Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Shakespeare and Why He's the Best

This past weekend I took a little road trip down to the Utah Shakespeare Festival because I really like Shakespeare, and I live in Utah. As I was driving down, I started to think about how absurd Shakespeare's fame is. Summer Shakespeare festivals are the norm for the civilized world. I have always lived within driving (and in some cases, walking) distance of some or other "Shakespeare in the Park" production. But is there any other author or artist who enjoys that kind of celebration? There's the Mostly Mozart Music Festival in New York, but that's limited to New York. Poland has a Chopin festival, but once again, that's in Poland. If you do a search for "Christopher Marlowe Festival," all the results show performances of his plays within some larger Shakespearean festival. I've never heard of a Moliere festival or an Arthur Miller festival. But here in the middle-of-nowhere, rural Utah there is a full scale, functioning replica of the Globe Theatre and a 50 year old festival that attracts thousands upon thousands of guests every year.

Shakespeare's influence is as singular as his appeal is universal. But there are some people whom I deeply respect (Mark Twain, for example) and some people close to me who never caught the Shakespeare bug. And so, I'm going to write why I think Shakespeare is so awesome and completely deserving of the attention we give his works. 

I feel like so many people think they don't like Shakespeare because they were forced to read Romeo and Juliet in high school by a teacher who had no real familiarity or fondness for the text. (Fortunately, this wasn't the case in Ms. Clark's room.) And for most readers, just sitting down and deciding to read Othello won't do the trick. These are plays, and they're meant to be watched as professional actors help the audience interpret the text. It took me a long time before I could just read a Shakespeare play without having seen it first. But there are three evidences as to why Shakespeare's texts are worth the effort—three reasons why he is globally celebrated and feverishly studied. These are: his language, his characters, and his ideas.

Shakespeare's Language

Can you remember a time when you didn't know the line, "To be or not to be?" I bet you knew the phrase long before you knew its context, who wrote it, or even (and especially) what it meant. That most famous of all English sentences has a balance, an elegance, and a musicality that make it inescapably memorable and appealing, irrespective of its actual semantic content. But forget all the existential tension and questions that come after that line. Could you think of a more grammatically alluring way to consider suicide? Probably not. Shakespeare's works explode with writing on that level of mastery. How can we help but empathize with Macbeth's guilt and paranoia when he phrases it like this: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red."

But citing individual examples of how good Shakespeare's writing is will be fruitless because it is endless. I can think of two other ways to explore the quality of his writing besides pulling up quotes and saying, "Look how pretty this is!" The first is to look at how often Shakespeare is quoted. Every author and their grandmother quotes Shakespeare. Of course poets do it all the time (T.S. Eliot made a career out of it), but think about how many books, movies, and TV shows use Shakespeare quotes as their titles. The Sound and the Fury, Brave New World, What Dreams May Come, Band of Brothers, are just some of a long list. And you quote Shakespeare all the time—probably without knowing it. Ever said "assassination," "obscene," "lonely," "eyeball," "ode," "swagger," or "puking?" Those are all words invented by Shakespeare. Yeah, that's right. He straight-up invented those words. He also coined the phrase "household words." He was ridiculous.

And then my last testament to why his language is so good is that Shakespeare was kind of a hack. Almost none of his plays use plots of his own making. He fully ripped off other playwrights and historians and pilfered their works for stories for his plays. These were daylight robberies of a grand scale—not at all subtle. But tell me, are you familiar with any other version of Henry V? Does anyone give a flying terd about any other Othello? Absolutely not. When people "redo" one of his plays (as in ballets, operas, or popular films) they're always paying homage to Shakespeare's telling of those stories, not the original source material.

Shakespeare's Characters

This year's Richard III at the Utah Shakespeare Festival
But a problem arises when you try to attribute all of Shakespeare's greatness solely to his ability to turn a phrase. Shakespeare is widely read in translation. His plays have been translated into scores of languages and forced on high school and college students all over the world. As anyone who has worked with a foreign language knows, translation is a messy, problematic thing—especially in regards to poetry. Meter, rhyme, aliteration, and a host of other devices get warped or lost all together. For example, our celebrated "To be or not to be," is a gramatical impossibility in Chinese. One translation reads, "存,或毁" which means, "Existing, or destruction." It's okay. It gets the point across, but that is not likely to become The Most Famous Sentence in All of Chinese.

So if Shakespeare's language isn't preserved in translation, what is?

For one, his characters. Who can forget Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, or Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream? Even if we tried, could we ever escape the memory of Lady Macbeth? It's hard to do after she says things like:

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
That's an image and a person that doesn't casually saunter out of memory. 

In a letter to his brother, Van Gough wrote about his awe of Shakespeare's dramatis personae "But what touches me...is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare’s case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.” This has certainly been the case with Richard III. A host of historians and history buffs have formed societies to "clear Richard's name" because Shakespeare's villainous depiction of the monarch has so eclipsed the reality of the actual man. There's something intensely real and genuine about Shakespeare's characters that makes us feel like we know them, even to the point of tainting objective reality.

Speaking of characters tainting things, Iago. Iago is in a class I like to call "meta-villains." These are villains who are so convincing that they not only fool characters in the story, they fool the audience. (Think about the Joker in The Dark Knight. Lots of kids went away from that movie wanting to buy Joker lunch boxes and notebooks because he came off as being cool.) Do a Google image search for Othello right now. Go ahead; I'll wait for you. No doubt what you found was a lot of pictures of sexy, shirtless moors fondling Desdemona. Now do the same for "Romeo and Juliet," the archetypal romantic couple. You get a bunch of oil paintings, but hardly a shirtless Romeo. Judging by the results, you'd think R & J were the true lovers, while Othello and Desdemona were outrageous nymphomaniacs.
But Othello was an old man, and there's lots of evidence that even after he married Desdemona, they never slept together. In fact there's some question as to whether Othello could sleep with Desdemona. Othello was a lonely old man who found a loving companion and friend in Desdemona. I'll use his own, poignant words to describe their relationship, "She loved me for the dangers I had passed / And I loved her that she did pity them." They had a beautiful and profound marriage. Only one person every talks about Othello and Desdemona in a lewd way, and that's Iago. And why do we trust Iago? He tells us that he is lying, and we still believe it when he says to Desdemona's father, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe." Countless directors and actors have taken their cues for Othello from Iago, as evidenced by our Google image search.

(By the way, this is my favorite depiction of Othello. It's just five minutes, but James Earl Jones perfectly captures Othello and his love for Desdemona.)

Iago genuinely terrifies me. I can't help but think he's contributed to the stereotypes and racism against people of color, and if that's true, then he is a villain whose reach extends beyond the story itself. I don't think Iago himself believed that Moors had an unrestrainable libido, but he does such a convincing job selling his hate and racism that it can't help but be bought. Just a few months ago, I attended a conference where a woman presented a paper on how Othello showed the same type of mental illness as a porn addict. Unsurprisingly, the foundation of her argument came from Iago.

So yes, Shakespeare wrote characters who were real and beyond-real. Claudius, Ophelia, Falstaff, Prospero, even Romeo and Juliet. And it was the immortal Goethe who said that "All old men are King Lear."

Shakespeare's Ideas

But Shakespeare did more than just write the best language in history and create a numberless cast of richly human characters. He also is responsible for the U.S.A. 
You think I'm joking.

It was December 31, 1776. George Washington and the continental army were in dire straights. The war had been a hopless loss, and the entire continental government was broke. On top of this, every soldier’s commission would expire the next day. Washington stood before the men and begged them to reenlist. He even resorted to petty bribery, offering them a whole month’s extra wage if they would sign up for six more months. The drums rolled. No one stepped forward to reenlist. Finally, Washington got on his horse and delivered these lines: "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance."
I'll let David McCullough take it from here:

"Again the drums rolled. This time the men began stepping forward. 'God Almighty,' wrote Nathanael Greene, 'inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.'

"Now that is an amazing scene, to say the least, and it’s real. This wasn’t some contrivance of a screenwriter. However, I believe there is something very familiar about what Washington said to those troops. It was as if he was saying, 'You are fortunate. You have a chance to serve your country in a way that nobody else is going to be able to, and everybody else is going to be jealous of you, and you will count this the most important decision and the most valuable service of your lives.' Now doesn’t that have a familiar ring? Isn’t it very like the speech of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V: 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . . And gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here'?
 Washington loved the theater; Washington loved Shakespeare. I can’t help but feel that he was greatly influenced."

So there you have it. Money couldn't keep the army together; these were no mercenaries. Washington himself needed the help of someone more eloquent than he. The continental army couldn't have rallied itself if it weren't for the power of Shakespeare's ideas—the idea that even though a battle seems hopeless, there is a holy brotherhood in war, that some causes are worth the scars, that it is a duty, honor, and privilege to fight in our hour history has appointed, and that a failing army could seize what little strength they had left and dedicate their victory to future generations, to their families, and to their God.

 As an American, I say thanks for the pep talk, Will. You really helped us keep it together. 

But generals are not alone in using Shakespeare's ideas. 
Emmanuel Levinas, who was one of the keenest minds and greatest writers of philosophy in the twentieth century, had a profound respect for Shakespeare’s writing. Levinas wrote, “Allow me to return once again to Shakespeare, in whom I have overindulged in the course of these lectures. But it sometimes seems to me that the whole of philosophy is only a meditation on Shakespeare.” It seemed that in Levinas’s writings on death, which were many, that the subject was entirely inscrutable without relying heavily on Macbeth and Hamlet.


I hope this little essay has been helpful. If you're in the early stages of approaching Shakespeare, I hope this will help put him in context and serve as a motivation to keep working at it—because let's be honest. An appreciation of Shakespeare really does require work. If you're a seasoned Shakespearean, I hope there's some fact in here you hadn't heard before, or at least you've found my love of these works to be resonant with your own.

Shakespeare is everywhere, and therefore belongs to everyone. He's a world treasure, and his work represents the highest artistic achievement humans have ever been able to produce. If he had written only Hamlet or only written King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, the sonnets, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, or almost any of the Henries, we would have always celebrated him as the author of that one work. But what we have is a lifetime's worth of work that is worthy of the kind of study and enjoyment that could last several lifetimes. So, brush up your Shakespeare!

1 comment:

  1. Michael! You found me. And you seem well on your way to helping others find Shakespeare. Beautifully done--I especially like the bit about Washington. You should know that my words were definitely not written in doubt of you; they were meant to be self-deprecating and a somewhat humorous introduction to statistics on and theories about education that I wanted to share. I'm actually getting ready to teach Shakespeare again this fall, but I rather despair of having another class as entertaining, productive, and enlightening as the one we shared together last fall. I hope that all is well with you--