Over the weekend Leah and I attended a Shakespeare Party. It was a lot of fun and yes, I hear you groaning, and yes, this is what English teachers do. We didn’t sit around and read Shakespeare, but we did wear name tags with Shakespeare quotes on them, ate food from a Shakespearean cookbook, and played a Shakespeare-inspired card game. Overall, it was a pretty normal gathering. Also, there were a number of significant others at the party and it was fun to see their reactions to “the Bard,” or as my college professors always said, “‘ole Billy S.” So yes, it was a casual affair, even if one teacher did keep talking in a Middle English accent.
The menu was delicious—meat pies with dates and apricots, chicken cooked with dried fruits, a topping of cooked apples, sweet potato mash mixed with limoncello, and green beans and mushrooms. We didn’t eat carrot cake, but one of the reasons carrot cake has historically been a dessert staple in English cooking is because carrot are pretty sweet as far as vegetables go. Sweetness has historically been added to foods by cooking with fruits that were dried or preserved with alcohol and by cooking with sugary roots. It was neat to see cooking done along the same lines. Then, once we finished eating we traded Shakespearean insults.
The game was like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity; one person chooses a “setup” card and then everyone plays insults from various Shakespeare plays. Some of the setup cards were from ‘ole Billy’s plays, such as “Good night, good night! ________ is such sweet sorrow.” Then people could play something like “a shrewd thrust at your belly (“Henry IV Part 2”) or “meditating on virginity” (“All’s Well that Ends Well”) to fill the blank in. Or the setup cards were more modern, like “A vote for Donald Trump is a vote to Make America ________ Again,” which I won with the quote “greater than great, great, great, great (“Love’s Labour’s Lost”).
Everyone was surprised there was a card that fit that slogan so well. The game was pretty apolitical, though it was definitely bawdy. I think oftentimes people forget that Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and such entertainment frequently has jokes that play to the lowest denominator. Shakespeare’s crudeness is spread out pretty evenly across his work, though for this game I’d say insults from “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” were overly-represented. Given that these two plays get some of the most critical attention concerning Shakespeare’s personal viewpoints on race and religion, the game’s creators made interesting choices.
Without commenting on Shakespeare’s character, I would say that the stuffy air around his work is, in my opinion, undeserved. When I taught in Korea I’d see young kids reading Shakespeare and laughing. ‘Ole Billy’s cussing, innuendo, and “yo mamma” jokes are accessible in modern Korean, and in many ways kids reading a translation get a more authentic experience of Shakespeare than those reading Shakespeare in Early Modern English. Now, would Shakespeare approve of people in 2018 sitting around and sharing his creative put-downs? Honestly, I really think he would, and if alive he’d probably ask to join in.
–Jeff and Leah