How dost thou, sweet carbon-based compatriots?
The time has come for me to lay before you a confession, a true accounting of a subject which, while not secret, is one I do not often speak about:
I am fascinated… nay, obsessed, with the works of the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.
What? You were expecting me to confess some strange fetish or other such discommodious avocation? I hate to disappoint, but the tabloids will have to look elsewhere to satiate their reader’s bottomless appetites for such behavioural balderdash.
Anyway, it truly is no secret that I love Shakespeare. I’ve experienced every one of his works in some form or another: the famous ones like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, his lesser known plays, such as Winter’s Tale and Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and even his poetry, such as A Lover’s Complaint and Funeral Elegy. If it’s true that words are a form of currency, promissory notes representing ideas and things, then we are wealthy beyond measure to have access to the Bard’s scribblings.
Shakespeare holds an interesting position in the literary world in that most of us think we know his work, without actually really understanding the work.
Comedian Paul Reiser once observed that when surfing through cable channels, you can see bits of the same movie multiple times, so much so that you fool yourself into thinking you’ve actually seen the entire thing. A similar situation occurs with the works of Shakespeare. Let me give you an example.
If you asked people on the street to quote something from Shakespeare, invariably hear “To be or not to be, that is the question,” the famous lament by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. These ten simple words, have inspired endless debate over their exact meaning. The debates rage on, but throughout it all, I think everyone is missing the point: The meaning is left to the audience to decide.
Pondering the meaning and purpose of one’s life is a deeply personal exercise, and no two interpretations will be exactly the same, just as no two people are exactly the same. It is, in a way, a metaphor for life’s infinite diversity, and the unique role each life must play.
Of course, many people are intimidated by Shakespeare. The unusual language, convoluted sentence structure and sheer weight of literary importance placed on his writing can often make people feel as if it’s not meant for them.
Certainly you’ll never see me engaging is such literary circumlocution. I am proud to opine that my belletristic articulations are absolved of any such abstruse grandiloquence or excessive verbosity. I’m glad we’re clear on that. Moving on.
The cultural significance placed on the works can also serve to cloud their real value, in much the same way that looking at the Mona Lisa often brings forth the question: “Am I impressed because it’s a beautiful piece of work? Or because it’s so famous?” The idea that people feel alienated by the works of Shakespeare is deeply saddening, as it means countless humans have been denied the opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare’s insightful – and often incisive – observations on life and the human condition.
There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this state of affairs, not the least of which being pseudo-intellectual nitwits prattling on ad nauseam about the Iambic Pentameter rhyme scheme of the Sonnets or some such piffle, while entirely missing the beauty – and the point – of the works themselves.
One of the biggest contributors to the alienation of the average person to Shakespeare are educators, or more accurately, the educational system.
I could easily pen an entire treatise on the inequities and issues surrounding the North American educational system, but that’s another tale, for another time. Suffice it to say that the numbers-obsessed, standardized system of education is not at all conducive to helping young people develop an appreciation for the works of Shakespeare, or any poet or playwright for that matter. Let me provide a quick example from my own life.
When I was in high school (near the end of the last ice age) my literature class was introduced to that perennial favourite of literature classes everywhere: Hamlet. Immediately we were instructed to read the play, after which the class would, with the dispassion of a coroner performing an autopsy, dissect the work to understand its structure. At one point in the class I raised my hand to ask what I thought was a reasonable question.
“Shouldn’t we be… watching this?” I asked.
My teacher gave me the stern expression reserved for those dangerous hooligans who possess the unmitigated gall to question the status quo and then go on to more heinous criminal activities, such as robbery, murder or being a member of the Senate. “You can’t watch a movie for everything,” she explained with forced patience, referring of course to the teenage tendency to always choose the movie version when available, despite its necessarily condensed content.
I was annoyed at this rebuke, partly because I was one of those rare teenagers who read everything. I summoned my courage and responded, “I wasn’t talking about a movie. This is a play… shouldn’t we be seeing it performed on a stage? You don’t normally curl up with a good script.”
I don’t remember her response exactly, but it was shall we say… less than salubrious.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the educational system approaches creative works like literature in a way that strips out the human element in order to present a clean, standardized, easily quantified subject. This may be very effective for a grading system, but it ignores the entire point of creative work. The system approaches creativity backward – trying to gain appreciation of a work by taking it apart and examining the pieces. In reality, we experience the magic of a striking paining, a moving piece of music, or the words of a poet, fall in love, and THEN attempt to learn more about how it was created.
Creative works such as music, art, literature, etc. speak to the humanity within each of us. You can no more standardize that than you can count the raindrops during a storm. And that is as it should be.
Shakespeare is truly a gift to we carbon-based bipeds, being who often spend much of their cranial capacity pondering the difference between regular or low-fat version of spray cheese. The work is there to be experienced. Every major city boasts performances of his works, often for free, in an attempt to expose people to the genius of the Bard of Avon.
All I ask of you, my dear and long suffering reader, is that you not allow our clumsy educational system or the prattling of pseudo-intellectuals to deny you the opportunity to experience these amazing works.
As Helena observes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”