Happy 448th, Will! #happybirthdayshakespeare

Every year the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invites the public to join in the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday with a blog post or an audio or video clip. Here’s my contribution. It wasn’t entirely clear to me how the Trust is supposed to know that this is the birthday post, which is why the hashtag #happybirthdayshakespeareis all over the place. Whatever: let’s party!

EDITED 24 April to correct the hashtag and to insert a link to www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com; check out the many others who are joining in!

Apart from the famous musical parody of Hamlet in Gilligan’s Island, my early memories of Shakespeare are better left repressed. Rote memorization in high school and a year-long college course from a professor so dull he had three last names left my with a distinctly unfavorable impression.

What changed that? Shame. Years later, living in New York City, I thought I had recovered from my school experiences. I went to museums, theater, and concerts. I listened to National Public Radio. I’d seen my share of Shakespeare productions, including some breathtaking, celebrated ones: Kevin Kline as Falstaff at Lincoln Center, the all-male Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe. I thought I was a pretty cultured guy. But then I read about P.G. Wodehouse who, it is said, read the complete works every year or two. Every year? How did he find time to read anything while writing ninety-six books? I’d only read about half the plays, and I had not written even one book. I thought I was literate; in truth I was a poseur. The only solution was to do what Wodehouse had done—read all the plays in a year. (I’m hardly the only one to have done that, I know; not even the only Shakespeare’s Birthday blogger.)

I did it; that’s why my blog is called “shakesyear.”

I wish I could tell you that reading Shakespeare changed my life; that it got me out of a dead-end job, brought Hollywood sniffing around, and whitened my teeth. Nothing of the sort happened. Cole Porter notwithstanding, the women were not wowed. Something’s very wrong, though, if you read Shakespeare looking for pickup lines or neatly packaged Life Lessons. At least half of what he’s doing when he puts “To thine own self be true” in the mouth of that sententious old busybody Polonius is mocking anybody who imagines that life can be summed up in an aphorism or two. Gilligan’s Island was wiser than you thought.

Why bother to read Shakespeare at all, then, or see his plays produced? Can we say anything more than Italo Calvino’s sly remark that reading the classics is always better than not reading the classics? There are many reasons—I have a list—but one above all seems central to me. In 1610 the title of a poem by one John Davies of Hereford addressed Shakespeare as “our English Terence.” I choose to believe that Davies was not comparing Shakespeare to Terence as the Roman playwright who bored me to tears in third-year high-school Latin, but as the man who said “Nihil humanum a me alienum est” (or something similar)—“Nothing human is alien to me.”

It’s very conventional to praise Shakespeare for that inclusiveness. But it’s equally conventional to disparage the aspect of it I like the best; his constant mixture of humor with seriousness. Almost never do I find myself agreeing with Samuel Johnson, but his response to this criticism of Shakespeare seems to me unanswerable as far as it goes:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous or critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

“The reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend” is so beautifully put I almost hate to observe it doesn’t go far enough. Those who complain about Shakespeare’s mingling of the serious and the silly do so in order to defend the Serious from the threat of belittlement, to save the beleaguered High from the attack of the Low, the Adult from the Childish. I value Shakespeare’s mingling of the comic and the tragic on both a personal and a political level. Personally, those who think the Serious needs defense from the Funny (having presumed to tell the rest of us what is Serious and therefore really worth caring about) are more likely than not to lack a sense of humor, and secretly to fear that others’ laughter is directed toward themselves. (This is implicit, I think, in Orwell’s occasionally insightful critique of Tolstoy on Shakespeare.) Politically, Shakespeare is subversive. Not in the sense of openly challenging the Elizabethan police state, of course, but in the sense that power depends on convincing the powerless that servitude is their lot. From childhood, a tremendous portion of institutional endeavor is devoted to grinding the joy at being alive, the curiosity, out of each of us, shaping us into instruments fit only for labor. Drawing sharp distinctions between people, to drive them apart, is one of Authority’s sharpest tools in this endeavor. Shakespeare undermines Authority’s whole way of looking at the world by knocking over distinctions between serious and silly, good and evil, male and female, noble and common, and undermining our certainties about everything we see and believe—all while continuing to entertain us. The boy who said the emperor had no clothes undoubtedly suffered a painful, lingering death the next day, but once his subjects laughed at the emperor, the slow path to revolution was under way.

Shakespeare is alive, and more than alive, to me because the plays are the work of an individual fully engaging with his world to a degree unique in world literature. To experience his work forces us to engage with the world, too; to be more alive. Shakespeare isn’t great because he gives us Insight Into The Great Questions of Existence or any such folderol. He’s great because above all other writers he exemplifies Terence’s motto. And he makes us laugh. Happy 448th, Will!

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