Shakespeare 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 Greek.

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.

Classics are 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."

Shakespeare 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.

Harold Bloom 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 mind.

Among other 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 friend,
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!"

— Perdita 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 to death."

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, my son,
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 – 84.

Coriolanus 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.


Shakespeare published 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 accusing Night:

"O Comfort-killing 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.

The knowledge 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.

Shakespeare was 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."

Shakespeare's 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.

Despite these 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 III.

Alternatively, 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.

Shakespeare was 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 lexicon.

Despite the 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.


Having recommended 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.

Richard III

(Henry IV Part I and II; worth it for Falstaff?)

Romeo and Juliet

A Midsummer-Night's Dream

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

As You Like It

Twelfth Night

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Troilus and Cressida

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice

The Tragedy of King Lear

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Antony and Cleopatra

The Tragedy of Coriolanus

The Tempest