated form, this is what matters to me.
The question of Shakespeare excites me now, rather than accepting him as a given; entering into a dialogue with him, rather than as holy writ. Asking him, Why did you not act? Why are you such a cipher? On the other hand, What was it that you thought was so important that you got up every day and told these stories?
From the 2009 summer Prologue magazine, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s magazine for members. Editor: Catherine Foster