We have a tendency to strip Shakespeare’s words apart, cut out individual pieces and apply them to our own parallel circumstances. To be or not to be; something wicked this way comes; get thee to a nunnery.
But the words work best, as most things do, in the proper context — together, each verse leading to the next.
I thought about this as I attended the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presentation ofTwelfth Night over the weekend. Outdoor plays can be difficult to watch, but wonderful to hear. The verses in Twelfth Night start out deliberate and precise, but build speed over time as more voices get involved and plans unravel, until the words are practically crashing into each other near the play’s conclusion.
But somewhere along the way I stopped hearing Shakespeare and started listening to the city.
Shortly after the start of the second act, I stopped swinging from verse to verse and started waiting for the gaps between the words, when the layers of the city would emerge; the diesel grind of buses cutting through the park, a muffled DJ at an outdoor wedding beckoning everyone to dance, interstate roar, whistling ambulances, and a distant industrial hum.
Individually, these are nuisances. Every day they get in our way and crash into each other. They’re what people who don’t live in cities use as excuses to not live in cities. But when heard together, in the right context — a Saturday night picnic on the eve of summer — they’re a masterpiece.