Shakespeare Is Adorable
By Annie Martirosyan
Indeed, why so much ado about someone who lived 400 years ago? Relevant? How is he relevant? Who would be so gullible today as to put one’s trust in three witches (modern fortune-tellers?)? Would a rich father throw away a pampered daughter for her childish caprice to withhold a 'Daddy, I you!'? Come on, who would believe a moving statue and not recognise his own wife? Is it all what they call Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare was born in 1564, probably on 23 April, to a well-to-do family (his father was mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon) in the rural Midlands of England. As a child, he would have been privileged to attend performances by itinerant players and travelling companies his father would welcome to entertain the crowd in their native town. Young Will would have also been privileged to attend the local grammar school for free. Here he received as much refined education as any credited university could provide today. He was exposed to the classics, French and Latin, and was taught how to read a classical text and elaborate it – a practice which he would apply throughout his writing career. William didn't go to university because his father had lost much of his wealth by the time. At the age of 18, William married Anne Hathaway who was 8 years his senior, had three children, and left later for London to become a player… But in fact he became William Shakespeare – the greatest playwright of all time...
Voltaire called Shakespeare a devil sent to mingle the world and translated his plays into French by what he believed was refining Shakespeare's barbaric language. Goethe called Shakespeare the universal spirit of the world. Tolstoy wrote a whole essay on Shakespeare to say how rotten his plays are, especially his King Lear (Was Tolstoy annoyed to read too much of his own life into the play?), and what an unnatural, inhuman language he uses. Shakespeare's friend and contemporary Ben Jonson called him the soul of the age and the star of poets. Bernard Shaw was quite discontented with 'all this wild obsession with the Bard of Avon, this Bardolatry!' (hence, ‘bardoholic’ has come to refer to someone geeky about Shakespeare). Alexandre Dumas said, 'After God, Shakespeare created most'…
Shakespeare collaborated with colleague playwrights to write plays, went to rehearsals, came home late to read and write under candlelight and drank in London pubs (talking to all sorts of people – common Elizabethans, travellers and merchants from distant lands who would have put in a word or two about the Rialto Bridge or Verona walls) and indeed is most likely to have died because of drinking too much with Ben Jonson the day before. He didn't take a bath often, he was not very clean and he probably had ink under his nails as the film 'Shakespeare in Love' suggests. He was a common man with inborn wit…
Shakespeare was highly credited in his own days. After Elizabeth's death, his company became King's Men and played not just seasonally before the Monarch but actually dwelled in the court. So he had an opportunity to gain firsthand information about the mannerism of the highest social ranks.
Other playwrights of the time envied him, like Robert Greene, who, on his deathbed, thus dismissed Shakespeare: 'an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger's hart wrapt in a Player's hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse... is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey'. Shakespeare was best friends with the merited contemporary Ben Jonson though and likely godfather to his children, and he collaborated with John Fletcher on more than one play. Marlowe, the great playwright of the time, was murdered a month after Shakespeare's first poem, Venus and Adonis, was published. Shakespeare would always be haunted by Marlowe, writing response-plays – parodying him, imitating, outdoing. So that yes, as Professor Jonathan Bate says, Shakespeare killed Marlowe, in the literary sense.
Shakespeare continued to be appreciated in the 17th century in the similar way as in his days (well, when the theatres successfully avoided puritans and plagues). In the 18th century – the Romanticism era – things went a bit awry. Romantic writers started to throw modern looks into his works and read autobiography into his plays and poems (whereas it was not an Elizabethan practice to reflect your own life in your works). Assumptions of Shakespeare's supposed homosexuality and fake authorship had their birth in the 18th century for the first time.
America got its independence in the 18th century. Webster vociferated: '… a system of our own, in language as well as government… the taste of [England's] writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline'. The writers of the brand new world did not want 'a grammar school boy' to continue to influence their 'independent' literary trends. Americans despised everything that was British. Though an immediate product of the Sceptred Isle, they wanted to cut off all the threads linking to it. Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson... – they started to reject Shakespeare's authorship for his works: what a shame a grammar school boy with no university degree from a small English town should exercise such a profound influence on us – let him at least be an aristocrat! Yet ironically, even its nickname – Brand New World – America owes to Shakespeare! His neologism in The Tempest!
Sigmund Freud too joined the anti-campaigners, known as anti-Stratfordians, that is people who reject that William Shakespeare the playwright in London was the same William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon. 'Hamlet couldn't kill Claudius because he had done what Hamlet himself had wanted to do – kill his father and sleep with his mother.' In the second edition of his work on dreams, Freud declared in a footnote that he no longer believed that the author of Hamlet was the William Shakespeare from Stratford. The American scholar Harold Bloom summarises it so excellently: it must have been pretty annoying for the world's number 1 psychologist to admit that someone from the rural Midlands of England understands the human passions better than he, Sigmund Freud.
Shakespeare's popularity continued into the 19th and 20th centuries with the same passion. The authorship question is still being discussed. People blame academics for not putting an end to it by giving ultimate evidence of William Shakespeare's identity (obvious as it is). Yet modest scholars can do little when someone in Hollywood decides to shoot a sloppy film for his own pleasure sensationally denying the Stratford man!
Today Shakespeare's popularity is growing in unprecedented ways. We speak about Shakespeare Cult and Shakespeare Idolatry. Shakespeare's birthday is celebrated all over the world, his works inspiring film productions, musicals, operas and adaptations, translations and performances in virtually every language in virtually every country.
A Chinese teacher has staged a Shakespeare play with her 6-year-old pupils, a group of retired people in England are now performing his A Midsummer Night's Dream to revive their youth, prisoners in a U.S. jail play Macbeth to ease their sins. A Chinese writer has decided to undergo cosmetic surgery to have a face like Shakespeare's! Shakespeare is the only compulsory author in the National Curriculum in UK. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon rock the world as the most phenomenal theatrical repertories. And no other writer has an iPhone app – Shakespeare has!
Why is Shakespeare so universally adorable? Because he is simple. He makes use of Voltaire's highbrow style in his poems and plays but does not neglect the street language of the common folk. He may lack Tolstoy's logical sequence of actions in his plays which very often lack enough motif – like Iago's desire to destroy Othello or Othello's reason for killing Desdemona. He lacks Dostoevsky's principles and commandments of morality. Shakespeare is virtuous and he is lecherous! But unlike Dostoevsky, he differentiates between tradition, stereotype, social code and the inner virtue. He lacks Goethe's aristocratic origins and belongs to the common folk. He is simple, like us, he speaks out our unspoken thoughts, feels our feelings, comments on trifles that are but ours, voices our private worries that we dare not speak out.
His language is for everyone. He is highbrow with a king, gentle with a gentleman, poetic with a maiden and sweary and cursy with the street hooligan. He does not raise only global philosophical themes, like ‘to be or not to be’, or ‘all the world's a stage’ – but also talks everyday little talks like a cup of sack (beer) or dirty linen and in a language that combines mundane wit with mundane humour but sounds so original!
Some people say he would be writing for soap operas today, some say science fiction. A friend of mine says Shakespeare would write political drama today and suggests titles for his potential plays, like 'Margaret Thatcher', 'The People's Princess'! Indeed, give him a laptop and wi-fi and he would be a fish in the water in our days!
Shakespeare survived 400 years as much for his mundanity as for his originality. Very few of his plays are original plots – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, As You Like It, Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, are all adaptations of earlier stories. Shakespeare removed the logical sequence and an obvious motif from them and refined the language. The power of his simple and sophisticated language is unparalleled. 'Strip off the language, and the themes are thin', I have heard.
The frequent lack of logic and clear motif for the actions in plays leave them open to perpetual interpretations, arguments, conclusions and inferences. Did Ophelia sleep with Hamlet? Did Isabella agree to marry the Duke? What does the silence of Hermione indicate – does she forgive Leontes? We still are shocked by a father's inexplicable rejection of his beloved daughter in more patriarchal and strict families, we still would marvel at a moving statue and make ourselves believe in magic, we still like to hear and see stories about witches and fairies. Shakespeare added magic and wonder to the old works he adapted – and this magic and wonder not only managed to tickle the imagination of the Elizabethans but proves to tickle ours 400 years on… for he was from the crowd and he wrote for the crowd.