Watch: Kiriosity: Why is Shakespeare Important? That Is the Question

In my day to day life, I don't need to do a lot to justify my obsession with Shakespeare. I music direct/teach educational theater year round. There's always an excuse to preach the good word of the Bard. But, theatrical criticism has started to take a turn, at least in NYC. A great production of a safer Shakespeare--a Macbeth or a Twelfth Night--will easily get raves. A great production of a more problematic play--a Richard III or A Midsummer Night's Dream--will receive far more mixed reviews. Context is important, and it's becoming more common now to force 21st Century readings onto 16th/17th Century plays.

Not that I mind too much. There are very problematic plays in Shakespeare's oeuvre. Measure for Measure is predicated on selling a nun's virginity as a business contract. Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline both turn on manufactured slut shaming, causing depression and grave psychological harm to the young women in question. The Merchant of Venice is still treated like a monster story in modern adaptations (the Al Pacino film is a particularly bad offender) with the Jewish villain and the female hero both reduced to gross stereotypes. Beautiful language can only cover so much wrong.

There's relevance to the text beyond the language. Shakespeare mastered the five act dramatic structure, which helped lead the way to three and two act dramas we know today. If you see a production of one of his plays now, it's played with an intermission after Act III. Some of the longer plays lend themselves to two intermissions, after Act II and Act III. Act III is always the turning point, setting the rest of the story into motion in a way that can never be stopped. The fates are sealed and we're just in it for the ride.

This is especially evident in my favorite, The Winter's Tale. Acts I-III are a tragedy; Acts IV and V are a comedy. How? In Act III, a character is tasked with abandoning a baby on the coast of Bohemia is chased off by a bear. It is, literally, the only incident of stage direction originally written into one of Shakespeare's plays. The absurdity of an actor dressed as a bear (we hope) chasing an innocent man to his death (offstage) is so outrageous that the audience starts to laugh. The play then turns into a parody of its own melodrama, going super broad and undermining the punishments or triumphs of all the characters to that point.

Kiri Callaghan takes a different approach to his importance on the newest episode of Kiriosity. Well, other than being another person with significant theatrical training that defines the interest. It's a must-watch video.

And a big happy birthday to William Shakespeare. My hero.

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