and saw someone who really doesn’t understand the importance of Shakespeare and probably isn’t willing to learn. My blog is for people who don’t get what the fuss is all about, but wouldn’t mind finding out. What’s the point of studying Shakespeare? What did he say four hundred years ago in that fancy-pants prose that someone within the past hundred years hasn’t said better? Why spend (or in his opinion, waste) our precious high school years devoting ourselves to this dead white guy?
So, as WordPress’s resident Bardolator, I figured it was my job to show this blogger where he/she has been lead astray…essentially, give him/her a proper schooling!
I recently read your post and have every intention of going through it and showing you where I strongly disagree with (or in some cases, can easily disprove) your opinions.
Firstly – Shakespeare’s language is notoriously difficult, but is it his fault for writing works that are too difficult for high schoolers to grapple with at first glance? It’s definitely a worthwhile endeavour to teach students to decipher this language, but what the school boards need are teachers who can make these complex works accessible. The problem? Few of them have more than a high school Shakespeare education, and that’s not to say that this education implies their understanding. Teachers are responsible for getting students to understand, and they need to understand the works first. I think they should personally re-read these plays right before teaching them in order to have them fresh in their minds. That way, they can think of teaching strategies and make the plays accessible to students by linking the themes to current events or student issues. If teachers can relate the themes to current issues, students will feel a new motivation to understand the language that describes them.
As for going to see a production of King Lear at the Globe – I empathize. As an adolescent, I saw Christopher Plummer performing Lear in Stratford, Ontario, and I, too, wanted to gouge out my eyes. That was before I had a teacher with a passion for Shakespeare. Giving Shakespeare a second chance, I opened my mind to teachers who have shown me the play’s beauty, harshness, and complexity. Having been properly educated, I can watch two different versions back to back, and savour them both.
Next issue: Shakespeare did not keep to “one basic genre”. He wrote tragedies, comedies, Roman histories, histories of the English monarchs (who lived in a totally different time and state of mind compared to the Romans, so the two categories can’t be conflated), the highly mystical romances, and the morally-complicated problem plays, to say nothing of the hundred-odd sonnets and two epic poetry sequences.
As for considering Shakespeare’s prolificness as a fault: how can we blame him for writing several plays in a very short time, approximately three per year? Were you the type of person who tried your very best in high school and did merely ok? Or were you the person who wrote your papers the night before and kicked butt? Some people have the talent, and that talent doesn’t run on a stop watch. If you really need to be told why Shakespeare is so awesome, it’s not because of how much he’s written, but rather the way he writes. Shakespeare puts words together that create images in your head that make you need to stop and think because he makes these connections between ideas that you wouldn’t have made yourself…but wish you had. If you want to get direct examples of this, see the ‘Arresting Images’ section of my blog: bardolator23.wordpress.com.
As for recorded history: Shakespeare did not start his career as a success; he was considered an ‘upstart crow’ by university-educated writers who thought that the grammar-school educated Shakespeare sho
uld have stayed in the gutter rather than reach for the stars. When his early plays were printed, his name was not even featured on their front covers; his name was considered too lowly to deserve such prime real estate, reserved for words that convinced people to buy. Nothing had been written about him in his early years because people didn’t think he deserved the attention. For starters, back then, the only people considered worthy of biographies were kings and saints, not lowly actors who got paid per play they pounded out. Additionally, great writers of the English language weren’t considered as such because the English language had barely found its footing. Spelling had yet to be concretized (thank you Dr. Johnson, 150 years later) and it was Shakespeare himself who created words and phrases that we widely use today like accused, addiction, bedroom, cater, champion, flawed, obscene, rant, varied, and worthless, to name but a few of the approximated 1700. Even the ‘be all and end all’ you speak of was originally coined by the Bard. When Shakespeare went to school, the only language worth learning was Latin, the only writers worth reading were the Greeks and Romans, and maybe the English Chaucer. Shakespeare had to prove himself in order to become worthy of biography. He proved himself by writing plays that people wanted to see, plays that made people want to return to the theatre to be entertained over and over again, even if it meant braving bouts of the plague, smelly civilians, and the London rain that loomed over the open-roofed Globe theatre.
As for your history lesson about Queen Elizabeth vs. King James, all I can say is that you could have done a bit more research in order to render yourself a little bit less ridiculous. The Queen liked theatre, but it was the Scottish king who was a major patron of the arts. The easiest way to tell? When the Queen lived, Shakespeare’s company was called The Lord Chamberlain’s men. When James came to the throne, he became their patron and their name was changed to The King’s Men. That company thrived far beyond Shakespeare’s death, only to be officially halted when the Puritans shut down the theatre in 1642. Google is a wonderful thing and, at the risk of sounding deservingly smug, I think you should try it before giving history lessons.
As for the First Folio, it was only compiled seven years after Shakespeare died, unlike the proliferation of biographies and box-sets released after celebrity deaths today. You say that ‘so much care’ was put into protecting his work, but even this is not true. There are no surviving manuscripts of Shakespeare’s writing, although we do have a few scribblings of his signature. All Heminge and Condell, Shakespeare’s fellow actors who compiled the First Folio, had were their memories and maybe, if they were lucky, parts of scripts. In Shakespeare’s time, paper was very expensive and cast members did not receive full scripts. Instead, they’d get their own lines written out with a few cue lines of the person speaking before them. Thus, so much care was not put into the preservation of his work. The First Folio is muddled with errors and was replaced by second, third, and fourth folios in the years closely following his death and that was before the good ol’ Oxford and Cambridge editions hit the shelves.
The greater question is: why is it such a big deal who wrote these plays? I think it’s mind-blowingly amazing that a man who didn’t even get to university wrote these plays, but frankly, we’ve seen prodigies before. We’ve seen people who couldn’t make it through university become huge successes, and what endures longer than these biographies is the quality of their work. Shakespeare wrote plays as editorials of his time and yes, he did have to veil his criticism so he wouldn’t get beheaded for treason or heresy. Even though his immediate descendents neglected to write biographies, don’t jump to the assumption that history tried to erase him. We consider Shakespeare the best writer of his time but it’s possible that Marlowe, Kyd, or Greene were considered more famous at the time.
Why are we forced to read Shakespeare and not Marlowe, Kyd, or
Greene today? Marlowe wrote with amazing finesse but Shakespeare was arguably the first to perfect the art of character construction. Harold Bloom says that before Shakespeare, characters unfolded; Shakespeare was the first to write characters that developed. One only needs to re-read the characters of Hamlet or Romeo to understand this. Don’t depend on what you read in the tenth grade – read the text again and you’ll understand. Then, remind yourself that Shakespeare wrote these characters four hundred years ago, yet they’re so relatable today. We read Romeo and Juliet in the ninth grade because our hormones are raging just as passionately as those teenagers had when Shakespeare wrote about them. We lament the death of a parent, rage over suspicions of a partner cheating, try to mend a nation from their history of racism: Shakespeare put into words these passions and we quote him today because he hit the target of truth. No matter how ugly or beautiful, why cover up the truth? I know that u.v.ray (who made a comment) says that students would be better off if stronger emphasis were laid on modern writers, but no matter how amazing and relatable modern authors are, there’s something mind-blowing about the way a man four hundred years ago can write as if speaking directly into our own ears. He writes of universal themes and therefore the plays have endured. That is why they are the be all and end all.
And lastly, we come to plagiarism. Classic argument. First, imagine an age when plagiarism laws didn’t exist and then you’ll have a better understanding of where Shakespeare was coming from. He had to write to feed his wife and kids in Stratford, so he used ideas of others. He had to get bums in seats, so he brought back the oldies. How many sequels do we have to endure today? How many remakes? We weren’t the first to capitalize on nostalgia. But what makes Shakespeare’s remakes important? It’s like getting Da Vinci to recreate your child’s doodlings: Shakespeare used his own language to make the old stories sparkle, giving boring school lessons the same resonance as the story of Troy had directly after Brad Pitt showed off his chiselled, glistening muscles as Achilles. Even more importantly is how Shakespeare used works of old to comment on contemporary issues and touch emotions for all time.
Let’s take Hamlet, for example. Not an original. Shakespeare took inspiration from the Norse saga by Saxo Grammaticus, featuring characters like Amleth (Hamlet) and Gerutha (Gertrude). Some people may have heard this story, or at least heard of this story. But they when to see Shakespeare’s version again and again, act it again and again, film it again and again, because of the amazing way he approached these themes through his writing. Themes: love, heartbreak, fratricide, regicide, deception, revenge of any scale, mommy issues – issues that people have to deal with the world over. And writing! Oh the writing! I know you may roll your eyes at ‘To be or not to be’ – perhaps it’s because students are forced to memorize it instead of understanding it but this is suicide we’re talking about here. I can’t tell you the statistic of adolescents or adults that take their own lives each day but I know that it’s a lot. And I know at one point, we all think about it. What’s the point of living? Someone on the other side of the world will keep living, my parents will keep living, even if I don’t. But what’s out there? Will the afterlife be better? Will I be tormented by demons instead of bullies, for an eternity instead of a lifetime? I don’t know. This is a question that nobody can answer until they’ve crossed over, and Shakespeare makes this struggle memorable. Relatable. Enough people have dealt with their parents remarrying, the hate they feel for stepparents and their desire to end it all if they can’t just go back to the happier times; Shakespeare voices this struggle, but in style. We may not remember Saxo Grammaticus’s version, but Shakespeare’s depiction of the Dane’s struggle is arguably the most recognized play of all time.
So why do we read him? Why do we struggle through the difficult language, the sheer length of some of his work, and the knowledge that many of his plotlines were recycled? Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, knew it even then:
“He was not of an age, but for all time.”
(As always, feel free to leave questions, comments, challenges, etc!)