I’m not so arrogant as to believe that I’ve got something profoundly novel to contribute to the vast ongoing discussion about the most important writer in the history of the English language. I can only do what the title of this series implies: relay my personal connections with the work of William Shakespeare. As with most, I suppose, it started in high school (well, beyond the odd, warped earlier exposure), with the English teachers provided the obligatory assignments and lackluster coaching through the process of understanding the somewhat arcane language of Shakespeare’s text. As per usual, they made the assumption that Romeo and Juliet was the proper gateway, because surely we’d relate to the tale of young love. This included the requisite viewing of Franco Zeffirelli’s film version, the teachers forgetting before they threaded it through the projector to present to a group of hormone-addled teenaged boys that it provides a glimpse of lovely young Olivia Hussey in the altogether. (Do they now use the Baz Luhrmann take on the same play, I wonder, presuming that all the kineticized wonder of it will capture the attention of modern iKids?) For me, it wasn’t an ideal introduction, primarily making me ponder the wisdom of making a group of self-involved, emotion-ravaged American teenagers spend weeks focusing on a story where the lovelorn title characters commit suicide when their dating plans don’t work out.
As one would hope, college changed everything. I declared myself an English major early on (too early, as it turned out), which meant that deep-diving into Shakespeare was absolutely on the docket. Obviously the instruction was better, but so was the material. We tackled Shakespeare’s richest works: Hamlet, Othello, Measure for Measure, King Lear, and, best of the lot, MacBeth. We spent the proper amount of time on the works and were encouraged to dig into the greater scholarship. It completely opened up the enduring relevance of the works, especially their revolutionary understanding of the psychological underpinning of the individual characters’ decisions and desires. When Harold Bloom later released an evaluative book on Shakespeare subtitled The Invention of the Human, I knew exactly what he meant. My university had a fairly unique practice of text rental, which built in the cost of textbooks to the yearly tuition. At the start of each semester, students went to a section of the bookstore and were given their assigned books with the understanding that there would be no charge unless the texts weren’t returned sometime shortly after final exams. The only books I ever chose to keep rather than return were my weighty copies of The Riverside Shakespeare.
Though I’ve fallen out of the habit in recent years, I’m proud to say that I used to break open those tomes with some regularity, especially if I had pending cause to revisit one of the works, usually through a new film version. As Al Pacino’s exceptional Looking for Richard demonstrated, there are few works as gratifying to dig through, consider, and reconsider as those penned by Shakespeare. Whether by design or by instinct (and since we can’t even decisively agree on whether or not he’s really the guy who actually wrote all the pieces attributed to him, I doubt we’ll ever settle on something as inherently slippery as artistic intent), the plays as layered with astounding, adaptable meaning. There’s a reason they stand up beautifully to endless reinvention. I should pull those big books down from shelf.