Condemn It as Improbable Fiction: Why the Bard?
by Dr. Joem Antonio
Shakespeare again. Why always Shakespeare? I've been reading many articles on why Shakespeare is overrated. After all, Shakespeare is the best icon of literature to avoid: Shakespeare's a guy, European, and deceased. There's even one theory I've read that the only reason Shakespeare is prominent now is because some snobbish elite keep passing his works on to make Shakespeare the standard. Another would say that the first problem that needs fixing in a Shakespearean play is the language. Or if we go with what a lot of high schoolers would say, "Shakespeare's boring and we don't understand him."
But this can be said and done with many other writers; why single out Shakespeare, for better or for worse? Part of it is because we know more about his works than we do about his life. That he is the only writer I know whose very existence is debated upon—that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote his works—is already a sign that Shakespeare being male, white, and dead doesn't matter. To undergo such speculation, Shakespeare's works must then have merit by themselves, regardless of who wrote them.
Perhaps the more pertinent question, then, is not "why Shakespeare?," but "why Shakespeare's works?" This leads to an easier set of answers, which I will categorize to three: Shakespeare's language, Shakespeare's stories, and Shakespeare's theatricality.
The most immediately noticeable quality that answers why Shakespeare's works is his language. Perhaps this is what many students see as hard to understand. But part of the difficulty understanding Shakespeare's language is the wrong premise many students have: that Shakespeare is hard to understand because he uses "deep words and sentences." This claim only seems true once a student encounters something like Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Hard to understand? Probably. Deep? Let's see.
Whenever I ask my students to read this quatrain, they usually read it line by line.
To make sense of the quatrain, one must ignore the lines and read the quatrain sentence by sentence:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove.
This makes the quatrain easier to read, although the first sentence may still be a bit of a challenge. The solution? Rearrange the sentence according to something more understandable. Let the basic rules of grammar guide the reader:
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments."
"Let me not..." What should the "I" persona not be allowed to do? "Admit." "admit" is a transitive verb. Admit what? "Impediments." An impediment is an obstacle. Obstacle to what? "To the marriage of true minds."
What is the first sentence of the quatrain saying, then?
"Let me not admit impediments to the marriage of true minds."
Then why didn't Shakespeare just say it as such?
Long answer: because Shakespeare was fitting the sentence to the constraints of a sonnet, in terms of the iambic pentameter and the rhyming pattern. To keep the sentence in its plain structure, Shakespeare would have had "to" as the tenth syllable of the first line; an even more awkward way to end the line and to partner a rhyming word with.
The short answer is that Shakespeare wrote it that way simply because it sounds good. Perhaps for no other reason, even.
No "deep" reason other than aesthetics.
Reading Shakespeare quietly as one would read a piece of fiction or an essay is a likely way to miss out on Shakespeare's aesthetic decisions. Shakespeare's language is best experienced heard and mouthed.
This may not be initially apparent in the plays. But when one reaches key points of the play, one encounters quotable quotes, catchphrases, and other terms we surprisingly use until now. "Nunnery", "green-eyed monster", and "pound of flesh" among many may be traced back to Shakespeare.
In addition, the speech patterns in Shakespearean plays allow for easier memorization and characterization; Shakespeare doesn't just focus on what is being said but provides different associations among the words. Take a look at this line of Macbeth regarding Macduff:
I shall make assurance double sure that thou shalt not live.
At first glance, this line has so many redundancies. Put simply, the line just says, "I'll make extra sure that you die." But the way the line works goes beyond the explicit statement. On one level, "assurance double sure" triggers a basic mathematic process: it's assurance twice multiplied by sure.
Assurance×(2×sure)=what Macbeth will make.
This image concretizes Macbeth's fear of Macduff in contrast to just "extra" which can be vague in terms of quantity.
On another level, one can take note of the numerous "s", " th", and "sh" sounds. Aside from this assisting an actor's effort to memorize the line, these sounds get the actor to naturally deliver the line in a seething manner.
Combine these levels together, we have Macbeth seething in fear of Macduff as the former plots the latter's death; treacherously snakelike.
Is Shakespeare's choice of language deep? Not necessarily. But the aesthetic logic is there, and easily appreciated once one lets go of some prejudices. Many students mistake Shakespeare's language as Old English. It's not. Shakespeare's English is a league of its own; so much so that we can call it Shakespearean English. And his language is the first reason as why we're steeped in Shakespeare's works.
The beauty of Shakespeare's language will remain debatable, although it's clear to see where those who appreciate it are coming from. The second quality to examine about Shakespeare's works are his stories.
There is definitely something about Shakespeare's choice of stories and storytelling. This can be seen in the numerous adaptations and reimaginings of his works in different media: Romeo and Juliet in West Side Story. Hamlet in Lion King. King Lear in Ran. Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate About You. And the list goes on. One must consider, though, that Shakespeare has a lot of source material for his stories. The interesting phenomenon is that the adaptations and reimaginings credit Shakespeare and not his source material. In fact, with the exception of the histories, we only know of Shakespeare's source materials through the scholars. How is it, then, that the source materials failed to transition to modern popular culture while Shakespeare's adaptations of these sources did?
I will leave this question to the scholars. What I will emphasize though is that what I just pointed out is the observable reality. There must have been something from Shakespeare that turned the source material immortal—something the source material didn't do for itself. At the very least, we must credit Shakespeare for knowing how to choose the right stories to tell; perhaps even for finding a way to tell them in a way that they have a more lasting impact than the source material in its original form.
More than that, Shakespeare has a way of choosing and telling stories whose primal appeal make the stories adaptable to any period and culture. That is why many Shakespearean plays are produced in various settings and atmospheres: modern, post-apocalyptic, western, and so on. This treatment is something one is unlikely to see with Ibsen, Shaw, or Pinter. Again, one can have Shakespeare scholars explain this phenomenon. Part of my explanation for this, though, is Shakespeare's choice of medium: the drama.
When it comes to the casual reader, theatricality is probably the most overlooked quality in Shakespeare's works.
There is something about drama that separates it from the other literary forms, and I think that this "something" is the drama's constant invitation to the reader for collaboration. Drama, I always tell my students, is imperative literature; it's the only literary form that needs its readers to say the lines out loud and follow the stage directions if the reader wishes for an optimal experience.
Drama is the only literature that primarily and explicitly caters to a specific audience: the artist. Drama is the only literature that explicitly refuses to remain in its literary level. A play that never goes onstage is, in many ways, a failure.
This truth about drama has a whole set of implications, particularly regarding a criteria for quality—and this is where Shakespeare's works must be measured against.
What are the implications to consider?
One is the strange juxtaposition of drama and the theatre arts. Theatre is a direct live encounter of the performer and the audience while the drama stands in between the encounter of the playwright and the reader. The art of theatre unfolds in front of an audience while a drama is already complete before a reader reads the work. Theatre is ephemeral, as it needs both performer and audience present simultaneously to exist, and it ends as soon as performer and audience disperse; for drama, the literature can exist long after both playwright and reader are gone.
Further implications can be derived from the juxtaposition. Drama can transition to different theatrical performances by different performers in front of different audiences. And the differences is something that should be imagined well. Bringing Drama to a theatrical performance is not merely reading performance artists following stage directions. Drama and Theatre collaborate with each other; a performer brings his own art in the interpretation of the lines and stage directions. Thus, the same drama can have a resonatingly fresh appeal thanks to multiple interpretations in various performances in front of various audiences. Although one may have read, seen, performed, or even directed Hamlet before, it is still possible that one will watch varied performances of the same drama, if only to see how a different set of performers will take on the material.
This then gives us an idea as to what standards a good drama should have:
- A good drama must be more than just a good story. It should be a story performable in front of a live audience.
- A good drama must have more than just characters interesting enough to follow. It should have characters interesting enough for performers to perform.
- A good drama's aesthetic does not only touch its direct readers, the performers. Its appeal should transition to an audience who will only see the performance without reading the drama.
- A good drama must be good for more than just a specific performance by specific performers for a specific audience. Once a performance is done, all that is left is the drama; and because drama has the potential to last beyond the performance, that potential is best realized.
There can be more, but that's for another article. For now, one should ask how Shakespeare's works fare in this criteria.
1. Obviously, the plays are performable. More than enough evidence attests to that. With the exception of The Winter's Tale where somebody gets chased onstage by a bear, everything in Shakespeare's plays is stageable.
2. It is also true that the plays have interesting characters. Not only are the characters interesting to follow in a story; they have wonderful lines and actions that can challenge a thespian's art.
The role of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Iago, and Lear—especially under a good director—is sought for. Shakespeare's style is always to have the characters something interesting to say and do, not necessarily by themselves but with other characters. This goes for most characters, even the smallest ones. Lear's Fool, Macbeth's doorkeeper, the Gravedigger from Hamlet are all choice parts, given the humor they bring in the scene. The senators in Julius Caesar get to gang up during the murder scene and the Roman citizens get to jeer, cheer, and tear a minor character apart. And while many minor characters appear for a short while, the minor characters are dispersed enough for their actors to play multiple roles.
3. Shakespeare's plays, when read well by a director and an actor, can be a magical experience without having read the scripts.
My first experience of Shakespeare wasn't even in the classroom; it was in an auditorium. I was around Grade 2 or Grade 3 then, when the University of Asia and the Pacific held its annual Shakespeare Week. There I saw excerpts, parodies, and soliloquies. Even though these activities got me to read parts of the scripts, I was only able to read the full scripts by the time I got to college. Nevertheless, between my first encounter of Shakespeare on stage until finally reading him, my interest never wavered.
Where does this appeal come from? I will attribute it to Shakespeare's theatrical imagination. As I have mentioned before, if one were to read Shakespeare as one would read a novel or an essay, one misses out a lot in terms of Shakespeare's genius. This is especially true with the plays.
If one were to just focus on Lear deciding to banish Kent, one forgets that Cordelia is watching the scene unfold. More than that, both Goneril and Regan are in the scene as well. What was going on in the three sisters' heads when they witnessed Kent's banishment? One can miss out on these nuances when just reading the script. But this is something actors and directors deal with when they transport the text to the stage. Also, an audience would see these nuances as they are free to look at whatever they like as the play unfolds. In this sense, Shakespeare's genius manifests itself in the wide parameter he leaves in his plays.
4. Despite the ephemeral nature of theatre, Shakespeare's works have been staged for over 400 years now, perhaps with more frequency and geographical range than Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Plautus, and the Medieval Plays combined. More than that, Shakespeare's work has gone beyond the stage: Paintings, Hollywood, Bollywood, manga, video games (yes, look for Mabinogi Shakespeare and Ryan North's To Be or Not to Be: That is the Adventure!), and memes.
What is common to all these examples? Shakespeare's appeal to fellow artists.
There is a visceral, primal, personal appeal in Shakespeare's works that go beyond pop culture references and culturally specific references. That Macbeth is set in Scotland is secondary. That Othello and Romeo and Juliet are set in Italy doesn't matter either. The appeal comes from the core of the material, the themes of Ambition, Jealousy, Love, Pride, and so on.
I believe Shakespeare, despite being on point with his insights on the themes has kept his material loose enough for a wide range of interpretation. This looseness and wide appeal has allowed his works to be adaptable to a wide range of media. His material beckons collaboration and many artists beckon the call.
So why Shakespeare's works?
The reasons stated above (language, story, theatricality), though reasonable, are not to be taken separately. The fusion of these three qualities is the real magic. Artists can learn from Shakespeare in terms of artistry. Shakespeare is good entertainment, even from a shallow perspective. Shakespeare appeals to the senses, mind, heart and soul. Shakespeare is adaptable.
Why Shakespeare? Because one has to know what genius looks like.