Arts 101: Shakespeare

Shakespeare is the 900-pound gorilla of culture. He’s the Big Boy to whom others are compared, and never the other way around.

He is the premier poet of the English language, acknowledged by even those who don’t read poetry or go to plays.

Author of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is the oldest English writer whose works are still regularly staged in the theater. The best plays — and yes, he wrote a few clunkers — are wise, witty, deep and profoundly moving. No one tells us more about being human.

Shakespeare is also the source for the largest single section of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

You can hardly get through a day without encountering some echo of the Bard’s pen: If something is a “foregone conclusion,” or has come “full circle,” or is a “sorry sight,” you can thank Shakespeare. Or thousands of other phrase-habits, such as when something is “in the wind,” or if you speak the “naked truth,” or have a “heart of gold.”

It all flows from the great fountain of the English tongue.

Can you imagine modern life without these words coined by him: addiction, admirable, anchovy, aerial, arouse, auspicious — and we haven’t even left the “A” section.

In fact, Shakespeare is so pervasive, he’s more often misquoted than anyone else is quoted at all.

And he didn’t get that way by accident: He really is the best.

“Shakespeare to me is like the Bible,” says Mike Elliott, 58, of Mesa, who goes regularly to Shakespeare performances with his wife, Debby. “He is always relevant, always speaks to us, reaches out to us and still connects with all the issues that face human beings no matter where or when they live.”

He enjoys reading the plays and poetry, but, he says, “they really come alive when we see them.”

And the plays provide an antidote to what Elliott calls the “entertainment bottom-feeding” that clogs our TVs and movie screens.

“It’s really simple,” says Jared Sakren, artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare, whose production of Hamlet opens this week at the Mesa Arts Center. “His writing touches on the universal, so that his characters, what they say and what they feel, is understandable to any audience.

“He touches on experience we, as human beings, all understand, except he says it just a little better than we can say it.

“Perhaps more than just a little better.”

The problem is that sometimes the great Shakespeare plays scare off potential theatergoers. Perhaps it’s that Shakespeare is too revered and not enough enjoyed — too much like going to cultural church.

And that’s a shame, because that isn’t what Shakespeare is about: If any great author ever aimed at the broadest possible audience, it was the Bard. He was no snob: His fart jokes prove that.

Then there’s the problem of Shakespeare’s language, so dense, and to our ears, so often archaic, with those “sirruhs” and “prithees.” His language is not ours.

But language is the heart of Shakespeare, and to get to know his language is to understand his theater — because Elizabethan theater was different from theater today.

We live in a visual culture, and we expect certain things from our plays, such as costumes and stage sets. We expect our actors to show us what is happening rather than telling us about what is happening.

It was different in 1600: Elizabethan culture was a verbal culture. There’s a reason there are so few great — or even good — English paintings from the time: Their genius was not visual. They ate, drank, dressed and lived words.

“A rhapsody of words,” as Shakespeare has it in Hamlet.

Even the least educated audience member — one of the “groundlings” standing in the bottom of the theater in the cheap-ticket area — would have come expecting to hear great rhetoric and great poetry.

And Shakespeare delivered.

To us, used to text messaging and the grunts of teenage children telling us where they’re going when they leave the house, Shakespearean language seems flowery and elaborate. But that’s the very glory of the work.

“Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father dad,” as he wrote in King John.

And being “bethumped with words” is what going to Shakespeare is all about.

* “If music be the food of love, play on.”

* “Put up your swords, for the dew will rust them.”

* “O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!”

Shakespeare’s audiences attended the theater with their ears, just as we go with our eyes. It takes a little readjustment to absorb all the Bard has to give us.

“His audiences expected poetry — even more, they expected rhetoric,” Sakren says.

“Elevated language and the uses of language they understood better than we understand now. So poetry does become a game played with language.

“They understood the rhetorical forms, they were taught them even in elementary school.”

So in As You Like It, when Rosalind says, “No sooner met, but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.” It’s a sentence that uses classical rhetoric rather than naturalistic speech. These are the patterns of language that keep us attentive to the climax: We are hooked on the sentence just as we might be hooked by a plot — to find what comes next.

There are other things that make Elizabethan theater different: The plays weren’t divided into acts and scenes, as plays are now, but played through more like movies do.

And because Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery — which would have been needed to change between scenes — the plays could, and often did jump from place to place with the alacrity of film. If a scene was needed with just three lines, so be it; it was done, then on to the next. Just like movies.

This makes for a fleetness of storytelling that more equipped theater cannot match. Shakespeare moves at the speed of his own imagination, unhindered by props and curtains.

But the lack of scenery also helps explain the words: If he can’t up-curtain on a drawing room or battlefield, Shakespeare will instead describe his setting in words, painting verbal pictures of what his audience needed to imagine.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here or there; jumping o’er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass,” as the narrator exhorts in the prologue to Henry V.

But the point of all these words is the illumination of human life and character.

The great literary critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to say Shakespeare invented modern human beings.

What Bloom means is that Shakespeare provided a model for reflexive thought. Before him, people acted and reacted. After him, they had a vocabulary for discussing their inner lives.

“This is the first time onstage that you get the full interior of the human psyche and psychology,” Sakren says. “He takes us on a journey inside the human mind and elevates what we know of humanity instead of reducing humanity to simple actions or plot points.”

So, in Hamlet, we don’t just see the revenge acted out, we hear the revenger’s thoughts and second thoughts, his weighings and balancings, his fears and rationalizations.

“We get a view of the inner workings of the human soul,” Sakren says.

Shakespeare’s characters are so multidimensional that we can never fully understand them — any more than we can fully understand any real person. There is always something deeper and more complex, even contradictory.

Emerson said of Shakespeare, “His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see.”

In other words, we can’t explain Shakespeare, but he can explain us.

****

Jared Sakren’s  Top 5 Shakespeare plays

* Hamlet.

* The Tempest.

* Othello.

* As You Like It.

* The Merchant of Venice.

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