As the only producer of outdoor theatre in the St. Lawrence Seaway area, Prescott’s St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival fulfills a key role in the artistic life of the region.
What if William Shakespeare (1564-1616) could time travel? What if, during one of his many voyages, he visited us, here in Prescott? If he were to walk along Water Street, stop by the Red George Public House for a pint, and catch the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in action at the Kinsmen Amphitheatre, he might feel completely at home!
While he’d miss seeing “alewives” or “a brewers company” in town, he’d marvel at how cold a 21st century beer can be served. He might question why a bed couldn’t be rented for the night from the Public House, but he’s an accommodating fellow. He’d breathe a huge sigh of relief upon spotting the Amphitheatre, and would be pleased that the Puritans hadn’t closed the theatre or changed it to an indoor stage.
Historians tell us that relatively little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life…that he was elusive, unlike his contemporaries Sir Philip Sidney or Edmund Spencer. With the help of some Elizabethan history, however, we can imagine his circumstances and what excited the spirited and talented playwright.
Elizabethans found themselves somewhere between the Middle Ages and the age of the modern world. They believed and questioned, praised and criticized, and acted with great decorum and didn’t. This was the age of Elizabeth I, who inspired her people to live in peace after centuries of feuding…who chopped off your head if you didn’t live in peace…and who cared not if you were of high birth or low so long as you had talent.
There is no better way to understand the contrasts of this period, than to compare the tumultuous, sometimes brutal lifestyle of its people to the exquisite songs they wrote and enjoyed singing. For the Elizabethan gentleman, skill in music was as necessary in life as skill in sport and in reading Latin.
The 16th century was the great age of patronage. Freed from the burdens of civil war, noblemen were as eager to surround themselves with writers as writers were to secure patrons.
The 1590s were among the most exciting years in the history of English theatre thanks to a group of young playwrights known as the University Wits. Sensing the Elizabethan thirst for drama, these brilliant writers began thrilling London audiences with plays such as Thomas Kyd’s “Spanish Tragedy” appreciated for its treatment of murder and revenge, and Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” and “The Jew of Malta” whose heroes went crashing as a result of their thirst for power.
The Elizabethan theatre was a round, open-air structure with an apron stage that extended well into where the audience was standing or sitting. This added greatly to the excitement of going to the theatre, and Elizabethans were as much participants as they were spectators.
Though not a university man, Shakespeare stepped into this tradition with little trouble. He was considered an upstart by the established writers of the day but soon found his own London audiences with early romances and farces such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “The Merchant of Venice”, and “The Taming of the Shrew”.
No one understood better than Shakespeare how to explore the Renaissance idea that individual human beings were fascinating subjects. He reigned supreme in his understanding of the human condition and in his ability to find words that accurately portrayed his characters.
There are no records to tell us when Shakespeare’s plays were written, but it had to have been during two decades of odd hours when he wasn’t running a theatre company in London, building The Globe, training actors, performing Ben Johnson’s work, or squeezing in court performances. His hard work paid off. When Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon a few years before his death, it was to the second largest house in the town.