It took me a looong time to learn to appreciate Shakespeare, but I’m slow that way. We read bits of the plays in high school English class and acted out scenes (badly). In college we read the plays out loud, discussed them in great detail, wrote papers that often missed the point completely (mine did, anyway). Then I worked backstage on a school production, and as I kept hearing it, the language and the rhythms started to seep in and I slowly began to ‘get it’.
Then I joined a local Shakespeare theatre troup and ran costumes on two shows a year for several years. I sat in on the read-thrus and rehearsals, listening to the director explain how the wording, punctuation and structure of the text were all the stage direction that Shakespeare needed (aside from ‘Enter Pirates’ and ‘Exit, Pursued By A Bear’). He pointed out that if you only took a breath at the full stops, it was clear how fast and intensely you should be speaking in order to get the words out. If you studied the iambic structure, you knew which words should be stressed – and when Shakespeare broke those rules, there was a reason for that dissonance. It was rather like reading a score of music, and when performed right, could evoke just as much visceral emotion from those listening to it.
Shakespeare played with every sort of humor, from horrible puns, to broad characters, to ridiculous situations, to wicked wit. He delved into the depths of tragedy, the excesses of depravity, and the heights of honor. He ransacked the classics for familiar themes and stole all the best bits from his fellow playwrites – dressing them up to sound new and original. He wrote histories and romances and great dollops of pure fantasy. There were Gods and monsters, Kings and Queens, knaves and fools, shepherds and sailors – and he used them all simply in order to show us ourselves.
He did it with tricks and skill, using language and archetypes designed to trigger our instinctive reactions. He marshalled all the art and artifice at his command to represent the truth of the human condition. He layered them one on top of another so they obscured and smoothed over the seams and joints of his careful construction. You have to dig down and take it all apart to see why it works so well and carries its weight so effortlessly.
It is hard to imagine anyone else doing it ‘better’. Contemporary style concentrates more on portraying ‘reality’ in a stark and direct manner. Making art represent true life, rather than constructing artistic representations of life’s truths. It’s just a different way of doing the same thing – packing human experience into a very small space with such power and precision that when ignited by the spark between audience and performers, it explodes into a display that opens the mind and moves the heart.
Happy Birthday, Will. Glad you were born 🙂