Sitting by a Dead Man
I’ve just spent two years sitting beside what is left of William Shakespeare, and considering he’s been in sepulchral decay just shy of 450 years, there’s still quite a bit of him to sit by.
It was a project, inspired by the 2012 “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” proclamation in Chicago. Familiarity with the old Quaker Oats commercial and the King James Bible made it easy for me to pretend I could speak “Shakespeare” with a few “thees,” “thous,” and “wouldst” tossed in mundane 21st-century English. I tried a few phrases on my wife. Impressed, she was not. I could tell by the way she ignored me. This was not right!
I determined I could do better, and I gave myself two years to ready for my next foray in overwhelming my wife’s auditory senses. Thus hatched my quest to read and blog about all Shakespeare’s works before the 450th anniversary of his birth. It was really no great challenge to read him in two years. Many had read all of them before, and I was highly motivated: I’d be able to woo her with romantic phrases, entertain her with perfectly structured insults and inspire her with heroic monologues. So, I scooted over by the man, hoping some of his mastery would seep like methane gas from a landfill into me.
Two years have passed, Shakespeare is now (probably) 450 years old: Today’s the day I try again to impress my wife with
Shakespearean-like prose and poetry. Should I impress her with Portia-like words on justice and mercy? Or lift a few of bad-boy Harry V’s words to sprinkle in: Perhaps a nice discussion of the challenges we face together against enormous odds—I could weave in a bit about we two, “we happy few.” I have even considered provoking an argument in eloquent Elizabethan words demanding that she acknowledge that the sun is really the moon, but if I were to do that, I’m pretty sure we’d no longer be the happy two. I’m still weighing my options, with few minutes left to decide.
While I consider what to say to her, let me acknowledge my great love and respect for my new friend and dehydrated mentor and mention a few things a Shakespeare novice learned about the poet, his work and us in the last couple of years.
- Shakespeare’s plays were not meant to be read; they were meant to be performed and watched. But they have to be read to give one time to examine the ideas and words he tinkered with. I found I got much more out of the plays when I watched them performed (when I could), then read them.
- Shakespeare was not meant to be watched or read out of context of his times. The more I read Shakespeare’s plays, the more I wanted to know about the historical background and the culture and practices of his day, and the more I learned about the history and his times, the more I understood and appreciated the plays, their author and Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
- The question that kept creeping into my mind as I read was: What’s so special about the playwright? I confess during early readings (comedies), the inquirywas offered questioningly, mockingly. But the more I read, the more I began to see that he was at least just a little above average. So why so special?
- Was it his plots? I suspect not, because one of his great talents was thievery. He lifted plots and stories from old and ancient sources and even contemporary plays to shape them to his own purposes and audiences’ tastes. He was like a one-man car theft ring and something like a chop shop. He’d take them, dismantle the parts and put them together again, adding needed parts, embellishments and a new body color and sheen. It was no longer the same play and was safe from any former owner claim.
- Was it the big questions and issues he dealt with? He’s not the only one who has captured and challenged ambition, lust, deceit, prejudice; so it can’t be merely the issues he raised. The breadth and the quantity of his work, however, is exceptional and testifies of his hard and rapidly working, productive genius.
- Was it his language? Absolutely! He knew how to turn a phrase, and we’ve been borrowing them ever since.
We often like to think of ourselves as superior to those who came before, but broad, contemporary public support of the Bards plays in his day suggest just the reverse. Shakespeare’s plays entertained diverse audiences, including “groundlings” who would stand for hours to watch them. Among the groundlings were young men—often trade apprentices—out for an afternoon of entertainment. It’s hard for me to imagine a Shakespeare play as a broadly anticipated leisure activity today. What did they have that we don’t?
Another interest I have is the Civil War—not that one; the one in the colonies. I tweet on both the Civil War and Shakespeare, and a twitter follower and friend recently asked me: Why two such diverse interests? I shrugged off the question at the time, but I thought about it for several days before realizing that if I’d been as sharp as Shakespeare, I would have responded in perfectly crafted iambic pentameter that both poet and conflict run so deeply in who we are that to ignore them is to not understand the West, the US and ourselves—what we inherited, what we’ve won, what we’ve lost, what we’re even now letting slip away.
Maybe 450 years after his birth, it’s time to re-emphasize Shakespeare’s plays, his themes, his language, his plots and expose more of him to current and coming generations.
I doubt my wife will notice any improvement in my ability to speak in masterful, metered Elizabethan or Jacobean phrases, but we (she and I) have had fun getting here.
Happy 450th, Will! And thanks for letting me sit beside thee.