Coming Home to Shakespeare

A director grew up with the Bard's plays woven into family life

When I was eight years old, and my sister was five, my mother took us to see a college production of Richard III. My parents had just divorced, we didn't have much money, and I suspect my mother was looking hard for something inexpensive to do with us.

Before we went, my mother explained the story, focusing, I suppose, on what she thought would matter to us most. She told us the play was about "a really bad man who killed little boys." All I remember now about the production is that Richmond, the conquering hero who defeats Richard at the play's end, had an enormous head of bright red hair. My sister woke up tired the next morning, and from her bed called out, "My kingdom for a school bus."

My mother took us to many Shakespeare plays, and we grew up thinking of them as entertainment--not art. We often sat in the very front row, which seemed to me a great privilege. I remember a production of Romeo and Juliet, when the actors came down from the stage and walked directly in front of us holding burning torches. We could feel the heat as they walked past us, and I still can summon the smell of the lamp oil. These plays were a part of our life together; it never occurred to us that they were difficult to understand.

Years later, when I was studying directing at Yale, I began staging my own Shakespeare productions--The Tempest, King Lear, and Twelfth Night. I felt at home in these worlds, at home with Shakespeare's language and his ways of thinking and seeing. There was a pattern to the plays I was choosing, but I couldn't see it yet.

My father had died the summer after I finished college. Looking back, I suspect I was more rootless, more uncertain about what direction to take in those first years after college, partly because of his absence.

I began to see that I was directing plays about my father. In The Tempest, I saw Prospero--the father--discovering that he needs to be forgiven, and I found a way to offer that forgiveness. In King Lear I saw Lear, another father, struggling at the end of his life, and finally forced to let go. In Twelfth Night, I found a world without parents, full of children uncertain of their own identities. At the end, Viola, Sebastian, and others find ways to move forward, live without the guidance and shelter of parents--to be adults.

I moved forward, too. Immediately after Yale, I got married and went to New York. Now I was ready to do what I could not do seven years earlier, when my father died. I directed Hamlet, seeing in it the story of a son brought to a stop by the loss of his father. For me the question was not whether Hamlet was crazy; it was how he could continue in the face of such grief. I mourned the loss of my father.

I continue to direct Shakespeare both professionally and with college students. Always, it feels like coming home, like being with family. These plays offer so many ways of looking at the world that they are always there for me when I need them; part of my work is to help audiences and students alike see their own lives in the plays as well.

I'm a parent now myself. I've begun watching the plays, sometimes in animated versions, with my six-year-old son, Eli.

He's playing Oberon in a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream at his after-school program, and he walks around the house saying, "Welcome, good Robin. Seest thou this sweet sight?" The other day he told me, "The most important things to Shakespeare are killing and loving." He thought for a moment. "I mean, it makes his plays good." Another moment. "Oh, I forgot about running away." And so it continues.

Daniel Elihu Kramer is working on his first film, Kitchen Hamlet, a contemporary setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet with a focus on family relationships. This spring, Kramer received tenure and was promoted to associate professor of drama.

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