What’s so great about Shakespeare?

When I read Shakespeare in high school, I felt… completely lost.  I actually skipped school one day; not to get out of doing what I was supposed to do, but to get some work done!  I figured if I could just stay home for a day I would finally have the time to figure it out.  Did I?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that I figured out the plot, looked up enough of the words that I could understand some of the meaning, and remembered enough that I could pass a test.  But No, in the sense that I never did figure out why we were reading Shakespeare. I didn’t understand why on earth we were reading something that was so hard to follow.  Why couldn’t it just be translated into modern English?  I now have a modern translation in fact.  Why not just assign that instead?

Shakespeare’s Poetry

What distinguishes Shakespeare is his poetry. Shakespeare is known as a master of the English Language.  He is not known as the master of the gripping plot, or even the master of memorable insights. His achievements in these areas fail to set him apart from the thousands upon thousands of writers in history. In fact, most of his plays were constructed from recycled plotlines.

He is a master of language.  What does that mean?  Well, he had a huge vocabulary.  Shakespeare’s works include more that 30,000 unique words. He was also creative with words – he made up lots of words, maybe thousands – but those things are really only a small part of what makes him a master.

It was the way Shakespeare used words, the way he created complex meanings from words, the way he laid out the words into rhythms drawing us into the emotion of his characters. Shakespeare was a man who was in love with words.  And that is what really made him a master.

Shakespeare’s plays are not written in our normal everyday language.  Of course they are written in the language of his audience – Elizabethan English.  But the Elizabethans did not speak like the characters in his plays.  His plays, like virtually all plays of this age, were written mostly in verse – poetry.

It has been said by Ezra Pound that poetry is “beautiful language charged with meaning.” So what was I was missing when I read Shakespeare in high school?  I wasn’t listening. To really appreciate Shakespeare, you need to hear the verse, see the performance, let the metaphors paint pictures in your imagination; you have to understand why he wrote in poetry, and what the poetry is doing.  Let me take a passage from Hamlet (I,2) as an example. A reasonably translation of the monologue might read,

Mom, it sounds like you are implying that I only “seem” sad.  I really am sad!  It isn’t what you wear or how you look that tells what is inside.  The black clothes, the sighing and the crying and the long faces, all those things that make people think I’m sad – anyone can just act those things out!  But I’m not acting, I am really sad.

Now, let’s take a look at the way Shakespeare rendered the same thought. Read the passage out loud.

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Listen to the way Hamlet repeats words and ideas in his speech—even back before you could right-click on synonyms in Microsoft Word. Listen to the metaphors. Listen again for the meter or rhythm of the speech. Did you notice how he drops some syllables – ‘tis instead of ‘it is’, ‘havior instead of behavior – to get the rhythm he wants. Notice how he alters the rhythm for emphasis. “Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief” has a very different rhythm than “But I have that within which passeth show; these but the trappings and the suits of woe.” We can even hear the delicate rhyme in the last two lines, which contrasts the similar-sounding words, “show” and “woe.”

Obviously, my translation of that passage preserved the meaning but we lost all the power and beauty.  Without Shakespeare’s poetry, I haven’t conveyed the emotional importance, the true significance of what is being said. As Shakespeare knew, there is a difference between saying something and saying it well.

Not only will we enjoy Shakespeare more if we understand the poetry, but the most important reason for studying Shakespeare’s beautiful language is that people who can appreciate and understand what makes something poetic have one of the keys to being a great writer. They write in ways that are not only convincing, but moving.

Take a look at some of the most influential passages the world has ever produced, and notice the poetry they all share:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.- Thomas Jefferson

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.- Charles Darwin

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.- Martin Luther King Jr.

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF THE WORLD, UNITE!- Karl Marx/ Frederich Engels

I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears – Winston Churchill

The careful balance of creation and repetition, power and grace, ornately entwined metaphor and moving simplicity—this is poetry. And that is why generations of students have come to Shakespeare to study his poetic language. It sends an arrow to our heart, particularly when we hear it in the context of the play and the scene.  On the importance of poetry, Allen Bloom said it best: “Poetry is not just a form of rhetoric.  It is the most profound form of rhetoric, because it shapes the minds of the men on whom the statesmen’s rhetoric works.”  Nothing more need be said on the importance of the poet.  He is surely second only to our parents in shaping our minds.

Ask Your Own Questions

So, one problem I had in high school was that I didn’t much appreciate poetic language. But I believe there was another, most important barrier between Shakespeare and me.

The standard model of high school pedagogy detaches the student from the text. Before picking up the book, kids are generally spoon-fed someone else’s interpretation of it. As they read, the teacher and commentator are constantly interjected when any real connection or insight might occur in the student. We must not become too entangled with our academic material. Literary study has become literary criticism. Finally, a teacher’s assessment of our “performance” as a reader depends on several multiple choice questions and a short essay to test our regurgitative ability. Always, students must answer someone else’s questions about Shakespeare, not their own.

Are we well read today?  According to one measure, yes.  The statistics tell us that Shakespeare is more widely read today than at any point in history.  The trouble is, do we read him in a way that moves us?  That allows him to speak to our situation, personally, to speak to the modern world?   My experience tells me no.

One reason I was having so much trouble liking Shakespeare is that I was looking in his plays for the answers to tests.  No one had ever thought to put this simple thought into my head: in this play I might find insights to help me meet my problems, set my goals, figure out the world or move me to action.  Where students should be grappling with the nature of love, the ethics of murder, or the meaning of happiness, they are counting syllables, memorizing lists of minor characters, and questioning the use of this-or-that particular symbol. Technical familiarity with Shakespeare doesn’t make us better people, better sisters, or fathers, or citizens.  Shakespeare, as one Shakespearean scholar has said, should become part of the furniture of your mind.  There is no other reason to read him.

So, the first thing I want to tell you is – if you want to enjoy Shakespeare, read the Cliff’s Notes, but ask your own questions, and find out what’s in there for you. Use the margins to scribble down thoughts as they come to you. Do you think it’s possible that there’s nothing in there for you?

I was talking to a friend last week who thought the whole idea of finding personal significance in Shakespeare was a little silly.  She asked me what tests we were going to give on Hamlet.  I told her none; that we were going to encourage the students to find things relevant to their own lives in Hamlet, not relevant to a test.  She became a little sarcastic:  “So how many of them are likely to have their father killed and come back to demand they take revenge?”

I shared with her – and I’d like to share with you – an example of something I learned from Hamlet that is relevant to my life.  When I read this play the first time I read with a question in mind that you might find a bit odd: What principles of mentoring does this play teach me?  Believe it or not, I found many.  When the ghost tells Hamlet that the whole ear of Denmark has been poisoned by a lie about his death, when Polonius and Laertes poison Ophelia’s ear with their opinions about Lord Hamlet, that got me thinking about how telling people what to think poisons their mind so they can’t find their own answers, and, worse, they might not even be able to recognize truth when they see it.  I suggest you too ask your own questions, and see what happens.

I hope that you and your classes you will start to develop an appreciation for how Shakespeare tells us about your world, speaks to your problems, and does so in a persuasive and beautiful way.