Four hundred years ago tomorrow Shakespeare took his last breath in Stratford. He took with him all of the great mysteries of his life which four hundred years of biographical scholarship can still only speculate on. What was his relationship with his wife? What was his relationship with the church? Did his sonnets point to tempestuous love affairs in London, or were they strictly imaginative and allegorical? When he died did he realize just how influential and universal his writing would come to be?
Everything biographical with Shakespeare is elusive. But when we read him we feel that we know him as well as any modern author. He is Will and we know Will because he has told us so much about ourselves. It was only fitting that when Prince died one of the most moving tributes was Shakespeare Twitter posting simply, “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Like most people I knew nothing about Shakespeare until high school. I knew that my mom taught him, and he loomed large in our household. But he was a foreign language. I first read him in Mrs. Sautter’s class freshman year. As I remember we listened to a BBC production as we read the text of Romeo and Juliet. Judi Dench was the voice of Juliet, and I remember the dudes joking at how James Bond’s boss was playing a teenage girl. But Romeo and Juliet was my first real exposure to Shakespeare and the moment when I first saw what was great about him. On the surface, teenage dudes resent the play because we’re conditioned to see romance as sappy. But it’s just as much a gangster play and we relate to it in that way. It’s about the tribes in your society at war and how you are forced into a fight which existed before you were born, over which you never had a say. Mrs. Sautter showed us the Zeffirelli version and the Leonardo DiCaprio version. Aesthetically I prefer the Zeffirelli version. But DiCaprio’s has its strengths too, especially in how creatively it transfers the gangster violence into a modern setting.
I read Shakespeare with Mrs. Canuette, Mrs. Grady, and Dr. Rigsbee in a class at Mt. Olive my senior year. Through such exposure to his writing I became a literary nerd and he became more than a school assignment for me. As I jumped into literature for its own sake I recognized that Shakespeare was the master through which it all flows.
I confess I have never read all of Shakespeare’s plays and am in awe of those who have. Certain plays reach out to you as an individual and demand your attention in ways that others don’t. The plays which meant the most to me at 17 still do: The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV Part One. In Merchant there’s this intoxicating sense of melancholy combined with good humor and stoicism. Antonio’s opening, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” sets the mood for the whole play, which is really about happiness and tragedy being intermixed. Much Ado is a happier play and probably the funniest play ever written. It’s a romance but it’s just as much about friendship. I think often of the scene where Don Pedro asks Beatrice, part serious, part jesting, “Will you have me, lady?” and she gently responds, “No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day.” Amidst all of the dignified pathos in that exchange it’s also a touching example of how genuine friends talk to one another.
Henry IV matters for me and all other fans because it has Falstaff. There is nothing else like him in all of literature. He is an appetite, a villain, a hero, a romantic, a sexist boor, a principled glutton all rolled into one giant package. How can you not love him? And Orson Welles gave the definitive interoperation of his character in Chimes at Midnight. Welles, lover of sex and food, exile of Hollywood for offending its commercial backers, could relate to Falstaff on a deeply personal level. Memorably, when Barack Obama distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright, Andrew Sullivan posted the scene in which Prince Hal disowns Falstaff. Shakespeare dramatized so many situations which echo in the daily lives of both the powerful and the obscure.
I love the great tragedies of course, if not on the same level as the three plays above. Hamlet is about life’s basic struggle: the anxiety over how to fight tragedy when it is thrown at us. I love Mel Gibson’s Hamlet because you can see how Gibson channeled all of his own inner rage and confusion into the character. Othello is about jealousy and madness, while also foreshadowing the tragic struggle of the nonwhite male to navigate a West which views him with suspicion and hostility. King Lear is about the inevitable loss of power that comes with growing older. And Macbeth is my favorite of the tragedies because it is most like a horror film.
And of course there are the sonnets. What can one even say about them to do them justice? They reflect our deepest feelings back to us in gorgeous language. Who has not felt “in disgrace with fortune” at some time or another? In the “my mistress’ eyes are raven black” sonnet and the “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” sonnet Shakespeare captured the two sides of romantic love. There’s the dark enchantment and fascination on the one hand, and the comfortable humor and detachment on the other.
You can find a Shakespeare quote to line up with most anything in life. The question has always been, what were his own beliefs and feelings? I think Shakespeare put a part of himself into all of his characters. But I think the one who probably meant the most to him was Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. It is easy to imagine “a plague on both your houses!” as Shakespeare’s own cry at the Protestant/Catholic divide which tore both his country and Europe apart for his lifetime. Mercutio stands within the action of the play and is martyr to it; but also stands at a certain distance. He is his own individual. When I picture Shakespeare, I picture a good-natured writer enjoying a pint at the bar who, after growing comfortable with you, might turn and speak to you in this way, as he spoke to all the world:
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.