Thursday, September 1, 2016
Shakespeare Got Sick of It All
We read, see, and perform Shakespeare because Shakespeare says it best. A lot of writers say it well, but nobody says it like Shakespeare. He expresses horrid feelings beautifully, which was one reason those very astute Puritan reformers
distrusted him and his playwriting ilk (do we really want audiences to sympathize with blank-verse statements of murderous vengefulness?). But Shakespeare understood, as did Aeschylus and Aristotle before him, that the transformation of anger and anguish into poetry was catharsis: a way of making human pain bearable.
One surprising thing is how early in his life Shakespeare could articulate the feelings of people who had been in the world for decades and were heartily sick of living. That late-life season he famously described in Sonnet 73: "That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs that shake against the cold / Bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." Shakespeare wrote these lines in his late 20s or, at the latest, his 30s. Theater-historical tradition holds that as an actor, Shakespeare preferred the parts of old men. He was old when he was young.
Consequently, some of the most moving passages in Shakespeare are spoken by characters on the far verge of their existence, looking back on their lives and surveying the world, awash in autumnal feeling. Here's Gloucester on Lear: "O ruin'd piece of nature! This great world / Shall so wear out to nought." And Kent, also on Lear: "He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer." The rack was a notorious instrument of torture. There was one rack in England at the time of Lear's writing, and prisoners were racked, or stretched, only in cases where the need for confession was perceived as extreme, as with Guy Fawkes, imprisoned in 1605 in connection with the Gunpowder Plot. To perceive life itself as a rack, an instrument of torture which stretched its victim unnaturally and past the point of endurance . . . . a pessimistic conceit, but one full of tragic eloquence.
There's Macbeth, of course, who "[be]gin[s] to be a-weary of the sun." Never has a writer beautified apathy, disgust, and boredom to the degree Shakespeare does in Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time, / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. / Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."
Of course, I always remind my students to notice that it is Macbeth, who has brought himself to a bleak, depressing pass, who makes this bitter statement. The lines should be read and heard in their dramatic context, and not extracted and interpreted as Shakespeare's direct description of general human experience. And yet, if these lines did not express something that resonated, at least sometimes, with everyone, why would they constitute the second-most famous speech in Shakespeare?
Finally -- although so many more examples exist -- there is the young-old man Hamlet, who at the outset of his tragedy is so sick of life that it hurts, and he can hardly spit out the words that express his disaffection. In Hamlet's first soliloquy we have an example of Shakespeare turning confused, fragmented expressions of despair into poetry. "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world! / Fie on't, ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden . . . ."
Yellow leaves, unweeded gardens. Macbeth says his way of life has "fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf." Shakespeare seemed to feel and imagine all human experiences, even the most desolate, as natural phenomena, part of seasonal change. That -- the references to life's dark times as part of a larger natural cycle, rather than only a mechanism of torture -- is one way his poetry makes sadness endurable.