Useful Life Lessons From the Bard

April 26, 2010

I’m feeling a strong sense of mourning for the end of Bard-A-Thon which was more fun this last week than I could have imagined.  The experience of sitting around an ill-lit table in the back of a side street store front down town at all hours of the day or night reading great prose and poetry out loud with one other person or with a dozen was so deeply satisfying that I’m looking around my life for ways to re-create it.  Having steeped myself in Shakespeare and read nine plays in six days I have derived a few useful universal principles we can take from the cannon.  Feel free to chip in with your own!

In any odd case of mistaken identity, check for a missing twin before you assume everyone around you is bewitched.

Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night

This follows on the idea of “when you hear hoof beats think horses not zebras.”  I would say its particularly apt when, as Antipholus in Comedy of Errors, you have been traveling around for the last six years looking for your long lost twin brother and suddenly you find yourself in a place where people you don’t know seem to recognize you as a neighbor.  Logic might suggest that you had succeeded in your quest and should start looking around the area for a guy that looks just like you.  I find this a little more excusable in Viola and Sebastian but … really its still pretty dippy.

If your boss betrays and kills everyone around him, watch your back at the end of the story.

Richard III

I have to say Buckingham seems like one of the stupidest characters in all of Shakespeare.  Bear in mind that I’m including Sir Andrew Aguecheek (of Twelfth Night) in this assessment.  He is working for a guy who begins the play by saying:

“I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous

By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams.”

OK so granted he says these things in monologue to the audience but Buckingham stands around and listens while Richard outlines nearly countless other betrayals, either by ordering people dead, stirring up trouble so that other people send the orders, killing them himself on the battle field or by asking them confusing questions and then declaring them to be traitors – then having them executed.  He helps Richard kill his own nephews for crying out loud.  Then at the end, he’s shocked that he isn’t richly rewarded for his service (while Richard is in the middle of a fairly serious uprising at that).  Not one of the world’s brightest lights, our Buckingham.  Unsurprisingly he ends up dead.  Nearly everyone does.  So many people die in Richard III (both on stage and off that they have to import a new cast of characters from France to finish the play.

If your boyfriend is mad at you, tell him you’re dead.

Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra

This one works great – instead of having your issues out with your significant other through discussion just have someone go tell them that you died after your last fight.  It helps if the messenger seems really upset and also if they say that your last words were the name of your love.  Watch out though – because depending on the context of comedy or tragedy this plan can backfire badly.  Priests seem often to offer this advice (MAAN, R&J) but that is not always a guarantee of its success.  What you want to do is make sure that your loved one will be shaken but not totally undone by grief.  If you fear the latter make sure that whomever you send with the follow up message of “just kidding” comes in good time or you may find that they’ve prematurely killed themselves.  Then you have to actually kill yourself.  It is the only way.

So this rule has a follow up:

If you hear your lover is dead, don’t kill yourself too.

Same as above.

So you’ve just been told your lover is dead – probably because you yelled at her.  What you don’t want to do in this case is kill yourself right away.  First of all, go check.  Ask to see the corpse.  (This one is for you Antony.)  Second, even if you do find a cold lifeless form laying in a crypt, give it a day or two, or at least a few minutes, to see if it really takes.  There’s no point in being hasty here.  (Plus Romeo, you selfish jerk, when you drank all the poison you left poor Juliet with no option but to stab herself in the gut which is a much more painful way to go.  Based on the evidence here presented, by far the best way to mourn your dead love is to marry their cousin.  Don’t worry if she’s in love with your best friend; at least you won’t be dead.  And there’s always a chance the whole thing was a hoax anyway.

When you’re angry or frustrated, don’t bottle it up.

I’m thinking King Lear specifically here.

But really all of Shakespeare’s plays contain some pretty good insults.  People make one a day calendars of them for crying out loud.  And no one seems to worry much about the other guys’ feelings.  I suppose if you tick him off enough you can have a sword fight and that will be a useful outlet for both of you.  This here is the best (and longest) string of insults I’ve ever come across and I was delighted to deliver it as Kent on Thursday.

“[Thou art] a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mungril bitch.” Kent, King Lear (2.2.15-23)

When in doubt, dress like a boy (don’t worry – no one will recognize you).

Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Double Falsehood

This rule applies so thoroughly that your long lost brother may mistake you for himself (while standing outside with no mirrors around).  It also works even when the man you love and who claims to love you is sitting around whining about how much he misses you (you being disguised as a boy for the moment) and won’t even catch on when you say things like ‘well pretend I’m a woman and practice your relationship skills on me just as if were her.’   He’ll get a little weirded out for sure … but he won’t figure it out.

Don’t kill the king.  Just don’t.

Richard II

Because if you do, you might start the War of the Roses.  Granted, Richard II was a pretty crumby king.  He has one uncle killed before the play starts (I never did figure out why because I came in late to this reading).  When people (his relatives) in the court begin to make a stink about this he starts banishing them willynilly to France.  And ends up disinheriting a cousin (previously banished) by seizing all of another uncle’s property and cash when he dies.  He’s also pretty callous about the death too which is an offense against courtesy and morality if not law.  Its hard for the people around him to figure out how to to put a stop to all this.  Still, I say, deposing and killing him was just a bad plan.  Look at what followed:  Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; and Richard III, each with quite a few deaths and a lot more ‘bad blood’.

So there we have it.  This is what I’ve learned from my week of Shakespeare.  If you have any other useful tips you’ve gleaned from reading, watching or performing the Bard, please do let me know!



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One Response to “Useful Life Lessons From the Bard”

  1. RS Says:

    As you well know, I fully believe this may be the Bard’s greatest lesson “If your boyfriend is mad at you, tell him you’re dead.” I also fully believe the 2nd messenger is totally unreliable and will only spread the news of your survival after a pub crawl and a day to recover.

    Also, I think the Bard made it pretty clear that to have a comedic life, you need a twin. If you don’t have a twin, you need to get one. I am shopping for one right now.


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