Saturday, 23 April 2016

This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son

A Four-Century Legacy

A painting by Theodore Chasseriau: Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath

We live in a world of Shakespeare. Which is not to say that we’re governed by laws and housed in systems that he hatched, nor that our world is the one he’d like to have lived in or have seen come to pass. Rather, we live in a world of which our very comprehension and observation was substantially and irreversibly altered by Shakespeare’s work. Since Shakespeare, fiction can not only evoke a life and characters a person, but one’s life – entire life, that is, and not only the apparent biographical details – can be revealed and enlarged, and a person – a real human figure, and not only a character with a name and backstory and good dialogue – can be made to seem real and living in all but the flesh. And through this radical revolution of literature and of consciousness, Shakespeare’s own name has come to be an emblem of that revolution and of the art of literature itself.

I missed the opportunity on this day – the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England – two years ago to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare – England’s preeminent luminary, along with Elizabeth I and King Arthur – in the modest county of Warwickshire in the West Midlands of England. But today is the 400th anniversary of his death, and I’ve been poring over sonnets, soliloquies, and salacious misattributions in quietly exuberant commemoration. William Shakespeare and Emily Brontë were my first loves in literature – and the works of both enjoy far more of my admiration and adoration than 11 years ago, when I first encountered them – but the Bard must ultimately triumph over the Yorkshirewoman, in eminence as well as in the height of artistic achievement, despite Brontë having one of the greatest creative minds to have composed in English.

Shakespeare not only transformed art but seemed to be continually moving and expanding the boundaries of it. After the initial spurt of skillful yet relatively forgettable history plays centred upon Henry VI, he moved on to a few delightful and clever comedies, an outrageous and possibly completely parodistic bloodbath (Titus Andronicus), and then arrived at a sublime triad of lyricism with the history play Richard II, the tragedy Romeo and Juliet, and the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From there he continued to enlarge, not in the sense of enlarging an image on a screen but of broadening and heightening the interior. The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Part I & Part II, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It all astonish and overwhelm the reader, most especially with the shock of the vitality their characters seem to possess. Shylock, Portia, Cassius, Brutus, and Rosalind seem more vigorous and more fundamentally real than any character one comes across in nearly all other fiction on the stage, on the screen, or on the page. And you only need to stand sort of close to any Harold Bloom book to be infected with his profound affection and reverence for the dazzling energy and liveliness, and love of that very liveliness, of the fat knight – Sir John Falstaff, who, once met, is never truly out of one’s mind.

The next play that was produced was Hamlet, which I have yet to tackle in full, but about which you’ll find no shortage of writing on any aspect whatsoever, and then the great comedies Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, and romance Troilus and Cressida. Then came the unbelievable summits of his career – Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the tragedies that seem still to surpass the limits of art. It isn’t difficult for anyone to see that, barring The Tempest, the plays that came afterwards, like Pericles, Cymbeline, and Coriolanus, are not matches for the work the great heart let loose in the fourteen consecutive months from Othello to Antony and Cleopatra, but, then, nothing in literature is, and I, for one, can’t countenance any disparagement of the later works of someone who had created for us Iago, Edmund, the Scottish king, and the Egyptian queen. In a foreword to a collection of essays on the Bard called Living With Shakespeare, Bloom proposes:

“Had one the privilege of having a drink with Shakespeare in a tavern, no doubt in salacious company, insofar as either of us could disengage our attention from our associates and the spirits, I suppose I would have asked him: Am I right in believing that after the high tragedies that culminate in King Lear and Macbeth, and then modulate magnificently into Antony and Cleopatra, it had all cost you too much?”

The astute reader may have guessed by now that my feelings for Shakespeare are a little way off from neutral, and may find a large gap between their reaction to the plays and sonnets and my own (and they wouldn’t be the first). In celebration of this superlative legacy, in the four centuries since the man’s death, I have asked friends of mine to submit pieces of their own on Shakespeare and his work, and what it means to them. You’ll find, as you doubtless already knew, that there are many to whom Shakespeare actively means very little, if anything at all, and in whom his work inspires little excitement. This shouldn’t hinder you from further ventures into literature and the work of Shakespeare himself – in fact, you still have the most marvelous experiences of discovery ahead of you in your life. But there are those who find small moments and items of joy in his works, or at least some measure of intrigue or enjoyment, and they have been kind enough to accept my request. For the next few days, I’ll be posting pieces by people I know on something about Shakespeare that interests them personally, to widen the variety of perspectives on this site for a little while.

If you’d like to contribute as well, feel free to email me (through the link to my Google+ page at the bio on the top left of this page) with your own work. Or, if you’d like, you can leave your thoughts in the comments. And know that, however you feel and whatever you’re thinking while reading these posts, I’ll be in sweet and wondrous raptures for the entire week, with an excitement that couldn’t possibly be diminished by anyone foolish enough to disclose a dislike in this very greatest and dearest of minds.


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