Wednesday, August 25, 2010
For no reason except that I always wanted to I decided to read all of Shakespeare's plays.
I read many of them before, but decided I would approach Shakespeare as a tabula rasa, as much as I could -- his being so deeply engrained in our collective minds. I would read them all. I started with "As you Like It" for no particular reason, and have pretty much read randomly, depending on whim and happenstance. Whichever caught my eye at the library or at Half-Price Books became the next.
Each play is a parallel universe triggered to envelope us in mystery and magic. The perfect metaphor, arrived at (apparently) last, is Propsero's Island. But whether in the Forest of Arden, Sicily, Bohemia, the fairy dells of Athens, the splendor of Venice or the crummy inns of Eastcheap, the characters are all wrestling with love, death, honor and responsibility. Their solutions are as varied as there are characters; some are similar, none are the same. Each is the real embodiment of a human response to life's treacherous gauntlet.
I was particularly taken with Hal and Hotspur, those twinned opposites of power and ambition, fighting for the crown. Of course Hal wins; he is the (more or less) legitimate heir. Hotspur, passionate, impatient, masculinely glorious, goes down both through his own conviction that he is invincible (or willing to die if he isn't) and because Hal -- equally passionate, masculinely glorious, of equal conviction -- holds the birthright. But what a contest! Hotspur's brilliance makes Hal's victory more brilliant still.
The scenes of Henry IV and Hal as the old king lies dying reduced me to tears. Here Shakespeare makes it unequivocally right that Hal has triumphed and will be Henry V. "Henry V" elaborates with gorgeous humanity Prince Hal's flowering as warrior king, completing his transformation from prodigal to hero.
The women run the gamut from Lady Macbeth's chilling "Unsex me here!" to Hermione's virtue breathing life into dead marble. How can you not love impetuous love-sick Juliet, or pining, conspiring Rosalind? The courtroom scene in Merchant of Venice is one of my favorite scenes, and not only for the dark crushed figure of Shylock but for Portia, inspired by love to a brilliant coup de theatre, dazzling everyone in the room. And in the theater. And in the world, century after century.
One of the things that struck me this time around was the amount of dramatic time given to the themes of greed, corruption, ambition and power. But greed above all, in both comedy and tragedy, time and again, is the root of all evil. Radex malorum est cupiditas. This is nowhere more graphically portrayed than in Timon of Athens, that scathingly grim jeremiad on greed.
And if that all sounds a bit heavy, visit the magic glades of Midsummer Night's Dream, where everything is animated by fairy dust and ends, as all proper comedy must, with weddings, the union of the real and the unreal, the magic and the mundane, into the ecstatic.
I understand now Shakespeare is not a monolithic entity. Style and language and humour change from play to play, from year to year and decade to decade, constantly evolving. This transforming process explains why so many of the plays are truly unclassifiable as Comedy or Tragedy. This is what makes them so intrinsically modern. They are neither and both; the distinctions are fluid. Who's tragedy is "Julius Caesar" -- Caesar or Brutus? How can we embrace Coriolanus as a hero? The substance of these plays is too protean for easy classification although provisional categories have been devised since people must classify them: the "dark comedies," "the romances." The "Histories" seem more clear cut, but they are not good history and they are as chimerical as the "dark comedies" hovering between comedy and tragedy. And how could Falstaff be classified? Fat Jack looms over all, so amazingly, appallingly human, not heroic and yet so tragic, so irresistibly funny and so comically bad. He, more than Cleopatra, beggars description.
I had a lot of trouble with Love's Labour's Lost. It is early; its formal design is intricate; its language is as complex as the Metaphysical poets. It is absolutely gorgeous, but must have been ever so much easier for the audiences of its time, accustomed to the vernacular of the badinage and the conventions of its verse. Here patience was the key. It was like reading Scerbanenko in Italian, book in one hand, dictionary in the other. Shakespeare requires that extra effort and attention. His field of reference is so vast, especially in history, mythology, the Bible, astrology, astronomy and alchemy, that he is hard to keep up with. His ear for the music of language is so finely tuned that we must sometimes strain to hear it. But it all pays off.
It brought to mind a similar feeling when I was reading Marx and Engels. The sheer volume of what these men knew was staggering, not only languages from Greek and Latin forward, but history, science, mathematics, mythology and religion (and Shakespeare). How does one mind retain and creatively process so much information?
The answer is it doesn't happen often. It is what makes genius genius.
Reading Shakespeare is like learning about the world all over again, not the facts of its existence -- its "history" -- but its personality and its soul.