Friday, June 11, 2010


My Shakespeare

One of the things I love most in the world is Shakespeare. So from time to time I want to talk about him here. Well, not about him. We don’t know much about him, as a person. Certainly he left no record of political beliefs, social concerns, or even personal tastes. So whenever I speak of Shakespeare ‘saying’ or ‘believing’ or whatever, I am talking purely about the writer, the things his plays say or don’t say. I can’t, for example, say whether he, the person, believed women were inferior and Jews were evil and declarations of war was noble. I can say, however, that whatever his own beliefs were, he was willing to present certain, socially comfortable, ideas to the public in his plays. I suspect that, being a man in 16th-17th century England, he largely accepted the general convictions of his time and place, including the assumption that monarchy was a reasonable political system, including the notion that Jews were greedy and nasty, including the idea that women could be intelligent and brave but were nonetheless lower than men, creatures for whom “honor” was synonymous with “chastity” and obedience to one’s husband a given. I suspect it because absent some indication that he felt otherwise (as for example, we know of Christine de Pizan a few centuries earlier that she came awfully close to believing in the equality of women, because she presented her writings as her beliefs), the default assumption would be that he believed, as most of us do, in the dominant ideas of his own age. But again, we don’t know that. I emphasize this because in our era it is easy to fall into trap of taking as a given that self-expression is core to artistic work. It was not an assumption an Elizabethan actor/playwright would have made.

On the other hand, some of us get too tied into the notion that Shakespeare is universal and thus transcends utterly his own or anyone else’s era. No one transcends their era. Shakespeare’s ‘universality’ is something else, much more complex and much more possible. First of all, he was a brilliant wordsmith, the most brilliant wordsmith in the English language. Second, he understood—perhaps not always consciously—the human mind; he seems to me enthralled with our complexity, contradictions, limits, self-delusions, all those things wired into the human brain that do transcend time, but that express themselves within the context of their era and their culture. He was a genius in a society that didn’t necessarily respond to the brilliance of playwriting; theatre was, after all, a fairly disreputable way to earn one’s living; it was certainly not ‘an art.’ Probably he didn’t see himself as an artist.

There are flaws in some of his plays. I think, given the theatre of the day, he probably had to suddenly change lines, even characters, in mid-writing, or at least between the version he had written and the version he had to rework as changes in casts, in laws, and maybe in his own mind occurred. One can debate endlessly whether a particular bit of confusion or apparent sloppiness was really deliberate in a way his own audience would know and accept, or that is simply too deep for most readers/audiences to understand. These debates can be fun: personally, I like the idea of a genius that transcends its possessor’s limits; I find Saint Shakespeare too much of a schoolmaster’s dream, too boringly pedestalled.

Anyway, I always find new things in plays I think I know fairly well—enchanting things, annoying things, inconsistent things, and things that are so staggeringly magnificent that it would take a wordsmith of Shakespeare’s own power to express their glory.

I love also reading works about him—agreeing, disagreeing, suddenly seeing an aspect I’ve never seen before. If reincarnation exists, I’d like to spend at least one lifetime utterly emerged in his works and in works about them.

So, it’s my blog and that means I get to do something I don’t often get to do. I get to analyze aspects of the plays that intrigue me, offend me, thrill me, and all of the above. I have absolutely nothing definitive to offer. I reserve the right to read the plays from any angle that strikes me—feminist, socialist, romantic, stunned schoolgirl who has just discovered a line in “Hamlet” as if the play were new to her. My standards for myself are few but strong. I wish not to read a play as though it were what I would like it to be, not what the text tells me. This means I can read lines like ‘were she ugly as a moor’ without ignoring their racism, while recognizing that as a Renaissance Englishman Shakespeare could not be anything but racist. It also means keeping both facts firmly in context. A playwright writing today, giving words like that to a character we’re expected to respect and without racism being an issue in the play, deserves contempt (and probably a serious boycott.) S/he should know better. S/he has been offered a context of democracy, of liberation philosophies. It’s a funny line to try and draw, a very squiggly line, and requires the line-drawer to distinguish between blame and recognition.

Once many many years ago, I was talking with Caroline Clay, the Boston Phoenix theatre critic, and I called Shakespeare misogynist. She took me to task for it, as she should have. Many of the plays, especially the comedies, are around shrewd, intelligent, loving and lovable women. He was certainly not misogynist; he certainly was sexist.

So this is what I plan to do—talk seriously and I hope intelligently about aspects the plays. They won’t all be political aspects. They’ll be whatever I’m thinking about at the time. I may as I go on explore the same play, twice, or even more. There’s a lot of stuff to say about the plays......Anyway, when or how often I’ll blog about the bard, I don’t know. I’m pretty new to blogging, but it feels to me like writing my columns for the Phoenix and the Herald used to feel, only without the confinement of a particular subject area. That is so cool!

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