Thursday, December 09, 2004

All About Shakespeare

We're creatures of language.

Instead of high unreachable art on a pedestal, as literary reputation would have us believe, Shakespeare's plays are borrowed hokey melodramatic plots with added over-the-top speeches.

Shakespeare was a yakker, a gabber, a blabber. A blabboholic. He liked to talk. Shakespeare was either writing poetry or acting on the stage, perpetually expressing himself, performing, talking. He loved to hear himself talk, the sound of his own words and voice. That's all there was to his genius.

The truth is that Shakespeare was a hack writer. He made up his own words and had trouble spelling. His first play, "Titus Andronicus," is an orgy of non-stop violence. It's the opposite of high art. Today it'd be considered the lowest of low pointless semi-literate unredeemable hack underground trash theater. This is the key to understanding the real Shakespeare.

We see Elizabethan England through an unrealistic glaze. In comparison to us, here in this advanced society near the beginning of 2005, England was a primitive, backward country. As advanced as it may have been then, its Gross Domestic Product would put it now beneath the most impoverished Third World countries. Its refined aristocrats were scarcely removed from savagery. (How many wives did Elizabeth's father have beheaded?) Elizabethan England was an unhygienic, bloody, barbaric, odorous age.

By contrast we live in a robotic, antiseptic, technocratic time; suburbanized; homogenized. Our most refined theater is presented on Broad Street, or in New York on Broadway, attended by quiet well-dressed genteel products of our clean and affluent civilization. To get the feel and atmosphere of the Elizabethans you'd better go deep into rougher neighborhoods, punk theater maybe in a setting of scrap yards and industry, in nondescript buildings surrounded by packs of roving wild dogs. (In Philly, the Church of Divine Energy might be an apt place, with readings and punk shows held in what used to be a warehouse for auto parts.) Some dirty loud dangerous underclass setting where refined folks would not care to stray.

Boisterous mischievous Shakespeare never attended university, but he loved language and he had imagination. He wrote not for scholars or posterity. His sole goal was to entertain. The volumes of criticism about his plays are misleading. This is what one realizes when one reads and understands Shakespeare.

Critics write entire chapters about inferences; about a line or a word or a hint or a wink. One begins to read or listen to or see a "Tempest" or "Macbeth" expecting a bottomless endless verbiage-filled Foster Wallace-style mass of thick complication-- then discovers a simple play, as are most of them. One can see why Tolstoy was unimpressed and jealous. Tolstoy created vast works of panoramic narrative filled with long ruminations and debates about the meaning of everything. Shakespeare will do the same thing in a phrase, as an afterthought, without intellectualization-- merely an observation dropped in, a witty aside he thinks the audience might like. This is what one has to keep in mind about Shakespeare. Even in the midst of his most hyperbolic speeches he's just being a loud P.T. Barnum ballyhoo carnival barker; an over-the-top hack. It's all a big con, the fun kind, fire and brimstone sound and fury all the world's a stage melodramatic laughing and crying clowns kings blood noise and madness thrown at the spectator at once without reason. The audiences of his day loved it.

It's hilarious to see academic critics taking any of it seriously. Not even Hamlet who spends the entire play playing with the other characters and the audience until he dies gloriously and dramatically was meant to be taken seriously. He's acting.

Some of the plays are outright ridiculous. "Antony and Cleopatra," one of Shakespeare's duds, condenses twelve years and five hundred pages of history into a couple hundred lines; years of events eliminated or skipped in a sentence; motivations and actions simplified; complex sophisticated personages of great skill and achievement turned into posturing cartoons. When Shakespeare tackles a serious subject is when he most can't be taken seriously.

But when he's playing!-- when Sir Toby Belch is devising farcical tricks, or Rosalind and Orlando bounding through the forest of Arden with shouted declamations-- then Shakespeare is in his real style. He's at his best when his characters are stridently speechifying across the stage-- "Once more into the breach, once more!" When his characters resemble out of control lower class barroom drunks pouring forth the contents of their crazy brains and hearts is Shakespeare truly Shakespeare.


Jeff Potter said...

Cultural details aside, the guy knows how to write.

Sure, it only makes sense that the best ever writer performed before louts and hecklers.

But all that noise dies away for me with his Sonnets.

Like many I'd read the Bard in various classes. Then it was a couple decades before he came to life again for me. How'd it happen? Jack Saunders uses him to fine effect in his novels, uses his ideas in his own everyday life as depicted, so the old work started to pull at me again. Sure, originality is nice in a writer, but helpful service is as well, and you can't do much better than bringing art to life for your readers. Can you really do that in the classroom? Naw---it's gotta be applied to life.

Anyway, I memorized my first sonnet the other day. It's mine now. It wasn't assigned. So it stays effortlessly with me. I was up north deer hunting, sitting in my blind, hearing everything around me easily, so I thought to do some reading when it got light enough. Then I thought, Heck, why not get something from this time that will be mine forever? So I picked my favorite sonnet and memorized it. Then I noticed a second favorite, but I didn't fully understand it and so didn't feel like memorizing it. First the meaning has to be yours, then the rest will follow easily. But I liked how parts of it sounded, anyway.

OK, the fave that I memorized is the "Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds" sonnet. I really like the end of that one: "If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved."" That's not pulling any punches. Lay it out and stand by your idea, man! Very cool.

And the line in the other which struck me was "And every fair from fair sometime declines." That's in the "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" sonnet.

Oh, and I shot my deer, no problem, and butchered it into steaks myself. Great, free meat! Art doesn't necessary conflict with life, eh. Anyway, that's who I publish for: hunters who read Shakespeare in their blinds, or who would if the life could be put back in it for them. Like the GI's who used to read Henry Miller. There are millions out there either doing it or thirsty for it. And no one is doing any grading...

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