In Honor of the Bard’s Birthday

A Shakespeare Miscellany

In Honor of the Bard’s Birthday

From The Huffington Post:

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, we’re featuring some of our favorite archival pieces about his life and work. This one was first published in July 2005. Happy Birthday, Bill!

After the horrors of this week, we could all use a little weekend palate cleanser. And who better to provide this Saturday summer sorbet than Britain’s own immortal Bard, a writer who dealt with all the darkness of the human soul but also brilliantly celebrated the light and tickled our fancy?

The following bit of Shakespearean amusement was concocted by my great friend Bernard Levin, who passed away last year. It was recited to perfection by Michael York at a dinner in Aspen given by Lynda and Stewart Resnick in honor of all the speakers at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival. After York’s rendition, the party erupted with requests (including one from Arthur Schlesinger) for copies of what York had just read. So instead of running out to Kinko’s, I’ve decided to post it here so that he — and all of you — can have it to download, print out, e-mail, link to… and enjoy.

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me’,
you are quoting Shakespeare;
if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning,
you are quoting Shakespeare;
if you recall your salad days,
you are quoting Shakespeare;
if you act more in sorrow than in anger,
if your wish is father to the thought,
if your lost property has vanished into thin air,
you are quoting Shakespeare;
if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy,
if you have played fast and loose,
if you have been tongue-tied,
a tower of strength,
hoodwinked or in a pickle,
if you have knitted your brows,
made a virtue of necessity,
insisted on fair play,
slept not one wink,
stood on ceremony,
danced attendance (on your lord and master),
laughed yourself into stitches,
had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing,
if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise —
why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare;
if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage,
if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it,
if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood,
if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play,
if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason,
then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare;
even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing,
if you wish I was dead as a doornail,
if you think I am an eyesore,
a laughing stock,
the devil incarnate,
a stony-hearted villain,
bloody-minded or a blinking idiot,
then — by Jove!
O Lord!
Tut, tut!
For goodness’ sake!
What the dickens!
But me no buts —
it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.


A fun quiz:  If you don’t ace it now, you will by the time we’re done:

Also from the Huffington Post, by Joseph Smigelski:

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, we’re featuring some of our favorite archival pieces about his life and work. This one was first published in April 2010. Happy Birthday, Bill!

The other day, I received a letter from a friend who wrote, “Unfortunately, I find him almost impossible to understand…. Is there a secret to comprehending Shakespeare? I’d really like to read him, and any hints would be appreciated.”

My friend is not a philistine but a well-read woman who struggled through the major plays in school and has seen various theatrical productions and film versions of them. She obviously respects and values the immortal words of William Shakespeare and would like to join ranks with the many who enjoy reading him. So I was distressed by her candid admission of having such difficulty with his language. I am sure that many of you will sympathize with her and agree in a knee-jerk fashion that, yes, Shakespeare is indeed impossible to understand. But I think the problem is not with William Shakespeare but with you. Before you take offense, let me explain.

The first thing you have to do when confronting Shakespeare is break down the wall of resistance that has been constructed between you and him by a cultural atmosphere fraught with willful misunderstanding. For instance, how many times have you heard someone say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English? That right there might be enough to put you off. But both of those claims are patently false. I’ll show you. Here is a passage from Beowulf, which is written in Old English:

baet hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesibas, bonne wig cume,
leode gelaesten; lofdaedum sceal
in maegba gehwaere man gebeon.

And here is a passage from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

Now here are a few famous lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, the same language that we speak today. There is not one word in the above passage from Hamlet with which you are unfamiliar. Your problem with understanding Shakespeare is due to his language being poetic. Most of your everyday discourse has become so pedestrian that your ears have become unable to tune in to language that aspires to greater heights. This may or may not be your fault. We all are aware that the state of education in this country is woefully bleak. But why submit to the prevailing philistine attitude without a fight?

After I received my friend’s letter, I serendipitously began reading The Selfish Gene, a popular book on genetics by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As I was grappling with some of the more technical passages that contained words like allele, nucleotide, cistron, and mitosis, I was sometimes tempted to close the book and give up. Yet with a little extra effort, I was able to push through the difficult passages and come away with at least a general understanding of what Dawkins was getting at. And, since I do not aspire to be an expert in the field of biology, a general understanding was all I was hoping to attain.

Then somewhere along the way, a thought struck me: This often frustrating feeling of wrestling with words to wrench out their meaning is what my friend might be experiencing when she picks up a play by William Shakespeare — and ditto for my community college English students whom I have been known to annoy on occasion by assigning King Lear, Othello, or Twelfth Night. If you cannot understand Shakespeare, how can you enjoy him? But, as with me and biology, unless you are striving to be a Shakespearean scholar, a general understanding of a play is all that is needed.

In his wonderful movie Looking for Richard, his valiant attempt to bring Shakespeare’s Richard III to the daunted public, Al Pacino said, “You shouldn’t have to understand every single word. Why? Do you understand every … ? I mean, it’s not important. It doesn’t matter. As long as you get the gist of it. Just trust it. You’ll get it.” Here are a few tips that I hope will help you trust it and eventually get it:

The English language, like everything else on this planet, has evolved. It changes in subtle ways gradually over the years. So, occasionally, a word that Shakespeare uses will be unfamiliar to you, or it will be a familiar word that had a different meaning in the Elizabethan Age. For example, take the verb “doubt.” Today it means to feel uncertain about something, as in “I doubt his sincerity.” In Shakespeare’s day, it also meant to fear something. Take these lines from a short speech by Hamlet:

My father’s spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!

The Prince of Denmark is not using the word “doubt” to convey that he feels uncertain that foul play has occurred; rather, he means that he fears that foul play has occurred. He is afraid that someone has murdered his father. What can make understanding Shakespeare even more tricky is that sometimes he uses the same word within a speech to mean two different things. This is from a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

The first two times Hamlet uses the word “doubt,” he means feel uncertain. The third time he means fear, and the last time he again means feel uncertain. Shakespeare keeps you on your toes, and this kind of wordplay is a wonderful aspect of his work.

Sometimes as simple a word as “an” can present a challenge. Take these lines spoken by Bianca in Othello:

An you’ll come to supper to-night, you may; an you
will not, come when you are next prepared for.

When Bianca uses the word “an,” she means “if”:

If you’ll come to supper to-night, you may; if you
will not, come when you are next prepared for.

Once your ear becomes attuned to a few archaic anomalies such as these, the sailing will be a lot smoother. To help you adjust to this, I suggest you read Shakespeare’s plays in the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of the individual plays. These inexpensive paperbacks offer Shakespeare’s text on the right hand page and “explanatory notes designed to help make Shakespeare’s language clearer to a modern reader … on the page facing the text that they explain.” But whatever else you do, be sure to avoid such abominations as the “No Fear Shakespeare” and the “Shakespeare Made Easy” series, both of which should be more aptly titled “The Reader Made Stupid” series.

In everyday speech and writing, we usually put the subject of a sentence before the verb. Shakespeare very often did the opposite for reasons concerning poetic rhythm and meter. Take this line from Romeo and Juliet:

Never was seen so black a day as this.

The subject of that sentence is “day”; the verb is “was seen.” We would usually write the sentence like this:

A day so black as this was never seen.

But Shakespeare chose a more poetic way to say it. After all, finding poetic ways to say things was his forte. He often played around with word placement, so be on the lookout for it.

By now, you must be thinking that all this sounds more like hard work than the enjoyment promised in the title of this essay. Well, remember the old saying: Nothing worth having comes easily. The enjoyment kicks in when you really start to get it, when you finally meet William Shakespeare on his own turf and his language begins to open new doors in your consciousness.


Also from the Huffington Post, by novelist Nicolle Galland, on the art of stealing from Shakespeare:

William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday — today, we think — is replete with Shakespearean amounts of media commentary about his relevance to our times.

“But we have Steven Spielberg,” tweeteth everyone who is tired of hearing about why we need Shakespeare. “We. Don’t. Need. Shakespeare.”

Ah, but we do. We need Shakespeare as a lodestar for something increasingly common to our culture.

Not for those scenes of human relationships so emotionally gripping that they could have been written yesterday (iambic pentameter notwithstanding)… we’ve got Spielberg for that. Thrilling battle scenes? Political intrigue? Tremendous visual spectacles? Spielberg’s got that covered. So what if Shakespeare grapples with the bigger moral issues of human existence, those themes of faith and loyalty, class warfare, race, family ties, friendship, vengeance, grief, betrayal, greed, honor, jealousy, pride, love… so does Spielberg. And Spielberg’s characters speak like we do.

We need Shakespeare to teach us how to steal. Nobody steals like William Shakespeare. Not even Steven Spielberg.

Shakespeare lifted all his plots from other sources (well, all but The Tempest, which doesn’t have such a good plot). “Intellectual property rights” was a concept yet to be invented, so he was not the only one doing this, but he had a knack for taking other people’s stories or ideas and improving on them tremendously. In so doing, he inspired other thieves throughout history to steal from him in turn, although he remains the best: he bettered the work he borrowed from, while those of us who borrow from him (myself included) are either using his strengths to buoy ourselves, or paying homage to a master. Nobody has the audacity to claim he is improving upon Shakespeare – not even the Walt Disney Company, which turned Hamlet into The Lion King.

His plays have been filmed hundreds of times (from 50 versions of Hamlet starting in 1900, to Coriolanus this year), transformed into musicals (most famously West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet), and morphed into modern teen flicks (for example, Ten Things I Hate About You from Taming of the Shrew). They are also transformed into novels, drawing on his plots either directly (as my novel, I, Iago, does with Othello) or symbolically (as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres does with King Lear).

The plays are also produced theatrically, with such a heavy directorial hand that the audience frequently feels they are watching, not “Shakespeare” but “somebody else’s idea of Shakespeare.” I’ve heard of King Lear set in the Wild West, and I’ve seen a production that should have been billed Hamlet, Prince of Bosnia.

I myself (with my colleague Chelsea McCarthy) have filled theatres on Martha’s Vineyard with one-hour adaptations of 20 of his plays, all of them questionably Shakespearean. When directors take such liberties with the original material, they are only mimicking what Shakespeare did himself. At the same time, however, they are paying the lesson forward: they are reminding us that as a culture, we are thieves who lack originality. That would be a terrible thing were it not also true of Shakespeare. Shakespeare makes a virtue of it.

Let’s be more like Shakespeare — let’s steal the way he steals. We’ll never do it as well as he does, but let’s use him as a model and make the world a better place artistically. Let’s invent with what we steal. When we take a story and rehash it — which is how almost every movie in Hollywood gets made these days — let’s make the language more exquisite, the characters more engrossing, and the message more profound. Let’s be sure that even in the darkest, most intense of tragedies, there is some humor, whether it be low-brow slapstick (the porter in Macbeth) or cutting, sardonic wit (Iago in Othello).

We might also convince other forces in society to learn to steal like Shakespeare. Wall Street would be much improved if financial managers took their clients’ money and used it to create not only more, but better, money. Money invested in projects intended to build a better world, not simply used to breed upon itself. There are socially-minded portfolios, but they are not the norm. George Soros is arguably the Shakespeare of currency traders, working within the “virtuous/vicious circle” of investment as Shakespeare worked within the “Wooden O” of the Globe theatre. Let’s see the entire world of finance strive, like Shakespeare, to improve not only its grasp, but its reach!

On the other end of the spectrum, Occupy Wall Street also has something to learn from the Master Thief. Not by modeling itself on his actions, but on his plays. Shakespeare’s stories often begin with passionate intention, but then get hopelessly complex and mired in the middle, before finally reaching triumphantly dramatic climaxes. Sometimes the good guys triumph; when they don’t, sometimes other characters learn from the fallen heroes’ tragic flaws to better themselves.

Sometimes it all just ends in a dreadful mess, of course — but even then, the high-mindedness of the protagonists inspire the audience. Here’s the key point: through the muddled middle acts, the characters keep moving, inexorably, toward the finale. They don’t lose patience with the convoluted plot and pull up stakes; nor do they wallow distractedly in the convolution. They keep their eye on the prize and power through to the final scene, whatever the fate awaiting them. I’d love to see the OWS movement take that to heart.

And then, of course, there’s government. Can the Bard teach politicians something new about stealing? Like him, they already appropriate the historical record, use it to sell their own particular message for their own particular reasons… but in contrast to how they do it now, let’s see them, like Shakespeare, build a better history.

With the famous exception of Richard III, Shakespeare took liberties with known facts in order to humanize, not demonize. At worst, he justified past atrocities or embarrassments; at best, and nearly always, he showed what a terrific challenge it is to be both human and heroic at once. He appropriated the past to improve it as a model for the present. Modern politicians and pundits: step up to that plate.

On the Bard’s birthday, let’s ask ourselves: What would Shakespeare steal? Let’s look for what we want most in life — love, beauty, joy, talent, power, money — and go for it whole-heartedly… but then push ourselves to transform it into something even better than it was, and make that better thing our gift back to the world.


This musical tribute:


And finally…this piece from NPR on how Shakespeare might have actually sounded:


My next post:  Tuesday evening, Act Three of A Midsummer Night’s Dream


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3 Responses to In Honor of the Bard’s Birthday

  1. cricketmuse says:

    With hands together I bang my praise,
    To acknowledge this date is the Bard’s birth day.
    I thank you for the reminder
    His words make the world much finer.

    Much Yay for this day of the Bard!
    Happy Pages,

  2. Thanks for this, Dennis. I especially like the piece about stealing to make better. If only …

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