William Shakespeare's 448th birthday -- today, we think -- is replete with Shakespearean amounts of media commentary about his relevance to our times.
"But we have Steven Spielberg," tweeteth everyone who is tired of hearing about why we need Shakespeare. "We. Don't. Need. Shakespeare."
Ah, but we do. We need Shakespeare as a lodestar for something increasingly common to our culture.
Not for those scenes of human relationships so emotionally gripping that they could have been written yesterday (iambic pentameter notwithstanding)... we've got Spielberg for that. Thrilling battle scenes? Political intrigue? Tremendous visual spectacles? Spielberg's got that covered. So what if Shakespeare grapples with the bigger moral issues of human existence, those themes of faith and loyalty, class warfare, race, family ties, friendship, vengeance, grief, betrayal, greed, honor, jealousy, pride, love... so does Spielberg. And Spielberg's characters speak like we do.
We need Shakespeare to teach us how to steal. Nobody steals like William Shakespeare. Not even Steven Spielberg.
Shakespeare lifted all his plots from other sources (well, all but The Tempest, which doesn't have such a good plot). "Intellectual property rights" was a concept yet to be invented, so he was not the only one doing this, but he had a knack for taking other people's stories or ideas and improving on them tremendously. In so doing, he inspired other thieves throughout history to steal from him in turn, although he remains the best: he bettered the work he borrowed from, while those of us who borrow from him (myself included) are either using his strengths to buoy ourselves, or paying homage to a master. Nobody has the audacity to claim he is improving upon Shakespeare - not even the Walt Disney Company, which turned Hamlet into The Lion King.
His plays have been filmed hundreds of times (from 50 versions of Hamlet starting in 1900, to Coriolanus this year), transformed into musicals (most famously West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet), and morphed into modern teen flicks (for example, Ten Things I Hate About You from Taming of the Shrew). They are also transformed into novels, drawing on his plots either directly (as my novel, I, Iago, does with Othello) or symbolically (as Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres does with King Lear).
The plays are also produced theatrically, with such a heavy directorial hand that the audience frequently feels they are watching, not "Shakespeare" but "somebody else's idea of Shakespeare." I've heard of King Lear set in the Wild West, and I've seen a production that should have been billed Hamlet, Prince of Bosnia.
I myself (with my colleague Chelsea McCarthy) have filled theatres on Martha's Vineyard with one-hour adaptations of 20 of his plays, all of them questionably Shakespearean. When directors take such liberties with the original material, they are only mimicking what Shakespeare did himself. At the same time, however, they are paying the lesson forward: they are reminding us that as a culture, we are thieves who lack originality. That would be a terrible thing were it not also true of Shakespeare. Shakespeare makes a virtue of it.
Let's be more like Shakespeare -- let's steal the way he steals. We'll never do it as well as he does, but let's use him as a model and make the world a better place artistically. Let's invent with what we steal. When we take a story and rehash it -- which is how almost every movie in Hollywood gets made these days -- let's make the language more exquisite, the characters more engrossing, and the message more profound. Let's be sure that even in the darkest, most intense of tragedies, there is some humor, whether it be low-brow slapstick (the porter in Macbeth) or cutting, sardonic wit (Iago in Othello).
We might also convince other forces in society to learn to steal like Shakespeare. Wall Street would be much improved if financial managers took their clients' money and used it to create not only more, but better, money. Money invested in projects intended to build a better world, not simply used to breed upon itself. There are socially-minded portfolios, but they are not the norm. George Soros is arguably the Shakespeare of currency traders, working within the "virtuous/vicious circle" of investment as Shakespeare worked within the "Wooden O" of the Globe theatre. Let's see the entire world of finance strive, like Shakespeare, to improve not only its grasp, but its reach!
On the other end of the spectrum, Occupy Wall Street also has something to learn from the Master Thief. Not by modeling itself on his actions, but on his plays. Shakespeare's stories often begin with passionate intention, but then get hopelessly complex and mired in the middle, before finally reaching triumphantly dramatic climaxes. Sometimes the good guys triumph; when they don't, sometimes other characters learn from the fallen heroes' tragic flaws to better themselves.
Sometimes it all just ends in a dreadful mess, of course -- but even then, the high-mindedness of the protagonists inspire the audience. Here's the key point: through the muddled middle acts, the characters keep moving, inexorably, toward the finale. They don't lose patience with the convoluted plot and pull up stakes; nor do they wallow distractedly in the convolution. They keep their eye on the prize and power through to the final scene, whatever the fate awaiting them. I'd love to see the OWS movement take that to heart.
And then, of course, there's government. Can the Bard teach politicians something new about stealing? Like him, they already appropriate the historical record, use it to sell their own particular message for their own particular reasons... but in contrast to how they do it now, let's see them, like Shakespeare, build a better history.
With the famous exception of Richard III, Shakespeare took liberties with known facts in order to humanize, not demonize. At worst, he justified past atrocities or embarrassments; at best, and nearly always, he showed what a terrific challenge it is to be both human and heroic at once. He appropriated the past to improve it as a model for the present. Modern politicians and pundits: step up to that plate.
On the Bard's birthday, let's ask ourselves: What would Shakespeare steal? Let's look for what we want most in life -- love, beauty, joy, talent, power, money -- and go for it whole-heartedly... but then push ourselves to transform it into something even better than it was, and make that better thing our gift back to the world.