The Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare
Part 1: On the Creation of the Human Being: Why Love Shakespeare
So, before we begin let’s be honest: you…HATE Shakespeare. Maybe you pretend to like it but, since it’s just you and me, we can admit it: you HAAAAAATE Shakespeare. And why wouldn’t you? It’s boring, largely indecipherable, overrated, and (you’re pretty sure) racist and sexist to boot. And since it’s just you and me I’ve got good news: If you think those things, you’re wrong. You’re wrong about all of it. And if you know me, you know it’s rare that I get to tell someone they are wrong with 100% confidence. I pay someone to check my spelling, but trust me….you’re wrong.
Shakespeare is THRILLING, easy enough for children to understand if they learn how to read it, largely UNDERrated by the people who read it and some of the people who study it, and WOKE AS FUCK. Over the next couple of blogs I’m going to pass along the greatest literary gift I was ever given. One that started with my parents, travelled down a long line of wonderful teachers, and landed right here with me…to give to you if I can.
So, why should you love Shakespeare? Well, let me ask you: What makes you human? Your thoughts? Your dreams? Your ambitions? Your secrets? A little of each? Probably. The complex mess that is YOU makes you human and, more than anything else — more than the beauty, the legacy, the stories, the characters, and the poetry — THAT is what we owe Shakespeare: the CREATION of the human being.
In the introduction to Harold Bloom’s masterpiece Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (which, by the way, you should read if you end up liking these blogs because baby Eli loves Shakespeare but Shakespeare loves Harold Bloom BACK, you know what I’m saying?) Bloom says, “Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves.”
A impossible as that claim is to believe, it’s true. Take Oedipus Rex. A great play. A phenomenal play. But it unfolds. Things happen TO the characters and, while they become aware of their circumstances, the characters don’t really CHANGE. Listen to the monologue of Oedipus Rex below, and you’ll see what I mean. At this point in the play Oedipus’s mother is dead, he is blinded by his own hand, he is exiling himself, and he is bemoaning the fate of his children when he says:
where are you? Come here, come to my hands,
a brothers hands which turned your father’s eyes,
those bright eyes you knew once, to what you see,
a father seeing nothing, knowing nothing,
begetting you from his own source of life.
I weep for you—I cannot see your faces—
I weep when I think of the bitterness
there will be in your lives, how you must live
before the world.”
It’s good. It’s GREAT. But it’s informational. He weeps. How do we know? He says he weeps. What does he think, feel, want? We know, because he tells us. It is poetry. BEAUTIFUL poetry. But not Shakespeare. For contrast…King Lear. An old, fragile, half-mad king enters with his daughter dead in his arms.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! Oh, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever.
You HEAR it right? Lear doesn’t tell us he weeps. He WEEPS. How does he feel? Like he wants to break open HEAVEN with his HOWLING. His HOWLING. And that howling is uncomfortable. right? Those four howls? Cause that’s what it is when we lose someone, isn’t it? A HOWL that only the grieving understand? Well, the grieving…and Shakespeare.
But what if I told you that it’s BETTER than understanding? What if I echoed Blooms’s claim that Shakespeare did something MUCH more significant?
“[Shakespeare] went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it. A more conservative way of stating this would seem to me a weak misreading of Shakespeare: it might contend that Shakespeare’s originality was in the representation of cognition, personality, character. But there is an overflowing element in the plays, an excess beyond representation, that is closer to the metaphor we call “creation.” The dominant Shakespearean characters—Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, Iago, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra among them—are extraordinary instances not only of how meaning gets started, rather than repeated, but also of how new modes of consciousness come into being.”
So again, Shakespeare is not just representative but creative of who we are. Bloom points out later that, while this seems a lofty claim for characters we understand to be purely literary, think of Jesus Christ. Real or no, accurately quoted or no, MILLIONS and MILLIONS credit a core part of the creation of who they are as humans to his “words.”
But how many of us are molded by the second-most-quoted figure in literature…Hamlet? How is the question of whether to be or not to be when we make the insane claim that William Shakespeare asked it of us FIRST and we’ve been asking it of ourselves ever since.
If ever there were a time to make grand claims, it is in the light of the bard. So, here is my promise to you:
Follow me down this road. Love like Juliet, rage like Lear, hate like Shylock, and wrestle with the dark like Hamlet. Read these love letters are the closest thing to divinity I have ever known, and if I have done my job here, if I do even a fraction of the job others have done for me, I will crack open a door for you to enter that will create your humanity anew.
Hey guys, thanks so much for listening. I know it’s been a while. I hope you’re as rared up to read some Shakespeare as I am. The next blog is all about HOW to read Shakespeare, so don’t worry; I’m gonna do my best to set you up for success before we actually talk about any plays. If you enjoyed this you can check out patreon.com/elibosnick and give as little as a dollar to help support the blog, and if you’re already a patron, thank you forever, and stay tuned for a patron-only afterthoughts.