Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What Do You Love Most?

About once a year or so I get stuck in a rut where, for a variety of reasons, Mr. Shakespeare takes a backseat. You may have noticed the site not being updated as frequently as it has in the past.  For that, I apologize. I'm trying to fix that.  It's just that, for the moment, my heart's not in it.  And I hate that.  If your heart's not in something then quite literally anybody can write on any topic, because they aren't personally invested in the quality of the outcome. I've never been that guy.

So, along with my semi-yearly rut comes my semi-yearly reset where I try to get my head back in the game.  Spring's a good time to do that.

I think we can all agree that the topic of "Shakespeare" is a pretty deep one.  Infinite, even.  We've been talking about it for 400 years and we're not slowing down.  You can, easily, devote your full time life to the topic.  Maybe people do.

Alas, I don't.  It's never been my lot in life.  I'm neither an academic nor a theatrical type.  My relationship with Shakespeare is an entirely personal and voluntary one.

Every now and then I like to look at the big picture and then focus in a bit.  I have to realize that I can't encompass the whole thing. Once upon a time I was the only Shakespeare blog out there.  Now I'm bombarded daily by dozens of sites covering dozens of angles on dozens of stories, and I can't keep up.  I have to pick what I want to talk about.  Which means I have to take a step back and look at what's most important to me.

Hence my question.  What is it about Shakespeare that you love most?  No fair saying "All of it."  Pretend, if you must, that you're doing your graduate thesis.  You have to pick a topic.  Maybe it's the history and politics of the period that you love most, and you search Shakespeare's works for clues to that topic.  Maybe it's the poetry, and you'll argue for hours over why a certain line ends on an unstressed syllable and what that means for what Shakespeare was trying to say.

For me I guess you could say that it's about the psychology of the characters.  Yesterday a coworker told me how he was trying to help a teenage relative study the "To be or not to be" speech, and how she just plain didn't get it, how she had to slice and dice it up into pieces because she was running to the glossary for every other word. And all I could think to say to be helpful was, "To understand that speech, you have to put yourself in Hamlet's place and understand what he's feeling, and then it will start to make more sense, even if you don't technically understand every single word."

This is also why I teach Shakespeare to my kids the way that I do, by constantly taking it from the angle of the character - "Here's this character, here's what happened to him, here's what he thought and felt about it, and here's what he did about it."

There's a bunch of reasons for this.  One obvious one is that I can have an opinion on this level, and back it up.  I can't dissect syllables and compare editorial punctuation differences.  I know that those things go to the big picture, no question. I know that you can get a great deal of character info about Lady Macbeth based on how you choose to punctuate her "We fail!" line.  I'm ok with that. I'm ok with going back and changing "here's what she thought and felt about it" to "here's one way to interpret how she thought and felt about it."  That's one of the ways I get an infinite amount of stories out of it.  Same things happened to the same people, but the deeper you look, the more ways you can find to spin it.

Another obvious reason is that I think this is the best way to teach kids.  I'm not going on another diatribe about this, we've covered the topic frequently.  I'll just say that I am living the experiment of demonstrating that even a 3 yr old can understand what happens in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.  If they can then get a 10+ year headstart on "going deep" by the time they get to high school? Imagine how far along they'll be.

I was about to write some more about how this also ties into the timelessness of Shakespeare and how still to this day you can have a My Own Private Idaho or a Lion King and
have people recognize them as Shakespeare without any original text, because Shakespeare drew the roadmap for who those characters are and what they do. But this is getting long and the day job calls.

So, I'll let others talk.  Given an infinite subject like ours, where's your focus? What do you love most?


Sidney Kochman said...

The language. When I read Shakespeare I can't help but recognise that the stories are merely adaptations of his progenitors. What keeps me reading, what will always keep me reading, is the language.

Sean O'Sullivan said...

I have only really connected
with Shakespeare over the last
few years...it took Love's
Labours Lost at The Globe in
London to show me that the play
is the thing, and that Shakespeare
is a wonderful playwright above all
else...and his writing is only
truly alive when performed (and
performed well).

Duane Morin said...

Sean, it's actually that part of it that makes me sad. Because most of the people in the world will never get to see most of Shakespeare's works, if any. I see that as a gap. That means that I have to bring it to them. I can't bring an entire stage production to everyone I meet, so I have to come up with something else. The best that I can bring is enthusiasm for the topic, to convince people that who have not seen a Shakespeare play that they are missing something amazing, and they need to go remedy that situation.

Sidney, I agree. But what part? There's lots of language. He got better as his craft over the years. Arguably, must of the language isn't actually his (depending on how you feel about the whole collaboration thing). If the language is the thing, where do you point a person to show them the greatest example of thing? Where's the best language?

JM said...

Although it might skirt dangerously close to the "everything" answer, a recent response on this blog, to someone who hates Shakespeare, encompasses what I like most:

"The beauty of it is that it's style AND substance--AND psychology AND a study in human nature AND philosophy AND history AND poetry AND theatre AND heightened communication, among some of the things he is, in a symbiotic functioning to a degree the likes of which the world has yet to see since."

It is the very act and the fruit of that symbiosis that, in my opinion, makes Shakespeare what it is, and what I love most about it.
If I had to pick 'one thing' that might equal that, or run a very close second, it would be the language. But then, it's also the use of the language in combination with all of the other components that is the engine of that symbiosis.

On a side note re: the language, specifically of the To Be speech,I wouldn't discourage as many trips to the glossary or footnotes as necessary, any more than I'd be apt to discourage a teenager to make as many trips to the dictionary to understand Melville or Dickens, or Orwell,...et al. Before we can hope to understand what a character is *feeling* we must first understand what they are *saying*. To embark on a quest of understanding before the groundwork is done is putting the cart before the horse and can lead to further misunderstanding. It all begins and goes back to the language.

Duane Morin said...

I knew I'd draw you out, J! :)

"Before we can hope to understand what a character is *feeling* we must first understand what they are *saying*."

I disagree, and you probably know that I do. You may not get *all* of it, but that's kind of the whole point of what we're talking about - you can stare at it for a hundred years and never get *all* of it.

But given the choice between shoving this speech and a glossary in front of a student, versus telling a student "Ok, this guy's father just died and he's going through that whole existential 'why are we here, what's the meaning of life?' emo thing that everybody eventually goes through at some point in their life..." Which do I think is going to get a better understanding of what's going on? The latter.

Wait, let me correct that. Who is going to get a faster and more intuitive understanding? The second dude. Who is going to get a more complete and thorough understanding after the necessary analysis and research? The first guy. So at the end of the day the second guy has clearly got a leg up on the first guy, I can't deny that.

My big issue has always been that most mere mortals out there will never be that first guy, because they won't see the value of putting in the legwork. So I look for a different angle.

Ophelia said...

I have to say the complex, thought-provoking plots and the very real characters. (And, speaking as an actor not a reader, the characters are such fun to play!)

Sidney Kochman said...

I would point them to Love's Labour's Lost. My favourite line in the entire corpus is "I spoke it, tender juvenal, as a congruent epitheton appertaining to thy young days which we may nominate tender."
It rolls off the tongue and through the ears.

Emily C said...

Whew, broad topic much? Alright, I shall whittle down my oncoming deluge of answers to a more manageable trio. That is as far as I am willing to specify.

One, an idea closely related to this post, is the fact that Shakespeare allows us to ask those broad questions. It inspires fresh debate, even hundreds of years later, on almost every possible interpretation of the texts. Just look at us here!

Two, and this is another part of the language nerd in me, is the fact that Shakespeare's words and language are just plain *different* from our language today. In his works, fossils of words and brand new words sit side by side. Some things we kept, some things we lost, and some things we changed. Seeing how it all evolved thrills me, and helps me understand the English language as a whole on a deeper level.

Lastly, I love the universality of his work. I love that you can get a dramatic soliloquies on death and love on one page and (excuse my vulgarity)16th century dick jokes on the next. Because that is how life really is.

I suppose that these three are just a bit of a specification of the standard 'relevancy, language, plot' responses, but oh well. It's just the first three things that came to mind.

Charlotte Langston said...

As a college Theatre dork, of course you would expect me to love Shakespeare. Granted, a lot of the kids here, even in the department, are still terrified of him. Now, maybe it's that I was raised into Shakespeak or that somehow the language pulses in my blood or something crazy like that, but I've never really understood why. I intellectually understand a lot of the reasons, but they make very little sense to me, because they seem (to me) easily overcome. For me, well... I love him & his works for the same reasons that I love theatre in general. Connection. Humanity. I love connecting with a character. In all of Shakespeare's works, I feel like I don't have to work at all to understand his characters, and get into those mindsets. I also love how he uses the English language to portray these thoughts and hidden subtleties. I love how, in his plays of course, there is no stage direction. Nothing. Which leaves an open, empty palate for a director to use, and an endless road for a creative person to travel down--whether reader, audience, director, actor, or anything else. I adore that. Shakespeare, to me, is freeing. So beautifully simple and so real. So raw. So true.

Plus, he's nice to know, given the life path I've chosen to travel down. :P

Sean O'Sullivan said...

As to the chicken and egg
issue of the primacy of
intuitive versus intellectual
knowledge re:Shakespeare, I
think it is a question of
which comes first(in order),
rather than which is more

"Oh, it's fine to be a genius
of course, But keep that old
horse before the cart, First you've gotta have heart."

JM said...

Your comment sparked a thought.
Why not have them work hand in hand? (or maybe that's what you're saying). Both intellect and intuition are more accurate and reliable when they're informed by easily accessible fact. In my opinion, analysis (the end result of intuitive inquiry) without gathering any facts is whistling in the wind, and, to be totally honest, somewhat gratuitous.

Sean O'Sullivan said...


As you say, the best thing for
a full appreciation and enjoyment
of Shakespeare's work is to have
an intuitive AND intellectual
approach working in tandem.
I do think that to get people
loving Shakespeare as we all do,
the first approach should be
getting an emotional attraction
first i.e. seeing a performance,
then backing it up with more
"academic" material to enhance
the experience.
When I see the gut reaction of school kids at The Globe, I'm
even more convinced that this is the best way to go.

Duane Morin said...

But Sean, does it have to start at a performance? That's a hurdle right there. Example - a movie like Hunger Games or Twilight comes out, and a bunch of coworkers get together, buy tickets in advance, and make an evening out of it. Along comes a Coriolanus movie and do you think I'd be able to scrape up anybody to go see it? Not hardly.

I need to make the case for why Shakespeare is worth looking into, and not the dull/boring/difficult subject we as adults remember slogging through in high school. Whenever the subject of Shakespeare comes up I don't tell people, "Go see a show and get back to me," I talk their ears off. Seriously, I warn people to not feel embarrassed to just walk away from me because once I start talking I won't shut up, and I'm ok with that. I love the subject, and I want to try to explain to them why I love it. The best thing that could happen is for someone to come up to me and say "I ended up seeing that Coriolanus movie and you know what? I loved it! I want to learn more." Win.

Sean O'Sullivan said...


We're back to the chicken/egg seed/tree thing.
Of course,some people will
find coming through a bookish
path to the plays perfectly
suited to them..but as you
mention, so many of us were
subjected to the "dull/boring/
difficult" mis-teaching at
I agree that you have to make
the case for Shakespeare outside
of seeing the plays, but even
here I would say it is your
"performance" in your postings
(and more directly face2face)
which does/will turn people
on to Shakespeare - head and
heart combined is the ideal.
Just a reminder that the
wonderful Mark Rylance is
back at The Globe this season
to anyone coming to London
this summer.

Dwight Frye said...

Mark me down for character, and please excuse me if I don't elaborate; I guess it's just my nature.

Healigan said...

Oh man, he's just a great storyteller. It was as if he understood the human heart--at least the parts that will never change. His jokes are always funny, his tragedies always make me cry, the histories bring the people in them alive. I think if Shakespeare was writing drama now, there's a good chance that even I could be in one of his plays. This year I taught Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear in one month to three different classes of teens, and we all felt as if they were stories written yesterday. He knows us, all of us.