Four hundred years later how can he be so dead to so many English readers?
“Ophelia” (circa 1851) by John Everett Millais (Tate Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)
We’ve just emerged from what could reasonably be called the winter of our discontent — Islamo-terrorists taking casualties against token resistance, entitled barbarians on campus indulging in snits and tantrums (this is just the faculty — the students are worse), a nasty-beyond-imagining presidential campaign — and there seems to be no one around capable of making glorious summer of 2016.
So perhaps this would be a good time take a moment to recognize and honor the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (Saturday the 23rd), the man who probably understood our nature better than anyone ever has, and who reveals us to ourselves in insightful and entertaining ways that still connect with us centuries later.
The connection carries some difficulties and requires some effort, the language having changed a good deal since the Elizabethan period. Readers of the plays will often have to consult the gloss at the bottom of the page for translation, while play-goers without a pretty decent Elizabethan vocabulary will from time to time be obliged to parse meaning from context, and from the actors’ delivery. But the required effort pays off handsomely.
Shakespeare had no political or religious agenda, partly because this was his nature, and partly because being wrong about either of these in the police state that was Elizabethan England could be worth one’s head. His plays and poems were not about ideas, but about people. And what a marvelous universe of characters he gave us. Some noble, some villainous, some squalid, some funny, some sad, all memorable: Hamlet, Lear, Othello, various Henrys, Nick Bottom, Rosalind, Touchstone, Portia, and Macbeth, just to scratch the surface. There are great lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Katherina and Petruchio. Great villains like Iago, Edmund, and Richard III. Great comics, whose humor is either intentional, Falstaff, or unintentional, Malvolio. The only writer from any time or any place with a comparable world of unforgettable characters is Charles Dickens.
Bookshelves fairly groan with biographies and other treatments of Shakespeare and his art. One of the better ones is 2004’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. In his preface, Professor Greenblatt says Shakespeare’s works…
… appeal to the learned and the unlettered, to urban sophisticates and provincial first-time theater-goers. He makes his audiences laugh and cry; he turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and beggars.
Just so. No one not familiar with Shakespeare’s work should avoid him on the fear that he’s too intellectual to be fun or accessible. There is indeed much intellectual meat in the Bard’s plays, much food for serious thought. But Shakespeare was first, second, and last an entertainer. He was part-owner in the theaters that put on his plays, and his living was based upon filling the house, not on providing material for future PhD dissertations, though ever so many of these did follow. Shakespeare was not about committing lit-tra-ture. He was about selling theater tickets, and he sold lots of these to members of every level of Elizabethan society. His plays are for everyone, and for all time.
But for all this, the media made a good deal less of the event this past weekend than bardologists like myself thought was called for. The two Tampa Bay area newspapers made do with a short Associated Press piece. Very little appeared in the national media. Perhaps there would have been more column inches and air-time had we been looking at an anniversary having to do with someone modern J-School grads consider really important writers, such as Harper Lee or Toni Morrison. There was more attention given to the anniversary in England, but even here interest in Shakespeare has faded in favor of lesser literary lights.
I was a literature major from the days when one couldn’t get the degree without familiarity with the Bard and his work. Now English majors can skip the gloomy Dane and Falstaff for an elective in comic books, or one of the many courses in gender, class, or race lamentations. Contemporary literature professors seem to be far more interested in left politics and in the sex and race of writers than in the quality of what writers have to say. This and the fact that sushi is available in most Major League ball parks today are two of the more glaring symptoms or our current intellectual and moral decay.
My years at the University of South Florida in Tampa didn’t make a literary scholar out of me (thank God). But they did make a lifetime reader of me. And Shakespeare has consistently repaid the time, whether reading and re-reading his plays or watching them in performance.
JFK nailed it when he said of Washington D.C. that it was a city of Southern efficiency and northern charm. In my years there in the mid-eighties, when the Gipper was keeping the republic between the ditches, and doing it between 10 and 4 with time for a nap, I contracted no Potomac Fever whatever. But there were rewards for being there: summer visits to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to watch the Orioles, weekend trips to enjoy the restorative beauty of the Skyline Drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and watching first-rate performances at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.
Visiting one of the museums in Stratford on Avon during a 1995 pilgrimage, I was delighted on finding, in a list of Shakespeare’s tavern associates, one John Thornberry. What a buzz to think that one of my relations, no matter how distant, had buried his nose in the froth with the Bard himself. Even if what he had to say to my very distant cousin was no more than, “It’s your round, you naughty varlet.”
In his fine book, Greenblatt tries to get at the question of how a young man from a provincial town without wealth or a university education moved to London in the 1580s and shortly became the greatest playwright of all places and all times. “How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?”
Great questions. To be fair to anyone considering buying the book, Greenblatt doesn’t answer them. To be fair to Greenblatt, the questions almost certainly can’t be answered. Genius can be described but it can’t be explained. But academics will worry it — like kittens with a ball of yarn — as long as there are academics. For people like me who have just read and watched the plays for pleasure and enlightenment over the years, the temptation is to answer the questions simply and in this wise: The late William Shakespeare, of Stratford on Avon and London, was the smartest guy who ever walked on the planet. Period. Paragraph.