Shakespeare Enriching Life

Shakespeare Enriching Life

My formation, the foundation elements? I was in an old apartment in what was then sketchy East Austin. Before the developers and hipsters discovered that it was a primo location. Old army buddy of mine, he was actually a Marine, he was pontificating about Shakespeare and how Shakespeare’s canon, then at 36 or 37 plays, was a large, secular source. While he was a Bible-thumping, gun-toting Christian himself, he long since learned what to say and not say in Austin circles.

“Quote Shakespeare and no one gets offended.”

Which was funny, to me, as I did offend some readers with a certain Shakespeare passage, and I have remembered that. My buddy always referred to me as a heathen, too, with much mirth.

But the question was, “How does Shakespeare’s works (study, performance, etc.) enrich life?”

The first part, while I was first introduced to the works of Shakespeare as literature, as in “Great Literature,” reading the plays, the first few attempts were entirely ham-fisted. One professor seemed bound and determined to make us see the beauty and pageantry in Hamlet’s poetry, only to have that one teacher fail miserably. Didn’t totally trash it. But came close. Can’t say he didn’t try to absolutely ruin Hamlet for me.

Other views.

A discussion with an old high school headmaster, oddly enough, triggered a response, asking when — how — I was exposed to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

I read it, first. It was on the syllabus for my then-upcoming undergrad class, and at the time, working while in school, I had to get ahead as best I could. I knew what plays would be covered so I attempted to read them before the semester started, the student life. I read it, and the play parsed well enough in my head to make some semblance of sense. I understood it was black comedy, what I didn’t know was there was no term black comedy in 1601. To suggest that’s a weird play to get hooked on is an understatement, but I had yet to be exposed to the source material, Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida, a loving, sad poem, tragic in its way, and that just makes the way I read that play, Shakespeare’s, even more bleakly funny. Hilarious, in a dark, unforgiving light.

Story is two lovers, set in the middle of the Trojan War, which is about one lover who left her husband and ran off with another guy, this echoes and apes that story, backwards, fidelity versus infidelity and the tropes go round and round.

So how does Shakespeare enrich life?

Simple question. Complex answer. In the middle of the T&C play, a comic character shows up, only to be beaten. Snarky. My introduction to the use of a sarcastic comic foil, and similar to an internet troll. It was snark before there was snark. I will, to this day, occasionally quote a passage, just to hammer home a point.

There is a long passage from Shakespeare’s character Ulysses, discussing form and order in the universe, Act 1, scene 3, “The specialty of rule hath been neglected,” &c. that passage, brilliant, both in and out of context?

My first serious entrance into Shakespeare’s work was the dry, academic kind, and it took a play that was better read than performed, too, as black comedy, to have it make sense to me. That was the lightbulb moment.

Shakespeare Enriching Life

Faced with a residency at the rock shop in Austin, I undertook to listen to all the plays, plus a little extra background, and the apocrypha, as a goal. Doubt I will ever read all the plays in this lifetime, but I have heard them all, read aloud, and I continue to study, in a casual fashion, the complete works.

First it was a free lecture series, then it was a podcast, and each year, now, University of Texas (Austin) does really high-quality performances in the middle of the summer, which makes for a welcome break from fishing and regular work. The performances are a little uneven, but I greatly admire the dedication and effort that goes into the shows, out in the barn. Texas heat.

That’s just one example. Listening to a lecture about a certain play, I heard something that I was able to spin around and use as a way to better interpret the actions of the planets. That’s a direct line from studying Shakespeare to writing a better horoscope.

Why Shakespeare

At first, this is easy, at first, I had a number of topical allusions clearly drawn from Shakespeare’s canon that backed astrology. Back to my buddy the Marine, quoting Shakespeare doesn’t offend most religious or political groupings. A secular canon, and that’s better. There also weren’t going to be any more plays but that’s not totally true, as the Complete Works has grown by two or three plays in my career.

Still, clearly astrological references, the question of authorship, the debate about the lesser known plays now attributed to Shakespeare, and yet, how does this help live one’s life better?

Shakespeare Enriching Life

Having the sheer good luck to see a few performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, more so than ever, it helps to understand that Shakespeare’s plays, while I first treated them, was exposed to them, as “Great Literature,” they are, in fact, performance pieces. The plays are meant to be seen, preferably on stage, live, in front of an audience.

Shakespeare has dick jokes, gore, the best of low comedy, and some highbrow material, as well. The plays are good for the groundlings, the common folks who stood around for cheap, and laughed at the stupid allusions to male and female anatomy — sexy bits.

Titus Andronicus, when I first read that play, the antagonist’s kids cooked up in a pie? Served to their own mom? That’s some sick, twisted material. Gore. But like modern day slasher films, or any good, gothic horror? Blood and guts, served up messy.

Studying reveals layers and layers of material. Depth of meaning, passages that work on several different wavelengths, and possible interpretations, some of which, stand up to modern sentiments.

Shakespeare is credited with writing the earliest, fully-fleshed out female characters, which is even funnier, considering no females were allowed on stage. Still, rich rolls for female characters. Strong women. Like real life. Strong, complex characters, like real life.

Shakespeare enriches life by adding texture, flavor, emotional shading that adds depth and meaning where sometimes, none was perceived. Studying Shakespeare enriches through the process of discovery. Bonus: some of the plays are really good, live or otherwise, in performance.

Shakespeare Enriching Life

Whether I’m digging around to see what the latest count is, on the number of plays attributed in whole, or now in part, to Shakespeare, or listening to a recorded version of the play read aloud, or one of several non-academic podcasts about Shakespeare, each form of intellectual interest and inquisition furthers my own intellect — and for that matter — improves the work I do.

Shakespeare’s canon is filled with lovable rogues, low-lifes, villains, crooked politicians, and their ilk. Much like real life.

Studying Shakespeare deepens our understanding of what it means to be a human.

Shakespeare Enriching Life

Alternative questions and answers, via Shakespeare Geek blog.

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