by William H. Benson
April 26, 2000
Because William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, historians hypothesize that he was probably born on either April 22 or 23. But they definitely know that he died exactly 52 years later on April 23, 1616. He grew up in Stratford on the River Avon in England, a pleasant community of about 2000 people then. At age 16 he graduated from Stratford’s school, but did not go on to either of the two universities–Oxford nor Cambridge. Then, at age 23 evidence exists that he was in London working as a playwright, beginning his brilliant career.
No one knows what he did in those intervening seven years, but he must have had access to books and read extensively. He had detailed knowledge of royalty’s pageantry and decorum, and he also understood the mechanics of the courts, the lawyers, the judges, and the law. And what he read he remembered.
Recently, I picked up Harold Bloom’s book on Shakespeare–“The Invention of the Human”. The title serves up Bloom’s thesis–that Shakespeare brought human character into creation. Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging, but with Shakespeare his characters develop rather than unfold. And they do so by listening to their own speech.
Bloom puts Hamlet at the apex of Shakespeare’s writing talent, and indeed considers Hamlet the highest leterary art ever produced before or since. Consider Hamlet’s words.
“Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown:
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.”
In other words, what we want and what actually happens to us run on two different paths. Our desires are thrown over, pushed aside, and trampled into the dirt. We can take ownership of our thoughts, but what actually befalls us, our fate, that is not of our doing nor of our choice. So says Hamlet in a philosophizing moment.
Shakespeare holds up a mirror to see ourselves, and sometimes the mirror shines so brightly that we are blinded. Our eyes are unaccustomed to such piercing light. For example, Shakespeare created Lady Macbeth and the hunchback King Richard III, both murderous and desperately evil. Shakespeare peered deeply into their hearts and drudge up the blackness therein. For a moment audiences peer blindly into savage behavior and a brazen thirst for power.
But then, at other times the mirror shows softlight and colorful–of a forest outside of Athens on a warm midsummer night where fairies named Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardsee flitter about, and where love potion douses people’s eyes. These comedies revolve about getting the right girl with the right guy, and the awkward misups to get there bring out the gentle laughter.
Through his characters, Shakespeare put on paper and then on stage and ultimately brought into life a galaxy of human natures and emotions, global in scope and multicultural in depth: sadness, discontent, happiness, staisfaction, despair, and horrible sorrow for despicable acts.
Thomas Carlyle said, “If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all under that.” Harold Bllom says that Shakespeare’s intellect is superior to that of all other writers, both in the East and the West. No other writer approaches his stature, for he stretches to the limits and even beyond human intelligence.
I happen to like his Elizabethan language, described as “jewels in the mouth”. For an example, consider the Prince’s final words at the end of the play after the two major characters are dead.
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”