Friday, April 23, 2010

Ode To the Bard

Magnet # 224:  William Shakespeare Caricature

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Me

Today is widely believed to be the day William Shakespeare was born in 1564. Even more interesting, it was definitely the day on which he died in 1616. Not many people have the claim of being born and dying on the same day in different years, but the Bard is certainly exceptional in many regards and I wouldn't put it past him. All in all, he produced some of the greatest writings ever during his 52 years and as long as the human race continues, he'll be with us.

The hardest part of writing about Shakespeare isn't deciding what to put in - it's in figuring out what to narrow it down to.  One fact about his plays that surprised me in when I studied his work in depth in college is that he almost never came up with the original story for any of his plays - he pretty much always borrowed from sources such as history, short stories, and legends.  Works such as Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, and The Winter's Tale were all inspired by other sources, but The Tempest seems to have been an original story.  And even if Shakespeare didn't create most of these stories himself, he certainly did more with them than anyone else ever had or would.  His characters are more well developed than nearly all others in literature.  Shakespeare was a master of the human nature and was able to create realistic, sympathetic individuals, many of whom have stood the test of time.  In fact, his understanding of the psyche was so great that his work not only influenced later writers, but it also inspired psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud.  And even when Shakespeare tackled the same subject as other writers, he always made it his own.  For example, plays of Julius Caesar were very popular during his time.  But he made one twist to his Julius Caesar that the others never did and, making his version better than the rest - while others focused on Caesar, Shakespeare made Brutus the center of his play, and it gave it an emotional drama that made it great.  Shakespeare also took women, who were often looked down upon in dramas, and made them intelligent and powerful in his work, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who solves the play's great dilemma, an act none of the men were capable of.  And in that same play, he even portrayed a Jew in a manner that was far less vile than other writers of that time allowed them, giving Shylock, the villain, a moment when he is sympathetic, mourning the loss of a trinket he once gave to his now deceased wife.  But, of course, his talent extended much further even than that - Shakespeare was a master wordsmith capable of creating colorful lines that are still quoted around the world.  He would also, on occasion, build his plays upon a very simple notion, such as the question mark with Hamlet.  And in two of his other tragedies, he sought to stress that when the home not in the man's control, it falls apart.  Macbeth illustrates what happens when the wife takes control while King Lear reveals how children can destroy their father's kingdom.  Really, there are so many twists and layers to Shakespeare's plays that the details he has hidden in them are almost endless.

One incident amused me when I took a course on Shakespeare's tragedies on college - nearly all of my classmates held the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in complete contempt.  And, yes, I was among them.  Although some consider it the greatest love story of all time, all of us tended to think of it as two stupid teenagers in lust.  I guess I'm part of a pretty cynical generation.  But, let's face it - Romeo started off the play smitten with another woman, whom he completely forgot about it when he saw Juliet at a party he'd snuck into to see the other girl.  And she fell for him right away.  They had hardly any conversations, knew almost nothing of value of one another, and, yet, were willing to kill themselves when faced with the possibility of living without one another.  I think if they'd been able to stay married, they might have figured out they had nothing in common and gone on to loathe one another as they got older and their good looks faded.  But that's just my take.  However, Shakespeare was certainly capable of creating mature, compatible couples and making the audience care about their romance, as with Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Viola and Orsino in Twelfth Night, and Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.  And I'm sure there are those that love Romeo and Juliet, but clearly it's not as popular as it's often made out to be.

Even thought so much of Shakespeare's work is still with us, we certainly know very little of the personal life of this writer and actor from Stratford-upon-Avon.  All of his direct line died out not long after he was gone, and there are those who are left doubting that a man from what was basically a middle class family was capable of writing some of the greatest works of all time.  They hold that they were written by an educated individual of high social standing.  Sounds a little snobby to me, and perhaps even a little like sour grapes.  One person that has been suggested of writing Shakespeare's works is Sir Francis Bacon.  But no serious Shakespearean scholar has ever believed these claims and Peter Pan writer James Barrie might have put it best when he said that if Bacon hadn't written the works, "he missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime."  Now that it's almost 400 years after his death, we know we'll never solve this mystery once-and-for-all, so perhaps our efforts should be put to a more rewarding endeavor - reading and enjoying the works of this genius, that rank among the greatest in history and will outlast us all.


  1. Didn't know that about him dying/born on same day. Nifty.