Thursday, March 15, 2007

Shakespeare Everywhere!

When I was about thirteen years old I noticed a little something I like to call the “new car phenomenon.” Around that time, my mother had just purchased a used, sky blue Ford Escort. Happy as a car full of clowns, which is what we looked like with my me, mother and my four siblings packed into that little bitty car, we piled in and took the long route home. On the way, I noticed another sky blue Ford Escort driving in the opposite direction. Then I noticed another turning a corner, then I noticed another in a parking lot. Why, the streets were practically crawling with sky blue Ford Escorts! Where had all these cars come from?

Later I learned that, when you buy a new car, because your mind has trained itself to recognize that make and model as your car, your blinders have been removed and suddenly you recognize what you hadn’t before. Of course, you’d probably seen that car before but, because it’s your car now, it’s taken on a greater significance. It’s called the “new car phenomenon” and it’s a law of nature.

I say this all to say that since I’ve been reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World I’ve been seeing Shakespeare everywhere. There seems to be a higher number of Shakespearean plays in the theatre, flyers for Shakespeare-related events are being slipped into my mailbox, and friends are re-reading and discussing Shakespearean plays that they haven’t read in years. Shakespeare here, Shakespeare there, Shakespeare everywhere!

And then today, while riding the metro to work, I decided to take a break from Will in the World and pulled out Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. Among several other books that Hornby discusses in his “March 2005” selection, he takes a special interest in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, which is “a book about the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.” If that isn’t reason enough for Hornby’s special interest then the fact that Ms. Vowell was the voice of Violett in The Incredibles, or that Vowell and Hornby were once good friends, or that Hornby makes a walk-on appearance in Assassination Vacation as a “smoker from London called Nick” might be.

Following the “March 2005” piece, Hornby includes an excerpt from Assassination Vacation of the scene in which he makes an appearance. Two pages into the excerpt, someone else also makes a walk-on appearance - that’s it, you guessed it – Shakespeare. It seems that Edwin Booth, brother to the Lincoln-assassinator John Wilkes Booth, was “only the greatest Shakespearean actor of the nineteenth century” and was apparently known as “the Hamlet of his day.”

Now, I knew enough of my American history to know that John Wilkes Booth had been an actor. But that the Booths, as Hornby says, were “a prestigious acting family, a sort of nineteenth-century Baldwin clan” and that they just happened to specialize in Shakespearean theatre, came completely out of left field for me. Not only that, but years later, after he had gotten over the shame of being related to the man who murdered one of the greatest presidents in American history, Edwin just happens to rescue a young man who had fallen onto the train tracks in Jersey City – a young man who turns out to be President Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln! Who says fact isn’t stranger than fiction?

Personally, I suspect Edwin pushed him off the platform when no one was looking and then jumped down to save him to redeem the family name. I mean really, what are the odds? But I won’t quibble with fate. Especially not when the lives of the Booths and the Lincolns seem to have been intimately connected in the stars while William Shakespeare himself is somewhere grinning the background.