Another summer, another trip to the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival!
But if you want the long-story-short version, the only reason my wife was able to get me interested in The Bard was by telling me about all the hidden sex jokes in his plays. I was immediately hooked, and Shakespeare has never been the same since.
But for this iteration, I want to shift focus a little bit, because I’ve ran into several pervasive misconceptions about the Shakespeare Festival that I want to clear up.
First and foremost, the annual Shakespeare Festival is not really annual, nor is it really a festival.
Kathryn and I venture there every summer for roughly a week because that’s when she’s finally on vacation, after trying to stuff her students’ heads with literature — both classic and modern — for the last nine months.
But plays are going on for more than half the year, starting early March and ending in late October. In fact, if you have an opportunity to travel to southern Oregon before or after the sweltering summer heat hits the hamlet, I highly suggest you do.
And as for the “festival” portion of the event’s name, there are no mead halls or musicians, brave knights or fair maidens, ax throwing, archery, or any other sort of medieval recreations like you will find at the upcoming Midsummer Renaissance Faire in Bonney Lake, and I’ve yet to see a single attendee dress up in costume (sadly). There’s just the magic of the stage.
(OK — there is one bar, Oberon’s Tavern, that is fantastically reminiscent of the ren faire scene. The food is excellent, the drinks refreshing, and many of the hipsters that play at night put on their best impersonations of trolls being introduced to the concept of pitch and melody. And after a couple of pints, it doesn’t sound too bad, either.)
Second, while Shakespeare’s works are prominently featured, there are many other plays being performed. This year, we saw “Indecent,” a play about the 1920s Yiddish play “God of Vengeance,” and “Between Two Knees,” a dark comedy about the life of Native Americans between then 1890 massacre and the 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee.
“Indecent” turned out to be the highlight of the year. If you only had the opportunity to see one play this year, it should be that one.
But surprisingly, “As You Like It” — one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedies — was the runner-up, beating out the highly-anticipated “Macbeth.”
Funnily enough, my wife and I were severely warned by some elderly theatre-goers about how much sex was in “Macbeth.” It made us laugh since there are so many other things — the violence, the gore, the pedicide — we would have expected to be warned about.
(And, wow, does that say a lot about our Puritanical roots that, as a society, we’re more shocked by sex than watching an extremely graphic suicide on stage.)
And in all honesty, there wasn’t that much sex anyway; Macbeth and his wife are just so often portrayed as cold-blooded and heartless, that it obviously shocked these poor older women when the characters got half-naked and down-and-dirty while simultaneously plotting the murder of their king (Danforth Comins, hubba hubba).
The director’s choice to make this scene steamier than it’s historically been played fleshed out the Macbeths to help the audience connect to them. As the protagonists, they need a larger emotional range than just being power-hungry and stabby; otherwise, viewers won’t be emotionally invested.
It also lent itself an additional joke: “Bear welcome in your eye/ your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,” Lade Macbeth urged her husband, “but be the serpent under’t,” she continued, grabbing at his pants.
Unfortunately, “Macbeth” is a poor example of sex in Shakespeare, lending little gutter humor to the gruesome play. But where it comes up short, “As You Like It” leaves you begging for more.
For those unfamiliar with the play, here’s a short summary through my eyes: Orlando de Boys, an up-and-coming nobleman denied education and riches by his older brother, tries to earn some fame, and beats the kingdom’s duke’s best wrestler in a match. The duke bans him from the city, but not before he catches the attention of Rosalind.
Unfortunately, Rosalind is the daughter of the kingdom’s former duke (who has also been banished), and due to that relationship, Rosalind is banished as well. With her goes Celia, the duke’s daughter, in search of Rosalind’s father in a nearby forest. To avoid trouble on the road, Rosalind dresses as a man.
Meanwhile, Orlando is living up his new life in the same forest Rosalind has traveled to, and has taken to taping up poems he’s written about Rosalind on every tree he can find. Rosalind finds these and, without revealing her identity, convinces Orlando to prove his undying affection to his lady love by having Orlando try and “woo” man-disguised Rosalind, which Rosalind said is an attempt to try and “cure” Orlando of his love.
I’ll stop there to not spoil the ending.
Already, the crossdressing is great fodder for some dirty jokes, but — as the Shakespeare Festival is wont to do — many of the characters in this year’s play had their sexes swapped: the banished Duke Senior, normally Rosalind’s father, was played as a woman; Jaques, normally a male follower of Duke Senior, was swapped with a woman as well; and Aubrey Le Beau, normally a woman, was played androgynously. All this leads to some great conversations, and jokes, about sex.
But it’s not always the words and innuendo Shakespeare uses to tell those jokes, but also how the words are accented.
Take this short monologue from the play’s fool, Touchstone:
“And then he drew a dial from his poke,/And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,/Says very wisely, ‘It is 10 o’clock:/Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:/‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,/And after one hour more ‘twill be eleven;/And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,/ And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;/ And thereby hangs a tale.’”
“From hour to hour,” may seem innocent in a modern British or American accent, with Touchstone simply commenting on how first we age into our prime, and then decay until we die.
But said in an accent from Shakespeare’s time period, “hour” easily turns to “whore,” and now instead of rotting away from old age, Touchstone is now alluding to being eaten away by some horrible sexually transmitted disease.
And, of course, “a tale” was Elizabethan slang for ye old male genitals.
How the world wags, indeed.