I certainly have some nerve showing my face around here, don’t I? I have my excuses! I started working in September of 2018, and that was a big shift for someone who had only ever been in school. In January of 2019, my entire department (and 75% of the company, really) was axed, leaving me jobless once more. In April, we found out that my mother had stage zero cancer in her remaining biological breast. So I have been very tired, both physically and emotionally. Shakespeare’s birthday came and went, and I did not feel my customary enthusiasm and energy about it. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t.
But the coals in my chest never really stopped burning. The fire was just reduced to something of a smoulder. And things get better, don’t they? I found a better job, and my mother is on the path to recovery. Summer is here, full of promise, and my dreams of returning to England to sit in the quiet with Shakespeare’s ghost seem likelier by the day.
Speaking of Shakespeare (I say, while writing my Shakespeare-centric blog), I went to a talk about his ‘enduring allure,’ while at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Lucky for us all, I took some notes in my tiny orange Moleskine. I only mention the Moleskine because my friend bought a pack of two, kept the black one for herself, and donated the orange one to her token color-loving friend: me. So thanks, Noor! We would have no notes without the combined powers of your generosity and my inability to clean out my purse.
The panel I went to was full of real life Shakespearean scholars, which was fun for me. They discussed the fact that Shakespeare was popularized only by virtue of adaptation. Also, without the first Shakespeare festival (c. 1769), there was a good chance for our favorite bard to have faded into obscurity.
There is also the belief that Shakespeare is alluring because of his extensive vocabulary (~40K words) and the fact that he made up so many new words. They did note, however, that some word are incorrectly credited to Shakespeare. ‘Addiction,’ for example, came from Puritan pamphlets distributed in the 1530s. But, and I say this as someone who adores Shakespeare, there is nothing that comes more naturally to people than giving credit to your local white man.
The panelists also discussed the fact that Shakespeare is quite literally invincible. He survives poking and prodding, and his plays still work even when we mess around with the setting. An incredible feat, to be sure.
When we read Shakespeare, because it is Shakespeare, we are primed to look for genius. We feel this urge to look deeper because the text deserves it. And so it forces us to slow down, it teaches us how to think in this visual age, and, inevitably, students who spend time with Shakespeare fall in love with him. But time must be spent.
You may be wondering why I am just rattling off the things I heard in this panel. I was pretty happy to be listening to people talk about Shakespeare, especially in a classroom setting. But the more they spoke, the more I wondered: is Shakespeare’s allure really all that enduring? Nothing they were saying was wrong, but I kept thinking, ‘Well, of course you think that. Shakespeare is your life.’
Look, Shakespeare has his allure. After all, I was pulled into his orbit very, very easily. And I always argue that the experience can be universal if people find the play that is right for them. But there is effort involved in that, isn’t there? The necessity of slowing down, of searching for genius, of looking deeper – is all of that alluring? Or is it just a promise of frustration and exhaustion?
And there is something else they do not understand, and that is the isolation of loving Shakespeare. I do not think Shakespeare is surviving the digital age. Reading his plays is a very gratifying experience, but the gratification is nowhere near instant. I’m not saying this in a ‘kids-these-days,’ way. I’m only 26, part of the millennial generation that gets dragged for seeking out instant gratification on the daily. But, really, if it’s available, why not go for it? Suffering for gratification is not alluring, and I certainly don’t think it’s smart.
Amateur Shakespeareans are isolated, especially if they are in my age group or younger. The community is not easily breached, and I personally do not find it very welcoming. The panel criticized modern translations. In Richard III, ‘wanton ambling nymph’ is translated to ‘pretty slut.’ But Richard is mad at this imaginary woman for her ability to move, they say.
And I say they are making it very hard for somebody to love Shakespeare. Who cares why Richard hates the non-existent woman he is grumbling about? If his hatred comes across, then the job is done. Of course Richard is jealous of able-bodied individuals. Of course he hates pretty women and handsome men. I don’t need that one specific line to pick up on his feelings. The idea that you can only enjoy Shakespeare via his raw words is just ridiculous.
If Shakespeare’s allure is weak at best, who is to blame? We can’t blame Shakespeare. After all, he was your everyday Englishman. He was a person’s person, able to think and feel like someone untouched by the privilege of aristocracy and a university education.
I blame the scholars and the gatekeepers. The very idea that we must work to love Shakespeare kills his allure instantly. Instead, we should be trying our absolute hardest to make it easy. And, yes, that does mean modern translations that crush ‘wanton ambling nymph,’ into ‘pretty slut.’ It also means modernized productions. I don’t like those very much, but they deserve their place in the community. Shakespeare means something different to everybody. Some of us are inexplicably touched by Hamlet asking, ‘To be, or not to be?’ And some of us are equally touched by the modernized version where he asks, ‘The question is: is it better to be alive or dead?’
Shakespeare is alluring because he promises feeling. He promises a glimpse into what it is to be human. He offers you a mirror for you to examine yourself in. You don’t need remarkable language to tell a good story, and remarkable language does not make an already existing story better. If the language of Shakespeare is not universally appealing, then that is a consequence of when it was written. But the stories? We can make those appealing ourselves.
The panelists said that Shakespeare has survived poking and prodding, and he is able to fluidly move from setting to setting. All of that is true, but we need more. We need to make Shakespeare commonplace, we need to make him a source of easy and instant gratification. His stories matter, and it is up to us to tell them. You know what is alluring? The promise of community. I have put my plays aside to dabble in the romance genre because the community is thriving. There is no judgement, no pre-requisites. It is so easy and it’s fun!
Most importantly, it isn’t lonely. I will always, always believe in Shakespeare’s allure. But to assume it comes naturally, to pretend that it will never die, is ignoring the very glaring issues we have with teaching and with the lack of community surrounding him.
And, if we think about Shakespeare, really think about him, it’s very easy to see that these issues would feel foreign to him. Because his plays were for us all, and they were meant to bring us all together. If that has died then, well, it’s time for us to fix it.