Those who read this blog regularly will know that Shakespeare is to me the greatest of all writers, and while I count myself lucky to be a native speaker of the language he used – though it is much changed since his day, for sure – I know that many people who speak other languages were also mesmerised by the bard, presumably in translation. Giuseppe Verdi, for example, wrote three operas based on the plays: Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff, and was working on a version of Merry Wives of Windsor when he was commissioned to write Rigoletto. The plays and film versions have been produced in every European language and more…Macbeth for example was used by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa for his Throne of Blood starring Toshiro Mifune.
Of course practically everyone knows Shakespeare at least as a name, but it is surprising how few of the people I know – people I respect and admire – are really familiar with even his most famous works. Irish critic Fintan O’Toole puts this down to the truth that you actually have to work at Shakespeare, and wrote a book called Shakespeare is hard, but so is life. Really getting into the plays and poems to the point where they become fascinating needs some application, and it is not at all fair to blame people whose lives are full to bursting for not wishing to apply it.
Still it would be great for them, I reckon, if they would…In a few years on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of his death, the world will be awash with new productions, including no doubt a BBC reworking of all the plays There will be new films, symposia and lectures and books-a-go-go groaning with photos, maps, etchings, line drawings, abstract squiggles by chimps, the rehashes of the known facts and heaps and heaps of speculation. Shakespeare’s sexuality will get a proper thrashing…Maybe all that secondary fru-fru will set people onto it, onto him. For Shakespeare for our time, once encountered by an inquiring mind goes beyond a mere man, past even a great writer. He is an adventurous journey once begun lasts a lifetime.
Let me show how this can work. Anyone who wants can get a copy of Hamlet in the Arden edition edited by Harold Jenkins. This is not the most recent edition in this excellent series, but it serves very well to illustrate my point and was termed in a rival edition “magisterial”, so I am not alone in suggesting it is worthwhile..
Jenkins’ introduction spans about 160 pages, and is as much a detective story as anything Agatha Christie ever wrote. There were three versions of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s lifetime and immediately after – two “quarto” standalone editions and the version in the first folio of the collected plays. Not only is there the question of which text is the better one, there is also the problem of “collation” – the compositors of the time all made mistakes, misreading words, mis-spelling them, leaving them out. Jenkins shows pretty conclusively that one of the quartos was actually a pirate edition “memorially reconstructed” by someone who acted in it.* And going beyond that to the wider questions of what this play is about, why it was written the way it was, and when, what the sources were for the writer, what allusions classical (“pagan”) and Biblical, what the arguments are between the experts about these things.
Then, as if that is not enough, Jenkins gives his take on the great passages, the characters and more in a series of longer notes at the back taking up some 150 or so pages.
And in the text itself, word choices and meanings and other problematical textual issues are dealt with on the page where they occur.
So this is not merely a play that one can get on DVD, or go to a theatre and see, expecting to gain full measure. Suddenly Shakespeare becomes as a lover, once only an acquaintance, clothed and hidden in so many ways, now revealed by love naked beside you…beautiful, challenging, tempting, inspiring, open to you to engage and explore and enjoy, if you are lucky, for as long you both draw breath.
And Hamlet, though Shakespeare’s best known and longest play, is but one enticing feature of this endlessly beautiful and fascinating corpus. Each not only pays studying, and reading and enjoyment in performance (and if one is lucky enough, enjoyment as part of a performance), but repays all these…and the further in you go, the deeper you want to go. At least with the great works – not all of Shakespeare’s plays were great – fresh attendance to the marvel reveals new ways of seeing…
…and those “ways of seeing” are what makes Shakespeare the genius he was/is. Beautiful words, terrific expressions, fantastic stories, and the rest would be meaningless if they were but sweetish froth on the surface of our lives. The bard penetrated deeply into what it means to be alive. He doesn’t grow old; he is constantly renewed in our minds, hearts and spirits.
More to come. There always is…
* So great has been the fascination with Shakespeare that the compositors of the first folio are known by their work – how many there were and which bits each set in type – the role(s) this intellectual pirate took in the production has been doped out by which bits he got pretty well, and which were glosses.