Whenever I want to depress myself, I make a list of Shakespeare plays and cross out all the ones whose plots would be ruined if any of the characters had a smartphone. It’s a depressingly short list.
Soon, if we want to do a modern staging of his work, we’ll have to stipulate that “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/The cell reception was spotty/From ancient grudge that brake the AT&T.” Well, not that. Something better.
“Romeo and Juliet would obviously text each other about the poison,” audiences would point out. “Why doesn’t Hermia use her GPS?” “If he was so worried about the Ides, Caesar should have just telecommuted.”
Misunderstandings and missed communications now come in entirely different flavors. We are all in touch all the time, and the confusions that blossom from that are not quite the ones the Bard guessed at. Autocorrect replaces malapropism. You don’t leave your fiancee asleep in the woods unless you want to wind up on a “Dateline” special. When your coworker implies that Desdemona is cheating on you with Cassio, you don’t go ballistic demanding handkerchiefs. You just log her keystrokes.
And the words. (“Words! Words! Words!” as Hamlet says.) What are we supposed to do with them?
To make it through his works, high school students are forced to consult books like “No Fear Shakespeare,” which drains all the poetry out in the hopes of making him moderately comprehensible.
Insert Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy into the grinder of that book:
“To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub”
and you get: “The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all? Dying, sleeping—that’s all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that’s an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream. Ah, but there’s the catch!”
“But Shakespeare is beautiful! Shakespeare is life glimpsed through the cut glass of poetry!”
Ah, but there’s the catch! What’s the point, if the language is so far away that we have to do that to it?
Maybe Shakespeare has nothing to say to us. Nobody else from the early 1600s still sees himself so regularly adapted. When was the last time you watched a BBC version of Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine”?
Bardolatry seems infinitely old, but it is of comparatively recent vintage. First, Bowdler had his way with the works, removing all the naughty bits and notably tacking on a happy ending to “King Lear.” The apotheosis was not instant. The sonnets weren’t in vogue for years. Shakespeare has only gradually clawed his way up to the pinnacle of English letters, shoving Chaucer and Tennyson and Melville and Dickens down whenever they got grabby and even elbowing Jane Austen from time to time.
There’s a certain level of celebrity occupied by people who are famous primarily because they are famous.
Is Shakespeare one of them? Do we only read him because we’ve seemingly always read him?
Why do we keep dragging class after class, kicking and screaming, through the wilds of “Romeo and Juliet”?
We don’t even know who the guy was.
Perhaps Shakespeare was born today.
Possibly he died today.
He’s an awfully hard man to nail down. As a historical figure, he is proverbially skittish. He might have been Francis Bacon, for Pete’s sake. You wouldn’t get in the car of a man who said he might be Francis Bacon but was not sure. Why read one?
Besides, the man was obviously a hack. Jonathan Franzen clearly takes his craft more seriously. Nobody is as prolific as Shakespeare who thinks he’s producing Great Lasting Works Of Genius. He’s more a P. G. Wodehouse or an Agatha Christie. Stephen King could learn a thing or two from Shakespeare when it comes to pleasing the groundlings.
Why give him this place of honor?
Look at his most famous play. “Hamlet”? A whiny college student, evidently overeducated and underemployed, comes home for break, sees a ghost and dithers. Eventually some pirates show up, but wouldn’t you know, they remain offstage. Shakespeare is one of the few writers in history who, given the option of including pirates in a play, thinks, “Nah, you know what? I’d rather have this dithering hipster talk about mortality some more.”
Come to think of it, maybe he’s never been more relevant.
People complain about their Millennials moving home. Try having Hamlet in your basement for a semester. “Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, nor customary suits of solemn black...” That would get old at breakfast, I imagine.
His plays still tell the truth, boiled down to their essences.
“King Lear”: Your kids put you in a home? You should be so lucky!
“Titus Andronicus” (or, Guess Who’s Coming As Dinner?): Cannibalism is never the answer.
“Romeo and Juliet”: Check your messages before ingesting poison.
“The Tempest”: Wizards pretty much get to do whatever they want.
And he’s one of the few writers we still have in common. We’re dragged through the thorns of his work so that we’ll have something to talk about on the other side.
That is a definite part of his charm. He’s a common vocabulary, a common set of heroes and villains and everyone in between.
These are not plays we read and see together as a generation or a country. They’re works we enjoy as a species. Shakespeare offers a roadmap to the human. And he does it in verse — sometimes tightly knotted little ornate gardens of verse like “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” other times vast prosy expanses like “Hamlet.” Before Sarah Palin was coining new words, the Bard was on it.
In their proper place, the bright lines that have since sunk into cliche still retain their power to dazzle.
Write what you know? Shakespeare adamantly didn’t. But in the process, he wrote what we all know.
And he didn’t need a smartphone to do it.