Reaching out across the centuries (Shakespeare)

 [This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2016.]


One of the greatest things about Shakespeare – one of the things I love most about his writing – is his rare ability to have his characters speak for themselves but also somehow show a more universal state of mind. His fiction is as real as it can get despite the fact that we are reading his words or hearing them said hundreds of years after he wrote his works.

In Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet, the title character, the Prince of Denmark is depressed. His father has been murdered by an uncle and his mother has quickly remarried. Hamlet feels compelled to take revenge for his father’s death but his new isolation and sadness cause him to be on the point of suicide. He says:

"I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! …The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither."

To me this is one of the most moving of Shakespeare’s passages. I first heard it performed by Richard E. Grant, playing an unemployed actor in the final scene of the superb film, "Withnail and I." Here, the character is seemingly making a balancing act in his mind, weighing up the good and bad of his species and the universe we inhabit. His judgement is a heavy one, as if mankind does not merit a place in the cosmos. Or is Hamlet just speaking for himself alone? That is another beauty of Shakespeare’s writing. He is a poet and surely the greatest in the history of the English language. His words are open to many interpretations still (even after thousands of academics have picked them apart syllable by syllable) and this pliability gives his ideas a freshness that never dries up.

As a wordsmith and creator of English, it’s also generally accepted that no-one can be compared with Shakespeare. When he couldn’t find a word to do the job he wanted he simply invented a new word and many of these words live on in the language today. His writing benefited from him also being an actor. Shakespeare knew how lines could be delivered and had an extraordinary ear for how their musical rhythm would be heard by audiences.

Sadly, many people’s experience of The Bard (as he is often called) was having his sometimes archaic language drummed into them by secondary school teachers who knew no better than the traditional methods. I was one of these victims and didn’t rediscover the glories of Shakespeare’s work until well into my twenties. Then I found that I too had to teach his plays. This was not easy but surprisingly, I quickly learnt that my Catalan students were much more receptive to him than those kids I’d tried to teach Shakespeare in Australia or England. Catalan students had the advantage of already being bilingual and Elizabethan-era English was just another challenge. Shakespeare’s timeless themes will continue to reach out across the centuries, "to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow."


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