“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare,” Robert Graves wrote, “is that he is really very good, in spite of all the people who say that he is very good.”
This is as true now as when Graves wrote it. April 23 marks the bard’s 449th birthday (he doesn’t sound a day over 400) and he still has a career any dramatist would envy, with a show on Broadway (Alan Cumming’s one-man “Macbeth”) and another one opening in September (“Romeo and Juliet,” with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad). And he still sparks controversy. People will get into violent Internet shouting matches about the merits of “Romeo and Juliet.” Overblown and a poor example of healthy relationships? A timeless classic with meaty roles? Just something that gave us Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the timeless Baz Luhrman pre-Gatsby classic “Romeo + Juliet”? Take your pick, and the opinion’s out there.
They are classroom classics, works against which generations of high schoolers are forced to ram their heads. Even Edward and Bella get dragged through it at some point. But we enjoy Shakepeare in spite of that. His words make their way into titles (“Infinite Jest”,” “Cakes and Ale,” even “The Fault In Our Stars”) and his plots show up all over the place. It seems unlikely he would mind. Possibly he stole them himself.
Last year on his birthday I wondered if he were still relevant, given his reliance on miscommunications that modern technology renders impossible, his odd poetry and his strange predilection for resolving romantic difficulties by improbable cross-dressing. Perhaps his tragedies are holding up better than his comedies — at a certain point, the idea that there is no romantic difficulty that you cannot solve by dressing up as a man (“Twelfth Night,” “The Merchant of Venice”) or wandering into a forest (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) or dressing up as a man and wandering into a forest (“As You Like It”) begins to strain one’s credulity. But he still provokes laughter, his insults still sting (watch “Coriolanus” if you want a solid few hours of unrestrained invective) and his words still move — even when you’ve been dragged through lengthy explanations of Why His Sonnet Form Is Marvelous and Hey! Iambic Pentameter Is Like Speech But Also Different. There’s a lot to say about the guy. Did Shakespeare even write Shakespeare? Is he still worth the study?
Most other writers would not survive this level of scrutiny. But his language remains fresh, beautiful, and closer to our own than, say, Chaucer’s — “The tendre croppes and the yonge sonne/Hath in the Ram his halve-cours yronne”? Er, gesundheit? — although that doesn’t prevent there being hilariously awkward translations of his words into the No Fear Shakespeare (“Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! /It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/ Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,/Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear” becomes “Oh, she shows the torches how to burn bright! She stands out against the darkness like a jeweled earring hanging against the cheek of an African. Her beauty is too good for this world; she’s too beautiful to die and be buried.”)
It’s one of the few conversations we still have together — taking high school students through the woods of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — one of the few writers we can all still quote with ease. Orson Welles quipped, “We sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.”
The plaudits stack up over centuries. The richness of Shakespeare inheres both in the text itself and in the fact that we’ve spent hundreds of years reading him as a species, in English and in translation, modifying him in adaptation after adaptation and analyzing his works until there seems like nothing more can be squeezed from them. They are stories we tell and retell each other, together.
“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not it seems to me that he missed the opportunity of his life,” said the Scottish dramatist J. M. Barrie.