The Ghost at the Feast

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

film directed by Baz Luhrmann


a film directed by Kenneth Branagh

Looking for Richard

a film directed by Al Pacino

Twelfth Night

a film directed by Trevor Nunn

A Midsummer Night's Dream Tramway Theater, Glasgow, February 4-7; the Palais Résidence, Brussels, February 12-15; and the Cultural Center Belem, Lisbon, February 19-23

a play directed by Jonathan Miller. At the Almeida Theatre, London, through February 1, 1997; then the
Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh; drawing by David Levine


To unravel my first associations with Shakespeare is like trying to clamber back into the core of childhood. My parents worked in the theater—my mother as actress, my father as director and theater owner—and stages figured early on as places of magical transformation. Seeing the process from the wings did not make it any less magical: quite the contrary. The stage was a place where people became other than what they were, in a fully real alternate world. The most highly developed aspect of that other world was called Shakespeare, conceived not as an individual but as an inventory of places, costumes, roles, phrases, songs.

Countless artifacts served as windows into it: a book of cutout figures for a toy theater, based on stills from Olivier’s Hamlet; Classic Comics versions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; recordings of John Barrymore as Hamlet and Olivier as Henry V and (most memorably) an Old Vic Macbeth whose bubbling-cauldron sound effects and echo-chambered witches’ voices haunted me for years; splendidly melodramatic nineteenth-century engravings of Hamlet in pursuit of his father’s ghost, Romeo running Tybalt through, Caliban and the drunken sailors carousing on the beach; prints of Sarah Siddons and Edmund Kean in their most famous roles; a whole world of Victorian bric-a-brac and accretions out of Charles and Mary Lamb; Victor Mature as Doc Holliday in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, reciting “To be or not to be” in a Dodge City saloon. There were productions, too, of which I remember none better than John Gielgud standing alone in modern dress on the stage of a school auditorium on Long Island enacting the abdication of Richard II; and there were Olivier’s three Shakespeare movies, the most recent of which, Richard III, had its American premiere on television in 1956.

It was a world that came into focus very gradually, little pieces clinging to memory out of a whole at first immense and vague. Probably the first details absorbed were of props and clothing—a crown, a dagger, a robe—augmented gradually by gestures, phrases, half-understood speeches. I can just about recall the uncanniness, on first encounter, of the exclamation “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Even more peculiar in their fascination were those words not understood at all: aroint, incarnadine, oxlips, roundel, palpable, promontory. No subsequent encounter with lyrical poetry ever exercised the initial hypnotic power of such a phrase as “Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

This Shakespeare existed outside of history, like Halloween or the circus. He was the supreme embodiment of the Other Time before cars or toasters, the time of thrones and spells and madrigals, imagined not as a dead past but as an ongoing parallel domain. So it was that I came to participate in a sort of religion of secular imagination: a charmed world whose key was to be found in the plays themselves, in all…

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