For what it’s worth, I get it. I get that it seems like Shakespeare is stuffy and appreciated only by the types of people that like to say things like “Good morrow!” and “Ah, but hast thou actually had candied shallots?” and then laugh with big teeth, or fodder for the next generic teen movie because Bill is the undisputed master of tapping into the psyche of your average fifteen-year-old American girl. But there’s something to be said for appreciating “Shakespeare” (the man, the plays, the behemoth, the “thing” that is “Shakespeare,” whatever that may be), and I’m going to say it.
Modern appropriation of Shakespeare is, for all intents and purposes, a phenomenon without a genesis. He has a virtually untraceable evolution of cultural significance that has become so engrained, metastasized itself so ardently onto western civilization that to pluck him from the timeline would be to erase almost everything recognizable about our culture. But we can never know who gave enough of a shit when as to make it so unavoidable that we all give a shit now. So as much as a classroom full of high school students may like to argue that they don’t “get” Shakespeare or emit nasally whines of “but whyyyy is this even important?”, Shakespeare is as much yours and mine and theirs as he is the budding thespian’s, the dramatic weirdo’s, the emo teenage girl’s, or the English professor’s.
I won’t entertain arguments that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays, mostly because the people who forward them don’t have a single fucking clue what they’re talking about. We’re just creatures of controversy, and the claim that perhaps the most lauded writer in all of the English language didn’t actually produce his own texts is just the sort of delightful poke in the eye some of us may want to give the accepted cultural paradigm. You know, subvert the dominant whatsawhoever. And to be perfectly frank, it’s a relatively moot point. How much would it matter in 2011 if we suddenly discovered, buried deep in a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory in the basement of a building somewhere on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon a note, hand written by Shakespeare himself, that reads: “To whom it may concern: I didn’t write any of that shit. No, seriously. I didn’t. Sorry to disappoint you. Xoxo, Bill Shakespeare. P.S., It really is me, Shakespeare, and I really didn’t write any of that stuff. I swear.”
I’ll tell you how much it’d matter: not at all. Hamlet would still be the quintessential tragedy. Romeo and Juliet would still be the quintessential romance. And we would still regularly use colloquialisms in our everyday speech that originated in this collection of plays. Including, but very much not at all limited to:
A foregone conclusion
Dead as a doornail
One fell swoop
Beast with two backs (no really)
Make your hair stand on end
Method in the madness
Every dog has his day
Wild goose chase
I could go on. And on and on and on and on. Point is, scholars may bemoan the shaky grounds on which we gingerly place the complete works of Shakespeare, but an upheaval of epic proportions wouldn’t negate in the slightest its cultural ramifications for the last four centuries.
Aha! The slightly more informed dissenter proclaims. But Shakespeare didn’t come up with his own stories! He borrowed almost all of them from other texts! This is entirely true. It was common practice, to be fair, but is true. And to you I ask: ok, which ones did he steal from? Can you name a few for me? No? Oh maybe that’s because SHAKESPEARE FUCKING OWNS YOUR SOUL. YOU CANNOT ESCAPE HIM. Seriously though. While it is true that Shakespeare unabashedly ripped off an older Italian story for his writing of Othello, only one of those two has managed to survive the hazardous thicket of cultural erosion, only to emerge unscathed as one of the best-loved plays of all time.
Did you know Shakespeare did his stuff on the wrong side of town? The Globe theatre, as well as a number of other theatres in London, was constructed south of the Thames where all the gambling, boozing, whoring, and other awesome stuff took place. Up north, up by St. Paul’s cathedral and Westminster, things were much more respectable and people kept their gambling and boozing and whoring behind closed doors, thank you very much. Tickets were cheap, and even cheaper if you were willing to stand for the whole show beneath the open ceiling. Audience members ranged from the well-to-do to your average working class blacksmith, goldsmith, bluesmith, purplesmith, and all sorts of other people who smithed things. And why would such a poor and uneducated audience want anything to do with Mister William “ooohHOOOH! So you think you’re fucking Shakespeare, huh?” Shakespeare? Well:
1) Shakespeare was seriously bawdy.
In Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio wants to get Kate to marry him, but she’ll have none of it. She’s sharp-tongued, and Petrucho is tired of her bitching.
Katherina: If I am waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy then is to pluck it out.
Katherina: Aye, if the fool could find where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp doth wear his sting? In his tail.
Katherina: In his tongue?
Petruchio: Who’s tongue?
Katherina: Yours if it talks of tales, and so farewell.
Petruchio: What with my tongue in your taile?
G’head, read it again. I’ll wait. YEAH. THAT’S RIGHT, Petruchio references putting his tongue IN KATE’S BUTT. RIGHT IN HER BUTT.
2) Shakespeare was seriously funny.
In Cymbeline, asshole Cloten is interested in sexing Innogen, the innocent little daughter of King Cymbeline. She rebuffs him, and in a stupid act of desperation he dresses as her exiled lover just to see if, you know, that’d work. He mouths off to the wrong dudes and gets his FUCKING HEAD CHOPPED OFF, and Innogen happens upon the body.
“Struck the main-top! O Posthumus! alas, / Where is thy head? where’s that? Ay me!”
Innogen throws herself upon the headless body of what she can only assume is her lover Posthumus. You may be thinking, what’s so funny about an unfortunate case of mistaken identity with a decapitated corpse? In which case I ask, what isn’t funny about it?
3) Shakespeare was seriously serious.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish Merchant who has a bad rep that scholars for centuries have debated the validity of. Shylock has agreed to lend Bassanio some money interest free, although with a fairly steep (*ahem*poundofhisflesh*ahem*) no payment penalty. Taken to court for trying to enforce his terms, Shylock releases a flood of emotion:
…He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? ….If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
We’re touched, because ouch. We’re confused, because pound of flesh? Seriously? Was his friend Antonio really that shitty to you? We’re captivated, because the words are sewn together like notes on a staff, as melodious as a beautiful song.
And that’s what it is, really. It’s the words. It’s Hamlet debating the merits of suicide. It’s Lady Macbeth screaming at the blood she’s hallucinating is on her hands. It’s Julius Caesar dying on the steps of the Senate. It’s putting your ear to work and really hearing those words and realizing that even if you can’t understand all of them, or even a majority of them, the ones you can understand sound really damn good. I won’t say he’s the be-all and end-all, but I will say he’s pretty worth all the hullabaloo. We will all nod knowingly and pat ourselves on the back when we realize that The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet. Our synchronized cultural brain switches will flick on when we hear the words “To be, or not to be” because you’d seriously have to be either locked in a basement or in first grade to not know what it refers to. But to sit and read a play, to sit and watch a performance, to let Shakespeare’s razor sharp language cut through you like a knife, is to sink your face into the cold water and peer at what’s below the tip of the iceberg.
Why is he the most recognizable name in English literature? Why is he required reading for all high schools and most universities in the country? Why is he appropriated and adapted over and over and over in all different genres and all different mediums? We can’t know for sure. Some luck, quite a bit of British Colonialism, and a whole hell of a lot of talent. So for God’s sake, don’t bemoan the most recent Hollywood adaptation and its lack of “fidelity,” instead applaud the tenacity of Shakespeare’s cultural pervasiveness. Ben Jonson described him as a writer “not of an age, but for all time!” So let us do with him what we will, let us poke and prod and mold and squish and abuse Shakespeare until he’s barely recognizable but still mostly is.
You can ask yourself “But why?” until you’re blue in the face, or you can pick up a copy of Titus Andronicus and be seriously surprised by how entertained you are. Shakespeare’s plays were originally intended to be enjoyed by the masses. We are it and it is we, and if it had to be something, then thank the stars it’s something as delicious as Shakespeare.
None can be call’d deform’d but the unkind.”
– Antonio, Twelfth Night, 3.4 368-69