"How Shakespeare Tells Us Who We Are"

David Mix Barrington

Summer Service Sermon, 26 June 2005
Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

Good morning. In As You Like It, the melancholy philosopher Jaques says that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". We each have our roles in life, our identities, and how we act in those roles determines who we are. What I want to do this morning is to examine how we choose these roles for ourselves, and in particular what role one particular long-dead Englishman might play in that process.

One of the roles I play in my life is that of an actor. I started doing musicals with the Amherst Leisure Services Community Theatre a few years ago, and I've since become a member of both Valley Light Opera and the Hampshire Shakespeare Company. Right now Kat and I are in early stages of a three-week run of Julius Caesar at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley. (Ticket information is available in the parlor after the service.) It's an ensemble production -- I play a cobbler, a conspirator, a citizen, a servant, and several soldiers. It puts the idea of juggling different roles at the forefront of my mind all the time, believe me.

Some of you are involved in the theatre. I don't have to tell you what it's like to be part of a theatre community. For the rest of you, I'll try to explain what I've found over the last few years. I've found talented, charismatic, dedicated people who will do whatever it takes to put on the best show possible. Furthermore, I've found people who respect each other, who respect each other's talents, and who are enormously generous with their time and energy. If you think of the person you know who is most likely to help you out with a tiresome task -- that's the sort of person I work with in every show.

Part of how theatre communities can work this way is that the people in a particular show have committed themselves to a particular goal, and cooperate with each other toward that goal. Real life is often more complicated, because we have all these different identities and different roles that conflict. We can't have a single-minded dedication to all of our roles at the same time, at least most of us can't seem to manage it. What we find in theatre, or sometimes sports or other pursuits, is an ideal of sorts -- for a time we can fulfill one of our roles completely. The people who live their entire lives like that, whose single role is their life, are sometimes called saints. I'm not a saint by any means, but it probably makes me a better person to have that ideal to shoot for.

So being an actor is a role, but the point of being an actor is to portray a role. (Or several roles, in my case.) I'm still a beginner as an actor -- I have a strong voice and some measure of stage confidence from my day job as a professor, but I have a lot to learn. A director can sometimes tell you exactly what to do, but most often their role is to help you pull some aspect out of yourself and apply it to the scene at hand.

With any scene, you start with the lines. With Shakespeare, you start with only the lines, because he gives you very little else, just the exits and the entrances. But the more you look at Shakespeare's words, the more they tell you. We heard earlier from Adrian Brine and Michael York how those words are the hand and the actor is the glove. I know what they mean -- in one of our last rehearsals we did a run-through where we deliberately said the words as fast as possible, partly to see where our weak points were but also to see what surprises came out of our having internalized the words. Once you know what your words mean, and what the situation is, you can react to surprises in character, as if you really were a cobbler or a soldier or a senator.

There's another thing that makes Shakespeare different from other acting I've done. In the original Globe Theatre, the small wooden stage was thrust out into the middle of the audience, and the scene changes were indicated only by the dialogue. Hampshire Shakespeare tries to recreate that experience on our outdoor stage -- there's the costumes, the props, a floor, a back wall, and us. And an audience, of course, to enter and exit through, sometimes to interact with directly in a "postmodern" way that Shakespeare himself would find totally normal. In Julius Caesar we try as much as we can to make the audience part of all our public events like processions and speeches -- it's part of the point of the play, the relationship between political figures and their public.

I've talked about how acting a Shakespeare play affects who we are. What about watching a play, or hearing it, as they said in Shakespeare's day? The point of all our work is to show you Shakespeare's characters in Shakespeare's story. Those characters have identities, and the stories usually flow from some kind of conflict between two or more of their identities. Is Brutus a Roman patriot or Caesar's friend? Is Romeo a Montague or Juliet's lover? Is Hamlet a dutiful prince or an instrument of revenge? These conflicts of identity lead to choices of action, and Shakespeare uniquely shows us the characters working out their choices, in debate with themselves, Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech being only the most famous example.

Julius Caesar is full of scenes where one character changes another's mind. Kat and I read the start of Cassius' seduction of Brutus into the conspiracy against Caesar. If you could only see yourself as you truly are, he tells Brutus, you would see the noble Roman patriot who will do what needs to be done. Caesar himself, for all his talk about being as constant as the northern star, is likewise seduced into his fatal trip to the Capitol by an appeal to his self-image. And we citizens of Rome are easy prey for the manipulations of the orators Brutus and Antony, who tell us who we are in such a way that we must be on their side.

That last sounds familiar, doesn't it? A deeply divided state, a credulous public, a small group of government officials who take violent action to remove a dictator without a clear idea as to what to do afterwards -- you can all find your own parallels. Because Shakespeare is so fair in setting out both side of the issue, he makes you think. When is the violent overthrow of the government a good thing? Can any cause justify the hacking to death of a man you've just broken bread with? Or more simply, as so many young people in this country are deciding every day, how willing am I to risk death for my country? Do I want to take on the role of a soldier?

Our faith is supposed to help us with our choices. A follower of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Sistani, for example, can check out the web site sistani.org for the Ayatollah's exposition of Islamic law concerning a host of personal behavior questions, in English, French, or Urdu. There is a Christian fundamentalist bumper sticker that says "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." As Unitarian Universalists, though, we don't have the luxury of supernatural answers to the question of what we should do. We have to figure it out by ourselves -- with the help of all those sources of wisdom listed in the Principles and Purposes, maybe, but ultimately by ourselves.

Many of Shakespeare's characters are in the same position. Hamlet gets a pretty clear supernatural message, from his father's ghost, that his uncle killed his father and should be killed in revenge. But that's not good enough for Hamlet, who apparently learned something about critical thinking at his university. Because the ghost might be the devil in disguise, Hamlet wants direct evidence, and so he plans the whole business with the play to see whether his uncle has a guilty conscience. Julius Caesar gets all kinds of clear supernatural messages telling him not to go to the Capitol on the Ides of March, but he decides for himself how to interpret them and gets the wrong answer. Macbeth gets his supernatural messages from the witches, who are completely evil, of course, but it's his choice to kill King Duncan and we hold him responsible for it.

We are the actors in our own story, and we make the choices that decide how that story turns out. We decide who we are going to be. And when we have our exit at the end of our lives, our choices define who we have been. Some people think they will be judged for those choices in an afterlife, others think that the consequences of our actions will be visited on us in some future life on this world. Like many, maybe even like most of us here today, I think that our life on earth is what it is and must be lived on its own terms. But when I die, I hope that those who knew me will think that I lived a good life. I hope that I will leave behind some achievements of value that will last a long time. That's the closest thing to immortality that I hope for.

Posterity is a major theme of Julius Caesar. Brutus remembers proudly how his ancestor drove out the last king of Rome centuries before, and acts in part to continue that tradition. Cassius asks over the body of Caesar:

       How many ages hence
    Shall this our lofty scene be acted o'er,
    In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
    [...] So oft as that shall be,
    So often shall the knot of us be call'd
    The men that gave their country liberty.

Now, of course, Cassius is best remembered as a character in a play, and Caesar's name still means "King" -- the last Kaisers and Czars fell only a century ago. Brutus ends a good life with a good death. Antony says of him:

    His life was gentle, and the elements
    So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
    Any say to all the world, 'This was a man!'

But Octavius, the future Emperor Augustus, holds the field, and the Roman Republic is gone forever.

Shakespeare knew that he himself was writing for posterity -- the sonnets are his lasting monument to his feelings for people that we now cannot conclusively identify. Four centuries later he is the best-known and most admired Englishman of his time, his plays truly "acted o'er in states unborn and accents yet unknown" while he lived. But can Shakespeare tell us who he was? The historical record tells us very little about him -- son of a rural glovemaker, apparently educated in a local grammar school, ran away to London to join the theatre, acted and wrote for a company that eventually earned the direct patronage of the King, retired to Stratford as a moderately wealthy gentleman. We want to know him better than that -- we feel that we know him better through what he wrote, and feel compelled to make up stories about him.

Many of you saw the movie Shakespeare In Love, a tongue-in-cheek tale of how Romeo and Juliet came to be written. I've recently read Will In the World, by Stephen Greenblatt, which is a series of well-informed speculations on what real events might have influenced the plays, like a celebrated trial of a Jew that might have inspired The Merchant of Venice.

Many serious people, including the actor Michael York, believe that the glover's son from Stratford didn't write the plays at all -- that the real author was the nobleman Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford. The author knew the nobility and the court so well, they say, he must have been a nobleman. Others have said that he knew the law so well, he must have been a lawyer, that he knew war so well, he must have been a soldier, that he knew women so well, he must have been a woman, and so forth. There are more and better arguments out there for the "Oxford Theory", of course, and if you're interested you should look them up, along with the rebuttals to them. But what we know for sure is that the author of the plays had one of the greatest imaginations in history. He created so much -- did he create his own identity as the court playwright starting from the raw material of a rural glover's son? Or did he create the glover's son to hide the real playwright?

I don't expect to be remembered four centuries from now. It's not likely that any of us here will be. But the lives we lead and the choices we make will have consequences that might even persist that long. My own life will be forgotten, I may or may not have descendents, but what I did and decided will still have been done and been decided. If those people four centuries from now knew who I was and what I did, would they say that I lived a good life? I don't know, but while I'm on this stage I'm going to keep that audience in mind.

We'll be silent for a moment.

[This sermon benefited enormously from conversations with Tony Burton, Sally Greenhouse, Kat Lovell, and Andrea Zucker.]

Last modified 27 June 2005