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Shakespeare’s Benedick had an Australian accent.

September 6, 2015


Re-reading Shakespeare, you can’t help but have voices in your head for selected passages.  Memories of past productions flood the reading experience so that there’s an auditory quality to particular speeches drawn from powerful performances.

But re-reading Much Ado About Nothing didn’t remind me of any actor or performance.  It reminded me of being an undergraduate student again and listening, in particular, to this speech.

This can be no trick: the
conference was sadly borne. They have the truth of
this from Hero. They seem to pity the lady: it
seems her affections have their full bent. Love me!
why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censured:
they say I will bear myself proudly, if I perceive
the love come from her; they say too that she will
rather die than give any sign of affection. I did
never think to marry: I must not seem proud: happy
are they that hear their detractions and can put
them to mending. They say the lady is fair; ’tis a
truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous; ’tis
so, I cannot reprove it; and wise, but for loving
me; by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor
no great argument of her folly, for I will be
horribly in love with her. I may chance have some
odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me,
because I have railed so long against marriage: but
doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat
in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.
Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of
the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?
No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would
die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I
were married. Here comes Beatrice. By this day!
she’s a fair lady: I do spy some marks of love in

Wilbur Sanders, university lecturer in Renaissance drama, was one of the great interpreters of Shakespeare for me.  A somewhat brawny and grizzled presence wearing a battered flying jacket and sporting a resonant Australian baritone he made this speech meaningful to me.  I don’t even have a picture of him. Which doesn’t matter, because I can see him perfectly in my mind’s eye.

Sadly, he’s no longer with us.  Author of The Dramatist and the Received Idea and (with novelist Howard Jacobson) of Shakespeare’s Magnanimity, he had an astonishing eye for detail, detail that with the right pitch, the right delivery, and the right receptive environment – was transformative.  I remember a wonderful lecture of his (based on work he’d done with Jacobson) which demonstrated that “Gentle Madam, No” was the most important line in Antony and Cleopatra.   And must of his persuasive power lay in his powers of delivery.  His was a rhetorical, performative power that didn’t warp or overdetermine the meaning of words, but which gave them life and meaning such as I’d never heard.

As a performer, Wilbur Sanders had a deadly seriousness to him, which made him appropriately hilarious on occasion.  When reading from Shakespeare, he conveyed, above all,  assurance and a sort of moral authority that derived its (Sam and Ben) Jo(h)nsonian authority from a barely repressed imperative of sincerest love.

There’s something rather odd about any assertion that an academic can be a better “interpreter” of Shakespeare than any actor.  Perhaps my own experience that no actor has interpreted certain moments from Shakespeare better than Wilbur Sanders simply demonstrates that I haven’t seen enough live productions of Shakespeare.  I’ll happily take that medicine.  Without question, I need to see and hear more actors.

But Benedick in particular, will always, as far as I’m concerned, be a grizzled Australian wearing a flying jacket, leaning heavily against a lecturn and reading the lines with supreme assured experience and understanding.


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  1. Beautiful. Sanders must have had something of the actor in him, which the best profs do. But a professorial turn in an actor is probably the kiss of death…

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