Anecdotal Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 57

The curses associated with the Scottish play. Using a real skull for the Yorick scene in Hamlet. Over the centuries, these and other fascinating theatrical anecdotes have attached themselves to the plays of William Shakespeare.
Many of these stories have been told and retold, over and over, century after century – with each new generation inserting the names of new actors into the story and telling the story as if it just occurred. "So, one night, David Garrick was backstage” becomes “So, one night, Edmund Kean was backstage,” which then becomes, “So, one night, Richard Burton was backstage.” And so on.  
Our guest, Paul Menzer, is a professor and the director of the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. His book Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History was published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare in 2015. He was interviewed by Neva Grant.  
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 20, 2016. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “Truths Would Be Tales, Where Now Half Tales Be Truths” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer.  It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had technical help from the News Operations Staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

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MICHAEL WITMORE:  From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director.

This podcast is called "Truths Would Be Tales Where Now Half-Tales Be Truths.” Theater exists to tell stories. And while this podcast is about theater, and it's about stories, it's not about the scripted drama onstage. Instead, it's about the other stories. The ones about what happens when actors onstage go off script, what goes on backstage, and what theater people do after the show ends each night.

Paul Menzer of Mary Baldwin College in Stanton, Virginia, has written a delightful new book about the anecdotes that, over centuries, have attached themselves to the plays of William Shakespeare. What he's found is kind of amazing. Many of these stories have been told and retold over and over, century after century, with each new generation inserting the names of new actors into the story and telling the story as if it just occurred. "So, one night, David Garrick was backstage" becomes "So, one night, Edmund Kean was backstage," which then becomes "So, one night, Richard Burton was backstage," and so on.

Paul's book is titled Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History, and he came in to talk about it with Neva Grant.


NEVA GRANT:  I think the best way to start this conversation, which is a conversation all about anecdotes, is with a story.

PAUL MENZER:  I will start with the story that started it all, for me at least. An anecdote I've heard probably over 25 or 30 years, but I will just give you one version of it.

GRANT:  Okay.

MENZER:  In the 1950s, two actors named Robert Newton and Wilfrid Lawson were performing in Richard III at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. And one Saturday, for a matinee, their agents came to town before the show, and the four men had a kind of pre-show lunch, during which they put a few bottles away.

And come show time, Robert Newton, who was playing Richard III, and so therefore has to open the show, walks onstage, or staggers onstage, rather, followed by a vapor trail of wine. And he approaches the edge of the stage and begins the famous opening lines to Richard III and he says, "Now is... Now is the winter... Of our discon..."

And before he can butcher another iamb, a voice, a woman's voice, rings out from the audience and says, "You, sir, are drunk."

And Robert Newton stares out over the footlights into the audience, comes down to the edge of the stage, and says, "Madam, if you think I'm drunk, just wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham."

GRANT:  But, as I understand it, you caught wind of this story by watching the Johnny Carson show.

MENZER:  That's right.

GRANT:  And it wasn't that actor at all, but an entirely different actor that this had happened to, someone that our audience probably knows better, which is the great British actor Peter O'Toole.

MENZER:  That's right.

GRANT:  Same story.

MENZER:  That's right.

GRANT:  So explain that a little bit.

MENZER:  Well, I became engrossed by that story, and more generally by theater anecdotes, by watching the Johnny Carson show back when I was 10 or 11, and would stay up late when I shouldn't have been watching that.

And I was absolutely enraptured by guys like Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, Richard Burton—even Oliver Reed, who would come out and tell these, what were to me, just brilliant, hilarious, original theater stories, including the one that I just recounted. Though of course, when I heard it, at the age of, say, 10 or 11, it was about Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris.

GRANT:  Right.

MENZER:  Then, flash forward to just a few years ago, an actor I work with told me the version that I just told you about Robert Newton and Wilfrid Lawson, and he insisted upon its singularity.

And at that point it struck me that I had heard this story over and over again over the years with different actors slotted into the template of its narrative.

And indeed, I went and did some research and found, maybe over the last 250 years, a dozen different versions of that same story, with maybe a dozen different actors in it.

GRANT:  Dating back how far?

MENZER:  Well, you know, the earliest version I found is a, sort of proto version of it, say in the seven, I think 1767.

And it's a story that David Garrick tells, that he was performing, not Richard III, but another history play, Henry VIII, and sent a note to the guy who's playing the Bishop of Winchester, that it was show time. And the actor playing the Bishop of Winchester sent him back a note saying "the Bishop of Winchester is getting drunk at The Bear, and damn your eyes if he will appear tonight.”

Now that's a somewhat different version of it, but then it shows up with a version with Edmund Kean in it. It shows up with a more obscure actor in the 18th century named Bailie Nicoll Jarvie. It shows up with Olivier. On and on and on, these actors continue to tell the same story over and over again.

And interesting, about Peter O'Toole. On the night Peter O'Toole died, not too terribly long ago, I think December 15, 2013, maybe, there was a production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in New York. And Stephen Fry, a great writer, anecdotalist himself, and a great actor, was playing Malvolio in that production. And he came out onstage after the show, to offer a sort of ad hoc eulogy for Peter O’Toole, who had just passed away. And he memorialized O'Toole by telling a number of theater anecdotes about him, including one beginning, "One time when Peter O'Toole was playing Richard III..." and ending in a punch line that you have already heard.

GRANT:  Right.

MENZER:  Yeah.

GRANT:  "If you think I'm drunk, you should see Lord Buckingham."

MENZER:  Exactly.

GRANT:  So, I guess, as you're beginning to piece this together, as you become a teacher and a scholar, you decide, "Well, wait. If this is just the one, there have to be more of these. There have to be more of these stories that have kind of worked their way through theater lore, over time, on up to the modern day." Right?

MENZER:  Correct, yeah. And I started to collect them. And what I found was that particular plays by Shakespeare, particularly the most popular, maybe even canonical or hypercanonical, plays by Shakespeare, each of them have one or two anecdotes that have followed it across the years. Dates change, names shift, but the story stays the same.

And I got very interested in thinking about, "Can we tell the history of Shakespeare in performance through the anecdotes that most durably attached themselves to those plays?" And then, "What is it about that particular anecdote that attaches itself to that particular play?”

Because I've become... I came to think that the attachment is not arbitrary, that perhaps this anecdote is ferreting out something that's, sort of, burrowed down in the body of the play.

GRANT:  It's commenting on the play in a way.

MENZER:  I think so, too. And so what I realized, as I began writing a book that I thought was a performance history, told through these anecdotes, what I've come to realize it was also... These anecdotes are a form of what I call "vernacular criticism" by the actors that appear in the plays. In other words, this is a form of literary criticism told through anecdotes by the actors who appear in the plays and notice something about the play, that the play can't quite express itself, but that the anecdote does.

GRANT:  I want to dive into the anecdotes really soon, but before we do, I just want to talk about a couple more theories about why these anecdotes might even exist. And the first one being people are just naturally curious about what happens behind the scenes in the theater, right?

MENZER:  Absolutely. I mean nothing is more tantalizing than a closed curtain. You know, if you took a heat map vision from the air of the stage, you'd see there's a lot more heat going on backstage, than often there is onstage.

And like the anecdote I just told, I opened with, it begins in the bar and moves to the stage, and so therefore reveals something about the off-stage life of these actors before they step onstage and become a character.

GRANT:  And, of course, these actors in their off-stage lives, are often larger than life characters.

MENZER:  And that is one thing that these attitudes are retailing, are giving us. They are a form of celebrity gossip, of course, but they extend the actor from just a character into a legend. And what makes an actor a legend is often what goes on offstage, not just what goes on...

GRANT:  Sure, sure. Then you have another really interesting theory about why these anecdotes evolved, and that is that theater, by its very nature, is repetitive and so, naturally, we want an anecdote like this. Something surprising, something unexpected, to kind of jazz it up.

MENZER:  I mean, I think the reason that actors tell them is that for all of its reputation for "different every night," liveness, ephemerality—theater is, as you say, a very repetitive endeavor.

I mean actors live literally prescripted lives. They have to live out that whole journey eight days a week—twice on Saturdays. And therefore, it is a sort of annihilatingly mundane, repetitious thing to do. And so I think what the anecdotes do, is introduce difference into repetition, offer the possibility that something else might happen tonight, than what's in the script.

GRANT:  Can you give me an example of that? Something that interrupts the action in an unexpected way, takes it off in an unusual direction.

MENZER:  There is an oft-told anecdote about Hamlet, particularly at the moment where Hamlet asks Rosencrantz to "play upon this pipe" and Rosencrantz insists that he cannot. And this anecdote shows up with John Philip Kemble, the Keans, Booths, on and on and on.

And the anecdote runs that during a provincial performance, it's always a provincial performance, when some star actor is touring the provinces and has taken on some supernumerary to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern...

GRANT:  An amateur.

MENZER:  An amateur, right. This is a key feature of the anecdote.

Hamlet insists that the amateur actor "play upon this pipe," and he does it with such vehemence, that the amateur actor finally says, "Well, okay, I will" and plays God Save the King or Lady Coventry's Minuet, or something like that.

GRANT:  Which totally stops things in its track.

MENZER:  Totally stops things in its track, and I'm fascinated that the earliest version of this anecdote that I found, what the tune that the amateur actor plays is God Save the King.

GRANT:  Right.

MENZER:  Which is the last song that Hamlet wants to hear. [LAUGH]

GRANT:  Right, right, and what a layered message there.

MENZER:  Yeah.

GRANT:  But it must have, I think, as you say in your book, it would have caused the audience to, you know...

MENZER:  It would have caused this English audience to stand, which is what one does during God Save the King, and then replay exactly what Claudius has done just moments earlier, rise during a performance of The Mouse Trap, and walk out.

GRANT:  And as you point out in the book, often these kind of anecdotes of surprise come up in the tragedies because the comedies leave a little more room for improvisation.

MENZER:  That's right. It was not my design, but I was surprised as I began this research that most of the materials that were coming up were from tragedies.

And I don't think it's an accident that the anecdotes gather around tragedies. And I think it has to do with those interruptions that, as a play is moving towards its tragic ends, there's a desperate need to insert a wedge of unpredictability into the play, to prevent it from completing in the way that we all know it's going to complete.

GRANT:  You know one of the anecdotes that our audience probably knows the best is the story, or, I guess I should say the curse, that hangs over the play Macbeth.

I think this is the one that has sort of made it out into the popular culture. How did that evolve? What's the story behind that?

MENZER:  Gosh, it's very interesting. This is where the project diverts a little bit from its template, in that with the curse of Macbeth, I ended up doing some debunking. Whereas most of the rest of the book is bunking. [LAUGH] Right? I wanted to sort of prolong and extend these anecdotes, but in the case of Macbeth, I went at it from on the other end, which was to ask "How did this particular anecdote evolve and endure?" Because, as you say, it probably is the best known anecdote about Shakespeare.

GRANT:  But for those people who don't know, let's just explain, really briefly.

MENZER:  Absolutely.

GRANT:  This is a curse where if you are, if you are in the theater, you are not to say the name of that play inside the theater. You call it The Scottish Play.

MENZER:  Or Mackers, or The M Play, or The Scot, yeah.

GRANT:  Right. Because if you say the name Macbeth, what will happen?

MENZER:  All sorts of things. All sorts of accidents will attend upon you. Sandbags will fall from the heavens, actors will fall through traps, people will break their legs, etcetera, etcetera, on and on.

GRANT:  Whether they're in that play or any other play, right?

MENZER:  That's right. But particularly, the production of Macbeth will become doomed if you say Macbeth inside the theater, other than, of course, with your scripted dialogue, which insists that you do.

And so, therefore, all sorts of counter rituals have been evolved to undo that curse. If you do say Macbeth in the theater, you can go outside, turn around three times, spit, and knock for readmittance. There's another theory that if you say, if you recite Portia's "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice, that will undo the curse, etcetera, etcetera.

So it's evolved this entire sort of folklore, fake lore, if you will, around the idea of the curse.

GRANT:  Why did it happen?

MENZER:  It's very interesting. In my book, one thing that I discovered is that the idea of the curse... When people talk about the curse, they always refer to it as "the ancient curse of Macbeth,” and they date it back to one of its very first performances, in the early 17th century. I could not find in my research any mention of the curse until about the 1930s. But from the 1930s onward, we always refer to it as "an ancient curse," even though it appears to be an early 20th century invention. In fact, in some of my research, I discovered that in the 18th century, the cursed play, the bad-luck play, was All's Well That Ends Well, not Macbeth whatsoever.

GRANT:  Yeah.

MENZER:  But I think that I have a little bit of a half-baked, maybe even quarter-baked, theory about how the curse theory evolved. I think in some ways it's a form of, you know, it's a form of publicity that arose during a particular production of Macbeth in the 1930s, during a particular production where a lot of things were, in fact, going wrong.

GRANT:  Yeah.

MENZER:  And this idea of the curse emerged. But I think, you know, and this is where... this is why I think that anecdotes are a form of dramatic criticism.

Macbeth, after all, is a play about disillusionment. Ultimately, we find out near the end of the play that all the things that felt mysterious about the play, not "of woman born," Dunsinane, the forest coming "to Dunsinane," that, in fact, they're quite banal.

GRANT:  Yeah.

MENZER:  Right? Macduff was not "of woman born"; he was the product of a caesarean birth. You know, it's not a marching forest, it's a bunch of soldiers with branches, right?

GRANT:  Yeah.

MENZER:  So the play disillusions us. It turns out the witches are not prophets, they're historians, right?

GRANT:  Right. The play strips away all that mystique.

MENZER:  The play strips all that, punctures all the magic that we believed in. And I think the curse is a way of reinflating the play.

GRANT:  So let's move on to another anecdote, or really, just a series of anecdotes. Back to Hamlet and the skulls.

MENZER:  The skulls.

GRANT:  Yes, or the skull, or over time, the many skulls.

MENZER:  The many skulls...

GRANT:  That appear in the scene with Yorick in the graveyard.

MENZER:  One of the most enduring anecdotes about Hamlet, productions of Hamlet, concerns the realness of the skull.

Very, very early on in the play's history, there began to be criticism of actors using real live skulls, or real dead skulls, right? Rather than a prop.

And this story of the real skull in Hamlet endures, endures, endures. A recent example is a 2008 production of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company starring David Tennant, in which a story ultimately began to circulate that David Tennant was not using a fake skull, but using a real skull, for Yorick. And it was the skull of a pianist named Tchaikovsky, Andrei Tchaikovsky, who had bequeathed his skull to the RSC, to be used for productions of Hamlet in the 1980s. And other actors had rehearsed with the skull before, including Mark Rylance, but David Tennant was apparently the first actor to use this skull onstage.

Now, once news got out, it created kind of a stir and headlines and huge kerfuffle. And the director of Hamlet, who's now the executive director, the artistic director of the RSC, Gregory Duran, said, "Well, we've replaced it with a fake skull.” Just to sort of quiet the hubbub.

So when the show moved to London, they had replaced the real skull with a fake one, except that, when the show finally closed, Duran revealed they actually had never replaced the fake skull. But, of course, the point here is that the audiences don't know the difference.

GRANT:  Right.

MENZER:  You cannot tell the difference, as an audience member, between a real skull and a fake one. And for me, what that story, what that anecdote, rehearses is Hamlet's preoccupation with the difference between seems and is.

He says, No, madam, I do not "seem" sad. I am sad. Right? I don't seem melancholy or mourning for my father. I am melancholy and in mourning for my father.

But the very fact that he draws attention to the fact that mourning can be performed gets at his problem, of sincerity verses insincerity.

GRANT:  So the authenticity of the skull on the stage, becomes a way of... Like almost like a footnote, a way of commenting about that very phenomenon.

MENZER:  Beautifully put, yeah. It is a footnote. It’s a way for actors... that anecdote sort of becomes a way, it's a kind of glow at the edge of the play that sort of expresses this kind of anecdotal unconscious that the play has. This concern over the realness of the prop that stands in for Yorick's.

GRANT:  But you know, what's so interesting about this anecdote is that it sounds like unless the news gets out, that it is a real skull, as happened in that account you just gave, it’s really more for the actors than for the audience. Right?

MENZER:  That's right. That’s right, I mean when Mark Rylance, who I said rehearsed with the skull, ultimately rejected the idea of using it in a performance, he said that he couldn't get past the idea that it was a real skull, and that it was meant to play Yorick. Which means that in some ways skulls can't even play skulls onstage, right?

But it is for the actor, because as an audience member, the audience has to be told that something is real, to know that it is real. Right?

GRANT:  Yeah.

MENZER:  Otherwise, it's just a prop.

GRANT:  Right.

MENZER:  Right? So again it's a way of dilating over this problem in the play, between the real and its resemblance.

GRANT:  And again, as you point out, this is not the first instance of a live, or of a real skull appearing in the play. That, too, dates almost all the way back to Shakespeare's time, right?

MENZER:  Yes, that's exactly right. I mean there's many, many instances of real skulls being used in performance. And there are many instances too, interestingly, of people bequeathing their own heads to play Yorick.

At the University of Pennsylvania, in their rare book room, they have the skull of a man named John Reed. Now, John Reed was a gaslighter, a lamplighter, at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, which is the longest continuously operating American theater. And in his will, he very specifically bequeathed his skull to play Yorick, and so it did for many, many years.

You can now look at the skull in the rare book room, of all places. It's strange that a skull would be in a rare book room, except that it makes for a good read, because when the skull comes to your table, the skull has writing on the top of it. And what is written on the top of it are the names of famous American and British luminary actors who performed Hamlet to this skull over the years. Charles Kean, Edwin Booth, Edmund Forrest, on and on. So these stars have sort of literally overwritten the skull that was meant to play Yorick.

But this goes on and on. There’s many instances of people bequeathing their skulls to play Yorick.

GRANT:  And these are all such fascinating stories. I mean, how did you find all this information? Where did you do your research? What kind of sources did you find?

MENZER:  Well there's a number of places, because if you're not worried about the facticity of them, the factualness of them, it doesn't matter where you find them. So, I found them in actor memoirs, biographies of actors, letters from actors. The Folger Shakespeare Library has a huge cache of theatrical scrapbooks.

Now, these theatrical scrapbooks fall into several categories. Many theaters in the 18th and 19th century, in, I guess, a kind of early form of a clip service, seem to have employed somebody to go through the daily newspapers, which if you're Drury Lane in London in the 18th century, probably means seven to eight different newspapers. And some functionary's job was obviously to go through the newspapers and clip out everything about the theater on any given day.

GRANT:  That's not the worst job in the world.

MENZER:  It's not the worst job in the world. And so these scrapbooks that have been kept for decades, and decades, and decades for Drury Lane, the Theatre Royal, the Haymarket, etcetera, are just a fascinating compendium. Many of them theater reviews, of course, but they're also sort of tidbits, gossips, greenroom chatter, that sort of thing about the lives of actors, and I found a lot of anecdotes there.

GRANT:  As you just pointed out, you were not doing serious fact checking. What was the word you used? The "facticity."


GRANT:  Right. So, as you pointed out, you were not on a mission of determining whether all of these stories were factual. Because I think, for starters, that would have probably made your head explode. But I think, even more importantly, I mean that really wasn't your purpose here to say, "Well, this one happened, and this one didn't."

MENZER:  No, I was... I had no interest whatsoever in verifying the factualness or the facticity of an anecdote, which, in fact, would seem to violate the very idea of the anecdote. I mean fact checking an anecdote would have seemed beside the point.

GRANT:  But at the same time as you pored over all these diaries and scrapbooks and things, you know, certain things must have become clear to you over time. Like, “Well, that one probably never happened. This one probably happened once and then was just embellished and inflated over time.” I mean you must've, kind of, even in your own mind, started to form categories of these stories.

MENZER:  There is a spectrum of plausibility here. I mean, you know, I believe that people have bequeathed their skulls to play Yorick in Hamlet. I mean, I have held the skull of John Reed and seen Edwin Booth's name written on the top of it, right? I mean I think that actually happened.

GRANT:  Right.

MENZER:  You know, one of the more coherent bodies of anecdotes that I explore have to do with Othello. Which, when Othello was played by, you know, as it was for hundreds of years, a white man in blackface, the anecdotes that attend upon Othello are all about the transfer of the blackface makeup from the actor playing Othello to the woman, or the young boy, playing Desdemona.

Now for me... Now, first of all I believe that that actually happened, right? I mean that is a cosmetic difficulty that attends upon blackface performance. But there are many, many anecdotes about it that do extrapolate upon it, and you'll read anecdotes that "Well, by the end of the play, Desdemona was nearly as black as Othello."

Which, of course, when you sort of start putting some pressure on that anecdote and sort of palpating a little bit, it's pretty clear what's going on there, right? This is an anecdote that is interested in racial mixture, miscegenation. The transfer of the makeup becomes a proxy way of talking about racial exchange.

GRANT:  But it's fascinating, because again it gets back to your point about anecdotes being a commentary on the play. What could be a more rich metaphorical image than that, right?

MENZER:  You know, and that, that was one of the first body of anecdotes I started working on. And as I said, that is a very coherent, and I think pretty clear, example of a body of anecdotes that have endured over hundreds and hundreds of years, that are a way of talking about something that is thematically central to the play, but that is also a theatrical technical problem.

And in fact, what happens, too, is in some strange way, the blackface makeup becomes a way of keeping the bodies of Othello and Desdemona separate. There’s a famous anecdote that Ellen Terry tells about playing Desdemona, when she was alternating with Booth and Henry Irving, playing Othello and Iago. And Irving and Booth would alternate.

And she talks about when she played it with Irving, she says, "I was, by the end of show, I was nearly as black as he." But, she says, when Edwin Booth played it, he would, as he put it, hold a piece of fabric or tapestry in his hand. So, as he says, "I shall never make you black," you know, in a sort of decorous way. But the idea of a blackface actor saying to his Desdemona, "I shall never make you black," is a way that the anecdote is retelling the play. It’s an interesting way.

GRANT:  As long as we're on the subject of veracity, can we cycle back to the drunken Richard III story, and what's your sense about that? I mean, which of those many stories? I mean, it does kind of have an element of truth to it. You can certainly imagine it happening, right?

MENZER:  Absolutely. And you know, tales of drunken actors range across the canon. You know, not restricted to Shakespeare or his tragedies, whatsoever. And so it's certainly worth thinking about. Like, why do we want this to be true of actors? Like, why do we want the idea that the actors are getting drunk before the matinee, or you know, or during intermission?

Many, many anecdotes of actors being able to nip out during intermission to the pub next door, put down a couple of pints, and be back for the second act after intermission. And I think, sort of, one of the questions is, "Why do we want that to be true?" And I think probably it speaks to our awe at their sort of effortless mastery, of their ability to switch on and switch off out of their actorly persona, and into their character.

GRANT:  But it also gets to this notion that if you go to a play knowing already that everybody's going to die at the end, if it's a tragedy, it's nice to know that something might happen during intermission that, you know, makes things a little more unpredictable, right?

MENZER:  That's absolutely right. I mean, you know, 99 percent of the time, the play is going to go the way the play is designed to go. I mean, we rehearse very hard, we block things, we get things set, we have technical rehearsals, actually to make sure something doesn't go wrong. And so, the idea that the actors are having a drink in intermission does again introduce that wild card.

GRANT:  Are we still making anecdotes? Or at least embellishing and adding to the ones that already exist?

MENZER:  Absolutely, I mean you know, the latest body of anecdotes that are beginning to, sort of, rise up out of the theater are, of course, anecdotes about cell phone usage, right? So a new form of interruption is now being, sort of, retailed and retold through anecdotes. And so yes, this is actually happening, but the anecdotes will begin to, or have already begun to, emerge of actors who answered the phone in character, etcetera, etcetera.

And you know, I mean, you know for a play like Richard III, which Kevin Spacey recently toured the world in and played Richard, quite famously. There’s a lot of anecdotes about Richard III, not just about drunken Richards, but about injuries caused by performing the hump, or performing the limp.

And so, when Kevin Spacey was touring with his Richard III, he would go on Oprah. He would go on Ellen, and tell these anecdotes about how famously, at the end of Spacey's Richard III, he was hoist to the heavens by his ankles during his slaying at the end of the play. And he would go on these talk shows and tell this anecdote where the audience would gasp as he was hoist to the heavens by his ankles, but he said that was for him, finally, a sort of chiropractic opportunity to straighten his spine out, because he had been hunched over for two and a half hours.

And so this is a classic anecdote. At the moment when the audience think the actor is actually imperiled, that's the moment where he's finally relaxed, right? But that story of actors injuring themselves playing Richard III goes way, way back.

GRANT:  But there, too. It makes total sense that that would happened. These poor guys who would have been, you know, doubled over.

MENZER:  It’s got a ring of plausibility to it. Just enough, just enough. It’s not a myth; it's not obviously not true.

GRANT:  Right, because again, those anecdotes don't attach themselves to Hamlet. They don't attach themselves to Romeo and Juliet. They attach themselves to the play where it would be most plausible that that would happen, quite possible.

MENZER:  That's right. I mean, there's sort of two things to say about that, right?

I mean, obviously, in some ways, the anecdotes that attach themselves to a particular play have to do with the opportunities that the play affords. There are skull anecdotes in Hamlet, because there are skulls in Hamlet. It would be surprising, although wonderful, to find skull anecdotes about A Midsummer Night's Dream, but you don't. There are stories about actors injuring themselves playing Richard because of the nature of the play.

At the same time, though, well  we have to kind of say, "Well, obviously these anecdotes arise because of the opportunities the play affords. It is still the case that certain elements, certain qualities of the play, produce anecdotes. I mean, Hamlet, for instance, at one point in the play calls for his "tables"—his commonplace book that he wants to write something down in. There are no anecdotes, for instance, about an overly literal prop master who pushes a table out onstage or something. I mean, you can make up anecdotes about these plays, but, you know, they don't seem to have endured. So I'm really interested in those anecdotes that endure.

GRANT:  Well, thank you so much for a fascinating conversation.

MENZER:  Oh, it has been my pleasure, and as you can probably tell, the material is marvelous, and I have literally hundreds and thousands of words of anecdotes still sitting in my laptop, waiting for some form of expression.

GRANT:  It's another book.

MENZER:  It is another book.


WITMORE:  Paul Menzer is a professor and the director of the Shakespeare in Performance graduate program at Mary Baldwin College in Stanton, Virginia. His book Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History, was published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare in 2015.

He was interviewed by Neva Grant. "Truths Would Be Tales Where Now Half-Tales Be Truths" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had technical help from the news operations staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.