Shakespeare has become my religion.
Back in 1976, between my junior and senior years of high school, my family was uprooted to a new town because my father needed work. I was enrolled into a new high school at midsummer by a well-meaning principal who knew nothing about me and not much about his school’s curriculum. A mediocre student was thrown into Mrs. Kelley’s Honors English. Mrs. Kelly introduced me to two new couples: Romeo and Juliet, and the Macbeths. The epitome of Romantic Love dashed with a dagger and dram of poison. And the portrait of a happy marriage, mired in blood, that still inspires our entertainment industry today–thank you Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey.
In college, after I flunked out of Engineering, I gravitated back to where the long dead finger of Shakespeare had pointed me a couple years earlier: Theatre and Literature. In college I grew to love Shakespeare, ‘The Bard’, under the tutelage of some great minds: Doctors Paul and Sommer. Despite their best efforts, I graduated with a bachelor’s, but not much else. I would become no professor of literature, and no Kenneth Branagh.
As Shakespeare himself wrote, ‘with eyes severe and beard of formal cut’, I labored in all kinds of business, trying to find my way. Decades later, I’ve come back to the beginning. Beyond trying to write a novel about Shakespeare, I’ve grown to realize that Shakespeare has become my religion.
He shapes and guides everything I write, promote and believe: Art, Love, Work, Daily Life, Politics, Society, Imagination and Hope. His works delve into what it means to be human, provide a guide of conduct, a code of ethics, all lessons to be learned, but presented lavishly in the most eloquent and beautiful language ever put to English.
- What does human love mean and what is its importance? A seeming infinite list of plays, poems and characters explore this, but my favorite is Sonnet 116 (quoted at the end of this blog)
- Romantic Love. True Love is not Romantic mush, but a meeting of minds, rooted in reality, nurtured with mutual respect, smart, tender but unmoving. See Beatrice and Benedict, from Much Ado About Nothing.
- Open Love. Love between two people is not subject to anyone else’s bigoted restrictions. See The Sonnets. The (male) Poet and the Young Man; The Poet and the Dark Lady.
- Women are the equal of Men. Shakespeare wrote in a society where women were considered property; yet by the end of his career what did he create? A long list of diverse and powerful women: Juliet, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Cordelia, Ophelia, Portia, Viola, Cleopatra just to name a few.
- People are equal regardless of race. Elizabethans were violently and openly racist, and yet Shakespeare daringly created the tragic Othello.
- Power corrupts. The examples seem infinite. Almost every History play teaches this.
- The Divine Right of Kings. It’s a sham. This was especially tricky, since Shakespeare lived in a monarchy, and that Monarch, Elizabeth, liked Shakespeare’s plays. But his genius was that he could illustrate what may seem obvious to us in the most sly ways. And not all his History plays took the monarch down; in some the monarch succeeded, but that leader always exhibited what all good political leaders should embody: intelligence, grace, mercy, empathy, strength, wit and self sacrifice. This is the measure we should use today too.
- War is vile. See any of his History plays, and most his Tragedies.
- There’s not a lot religion in Shakespeare’s plays or poetry. By and large he avoided references to it or talking much about it. Perhaps a good practice to follow today in daily life and in our politics?
- Life is Unfair. Love while you can, life is capricious. Shakespeare lived in plague times, and lost his own son, Hamnet, at age 11. Many of Shakespeare’s Histories and most of his Tragedies end with a stage strewn in blood. It’s a lesson.
- Laughter is essential to life. His great Comedies and clowns seem almost infinite in their wit and joy.
- Often the Fool is the Wisest. Certainly this is true in life, as was so often true in his plays. The best Fool? See King Lear.
- Revenge is not the way to go. It’s better to forgive. See Hamlet.
- Mental illness and suicide are things. See Ophelia and Hamlet. This was a particularly wild notion in Elizabethan times. But Shakespeare could see it, and was able to show it on stage.
- Forgive, cast away your power and strive for grace. Prospero, from one of Shakespeare’s last plays.
- Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are a treasure trove of words and phrases first used in English, many of which are still in use today, including but not limited to:
- Brave New World
- Break the ice
- Cold comfort
- Dead as a doornail
- Eaten out of house and home
- For goodness’ sake
- Full circle
- Good riddance
- Heart of gold
- Kill with kindness
- Laughing stock
- Love is blind
- Milk of human kindness
- My heart on my sleeve
- One fell swoop
- Wild goose chase
And don’t forget, Shakespeare invented the Knock-knock joke!
Though we celebrate the anniversary of his death today, 23 April is also traditionally considered Shakespeare’s birthday, the day calculated back from his day of christening.
Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare, and thank you for the immense contribution to life, language and love.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.