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This Month's Articles on Writing
Shakespeare’s England often seems far removed from our modern, 21st Century lives. Coming a few hundred years after the Crusades, in the depths of the Little Ice Age that saw glaciers advancing and bitter cold gripping the planet, it was nevertheless a time of endless possibilities. The New World had just been opened to settlement, ships were sailing around the world, the end of the Dark Ages had ushered in an age of reason and enlightenment, and European writers and thinkers were stretching the arts and sciences to new heights. In Italy, these were the days of Galileo; in Spain, Cervantes was laying the foundation for modern Spanish literature—even as the Inquisition was rising to crush the spirit of religious unorthodoxy; and Elizabethan England, having defeated the Spanish Armada, was enjoying its own cultural blossoming, with William Shakespeare and a host of poets and thinkers laying much of the artistic and scientific framework for Western thought in the years to come.
And yet at the human level the people of Shakespeare’s day were no different from us—or, indeed, from humans of any generation since the dawn of time. Love and joy, loss and redemption, vengeance and mercy, hatred and despair, are emotions human beings have experienced throughout our time on this planet. Life, for all its twists and turns, remains much as it always has: a search for happiness, while looking for enough food, and plenty of sex.
Despite the arcane scholarship dealing with the greatest writer the English language has produced, Shakespeare did not write to impress professors of literature, and it is doubtful that he wielded his timeless grace and artistry just to show how talented he was. It is likely that he wrote for the reason writers have always written: he had things he wanted to say, and something in his soul made him want to share his ideas with the world. He infused his writing with beauty because he could find beauty in everything. But he was well acquainted with the baser side of human nature as well—the lust for power and thirst for revenge—that sets the stage for the human drama, the eternal struggle between good and evil.
If we view Shakespeare not as a relic, but as a living human being, we see at once both his playfulness and his passion. His wit was unsurpassed, and we might well suppose that his capacity for enjoying life was the equal of anyone we might meet today. And so if we view his writing as an expression of his moods and emotions, rather than some tablet writ by the gods, we can see in his poetry all the elements of fun and sorrow we experience in our own lives. His teasing of friends and lovers is no less playful merely because it comes from Shakespeare. And if we try to sense the human being behind the marble mask we study in our literature classes, we will see a dimension and spark to his writing that makes it come suddenly to life.
The ancient Greeks wrote of gods and immortal heroes, but their plays and poems reflected the reality that they saw around them. Today, advances in science and technology may let our modern imaginations wander among the stars, but the realities we invent for our amusement will always reflect our own world. So, too, Shakespeare wrote of the universe that he lived in—an age of discovery, filled with history and legends, passions and turmoil, royalty and knaves. And yet like all great writers, his stories and poems speak to something deeper in the human condition. The music of his language sounds quaint and almost foreign to modern ears; but if we look beyond the courtliness of Elizabethan expression to embrace the spirit and sentiments the writer is conveying, we can almost touch the soul that gave voice to some of the loveliest, most profound thoughts that ever flowed from a writer’s pen.
Much modern scholarship deprives Shakespeare of his heart: so much attention is devoted to his artistry and influence on the development of modern English that we often miss the elegant simplicity of his wisdom, and the knowing and witty soul that loved to poke fun at life, and everyone around him. Far from the sterile legend of the typical English literature class he is instead playful; he is bawdy; he is profound; and while he obviously took great care about his writing, he never took himself as seriously as modern scholars do. That is, perhaps, the key to enjoying Shakespeare: recognizing that his art was meant to be experienced and savored, rather than labored over and studied to death.
Website ©2008 by Jeffrey Caminsky
Excerpts ©2008 by Jeffrey Caminsky