William-Shakespeare-portr-007

As this recently uncovered portrait shows, the dude was likely better looking than most people previously thought. Because being a genius wasn’t enough.

 

Some people, particularly those annoying liberal arts majors, regularly claim that Shakespeare is immediately accessible by all. They insist that everyone, young and old, educated and un-, should upon first hearing immediately and passionately embrace the fellow.

Sex and violence, they say, it’s loaded with sex and violence!

Well, yeah. Hamlet, for example, includes a likely suicide, an accidental death, six murders, and just to spice things up a bit, a touch of incest.

Whooey! That’s entertainment, y’all!

If you’re like me the constant refrain that you should love Shakespeare led you to wonder early in life what was wrong with you. Why didn’t you get it, like the teacher said you should?

Let’s not do that to our kids. Instead let’s face the facts: on first hearing, Shakespeare is difficult to understand. You actually have to make an effort to pick up the rhythms, themes, the wit – even the accent, for that matter.

There are four reasons why it’s difficult to understand Shakespeare.

First, he is speaking 400-year-old English. For a simple demonstration of what that means, give some thought to how utterly preposterous the popular language of the 1960s now sounds to our ears. The English language changes daily; what was groovy then is sick today (or it’s something else. I lost touch a few years back).

The second reason lies in the versification that is part of Shakespeare’s charm. He writes in iambic pentameter – five beats at a time: dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum.

The pattern can be obvious: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Or more complex: “To sleep – perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.”

Shakespeare abbreviates words to make them fit the pattern, or expands them. Nouns become verbs. Or he simply makes up new words to do his bidding. An astonishing 1,700 words show up for the first time in Shakespeare’s works, including blushing, tranquil, rant, bandit and others that seem to have always existed.
(One of the really cool facts about Shakespeare is that he, along with Milton and Dryden, can be said to be authoritative. If one of these authors coined a word, or a phrasing, the new use is considered ipso facto proper English.)

All told, Shakespeare used more than 32,000 different words. One recent estimate suggests the average person only knows 25,000 words, so there is a disjunction there, as well. (It’s worth mentioning that Shakespeare wrote before the publication of the first useful dictionary, and long before the first thesaurus had been produced.)

The third reason is this: Shakespeare wrote poetically. He employed poetic license to say what he wanted to say as beautifully as possible. It’s a tendency we avoid in average life and daily conversation, and with good reason. It’s best left to the experts.

But it also means that hearing Shakespeare – discerning the meaning – requires greater attention than normally is expected of a listener. It takes practice. Ted Hughes, who wrote perhaps a dozen books about Shakespeare, said the meaning of the bard’s words “ is not so much narrowly delineated as overwhelmingly suggested by an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, and by this weirdly expressive underswell of musical near-gibberish, like a jostling of spirits, a bustling pressure of shapes inside every syllable.”

(Which is not only a nice description, but also a pretty fine example of that which he was describing.)

And finally, if you’re willing to endure the wrath of the purists, it can be said that Shakespeare is entirely too wordy. In fact it has been said. Ben Jonson, a contemporary, wrote the most famous eulogy for Shakespeare. Its title is unambiguous in its friendship. “To the memory of my beloved, the author Mr. William Shakespeare and what he has left us.”

While addressing the popular myth that Shakespeare never re-worked his words, Jonson also wrote,“The players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.”

So now, my point

Shakespeare is worth the effort, particularly in this day and age, when technology has made his work so much more accessible, both physically and intellectually.

Your local library, for example, likely has any number of Shakespeare’s plays on DVD. If you like, you can turn on the subtitles.

Ahh, that’s better. And no one has to know.

Or you can rewind that bit that just flashed by in a blur.

(“What’d he say?

“Sounded like something about fourteen bras.”)

If your library doesn’t have any DVDs of Shakespeare, look online for any of Kenneth Branagh’s movies based on Shakespeare’s plays. They’re all very good, with the notable exception of his musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is only interesting insofar as it provides a graphic, even gruesome, example of just how badly Shakespeare can be manhandled.

What is the purpose of this effort? Why should we work a bit to get a grasp of Shakespeare?

Here’s one good reason: Shakespeare’s works and the Bible are the most important artifacts within our literary culture. They profoundly affect not just what we say, but what we think. If you don’t know Shakespeare, you likely don’t know why you think and believe as you do.

To put it in more down-to-earth terms, consider the joke about the two old ladies who are leaving the theater after watching their first Shakespeare play.

“Well,” harrumphs the one to the other. “I don’t know what’s so great about him. All he did was take a bunch of cliches and string them together.”

British poet Robert Graves provided perhaps the final word. “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”

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