Some years ago, on the first day of a Shakespeare course, when I asked students to explain why they wanted to take the class, one person answered, “Because even a six year-old knows about Shakespeare.” As my daughter was six at the time, I decided to put my student’s theory to the test.
That night, I asked her, “Do you know who Shakespeare is?”
“Isn’t he that guy who wears pumpkin pants?” she said.
The question to my class wasn’t rhetorical or strategic. I’m curious why people still study Shakespeare. Though a few students have no justification beyond their parents’ wishes, most answer as the student above did: Shakespeare has added immeasurably to our culture, and there must be something to an author who has persisted lo these 400 years. He is Famous (capital “F”) and Important (capital “I”). Yet, while cultural literacy is a valid answer, it’s also safe. I secretly admire levelers like my daughter who refuse to take Shakespeare too seriously. I love asking, “Why Shakespeare?”
Shakespeare worshipers are called “bardolators.” I’m not sure I’d consider myself a bardolator now, and I certainly didn’t start out as one. My first attraction to Shakespeare was competitive—everyone told me how hard he is, and, seeing myself as a literary giant killer, I wanted to fell every author others couldn’t handle. I was cultivating a list of difficult books I’d finished. I never expected to find anything new in Shakespeare. At first, I didn’t, just more lyricism and subtlety. I liked reading his lines aloud—even a giant killer recognizes music—but I clung to skepticism. I bristled when anyone said, “He’s kind of a big deal.”
As my capacity to understand Shakespeare grew, so did my respect. Scholars have so many and so different thoughts about his plays and, after you’ve studied Shakespeare for a while you begin to see that, while nothing is new, everything is there. You begin to feel as philosophy majors must about Socrates. He got to just about every major question about humanity, and he got there first. Even at that stage in my appreciation, however, questions nagged me—what did I really admire, Shakespeare, or my ability to interpret his lines?
Truth is, a good deal of Shakespeare’s difficulty comes from imprecision. A line like “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile” (LLL, I.1: 77) sounds illuminating but couldn’t be more shadowy. Like most good poetry, the sound of of Shakespeare’s lines ring as much as their sense, and it’s easy to mistake lyricism for wisdom or artistic virtuosity. When you watch or listen to Shakespeare, the current of musical language can carry you away and squelch questions like “What the hell does that mean?”
Samuel Johnson dares to suggest Shakespeare didn’t understand either. The Bard, Johnson says, sometimes finds himself, “Entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while; and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in such words as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.”
In other words, Shakespeare was lazy, all-too-willing to settle for ambiguity that leaves explanation and interpretation to others.
My biggest breakthrough came from recognizing these “others” as actors. My best answer to “Why Shakespeare?” may be that his work makes literary criticism practical. To perform his lines, you must understand them… even if that means devising something more likely than true. You can talk about accurate interpretations of Shakespearian characters, and lines limit possibilities somewhat, but half the fun is renovating roles, finding what you need in them. Their expansive humanity makes re-evaluating the characters possible. In an even larger sense, producing Shakespeare means rendering it contemporary and relevant. If the plays weren’t so slippery, reinventing them might be impossible.
Not many students embrace the difficulty of Shakespeare as I did—I think I’ll cry if I hear one more freshman say the plays need to be translated into English—but most students enjoy acting out lines and putting his plays on their legs. Students are surprised to discover the difficulty of Shakespeare also makes it fun to play.
In two weeks, I’m off to New York City to study Shakespeare and, to prepare, I’m rereading the three plays we’ll cover. As always, I wince—some moments are so dated or corny or implausible or bombastic or ornate—but behind it all is something that, even after 400 years, waits to be revealed. Any mystery that survives so long, that stretches just out of our reach and still invites investigation must be good, must be worth studying.
Shakespeare is no god—he wore pumpkin pants, after all—but maybe his murkiness, his flawed effort to sing exactly what being human means is better than divinity. For me, his humanity is the best reason to keep him around.