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It is the literary equivalent of “Da-da-da-Dum” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “2B or not 2B.” Everyone knows it, whether they have seen Hamlet or not. It would be hard to find another phrase as often quoted or as immediately recognized by a wide public. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” “In the beginning was the word.” Even these lag behind the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy as cultural roughage. 

Because it is so deeply buried in the culture, it is hard to even hear it anymore. It glides by not as information, but as a kind of tune, hummed thoughtlessly while sanding a table top or cutting carrots in the kitchen. 

But that soliloquy, just as the play it sits in the middle of, can be performed many different ways, with very different meanings. There are Hamlets that are Oedipal, Hamlets that are schizophrenic, Hamlets that are hot-blooded, those that are indecisive, those that are crafty — and at least one Hamlet played as a stand-up comedian. Take the words the playwright wrote and you can construe them myriad ways. In Ulysses, James Joyce has his character Stephen Daedalus prove that Hamlet is his own father. Sort of. 

Likewise, the “to be or not to be” speech can be spoken theatrically, like Master Thespian — this is too often the case — or emotionally, or enunciated with clinical precision. It can be spoken to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, or whispered under the breath. It can be done as a voice-over, as if we are hearing Hamlet’s thoughts. 

Benedict Cumberbatch; Mel Gibson; Thomas Hiddleston

(The one thing that seldom changes is Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull in Act 5. Everyone has to do it, and what is more, be photographed doing it. Even publicity photos for provincial productions have to feature the Dane and his moldy jester.)

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. It certainly has his wittiest hero: Hamlet, the Dane, is in fact too smart for his own good. In part, that’s what the play is about. 

In it, Claudius has killed his brother, the king — Hamlet’s father — and usurped the throne and queen. 

When the dead king’s ghost tells Hamlet to revenge him, Hamlet enters a storm of uncertainty: How, when, why and if to kill Claudius. In the process, Hamlet alienates most of the people he knows, even killing several. 

When Claudius contrives to murder Hamlet before the young prince can kill him, the whole Danish court is thrown into violence and death. 

You can just keep turning this play around and the light will keep catching a new facet. The more you look at it, the more you see. An actor has to decide: At any moment, is what is driving the character? 

Hamlet is the single most complex, multilayered and confusing character in any play. Is he insane? Is he pretending to be insane? Is he sane at some moments and mad at others? Is he obsessed with his mother? Is his inability to act caused by fearfulness, thoughtfulness, indecision or a desire to kill Claudius only when murder will do the most harm to Claudius’ eternal soul? 

None of these versions is ruled out by the text, but none is sufficient of itself. 

“As an actor,” one Hamlet said, “I’m going to try to illuminate as many facets as I can. But you can’t do it all, or you’ll lose focus. I feel sometimes I’m trying to cover myself with too little blanket: If I cover my head and shoulders, my feet stick out.” 

Critics have argued for 400 years about Hamlet’s inaction. But the reason the character refuses to go away is that he is at least as complex as we are in the audience: Hamlet is real. 

Hamlet has a line, when he’s talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “You would seem to pluck out the heart of my mystery,” and that is what most scholars and critics try to do.

Not only actors, but whole ages have their takes. In the 19th century, Hamlet was often played as effeminate, or at least as one easily in touch with his feminine side. 

Edwin Booth brother of Lincoln’s assassin, and considered the greatest American actor of the 19th century, himself wrote in 1882, ”I have always endeavored to make prominent the femininity of Hamlet’s character and therein lies the secret of my success — I think. I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation. I know that frequently I fall into effeminacy, but we can’t always hit the proper keynote.’’

Edwin Booth; Sarah Bernhardt; Asti Nielsen; John Barrymore

In fact, there were many notable actresses who took on the role then, most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, who said, ”I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.’’

The practice actually goes back further. In 1775, Hamlet was played by the young Sarah Siddons to great acclaim (she continued to play the role until she was 47). Two decades later, the role went to Elizabeth Powell in London’s Drury Lane theater. 

These women achieved great praise. The stuffy Dr. Samuel Johnson saw Kitty Clive in the play and compared her performance with that of the famous actor David Garrick. “Mrs. Clive was the best player I ever saw,” he noted. “What Clive did best, she did better than Garrick.” 

Ruth Mitchell; Frances de la Tour; Lisa Wolpe

In 1822, Julia Glover played Hamlet in London and fellow actor Walter Donaldson said, “Her noble figure, handsome and expressive face, rich and powerful voice, all contributed to rivet the attention of the elite assembled on this occasion; while continued bursts of applause greeted her finished elocution.” The greatest actor of his age, Edmund Kean, came backstage to congratulate her: “Excellent. Excellent,” he said. 

In 1820, the first American female Hamlet was Sarah Bartley, in New York. At mid-century, Charlotte Cushman took on the role in New York and Boston, wearing the costume Edwin Booth had lent her. 

The sentiment was not unanimous, however. The New York Mirror disapproved of Nellie Holbrook’s Hamlet in 1880. “This absolutely masculine character is not capable of proper presentation by a woman, however great or talented,” the reviewer wrote. “We are, however, free to say that Miss Holbrook’s Hamlet is eminently respectable.”

That is better than the patronizing review of critic William Winter in 1911. “It is difficult to understand why Hamlet should be considered feminine, seeing that he is supereminently distinguished by a characteristic rarely, if ever, discerned in women: namely that of considering consequences, of thinking too precisely on the event.” 

Christopher Eccleston

In the 20th century, Hamlet took a decidedly macho turn (say it like the British: “Match-oh”). He becomes a swashbuckler or a sadist, by turns. Olivier, Mel Gibson, Christopher Eccleston, who makes him look like a soccer hoodlum. 

Yet, there have been actresses who took the role. Maxine Peakes is available on DVD. Frances de la Tour, Ruth Mitchell and Lisa Wolpe played the Dane. In 1982, Joseph Papp produced a Hamlet with Diane Venora. 

“There are men who have played Hamlet very effeminate and there are those who played it macho; the male spectrum goes from the very tough to the effete and very delicate,” Papp said. “Most English Hamlets from the 19th century on were quite delicate, while American Hamlets were much tougher — like Barrymore. Diane is a strong Hamlet, but not a macho Hamlet; vulnerable, but not hysterical.

“For years I have wanted to do a female Hamlet,” Papp said. “I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet — not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.”

In 1937, it was Eva LeGallienne, who said, “I think psychologically one feels Hamlet was a youth … He’s still going to Wittenberg, to college, you know. He can’t be a mature man. The whole thing points to a very young youth, and therefore because a boy of that age might not be technically equipped to play the role, this is why many women in their thirties who can look like a youth, and had the technical skills to play this great role, have played it.”

Top row: Campbell Scott; Alan Mahon; Danforth Comins; Jonathan Douglas; Bottom row: Nathan Darrow; Rory Kenner; Tobias Fonsmark; Holder Bulow; Michael Benz

But, of course, Hamlet can be played all of these ways. The part is supremely plastic — you can stretch it this way and that and it still makes theatrical sense. 

But this divigation has gone on too long. Back to the soliloquy. To be or not. To be? That is the question. Nothing can stale its infinite variety. Let’s take a few different versions. Olivier, in his 1959 film, does it mostly as a voice-over, set on a precipice overlooking roiling surf. It is Hamlet on the edge of a breakdown. (Link here).

Gielgud was an enunciator. The clarity of his delivery overtakes the overt emotionalism that Olivier brought. (Link here).

Kevin Kline gives it the Master Thespian touch, emphasizing every word as if it were the most important. It becomes monotonous. But, soft, he doth drop a tear. (Link here). 

In the entire opposite direction, Benedict Cumberbatch speaks the lines as if they were spoken off the cuff. This is the way real people speak. I especially love the way he makes sense of the line: “to sleep. No more.” He makes it into “death is to sleep, no more than that.” His is my current favorite version. (Link here). 

One last version. John Barrymore was the great Hamlet of the early part of the 20th century. The bulk of his career was before sound film, so it was only in his decline that he filmed the speech — or part of it — in a silly comedy starring Kay Kyser as a hick bandleader attempting to learn to be an actor. He hires Barrymore, playing a parody version of himself, to be his mentor. At one point, the comedy stops and Barrymore gives his bit of the soliloquy and you can see the majesty of his talent peek through the alcoholic puffiness. The take is almost ruined by his uncontrollable eyebrows, looking like two marmots fighting over a cheese. But the words, the words, the words. (Link here). 

Papa Essiedu, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Giamatti, Grantham Coleman

As for the words, they can be difficult for modern listeners. What the hell is a fardel? Would you bear fardels with a bare bodkin? Sometimes you wonder what Shakespeare meant, although the problem isn’t as apparent when the words are spoken on stage, as when you read them in text. An actor can make the meaning clear in context. When Hamlet says, “with a bare bodkin,” he draws his dagger and the audience understands. 

But language has changed in the past 400 years and even words that are still in current usage often had different meanings then. A careful reading of Shakespeare’s work demands an attention to lexicographical detail, if we are to avoid confusion. 

And even when we know what the words mean, we are still faced with the fact that the Bard often uses the words metaphorically, as when he has Hamlet talk of “taking his quietus,” which doesn’t literally mean to kill himself, but rather means, having finished an enterprise, or having paid off a longstanding debt. Such is life, he implies.

The most famous soliloquy in Hamlet is a profound meditation on death and suicide — the question Albert Camus said is the only philosophical question that really matters. But what do the words mean?

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? To die: to sleep;/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep:/ To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause: There’s the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life;/ For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/ The pangs of despised loved, the law’s delay,/ The insolence of office and the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes,/ When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,/ To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/ But that the dread of something after death,/ The undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of?/ Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action.

Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce

A quick glossary: 

Rub – actually, an obstacle on a lawn bowling green.

Shuffled – cast off, like a snake skin

Coil – Turmoil

Respect – consideration or regard

Of so long life – long lived.

Time – The world as we know it.

Contumely – Contemptuous insults

Despised – Rejected.

Office – Office-holders; bureaucrats.

Spurns – Insults.

Quietus – the paying off of a debt; the resolution of an enterprise.

Bare – used here, “bare” may mean “mere.”

Bodkin – a sharp object, sometimes a hatpin, but here a dagger.

Fardels – Burdens, as a bindle or an army’s dunnage.

Bourn – Region; boundary.

Conscience – Used in an older sense of consciousness; thought.

Native hue – Natural color.

Cast – shade of color.

Pitch – The height of a soaring falcon’s flight; before falling on its prey. 

Moment – Importance.

Regard – Consideration.

It is poetry, in iambic pentameter, with rhythm and melody. But we can translate the whole into modern American tapwater. And so, if we take the poetry out of this soliloquy, what we are left with is the bare-bones meaning:

The only question that counts is suicide: Should one put up with the suffering of life or do something about it and end it all? Death is like sleep: And if as in sleep, the troubles go away, that would be wonderful. But when we sleep, we also dream. And if we dream after death, the way we do in sleep, well, that’d make you stop and think wouldn’t it? That’s why this disaster we call life goes on: For who would put up with life’s crap if he could end them all through suicide? Who would bear the burdens of life but that the threat of something much worse after death makes us hesitate and makes us put up with the troubles we have rather than fly to others we don’t know anything about? And so, thinking makes us cowards; And the will to action is weakened by thinking, And what mighty deeds we would perform come to exactly zip.

And that is why Shakespeare is Shakespeare. 

The Arnold, Buster Keaton, David Bowie, Weird Al Yankovich

Photo at top: Top row, L-R — Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Nicole Williamson; bottom row — Kenneth Branagh, David Tenant, Ethan Hawke

Click on any picture to enlarge

 

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

marriage of figaro 1

I hate that we sentimentalize art.

We call it “immortal,” we call it a “masterpiece.” We call it “timeless.” But art is not timeless. All art comes with a shelf life. It’s just that some has a longer use-by date.

A few things, like Homer or Bach, seem to last for centuries, even millennia. But other art defuses after only a few decades. How many people still read Pearl Buck? Despite the Nobel Prize? Does that mean that Buck wasn’t really any good? What about John Dos Passos?

Some art speaks so directly to a certain time and place that we later forget how vital it is. It has moved from the “in” box to the “out” box.

Some creations last centuries, some just years. Some art lasts only a few weeks. Pop tunes are the mayflies of art.

That is no reason to discount them. Not everything has to be Shakespeare — and even the Bard, at some point, will cease to have currency, although it may be when the human race has either evolved into something else, or has obliterated itself.

The fact is, art is a response to the world around us, and sometimes the things we respond to are short-lived or even frivolous. The art gets made, the books get written, the songs get sung.

Too often in the past, audiences for classical music and opera have had the notion that only the old music is any good, that contemporary music is not worth wasting your time on, at least until its composer has been dead for 50 years. But that misses the very essence of what art is. That attitude turns something vital into a warm bath. Art is not a warm bath.

Whether it is dance, opera, music, poetry, fiction, painting, theater or filmmaking, art is the way we grapple with the experience of being alive, of turning the inchoate and complex into something comprehensible: an image or a metaphor.

All art is modern art. At least at the time it is made, it is always brand new. Leonardo was modern when he painted; Mozart was au courant when the curtain rose on “Figaro.”

Today, we think of “Figaro” as a masterpiece, but when it was written, it had a cultural and political import we know only from reading the program notes. Does that mean Mozart’s satiric take on aristocracy was irrelevant? When it was new, “The Marriage of Figaro” electrified its audiences for its bravado. The Figaro we have now is tamed. It’s been praised into submission, so we don’t have to think about it anymore: It has become a warm bath.

There is nothing worse you can do to art than to praise it: Praise is the lion tamer’s whip and chair. Whether it is music, poetry, theater, painting or architecture, the art needs to be refreshed. It needs new blood or it becomes irrelevant. If we let Beethoven sit there inert, he loses his charge. He becomes a warm bath. I want my Beethoven to be revolutionary. It is new music that keeps him so.

If our ears aren’t refreshed, we suffer ear fatigue — like retinal fatigue from something stared at too long — and we no longer hear. If we go to Symphony Hall merely to massage our ears with the familiar fuzzy teddy bear of Rachmaninoff, we have misunderstood even what Rachmaninoff intended.

Jorge Luis Borges understood this: The past didn’t create us, he pointed out; we created the past. It is through the lens of new art that we see the old art, through the ears accustomed to Philip Glass that we now hear Mozart. (It is the fallacy behind the supposed logic of the “historic performance practice” movement. Playing Haydn with instruments of his time cannot give us the music as Haydn heard it because we no longer have 18th-century ears.)

We need to keep our ears alive: Dead ears murder Mozart. Wake up! is the perennial message of all art. Become engaged. Notice what is around you. Some art does this through reacting to transitive stimuli — the current political situation, for instance, or the latest fashion. Some art looks underneath the surface.

But your engagement with the now in art doesn’t keep only Mozart and Beethoven alive, it keeps you alive.

adam and eve

OK, so then what is the “canon,” with which we should all be familiar?

There are scores of lists, put forth by scores of people, ranging from insightful critics to close-minded boobs (Yes, Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you). Such lists usually share the usual suspects: Here’s Hamlet, there’s War and Peace, and over there is the Recherche of Marcel Proust. All of them worthy of your deepest attention and capable of inciting the most delightful pleasure.

But as I’ve written before, the purpose of engaging with the canon of Western culture is to understand who your grandparents were, whose cultural DNA you were born to — the common inheritance of all of us in the modern world, our Adams and Eves.

Through most of my youth and into my adult life, my version of the list has grown and grown. I have, after all, at least 50 films on my Top Ten list. I could not do without hundreds of books I have read, paintings I have seen in the flesh, music I know by heart.

But, as I have grown old, I have jettisoned more and more baggage. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs. I’m tempted to dump even more. Those that were important, I have internalized; those I want to keep are those I reread and reread.

Under even those, however, is a foundation level, the cultural footings on which I have built my intellectual life, and that the civilization I have inherited was founded upon, almost as its Constitution.

So, I am proposing a canon. A very short one, but an essential one.

First, there is Homer. Everyone should have read the Iliad, at least. The Odyssey is initially more fun — or at least the chapters that chronicle the wanderings of Odysseus — but the Iliad is one of the founding documents of Western civilization and provides a necessary backdrop for everything that has come since.

I reread the Iliad about once a year. I try different translations, because any bit of ancient Greek I used to study has evaporated. The newest translations are usually the best, not because they are more literary, but because they speak the language I use. Older translations sniff of their age, smelling of linsey-woolsey or gaberdeen. I can sense the antimacassar oil on the Lang-Leaf-Myers translation. I sense the Cold War in the Lattimore.

So, the Robert Fagles translation is my standard, although the most recent re-read was in the even newer Stephen Mitchell version.

In Homer, you find the myths that have been re-used and re-energized in all the books written since, that outline the archetypes, give us the parameters of story and narration. The scope of Homer is the widest: from the bee’s tongue to the planet’s motions among the stars.

This is all beside the wonderful enjoyment gotten from reading it, 2500 years after he (or she) set it down.

The second book in my canon is the Bible. Not for any religious reason; I’m completely an atheist and have no use for religion. But the Bible is, like Homer, one of the founding documents and underlies all that has followed. I may wish otherwise, and may often wonder if the Bible wasn’t really authored by a group of people who have spent too long out under the desert sun. It may have been written by white bearded patriarchs under the influence of sunstroke, but they are our grizzled patriarchs.

There are two important considerations when approaching the Bible.

The first is the translation. The King James version is the primary one, and it is the organ-pipe tones of the KJV that underpin our own ideas of language, of majesty, of ritual and solemnity. It is the KJV you hear behind the sentences of Melville and Thoreau, behind the speeches of Martin Luther King.

But the King James is also miserably out-of-date, with usages that are no longer current and oftentimes either misleading or downright incomprehensible. So, a more modern translation may make the stories of the Bible easier to assimilate.

Even so, I prefer mixing the King James and a modern translation with an interlinnear word-for-word translation that demonstrates how much any translation of the Bible is de facto an interpretation. I have valued greatly the Everett Fox version of The Five Books of Moses from the Schocken Bible. Any version of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a moving target.

The second thing is that you should read the whole Bible, not just the familiar parts. Some of it is heavy slogging, but you should have read the whole thing. It’s one of the best ways to counteract the baleful influence of all those fundamentalists that would have you believe only their way. You see how they pick and choose only the parts they want and that reinforce their prejudices. You will be astonished at how many things are held to be “an abomination.” You will scratch your head over most of them.

The Bible stories are the Semitic balance to the Hellenic myths and between the two, they are the parents of all that followed.

Finally, in my canon, are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Ideally, one should see them on stage, in an excellent production (since a mediocre production can be the kiss of death for someone whose language is a florid and baroque as Shakespeare’s), but the fact is that it is as text on a page that Shakespeare has most influenced the course of Western Civ. We read Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and their words continue to astonish the attentive reader with their fire, their brilliance, their wit, and their expansiveness. The “sirrahs” and “prithees” may certainly feel dated, but everything else is bursting with life.

It was after a long-ago divorce that I first decided that if I was going off into exile, I needed to pack only three books: The Iliad, the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, and that somehow, if the world were destroyed all around me, I could resurrect an entire civilization with just these three.

And we would see everything that followed.

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.

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Jared Sakren’s  Top 5 Shakespeare plays

* Hamlet.

* The Tempest.

* Othello.

* As You Like It.

* The Merchant of Venice.