September 7, 2016

On Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday Shakespeare Has Room for Everyone, Including Gene Wilder

book rev

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m an actor, not a clown.

— Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Gene Wilder made his acting debut at 15 with a small role in a high-school staging of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was his teacher again at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1955, and his first professional performance was as the Second Officer in a Cambridge, Mass. production of Twelfth Night. After studying method acting with Lee Strasberg, he changed his birth name to Gene Wilder because, according to a 2005 interview in the Daily Telegraph, “Jerry Silberman in Macbeth did not have the right ring to it.”

That’s a very Gene Wilder line. Even if you know him best from the title role in Young Frankenstein, you can see him mildly, earnestly pairing Silberman and Macbeth. It’s too bad Wilder never played Shakespeare in his prime. The closest he came was as Willy Wonka quoting from Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice and singing “in springtime, the only pretty ring time” from As You Like It.

Two Anniversaries

Wilder would be at home in the madcap comedy I’ve been reading on the occasion of the 483rd birthday of Queen Elizabeth (September 7, 1533) and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616. The title page of the first quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) reads “As it was performed before her Highness this past Christmas,” which means that Shakespeare, as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s players, may have been in the Queen’s presence on December 25, 1597, both as author and performer. Although any actual meeting between the age’s two luminaries is purely hypothetical, numerous encounters as imagined by novelists, painters, and filmmakers, not to mention fabulists and conspiracy theorists, are documented by Helen Hackett in Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths (Princeton Univ. Press 2009). Beginning with the cover’s crayon-on-paper drawing from 1979 by David Hockney, the book also offers fantasy images of the Bard and the Virgin Queen, whether Shakespeare is close at hand reading to Elizabeth, or performing in front of her, or reciting Macbeth before the Court, or listening intently as she “runs through a little thing of her own composition.”

Working the Laughs

Reading, smiling, and sometimes laughing my way through Love’s Labour’s Lost this past week, I imagined what Gene Wilder could have done with roles like Costard or Moth or “the fantastical Spaniard” Don Adriana de Armado. I also indulged myself with the thought that certain of the same lines that made me laugh might have convulsed the Queen. Quite an idea: sharing a laugh with Elizabeth. And why not? The play’s comic energy is broad and basic enough to reach from 1597 to 2016, from a queen to a New Jersey commoner. Consider the first two scenes of Act One, where the banter is as brazenly worked for laughs as anything this side of Mel Brooks and as in-your-face funny now as it would have been in that long-ago Christmas holiday performance. It’s easy to imagine Wilder as Costard mildly, haplessly, needily chiming in with a me-me-me whenever he hears himself referred to in Don Armado’s extravagant letter of self-introduction, first as “that base minnow of thy mirth” (“Me”), “that unlettered small-knowing soul” (“Me”), “that shallow vassal” (“Still me”), and when he finally hears himself called by name (“Oh me”). Wilder might mouth the words in a Chaplinesque pantomime while, say, Jerry Lewis would be mugging to a fare-thee-well (think “Oh da pain!”)

I can also see Wilder in the next scene playing Armado’s “dear imp” Moth. When Armado calls him “my tender juvenal [meaning juvenile]” Moth asks “why tender juvenal?” and Armado holds forth (think W.C. Fields) “I spoke it, tender juvenal, as a congruent epitheton appertaining to thy young days, which we may nominate tender.” That’s only the beginning of a zany back and forth comparable in tempo and timing to two jazz musicians riffing or, more apt, to a pair of comedians taking the language all over the map as when Chico and Groucho Marx perform one of their nonsensical pun-driven duets or Abbott and Costello skewer English grammar in their classic routine about a baseball team with Who on first, What on second, and I Don’t Know on third.


In Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom laments having never seen a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost “that could begin to perform to its vocal magnificence.” He compares “this festival of language” to “an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.” In the production I found at the library (a 1980 BBC/Time Life DVD), the scene of the reading of Armado’s letter was actually left out and the Moth/Armado exchange was reduced to limp, languid badinage.

Bloom surmises that Shakespeare “may have enjoyed a particular and unique zest in composing” Love’s Labour’s Lost. In fact, if you read this play in the spirit of its composition, in the glory of its comic/cosmic riffing, it makes you word-drunk, and no wonder, since Shakespeare was word-drunk writing it. Next to sharing a laugh with Elizabeth, what could be better than to get drunk with Shakespeare?

The Presence of the Playwright

The character who more than any other speaks for Shakespeare is Biron, one of three lords attending the King of Navarre. Biron (spelled Berowne in some texts) has the most to say and the most to lose, given the title, for he labors to win the love of regal Rosaline, the eloquently contemptuous female described by Shakespeare-as-Biron in terms that evoke the dark lady of the sonnets.

It’s Biron who makes a show of refusing to sign on to the King’s vow of three years of study without seeing a woman, only to turn everything to his and the play’s purpose with one glorious speech undermining the objective of the contract: if study has to preclude “vain delight,” then what could be more vain than “painfully to pore upon a book/To seek the light of truth; while truth the while/Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look,” for “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.” Referring to scholars (“earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights”) that “give a name to every fixed star,” Shakespeare/Biron concludes that they have “no more profit of their shining nights/Than those that walk and wot not what they are.” It was this passage that Herman Melville, gearing up for Moby Dick, scored and underscored in his copy of the Works: “Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun/That will not be deep-search’d with saucy looks:/Small have continual plodders ever won/Save base authority from others’ books.” After underscoring the last line — “Too much to know is to know nought but fame” — Melville puts a check mark next to the King’s response: “How well he’s read, to reason against reading!”

Playing to the Queen

On December 25, 1597, the living monarch was in the audience, is the audience. Like the passage Melville marked that spoke to him as if in Shakespeare’s voice, there are phrases throughout the play that make the presence of the playwright felt through Biron, his actor intermediary, who with a look or a gesture could speak, in effect, directly or implicitly to the queen, as in the line, “Study me how to please the eye indeed/By fixing it upon a fairer eye,/Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed/And give him light that it was blinded by.”

Imagine the Virgin Queen contemplating the performance of a play whose primary subject and objective cause is woman. Just as Shakespeare offers his comedy to a female ruler, the King and his love-besotted lords offer poems and vows of love to a group of women who end by sentencing them to a year of service or penance. In Act 4, when Biron delivers what may be the longest single speech in Shakespeare, the theme for all purposes is that “the ground of study’s excellence” is “the beauty of a woman’s face.” And if Shakespeare himself was playing Biron’s part, as the 33-year-old actor/author might well have been, where else would he look but to Elizabeth as he delivers a line such as “From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive;/They are the ground, the books, the academes/From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.”

Elizabeth Laughing

While there appears to be nothing on record about the sound of Queen Elizabeth’s laughter, one measure of her susceptibility to the comic horseplay and wordplay in Love’s Labour’s Lost may be found in the frequently cited anecdote in which her fondness for the character of Falstaff leads her to decree that Shakepeare write a play about the fat knight in love. Since Falstaff is among Shakespeare’s greatest, earthiest, most human creations, the story says something positive about the Queen’s humanity. To admire Falstaff also suggests a tolerance for and even enjoyment of inventive vulgarity. In Shakespeare and Elizabeth, Hackett pays particular attention to The Merrie Wives of Windsor, the play the legend has Shakespeare writing to honor his Queen’s request. In her introduction, Hackett also stresses Elizabeth’s “affection for and kinship with the common people of her realm,” she who “more than once asserted that she would rather be a milkmaid than a queen,” and claimed, “I am indeed endued with such qualities that were I turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place of Christendom.”

Reading that, who can doubt that Elizabeth had a capacity for the likes of Costard and Moth as well as for the “Promethean fire.”

“Making God Smile”

At the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Biron is, as Bloom notes, “outside the artifice of the player” and “more than ever speaks for Shakespeare himself.” His last move, however, is to step back as the play comes warmly and wisely down to earth with two songs, first of spring, then winter, for the Queen who would rather be a milkmaid. The song ends “When all aloud the wind doth blow/And, birds sit brooding in the snow,/And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,/When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,/Then nightly sings the staring owl,/Tu-whit/Tu-who, a merry note,/While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.”

“Making God smile” is the phrase Gene Wilder used in an interview about his time with the Bristol Old Vic. That’s how acting could feel when everything seemed right. Whether or not God smiled, chances are Elizabeth did when she heard Shakespeare’s songs.