Not terribly long ago, I wished a friend happy birthday on Facebook. My friends all know that I’m a Shakespeare Nerd… so they challenged me to explain what deep things Shakespeare had to say on the topic of birthdays.
As far as I can tell, he really only brings them up three times – once in Antony and Cleopatra, where Cleopatra uses her birthday as yet another way to manipulate Antony; once in Julius Caesar, where Cassius uses the fact that it’s his birthday to manipulate Messala; and finally in Pericles, where the princess of Pentapolis presides over a grand tournament held in honor of her birthday. From this, we can deduce three things: (1) you have to be Roman or an associate of ancient Romans in order to have a birthday; (2) birthdays are an excuse to manipulate people and get your own way; and (3) birthdays are a chance to party.
Not really, of course. I’m sure there’s cake involved somehow.
O, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention! (Henry V, 1.1.1-2)
In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, I’ve been thinking about how Shakespeare has impacted me. It’s funny, because of all the things I’ve thought about Shakespeare, I’ve never really put that one into words. Well, it’s about time I did.
Shakespeare was my first guide into the Forest of Literary Analysis and Criticism. At the time, I thought I was in Arden… but that just shows what a magical place the Forest really is.
You have to understand, I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. Books – even old, literary books – especially old, literary books – have always been my friends. But all growing up, I’ve resented Literature Classes and Text Books that attempt to dissect and anatomize my friends, twisting them into strange, unrecognizable shapes, claiming they mean more than I could ever see.
So I avoided the Forest of Literary Criticism, unsure of what lurked in its dark, leafy undergrowth.
But a funny thing happened as I went to more and more Shakespeare plays: I noticed that some productions worked better than others; some highlighted things I had never seen before; and some, though radically different than the “traditional” versions, captured the feel, essence and message better than a “normal” version. I began to dig into the plays themselves. Where was all this awesomeness coming from? And there, staring back at me, were the texts that I had read, but never really unpacked.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Shakespeare wrote plays, a medium that must be interpreted in order to be fully enjoyed, that allowed me to start looking at stories deeper. Thoughts of “Why did they do it that way?” or “I could do that better myself!” or “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a production of Hamlet set in mobster Chicago? How would that work, exactly?” just pushed me back to the sources.
Soon I was reading everything I could find on Shakespeare and his plays. I noticed that some interpretations just rubbed me wrong. (That just doesn’t feel like what’s actually going on in Macbeth!) As annoying as I found this, at first, it forced me to go back to the original and pick it apart for myself.
Now am I in Arden, the more fool I. (As You Like It, 2.4.15)
The really funny thing was that the more I dug into Shakespeare, the more I loved it and wanted to share my love of it with others. But it seemed like everyone else was still at the “Wait… everybody dies at the end of Hamlet?!” stage. And the more I had to explain why I loved Shakespeare, the deeper I dug into the texts. Before I knew it, I was saying things like, “As You Like It is a fairy tale… so you can’t take it too seriously.” AYLI is a fairy tale? Where did that come from? Or “Macbeth is all about the whole predestination vs. free will debate… and Shakespeare comes down on the side of free will.” Seriously? What happened to my “Don’t dissect and anatomize my friends! Don’t read into the story things that aren’t there!”?
Then I started applying the things I had learned from picking apart Shakespeare to other stories. And before I really knew how I got there, I was taking writing students for picnics just inside the fringes of the Forest of Literary Criticism and watching their faces register “Maybe… but stop reading things into the story!”
So what difference has Shakespeare made to me? He introduced me to the great wealth of all literature waiting for me just inside the Forest of Literary Analysis and Criticism. Yes… it’s sometimes a scary place… but I’m not afraid to wander there anymore. Thanks, Shakespeare…
… and Happy Birthday!!!