Thursday, March 24, 2005

Why Shakespeare Matters

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say outright that I am no Shakespeare scholar. In fact, of the approximately six billion humans inhabiting this planet, roughly five and one half billion know more about the Bard and his works than I do. But like every other kid extruded through the mill of the American education system, I was first exposed to Shakespeare in junior high school. We read Romeo and Juliet but we also went on a field trip to the Shakespeare theater in Stratford Connecticut where I saw my first play: a performance of Julius Caesar. The stage was slanted, raised in the rear and lowered in the front ostensibly to make it easier to see and hear those performers who were down stage.

In college I took a course in Shakespeare – English 37A – so titled, bluffed the professor who taught the course, because it was the same number of plays that Shakespeare wrote. (There is some argument as to exactly how many he wrote, due to authentication issues of some plays, but for us in that class the correct answer to the question, “How many plays did Shakespeare write?” was, of course, thirty-seven.)

I can still recall the midterm exam in which I compared Shakespeare to Coors beer. I got away with it too though I can’t for the life of me remember now how I made the connection. It is important to note that this was the mid-seventies and Coors beer was still a small town, local brew and enjoyed a mythical quality about it to those living east of the Rockies.

We didn’t read every play in this course but we did read a good sampling of the histories, the tragedies and the comedies. It’s interesting to note that Shakespeare wrote nearly twice as many comedies as tragedies. One would like to suggest this reflected Shakespeare’s hopeful nature, but I think it had more to do with what people of the time wanted to see. After all, he was an artist who wrote for the people – all of the people – of his time. It was not unusual for the poor and working man and woman would go see one of his works just as readily as royalty. The working stiffs could not afford the penny for the seat cushion, so they generally stood in front of the stage, sort of like a modern day mosh pit. (This gives rise to images of Hamlet body surfing or a Ramstein show only without the pyrotechnics!)

This course was important to me because while I had read Shakespeare before this, it was here that I learned the secret to understanding him. The trick was not to read the play, but at the very least listen to it, or better yet, go and see it performed. I would sit for hours in the school library pulling out LP after LP reading along while I listened. (Today movies and DVD’s would work the same way, except that movies often tend to be edited for artistic or commercial purposes. The LP’s were equivalent to unabridged books on tape of today.)

This made the plays so much more enjoyable and I was able to understand just how much for the common man Shakespeare really was. In Shakespeare's treatment of Henry V, he extols the monarch's love of the common English man. I swear that Henry’s St. Crispian's Day speech at Agincourt could get me to wear women’s clothing in public. I am still trying to convince the CEO of my company that he needs to use an excerpt of this speech to rouse the sales force during times of extreme sales torpor in the company where I work.

“Into the breech,” I could hear him say. “The fewer the men, the greater the share of glory,” and “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”.

I can hear the sales rising already.

It was Ben Jonson who wrote that Shakespeare was not “of an age but for all ages”. This is as true today as it was in Jonson’s time.

Today, there are some who want to equate Shakespeare with high learning, elevated social status and an upper crust sort of taste. The fact is, sometimes his work is so silly, crude and farcical that I believe he has more in common with Benny Hill than Elizabethan poets of his time. Remember in Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom plays a wall in a rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisby? He uses his hand as a knot-hole through which the lovers spy each other. Can you just visualize the scene? I remember actually laughing when I was listening to this play.

Treating Shakespeare’s work with too much reverence takes the playwright out of his original context and intentions He engaged in word puns (think of Mercutio’s words as he lay dying “ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man”). I don't know about you, but in my house that sort of thing usually earns me long stares and lots of head shaking. Back then it was in vogue I guess.

Titus Andronicus has the dubious honor of being considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. The last scene involves all the characters in a blood bath, consuming each other in a Hannibal-esque orgy of cannibalism and horror. What was Shakespeare thinking? I could just hear Joe-Elizabethan drama goer after that play, looking for a place to eat after that one. But what I love most about that play that it shows Shakespeare as an artist in development. Too often we assume that great artists were always great. We forget the evolutionary nature of talent and one’s art especially when latter, more mature works, tend to overshadow the failures.

It’s nice to know Shakespeare had Titus Andronicus kind of days. Even some of his works sucked pond water. (The fact that they someone actually produced that play and that they have even made a Hollywood movie of it with Anthony Hopkins prefiguring his “Hannibal” role in this classic stinker makes me wonder just how much crack cocaine really is floating around in Hollywood.)

There have been other attempts to modernize Shakespeare as well, all with varying degrees of success, but Shakespeare does not just draw us in because of the story lines. It has been said that he never used more than four basic plot lines. This helps explain why modernizing his plays miss the point. It is not just his stories that we love so much. It is something much, much more. It is something deeper. It is the language.

I began to think that perhaps we could begin to integrate some of that language into modern culture, in an attempt to revitalize the sound and beauty of it. Imagine, for example, a D.J. critiquing a certain Icelandic megastar’s latest avant garde techno hit on the radio: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by these songs of Bjork.”

Or how about a new Tide detergent commercial that shows a bedraggled thirty-something loooking up from heaps of laundry only to exclaim, “Oh that this too, too soiled stain should melt.” Think it would catch on?

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I think I hear my kids packing my bags right now.

The fact is, Shakespeare is not important because the New York State Board of Regents says he is. He is not important because he is required learning for the MCAS exams. He is not important because it is a sign of good breeding. He is not important because know his work is a babe magnet, or because it will be the basis of the next reality TV show (“Shakespeare Fear Factor” where men dressed as women are forced to eat English delicacies of the day, things like blood pudding. Yech.)

Shakespeare is important because language is important. Not the subject-verb-object kind of language; not the kind of language you were graded on in grammar school; not the kind of language in which you never ever understood what the hell a “modifier” was; not the tense-agreeing, verb-agreeing, split infinitive type of language. Shakespeare is important because of how we love its sound; this language that flows off tongues, this language that creates whole new cultures (think hip-hop). This language makes music to embolden us when we are discouraged; it carries us forward with the spirit of generations yet to come; it turns the basic "howl" of pre-civilized man into a cry of common union with one another.

In a book I read recently by John McWhorter entitled, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (try looking that one up in the card catalog of your basic home town library or your favorite Google Search!) McWhorter includes a chapter entitled: Got Marjoram or Why I Don’t Have Any Poetry he relates a funny Seinfeld episode where George is asked by his fiancé’s snobby family who his favorite poet is. George, not even able to name a single poet, simply mumbles, “Flavman”. McWorter suggests that “Flavman” would be on the top of many people’s lists of favorite poets today in America.

McWhorter suggest that people have poetry on their shelves the way we have marjoram in our spice racks. It comes with the spice rack, most likely, but does anyone really ever cook with it?

The book was interesting but I responded viscerally to the charge that poetry was becoming a non sequitur in today’s culture. I mean, you're looking at a guy who has all his poetry books in order on the shelf, has the pages dog-eared and highlighted. I dive into them repeatedly just to get through the day. (One of my favorite books is still my Medieval Poetry collection that is held together with rubber bands.) Sometimes, when I am alone, I like to pull one out and read the poetry aloud, the way it was meant to be read, just like those Shakespeare plays years ago. These are the sounds of an unseen universe.

If the success of the hip hop culture among mainstream music and especially among the kids of today tells us anything, it tells us that there is an aesthetic in the sound of language, regardless of learning, regardless of traditional content. I mean, “Fashizzle my Shizzle” is as far removed from most adults today as any of Shakespeare’s most eloquent soliloquies. That doesn’t keep even adults (much to the chagrin of my kids) from using the term in its correct context, whatever that context might be.

The sense of hearing, they say, is the last one we lose before we die. This might help explain why the “clicks” of the tongue, the various vocal placeholders, the “ums” and “likes” and “you knows”, why the lilt and staccato and melody of language will always attract the human ear.

Shakespeare is about this need in all of us to find beauty in sound. He is about the desire to treat language as music, with rhythm, with rhyme. This soaring and swooping of tone inflates and deflates our spirit more than just with the content of what we write. It is why we can listen to Dr. Seuss as adults. It explains why we can listen to Lewis Caroll's "Jabberwocky" even though it is comprised of nonsense words. It explains Ginsberg's "Howl", and the rabid following of Jack Keruoac (to an extent) and even Joyce's "Ulysses". It even explains, God help me, people's vast passion for opera and musicals.

So pop a beer and kick back and listen to a play some evening or better yet, go find one of his plays somewhere. There is a plethora of performing troops everywhere. You don’t need to dress up. You don’t need to rent a tux. Just bathe in the language, as my high school english teacher used to tell us, and witness the love of common living, the love of the human tongue.

Next time you want that raise they have been denying you at work, try going into your boss and reciting something in iambic pentameter, but then finish it with a melodramatic couplet that will leave him or her stunned. ("Never has there been a tale of more woe/ Than that which explains why my salary is so low!") Try it and see what happens!

Shakespeare reminds us that how you say it is as important as what you say. Go see a play and know that our language will never be decorated prettier than this.

M C Biegner


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