Devoted Bardite Loretta Barnard has taken it upon herself to explain the brilliance of William Shakespeare to you haters, in plain English.
This year, 2016, marks 400 years since the death of arguably the greatest figure in world literature—William Shakespeare (1564-1616)—and to kick things off, we thought to appeal to those of you who aren’t fans of the Bard.
Perhaps in your pimply pubescent years, you weren’t lucky enough to have a teacher who helped you figure out what the hell Macbeth was about or explained why Hamlet came across as a bit of a wuss and so you ended up feeling that the whole idea of Shakespeare was much ado about nothing.
But with the passage of years and your readiness to try new ways of thinking, perhaps now’s the time to start with your reappraisal of the Bard.
First off, if you really want to appreciate Shakespeare, go see a play. Or watch one of the better film versions. Shakespeare’s works are meant to be watched, to be heard. I can’t stress this enough.
If you sit there laboring over the printed word you mightn’t get far. You can of course derive enormous pleasure from reading those marvelous words, savoring them in your mouth, reveling at the wit and insights contained therein, but you can’t beat being at a play, watching actors do their thing. Suddenly Elizabethan turns of phrase become crystal clear and words of which you may not have known the meaning fall into place.
Look at Romeo and Juliet, first performed around 1595. Keep in mind that the main characters are just kids. Juliet is almost 14, Romeo maybe 16. Everyone knows the star-cross’d lovers (the phrase itself comes from the play) don’t live happily ever after.
For a start, the families hate each other’s guts, and the play opens with a bit of fisticuffs between the Capulets and Montagues. It’s pretty much gang warfare. The prince of Verona comments on the bloodshed:
“You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins …”
The violence is brutal. Everyone is so aggro.
When Juliet’s macho cousin Tybalt confronts Romeo, he wants to keep the peace, but hotheadedness is difficult to quash. In the ensuing brawl, Tybalt kills Romeo’s closest friend Mercutio. Mercutio’s eloquent dying words are a curse—“A plague on both your houses!” Nothing like a curse to intensify an already tense situation.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film captured the hostility, the sheer irrational hatred between the families.
Raging with grief and anger and against his own better judgment, Romeo avenges Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt. He’s immediately filled with remorse, but the whole eye-for-an-eye thing is simply de rigueur.
Juliet’s mother (she’s a piece of work) wants retribution for Tybalt and expresses her desire to poison Romeo (foreshadowing Romeo’s actual death).
Set against all this argy-bargy is the rapturous love between Romeo and Juliet.
Anyone who has ever loved knows those fierce feelings of euphoria. Those all-consuming, overpowering, painful, joyous, primeval feelings.
Shakespeare nails the desperation of young love. Nails it!
When he first sees Juliet, Romeo is gobsmacked—“She doth teach the torches to burn bright. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel.” For him, she outshines the bright lights in the room, she’s a diamond sparkling in a dark sky, she’s beyond beauty.
Admit it, it sure beats, “Gee, she’s pretty.”
Their first encounter at the Capulet party (which Romeo gatecrashed) is followed by the balcony scene where Juliet muses:
“Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
She’s grappling with the idea of loving the son of her family’s enemies—“Tis but thy name that is my enemy.” Romeo leaps from the bushes where he’s been listening, declaring his undying love and away we go with big guns, passionate young love.
Watch Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film.
It’s alive, it’s real, and it’s because you’re watching it, hearing the words spoken aloud, bringing immediacy and fervency to the scene.
But wait, there’s more!
An exceptionally skillful storyteller, Shakespeare’s plot developments pulsated, building tension, heightening drama.
A messenger is sent to Romeo (in exile for killing Tybalt) to inform him that Juliet is in a drugged sleep so she’ll appear dead and the lovers (now secretly married) can reunite.
But fate intervenes and the suspense factor goes off the scale. No matter that we know the ending, we still hope like hell that the messenger will get there in time.
Faster, we cry, gallop faster. Hurry up!!! Come! On!
Too late! Romeo’s heard Juliet is dead and, devastated, hurtles to the grave, where the first person he meets is Paris, the man who was supposed to marry Juliet. They fight (yes, more fighting!) and Romeo kills Paris.
Then, when Romeo gets the poison out, we’re almost shouting at him to just wait a few minutes. For god’s sake, wait! Just a moment longer. Please!
But no, it’s down the hatch and he dies.
Juliet awakens, finds Romeo dead and takes his dagger, plunging it into her body dying beside him.
There are so many deaths in this story. Even Romeo’s mother has died of grief at her son’s exile.
The deaths of the young lovers ends the discord between the families. Too little too late of course, but the play had to have a tragic ending to highlight the destructiveness and sheer pointlessness of vendettas.
Plus, a good tragedy gets people weeping and that makes for good box-office returns. Shakespeare had a nose for the commercial side of things too.
Across 38 plays, Shakespeare covered love, death, political intrigue, revenge, ambition, loyalty, justice, jealousy, identity, pride, conflict, greed, good, evil, youth, age, forgiveness, and more. He moves us, makes us re-evaluate our preconceptions, forcing us to look beyond the obvious.
Art is like that—it should awaken profound reactions. Shakespeare is art of the highest order. As Will himself said—“The object of art is to give life a shape.”
You might not want to read a play, but go see a live performance of one. Tragedies, comedies, histories—there’s something for everyone. Really. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.
And now, farewell.