Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One Reason I Love Shakespeare

I had a discussion with some of my students last week about why one should study Shakespeare. One asked for clarification in an email later, which gave me the chance to write this:

Shakespeare understood human nature -- what makes us tick -- and he wrote about it so well, that being familiar with his characters helps me understand the people around me. That's why his plays have survived 400+ years -- because deep down the people in the plays are the same people that we live with, that we work with, that we meet on the street or at the library.

Macbeth isn't really a story about witches -- it's a story about a man with ambitions and with a wife who pushes him to "succeed" no matter what it takes. He could be an executive, trying to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or a Senator aiming for the Presidency. And we see people like that in the news all the time.

Hamlet isn't just an emo kid who is commissioned by his father's ghost to revenge his (the father's) murder. Hamlet is a scholar, pushed into a world of action. But he's a thinker... and he finds himself paralyzed by thought. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy isn't about suicide -- it's about how thinking too much about which course of action we should take ends up keeping us from taking any action. I know people who are Hamlets in this sense -- they think and consider all the options and on and on and on... and things just don't ever get done around them... because it's always think first and make sure you've thought about it all.... Knowing Hamlet helps me realize that that's the way they think, and I can relate to them better because I've seen how Hamlet reacts when he's pushed into action (it doesn't go well).

Merchant of Venice is a story of the kind of loyalty you want in your friends -- and how important it is that your spouse and your friends get along, too. Merchant is such a beautiful story of friendship... it's almost a shame that it's clouded over with controversy about anti-Semitism (which isn't really in there... but a lot of people would debate that one).

Othello and Much Ado About Nothing are both warnings against believing everything you hear -- the tragedy (Othello) shows the horrible, horrible consequences, and the comedy (Much Ado) shows in what a tangled mess you can put yourselves and others if you don't verify rumors and accusations. And in this day and age where people are so quick to believe anything they read on the Internet, we could all use that reminder more often.

Henry IV is a coming of age story -- only here you have a dissolute prince who is having to deal with the consequences of his "sewing his wild oats" and become the kind of man he needs to be in order to be a good king. Those consequences (including having to abandon old friends and turn your back on the people who were closest to you) are quite painful and not easily dealt with. So this teaches me a couple things: (1) don't go there in the first place (personally), and (2) don't be quick to judge those who are having to clean up their act.

This is obviously just a smattering of examples. For the moment I've left out Lear, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and a whole passel of others. And Shakespeare isn't the only one who knows human nature and who expresses it in memorable ways. The reason he is one of the best, though, is that he created a massive cast of characters... so he has a wide range to explore. Not many people have that opportunity.

So that's one reason I love Shakespeare. One of many. What about you? Why do you love him?

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