and the Classics
There are four
great literary works in western history: The Bible, Homer's
Iliad and Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, and
the best of Shakespeare. I purposely eschew Virgil, who so influenced
Dante, Milton, and a host of others, because I think The Aeniad
derivative of Homer. Virgil's enormous influence is largely due to
the fact that Latin was the universal language of the west for nearly
2000 years, and he is generally considered the greatest epic poet
in Latin. If I had to name a fifth author, it would be Virgil for
this reason, though I do not think him the equal of the other four,
particularly as his polished Latin lacks the freshness of Homer's
Anyone who has
not read the works listed above does not qualify as having had a liberal
arts education. It is in fact quite possible to attend a university
nowadays and avoid all these Meisterwerke, which reflects not
only the specialization of higher education but also a lack of confidence
in the inherited judgment of history. Such values are presently adrift
in a sea of cultural relativity, aided by what Harold Bloom calls
"the Balkanization of the Humanities." But there is a reason classics
are called classics, and it may not be what you think.
simply the bestsellers of the ages. For this reason I prefer classics
to contemporary bestsellers, as the judgment of history is more reliable
than current enthusiasm. Classics are those books generally agreed
upon by mankind as the most fun to read and re-read.
To broaden the
concept to another genre, I have every confidence that future generations
will continue to treasure the Beatles until they are remembered as
real long hairs, because their music results from hard-won
genius. Just as Shakespeare progressed from forgettable plays like
King Henry VI to masterpieces like King Lear, so the
Beatles went from sappy love songs to such classics as "A Day in the
Life," "I Am the Walrus," and "Strawberry Fields Forever," not to
mention the most recorded song in history, "Yesterday."
also resembles the Beatles in this: of the four classics mentioned
at the outset, Shakespeare's work may be the most approachable, Homer
a close second. The Divine Comedy and the Bible require more
effort on the reader's part, but nearly anyone can be entertained
by Richard III or the antics of Falstaff. When seen onstage
with the speeches properly inflected, one doesn't really need a dictionary
to understand Shakespeare's meaning. He was acutely aware of his audience,
so much so that he perhaps mocked this relationship with his titles
As You Like It and Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will.
in The Western Canon asserts that all great literature must
subsume the tradition and also depart from it. To these
criteria I have added a third: universal appeal. Shakespeare
has this quality in spades, as no other dramatist in history has been
translated and performed in so many languages, not to mention recent
film revivals of everything from Hamlet to Titus Andronicus.
When I was a
child my parents had a set of Shakespeare for Children, with
lovely color plates that still haunt me. Reading A Midsummer's
Night Dream as a boy (in a simplified narrative) was no less magical
than seeing it performed as an adult. It is hard to ruin Shakespeare,
or any classic for that matter, if the reader is not first prejudiced
by being told that it is a classic, which label more promotes a fear
of intellectual work than indulgence of pure pleasure. Better that
we think of classics as all-time bestsellers, to be read hungrily,
with expectation and joy.
My latest indulgence
in the classics was to read the complete works of Shakespeare. This
took me about two months, not only because of length, but because
some dramas affected me for days afterwards. During such enforced
pauses I was so surfeited with poetry and emotion that I could barely
read the paper. The Bard is no low-calorie dish for the heart and
pleasures, in reading his sonnets again I think I understood their
progression for the first time, which would require another essay.
I also discovered some plays I had previously underrated, such as
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The former depicts
a rare achievement in Shakespeare: mature, adult love. The latter
presents Shakespeare's most fully realized female character, Volumna,
an older woman wise to both virtue and policy in the best traditions
of Rome. And in The Winter's Tale, for example, as in other
flawed plays, I nevertheless found some beautiful poetry to admire,
here of the pastoral variety:
"Now, my fair'st
I would I had some flowers of the spring that might
Become your time of day, and yours, and yours,
That wear upon your virgin branches yet
Your maidenheads growing: O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
Or Cytherea's breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The Crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of; and my sweet friend,
To strew him o'er and o'er!"
from The Winter's Tale, Act IV, lines 110 – 130.
This play also
features one of Shakespeare's most memorable minor characters, Autolycus
an eloquent thief, rake, singer, pedlar and impersonator, whose
conversation reminds me of a more discerning Falstaff, the libertine
generally regarded as Shakespeare's greatest comic character. Here's
a sample of Autolycus' comic verbiage, while speaking of a king's
son who married without royal consent:
"He [the king]
has a son, who shall be flayed alive; then, 'nointed over with honey,
set on the head of a wasp's nest ; then stand till he be three quarters
and a dram dead; then recovered again with aqua-vitae or some other
hot infusion; then, raw as he is, and in the hottest day prognostication
proclaims, shall he be set against a brick-wall, the sun looking with
a southward eye upon him, where he is to behold him with flies blown
I can only touch
upon Shakespeare in so short an essay, making it easier to recommend
him through quotes which perhaps confirms the oft-quoted remark
that "poetry is what cannot be translated." Yet Shakespeare has been
so often successfully translated that it can lead to an opposite argument:
great poetry, by virtue of its universality, can be translated.
In fact, while reading Hamlet in German (in a translation at
least as antiquated as Shakespeare's English), the poetry, to my surprise,
sang through the German gutturals without difficulty.
One new opinion
I acquired in my reading is that Coriolanus should be added
to the four tragedies generally recognized as Shakespeare's greatest:
Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The exalted
yet economic diction of Coriolanus outmuscles Julius Caesar in Senecan
high-mindedness. As an example note Volumna's advice to Coriolanus
as he prepares to appear before the commoners in order to qualify
as senator a public requirement essentially distasteful to
this seasoned Roman general, who wears thirty scars for badges but
refuses to display them to the general public for approbation:
"I prithee now,
Go to them, with this bonnet in thy hand;
And thus far having stretch'd it here be with them
Thy knee bussing the stones for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of the ignorant
More learned than the ears waving thy head,
Which often, thus, correcting thy stout heart,
How humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling: or say to them,
Thou art their soldier, and being bred in broils
Hast not the soft way, which, thou dost confess,
In asking their good loves; but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou has power and person."
III, ii, 75
also adds another fatal flaw to Shakespeare's mature tragic characters.
King Lear's sins are sloth and denial, as he resigns as king at the
age of 80 in order to pursue infantile pleasures, then wonders why
two of his daughters no longer respect him. Hamlet's flaw is indecision.
Like Lady Macbeth, he exhibits obsessive-compulsive tendencies, though
these may equally be ascribed to his youth. In any event, his fear
of uncertainty, which brings about hesitation, is his undoing. Adolescents
crave certainty but that craving cannot be satisfied except through
a potent illusion, as in religious cults. So Hamlet prefers his inner
theater to reality. Macbeth's sin is ambition, Othello's jealousy,
while Coriolanus' is pride yet neither hubris nor blindness,
but an unwillingness to compromise his fundamental self to suit political
niceties. It can be argued, in fact, that Coriolanus is not proud
but painfully, dumbly honest. It also occurred to me, in reading this
late play, that Coriolanus might have expressed Shakespeare's own
weariness at having to please the mob for so long.
only two major poems in his lifetime: "Venus and Adonis" and "The
Rape of Lucrece" (an unauthorized publication of his sonnets appeared
in 1609). His narrative poems were well received, achieving multiple
printings, but there is nothing outstanding about them when compared
to other Elizabethan poetry. "The Rape of Lucrece," for instance,
stretches out Lucrece's post-rape soliloquy into an unintended, comical
delay of the action, else a poor poetic excuse for lack of action.
It takes 39 stanzas for Lucrece to bemoan her rape. In a passage that
must be judged hyperbolic for any age, she begins her complaint by
Night, image of hell!
Dim register and notary of shame!
Black stage for tragedies and murders fell!
Vast sin-concealing chaos! nurse of blame!
Blind muffled bawd! dark harbour for defame!
Grim cave of death! whispering conspirator
With close-tongued treason and the ravisher!'
As her monologue
continues, Lucrece manages to castigate both Time and Opportunity
at length before finally mentioning the proximate cause, her rapist,
Tarquin, in stanza 30. If Shakespeare had attempted such sustained
poetic indulgences in his plays the audience would have hooted.
of an audience, particularly from his standpoint of an actor, doubtless
made Shakespeare a better poetic dramatist than if left to his own
quill and parchment. Perhaps sensing this, Shakespeare threw his lot
in with The Lord Chamberlain's Men, later The King's Men, in 1594
for good. He chose the theater over poetry and remained an actor and
playwright with this company until his retirement to Stratford after
1610. As in his time it was thought no literary reputation could be
made in the theater, Shakespeare would have been amused to find out
that his plays were most responsible for his immortal reputation.
They were, incidentally, not published in folio form until eight years
after his death.
not original except in his treatments, as he stole his plots from
Italian Renaissance romances or English histories (esp. from Holinshead's
Chronicles), with a few borrowed Greek and Roman tragedies from
secondary sources. Most of his mythology appears directly derived
from Ovid, whom he likely read in grammar school. Although he added
psychological depth to inherited characters, and created new characters
as the dramas demanded, he rarely invented a story, except perhaps
The Tempest, for which we lack a principal source. This fact
makes me sometimes wonder if Eliot had Shakespeare in mind when he
said, "Great artists steal."
plays rarely fail to entertain, but most of his early scripts are
not terribly good, and he didn't hit his stride until his forties,
when he wrote Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus
(Hamlet was written earlier). He died at 52, his last full
play likely The Tempest, as Henry VIII is believed to
have been written mainly by John Fletcher, although it does appear
in the first folio as Shakespeare's.
If one compares
Shakespeare's productions to contemporary entertainment, he had no
qualms about violence and sex, even cannibalism (as in Titus Andronicus),
and would likely today be in either movies or television, with a sharp
eye on the bottom line. But there is no one like him in contemporary
venues, a supporting actor lionized for his scripts. Rod Serling wrote
many fine dramas but did not act in them. Steven Spielberg has directed
and produced many successful movies, but only rarely has he contributed
more than the idea of a story to the script. What Serling, Spielberg,
and Shakespeare have in common is enduring popularity. The Twilight
Zone continues on cable channels, with the occasional holiday
marathon on a commercial channel (as in a Shakespeare festival). And
what child of the 70s does not own a copy of ET or Close
Encounters? Myself, I love Spielberg's Jurassic Park series
because it managed to create the first realistic dinosaurs on film,
something I'd always dreamed of as a boy.
attempts at contemporary comparisons, Shakespeare must stand alone
as a poetic dramatist. He is not a god, though his powers may sometimes
appear godlike. Why? Because no one, in any language at any time,
has better fused psychology and poetry into drama, exposing human
nature in all its brilliant inconsistency. His poetry is nonpareil,
his psychology the envy of Freud who would not accept Shakespeare
as anything less than an earl, preferably a duke, a common fault among
intellectuals (which I think stems mainly from jealousy).
It is easy forgive
Freud wanting Shakespeare to be an educated noble if one considers
that the secrets of the unconscious on which Freud spent a lifetime
were perhaps better understood by a tanner's son. What Freud thought
he had discovered was already present in Shakespeare. Oedipal complex?
See Hamlet. Hysterical dissociation? See Ophelia in Hamlet.
Hysterical dissociation with obsessive-compulsive tendencies? See
Lady Macbeth. Senility and denial? Sibling rivalry? See King Lear.
Projection and jealousy? Read Othello. Psychopathy? Study Richard
if one craves a feel-good ending, there are the comedies, which almost
always end in happy, usually multiple, marriages. And the world Shakespeare
creates as a backdrop for his comedies is as magical and fantastic
as anything Hollywood has dreamed: fairies, enchanted forests, miraculous
shipwreck survivors, even a man whose head is turned into that of
an ass. Moreover, these elements, which normally require "suspension
of disbelief" (as Coleridge named it) seem so easy and naturally done
that one buys in wholesale from the beginning, without reservation.
And what is
Will's great advantage? Language. Although the Elizabethan theatre
was quite capable of making actors fly, simulating dragons, arranging
appearances and disappearances through trap doors, as well as staging
battles on a three-level stage, the audience also expected verbal
pyrotechnics. Shakespeare played to a highly literate audience. Even
the "groundlings" who got in for a penny and stood before the stage
were mainly apprentices, young men with a future, not some drunken
rabble yelling for special effects. Thus in Shakespeare's best plays
the language carries the action, not the other way around -- as in
most contemporary fare. Shakespeare, through his verbal mastery, gets
more mileage out of a single prop (like Yorick's skull in Hamlet)
than all the bells and whistles Dreamworks™ can supply. Though supported
by great actors and good stagecraft, it is ultimately Shakespeare's
poetry that manipulates an audience's emotions with consummate skill.
And the Bard is rarely heavy-handed like Oliver Stone, or obscure
like David Lynch at his worst, but eloquent and brutal, virtuous and
bawdy by turns. He can imitate the speech of the working class as
easily as that of the nobility, and by his wit as easily turn fools
into nobles as nobles into fools.
not an isolated genius in the way we think of James Joyce or Samuel
Beckett, but a very social man of business who was acquainted with
all levels of society, from which he also no doubt took many of his
characters. His genius as an acute observer of humanity, combined
with a talent for wordsmithing beyond anything before seen in the
language, allowed him to codify many common expressions, as in "dead
as a door nail," "the beast with two backs," or "salad days." It could
almost be said, in fact, that Shakespeare, next to the King James
Bible, invented modern English. The language was in flux when
he wrote, rife with alternate spellings, Gallicisms, and a host of
words on the bubble of incorporation into English. His plays thus
became a permanent record for the volatile period of the English Renaissance,
to which future lexicographers would refer. If Shakespeare used it,
a word had a much greater chance of becoming a member of the general
greatness Shakespeare achieved, he was not born a master of language.
Upon close inspection of his plays it becomes apparent that Shakespeare
learned to be great by long practice. He likely wrote for some 30
years, with his greatest works arriving in his mature forties. If
one compares a late play like Coriolanus or The Tempest
to an early play like Love's Labour Lost or The Taming of
the Shrew, one can see a marked change in the depth, economy,
and power of his words. By the end of his career his writing is more
muscular and compact; one gets the sense he has written so long that
there is very little fat left in any poetic speechifying. He almost
appears tired of striving with the audience in his late period. Such
poetic directness and economy as Coriolanus and The Tempest
display remind me of an old swordsman who wastes no effort on flourishes
but goes straight to the heart of the matter. Thus one of the great
joys of reading Shakespeare is to witness his development as an artist.
He worked as hard as any writer I've read to perfect his craft, giving
hope to beginners and journeymen alike, while supporting Edison's
assertion that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
the classics for pleasure, I feel obligated to make their undertaking
as easy as possible. Therefore I would not recommend reading the complete
Shakespeare, as much of it is forgettable, though the occasional flash
of genius appears even in his humblest attempts. Below I list those
plays I think eminently worth reading. Of his poetry, I would recommend
only the sonnets, though his "Phoenix and Turtle" is a nice little
example of metaphysical poetry.
Part I and II; worth it for Falstaff?)
of Julius Caesar
As You Like
of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
of Othello, the Moor of Venice
of King Lear