Every so often I wake up in a blinding panic and I start to worry about the State of the Shakespeare. Wednesday marked his 450th birthday*, and I panicked still more.
“But then again,” I fretted, “Amanda has not been doing so well lately.”
The neighbors banged on the wall.
“No, it’s all right,” I resumed to myself, drifting back across the room. “Look at all the Bard’s recent stage success. He won’t be dead as long as Tom Hiddleston and people who at some point have portrayed Doctors Who will agree to keep starring in his works. Actually, frankly, I am not all that concerned about the survival of his storylines. They are always getting adapted. You could fill a whole bookcase with just YA retellings of “Romeo & Juliet.” Some of them are even good! Yes, it gives me pause that most of his plots could be resolved by a quick string of text messages.”
“What concerns me,” I went on, ignoring the loud banging on the walls, “is that even though we’re reading Shakespeare and reusing his plots, we seem to be getting farther and farther away from his language.”
And that might be a fair concern.
When you look at the slim, pale No Fear Shakespeare volumes that populate large sections of the bookstore, with translations of the text on the facing pages, it can give you pause. “I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire.The day is hot; the Capulets, abroad; And if we meet we shall not ’scape a brawl, For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring,” says Benvolio. You look over to find out that what Benvolio is really saying is, “I’m begging you, good Mercutio, let’s call it a day. It’s hot outside, and the Capulets are wandering around. If we bump into them, we’ll certainly get into a fight. When it’s hot outside, people become angry and hot-blooded.”
It only gets worse from there.
“You’re like one of those guys who walks into a bar, slams his sword on the table, and then says, “I pray I never have to use you.” By the time he orders his second drink, he pulls his sword on the bartender for no reason at all.”
“Am I really like one of those guys?” Benvolio asks.
“Come on, you can be as angry as any guy in Italy when you’re in the mood.” Mercutio says.
Stick “as soon moved to be moody, and as soon moody to be moved” into the sausage-grinder of translation, and out comes, “When someone does the smallest thing to make you angry, you get angry. And when you’re in the mood to get angry, you find something to get angry about.”
What is Shakespeare without the language? A set of powerful stories, yes, but the telling makes a great deal of difference. Shakespeare quotations used to pepper everyone’s conversation. Look at this Google NGram from 1700 to the present, with a few common Shakespeare phrases (or five-word chunks of them). These were comparatively all over the place in past centuries — our contemporaries two hundred years ago could not get enough of “the milk of human kindness.” But by the turn of the millennium, even the mainstream quotations — “to be or not to [be],” “Dogs of War” — huge in 1920 — seem to be slipping.
But move the bar forward, and there’s hope.
The bard is resurgent. The aforementioned Amanda Bynes vehicle, “Shakespeare in Love,” “Ten Things I Hate About You,” Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” — he’s coming back, and the words too. Slowly, but steadily. (And it probably didn’t hurt that there was a Canadian TV series named “Slings and Arrows.”) We encounter these people and realize we knew them already. We shared a locker with Juliet. Benedick and Beatrice ruin our work outings with their bickering, and we wish they’d get a room already. Richard III/Macbeth/Iago gallivants across our screens, weekly, on “House of Cards.” They’re real, all right.
We still read him. Romeo and Juliet die, annually, as scheduled on the high school curriculum.
Maybe it is enough that we do. Maybe the rest follows.
One of the great terrors of modern life is having to watch someone else watch a YouTube video that you insisted was “great.” It never goes well. The other party sits there looking hopeful. “The next part is the best part,” you say. “Wait for it, wait for it. “It” comes and goes and the other person sits there, silent. It is, on the whole, completely miserable.
I mention this because this is the kind of raw pressure we have been applying to Shakespeare for decades now. “Okay,” we say, sitting down with a printed play or in front of a TV screen or, if we’re lucky, in a theater. “Make us laugh, or cry, or think, like everyone said you would.”
And then he does.
“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare,” Robert Graves said, “is that he is really very good in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”
There is always something a little miraculous about what survives the conflagration of memory. What was wrong with Francis Beaumont, Shakespeare’s contemporary? He had a good line or two. Where is his deathless fame? I bet “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” would make a nice Amanda Bynes vehicle, if we set our minds to it.
But he’s largely gone, while Shakespeare endures. He’s our desert island writer — if you could only take one thing to help you remember to be human, what would you take? Shakespeare, of course. He lasts, to paraphrase Orwell, because he has lasted. And the reason he lasts is that he has taken up residency inside us.
I wrote to Harold Bloom to ask about this and he wrote back, succinctly, “The language is not remote and his presence pervades us.”
*Well, three days before his christening, which is on record.