“There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here, whilst these visions did appear.”
Great words. Magical, delightful, wonderful words. 446 years ago (as best we can tell, anyway), the literary wordsmith behind these quotes – and many, many others – was born. And it is in his honor that we celebrated Shakespeare Day today.
I first fell in love with the Bard my freshman year of high school, when, in a bid of self-preservation, I decided to memorize the prologue from Romeo and Juliet and thus hopefully spare myself the wrath of a particularly frightening nun who moonlighted as an English teacher at my school. (That was also the year Baz Lurhmann released his Leonardo DiCaprio-helmed “modern-day” version of R&J in the movie theaters, but that’s probably just a coincidence.)
Throughout high school and college, I read anything Shakespeare-related I could find and I often read just for the fun of it. I saw several adaptations on stage and one year, for my birthday, I even sat through Kenneth Branagh’s 3+ hour movie version of Hamlet. Going to The Globe Theater in London in 2005 was one of the highlights of my fledgling literary career. Clearly, I’m not your ordinary Shakespeare fan.
Shakespeare’s collected works are usually divided as follows: comedies, tragedies, histories, sonnets and other works. In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, I humbly offer my own favorites in the first four categories:
Comedy – Since Shakespeare’s comedies are, by and large, my favorites all-around, it’s hard to pick just one, but for purely nostalgic reasons, I’ll choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the very first comedy I read and one of the very first I ever saw performed on stage. Puck’s epilogue at the end is one of my favorite things to read or recite and the sheer absurdity of the story – fairies interfering in the lives of mortals for sport – never fails to make me smile. Once, in a theater class, I came up with a set design for this play, based on the idea that it would take place in the 1970’s and the whole fairies / forest sequence would be a really bad acid trip. Maybe not what the Bard had in mind, but think about it – it makes sense.
Tragedy – Hands down, without question, Hamlet. You get everything a good tragedy should have: a reluctant hero, star-crossed lovers, a devious villain, and a whole bunch of dead people at the end. Besides being a case study in dysfunctional families, Hamlet makes you question everything you think you know about sanity and mental stability. Is Hamlet just pretending to be crazy or does he really start to cross that line into madness? The brilliant thing is that we may never know – we’ll just keep questioning it. Bonus points for including bumbling idiots like Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Every good tragedy needs a few moments of levity.
History – On the whole, I don’t really like Shakespeare’s histories. They’re just not as interesting as his other plays. That having been said, there’s no denying Richard III is as great as any of his tragedies. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains; the fact that some (or all?) of his actions might actually be based on real events is just icing on the cake. Issues of historical accuracy aside, Richard is a great study in character and fatal flaws. Richard is the prime example of “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He’s manipulative and vindictive, but he also manages to be sympathetic as well. He’s a brilliantly written character, so much so that it almost doesn’t even matter that the rest of the cast is unremarkable.
Sonnet – while many thought of Shakespeare’s sonnets as the ultimate in love poems, often he was parodying the tradition of the love sonnet, turning the subject on its head. I’m partial to Sonnet 141 – in it, the poet battles between his physical senses, which tell him that his love is not physically attractive or pretty, and his emotions, which tell him that he is in love with this woman. I guess I just like the idea that love isn’t always about what we see. We all have an idea of our perfect person, but sometimes love can surprise us and turn our assumptions upside down. We can see someone’s obvious flaws and yet still love him or her because love doesn’t always make sense.
And lest you think Shakespeare isn’t relevant to the modern world, take a look at the Bernard Levin essay which demonstrates, quite clearly, the importance of Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language. Here’s hoping that Shakespeare is still as important to literature in another 446 years.