by Mac MacDaniel
One of the most rewarding things about being a fan of any artist, especially one with a long career, is watching their style evolve. Some of my favorite musicians — Metallica, Tom Waits, Tupac — have distinct artistic periods that are often in conversation with each other. Listening to Tom Waits’s early piano-heavy crooner records, you might not even realize that this is the same artist of albums like Bone Machine that feature morbid criminal ballads over instrumentation that sounds like — and sometimes is — just Tom banging on random objects. Tupac’s revolutionary social commentary on his early records evolves into the violent, confrontational rhymes on his later work. Fans felt betrayed when Metallica wrote their first radio-friendly record, cutting both their hair and their guitar solos, but that particular album has aged much better than its detractors.
And it’s obviously not just music. Lovers of Monet, Rodin, or the Coen Brothers will happily talk your ear off about the relative merits of those artists’ early or later work. Even if you don’t love your favorite artist’s entire oeuvre, you can see how their work evolves, how they revisit themes and ideas and imagery again and again, how they approach concepts as they become more deft and experienced in their craft.
As a great lover of Shakespeare, one of my biggest joys is in juxtaposing his early, middle, and late plays. You can see a twinkling of Romeo and Juliet in the eye of the playwright who starts out writing Two Gentlemen of Verona. A nihilistic middle play like King Lear might heighten your appreciation of the redemptive elements of a later play like The Tempest.
When I am trying to expose a friend to an artist whose work has meant a lot to me, I try to give them a sampling of that artist’s work from each period, like a flight of drinks. To give a taste for Tom Waits’s material, I might suggest that a friend try out three “B” records, because there’s a good album starting with a “B” in each period of his career. An early album like Blue Valentines, 1978, contrasts nicely with a middle album like Bone Machine, 1992, and then you can round off the flight with Bawlers, Brawlers & Bastards, from 2006.
Similarly, if you want to develop your palate for Shakespeare, I can’t think of a better experience than seeing the three plays that FlagShakes has selected for their 2022 season. One comedy from Shakespeare’s early career, one tragedy from his middle period, and one late play that defies genre conventions, sometimes grouped in with the late romances.
The Comedy of Errors, on this fall, is a light, silly, short play full of slapstick humor and mistaken identity. It’s representative of Shakespeare’s early work: over the top, full of rhyme, and with characters who are more caricatured and less developed than in his later works. Shakespeare’s early work, both comedy and tragedy, is so extra. Like Metallica said of their early shows, in order to get folks to pay attention to them, they had to play faster and louder than anyone else. The early Shakespeare seemed to think that the key to humor was just adding more. If one set of identical twins is funny, then it follows that two sets is even funnier, at least that appears to be his logic behind The Comedy of Errors, and because he’s Shakespeare, he succeeds where another writer might have failed. To see the same principle on the flip side of the coin, look at an early tragedy like Titus Andronicus, where the young Shakespeare seemed to think that by the same token, adding more dead bodies would make a play even more tragic. The jury’s still out on whether the principle holds up in tragedy as well as it does in comedy.
Othello, FlagShakes’s summer Shakespeare show, couldn’t be more different than The Comedy of Errors, both in terms of genre and writing style. If Comedy of Errors is about as light as Shakespeare plays get, Othello is perhaps as heavy as they get. Othello is more poetic, less rhyming, with characters who are much more three dimensional. Unlike the world of Comedy of Errors — where violence and injustice do occur, but are mostly perpetrated by well-meaning people who deserve forgiveness — the world of Othello is dominated by a scheming psychopath who refuses not only to repent, but to even explain his motivations. The tragedy of Othello is not only in the harm that occurs, but in the fact that it feels meaningless and random. The language of Othello is more muscular, more efficient, more noisy, not unlike Metallica’s middle period.
The final Shakespeare production of FlagShakes’s season, The Two Noble Kinsmen, is a strange play indeed, and for a few different reasons. It defies traditional genre conventions, sometimes called a “tragicomedy” — which means exactly what it sounds like — and sometimes lumped in with the other late plays that we call “romances.” It is also probably a collaboration between Shakespeare and a younger playwright, John Fletcher. Shakespeare’s later work is fascinating because at the end of his career, Shakespeare seemed more open to writing the nuance of real life, playing with the blurry line between happy and sad endings, between a just and an unjust universe, and between wrongs that can be righted and wrongs which cannot. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a wonderful adventure story that is — in my humble opinion — underrated. It deals with rich themes and ideas: the fact that sometimes we have to do the right thing for the wrong reason, sometimes getting exactly what we wish for isn’t a blessing, and sometimes a pleasant lie is better than the painful truth.
Shakespeare’s final plays remind me of the final record that Tupac worked on before his death. Like Shakespeare, Tupac continued publishing material after he died. The 7 Day Theory feels like a blending of the two extremes of Tupac’s career, from the more thoughtful political work of his early records to the more combative, beef-oriented work of his career on Death Row Records. In much the same way, Shakespeare blends comedy and tragedy at the end of his career. The maturity and power of both artists at the end of their careers makes me wish that they had been able to continue working for longer.
If you’ve ever had a drink flight — most commonly seen with beers, but for those of us who don’t drink alcohol, some coffee shops do flights of different coffees — you’ve probably noticed that it’s much easier to discern differences between similar drinks when you taste them in succession. I’ve always been a big coffee drinker, but up until I started going to coffee “cuppings,” I mostly thought that coffee was coffee. The first time I tasted a washed Colombian coffee right after a natural Ethiopian coffee, I realized just how much flavor variation there truly is. That made me appreciate all coffees that much more. I’m sure the experience is similar for folks developing their palates for different beers and liquors.
So, in 2022 I would encourage you to come out and see FlagShakes’s “Shakespeare Flight,” sample plays from different periods in Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, see his takes on different genres and themes, and pay attention to how his poetry deepened, from the rhyming witticisms of his early plays into the Baroque despair of his middle period, to the musical, magical transcendent verse of his late plays.
Mac MacDaniel is the artistic director of Elsewhere Shakespeare and the author of The Play’s the Thing: A Beginner’s Guide to Seeing and Enjoying Shakespeare.
*The above mentioned 2022 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen has been postponed until 2023. Want to see all of our shows in the 2022 season? Purchase season tickets today!