This morning, I admit, I feel more like Duke Senior than Hamlet. I enjoy my weekly ritual of yard work, the quiet, the smell of water on the garden soil. Like the Duke, I find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything. / I would not change it.”
I’m glad the celebration in which I took part happened yesterday. I’m glad today––the actual day––is restful and contemplative.
As I read about the various celebrations happening throughout the world, I feel very connected. I see myself in others’ love for and dedication to the truly astonishing plays and poems of this un-universitied actor from Stratford on Avon.
I know the jealous and the ignorant have long thrown around words like “bardolotry,” but these people have not really looked at the work––not deeply. There is nothing in the world like the body of work written by William Shakespeare. I spend as much of my free time as possible reading poems, plays, and novels, and so I know excellent writing abounds. And I also know that one thing that ties so many of the great writers together is the way they often quote or talk about Shakespeare. He looms. Four hundred years after his death, he still looms.
Right now I am directing Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and I have not been surprised to find a phrase here or a line there that is clearly influenced by Shakespeare. I see this often in English translations of ancient works. In this way, Shakespeare continues to improve stories that came before him. I can’t help but think he is somewhere smiling about that.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of this celebration is to see the way Shakespeare is already alive in another generation. I love to see my children and my students fall in love with him as they play his characters. I love to see his words in their mouths like flames on their tongues. Though they do not yet fully comprehend the flame, the pleasurable burn of it will likely never be quelled.
Appropriately, this entire year has been set apart by Shakespeare lovers as a year of celebration. I will add my voice this fall with the first of three plays about Shakespeare, The King’s Men. (The other two are called Sycorax and Kempe.) The King’s Men will be my small offering, my mask on the Dionysian altar.
Four hundred years ago today, the man who wrote the greatest meditation on death set out for that undiscovered country. The shakey signature on his will leads me to believe that he knew it was coming. I wonder: as he contemplated death, did he perhaps consider revising some of Hamlet’s words? Or did he think them through and decide they still rang true?
To be or not to be––that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep––
No more––and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to––’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep––
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the poor man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.