Truth be told, I always had a hard time understanding Shakespeare’s language. Although I would tell my own students, it was the rap music of the day, I could as much understand rap as the bard. In high school, I would hunt a copy of Coles’ notes to read the plot summary so in class the next day I would appear knowledgeable.
In grade 11, I was taught by a Mr. Thomas, an English man- at least that’s how I remember him, a slightly bent over man in tweeds. A kind personable fellow who cast me as Lady MacBeth in the class reading of the text. I recall the embarrassment of having to recite” Take my milk for gall… and come to my woman’s breasts ” out loud.Not finding anything whatsoever sexual about me, the class must not have even chortled as I was about as present as a saucer of milk to them. Eyes downcast, I do recall my voice shaking as I read the lines.
Poor kind Mr. Thomas, as he was killed on a highway up north by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. I recall him fondly and his attempts to enrich the class although his choice in casting was truly terrible.
Back in the 60’s we had “ PROVINCIAL EXAMS which meant that all students across the province wrote the same exams in every subject at the end of Grade 13 at the exact same time. Some department head must have misread the course calendar at the collegiate because we wound up studying Macbeth in both Grade 11 and Grade 13. Perhaps that is why some of the lines have stuck so strongly in my head: “False face must hide what false heart doth know…Look like the gentle flower but be the snake under’ t”. How smart was Shakespeare! When one actually thinks about the meaning of the lines, not just parroting them by rote, one appreciates the wisdom and insight based on thoughtful observation in multiple levels of society. How well did he know the human condiditon-even before Facebook and Iphone!
So much of his language comes to me unexpectedly . When I am hurt or angered by my children, it is Shakespeare’s voice that floats up into my ears. I hear poor old Lear refer to “nothing “…as painful as the sharp pangs of children as he feels abandoned by his daughters, but particularly his
heart’s delight, Cordelia. He moans, “Nothing will come of nothing”. And any parent’s pain of betrayal is best described as ” sharper than a viper’s tooth” as their child throws hurtful remarks at the cowed parent who has tried but perhaps failed to comprehend their child’s needs. So many venues for discussion, so many levels of interpretation and fantastic metaphors and similes to further expend meaning .
I took my daughter’s name Ariel from The Tempest. I loved that magical sprite, did not care what gender Ariel was, so plucky, so resilient. The name suggested to me “ airiness”, lightness and mischief and she is all that and much more. I love Miranda at the end, her mouth hanging open as she murmurs in delight “Brave new world” anticipating a new future, a bright new beginning. Huxley also put his spin on that phrase, twisting it into a frightening view of a distorted society, but Miranda’s awe and wonderment at the possibilities for a strange fresh world remain. The Tempest is a shining play about so many things: freedom, colonialism, repression, silliness, parental relations, outcasts, magic! and especially hope.
I taught Measure for Measure to my senior students at Northern Secondary and loved the politics of love and power, particularly as the antagonist Angelo tempts and taunts saintly Isabella, but she a worthy opponent, a 21st Century woman who challenges his deceit. What I loved best -and was no surprise for me- the paradox of how Angelo might be spinning out his role or Isabella w(holily) into herself, ignorant or not of Angelo’s manipulations. Last year at Stratford, the play was catapaulted into the 40’s and it stood its ground perfectly.
It is the timelessness of Shakespeare, from the 16th century ,whether the sonnets ( think of sans teeth …sans everything) and the plays and the language that have persisted and speak to every time, every person, every situation reveal such acute observation of people’s fears, contemplations, interactions, relationships and foibles, especially in pusuit of their coveted desires in the bed or boardroom. And not surprisingly, interest even today has not waned when a portrait resurfaces or the debate over authorship is raised by a disbeliever regarding Shakespeare’s brilliance.
If it is true that I did not comprehend the prose until I pondered it later, now I grasp the meaning deeply and darkly. And although Angels in America is a triumph, a force that grips you to your core, I wonder if it will have the enduring effect that Shakespeare’s plays have and what of our days will be put into revivals once we are long gone? I’m sure Shakespear had something to say about that too.