During the spring of my freshman year in high school, my English class put on a production--and I use that term loosely--of Romeo and Juliet. It wasn't love at first sight. Our Romeo (Dusty) and Juliet (Mara) refused to hold hands, much less paw each other like star-crossed lovers are supposed to. As Friar Laurence, I ambled around in a brown bathrobe with a bottle of vanilla extract (poison!) doing my best impression of a cranky old man. The language was tough. I'd read the play and studied my lines, but I think most of us only had a foggy idea of what we were talking about. All in all, it was an awkward, stilted couple of hours.
I'm sure a lot of you have a memory like this. Each year, thousands of Friar Laurences with vanilla extract bottles amble around high school classrooms across America, and teachers try to show students how Shakespeare can be relatable and fun. Why? Because the education powers that be believe Shakespeare is important. Students should be exposed to him, even if they struggle to understand him. Now that I'm better acquainted with the Bard, I think they're absolutely right.
In fact, even the most cranky and pretentious academics agree that Shakespeare is every bit as brilliant as your high school teacher said he was. It's not possible for me, in a short column like this, to get at all the reasons why, but it helps to read him in the context of the literature of his time. I compare it to the experience I had walking the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The Uffizi is arranged chronologically to show the progress of painting during the Italian Renaissance. Walking from the early Renaissance rooms into the first gallery of Botticellis, you see two-dimensional representations explode into the rich, realistic, and beautiful works of Raphael, Michelangelo and Da Vinci that still stun us today. A light had gone on in the art world. Shakespeare was his own light--his own explosion of structural complexity, beauty of language and psychological realism (and thus, real emotional impact). He wrote with enough depth to entertain the masses at the London theaters and thrill today's stodgiest, corduroy-suited academics.
Of course, appreciating Shakespeare isn't as easy as appreciating a great painting. In high school, his English seemed to me to be another language, or at least another dialect. This difficulty was partly due to the vocabulary of Elizabethan English (and some words Shakespeare may have just invented). It's hard to appreciate a play when you're constantly checking definitions at the bottom of the page. Beyond that, I had trouble adjusting to reading plays in verse, with their line breaks, metaphorical complexities, and musical effects. I knew all the words, but I couldn't make sense of them together. I've heard a lot of students complain about this. I call it the "concussion effect" because it's how reading anything went for me for a few days after having cracked my head on a manhole (don't ask).
With a little work, all of the difficulties can be overcome. It was in college when I first read Shakespeare in earnest. I read slowly and worked at untangling the linguistic knots, and that's when his work's brilliance unfolded. The passage below from Act V, Scene V in MacBeth is one of the first that struck me. Most of you probably know it. If not, I'm excited for you--it's still one of my favorites. Here's the context: Macbeth, on a castle wall under siege by his enemies, has just learned that his wife killed herself. His murderous attempt to win power has collapsed. Stoic and accepting, he's now resigned to what he sees as the barren futility of life.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
You can pore over a passage like this for hours. It's hard work, sure, but you're digging for gold in a gold mine. William Faulkner pulled a major theme (and his title) for The Sound and the Fury from the passage. And the depth and richness here isn't a rarity. I swear you can find at least a half dozen movie titles buried in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy alone.
If you're new to Shakespeare, he has a lot, literally, to offer. He wrote 38 plays, and very few of them are considered, by his own lofty standards, to be duds. Where should you begin? Popular opinion (mine too) is that Hamlet is his greatest play, Literature scholars tend to prefer King Lear. Scholars of the Theater hold up Macbeth as, at least structurally, perfect. So make a date with the Bard. Pick up an attractive tome of his collected works (it really is a good investment). Draw a bath. Light some candles. And for God's sake, don't rush things.