Introduction to Shakespeare

Holly and I have never taken a vacation that didn’t end in family. Every road trip we’ve driven eventually intersected with parents, grandparents, uncles or cousins. So last week, we went to St. Louis as a means to simply escape for ourselves. We went to a concert. We went to the zoo. And Holly agreed to go to Shakespeare in the Park for one hour.

However, an hour is extremely relative.

St. Louis has had a blossoming Shakespeare in the Park program for fifteen years, which is amazing, because many of Shakespeare’s plays are boring. There are only six or eight that I like; there are two that I love. Luckily, they were performing Henry V, basically Shakespeare’s version of Braveheart, one that I’ve seen several times and therefore don’t really need to understand the exact words to know what’s going on. I explained it to Holly this way:

Henry V (also called Harry, also called Hal – I forgot to tell her that up front, and she began to think there were three main characters) leads a group of underdog soldiers against the mightiest football program in the state – France – and proceeds to give like eight different motivational speeches. They eventually win but Henry/Harry/Hal dies.


The stage was at the bottom of a natural ampitheater packed with perhaps five hundred attendees. There were other plays that day, and the people we sat next to and behind had clearly been there for hours. Empty craft beer bottles and Whole Foods chip bags everywhere. The smell of hemp. Someone using a Polaroid camera instead of, I don’t know, a camera that was invented in the last two decades. Then the play began.

I realized something in the very first seen, one where religious figures try to justify this upcoming war. I knew from previous experience that it was supposed to be funny, but for Holly it would be impossible to see the humor. In Henry V, Shakespeare often made jokes by featuring characters who used non-existent words or who were overly flowery in speech – which is basically Shakespeare on a good day. For a first time watcher, there’s no way to distinguish between the humorous speeches and the true ones. When I explained this to Holly, she said, “So Shakespeare is making fun of Shakespeare?” No, I said, then immediately added, Wait – I have no idea.

Afterwards, Holly said that it was like watching a Spanish soap opera: she knew when people were mad, sad or happy, but she had no idea why. During one scene – a siege of a French town, where Henry gives another one of his halftime speeches – she leaned over and said, “I get that there’s a battle going on, but it’s like they’re speaking French.”

I looked at my phone. It had been just over an hour. “Then we better go,” I said, “because the next scene is actually in French.”

Shakespeare. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, he goes and writes a whole scene in a different language.


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