The following post was first published here in April 2004.
"Shakespeare is hard," asserts Fintan O'Toole in his book of the same title, "but so is life, and so long as you can see that there's a lot of life in Shakespeare, then the effort begins to make sense."
Now, I adore O'Toole's provocative, irreverent take on the bard, but I also have some fairly strong convictions about the "Shakespeare is, well, pretty easy, actually" camp.
At summer sessions for teachers, Peggy O'Brien, Ph.D., formerly of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute (Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.), would distribute a "Shakespeare Laundry List" to her students. Top on the list? "Everyone — all levels of society — went to see Shakespeare's plays. There weren't many other forms of entertainment... People went to the bear-baiting ring for a thrill, they went to a public execution of two — and they went to the theatre."
Bear-baiting. An execution or two. The theater. Anyone seeing, oh, I don't know, horse-racing, Court TV, and the theater? (And that's theater with an "er," please; "re" is an affectation, and I'll bet O'Brien knew it, but Ph.D.s, well... let's just say they come with their own academic baggage.) The point is that it was the "beloved groundlings" to whom Shakespeare and company played. To us. The Mountain Dew-swigging, overalls-wearing, pun-loving, regular folk.
Shakespeare can be hard, yeah. But he needn't be. Honestly, is there any doubt about his message in this passage from As You Like It, for example:
All the world's a stage,You've got it — the seven stages of man.
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Seventh on O'Brien's "Laundry List" is a much uttered rarely heeded bit o' wisdom: "Reading Shakespeare is hard. [His] plays were written to be performed — acted and seen on a stage."
Ayup. It is cold water on... okay, you're with me... to have Mrs. Grimm the English teacher pass out a musty copy of Julius Caesar or Macbeth and say, "Read Act I. Be ready for a quiz tomorrow."
With all of the productions now available on DVD and video, why would any teacher turn her students loose without a hint of what the beloved groundlings once knew (i.e., that Shakespeare's play must be seen and heard)? If you're wondering, by the way, Norrie Epstein's The Friendly Shakespeare is a good place to begin for viewing recommendations because there is no comparison between, say, Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.
In The Shakespeare Book of Lists, Michael LoMonico notes, "Unlike many, I didn't fall in love with Shakespeare in high school or college. No, my passion began some 30 years ago, when I first heard lines from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello coming from the mouths of my students."
I took the requisite courses, both undergrad and grad. I attended if not acclaimed then certainly decent productions of the plays, oh, yes. I appreciated Shakespeare, for sure. But I didn't fall in love until my son decided that this was the "coolest" writing he had heard in his then eleven years:
Let me have men about me that are fat,And when my daughters dressed their dolls as a princesses and their brother's long forgotten G.I. Joes as kings and enacted the wooing scene from Henry V ("O Kate! Nice customs curtsey to great kings"), I made a long-term commitment to ol' Bill.
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
And here we are. Writing about him again. Hoping someone else will see what we see: That there's something in Shakespeare's plays for all of us. And asserting that, no, Fintan, Shakespeare isn't all that hard; at least, he doesn't have to be. Visit the Folger Shakespeare Library site. It's not about Shakespeare's inaccessibility, is it?
Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is a frequently consulted book in our house. That said, let me hastily add that I don't think our tastes are necessarily "snobbish" (yeah, there's that word again) or even particularly high-brow. Remember? Mountain Dew? Overalls? Beloved groundlings? But Bloom's love of Shakespeare is heady stuff, his fervor infectious:
Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us....Amen.
From A Midsummer Night's Dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this,—and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Happy belated birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! For more Bardolatry, visit the archive.