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Thursday, 10.7.04: Shakesspeare

Did you ever really think about Shakespeare? I take him for granted. All those poems and plays -- they are simply in the background of our culture -- like Greek-Roman mythology, like the Bible -- required reading for high school.

Sometimes I have to stop and remember that Shakespeare was not only a genius, but a regular guy. He was wildly popular with all classes of people. He had a wife and kids. I guess this is why he's so mysterious, such a puzzlement to scholars. Here's this regular guy, churning out two plays a year for 20 years, actually producing the plays, and writing sublime poetry on the side. And look at the incredible characters he invents: Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Falstaff. And his stories are inventive and many-layered.

I once went to a production of Hamlet at the annual Stratford festival in Canada. It was l-o-n-g, but I remember being amazed at how many lines from that play made it into our every day language.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

There is a new a book out: "Will in the World" by Stephen Greenblatt. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker says it's an excellent book that really understands Shakespeare and the age he lived in.

The great debate of the time was religion: Catholic vs. Protestant. Lots of artists got caught up in it. Shakespeare himself had secret Catholic leanings, but avoided the topic in his work. Of all his wonderful characters, he never attempted a sympathetic portrait of the saint-fanatic or the visionary religious. I liked this passage from the review:

All Shakespeare's tragic heroes -- Othello, Macbeth, Lear, even Hamlet -- have plenty of courage; what they lack is prudence and judgment. Between bravery and craft, Shakespeare always prefers craft, and between stupid courage and intelligent cowardice he is always with those who run away, with Falstaff, not Hotspur. He had seen -- on a pitiful scale through the example of his father,* on a horrific one through the example of the Catholic martyrs -- what conviction coupled with a lack of realism could get you.

I like that. Maybe that's what other people like too. We praise brave martyrs, but who really wants to be one? Men put on a lot of bravado about guns and war, but do anything to avoid having to shoot because the other guy shoots back. It really feels better to simply save yourself by walking away.



*Shakespeare's father was a prominent man in Stratford who was a leader in the Protestant movement, but who secretly promoted Catholicism. Somehow, between that stressful activity and drink, he met with financial ruin.


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