The Curious Idiot’s™ Introduction to Shakespeare

Bug-eyed, baldy bastard Mr. Willy Shakes. Here we see him so incensed at his own work he appears to have shoved his head through one of the pages (Credit: British Library)

It’s inevitable, isn’t it? I mean I speak English as my first language so at some point or another I am going to talk about Shakespeare. Even if English wasn’t my first language Shakespeare is taught all around the world and is often considered the pinnacle of English literary accomplishment.

Point 1 – Shakespeare isn’t the pinnacle of English literary accomplishment.

Look it’s good, he coined a lot of phrases, invented words for things because English either didn’t have a word for what he wanted or because he didn’t know the word that did exist. He explored humanist topics in depths that had likely not been done in any popular sort of way at all in Britain since it’s domination by ancient Greco-Roman cultures and did so with some of the most poetic use of the English language you could imagine.

Firstly, that we know of. In 400 years time most literary shelves are going to be full of Sophie Kinsella and E. L. James, and are we really going to be holding them up as the pinnacle of literature? We don’t know what we never got to see, or what was lost, of literature from that era.

What’s more, Shakespeare also wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which is a fucking pantomime. Admittedly it’s not as funny today as it would have been centuries ago but, I have to question whether it was even that funny then. He tries to dress it up in his flowery language but it’s like putting a shit in a wedding dress. I ain’t marrying it.

Surely have have to give him credit, he invented whole worlds, characters, worlds within characters, and gave us so many of our modern stories. In fact you could argue he invented what it is to be human.

Point 2 – Shakespeare did not ‘invent the human’, sorry Harold Bloom, nor did he invent those narratives. Shakespeare was actually incredibly derivative.

Shakespeare was clearly an avid reader and was inspired by many of the tales he picked up around him, including the Homeric epics which I feel tackled what it was to be human some…ooh…couple of thousand years before Shakespeare! But the renaissance, literally translating to ‘rebirth’, was just that. This was a re-emergence of old ideas but presented in a new way, through the lens of the culture as it was then and through all of the developments, good and bad, that had happened.

Shakespeare did not ‘invent’ any of what he did. I will give him his due on this one, as far as writing internal worlds, creating that flurry of feelings that humans have in their own minds, especially during periods of emotional instability, I find it hard to name a writer who did it better as early on in the English literary world. You could maybe go Chaucer. In that regard Shakespeare was a writer very ahead of his time and part of the appeal that I have for Shakespeare is in that, in the creation and expression of a character’s internal world. We talk of Freud as the Grandfather of psychology but I’d say Shakespeare had him beat by a couple of hundred years!

Because of the cultural reach and impact of Shakespeare, mainly caused by scholars deciding he was so important, we now use Shakespearean dialect, quotes and idioms to describe out daily lives, inner worlds and interactions. This does not signify anything other than Shakespeare has been forced into the public consciousness. Harold Bloom, the late American literary critic, would have you believe it is because Shakespeare made us who we are and set us on our path to modern humanity. It’s bullshit. We had those voices in our head before. Shakespeare merely gave people with difficulty describing it an easy, transmissible means of doing so. Shakespeare was essentially a meme machine. He didn’t teach us much about who we were inside, but he gave us the memes with which to easily transmit that information.

But then isn’t Shakespeare really hard because he writes like a flowery twat in a form of English that hasn’t been used since about the 17th century?

Point 3 – Yes. Shakespeare writes like a flowery twat in a form of English that hasn’t been used since about the 17th century.

There’s no getting away from that one. If you’re not a reader you’re going to find it almost impossible to get into Shakespeare. There’s so much poetry, so much irony, so much layered in the meanings of his words and very often so much more layered in their delivery by an actor; those words are all so old fashioned, poetically scrambled and spoken as if to an audience from the 1600s, that getting understanding out of it as a hobbyist librarian is going to be difficult, never mind an average reader.

The recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the River Thames in London – There’s a Sainsbury’s Local, Tesco Metro and Waitrose (for you posh types) not too far away for your drinks and snacks, but they don’t let you take your own containers in so nip to the starbucks across the way and decant your booze into plastic cups. Then you can get absolutely smashed as you watch one of the worst Hamlets you could possibly ever see…(Credit: Diego Delso)

The thing is in some cases it is kind of worth it. I haven’t read all of Shakespeare yet. I’ll admit I find his comedies generally obnoxious. They are farce and I’d recommend you watch ‘Allo ‘Allo, a British comedy series, for that level of comedy. People have tried for years to justify why Shakespeare’s comedies are so clever but I ain’t buying it. Comedy has just become so much more sophisticated over the years, as well as comedy being very much a medium of its own time, that trying to justify Shakespeare to me as funny is a bit like a parent in their mid-30s showing kids internet memes from their day. It’s embarrassing, it doesn’t get a laugh and if it does it’s because the kid is a pseud or showing pity.

The histories, I’ve dabbled. I find it hard to connect with them mainly because of how ahistoric they are. They’re a fabrication and I like my history to have a little more integrity to it. That said his histories do have some of his most compelling characters such as Falstaff from the Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and his Cleopatra is, in many ways, a dramatic feminist masterpiece. I’ll give them another outing some other time, though.

My favourite Shakespeare plays are all tragedies and my intention is to re-read them, if I can, re-watch them and give a breakdown of my favourite plays. I think Hamlet is a spectacular work and there is nothing else that compares to it as an allegory for impotence in youthful masculinity. Macbeth is to potency as Hamlet is to impotence, I think it is exceptionally important in modern times as more and more people chase more and more ambition forgetting that to be King, someone must be dethroned. King Lear is a beautiful treatment on the waning of potency with age, on hubris and on love. Those three plays represent, to me, the triad of power and aging.

Othello is sometimes controversial in modern times. I don’t see why, the villain is a white devil who convinces a man of African origin to commit heinous acts in the name of love when all he actually wanted was to sow discord and create problems. In my opinion there is no greater allegory for the fate of much of post-imperial Africa and I have seen modern dramas that play racial tropes with less sensitivity. Iago is, in my opinion, the best villain in all narrative. Then there’s Romeo and Juliet which is, I think, as most people interpret it, a schlocky pile of shit. That’s because people think it’s a true-love story whereas having re-read and seen a few more productions of it I think is a little bit of a misinterpretation. If Romeo and Juliet is a tale of true love it is literally Shakespeare’s worst play. If, however, it is a work of satire on romantic tales, as I believe it is, it is genius.

If I had to pick a singular favourite, Lear takes it.

That said, those opinions are based upon reading. I will agree with Harold Bloom that Shakespeare, to get the most out of it, is best read. However, a good performance, bad performance or different performance of the play itself can cast it in a completely different light and I would recommend anyone who struggles to read Shakespeare gives a play or two a watch. It’s a different experience.

So anyway, that’s my introduction to Shakespeare. I will be writing about some of my favourites and then writing about some others as I get to them.

You can read our analysis of Romeo and Juliet – and why I think it’s a comedy – here.

Or why not go to my analytic epic of King Lear, starting here.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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