History, Trivia and Contemporary Society
Apparently, Shakespeare’s birthday was a couple of days ago (nobody really knows for sure when it is) and I missed it. That’s okay really; I don’t care when Shakespeare was born. Nor for that matter do I care to wander into the great discussion about whether he wrote his own plays or not. As far as I’m concerned, they could have been written by Fetchin’ Gretchen, the German barmaid at the Golden Hind Hotel. Shakespeare’s plays exist: if a local boy from Stratford didn’t write them, so what? Somebody did.
Actually, the only reason there’s any debate at all about who quill penned what for whom is scholars can’t figure out what else to do with Old Bill, now can they? It’s not like there’s a nerdy little war going on in the Ivory Towers about whether Shakespeare is crap or not. Rhetorically speaking what do Shakespearean scholars do all day — sit around telling each other how great he was? That’s the point: Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language and nobody disagrees except sophomores trying to be difficult and people who’ve never seen the plays. Everybody knows Shakespeare is the best, but I would venture to guess that 8 people out of 10 haven’t got a clue what he’s talking about.
Shakespeare appreciation runs into a bunch of trouble in the 21st century. First of all, unless your education was terminally New Age, you got stuck with the guy sometime in your high school career. Since modern education means kicking the delight out of everybody but the janitor, chances are good Macbeth was ruined long before Macduff got hold of him in Act V. Besides, I’d bet even money that the person running the show in Lit. 12 probably didn’t know much more about the Bard than you did. Cliff Notes work both ways.
The other problem is Shakespeare wrote his plays in Shakespearean English, and we don’t speak that language anymore. A lot of the clever stuff and the beauty of it is simply lost in translation. For example, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” doesn’t mean much if you don’t know anything about courtly love. And that’s the major problem: Shakespeare is talking about things people in the 21st century know nothing about – love and power.
These days, we have reduced love to its lowest common denominator: the relationship. This is a cerebral little device that cuts our emotional well-being off at the knees. Having a relationship is akin to owning a small kitchen appliance like a juicer. You buy the thing, make juice at every opportunity for six weeks or so, but slowly by slowly, it ends up largely unused, sitting in the kitchen, getting in the way. Occasionally, if guests come over, you might crank it up again, but eventually it gets stored somewhere out of mind until it’s time for the yard sale. Shakespeare didn’t think that way about love, neither did his audience. They knew love for what it is and wanted to hear the words that spoke its name. They didn’t talk about “having feelings” for someone or “taking the relationship to another level.” (What is this crap? Angry Birds™ with benefits?) No! The Elizabethans were engulfed by love; that’s where “swept off your feet” comes from. They felt it: they didn’t think it. They looked forward to it and mourned its passing. To them, it was what life was made of. Even though we proclaim our sensitivity at the drop of a puppy, we just can’t get there from here; we don’t know anything about it.
Nor, for that matter, do we know anything about power. In a world that no longer recognizes obscenities, the mere mention of power can still cause an embarrassed hush. Power is to us what sex was to the Victorians: a slightly icky necessity of life that nobody should ever speak of. It’s considered ill-bred to publically pursue power, so we dress it up in altruism and team-building. Demonstrations of power are the last faux pas in our society, and people who have power are somewhat suspect. They are always the villains in our stories. They weren’t in Shakespeare’s time. His four great tragedies are all about power. They show the obligation powerful people have to wield it wisely and the consequences if they do not. It’s not power itself that corrupts Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello; their demise comes from a deep flaw in their own character. Their tragedy is magnified by the height from which they fall, not caused by it. At the end of each play, they die, but the institutions of power are cleansed with their blood. It is the province of the powerful who remain to set things right again. In the Elizabethan Age, power was, for the most part, a benevolent force sometimes corrupted by the people who manipulate it — not the other way around, as we see it today.
It’s a shame that a lot of the contemporary “feelings” we have for Shakespeare are just talk. Unfortunately, it’s too difficult for most people to enjoy Shakespeare these days. However, it`s not impossible. But start slowly; Shakespeare’s plays are a big chunk to take in one chew. You don’t have to sit through an entire play to begin with. Just go to YouTube and check out Marlon Brando delivering Mark Antony`s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech, or Kenneth Branagh (as Henry V) calling his troops “a band of brothers,” or anything Shakespearean Lawrence Olivier ever opened his mouth for. Me? I like to curl up with a bag of Doritos™ and watch The Lion King which is Hamlet without the blood bath.