Shakespeare is at first frustrating, initially because he is hard to understand, but later on, when one begins to understand the language and plot, he becomes frustrating because one never quite knows where he stands on things. As I struggled to figure out the answers contained in some of this plays, I gradually came to realize that these plays are all about teasing out the dividing line between the good or admirable and the bad or shameful. The dividing line is drawn along so many aspects of a particular question of life, and this leads to a very nuanced view of the human experience. Where does contemplation become an excuse for or cause of inaction? At what point does professed love become falsehood? Where does confidence dissolve into self doubt or become corrupted into arrogance? In Hamlet contemplation is obviously a good thing, when one compare Laertes’ reaction to his plight with Hamlet’s. But it becomes a bad thing when Hamlet overthinks his predicament and allows the king to live once he has all the proof he needs. Living the good life is all about towing the narrow line. Shakespeare is good, and so universally revered though the ages, because he tries to tease out a rough idea of this line though stories and characters and language. It is the universal, timeless question. People who give us easy, ready answers are popular but not lasting.
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?
I ate the sandwich.
I the sandwich ate.
Ate the sandwich I.
Ate I the sandwich.
The sandwich I ate.
The sandwich ate I.
In modern English, the most common sentence pattern is subject (S), verb (V), object (O), or I (S) ate (V) the sandwich (O). But as this example shows, most common does not mean only possible, and while some of these constructions (“Ate the sandwich I”) are pretty unusual, they are nonetheless grammatically correct.
Unusual word order in a sentence is called inversion. Shakespeare used inversion to create specific dramatic and poetic effects. Inversion can be used to emphasize key words, to create specific poetic rhythms, to give a character a specific speech pattern (think Polonius, for example), or for a variety of other purposes.
Experienced readers “re-order” the words to understand the sentence. They locate the subject and the verb and “re-write” the sentence for clarity (“Ate the sandwich I” is quickly changed to “I ate the sandwich”).
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a little English town called Stratford-Upon-Avon, about 100 miles northwest of London, two days’ hard journey by horseback.
He was born in the 6th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 1st, daughter of Henry VIII, whom you might remember being famous for his 6 wives, and also having broken with Rome and the Catholic church over the issue of his divorces.
Shakespeare was born into an England that was no longer officially Catholic, but it also wasn’t quite Protestant.