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.