BY HOWARD V. HENDRIX
This is a guest post by Howard V. Hendrix, who teaches literature and writing at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of six novels and many short stories, poems, and essays. His novelette, The Infinite Manqué, was recently published in the May 2016 issue of Analog magazine.
“Professor, how can this guy possibly still be relevant in the twenty-first century? He’s been dead four hundred years!”
So asked one of my English Education majors, during class. The “guy” the student was referring to is William Shakespeare.
I muttered something to the effect that it wasn’t really possible to understand English literature without knowing the works of Shakespeare—an argument that, admittedly, didn’t move my students much. Having had some time now to think further on it, however, I will here try to give a mostly serious answer to what I considered at the time to be a mostly frivolous question.
Yes, April 23, 2016, is indeed the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Much attention is being paid this year to the Bard behind the curtain. For a small sample, just search the internet for “Shakespeare 400”. A general search of that term will pull up a not-inconsiderable amount of material connected to this year’s anniversary of his death, while a search of academic journals pulls up material primarily from 1964, the four hundredth anniversary of his birth. We have Shakespeare 400s coming and going, so let’s begin with his ending. Specifically, with what is often referred to as Shakespeare’s “bad epitaph.”
Source of embarrassment to many a conventional Shakespeare scholar and of glee to many who believe Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him, the closest rendering of his epitaph into modern spelling (out of seventeenth century tombstone carver’s orthography) yields this: Good Frend For Iesus Sake Forbeare/To Digg The Dust Encloased Heare/Bleste Be Ye Man Yt Spares Thes Stones/And Curst Be He Yt Moves My Bones.
Which all sounds rather, well, pirate. Then again, scholars of the period assert that a majority of seventeenth-century English pirates hailed from the country west of London, as Shakespeare himself did. So the question becomes this: Did pirates sound like Shakespeare, or did Shakespeare sound like pirates? Ay, matey, there’s the rub . . .
(Incidentally, the “Ye” and “Yt” above are actually stone-carver’s shortcuts for “The” and “That” and make use of the archaic rune-descended letter thorn. Although thorn in manuscript and early print stands for th and often looks like a cross between a d and a t, or between a p and a b, here it more closely resembles a y.)
Gravediggers have carefully heeded the epitaph’s blessing and curse in regard to not disturbing Shakespeare’s physical remains. They know that what they’re dealing with is always already the stuff of legend, a truth evinced by the persistence of the (presumably apocryphal) story that Shakespeare was born on the same day that he died–April 23, the feast day of Saint George, patron saint of England. All of which makes Shakespeare seem the more otherworldly, rather like a) someone who never actually lived, b) a time traveler, c) patron saint of English literature, d) all of the above.
When it comes to not disturbing the Bard’s literary remains, the critics, scholars, and historians have proven to be much less respectful than the gravediggers. Shakespeare’s body of work has been dislodged and upheaved far more often and more violently than have the bones of his mortal body.
During the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the most commonly inked and pixeled objections to his works have been to the anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock in Merchant of Venice (the problematic comedy that, of all Shakespeare’s plays, most indulges in stereotypes). Close runners-up in the Shakespeare 400 racism race are the portrayals of the Prince of Morocco (also from Merchant of Venice), Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, and, in a much more complicated fashion, Othello in Othello.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of women has also received much scrutiny. This examination has been rendered the more challenging by the fact that, during the playwright’s lifetime, women were prohibited from acting on the public stage. Shakespeare, then, in writing female characters, was in fact writing them for the young men and boys who would be playing those female characters.
A much lower-profile (but nevertheless important) beef with the Bard is his role as propagandist for population growth. We see hints of this in several of the plays–often broad hints, as in Benedick’s comic shrug in Much Ado About Nothing (Act 2, Scene 3, line 213-14), “The world must be peopled.” Shakespeare’s most prolonged pronouncements on this theme, however, are seen in the first seventeen of his Sonnets, generally referred to by critics as the “procreation sonnets.”
The message Shakespeare’s poetic persona sends to the young man addressed in all seventeen of these poems is clear: “If you, with your wonderful genes, don’t have children, you are being selfish.” Or, as the Bard puts it in Sonnet 11: “[Nature] carv’d thee for her seal, and meant thereby/Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.”
Such an assertion might have seemed reasonable in Shakespeare’s time. Given the planetary population of our species today, however, it is at least plausible to object that what Shakespeare promulgates in his Sonnets 1 through 17 is perfectly wrong. Maintaining that one’s own genes are so special that one must have children might itself now be read as an act of selfishness.
Shouldn’t we dump Shakespeare’s works into the dustbin of history, then–as both politically incorrect and dangerously outmoded? Not at all. Love him or loathe him, Shakespeare apprehends and brilliantly articulates much of the nature of western civilization. If one wants to understand what’s wrong and what’s right with that civilization, one does well to wrestle with the challenges his work presents.
If popularity is any real measure of relevance, the Bard is still both–and trending. My student’s comment notwithstanding, after four hundred years Shakespeare’s literary and dramatic works are read and performed more often than ever. He’s still so relevant that even his “bad epitaph” fits quite nicely into a tweet. Were I to tweet a new epitaph for the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, that tweet would perhaps be this: If We Could Each Of Us But Live/Until We Be Perfectly Understood/There’s None Of Us Should Die/Before Doomsday.
So sail on, Swan of Avon, you legendary, time-traveling, politically incorrect pirate. Sail on.
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