Guest post: “We should all read Shakespeare to gain an insight into the humanity we all share”
To celebrate National Poetry Day on 3 October, Allie Esiri writes about why Shakespeare is still relevant today
Author of Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year
Posted on: Tue 01-Oct-19 13:05:52
(24 comments )
There have been relatively few anthologies made of Shakespeare’s work. Perhaps the task was ill-omened since an early anthologist, William Dodd, was executed in 1777 for forgery! Luckily for me, Shakespeare is out of copyright, and my anthology, Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year, is unlikely to lead me to such a fate.
Shakespeare never has been to everybody’s tastes. In his day, he was famously referred to as an “upstart crow” by Robert Greene, an early critic and fellow Elizabethan playwright. Samuel Pepys was equally unimpressed by Romeo and Juliet, calling the play “the worst that I ever heard in my life”, while Voltaire called his work “an enormous dunghill.” Even T. S. Eliot described Titus Andronicus, as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”
However, those who thought, like Byron, that “Shakespeare’s name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high, and will go down”, have, of course, been embarrassed out of all credibility. Since then there have been many more readers who would join Keats in saying, “Thank God I can read and, perhaps, understand his depths.” We should all read Shakespeare to gain an insight into the humanity we share, but sometimes forget.
During the course of my research, I have witnessed the many ways in which Shakespeare has endured, and still has something to say to us today. There is a moment in his narrative poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece' that strikes me as so evocative that it could have been written today for the #Metoo movement.
Lucretia’s tragic story is taken from the Ovid (barely a single plot of Shakespeare’s is original). In Shakespeare’s version, following the violent assault by her husband’s friend Tarquin, Lucrece refuses to be silent, and instead defiantly and fearlessly vows to denounce him. I chose this extract for International Women’s Day in the book:
During the course of my research, I have witnessed the many ways in which Shakespeare has endured, and still has something to say to us today.
“For me, I am the mistress of my fate,
And with my trespass never will dispense,
Till life to death acquit my forced offence.
‘I will not poison thee with my attaint,
Nor fold my fault in cleanly-coined excuses;
My sable ground of sin I will not paint
To hide the truth of this false night’s abuses.
My tongue shall utter all; mine eyes, like sluices,
As from a mountain spring that feeds a dale,
Shall gush pure streams to purge my impure tale.”
Shakespeare has even contributed to news events he could never have foreseen. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck claims he can, “put a girdle around the earth / in forty minutes”. The sole British satellite that was launched by a rocket, in 1971, after the funding for the British space programme had already been cancelled, was originally called Puck for this reason. However, fearing that the name might be misheard in Parliament, the ministry involved called it Prospero instead.
Not only does Shakespeare seep into our daily news cycle, we have him to thank for the very words we speak. He used a lot of words – 31,534, to be precise – and of the many he coined himself, half were only used once. Some you might be surprised to see that he made up, such as “eyeball”, “bedazzled”, “fortune-teller”, “unreal” and “well-read”, to name but a few. He also coined many phrases, including “brave new world”, “blinking idiot”, “brevity is the soul of wit”, “neither rhyme nor reason”, “own flesh and blood”, “too much of a good thing”, and “what’s done is done”. Not to mention the many words of advice which entered common usage from his plays: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”; “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves”; “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart, and bids it break” and “Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none” and “This above all: to thine own self be true”. After all this, you might feel like Orson Wells did, when he said “now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognise the quotations.”
Of course, Shakespeare might be most famous for his inimitable writing on love. Arguably the most successful marriage in Shakespeare’s works is the Macbeths’, in so far as they feed off each other’s strengths in securing their mutual ambitions, although this turns out to be their downfall. In contrast, the fleeting courtship of Hamlet and Ophelia is a poor example of a successful courtship. She ends up maddened by his inconstancy. Nevertheless, in the salad days of their courtship he is capable of one great love poem. (I put this around Valentine’s Day for anyone searching for the perfect thing to put in a card.) Although he turns out to be a terrible boyfriend, Hamlet does compose a very good love poem:
Doubt thou the stars are fire.
Doubt that the sun doth move.
Doubt truth to be a liar.
But never doubt I love.
Whether you are a lover, a mother, a cosmonaut or a campaigner, Shakespeare has something to say to all of us. On National Poetry Day this week, we are reminded that poetry is not just for the big things in life, but can be for anything we might encounter every day.
Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri is published in hardback. The audiobook is available for digital download and as 12 CDS on 31 October.
By Allie Esiri
Shakespeare is fine. But honestly there are so many other writers of more relevance to today. I studied Shakespeare to degree level and your 'blog' sounds like an essay to me. Yes, he writes beautifully, but he's racist, antisemitiic, misogynistic, and a little bit rants. A few good speeches, some good characters but not the finest writer ever in the English language
Who is the finest writer ever in your opinion Sooverthemill?
Sorry that sounded a bit aggressive, I’m just interested!
I see you have a book to sell but I don't agree at all.
If anything puts children off literature it's generally Shakespeare.
The stuff about him inventing words is not convincing either, those words and phrases may have been found in his writing but there's no way of knowing who used them first - so much was not recorded or has not survived.
@ImportantWater how on earth can any one writer be 'the finest'? I thunk Joyce Carol Oates is an amazing novel writer , I loved the work of playwright Sam Shepherd, Alan Bennet often makes me chuckle with his observations, Aaron Sorkin writes good TV dramas etc etc.
And I agree with @fafoutis. No one witnessed him writing ( was it one person, a collaboration etc?) and no one knows if he was just a good observer ( overheard at the tavern). Don't get me wrong, give me Simon Callow Reading the sonnets and I will listen but not the finest'
For me the finest writers lived in the nineteenth century. Much more relevant for our unequal times.
Soover overheard at the tavern sounds likely.
I don’t know Sooverthemill, I just thought when you said he’s not the finest writer, it sounded like you thought someone else was, but clearly I misread.
I love Shakespeare, but:
1) No, he fucking didn't coin all of those words. As a medievalist, I get so sick of this one. We couldn't possibly prove which words he coined, and many of the oft-cited 'coinages' exist in Middle English and are quite well known to people who don't rely on the OED alone for first citations.
2) Isn't saying Shakespeare gives us insight into humanity a bit dangerous? Surely there are other writers who aren't dead, white, rather wealthy men who can do this too? Don't get me wrong - I love Shakespeare; I teach Shakespeare; I think we should read him. But I don't think bardolatry gets us very far, and it certainly helps blind us to the amount of bigotry and nastiness his work expresses and has been used to shore up.
Better to read him in context, and either enjoy the plays as plays and the poems as poems, or study him properly.
PS - I always thought Hamlet's poem was meant to be a bit crap (what with the really clumsy metre/syntax), but maybe I am wrong.
@sarahandquack. Quite agree. Especially the Hamlet poem not being well regarde ( former English teacher here)
@ImportantWater no, I think such accolades are pointless
I enjoy Shakespeare's plays but not picking apart the scripts.So I really dislike the Tempest which I studied for English A level and Othello was only redeemed for me seeing Timothy West as Iago.
My DD has been put off having Macbeth at GCSE.
Most adult who don't like Shakespeare will have been put off at school.And many didn't even see them as plays as they were meant.
A bit off topic, but my granddaughter (6) picked up a kiddie version of Romeo and Juliet for me to read with her in the library. Reading it with her, I realised what an unpleasant story it is. She was baffled. At the end, I asked her what she thought of it. “Silly” she said.
Shakespeare's plays weren't designed to be read, they were designed to be watched/listened to. They are exponentially more interesting and make much more sense on the stage.
Have guest blogs always been a blatant sales pitch or is this a new development?
Thanks but no thanks
I studied Shakespeare at school
I have no time for Shakespeare now
this 'guest post' is to flog a book. Hopefully the sentence construction is better in the book than in the post.
I also got put off Shakespeare at school. The works are plays, sitting reading them is pointless. They are fine for those who like them. There's nothing sacred about any particular author or work, just because they are old.
Want it proven recently that Shakespeare has help to write his plays?
I know rumours were going around for years but I remember headlines this year that it was proven beyond doubt.
I can't think of anything at the moment more boring than sitting down to read Shakespeare.
I hope my dcs aren't forced to study Shakespeare at school.
Since I retired I've joined a Shakespeare play-reading group and the pleasure it brings me is immense. I actually enjoyed Shakespeare at school, so I guess I'm weird. But my OH, who never did any at school and left at 15, enjoys watching the plays performed as much as I do.
I'm not academic about it, I don't know the current theories about who wrote what, but the writing is breathtaking.
I think for some of the plays it has always been known. Others are more doubtful, and I don't think in those cases it could be proven beyond doubt. But then it'd be unusual if he didn't have help. Most playwrights at the time worked in partnerships.
I thought Shakespeare was boring and pointless at school and have never so much as glanced at it since. I’ve never once quoted the rambling passages we had to learn. A complete and utter waste of time!
I respectfully disagree. Shakespeare was a playwright, poet and actor. When it comes to his plays I think the best way to experience it is via the medium he meant for it to be experienced - on the stage.
I cannot stomach Shakespeare, sorry
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