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World Premiere of UNSILENT NIGHT at Next Act Theatre. Photo by Ross Zentner.
21 June 2023

What if the Bard’s Characters Really Were Real? New Play Places Them on the World’s Stage, Living in the Here and Now

Mike Fischer, for World Premiere Wisconsin
What if the Bard’s Characters Really Were Real? New Play Places Them on the World’s Stage, Living in the Here and Now Image

Like every fan of Ontario’s Stratford Festival, playwright Rick Bingen has experienced the magic of walking around a smallish town and regularly bumping into the actors who ply their trade each night on the four stages comprising the best summer theater festival in North America.

During one of his pilgrimages there with his wife, Bingen got the idea that would evolve into Here Come the Jesters, which will receive a staged reading this Friday night in Milwaukee as Bard & Bourbon’s entry in the World Premiere Wisconsin festival.

“I was thinking: what if these actors in Stratford were actually the characters they played, living year-round in town?,” Bingen said, when I spoke with him one week before his play’s debut.

Bardolaters already imagine Shakespeare’s characters as immortal. What if they actually are? How, as they negotiate the slings and arrows of daily life, would they change? And if such changes mean that we no longer recognize them, are they still themselves or something else? If we stopped paying attention to them, would they cease to exist?

Playwright Rick Bingen.

Complex Characters, Multiple Selves

Unfolding in a small downtown diner renowned for its poutine, Bingen’s play revolves around five Shakespeare characters: Touchstone, Em (“a mix of Lady Macbeth and the Dark Lady,” Bingen said), Benedick, Iago, and Viola (who doubles as “other Viola,” in a year when the festival is also performing Shakespeare in Love).

To expand the range of characters who can strut across this diner’s stage, Bingen adds a sixth character, playing both the Bard and numerous additional Shakespeare characters, ranging from the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Falstaff.

Those characters have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare himself. Sure, they recognize that he made them. But like every child coming into its own, they chafe against all it means to live up to a parent’s expectations. Some of them – like Falstaff – have grown so big in their breeches that they wonder whether Shakespeare would even exist without them.

It’s all played for laughs, even as this tension between author and characters raises larger existential as well as literary questions about whether and how one’s progeny can or will establish a life of their own.

Must a Benedick always play and present in the same way? Can he ever be more than how he appears in the script? Why can’t he have a fleshed-out back story? Must he continually knuckle under to some killjoy purist understanding of who he is and supposedly always was, endlessly reciting the same lines while reprising a never-changing story?

“Not everyone who calls themselves a purist is really all that pure,” Bingen said, noting as an example that “the productions they’re seeing probably use female actors,” as would not have been true in Shakespeare’s time.

“There might be 20 productions of Midsummer playing on the same day,” Bingen said. “Each would have characters played in a different way. When played by different people in different ways, we come to see these characters differently, too.”

Those differences aren’t just liberating for an audience, as its own understanding of the roles we ourselves might play in the world expands, through watching the teeming multitudes within a Iago or a Falstaff.

Such differences – and the resulting possibilities – are liberating for the Bard’s characters, too.

“Lady Em is between productions of Macbeth,” Bingen said, citing one example. “Her character doesn’t like where she wound up at the end of that play. In my play, she’s doing as much as she can to be different so that she can get away from that.”

Refashioning the Self

Each of us engages in such refashioning of the self, every day – even though such protean impulses exist in restless tension with the imprisoning parameters of blood and country, family and career, the struggle to make ends meet and our collective terror at meeting the end.

Why should Shakespeare’s characters be any different?

In Bingen’s play, it isn’t just (Lady) Em who is unhappy with the cards she’s been dealt. Iago can’t make sense of what Coleridge described as his motiveless malignity. Viola is jealous that Shakespeare is spending so much time with the other Viola. Just as Jaques had predicted, Touchstone is chafing at the constraints imposed by married life with Audrey.

Speaking of married life, Bingen’s Benedick has just learned from the festival’s artistic director that Much Ado will be on the docket in two years. And while he himself thinks that’s much too soon to begin getting back into character, Beatrice responds by kicking him out of the house.

Beatrice is clearly a method actor to the core, and Bingen’s script continually spoofs method acting’s quixotic and frequently naïve belief in the sort of essentialist character Beatrice is trying to create. Conversely, Benedick rightly wonders if he and Beatrice might grow into something different.

“He’s out of sync with his show’s characters,” Touchstone says of Benedick. It’s a funny line, and it rings true to the tempestuous, on-again, off-again nature of the Beatrice and Benedick relationship. But it also poses a fundamental challenge to how these characters exist – and whether we’re giving them the oxygen they need to stay alive.

Last month in Chicago, I watched the world premiere production at About Face Theatre of Will Wilhelm and Erin Murray’s excellent, thought-provoking Gender Play, or What You Will; in queering characters like the Midsummer Helena and Juliet, it didn’t so much break with Shakespeare as extend him, through persuasive (re)readings of characters I’d thought I knew.

As is continually true with Shakespeare’s characters, they’d proven more flexible than I’d imagined.

Killing Shakespeare

If we freed those characters to see new things in themselves and each other, how might it affect their relationships? If Benedick and Beatrice hope to last, they’ll need to make microadjustments every day. If we imagine how such characters do so beyond the world of the play, might it not help them – and us – better understand how they surmount their differences to come together?

There’s more:

Why can’t a character like Benedick be given such opportunities to stretch and grow? Would such extensions of who we imagine Benedick is actually betray Shakespeare? Or would those extensions allow us instead to better appreciate how malleable his characters are, as they expand into a fuller understanding of themselves and thereby help us make better sense of them?

And finally:

If the Shakespeare we’ve placed on a pedestal would actually reject such expansive readings, is it any wonder that his characters decide to pull him down so that they’ve got more room to maneuver? Is it any wonder that Bingen’s play evolved from its original conceit into a murder mystery involving which Shakespeare character kills the Bard so they themselves can live?

“I had no idea I’d be writing a murder mystery,” Bingen said. But maybe he – and Will’s characters – have the right idea. “I haven’t written a new play in over 400 years,” Shakespeare complains at one point in Bingen’s play.

Were Shakespeare’s characters to kill the off-putting image of Shakespeare as celestial genius, perhaps he’d be freed to write again. Perhaps he might even create a play akin to Here Come the Jesters, in which his characters are liberated from Stratford’s theaters so that they can wander about town, picking up some of the life experience they need to round themselves out on stage.

Practicing the flexibility that his script preaches, Bingen’s only restriction on casting Here Come the Jesters is that Em be “feminine presenting.” Hence Bard & Bourbon veteran Grace DeWolff will play Benedick; Ro Spice-Kopischke, who identifies as gender queer, will play Shakespeare.

“It’s important to see Shakespeare plays taking chances,” Bingen said, referencing a controversial adaptation of Richard II – set in New York’s Studio 54 during its hedonistic heyday – that just opened in Stratford. “It’s important to me to build in flexibility, and to hopefully see the plays fresh,” he continued.

Like the rest of us, Bingen’s characters worry about death. But as Benedick and Touchstone conclude in one conversation, they’ll only die if we in the audience forget them. As Bingen rightly suggests, we’ll only do that if such characters cease to live.

True to its title, Here Come the Jesters plays as comedy. But it’s also playing for keeps, with the fate of some of the world’s most memorable characters on the line. Will we suffocate them in our well-meaning but misinformed reverence? Or will we join Bingen, partying with them into the night as they glory in being alive?


The world premiere staged reading of Here Come the Jesters takes place this Friday at 7:30 pm at Sunstone Studios, 127 E. Wells in Milwaukee. For more information, visit

Meet Mike

Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at

Mike’s work as WPW’s Festival Reporter is made possible through the sponsorship of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). Learn more: