In the name of God Amen. I William Shackspeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwickshire gent., in perfect health & memory God be praised, do make & ordain this my last will & testament in manner & form following. That is to say first, I commend my Soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping & assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting. And my body to the earth whereof it is made.
For someone who is fully aware that we know very little about Shakespeare, I sure do spend a lot of time thinking about him…and thinking about how annoying it is that we know so little. Who was he? What were his worldviews? Was he a kind man?
I should preface this post by saying that I personally believe that Shakespeare was a bit of a forward-thinker for his time. You could think otherwise – and that’s fair. I came to my conclusion through reading his plays, and analyses of his work are always up for debate.
Whenever I suggest that Shakespeare was something of a modern thinker, I always have somebody mention how his female characters are treated. And that person is almost always thinking about The Taming of the Shrew. And, hey, they aren’t wrong. The Taming of the Shrew was written by a man who truly believed that Petruchio’s taming of Kate (achieved through endless abuse and gas-lighting) was a happy ending. But, like most people in this world, he experienced some personal growth. And we see his perspective on women shift as he moves forward – and shift in a way that is not what you would expect of a man living in Elizabethan England.
The way women are treated as characters has always been very important to me. And stumbling upon work by your favorite playwright that suggests that he didn’t understand women can be a hard pill to swallow. I started writing this post a few days ago, but stopped and went out to pick up Tina Packer’s Women of Will: The Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare’s Female Characters. She writes:
Shakespeare broke a mold. After about five years of writing, he saw women as women, including the bind they had been put into. No other playwright, writing before Shakespeare or at the same time as Shakespeare, had ever seen women as women.
[…] Whether he was writing as Romeo or Benedick or Antony, the fact is that Shakespeare himself was brave enough to change, to undergo an internal journey that means his heroes have the capacity of self-reflection as well as for fighting a battle or giving pleasure to others. And the women are full partners with the men. The artist Shakespeare inhabited the women’s world with as much depth as he did the men’s.
Expecting your favorite ancient playwright to understand what was popularly accepted as the lesser sex is ridiculous. But for whatever reason, Shakespeare did begin to understand. And we see traces of modern thought in him as he explores his female characters, what they can be, and what sort of power they can wield. Packer suggests that Shakespeare began to understand women once he fell in love with The Dark Lady, who is referenced in Sonnet 130. And maybe that’s true. But regardless of whether or not it is, Shakespeare opened his own mind to different viewpoints and allowed himself to grow and change even as the times remained largely the same. And if he did fall in love, well, it’s nice to know that his brand of passion included fully understanding his partner – body, soul, and mind.
The Merchant of Venice is an uncomfortable play for many reasons. Our main heroes are blatantly antisemitic, and it becomes difficult to root for them. And you can’t help but ask yourself if Shakespeare feels that way himself. Again, expecting your favorite dinosaur of a playwright to be anything other than a product of the times he lived in is ridiculous and a bit naive. And yet –
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my grains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
This, of course, does not prove anything. But I can’t help but wonder why Shakespeare decided to include these sentiments at all. Why not have Shylock just be the Jewish antagonist the audience would love to hate? Why give us a reason to pity him at all?
When I was a freshman in college, I took a seminar where we explored Shakespeare and religion. We spent the whole quarter on Antony and Cleopatra, and we tried to come to a conclusion about Shakespeare: was he Catholic, or Protestant? I came up with wild theories about how Antony represented Catholicism and Octavian Protestantism, and we went quite far with my theory. But when the quarter ended, my answer about Shakespeare himself had remained unchanged – he was neither Catholic or Protestant. He was just Shakespeare.
Having come from a mixed Catholic/Protestant family, and having felt the tensions between both religious groups outside of his home, I had doubts that Shakespeare would have been too invested or interested in religion. I still have those doubts, six years after taking the seminar. And perhaps it was his non-relationship with religion that allowed him to write Shylock, a Jew, as a human rather than as a tired stereotype. Again, Shakespeare impresses by trying to view lives different from his from all angles. I find this ability to be one of someone interested in intellectual and emotional growth – and I find that interest to be a modern and enlightened one.
Now that the year is ending, I wanted to write about my personal feelings about Shakespeare. Every time I’ve tried to, I’ve come up short. I can easily say things like, “I really love Hemingway’s work,” or “John Keats writes the best poetry I’ve ever read,” but I’ve never been able to properly articulate what Shakespeare means to me. I’m going to try now, for the sake of tying up 2016 with a neat little bow, but it probably won’t be pretty, so brace yourself.
Shakespeare has a bad rep among high school students. I was indifferent toward him in that I didn’t care. And, yes, perhaps I did feel a little bit of dread when we were assigned Richard III in eleventh grade. But in the middle of the first act, I was absolutely smitten.
I could very easily just tell people that I love Shakespeare, but the statement seems too simple. When I read Richard III, I was falling in love with characters, and I was getting emotionally invested in the predicaments they were in. But, in a way, I was also meeting Shakespeare for the first time. It was as if I was reaching out into a dark, uncertain void of the English language, and grasping at the hand of somebody who had the same intense curiosity about humans, and what humanity is. And the more I read, the more desperate I became to understand Shakespeare in the same way I was understanding his characters. An impossible task, obviously, but it’s that same desperation that left me enrolling in college-level Shakespeare classes years later.
Reading The Tempest in London was something close to a religious experience. This was Shakespeare – he was trying to communicate with us through Prospero, laying his magical staff down and leaving the isle. And I have no doubt that I will feel that same excitement when I read Love’s Labor’s Lost, another play that is allegedly something of a self-insert story. I have never in my life been so curious to know a writer in the way I’ve been curious to know Shakespeare. It is difficult to tell people that I disliked a play, because they always doubt how much I really love Shakespeare. But I do. I could read a thousand bad plays and my dedication to him would remain untouched. He is as curious as I am, and as a result he has become an extension of myself.
It’s funny – for all my effort to write posts on this blog using academia appropriate language, I can’t help but dissolve into a mess of strange emotions by year’s end. But nothing I wrote is exaggerated – I mean every word. Maybe I love too much, maybe I cling to something that is not worth clinging to – but that is the way I am, and the way I’ll always be. Shakespeare was the same, feeling every emotion at an unnatural intensity and throughout every facet of his being.
And, you know what? I don’t think I’m special for loving Shakespeare this way. I think every single person in this world can love Shakespeare the way I do, because we are all curious about each other as humans in the way Shakespeare was. It only takes a play to tap into that dormant curiosity.
There are 24 of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t read. In 2017, I will be reading two of them a month, and I hope you’ll join me! Have a safe New Year’s, and I’ll see you soon with Henry VI in hand.