Some years ago I read through all 38 of the plays by William Shakespeare. I chose one night per week, drank lots of coffee, and used an edition that explained his archaic words and allusions. The first few weeks it seemed like homework, but soon I found myself swept up in the plays, which were both witty and profound—and oddly up to date.
His use of the English language struck me first. Computer studies reveal that Shakespeare used 17,677 different words in his writings, less than the typical modern person’s vocabulary. Yet, always searching for variety, he used half of those words only once in his work. And 1700 of them appear in print for the first time in his writings; he actually helped invent modern English. Both Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and the later Oxford English Dictionary quote him more than any other author.
Scores of phrases invented by Shakespeare made their way into common usage, many of which we still use today: as luck would have it; bated breath; the be-all and the end-all; break the ice; brave new world; cold comfort; dead as a doornail; the dogs of war; faint-hearted; for goodness sake; foregone conclusion; good riddance; kill with kindness; laughing stock; one fell swoop; wear my heart upon my sleeve; wild-goose chase.
While a master of originality in language, Shakespeare happily borrowed plots from history, Greek myths, the Bible, fables, and legends. The words were the thing. As he wrote about the creative process:
…as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
As a journalist, I’m always seeking new experiences to write about. True creative genius, however, takes place in the mind. I think of Emily Dickinson, who rarely ventured outside her home; or J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who traveled little and wrote their fantasies in book-lined Oxford offices. Shakespeare led a rather provincial life, splitting his time between bustling London and the sleepy village of Stratford-upon-Avon. His lively mind, however, made up for whatever experiences he might have missed.
Though he never traveled widely, somehow Shakespeare had an unmatched grasp of human nature. Reading his plays again, I found myself immersed in a world dominated by ambition, jealousy, pride, violence, honor, sacrifice, love, and betrayal. Shakespeare presented life as it actually is, with no provision for politically-correct “trigger warnings” and no sociological or psychological explanations for human behavior.
In modern portrayals, rioters riot because economic forces impel them, teens get pregnant because their hormones overpower them, pro-choice women choose abortion because they “have no choice.” The message is clear: we are products of our genes, our families, and our circumstances, nothing more. In striking contrast, Shakespeare’s characters stride like giants across the stage, exuding a sense of personal destiny. They are not automatons or victims, but free individuals making moral choices, some destructive and some noble, for which they bear the consequences.
In an oft-quoted line, Macbeth describes life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Shakespeare’s own plays serve as a refutation of that modern-style nihilism. Their author had known obscurity and fame, poverty and wealth. Like other great writers—Tolstoy and Dickens come to mind—he rendered paupers and miscreants with as much care as the rich and powerful. In every life, no matter how small, he found meaning and significance.
Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice shows the perceptive way Shakespeare viewed the marginalized of his day:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die, and if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
As I reviewed the 38 plays recently, I realized anew why Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer in English. He stuck to the universals. As a result, his works have been translated into every major language, and have inspired thousands of paintings and some 20,000 pieces of music.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” says the character Jacques in As You Like It. He goes on to describe the seven stages we pass through: first the infant, “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” then the “whining schoolboy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school,” followed by the lover, soldier, career person, and declining adult. Finally, the time comes for letting go: “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Living in a religious era that spanned Queen Elizabeth and King James, Shakespeare understood that we live out our days under God’s providence, advancing toward a final reckoning. Scholars debate the details of his religious views, especially whether he was Protestant or crypto-Catholic (at a time when the latter would have been dangerous).
His last will and testament contains the clearest statement of his beliefs:
In the name of God, Amen. I, William Shakespeare… in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following. That is to say, first, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.
He died just shy of his 52nd birthday, time enough to compile a collection of plays that would still be performed all over the world, some four centuries later.
(Next month: what Shakespeare has to say about love and power)
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