Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Consider These Lines


People who don't read or see a lot of Shakespeare -- in other words, most people -- naturally don't understand why they should. What's in Shakespeare for them? They may well ask, since Shakespeare is far more often pointed to -- "Look! Greatest English writer!" -- than discussed in a way which might cast light on why he is known as the greatest English writer. (Unless, like me, you're a Shakespeare nerd who speaks with other Shakespeare nerds. But we're a small slice of the global population.)

Going to a really well performed Shakespeare play provides its own answer to the "why" question. As a playgoer, you don't have to have read any Shakespeare before, to be struck by the beauty and insightfulness of Shakespeare's dialogue. You may not understand all of it. But you'll understand a lot of it, and the part you understand will be unlike anything you've heard before. Shakespeare takes on all subjects, all fundamental human experiences, sees them from the inside out, and articulates them with bone-chilling precision. What is that worth? If a central purpose of literature -- including dramatic dialogue -- is to hold a mirror up to human nature, to show us who we are (as Hamlet says), then Shakespeare succeeds. And if one purpose of that action is to make us feel recognized and known, he gives us that, too.

Because I have nothing better to write about today, I will offer two examples, from speeches which, set against each other, express diametrically opposed but universally recognizable human experiences. The person who wrote these speeches knew what he was describing, and he knew how to describe it.

First: apathy, listlessness, depression. Anybody feel that way these days? Has anyone felt these things over the past year? Hamlet is your spokesperson. In acts one and two, he's depressed, and he's depressed about the fact that he's depressed. ("Melancholy" would be his word.) What interests him? Nothing. What used to interest him? Everything. We think of Hamlet's goal as finding and punishing his father's murderer. It is, but his underlying goal is recovering the self he has lost. Ophelia, too, wonders where he's gone: "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" But Hamlet wondered first. Here are lines from his first soliloquy:

    O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt, 

    Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

    Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon

    'Gainst self-slaughter!

This is definitely suicidal thought. But the lines communicate the widely recognizable, garden-variety suicidal thinking of one who is finding relief in fantasizing about suicide because he lacks the energy to off himself, even though he finds life worse than a drag. Like Keats (doubtless inspired by this speech), who wished, in "To a Nightingale," "to cease upon the midnight with no pain," Hamlet doesn't want to take the initiative for such a choice. He just wants to melt into a goodbye (an "adieu." He's still got enough energy for a smattering of wordplay). He next claims that all that's stopping him is God's edict against "self-slaughter," with another little pun on the "fixed canon," which is both a rigid restrictive rule and a weapon aimed at that rule's violation. But Hamlet is full of reasons not to do things. This is his first. He's apathetic, listless, and unhappy, and nothing delights him. He says it best: "How weary, stale, flat, and uprofitable / Seem to me all the uses [customs] of this world!" No spark of interest resides in anything. It's all stale. Flat. Weary. Useless. He wasn't always like this; he doesn't know why he's like this now. He later tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth . . . and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory." Surprisingly, these sour lines are the lead-in to the famous exclamation, "What a piece of work is a man!," which, extracted from context, sounds exalted and appreciative. It isn't. Hamlet follows that line with, "And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me." It's all not only dust, it's absolute, concentrated dust. 

Yes, he's depressed, and he knows how to say so. In other words, Shakespeare understood depression -- the most enervated version of melancholy -- and knew how to remember and describe it.

But Shakespeare also understood joy.

Many excellent expressions of joy exist in Shakespeare, but one of the best is found in The Merchant of Venice, in lines spoken by young Bassanio, once it is confirmed that he has won the fairytale-like "casket test" which gives him the right to marry Portia, whom (maybe) he loves. He says he is too joyful to speak, although, of course, being a Shakespeare character, he still can, and in blank verse, too. He compares his (alleged) confused inarticulateness to the competing voices of a happy crowd which, "blent together / Turns to a wild of nothing save of joy / Expressed and not expressed." A wild of nothing, save of joy. All words unintelligible, canceling each other out, but the sound of happiness still audible. This is the paradox of joy unspoken, but still, somehow, spoken. So, whereas Hamlet has no joy, and many words ("Words, words, words" he drones), Bassanio has no words, and transcendent joy.

Countless shades of human experience reside between these two extremes. I would bet that many of them are inchoate, sensed but not clearly seen, until precisely described. Most people, even the wordiest, lack that level of precision. Where Shakespeare found it, what supplied him with that talent, is a mystery of the ages . . . .

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Horrid Speech Shakespeare Would Never Use

 It's May, and time for my latest list of horrible non-Shakespearean journalistic or advertising or other sorts of contemporary sayings, along with suggested Shakespearean substitutes. Here are ten.

1. Headlines like this: "Benedict Cumberbatch's Sweet Valentine's Day Wedding: Everything You Need To Know." Here's what I need to know about Benedict Cumberbatch's sweet Valentine's Day wedding: Nothing. NO THING. Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor. I like seeing him on the screen. I don't give a flying fig about his personal life. What would Shakespeare say about this headline? He'd have Ophelia sing, "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day," and then thank Bonafide Cummerbund for helping keep Hamlet alive on stage (at least until act five, scene two) four hundred years after Shakespeare himself departed for the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler may return.

2. "Bespoke" and "hand-crafted." These are disgusting terms that should be eliminated from the English vocabulary. There's no space to list the ways in which

Friday, April 2, 2021

Shakespeare's Spaniards

Often people make much of the fact that many of Shakespeare's comedies are set in Italy, a convention of early-modern English comedies which derives largely from Tudor playwrights' important models, the works of the first-century Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. In plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, or The Taming of the Shrew, you won't find much evidence that Shakespeare knew many actual Italians, or, much less, had ever visited Italy, despite all his Hortensios and Petruccios and Benvolios. Usually his "Italian" characters seem like English folk (though this is not always the case: in England, Italians had a reputation for

Monday, March 1, 2021

Shakespeare, Jonson, Plague

 Last year at this time, I wouldn't have dreamt we'd be walking around with masks on our faces in March of 2021. I remember trying to buy some dust masks at the hardware store back then, thinking they might be useful over the next few weeks. (They were already sold out.) A month after that, when I wrote this post, I would have been equally surprised to hear that it would still be relevant, or even understandable, in 2021. But it is. So I'm posting it again: a look back to how things seemed, Shakespeare-wise, Ben Jonson-wise, and Covid-wise, a year ago.

I hope I'm not posting this a third time in 2022. 

April, 2020. This month, in our time of modern-day plague, I shall not write yet one more claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear or Macbeth while quarantined for the "pest," as they called it. (He did not.) Instead, I am offering my parody of a poem by Shakespeare's greatest rival, his brilliant contemporary, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson (pictured left of Will), who inhabited the early modern theater world alongside Shakespeare and enjoyed insulting him from his bully pulpit of the stage. All evidence suggests that Jonson and Shakespeare were friends, though they

Monday, February 1, 2021

Shakespeare in Winter

It's gray and cold and snowy in Michigan, and whatever the Groundhog does tomorrow, it's likely to stay this way til at least the middle of March. The weather puts me in mind of Shakespeare's descriptions of winter.

Seasonal change is a fundamental metaphor in Shakespeare's poetry. He is fond of the coming of spring. Who isn't? "From you I have been absent in the spring," the poet laments in one sonnet. The Winter's Tale, despite its title, is popping with references to budding flowers and greenery, and its longest scene features a springtime sheep-shearing festival. Twelfth Night takes its title from the Eve of Epiphany, in the first week of January, but its characters, too, spend much time frolicking outside, presumably in mild climes and a gentler time of year. Where, then -- outside of a couple of titles -- is winter in Shakespeare?

We can find it here and there. Here's a verse from the song that concludes Love's

Friday, January 1, 2021

Ten Things Shakespeare Wouldn't Say if He Were Alive in 2021

 I've got ten new things people say that I want them to stop saying. The people I have in mind are advertisers, news commentators, politicians, and university administrators. They are not like you and me. They speak their own language, one I know Shakespeare would have disdained, and there are certain current terms on the hearing of which I know he is spinning in his never-to-be-violated grave. Therefore, Shakespeare and I mutually request that these folks find substitutes. Drawing on Shakespeare's own rich vocabulary, I will recommend some, following this list of Terms Which I Request Be Left Behind with the Rest of the Miserable Year 2020.

1. "Gift" instead of "give," as in, "Gift one, get one free." Yes, I know Shakespeare liked to turn nouns into verbs. Who can forget "Uncle me no uncles,"

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Shakespeare and Christmas

Dickens and Christmas we know about, but what about Shakespeare and Christmas? How did he celebrate? How do his characters celebrate? Alas, we know little about Shakespeare's life, so we cannot fully answer the first question. We know Yuletide was a festive occasion in Elizabethan and Jacobean London (becoming less so as the seventeenth century wore on and those Biblically-minded Puritans began waging their war on Christmas). Through the 1590s and most of the first decade of the seventeenth century, when Shakespeare was active as an actor and playwright in London, Christmas would have been a busy time for him and his company, who were called upon to stage entertainments for Queen Elizabeth and, later, King James during the Christmas season. The apogee of festivity (of festiveness?) fell on Twelfth Night, the eve of January sixth, the Feast of the Epiphany, a holiday I've discussed in an earlier post. (Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night was most likely named for the holiday during which it was initially presented.) Unlike us, who begin celebrating Christmas immediately after Halloween and are done with it by 1 p.m. on December 25th, Christmas celebrations during Shakespeare's time actually began on Christmas Day, and continued for the eleven days thereafter. The season was celebrated with feasting, dancing, revelry, and all kinds of enjoyable pagan behaviors, including the staging of masques and plays filled with mythological references and characters. It was a frantic time indeed for theater folk, but a lucrative one. 

We can assume Shakespeare took part in the hard work, as well, we hope, as some of the revelry. But our knowledge of his holiday habits is largely speculative. We can speak with a bit more authority about Christmas as it appears in his plays. Unlike Dickens, Shakespeare never wrote a work centered on Christmas, but he did write one play set during the Christmas season. Some may be surprised to learn