A former mentor of mine at Lancaster University posed a question via Twitter: What does Shakespeare mean to you? I couldn’t possibly let the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death pass without a post, and I thought that this would be a great question to answer.
In my response to the tweet, I wrote that Shakespeare was ‘the perfect combination of artistry, insight and emotional intelligence’ and this seems like a pretty good place to start.
When teaching Shakespeare’s plays, I find myself every so often getting a little bogged down with meaning and language analysis and character development and essay writing and everything else that students need to ‘do’ with Shakespeare to succeed in their exams. As a result, I sometimes forget the artistry of his writing as a whole.
First, there is the sheer volume of the work he produced. It’s not all amazing – yes, it’s okay to suggest that not every line he ever wrote was gold! – but the number of beautifully portrayed characters, emotionally charged moments and spectacularly moving speeches is breathtaking, especially from one writer.
Secondly, the linguistic dexterity and imagination he shows is superb. There are some speeches, lines, phrases or even words that are simply sublime. For me, it is almost impossible to find a significant character that doesn’t have at least one line that just resonates with the beauty of language and its perfection in conveying the character’s thoughts and feelings.
Shakespeare’s insight into what drives and motivates people is phenomenal. The psychology behind his characters is intriguing, and trying to unpick why characters act in the way that they do is a fascinating endeavour. Like any literature teacher, I frequently have to remind students that “these characters aren’t real”, “this never really happened” or “there is nothing before or after the text. This is all we have,” to get them to focus on what the writer is doing. But there are few more enjoyable discussions than those about how Macbeth can be so strong in some ways and so weak in others; about how and why Iago has such bitter hatred for those around him; or about how the main characters in Twelfth Night are able to switch from loving one person one minute to someone entirely different the next.
Finally, his understanding of the complexities of human emotions and, in some respects even more impressive, his ability to convey this in his drama is truly staggering. Really what I am focusing on here is his grasp of the intricacies of what is called the human condition.
You would be hard pressed not to find a character in his works to whom you cannot relate at any given time, situation or in any mood. Add to this his ability to create moments of great sympathy for some of the most villainous characters and moments of disgust or frustration for his most innocent or wronged, and you have a writer whose exploration of the human heart is, in my opinion, second to none.
I believe that this was his true genius and why he means so much to me.