Happy birthday, William Shakespeare! You’re not as old as you seem
Celebrating William Shakespeare’s birthday may seem retrograde. But my dedication to the Bard has little to do with a desire to shore up his canonical position. I return to Shakespeare, as I return to the ancient Greek tragedians, because they reveal to me with each encounter new potential for making meaning in drama.
The plays are a school whose main curriculum is complexity. They challenge simplistic thinking through a pattern of contradiction and counterpoint. Shakespeare’s perspective is of little consequence. No character can be said to speak for him. His plots aren’t designed to prove his point of view.
Shakespeare was a conduit for other minds, the minds of writers, historians and philosophers, whose work he freely borrowed, and the minds of his characters, whose reflections are true to their own reality, not their author’s. Like anyone, he was “bounded in a nutshell” of history, but he discovered “infinite space” through the radical truths of even his minor figures.
His imagination had a way of slipping beyond ideological controls. “The Merchant of Venice” gives voice to anti-Semitic animus, but Shylock’s spat-upon humanity is what gives the comedy its haunting depth. “Othello” is the product of a white supremacist worldview, but it is the destruction of Othello’s nobility at the hands of twisted Iago that fills us with angry regret at the end of Shakespeare’s most sorrowful tragedy.
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Observing that “Othello” “teaches us to be skeptical of adhering to one frame, or one story,” professor Ayanna Thompson notes that the play “does not exist in one historical moment, or one historical context, alone. ... It is a play whose stagings, readings and meanings have mutated and evolved over time.”
To engage “Merchant” or “Othello,” Thompson argues, is to engage in the shifting historical constructions of what it means to be a Jew or a Moor. A play like “Othello” is not a fixed object, but “a dynamic organism that is affected by every hand that touches it.” Reading Shakespeare invites us to reexamine how past and present interact.
Shakespeare’s characters keep drawing us back because we want to understand them more fully. They leave us with an impression of unfinished business. Just as no one in our lives can be fully known, so the figures in his plays reveal only so much about what they think, feel and believe.
Hamlet may have the most prodigious consciousness in Western literature, but it’s his opacity that is such a lure. He is a puzzle to himself — a puzzle that we can’t resist trying to solve. The task may have no definitive solution — not even Freud could crack the case — but in trying to understand Hamlet, we come to better know ourselves.
The poetry of Shakespeare is inseparable from the dramatic architecture that contains it. Word and image, speech and action, metaphor and plot — Shakespearean dramaturgy is a dance between macro and micro realms. Theater and literature cannot be pried apart.
I teach Shakespeare not because I want my students to become disciples of his work. I teach Shakespeare because I think immersion in his plays will make actors better actors, writers better writers and directors better directors. How? By making them more sensitive, flexible and creative readers.
The language can be a formidable obstacle, but no one is naturally fluent in Shakespearean English anymore. The texts can seem like a foreign language, so why not approach them as such? Avail yourself of play synopses before tackling a scene, I advise. Don’t worry about not understanding every word. Scholars and editors are still quarreling over some of the more obscure vocabulary. Listen for meaning over the course of a line. Begin to trust your own intuitions. The most Shakespeare you absorb, the more the plays will resonate and the greater will be your own poetic reach.
Most important of all, stay alert to what excites your imagination. Loving Shakespeare is not required. Critiquing Shakespeare is not only allowed but necessary. The play are a resource, not an obligation. In making them your own, you’re only following the author’s example. The tradition is yours. Use it to soar beyond where we’ve traveled.
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