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Happy Birthday, Will!

The U is celebrating Shakespeare's 450th birthday this spring. His plays still entertain, but is there more from his words that we gain?

April 25, 2014

The University of Minnesota is celebrating Shakespeare's 450th birthday this spring. After four centuries his plays still entertain. But is there more from his words that we gain?

"If only people today understood my writing style," laments a fictitious William Shakespeare on one of the many Pinterest boards where parodied Hamlet lines and teachers' lesson plans celebrate the work of this playwright, whose birth predates digital media by more than four centuries.

Shakespeare has thrived from handwritten script to wireless keyboard, so timeless and global that the world is celebrating his 450th birthday this spring. The University of Minnesota is joining the party, too, producing three of his tragedies, culminating with Hamlet April 17-27. Why are we celebrating?

On the most basic level, we would have holes in our language without him. We owe him the first knock-knock joke (Macbeth), as well as phrases like "in a pickle" (The Tempest) and "love is blind" (The Merchant of Venice), among hundreds that came straight from his pen.

Still, says professor and Shakespeare scholar Katherine Scheil, Shakespeare can often be intimidating, "But I think if students get the basic plot in their minds, then they can attach Shakespeare's language to the story. That's really the way to do it: slow down and think about what Shakespeare is saying." Students then often discover what has become almost a cliché: that Shakespeare speaks to what it means to be human.

As it turns out, the difficulty of reading Shakespeare may have a very practical benefit: it helps your brain. Several research studies have shown that when Shakespeare takes a word that has one function and turns it into something else, your brain has to do extra work to figure it out. That's called a functional shift, says Scheil, and it actually improves your brain waves.

Shakespeare's immortality rests within this language and its timeless portrayal of the human condition.

"I think he understood humanity better than any writer before or since," says Barbra Berlovitz, who is directing the Hamlet production. "Shakespeare represents human nature in all its beauty and ugliness. When you start to grasp that, you understand what a genius he was. Performing it expands you."

Steve Cardamone, who teaches acting at the University and at the Guthrie Theatre/University of Minnesota Actor Training Program, agrees.

"On the page, it is difficult," he says. "We think, why doesn't he just say it? But he didn't have all the bells and whistles, the technology that we have today. He had to put everything into the dialogue."

Performing that dialogue can change lives, says Cardamone. He's an example, remembering how a high school English teacher "took me under his wing and enrolled me in a Shakespeare class. Then, the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, I started acting. And I realized it wasn't as hard as I'd thought."

Shakespeare is also something of a therapist. In her book, She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America, Scheil describes the hundreds of women's Shakespeare clubs that sprang up in the late 19th century, including in Minnesota.

"They'd meet on stormy winter nights in a log cabin when the ranch work was done, to read and perform," says Scheil. "One woman in a Montana club was so determined to get the part of Hermia in Midsummer Night's Dream that she wrote out the lines, pinned them to her sleeve and memorized while she was scrubbing the floor. How exciting for a bored housewife to act as a person who has two lovers!"

Cardamone notes that Shakespeare has been performed in prisons and nursing homes, where documentary films have recorded the sometimes amazing transformations in both settings. In a nursing home for retired entertainers, "Even patients with severe memory loss could perform," says Cardamone. "As one director said, 'This is what every actor dreams of: being in the moment.' "

The late Nelson Mandela possibly represents the most poignant example. When Shakespeare's works were disguised as a Hindu holy text and smuggled into his South African prison, many of inmates signed their names beside passages.

Mandela's own marked passage was from Julius Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I have yet heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."

—Mary Shafer

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