Shakespeare In My Mind’s Eye
There comes a time in life for every eager student of literature, when they are confronted with the imposing name of Shakespeare. Some may already have made his acquaintance in school, be it in an English class, asking all the wrong questions about authorial intent while lavishing in a language too complex for non-natives and native speakers alike, or during school plays, hoping to play the Romeo to this-month’s youthful and innocent crush. My first encounter with The Bard was around age eight or nine, when I found some dusty tomes in the attic. I could barely read normal letters but the thick black type almost resembled the alphabet I learned in school. Once I grew accustomed to the strange “S” and thickness of the letters, I still could not understand what the author, perhaps a magician in my mind, had put on the page. Yet, I knew of its importance. Because it was old. And because this was what I considered real books, leather-bound with a rank smell of mysticism.
In retrospect, eight-year old me had no chance of understanding King Lear. And even though I made some fond memories related to Shakespeare in my school days, I dreaded his return in university. I knew I had to confront him sooner or later, this canonical king, whose work had influenced and shaped the perception of theatre and literary studies, had been analysed from every angle, while professors’ PTSD would kick in if they had to read but one more term paper on the subject, the halls of academia built on dead forests of pages and pages about Iago’s intentions, hidden fires and dark and deep desires. Since I considered myself an eager student of literature, however, I knew Shakespeare was unavoidable for me. Re-reading some of the works I had loved in school, which, not without credit to my English LK teacher Dr. Schulz, had kindled my interest in literature and especially the anglophone studies, reminded me of my youthful naivete and proceeding age, as well as impressing me, again. Not quite in time for his birthday, I hope that by discussing the three titles we read in the seminar, I can share my thoughts and experiences with you, while also reminding you of why Shakespeare still holds a special place at the top and in my heart.
Romeo and Juliet
Thinking back, I remember Romeo and Juliet as one of the first Reclam books I bought and read, outside of school assignments. And I can assure you the idea of love displayed by Romeo seems very appealing to a teenager, who’d write poems and mope about how much he suffers in the name of love. Ironically, my youthful indiscretions would come back to haunt me, as one of the first concepts we discussed in the seminar was Dotage. Essentially, you can understand doting as being in love with the idea of being in love, a lesser form, which we can attribute to Romeo’s love for Rosaline and half of my school days. Re-evaluating Shakespeare also lead me to re-watching some of the adaptations of his work. Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” didn’t disappoint, as it captured the urgency of events and suspense of tragedy. Measure for measure, it is still one of the best Shakespeare adaptions, thanks to set design, choice of cast and soundtrack, while still feeling contemporary, even to this day. The language does not fall out of place despite Hawaiian shirts and Mexican iconography. Replacing sword and dagger with elaborate guns seems an equal exchange of steel in the turmoil of the story and speaks for Shakespeare’s writing, because lesser works would fall with a change of time and setting. But it is not just this depiction of youths in love from womb to tomb that makes Romeo and Juliet so great. As an aspiring writer, I became fascinated by the structure of the play and the way the characters act as agents of genre within it. Comedy and Tragedy wrestle as two Faustian souls within one chest, the humour and wit of character interactions, underlined by dark themes of murder and rape within the first pages of Capulet vs. Montague. My only contribution to this argument being the antagonist to comedic relief, the tragic suspense; as a constant reminder of inevitability, of star-crossed-ness, of Fortuna’s temper, while our protagonists’, prince and princess, friars and apothecaries’ temp fate in fair Verona where we set our scene. Comedy may die with Mercutio but the tragedy of Juliet and her Romeo lives on. The variety of readings stretch from Freudian symbolism to religious implications, signs of gender sensibilities to Petrarchan cliché. And even if we try to understand Romeo and Juliet as a marked tragedy, the boundaries of genre seem fluid within Shakespeare’s writing, constantly challenged and diverted. Should you question the play’s relevance in the context of modern media, just wait till we see the tragic end of Game of Thrones’ characters (no spoilers, just an assumption) and ask what the lovers end reminds people of.
Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare’s merry war of the sexes Much Ado is an interesting read in today’s climate. Gender and how it is perceived in our society has changed and still leads to heated discussions, from sexual orientation, to equal rights debates and the more existential question what it means to be a man/woman in and outside of binaries. I have to admit, that despite its age, reading the play from ~ 1598 initially felt awkward in today’s context since Shakespeare manages to undermine his perceived universal truths about man and woman through the depiction of his characters. If we understand gender as a spectrum from Claudio to Benedick, from Hero to Beatrice, while taking age differences and social standing into account, Much Ado seems less prescriptive in its representation of gender and more interested in the potential conflicts of love and communication in general. We discussed how the play was depicted on stage and the importance of ocular proof as a plot device and essential truth within the story, which made me wonder how a modern adaptation would look like today. Wouldn’t it be easy to stir the lovers quarrel via Instagram? The ocular proof of a smartphone camera and the malcontent Don Jon as a social outcast, the tragic victim of web 2.0? Do we need another renewal of the community? Additionally, reading the story directly after Romeo and Juliet made for some interesting connections. The aforementioned inevitability, Fortuna essentially tricked, or at least tragedy averted by Friar Francis’s plan, bears striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet. Self-referentiality, as much as I’ve learned to equip it to post-modern writings, is of course not a new concept and Shakespeare was no stranger to it. As a writer I was impressed how he managed to differentiate his characters based on their language, while also using those barriers for comedic effect and conflict. It is also noteworthy that Dogberry can be read as the hero of the tale, while aristocracy is unable to resolve their problems on their own. Nonetheless, he is unable to outshine the wit of the conversations, which for me is the hallmark of the entire play and testament to its relevance. Compared to todays rom-coms, suffice it to say that my expertise in this field is limited but sufficient, Much Ado is what Downtown Abbey is to Jersey Shore, only less posh and with fewer deaths. In the end, I do think there are some semi-universal truths about people that Shakespeare tries to confront. And speaking for myself, there is much to enjoy in Much Ado About Nothing.
The Scottish Play
Surely, saying that Hamlet to me is the greatest play ever written, will not make you question my objectivity while reviewing, analysing and interpreting it. Neither will the fact that I myself had the honour of portraying a dying Claudius on stage, back in school. I may be a tad biased when it comes to the protagonist’s reflections and indecisions, contemplating death and life and murderous revenge. When spectres roam to right the wrongs of the past (or do they?), whilst Ophelia’s remembrance withers. What to say about a living cliché of a book so encompassing of high-brow culture and intellectuality? Well, I love it. Despite its adaptations, and I include the often-overlooked Lion King, Hamlet seems to be one of the less flexible plays when it comes to changing the scenery, which I accredit to the strength of the original story and setting. Surely Tarantino could adapt the Revenge Tragedy as a Western, yet the ghosts and fear of purgatory, the darkness of the tale fits to the rotten medieval state. I have read the play a dozen times and always find new facets, new flavours of my own antic disposition within it. Consciousness, existence, violence, and morality, the list of potential discourses that are discussed in the pages or can be read into, seems endless. The text rolls trippingly on the tongue and seems infinitely quotable, which may have weaselled its way into my other texts on this page from time to time. The Scottish Play is a masterpiece in complexity, where banal musings are merely horizon expansions in disguise. Structurally Hamlet will forever be linked to the play-within-a-play and the image of memento mori, the skull, is forever associated with poor Yorick. From Millais’s Ophelia, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, to Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Hamlet references and the inspiration it provided for art and culture is insurmountable. The play is still regularly performed on stage (playing Hamlet on stage is considered a form of knighthood in itself, for everyone involved in theatre traditions) and in new media, showing that the interest in the story does not seem to fade. This is particularly noteworthy for me because Western media takes great pains at dumbing down entertainment for consummation, arguing the audience’s ability to keep up with convoluted stories and narratives. Should this trend continue, I am perfectly willing to get myself to a nunnery, instead.
Julian was listening to Radiohead’s – “Talk Show Host” and The Generationals – “You Say It Too”, while writing this article.