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Shakespeare for my birthday

February 25th, 2009

I’ve just been given the Complete Works of Shakespeare for my 40th birthday (along with a bottle of whiskey, a magnificent stainless steel coffee plunger, a second-hand TV and DVD player, and I won’t go on…) which has got me thinking (again, in the light of recent media headlines) about the Bard of Avon, this long dead bourgeois Englishman whose oeuvre has become a secular bible in the West (and to a certain extent an instrument of oppression and cultural demolition – though that’s not his fault!). And I’ve begun thinking about my twenty-five year relationship to his plays and poems.

Where did this relationship begin? If you believe the (popularly) critically acclaimed study by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the inventor of the human, Shakespeare’s texts had a key role in constructing my personality before I was born. I was born into the world Shakespeare had a large part in creating. Bloom claims that Shakespeare constructed through his characters, most notably Falstaff and Hamlet, the blueprint for the human personality, that Shakespeare expanded and defined the possibilities of personality and character, and drew attention to all the facets and shades of personality we value as a society. In other words, he showed us how to be – whether or not each one us has experienced one of the plays directly. It’s a bold claim and theoretically unfashionable in its claims of universals which include the placement of Shakespeare at the top of a canon – and not only of Western literature but of world literature.

Perhaps a good place to start (though still problematic) is with the question: what’s so good about Shakespeare? Bloom, like others before him, points to the ‘unparalleled range’ of Shakespeare’s characters and the ‘incomparable vitality’ of his writing. People have objections to making comparisons and some people object to Shakespeare (Tolstoy being a famous example), but if you’re prepared to address the question of who has the greatest range of characterisation in literature, there aren’t many convincing arguments against him. Is characterisation important, or the most important aspect of literature? Again, it’s hard to argue (if you’re prepared to) against such an assertion (in the ‘realist’ tradition). It seems to be fairly widely accepted these days in creative writing classes, for example, that character is the engine of literature. Another aspect of Shakespeare that seems unsurpassable is the variety of interpretations that can be brought to his plays. When I first studied English Lit at Victoria University, The Taming of the Shrew was banned for being offensive to women; however, Bloom reads the play as proof of the superiority of women over men in the ‘battle of the sexes’. He insists that Katherina genuinely loves Petruchio; she learns how to control him by simply pretending to agree with him, and her famous submissive speech at the end of the play is obviously ironical and comical. Bloom says (paraphrasing Auden) that our interpretations show how Shakespeare reads us.

Where do I, a contemporary reader, come into this? (other than being born into it…) I first held a play by Shakespeare in my hand at Newlands College, in English class in year 10 or 11. I had seen or heard only fragments of his plays at that time, enough to know that the language was hard to follow. However, in English class, with the text in my hand, I knew I could go slowly and concentrate and engage with this mythical figure.

This introduction to Shakespeare is one of three lonely memories of class work from school which I still carry with me to this day. I remember the room and where I was sitting with unusual clarity (at the back left). Our teacher, a black woman from Guyana, had a cardboard box from which she produced small, light blue books, hard covered, durable and old.  I took the tough little book and opened it with a rare feeling of significance. It was almost momentous: my first one-on-one meeting with the greatest writer ever (which seemed to spill into ‘greatest human’, somehow) – which was how everyone had described him on TV and radio and in books and in conversation for as long as I could remember. People and the media talked about other people as well, of course, but Shakespeare was unique in the unanimous reverence he attracted. He occupied a special place in the culture. So, I opened the blue book Mrs Williams gave me and found… people talking – oddly. They spoke gracefully, powerfully, intelligently, incomprehensibly. No light illuminated my mind. The class didn’t stir from its usual apathy. Memory over.

You may be wondering if I was I happy to get The Complete Works for my birthday, whether I threw it out the window with a cry of rage; whether I immediately put it on a prominent place in the bookshelf, next to the bible, where it will remain unopened but noticed; or if I opened the book at random, found someone talking in Romeo and Juliet  – and my jaw dropped open in surprise.

A person begins engaging with the world Shakespeare helped create long before they get into year 11 or 12 – on a day when a certain tension creeps into their teacher’s voice… Whether or not ‘axing’ Shakespeare is only a media beat-up, I find myself worried about the creation of special schools which are selectively excluded from looking at such a pervasive and unique cultural figure. The students will know they’ve been marginalised. They’ll know they’ve been picked out, identified as being unable or unwilling to engage with the highest (or thereabouts) level of Western art. To paraphrase Bloom, they’ll be told they’re not worthy of being read by Shakespeare.

Is Bloom overstating Shakespeare’s influence here? (Plato comes to mind as another secular figure to whom similar seminal cultural influence is attributed.) I’d love to hear about young peoples’ attitudes to this cultural behemoth we call Shakespeare – before and after they study him.

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  1. | #1

    Hi Jen,

    I agree that engaging with a text is good for you, be it words on the page or a TV series or whatever, but I think that some texts are undoubtedly richer than others (see Shakespeare or LOST for a spirited debate on this issue!) http://www.shiftingthinking.org/?p=689

    I have great respect for law students! And it seems entirely reasonable to me that they should look at cultural relativity. Different cultures will make different interpretations of a text and even our own culture makes different interpretations of texts over time, reflecting changing cultural values and concerns. The one thing that has left me a bit mystified is the notion of reading or engaging with a text as being the same as ‘writing’ one. In the process of engaging with a text, a reader creates an interpretation through cultural context, prior knowledge, etc, in an active and complicated process but I’m not sure that is the same as writing a text, i.e physically creating one, which draws on a different set of skills, requirements, and possibilities.

  2. Jen
    | #2

    Like Rach, I also hunted for the “correct interpretation” in literature during high school. Later, I read that a text’s unity lies in its origin, not its destination. Interpretive communities give texts their meanings. I am using ‘text’ broadly to include literature, popular media, tv, movies, the internet. Interpretive communities write texts. So, whether we are watching tv or reading Shakespeare we are ‘writing’ and the exercise is good for our minds! If we need any convincing about these ideas, check out law schools. Law is generally a conservative discipline. However, even law students are taught that legal concepts such as ‘property’ are culturally relative. ‘Property’ and ‘possession’ speak to particular audiences. To summarise, I have two main points. First, whether we are engaging with tv or ‘the literary canon’, we are doing just that: engaging, writing texts. Thus, both watching tv and reading Shakespeare are good for us. Secondly, even law schools are on to these ideas! I rest my case!

  3. | #3

    Hi h,

    That’s interesting. A resounding vote for the universality of Shakespeare!

    The plots in Shakespeare aren’t complicated but the language takes some effort. I’m quessing that the majority of these asylum speakers would use English as a second language. Is that true? And if so, do they struggle to decode the words? Do they sit down and study the plays before watching them?

    It’s also likely that many of the asylum speakers are highly educated, being dissenters who had developed the critical facilities that got them into political trouble.

    These people would have some fascinating stories to tell! I’d love to hear some quotes from them, or their blog comments, on the value of Shakespeare, on what Shakespeare means to them, and how they learned the plays.

  4. h
    | #4


    I work with asylum seekers and refugees and i am always astonished at how much they connect with shakespearean (and dickens) characters. there is something universal about the characters. when i am feeling bored with the plays, they are angry at lady macbeth and troubled by romeo and juliet.

  5. | #5

    I think I’m already well-outed on shiftingthinking as a bit of a TV addict… so, embracing my love of Television, I can’t help but throw my 2cents in here and open up an idea for speculation: Let’s imagine that, instead of studying Shakespeare, secondary students studied the TV series “LOST”? Although the dialog is pretty simple, the show itself demands an incredible amount of viewer interpretation as to the meaning and significance of, well, basically every moment of every scene. Kind of like Shakespeare…

    When I was in secondary school I remember writing essays about Shakespeare, where I was supposed to point out how a certain idea or theme appeared in multiple places and in different ways in a play, and write some kind of “interpretation” of what I thought all this meant. (Of course, what I was ACTUALLY trying to do was to try to write what I thought was the CORRECT interpretation that would get me the most marks – at age 16-17, I figured that after almost 400 years of Shakespearian analysis, there couldn’t possibly be anything particularly new or interesting that I, a mere nobody, could add).

    So here is what I find fascinating: today, people like me will apply the same analytical processes to our viewing of a show like LOST – and this time no-one’s rewarding us with grades! I’ve been spending a bit of time recently on the LOSTPEDIA: http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page. The beauty of a show like LOST is that it’s so complex, and leaves so many gaps and open questions, that it literally *requires* viewers to fill in the spaces between – or to seek “hidden” meanings through careful and repeated re-analysis – and usually this is a very socially collaborative endeavour.

    For example, look at this wiki page for a recent episode: http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/This_Place_is_Death
    If you scroll down to the bottom you’ll find viewers’ lists of “recurring themes”, “storyline analysis”, “cultural references”, “literary techniques”, and “unanswered questions” (and you can also follow links to read viewers’ theories about these questions).

    So Jim: Is studying LOST as good for your mind (and your literacy development) as studying Shakespeare?

  6. obg
    | #6

    Hi All,

    Magdalene, what was it about gothic lit that got you interested? was it to do with the characters or the genre as a whole?

    Jim. I remember studying a few of Shakespeare’s works while at school and enjoyed Othello in particular. The language seemed so different and flowery the I guess reading it as a play rather than a novel also had an impact. Having it broken up into scenes and acts was something new for me. But the characters were accesible and felt human, they made mistakes and had a range of motivations for how they behaved.

    I remember we could recognise key characters quite easily. You could identify the villians and examine how they played the people around them. My teachers also did a good job (I think) of encouraging us to look for similar characters in some of our favourite contemporary books and movies. It was this cross-over between Shakespeare and ‘my’ world that really made the material interesting.

    However just because certain character types could be identified reasonably easily doesn’t mean that our debate over motives and what we thought characters actual knew (about each others actions and thoughts etc) were simple or ended in agreement. As individuals all of my classmates (that participated!) added something different to the discussion of these characters – and that was cool.

    Shakespeare did portray deep and complex characters. I think the enduring appeal is that while language and the world as a whole may change or evolve we can still see so much relevance in the experiences and thoughts of Othello, Iago, Romeo and so on…

  7. Magdalene
    | #7

    Hello Jim. Which part of Romeo & Juliet surprised you? If I received Shakespear for my birthday, it’ll prob remain on the bookshelf forever. I don’t see Shakespear as sth pleasurable, but maybe it’s cos I didn’t get to study it in school. We did gothic lit, which wasn’t my thing to start with, but I got into it and loved it!

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