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Luskin: Will In The 'Ville

William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago right about now. His exact birthdate is unknown, but his baptism was recorded on April 26, 1564. Shakespeare left neither letters nor diaries, and only eighteen of his plays were printed during his lifetime. The thirty-six plays that comprise what we consider his complete work were published in The First Folio of 1623, seven years after he died, but this lack of hard data hasn’t hindered a thriving industry in Shakespeare scholarship.

I live in Williamsville, a village within the town of Newfane named for William H. Williams, not William Shakespeare. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Williams of Williamsville was the major mill owner along the South Branch, as the Rock River was then known. According to the History of Newfane’s First Century , “the time and place of the erection of the first mill on the South Branch, and the circumstances connected therewith, are matters more of tradition than of definite knowledge.”

Nevertheless, and despite the lack of hard facts about either William Shakespeare or the very early history of Williamsville, a group of locals have been meeting monthly to read Shakespeare for roughly the last twenty years.

It’s a pretty loose group, without officers, by-laws or dues. Members take turns hosting an event – and anywhere from five to a dozen people show up with libations and various editions of The Complete Plays.

It can take us up to a half hour to arrive, quench our thirst, exchange news, and collectively remember what play we’re reading and where we left off. Inevitably, Myra, a retired English teacher and the doyenne of the group, scolds us to order, and we begin.

There’s no casting and no direction; we simply read the play of the moment, someone starting with whichever character speaks first, and everyone else taking a part by jumping in. Lately, we’ve been working our way through the Henrys, and each time we start we have to remind ourselves who’s a Lancaster and who’s Plantagenet. It wouldn’t be so confusing if all the characters didn’t have the same names: Edward, Richard, Mortimer – just as the first settlers of our village were Williamses, Merrifields, and Wheelers.

Even though the group is now making its way through the canon for the fourth time, the plays are simultaneously new and surprising as well as familiar. Human nature hasn’t changed much in four hundred years. People are variously motivated by power, greed, bad advice, lust, love – and not always in that order. Some characters achieve forgiveness and mercy; others die ignoble deaths. With Shakespeare, however, they do so in iambic pentameter, where the figurative language serves as the sixteenth-century equivalent of special effects.

While at least four of us are professional writers, the group includes visual artists, educators and miscellaneous others. All of us find Shakespeare’s plays wonderfully entertaining, which is more important than any details of his biography or the early history of our Vermont village. It’s our way of celebrating Will in the ‘Ville.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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