Last Sunday, thirty students traveled the short distance to the nearby town of Staunton, Virginia to view Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Drooping eyelids and lackluster stares caused by late night festivities characterized the majority of the group. The class’s enthusiasm paled in comparison to the professor’s. I drove to Staunton dreading a two-hour performance with a plot that I couldn’t follow in language I couldn’t understand. Renaissance Literature isn’t one of “my favorite things.” In other words, I avoid it at all costs.
But my initial – and less than enthusiastic – attitude was overcome by a very different reaction. The Blackfriars Playhouse’s simple wooden railings and a hand-painted stage generated intrigue that countered my earlier feelings of woe. My history major tendencies engulfed me as I thumbed through a pamphlet I snagged in the lobby.
The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton is the only recreation of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre, the first indoor theatre in the English-speaking world. At the Blackfriars Playhouse Staunton, the American Shakespeare Center performs Shakespeare’s works under their original staging conditions, which I learned meant on a simple stage without elaborate sets and an audience that shares the same lighting conditions as the actors. I was expecting an intricate set and ornate, Elizabethan costumes only to realize that I knew nothing about the true essence of Shakespeare and his techniques.
So, how does this apply to literature you ask? Shakespeare’s works, specifically his plays, build upon basic, yet classic, principals that are still prevalent in modern literature. His literature matches the simplicity of the theaters they were preformed in. Julius Caesar stresses conflicts that force the reader to contemplate what separates a passionate martyr from a greedy tyrant? Are Brutus and Cassius noble executioners or butchers? What is Caesar’s ambition? Was he virtuous or evil? Or was Caesar simply a victim of humanities weaknesses?
Shakespeare echoed building upon basic fundamentals in order to communicate the magnitude of his literature to audiences and readers. Simplicity governed his approach to his writing and productions. Unlike his original theatre, his literary techniques survived the test of time. I wonder if he would be as impressed by Staunton’s version of The Blackfriars Playhouse as I was.