Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Just Call Him Snakespeare

Marissa Skudlarek provides a snake-a-licious dessert course to yesterday’s Harry Potter smorgasbord.

In yesterday’s blog post, Ashley Cowan provided an introduction to the traits of the four Hogwarts houses, and then we Sorted seven of our favorite playwrights. But what about the Big Guy, the man we celebrate every April but especially this April (because as of April 23, the world has been bereft of him for four hundred years), the playwright whose works haunt and taunt every other English-language writer, Mr. William Shakespeare? What Hogwarts house does he belong in?

Ashley’s and my Sorting of playwrights was inspired by this piece in The Toast about Sorting 19th-century British novelists. In the comment section of that piece, someone suggested that Shakespeare was a “Ravenclaw who hung out with Hufflepuffs for inspiration,” which I kind of love, because it makes him sound like a real-life version of his character Prince Hal: a reserved, cerebral type who was often found in the company of earthier, jollier folks.

But upon further reflection, isn’t Prince Hal a Slytherin who hangs out with Hufflepuffs at the pub? (Hal isn’t intellectual enough to be a Ravenclaw, and his “Herein will I imitate the sun” soliloquy is pure Slytherin cunning.) And – strange as it sounds at first – mightn’t Shakespeare be a Slytherin, too?

Don’t be shocked. J.K. Rowling’s novels certainly paint Slytherins in a very sinister light, but it seems kind of illogical for one-quarter of all British wizards to be assigned to a house that represents pure evil. Therefore, many Harry Potter fans take a revisionist line on Slytherin. According to the Sorting Hat, Slytherins are “power-hungry” and “ambitious,” but those qualities need not always be yoked to amorality or corruption. Voldemort is the most famous Slytherin, but not all Slytherins are Voldemort. What Slytherins have in common is ambition, drive, resourcefulness, flexibility, and the cunning (if not necessarily the poison) associated with their mascot, the serpent.

For proof that you can be a Slytherin and still a good guy, as well as a talented and word-drunk playwright, take a look at Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda’s public persona is upbeat, nerdy, earnest, and amiable – pretty much as far from Voldemort as you can get. But he is incredibly driven and accomplished (note the inspirational meme that says “Remember, you have just as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda”) and he identifies as a Slytherin.

He's got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

He’s got Professor Snape hair and a shiny green suit that makes him look like a snake. Yep. Definitely a Slytherin. (Photo credit: Sara Krulwich)

So, why do I think Shakespeare was a Snake? First, his plays deliver a fantastic rogue’s gallery of Slytherin villains and anti-heroes: Richard III, Prince Hal, Iago, Shylock, Edmund, Macbeth and his Lady. Indeed, Macbeth is basically a treatise on What It’s Like To Be Slytherin. These are incredibly memorable characters that created the template for the self-delighted, crafty, manipulative villains that we still see in movies and TV today. Shakespeare also enjoys playing with the audience’s sympathies, sometimes making us cheer these characters’ wicked deeds: the more evil Richard is, the more we love him. I think that any kind of playwright can write a Slytherin villain, but it takes a Slytherin playwright to make us like or sympathize with that villain.

Even many of Shakespeare’s non-villainous protagonists show the Slytherin traits of cunning, resourcefulness, and a willingness to bide their time till their plans come to fruition. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dressing up as a boy in order to train the man she loves to treat her better? Slytherin. All of Portia’s actions in The Merchant of Venice – mocking her suitors, waiting till the very last moment to save Antonio from the knife, and all that manipulative business with Bassanio’s ring in Act V? Totally Slytherin. And, while it may seem folly to sort as complex a character as Hamlet into a Hogwarts house, his feigning of madness in order to quietly pursue his goals is a very Slytherin move.

Shakespeare understood the dark side of human nature, even if he did not fall prey to it himself. He was an unusually empathetic Slytherin, to be sure, but a Slytherin nonetheless.

Shakespeare didn’t just write Slytherin characters well and frequently. Though much of his life is a mystery, what little we do know is consistent with a Slytherin Sorting. He was an ambitious writer and a shrewd businessman. He went from being a provincial nobody to being a leading shareholder in the king’s own company of players. His plays flattered the monarch and nobility; he enjoyed thinking about power, and he enjoyed being close to power. He clearly valued knowledge, but I think he valued it in a Slytherin way, as a means to the end of writing good plays, rather than valuing knowledge for its own sake, as a Ravenclaw does. It is notoriously difficult to discern Shakespeare’s own personality or political views from reading his plays; he was slippery, like a snake. And, at the end of his life, he had “Cursed be he that moves my bones” chiseled on his tomb, and isn’t that a Slytherin epitaph?

It’s also interesting to contemplate the Slytherin strain in Shakespeare fandom: I am of course speaking of the Oxfordians, who assert that Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by a nobleman rather than a glovemaker’s son from Stratford. In Harry Potter, the Slytherins are the only House obsessed with “blood purity” and aristocracy, and the Oxfordians seem to have a similar obsession.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, St. George’s Day, and popular tradition says that he was born on St. George’s Day as well. George, who according to legend slew a dragon or serpent, is the patron saint of England; and England, like Gryffindor, is represented by a red lion. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is almost a secular patron saint of England, but make no mistake: he was no lion. He was the serpent.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and Ravenclaw. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

Everything Is Already Something Week 17: How to Have a Nemesis

Allison Page has your name on her list.

Sherlock has Moriarty. Superman has Lex Luthor. Harry Potter has Voldemort. (Uh oh, I probably shouldn’t have typed his name.) And I have some girl named Sheila (that’s totally not her name). Having a nemesis is pretty common amongst both fictional characters and Allisons.

Sheila auditioned for a lot of the same parts I auditioned for – particularly on-camera stuff – and I hated it. I tend to audition, and then immediately put it out of my mind. But it seemed any time I allowed myself to have the thought “BOOOOOM! NAILED IT! ROLL OUT THE RED CARPET AND DRESS ME IN SEQUINS!”, I wouldn’t get the part…I bet you can guess who did. IT WAS SHEILA for those of you with no powers of deduction. It began to dawn on me that Sheila was just a better version of me. Talented. Taller. Thinner. Absolutely gorgeous. Shiny, frizz-free hair. (The hair is what really got under my skin. It was like a beautiful cascade of black velvet that made me want to throw myself into the river.) Fantastic timing. Really funny. Photogenic. Great range. Totally likeable. Comfortable in front of the camera. She was basically my worst nightmare all wrapped up in fashionable clothing and a sunny disposition. That’s the other thing – she seemed really nice. Isn’t that terrible? I wanted to dislike her, and she wouldn’t even let me. I mean, I don’t really know her so it’s possible that she’s just a horrible human being who likes to start fires in orphanages, but everyone we have in common seems to think she’s a sparkling angel and I tend to believe them.

(She(ila) who must not be named.)

She(ila) who must not be named.

About a year or so after I started considering her a threat, she moved away. I WAS PUMPED. Yes! Get out of here, go be amazing somewhere else! I sort of forgot about her eventually. Then, at a party, a newish friend of mine – let’s call her Juniper – says to me “Ya know, my friend is kind of obsessed with you.” I clearly found this a delightful shock. Naturally, I had to know more.

“What do you mean she’s obsessed with me?”

“Well, she just thinks you’re a better version of her and you’re going to take all the parts she wants.”

Yes, that’s right. The exact thing that I thought about Sheila, someone else thought about me. That’s just bananas. I couldn’t believe it. It blew my mind. I’ve never considered myself a threat to anyone, but now completely unbeknownst to me I was dangling over someone’s brain, stealing parts from her and running off into the night like the Hamburglar!

The truth is, I’ve had nemeses all my life. I sort of enjoy it. Particularly if they have similar aspirations, because instead of sitting around thinking about how much evil they’re doing, I’m actually just shining a light on my insecurities and faults. Yes, I do think that’s a good thing. I can’t be better at something if I think I’m already the best at it. There’s no inspiration there. No reason for growth. But if someone steps up and shows me something I don’t think I can do – then I want to do that thing. I want to figure out why they can do it, and I can’t. Or why I can, but they can do it better. What’s Sheila got that I don’t have, and why do I want it? And what can I do that she can’t? Because I promise you this – there’s always something you can do better than the next guy, no matter how shiny their hair is. Sheila’s existence caused me to try harder. Caused me to look more closely at my goals, and the steps I’m taking to achieve those goals. I’m a better performer because of Sheila, and she doesn’t even know it. (LIKE I WOULD EVER GIVE HER THE SATISFACTION OF KNOWING.)

(Hello, SHEILA.

Hello, SHEILA.

What would Sherlock be like if not for the existence of Moriarty? A guy who’s always right and has no obstacles apart from his opium use and the fact that he seems to have no sexual interest in anyone? YAWN. I want a hero who’s fighting someone, or some thing, or some force, or some idea, or themselves. Someone who’s striving for something. I want a hero with imperfections. It’s the job of their enemies to toy with those flaws, to exploit them, to test them, to keep them grounded in their fictional reality. Can you imagine what a dick Superman would be if there were no kryptonite? Just a guy with great hair who’s constantly on top of the world? Ugh, gag me. In the end, though I may have labeled Sheila as my nemesis, the truth is that I am my own nemesis, and I always have been. I look for my own flaws and try to correct them, or use them to my advantage somehow. And thank goodness for that, because my own personal forever-plateau sounds like a fucking nightmare. I need the Sheilas of the world to remind me that my work is never done.

I hope that the girl who sees me as her own Sheila is getting something out of it other than daydreaming about throwing me into a volcano as a glamorous ritual sacrifice. I hope that she thinks, “Okay, Allison got that thing I wanted…why did I want that thing, and how can I get that experience somewhere else? Are there reasons she may have gotten what I wanted? Are those things qualities that I’m able to work on, or is it something stupid like her hair is the right color?” (And we all know that sometimes it is totally the hair thing.) I’m completely fine with being someone’s Voldemort if that’s what works for them, though I’d obviously like to think that I’m a nice person and if she knew me she’d be like “Just kidding, I don’t want to kill you!”

Truthfully, when it comes to acting or writing or a bunch of other shit, the only person you can control is yourself unless you have access to a lot of booby traps.  You are your own tool, your own instrument of creation or destruction. Make sure you’re tuned up, so that when Sheila comes in, you don’t just hand everything over to her…you give her a good, solid fight. It’s what Harry Potter would do. Don’t try to be Sheila, just learn from watching her. I’ve spoken previously about professional jealousy in a slightly different way, mostly the “fuck ‘em, go your own way and don’t compare yourself to others” idea – which I think is still important, but there’s nothing wrong with observing the other people in your field, and applying those learnings to your own life. Or not applying them if they don’t…well…apply. A lot of times the annoying strengths we see in others are just the weaknesses we think we see in ourselves, and the quality I value most in other performers and writers and humans, is their ability to be self-aware. I can’t buy into a show if it doesn’t seem like the actor really knows who they are and what they’re workin’ with – and that’s what I want out of myself, too. I don’t want to let myself off the hook that way. It actually bothers me if I say, “I’m shitty at this.” And someone immediately pipes up with “NOOOOO, don’t say that!” because it’s important to me to know my weaknesses. You know what’s never going to help you improve? Never admitting that you could use improvement. And sometimes the best way to figure that out starts with grumpily narrowing your eyes at your computer screen when you see that someone got some shit you thought was meant for you. It’s okay; they’re probably doing it to someone, too.

Yeahhh, KEEP LAUGHIN', SLICK!

Yeahhh, KEEP LAUGHIN’, SLICK!

Don’t tear yourself apart for not being Sheila, just be the best you that you can be, and if she can help push you to do that, then that’s awesome. The great art of rivalry doesn’t make you a bad artist or a bad person – it just means you’re human. Sure, it’s nice to say “Let’s all applaud each other and buy each other cakes!” and believe me, I applaud others on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re the only ones who should be achieving that goal. It’s possible to clap heartily while thinking “You win this round, Ra’s al Ghul, but the Bat’s comin’ in hot next year!”

It’s not about feeling bad about yourself or wanting to take people down – it’s about encouraging a drive within you each day. Otherwise I’d just nap for weeks at a time. There’s a reason Sheila doesn’t know she’s my nemesis and that’s because it’s not for her. It’s for me. It’s not to serve her; it’s to serve me.

And it’s just really fun to have your own personal Newman.

You can see Allison acting in MENELAUS at the SF Olympians Festival at the Exit Theater November 7th, and you can see her short play THE GOLDEN APPLE OF DISCORD November 20th as part of the same festival. She’s also on Twitter @allisonlynnpage if you’re into that.