Professor Emeritus Elliot Engel explained the enduring legacy of William Shakespeare in his April 2 Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “Shakespeare 400 Years Later: More Alive than Ever.”
“Although Shakespeare died in 1616, he is the greatest person who picked up a pen and wrote,” Engel said. “He’s our greatest writer and always will be. Because Shakespeare wrote plays, he wanted his words to roll over us as we listened to them.”
Engel, who has taught literature at the University of North Carolina and Duke, has received many awards for his scholarship and teaching. He has written 10 books, four plays, many articles and has lectured on all continents. His mini-lecture series on Charles Dickens ran on PBS television.
Engel’s presentation touched on the details of Shakespeare’s career.
“From 1590 to 1610, the years when Shakespeare wrote, a ticket to his plays cost only four pennies, incredibly cheap even in Shakespeare’s day,” he said. “Refreshments were sold at an inflated price inside the theater – oranges, meat pies and tomatoes. The meat pies and the oranges were eaten, but the tomatoes were thrown at actors who displeased the audience.”
According to Engel, the playhouse was in a slum, and most of the theatergoers didn’t have even a fifth-grade education. The poor people who couldn’t afford to pay four cents for a show paid one cent to stand at the front of the stage throughout the performance. They were called “groundlings,” and they bought many tomatoes.
To prevent chaos, Shakespeare had to hold these common people’s attention, Engel said. For this reason, his plays have lots of gore and pageantry. In the majority of his plays, because the groundlings were very familiar with fairy tales, fairy tales provide the motifs.
“No tomatoes were thrown during Shakespeare’s plays,” he said.
Shakespeare used simple words in such original and memorable phrases, Engel noted, that people still use them today – for example, “footloose and fancy free,” “high and dry,” “a piece of cake,” “don’t budge an inch,” “in a pickle,” “fair play,” “laugh yourself to stitches,” “too much of a good thing,” “through thick and thin,” “dead as a doornail,” “blithering idiot” and “all’s well that ends well.”
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For more information, visit morningforum.org.