Before taking onstage to play Prospero in his play, The Tempest, playwright, actor, and company manager William Shakespeare experiences stage fright. In the darkness of the make-up room, surrounded by costumes, props, and his uneasy memories, the Bard of Straford-upon-Avon, played by Dori Engel, confronts his inner demons.
How did someone ostensibly lacking in education as Shakespeare rise so high in the theater of his time? Who murdered his rival playwright Christopher Marlowe? How did Shakespeare survive the 1601 Essex Rebellion, having accepted a generous commission from its ringleader to perform Richard II before the attempt to seize the crown?
“Shakespeare is the best-known person about whom very little is known,” Engel told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the English-language July 30, one-night-only revival of the 2021 monodrama, I, Shakespeare.
Who was William Shakespeare really?
“Derek Jacobi, to name but one famous actor,” Engel said, “stated he believes the works of Shakespeare were written not by one man called by that name, but by several people working together.”
Referring to the 1593 play Sir Thomas More, Engel said it was written by two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, and that, “Today we think Shakespeare contributed to this work.” Likewise, he said, “some modern scholars believe Timon of Athens was co-written by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.”
“Entertainment was a bloody business back then,” Engel said, “the theater competed with bear shows and rooster fights. They would wipe the blood off the stage and send the actors out there.”
At the same time, “people back then ate, drank, and loved words. A suitor was expected to know how to write a sonnet as well as sword-fight. Shakespeare understood that he is writing to be heard by a human ear – not read.”
Noting Shakespeare’s ability to appeal to diverse audiences, Engel said that during the Elizabethan era, “both nobility and commoners shared in the same cultural wealth, both groups believed there is a God, for example.” And, “not only [that] was there a God,” he said, but that “this was a protestant deity.” Anyone doubting this would be regarded as a heretic at the time.
In a article published this year to mark four centuries of the publication of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works, Avraham Oz, professor emeritus of Theater and Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of Haifa and resident director at Tel Aviv’s Alfa Theatre, said that the Bard predated modernity itself.
“The mere fact of bringing up the question [about whether life has a point] considers the option [that] it does not,” Oz wrote, emphasizing that Macbeth’s monolog, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” comes close to claiming this issue cannot be resolved by any future Deus ex machine.
Although Shakespeare aficionados this summer catch Othello at Malenky Theater (August 10) and Richard III at Gesher Theater (September 11) in Tel Aviv, Engel is concerned that “Shakespeare is being taught less and less in high schools. Shakespeare’s “works are hard to teach and the students are missing out. I would very much want more people to discover him,” he said.
When invited to stage his Hebrew-Arabic language production of Romeo and Juliet in Germany, Engel had the opportunity to see The Merchant of Venice directed by Jasper Brandis. In that production, Shylock’s house was utterly trashed by the suitors when they escaped with his daughter Jessica. This, Engel said, made the audience think of 1938’s Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass).
When Hanan Snir was invited to direct The Merchant of Venice in Germany in the 1980s, he created a framework in which Nazi officers forced Jewish inmates to perform this play in a concentration camp.
Long before us, Engel said, Shakespeare asked “What is it that makes a man a ‘smiling damned villain’? In what way is the society at large responsible if ‘something is rotten in the state’”?
I, Shakespeare will be performed in Tel Aviv in English on July 30 (8:30 p.m.) and in Hebrew on July 31 at Malenki Theater, 32 Homa VeMigdal St. NIS 86 per ticket; order at shorturl.at/zLNP8. Discount code 2040. Duration: 50 minutes/