On Tuesday of this week, I was fortunate enough to be able see one the surviving copies of Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio,’ which is on loan at our local museum from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Why is this book such a big deal? Because, without it, eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays might very well have been lost, including such masterpieces as Macbeth, The Tempest, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, among others.
We have Shakespeare’s three great series of verse: two he published himself, and the Sonnets saw publication, without Shakespeare’s permission, in his lifetime. But only a selection of his plays were published before his death.
You see, in Elizabethan times, the notion of a playwright ‘owning’ the plays he wrote was not how we think of it today. The acting company owned the play, not the author (the egoistical Ben Jonson being a notable exception). Since Shakespeare himself was one of the owners of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (and after Elizabeth I’s death, The King’s Men), he was, legally speaking, one of the owners of the plays he wrote. But he didn’t have sole control. And so at least eighteen of his plays either never saw publication or, if they did, their releases have been lost through the capricious destruction of time.
Fortunately, in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of Shakespeare’s fellow company members, John Heminges and Henry Condell, took it upon themselves to assemble thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays. We can’t read their minds from four centuries away, but certainly they had a sense of Will’s enduring greatness. Because these former players took on this herculean task (assembling, typesetting and printing such a gigantic volume in the Jacobean era was a massive, labor-intensive and costly endeavor), they forever changed Western Art. They preserved Shakespeare’s innovation, eloquence and moral truths for posterity.
Consider just a fraction of what Shakespeare left us:
Psychology: Hamlet introduced the notion of manic depression into Western Art. To this very day we still fight a society-wide prejudice against mental illness. But The Bard was able to peer into the heart of that affliction.
Women: In a society that treated women little better than expensive cattle, Shakespeare was able, as his craft matured, see women as human beings fully endowed with hope, wit, grace and the desire to be equals with men:
- Lady Macbeth— Macbeth – saved by the First Folio, a woman who yearns for the same power as a man
- Rosalind – As You Like It – saved by the First Folio, a woman who teaches the men around her what it means to think and feel like a human
- Viola – Twelfth Night – saved by the First Folio, more clever than any of the men around her, disguised yet the epitome of honesty
- Cleopatra – Antony and Cleopatra – saved by the First Folio, tragically fully human
- So many others in other plays and verses we do have outside of the First Folio; two of my favorites are Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and the Dark Lady from The Sonnets.
The soliloquy: Shakespeare invented the whole notion of a character in the imaginary world of the stage speaking directly to the audience—from the heart, uttering aloud the deepest secrets of consciousness. He started it in Julius Caesar, and perfected it in Hamlet. You know—‘To Be or Not to Be’. This breaking down of the fourth wall, as it’s now called, is common practice today on our own TVs. Think Keven Spacey from House of Cards.
Race: Shakespeare crossed over the hard and unremittent social barrier of racism. Certainly Shakespeare was product of his time, and the Elizabethans were frightfully racist, but Shakespeare had the vision and daring to imagine characters like Othello and the Dark Lady of The Sonnets, fully-fleshed human beings. Othello was actually published separately the year before The First Folio, but also included in that gigantic volume.
Sex: Breaking the barrier of sexual orientation: Two-thirds of the Sonnets are a male poet writing to a Young man. And in many of his plays—Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice—women see fit to disguise themselves as men in order to achieve their goals. There is so much going on with meme.
Language – words: up to 1700 words in the English language first appear in Shakespeare’s works: Addiction, amazement, arouse, bedroom, blanket, bloodstained, champion, circumstantial, cold-blooded, dauntless, dishearten, drugged, epileptic, elbow, eyeball, frugal, gloomy, gossip, hobnob, hurried, impartial, jaded, laughable, lustrous, madcap, majestic, moonbeam, obscene, Olympian, premeditated, puking, rant, savagery, skim milk, swagger, torture, undress, vaulting, worthless, zany and so many others.
Language – phrases: He invented dozens of catch phrases we still use today:
- The game is afoot
- Bated breath
- Break the ice
- Cold comfort
- Dead as a doornail
- Eaten me out of house and home
- For goodness’ sake
- Foregone conclusion
- Good riddance
- Heart of gold
- Kill with kindness
- Love is blind
- Milk of human kindness
- One fell swoop
- Wild goose chase
Language – poetic: The eloquence of his poetry and prose is unequaled. Today we find Elizabethan English challenging to understand. Still, four centuries later audiences flock to Shakespeare plays. Why? One of the main reasons, I believe, is because it’s so achingly beautiful. Good actors work hard to bring Shakespearean English to life so that the modern ear can understand. But the beauty and power of that language takes little effort: it carries itself on the tongue.
Humanity: Shakespeare wrote with an invisible hand. That is, he created hundreds of characters who were utterly individual, infused with the stuff of unique human life. It’s a miracle to contemplate that a single artist could do this. This is another facet of what makes Shakespeare’s play so enduring.
Moral Code: Finally, we come to the moral center of his works. Whether histories, comedies, tragedies, the so-called problem plays, or the poetry, Shakespeare’s characters–their struggles, their fates, their aspirations and failures–speak to those things that make us human: loss, lust, jealousy, laughter, grace, hope and the greatest power us poor humans have, love. Shakespeare wrote about the human capacity for love in more ways than any other artist we’ve ever had. His are lessons for the ages.
These are just a few reasons why Shakespeare is my religion.