William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this April, which means his plays have been performed every summer for roughly 418 summers in a row. “More Shakespeare? I can no other answer make but no thanks,” 17th-century theater critic Edvard Bark once wrote about a summer Shakespeare festival in 1694. “I leaveth it to you bespawlers, cumbergrounds, and fopdoodles.”
Did I make that up? Perhaps. But the point stands: why is Shakespeare so popular in the summer? It’s not as though Shakespeare’s work is really evocative of summer, other than the fact that it is generally, universally beloved but also secretly a real drag, and unless performed almost perfectly, pretty much always a letdown.
I’m not saying Shakespeare isn’t great. He’s like the Beatles. Even if you say you don’t like his work, you’re lying to yourself, because you almost certainly like something that is either influenced by one of his plays or directly rips off one of them. But the summer thing doesn’t make much sense. I mean, sitting through one of the comedies while sweating like you’re on some sort of vision quest? Okay, sure. I guess. Doing that for one of his historical plays or a tragedy? I don’t know.
How did this happen? You have to look at the source of all of our best and worst ideas: New York. Free productions of Shakespeare’s work began in Central Park in the 1950s, and the conceit spread across the country. Dallas got its own in 1971, when Bob Glenn started the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, since shortened to Shakespeare Dallas. Raphael Parry, co-founder of the Undermain Theatre, has been the executive and artistic director since 2008. I’m sure their production of Richard III will be good. Better than good, probably. But seeing as it is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, I believe I will be eating a snow cone and watching a dumb action movie instead. Indoors.
A version of this article appears in the June issue of D Magazine.