Saturday, April 23, 2016

William Shakespeare, The Bard for All Time

[A version of this post appeared in October, 2011. I am presenting it again in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.]

                 "He was not of an age, but for all time." 

                                                           ~ Ben Johnson

  "And thou, whose head did stars and sunbeams know
                  Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
                  Didst walk on earth unguessed at."

                                                    ~ Matthew Arnold
                                                    (from the poem, "Shakespeare")

There was a new movie that came our a few years ago called Anonymous. The movie was promoted with the shocking question, "Was Shakespeare a fraud?" In the trailer, we see the suggestion that Shakespeare wrote nothing and that we've all been played in some big conspiracy. The premise of the film was that it was not Shakespeare, but rather Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Bear in mind that this conspiracy theory is not new, nor does it carry much weight.

That Shakespeare didn't actually write those plays is an old saw that comes up from time to time. Years ago papers were written claiming it was Ben Johnson, or Francis Bacon, or some other fill-in-the-blank candidate. I think these are simply scholars who want to make a name for themselves  in the academic world. They take pride in their research escapades, desperately clawing their way in the publish-or-perish world of academia. Lacking creativity themselves, they take refuge in throwing darts at the Bard.

There was another film that came out in 1998, Shakespeare in Love, which I thoroughly enjoyed and heartily recommend. The superb screen play was written by Tom Stoppard (who also wrote the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Making no claim to be a true account, the movie is a delightful look at the playwright and how he might have been inspired to write Romeo and Juliet. One of my favorite scenes is where Shakespeare, still in the process of writing the play, gives some pages to some actors so they can begin to rehearse. As the actors are reading through the lines of this new play they have been handed, their countenance changes as they realize that these are not ordinary words for an ordinary play. They are struck by the beauty and meaning of the language. It is as though they have been handed a quite remarkable gift. They are taking part in something far greater than they could have imagined.

Reading his poetry and his plays, one realizes that Shakespeare was a genius (we see those from time to time). His words and use of language became the standard for the development of modern English. Shakespeare wrote more about the human condition than perhaps any other author. Within the dialogue of his plays as well as the language of his poetry we see a capacity for inner reflection that was ahead of his time. Those inward reflections still serve as guideposts for us today. He showed us the world and he showed us how to look within our own hearts – and he gave us the language to express our hopes, joys, fears and longings. His influence continues to be seen today in modern literature and the cinematic arts. Psychologists, philosophers, poets, theologians, sociologists and historians alike all quote the Bard to this day. 

Yet there are those who somehow cannot believe that someone not born of nobility or privy to the best education could have possibly held such genius and talent, thus the conspiracy theories on the origins of Shakespeare's works. If we studied the actual works of Shakespeare, we would see far more of humanity. That is time better spent, reading the actual words of the Bard, than time wasted in the vapid air of speculations that Shakespeare could not have been so talented. 

I should add that I am grateful that he was so talented. Our world would have been much the poorer without him. Perhaps you can tell I hold William Shakespeare in high regard. He is one of my heroes. He walked on earth unguessed at.

                                                                                              Charles Kinnaird            

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