Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wherefore This Blog? (Shakespeare Birthday Edition)

A few days ago, I was contacted by someone from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A lovely surprise! A very nice woman from the Trust asked if I could contribute a post to the Shakespeare Birthday blog-a-thon they're putting together over there in Stratford-upon-Avon, where, pace Oxfordians, the Bard took his first and last breaths, on or close to the very same day--April 23.

This post will be one of fifty or so written by bloggers and Twitterers (tweeters?) all over the world. It's a totally cool idea! If you want to see, hear, and read what other bloggers are thinking about on this Happy Shakespeare Day, check out the project site.  There are lots of blogs and Twitter feeds out there I never knew about, so I'm pretty excited to have found them. And really proud to be part of the festivities. I have a strong suspicion whence came the call, since this blog isn't really on the international radar. So thanks, Jonathan, for thinking of me.

When I started this blog in August of 2009, I began by trying to explain why I was embarking on such a weird, time-devouring, and yes, anachronistic project.  Why should anyone who isn't a tenured or soon-to-be-tenured Professional Shakespearean want to devote so many man- or woman-hours to reading and commenting on the plays, scene by scene? We live in an era where brevity, in addition to being the soul of wit, is the only sure way to make an impression. Attention spans are shrinking faster than the polar ice shelf, and no one (a well-meaning friend warned me) is going to want to read about Shakespeare's plays in detail, unless they have to for some class paper or exam. Indeed, the list of bloggers on the SBT site are mostly Twitter links. I don't tweet, myself, because I'm basically a long-winded sort who needs time and space to think things through. Besides, whenever I look at anyone's Twitter feed, I invariably feel like I'm listening in on a party I haven't been invited to. Everything looks like a non sequitur. And all those #'s and @'s are off-putting.

But Will, I think, would have loved Twitter. He'd have no trouble with the 140-character limit. In fact, he'd probably take it as a challenge, and make all kinds of clever puns about hash, hashtags, feeds, feeding, etc. 

But back to me. I'm not good at writing about myself. I hate confessional writing of any kind. That's why I write about literature. Writing about Shakespeare lets me explore the Big Questions without getting mired in my own contradictions. But I will say this much: this blog has helped me through some rough patches, both large and small. I mean, we've all endured

...the whips and scorns of time
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes.

Advice columns are full of this kind of thing. My boss is a bastard. I'm getting old and unattractive, and I fear I'll never be loved. My boyfriend dumped me. A patently inferior candidate got the position I wanted.  These mundane agonies lead to lawsuits, prayers, and Dark Nights of the Soul, and they're cumulative, too. After years of feeling angry about this kind of stuff, some people go off the deep end.  Life isn't fair.  The world can be vicious, or just indifferent. Justice is seldom, if ever, accessible to those who have been wronged. People in authority are pompous, callous asses much of the time. And let's face it, the web is Contumely Central. But reading or hearing Hamlet say those beautiful lines helps. Because beauty happens in spite of injustice, cruelty, and loneliness. Yes, it does. And there's nothing those insolent contumelious jerks can do to stop it. Is that enough to make up for all the wrong stuff? Of course not. But it's a good analgesic, for sure.

Now I have friends--actually most of my current friends--who find Shakespeare difficult and not worth the time. This is too bad, but I understand. The language is hard. Who says--or understands--words like "contumely," anyway?  But, at the risk of sounding old-school humanist (which is what I am, but never mind), we need Shakespeare. Because basically, he's an optimist. Without being a sentimentalist.  Hamlet wonders if life's an unweeded garden, and for a time, he believes it is. But in the end, he's at peace. He feels connected. He's not a misanthrope anymore. Lear's an old fool, a selfish aristocrat who can't see beyond his own vanity. But at the end, he cares about humanity. He sees the looped and windowed raggedness he'd ignored for most of his life, and knows he's no better, and no worse, than the rest of humanity. And knowing this, feeling it at the gut level, makes him (paradoxically) better. More human in the best sense.

Will's not naive, though. This kind of transcendence doesn't happen in every play. The Merchant of Venice ends on a sour note. As does Othello, the play I'm blogging now. Sometimes the badness does swallow up everything good. Sometimes, as in The Merchant, people never escape their smug cocoon, and realize how badly they've messed up. They go on congratulating themselves on their goodness and moral rectitude--and they can, because they've constructed a whole moral system that hides the truth behind some very attractive illusions. But in revealing hypocrisy, making us see the illusion for what it is, Will makes a leap of faith about humanity. He bargains that we'll get it, and learn from it. And that's a kind of optimism, too.

Will has had some bad ideas, as well. They're beautifully-written bad ideas, but bad nonetheless. Romeo and Juliet is, to my mind, a beautiful Bad Idea Play. I wrote a whole post about that, so I won't belabor it here. In all fairness, there were a lot of historical forces behind this bad idea--a desire to shake off the musty notions of the past, to embrace and valorize the Private Life, and so on. But it's still a dangerous play promoting dangerous ideas to Today's Youth.

Ah, my age is showing again.

This blog, I guess, is my own leap of faith. An extended exercise in optimism. I think there's still a place for Shakespeare in our culture. We still ask the same questions, we're still wounded by the same doubts, we're still mad about the same injustices. And the language--it's difficult, sure. I know that, and that's why I do some translating here. Once you understand the words, you can hear the poetry.

The ancient Anglo-Saxon word for "vocabulary" was "word-hoard." I like that, because a hoard can also be a treasure-trove. But Shakespeare's English isn't just a collection of forgotten words--it's a distant music that calls us out of our solipsistic reverie, reminding us that we are speaking creatures, and that language is more than just a tool for making demands. It's an opening to beauty, to empathy, to history, and yes, to possibility. Shakespeare isn't just a voice from the past, to me. His plays give me a sense of continuity, a moral foundation, and a fabulous soundtrack to the little dramas that make up my life.

That's why I'll keep reading and writing about them. Happy Shakespeare Birthday, everyone.


  1. Hello, Gayle.
    Wonderful blog - a joy for a bardophile to find on this day.
    I would be honored if you'd consider joining our "Bard's Birthday-to-Baptism Blog Hop" on
    The site's intentionally (and decidedly) less academic than yours, but your tone here convinces me that you might enjoy it.
    I certainly think that my readers would benefit from your response to the blog hop's central query.
    And by chance, my response to the question refers back to your current blog topic: Othello...

  2. Thanks Laurie-- I left a comment on yours, re: Iago. I agree that he's one of the more fascinating characters in the plays. I had some trouble with your linking widget, but I'll link back to you next post, and answer your question. I love books of all kinds, so I'm looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

  3. Hi Gayle, love the blog. Like you, I was very excited to take part in the birthday project. There are so many wonderful people writing about Shakespeare.

    This struck me as a particularly lovely blog and I sympathize with your desire to close the gap between academic and popular modes of discourse. In fact, my blog is very similar, academic that is, which is why I was so happy to discover yours. If you're interested, here's a link:

    Keep up the great work. I'll be following your posts. Best.

  4. Thank you! I will definitely check out your blog. One of the very cool things about the birthday project is that I've learned about so many other bloggers writing about Shakespeare! Blogging can be a solitary, almost monastic's great to feel more connected, and to have places to go for inspiration.

  5. I very much agree. It's nice to see all of these wonderful and diverse blogs brought together. I have enough Shakespeare themed reading to keep me busy for months...I only hope everyone else is as friendly as you.