Suggestions to High-School Students for Reading Shakespeare -- Part 3

03/20/2015 11:13 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015
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Shakespeare as Alternative Universe

The initial strangeness you may encounter in reading Shakespeare is simply the play's way of telling you that you've entered another world, which is, after all, why you're reading his play in the first place. You're already familiar with the everyday world from which you've absented yourself to enjoy the heightened experience of one of his plays.

So it's only natural that its setting, mood, and language will be different, for it's precisely this difference that someone in search of the new would expect and welcome as part of its charm.

This sense of strangeness is alerting you that not only are you entering an alternative universe with its own unique moodscape, but that you should also expect the unexpected, as well as a different state of mind while exploring this world.

If you've ever been in a foreign country, you may have experienced much the same feeling where everything seems a little surreal as people rapidly talk to each other in an unknown tongue, while you marvel at how they can understand one another, and that an entire culture can function by not speaking English.

Welcome to the esoteric delights of culture shock, which teaches you to focus as never before. However, when you're young and immortal, and love taking risks, you simply plunge in, drinking deep from life's great cup of wonder.

It's much the same way with Shakespeare's old-fashioned language, which may slowly come to winning you over. The meaning of these quaint-sounding phrases you'll sense from the context, or by glancing at the marginal notes.

Beneath the exotic words, the colorful costumes, and the different customs, you'll catch the beatings of the same human heart as it grapples with the perennial problems of human existence. This is not to suggest that the characters are disguised Americans transported to a different time and place. These characters are different, very different, but this difference is well worth the price of admission.

Creatures of Our Time

You may have heard the saying: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." Not only are other nations foreign countries as you would expect with their different values and outlooks, but so, too, is the past with its different ways of viewing the world and different notions of truth and morality.

As you become more familiar with Shakespeare's plays, you'll be struck by how his characters lived out their lives in decidedly different historical worlds. Whether it's Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Lear, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet, you'll realize that had you been their contemporaries, you, too, would have shared their views of the world, so different from that of the modern world.

Moreover, as these characters were swept up by the enthusiasms of their time, so you, too, would have also been borne away in much the same fashion. Ancient Britain, classical Rome, medieval Scotland or England, Renaissance Italy or Denmark - they were all as one in stamping the indelible imprint of their age on everyone living during those times.

You would realize that you, too, are creatures of your time and place, which shaped your beliefs and outlook. Don't young people today think the same way, have the same values, want the same things, spend leisure time on the same pursuits, and feel pressured to conform to peer expectations?

The Role of Chance in Our Lives

Then consider the role that chance plays in our lives. We could have been born of different parents of a different race and religion in a faraway country centuries ago, and been much different persons. Perhaps they would have been good or bad parents, rich or poor, in good or poor health, educated or illiterate. When we reflect upon all of these factors over which we have no control, we see how helpless we are and how capricious the conditions that control our lives.

We understand that we might have been born as somebody else, but happened to be born at a particular time and place to become who we are. Despite this chance-ridden nature of our lives, however, we nevertheless mistake the little patch of ground upon which we grow up for the center of the universe, and sanctify the prejudices of our group as truth from on high. We condemn others for holding views, which, in a different time and place, we too might have held with no less conviction!

The Importance of Meaning

Immersing ourselves in Shakespeare's world, we discover the silence and mystery that surround human existence. This is especially striking when we observe how his characters deal with the dark moments of life. Beleaguered on all sides, they struggle, amidst weakness and self-doubt, to find the meaning they need to preserve their humanity; a meaning which sustains and renews them, endowing them with an endurance beyond their strength.

Man does not live by bread alone, but by the elixir of meaning. However, what is the nature of this magical substance? A reason that explains the tragedy that has fallen them and renews their trust in the goodness of life? Something so vital to their happiness and sanity that it arises from their very need to believe in themselves? A purpose in the seeming purposelessness of life?

And what of our meaning? Is it part of some higher meaning of the universe? Is there one objective, eternal meaning which we must accept, or is there only one meaning to life -- the one we choose to create for ourselves? Are there as many meanings as there are human beings? Or is meaning a self-administered therapy in getting through an indifferent world?

What is the ultimate purpose of our lives? Or is the living of life its own purpose, the only purpose there is? Are we of more value than the fish in the sea? Do we play out our life's little drama before some unseen Presence or an empty theater? If death ends all, did our life have meaning?

These are a few of the questions suggested by Shakespeare. You won't find them set down in flashing red lights, but insinuated gently between the lines, for what is sometimes suggested may be more tellingly present precisely for its being unsaid.

Shakespeare More about Questions than Answers

Shakespeare sets us to dreaming by creating a mood out of which such questions arise, yet he remains silent in answering them. These are questions that are seldom asked in our culture, which lives for today and would be even embarrassed in discussing them.

Some claim that Shakespeare offers us answers to these questions, but his plays were never meant as a Bible that purports to answer the riddles of life. Others believe that we should find our own answers, but if we can't, perhaps pondering the questions is enough to keep us alive to the things that matter.

When we're young, we believe that every question must have an answer, but as we grow older, we're no longer sure. As we outgrow the certainties of youth, we wonder whether Shakespeare is about answers at all, and more about questions, posed in ways we never forget.

His plays seem more about probing the depths of these ultimate questions, their magnitude and complexity, and even perhaps their unanswerability, taking soundings of the deep to determine just how bottomless these questions may be.

We never know what may happen when approaching great art. We can only keep ourselves open to what may occur. Being willing to be puzzled, mystified, even turned inside out by what it may say is the best preparation. And if we're so fortunate that it should speak to us, we need only be silent -- and grateful, if moved by its power.