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Why Shakespeare Matters: 'We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 14, 2013 | Comments ()


hiddleston_henry.jpg

Why Shakespeare Matters

I read an argument once that Shakespeare is so important to English literature, that he is the only dispensable author in our body of literature. That is, he has been so incredibly influential on everything that came after, that if every copy of Shakespeare’s plays disappeared, every movie adaptation of his work plipped out of existence, that we would lose almost nothing.

A lesser author, we would carve a hole out of our literature, and something would be irrevocably missed. But someone like Shakespeare? His words have birthed so many thousands of other works, shifted the course of our very language so profoundly, that if his works were to disappear, they would still live on in every page of every book. Shakespeare is not the heart of our literature, something that can be carved out to maim us, he is the root system of our storytelling. To cut him out would be like trying to kill a lawn by throwing away the bag that the seed came in. He’s the sun at the center of our literary solar system, and to suddenly black him out, to make him invisible like the lost manuscripts of the ancients, would not change the movement of the solar system of stories one whit. We could still puzzle out his shape and gravity through induction. Shakespeare is singular that way, certainly in the English language, and I don’t know of an author who so thoroughly owns another language the way he does English.

I’m not sure I agree with that analysis, but it’s a fantastic thought experiment, a metaphor for just how weighty his influence really is.

And yet the continued series of regular adaptations betray the importance of the Bard himself. We return over and over to those specific words, those specific tellings of stories that have become ingrained in every other part of our literature.

A few weeks ago, PBS aired a fantastic series entitled The Hollow Crown, which was a set of four adaptations: Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. And like every generation’s adaptations, these drew some of our finest actors: Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, and Tom Hiddleston as the three titular characters, and a host of other talents filling in the balance of the roles. The acting is all top notch, as it usually is in such affairs, but Hiddleston in particular is phenomenal in the role that sees him grow from irresponsible youth to rugged young king.

It’s fascinating that we keep producing these retellings in which we retain the old dialogue that is barely recognizable as the English language half the time. Society in general, and actors in particular, fetishize the words of Shakespeare, so that they take on a life of their own. We may retell stories over and over, but there is no one else whose scripts we leave intact for hundreds upon hundreds of years. And it’s the words that matter. The stories were often just retellings of popular English stories of the time anyway.

In these latter days, we’ve torn down most of our totems, set fire to our traditions. In every area of our culture, the idea of listening to the chants of the elders, is laughable, a dead practice of primitive peoples. Those old chants are the ones that make no literal sense but gain all their meaning from the storyteller’s passion, through all the nonverbal communication that layers atop human speech.

Like a preacher quoting awkward scripture from King James, stumbling over the archaic words and lost meanings, but somehow investing the words with meaning through sheer force of will, so too do actors hand down Shakespeare’s words to each generation.

And gods those words are poetry. See, poetry isn’t in the words themselves, it’s in the gaps between them, the echoes of meaning that bounce around our skulls between the words. Poetry is never in the literal meaning of the words, it’s in the sideways connections that it sparks, in the sounds that sound like other sounds, and the pitter patter rhythm as the consonants lurch from vowel to vowel. Poems are words dancing, and dance doesn’t require lyrics.

What Shakespeare does, by dint of being the hallowed and holy text of our storytellers, is force us to hear that poetry. Poetry is hard, something easier skimmed over by an inflexible mind. It’s meant to be read aloud but we’re a culture that reads in its head and thus loses something of its poetry. But that’s the trick with the Bard. We always hear him aloud, and because the language has aged so much, we can rarely cop out and hear it literally. The words are familiar enough to make us think we should understand it, so that when we don’t, we are forced to read between the words and feel it in our blood instead of our minds.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Jifaner

    Without Shakespeare there would be no English as we know it. I love his plays so very much, and yes, they really must be read aloud to be properly appreciated.

  • Tinkerville

    I took a public speaking class in college (it was a requirement and though I was pissed as hell at the time, I'm forever grateful that I was forced to take it) and I had never been more terrified in my life. I froze up, stuttered, and sometimes had full on panic attacks whenever I had to speak in front of pretty much anyone.

    My professor suggested I read Shakespeare out loud when I was home by myself. I still can't believe how well it worked in building confidence. His reasoning was that if you can get the hang of speaking in such a difficult style and still convey the story and meaning of the words, even if it's just to yourself at first, it's a huge step in being able to tackle anything else. To this day I still do it if I have to present something or have an interview the following day.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    As a college freshman studying architecture I may give this method a try in the near future.

    Having struggled with public speaking I've always let the idea itself convey the meaning of the project strictly through visual presentation and a few key observations given my lack of confidence on the stage.

    I shall try your tactic in the next one, fellow Pajiban.

    As The Bard himself once said after all, "action is eloquence".

  • Jim

    Can I add to emmalita's Toastmasters suggestion - if you have access, amateur theatre or improv can work wonders as well.

    I got tossed into teaching university in the 80's (long story) and found a little theatre on the side helped my "lectures" morph into "talks" - I found I was able to shift from "the next point is X" to "ok, this group needs to think about point Y for a bit." It made me a more flexible speaker.

  • emmalita

    You might also see if there is a Toastmasters group in your area. Getting up and speaking in front of people is the best practice for getting up and speaking front of people. I had to do a lot of public speaking in college and law school. Being able to present myself and my ideas in front of strangers has been one of the most valuable skills in my professional life.

  • Tinkerville

    Best of luck to you! I'll admit there was a lot of feeling stupid for not being able to say the most basic lines, banging my head against the wall because I hated the sound of my voice, and all manner of things like that.

    But it really did pay off and I hope it does for you as well. I was one of those dreaded "can't look up from the notecards" types and even reading everything from paper I still couldn't stop shaking like a leaf. The persistence ended up being worth it.

  • John G.

    "To cut him out would be like trying to kill a lawn by throwing away the bag that the seed came in"

    if Shakespeare is merely the bag that held the seeds, who is the seeds?

  • Ben

    The seeds are his influence

  • This was a Good Post and you should feel good for having written it.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    I took a class in college called "Shakespeare in Performance." The whole thing basically consisted of us reading the plays aloud. One of the best classes ever.

  • "And gods those words are poetry. See, poetry isn’t in the words themselves, it’s in the gaps between them, the echoes of meaning that bounce around our skulls between the words. Poetry is never in the literal meaning of the words, it’s in the sideways connections that it sparks, in the sounds that sound like other sounds, and the pitter patter rhythm as the consonants lurch from vowel to vowel. Poems are words dancing, and dance doesn’t require lyrics."

    This. Whether listening or reading silently, the cadence and rhythm are what grab me every time.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn
    I read an argument once that Shakespeare is so important to English literature, that he is the only dispensable
    author in our body of literature. That is, he has been so incredibly
    influential on everything that came after, that if every copy of
    Shakespeare’s plays disappeared, every movie adaptation of his work
    plipped out of existence, that we would lose almost nothing.


    That's a pretty flimsy way of stating Bill's importance.

    Does anyone give a shite about what influences a work if the end result is itself shite?

    See Beatles -> Oasis.

  • BWeaves

    You could also argue that if Shakespeare's works disappeared completely, so too would everything that was based on them, which would wipe out most literature, plays, TV shows and movies that followed. We'd have squat.

    The language might be archaic, but a good actor can make it come alive and make it understandable. I saw a BBC play of Hamlet (1980) with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as his father and uncle, and it was fantastic. Recently (2010) I saw the David Tennant version, with Patrick Stewart again as the father/uncle. As much as I love Tennant, Jacobi was really fantastic. Stewart hadn't aged a wink.

  • madderrose74

    Patrick Stewart made me like Claudius. That look of pure disgust he throws Tennant's Hamlet as he leaves "The Mousetrap" conveys just how much of young Hamlet's crap everyone has put up with over the years. Hamlet's brilliant and charismatic and handsome, and it's clear he's also a bit of a prick.

  • pissants_doppelganger

    You could also argue that if Shakespeare's works disappeared completely, so too would everything that was based on them, which would wipe out most literature, plays, TV shows and movies that followed. We'd have squat.

    Did you miss the entire meaning of the argument SLW explained above?

    I think he did a good job of expanding upon it with his "killing the lawn by throwing out the seed bag" metaphor. You could do him the favor of actually thinking about something he took time to write.

  • BWeaves

    Actually I did read the article. The first paragraph talks about how if you remove Shakespeare you would lose almost nothing. My point is the exact opposite. If you remove all of Shakespeare you'd have nothing left.

  • pissants_doppelganger

    I understand your point. What I was saying was the claim SLW was talking about is counterintuitive, but makes sense when it is explained. Then you came back with the intuitive claim. Do you think anyone who would bother to lay out the counterintuitive claim isn't already aware of the intuitive claim? Your comment was essentially pointless.

    BiblioGlow laid it out more nicely than I cared to.

  • BiblioGlow

    Hang on, you're still not getting what SLW was saying (not trying to be snarky, so please read this in your nicest teacher's voice). If all of Shakespeare's works and words somehow disappeared from the Earth today (imagine a Bard-targeting virus or something), his influence is so great it would be as if his works still existed, because, as you say, he exists in everything we have. By contrast, if Nicholas Sparks were to disappear tomorrow, along with all his books and the movies directly made from his books, future generations would never know he existed. His influence on humanity, culture, and history has been, let's say, minimal. Shakespeare's works could be reconstructed from the evidence left behind. SLW phrased the idea a little differently a few years back: “An interesting literary thought experiment is identifying authors so influential that if every copy of their work disappeared from the face of the earth, their literary contributions would remain essentially intact because their innovations and ideas are reflected a hundred times over in other lesser works. Shakespeare’s the classic example. Get rid of Hamlet and the story has still been told and retold over and over. The characters are never quite the same, the language never quite as eloquent, specific plot points evolve over time, but the essence of the tale is embedded in our literary culture so thoroughly that the loss of the original at this point would leave behind a perfect impression like a fossilized shell immortalized in limestone” (Why do I have that quote? Because it was such an interesting idea I saved it to my ‘Interesting Stuff’ file, of course. I also like parentheses - now you know stuff about me).
    Anyway, sorry this is huge, hope that clears things up – it's an idea well worth playing with!

  • sanity fair

    This is a little harsh, don't you think?

  • pissants_doppelganger

    Yeah, it probably was a little harsh.

    It just reminds me of when someone listens to an expert give a short explanation of how it's quite possibly impossible for us to reach the speed of light. Then that person thinks for about 2 seconds and comes back with, "But...what if you had, like, an aircraft carrier that was traveling, like, 1 MPH less than the speed of light? And then on top of that, you had a dude with a motorcycle go as fast as he can? He'd break the speed of light, right?!"

    You seriously think you solved that question with "an aircraft carrier with a motorcycle on top"? Wow, how come the experts never thought of that?

  • sanity fair

    I can understand your frustration, but I am still of the opinion that we should try to be polite to our Pajiba brethren. Thank you for acknowledging that your response may have come across as harsh. :-)

    Edited to say: Especially those who, like BWeaves, frequently add to the conversation without troll-baiting.

  • Parsnip

    I watched part one of the Hollow Crown and against the young whippersnappers Patrick Stewart was sublime.

  • Robert

    I just subbed for a teacher yesterday prepping students for a field trip to a production of The Tempest. I think I was requested because I'm a Shakespeare recruitment expert. I had the students debating a work they've never read and only know from a synopsis, the Julie Taymor trailer, and the opening scene from a regional production on YouTube. I also evangelized for The Winter's Tale because who doesn't like a tragedy that turns into a comedy because a bear mauls a man to death offstage?

  • lowercase_see

    What was that great West Wing line? "We don't need laws to protect the language of Shakespeare."

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