Sunday, July 22, 2012

Feature Week: Shakespeare

Our next feature week is an author for whom I have a great fondness...which I share with most of western civilisation. Unlike most people, I started reading Shakespeare because I wanted to know, once and for all, who these "Romeo and Juliet" people I kept hearing about were. I got tangled up in the language pretty quickly (I was nine) but after a couple more false starts and a lot of help from picture books and Charles and Mary Lamb's classic book Tales from Shakespeare I was off.

So why read Shakespeare at all? There are a number of reasons. First, Shakespeare is culturally important: his stories, his ideas, and his odd little phrases have made their way into the imagination and vocabularies of the whole world. Ever thought what life would be like without words such as advertising, excitement, gloomy, or luggage? Ever called something a fool's paradise or a sorry sight? Has anything happened to you all of a sudden, or do you consider something as pure as the driven snow? Have you ever come across something as cold as a stone and as dead as a doornail? Is discretion the better part of valour, and have you ever been eaten out of house and home? Believe it or not, the writer by the name of William Shakespeare is the one who coined these and many other familiar words and phrases. He was also the one who introduced the world to some of the most memorable characters in literature--Macbeth, Hamlet, and even poor Yorick. It would be difficult to have a good English education without reading Shakespeare.

Second--stop me if you've heard this before--but Shakespeare was a pretty neat writer. His stories are carefully constructed, his characters are fully-rounded, his themes are thought-provoking, his writing style is incredible. He is a one-stop creative writing course all by himself.

Third, Shakespeare's worldview is generally sound and the themes of his plays are extraordinarily mature and wise, as I hope to prove throughout the course of this week. His plays could never have been produced except in the grand days of Christendom, and the themes that come through have provided me with hours of enjoyment.

That said, my readers will probably want to hear--Shakespeare makes a lot of off-colour jokes. A lot. Fortunately, the language is such that as long as one doesn't have a really well-footnoted edition, one can read vast swathes of the things without recognising them (although this becomes more problematic when acting or watching Shakespeare, which is really the best way of experiencing him). I was discussing this particular aspect of Shakespeare with Mum the other day. Now Shakespeare is not the only Elizabethan I have read. For example, I find him positively decent compared to (Renaissance-Italian) Ariosto. And he doesn't even look so bad when compared to the best of the Puritan authors, like Edmund Spenser or the Puritan-influenced John Donne, who were also given to a frankness embarrassing today. Obviously you will want to make up your own mind as to what may be acceptable.
Hoaxing Western Civ since the 16th century

One last thing before I get launched into some of my favourite Shakespeare plays. And that is the perennially fascinating authorship question. Were the works of "William Shakespeare" written by the man from Stratford-on-Avon, or by someone else who used him as an agent? Popular contenders in the past have been anyone from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself or for all I know, Elvis. But one man has emerged as the most likely candidate--if William Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the works that appeared under his name, then they were certainly written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Unlike "the man from Stratford" (of whom very little is known), de Vere had an excellent education, the opportunity to travel throughout Italy and other parts, a background in law, a documented literary ability, and familiarity with both the theatre and the court--all of which are shown in the plays. This view has attracted a lot of ridicule--and also a lot of supporters, ranging from famous Shakespearean actors like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud to writers and thinkers such as Joseph Sobran and Christopher Hitchens. The former's book Alias Shakespeare I have not read, but I hear that it is an excellent introduction to the case for Oxfordian authorship.

And now to get into some plays. I'll be back tomorrow with everyone's favourite Romeo and Juliet!

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