On the Importance of Levity

Stay! Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak. —Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1 **

The blogosphere is strewn with literary wannabes. There are about 25 book blogs worthy of note. Bookphilia is certainly one of them. Mixing playfulness and analysis with a voracious reading appetite, Colleen Shea cranks out quality material on an almost daily basis. But perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay her is that she teaches boys the hornbook, and by “boys,” I specifically mean me, a wannabe literary blogger who devoutly wishes to be counted as 25 + 1. Don’t get the hornbook reference? No worries—read Love’s Labour’s Lost and you shall see. Because no matter what Colleen says, you definitely have a moral and an aesthetic obligation to do so.

Colleen Shea

Who are you?

A former academic, a current bookstore owner, and, I would like to think, a not entirely illiterate book blogger.

Why should people read Shakespeare? Explain.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class well outside my comfort zone called Chinese and Japanese religions. On the final exam, the essay question was, “Describe the nature of the Tao.” Just thinking about this now, 15 years later, still makes me sweat a little, for the first thing we’re told in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” which is followed by several more variations on this theme of “You can’t talk about the Tao without getting it wrong, so don’t even try.” You won’t be surprised to hear that I choked on that particular essay question.

I feel similarly stuck confronted by this question about why people should read Shakespeare. I have two answers.

My first response is a conditional one. I would say, if you want to know anything about the history of the English theatre, Renaissance English literature, the development of the sonnet, check out Shakespeare – in the context of other texts related to any of these areas of interest.

But my second, and more honest response, the only one I can stand by entirely and without qualification of any sort, is this — people should read Shakespeare because they want to, period. I don’t believe reading anyone’s work should be saddled with any kind of either moral or aesthetic imperative.

What’s your favorite play? Why?

The Winter’s Tale. My love of Renaissance drama really began with this one because it so thoroughly intrigued and confused me. I could go on forever about this play, so I’ll limit my comments to one issue:

I first read this play in an undergraduate course devoted to the man; my professor, damn him to hell, had only one thing to say about Leontes’ irrational jealousy: that we couldn’t say anything about it except that jealousy is irrational. I was 19-years old and didn’t have the critical skills to argue with this lazy assessment, but I knew it was inadequate; indeed, my frustration with this prof may be why I did a PhD!

I’ve since come to believe that Leontes’ jealousy springs from his linguistic deficiencies. While every other character engages in a complex social dance based on the polite and flirtatious rhetoric of the court, Leontes flounders, is awkward, can’t tell when people are sincere and when they’re not. Because he can’t participate in or comprehend the vocabulary of the court – and as the king, he should be the ultimate authority – he becomes exceedingly insecure. Polixenes’ and Hermione’s own talents in this area exclude Leontes from the discourse of power and order he’s supposed to represent. And because he doesn’t understand and can’t use such language, he can only figure and express his jealousy in the basest, almost non-verbal ways – with a lot of suspicious sputtering about perceived sexual impropriety between his wife and his friend.

But really, I love The Winter’s Tale because it’s a good read and works exceptionally well on stage.

Did Shakespeare invent the human as Harold Bloom argues?

I don’t believe so; I would say that had Shakespeare not existed, we would have had to invent him (or someone like him) in order to explain our own humanity to us. Why we need an external (and safely infallible because so long gone) figure to function this way for us is a question I can’t answer.

However, that English-speaking culture in large part defines what is best about itself in relation to a very talented artist is something which is really rather positive, I think. It’s especially positive in the face of western culture’s increasing devotion to all things purely practicable and applicable; to lionize an artist, one who dealt entirely in the lovely, the tragic, the hilarious, and the wonderful, is a sign that we’re not completely lost yet. And at least it was Shakespeare and not, say, Nietzsche, we chose to fill this need – what a terrible world we would now be floundering in if we were all spaking like Zarathrustra!

If you could spend a day with a Shakespearean character, who would it be? And what would you do?

Bottom, of course. His roaring would do me good to hear.

Apart from listening to him roar and perhaps also sometimes speak to me in a monstrous little voice, we would together organize a flash mob. This flash mob would involve 200 people storming the next Liberal (sort of like the Democrats in the US) leadership convention and singing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” and doing the moonwalk and grabbing our crotches. Now that’s behavior that both politicians and modern-day Shakespearean actors can understand.

If N. America were a major player in a drama (!), what is N. America’s tragic flaw?

This tragic flaw business – bah! So, the idea of the tragic flaw comes from classical Greek tragedy, specifically from the word hamartia, which more accurately translates as “tragic error” than as “tragic flaw.”

The implications for an error are quite different from those of a flaw – if we’re flawed, we really have no control over our bad behavior – think of the fable of the scorpion and the frog. But if we’re not essentially flawed, we just make terrible choices with tragic and irreversible consequences – that’s much, much worse, for such devastating actions could potentially have been prevented, had we listened to our family, our friends, or our fool who all warned us against what we were about to do.

Now, about North America. Given its propensity for voting not for the best but instead for the second or third best in any given situation (current US president excluded), its most recent tragic error is crowning Jeanine as America’s Favorite Dancer. Brandon and Kayla were robbed. I really can’t answer this question seriously. It’s too capital E-Earnest. I’m sorry.

What are Shakespeare’s three most important contributions to literary art?

I can’t answer this question very seriously either because I don’t believe in the tautological notion that everything Shakespeare wrote is genius because Shakespeare wrote it. For example, although I enjoy Titus Andronicus very much, it’s so bad it may actually degrade literary art as a whole.

What I think are his most beautiful pieces or passages are likely very different than other people’s. I will answer this then, both seriously and in silliness:

Serious:

1. That scene in King Lear when Lear is holding Cordelia’s body:

Lear. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!—.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
O, O, O, O.

Edgar. He faints. My lord, my lord!

Lear. Break, heart, I prithee break.

Edgar. Look up, my lord.

Kent. Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. [Lear dies]

2. Measure for Measure. All of it. I can’t say why or we’ll be here all day.

3. Othello’s final speech to Desdemona right before he kills her. The combination of tenderness, ruthlessness, and regret is truly overwhelming, in a disturbingly beautiful sort of way.

Silly:

1. The word “newfangled.”

Keanu at home in the Matrix having downloaded the appropriate software: "I know Hamlet."

Keanu, having downloaded the appropriate software: "I know Hamlet."

2. Allowing the world to see Joe Fiennes as Shakespeare, semi-naked, with ink-stained hands.

3. Allowing any semi-literate actor to become more famous by stomping and roaring their way through text they don’t understand (yes, Keanu, I’m talking to you!!).

Does Shakespeare compete with the Bible as a spiritual wellspring?

Unfortunately, those seeking spiritual solace tend, with both the Bible and Shakespeare, to extract pithy snippets completely from their contexts, thus altering their intended meaning for their own purposes. For example, everyone’s favorite, “To thine own self be true,” is uttered by a rather doddering old fool as part of an extremely long and contradictory list of platitudes to a rather impatient young man trying to be on his way.

Similarly, people love to remind us that “The quality of mercy is not strained” but fail to remember (or ever learn to begin with) that Portia utters this phrase at the beginning of a speech which is successfully designed to ruthlessly strip Shylock of every penny and social capital he has left. The irony of state-sanctioned, racially motivated abuse being wrapped in the rhetoric of mercy is excruciating.

I would like to suggest as new options for the spiritual edification of the world, the following phrases, divorced of context and explanation, from the works of William Shakespeare:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.”

“Put out the light, and then put out the light.”

“Sirrah!”

“O thou thing!”

“Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

“You whoreson cur!”

“Alack, alack, alack!”

“He teaches boys the hornbook.”

# # #

** As I prepare to post Colleen’s interview, Bookphilia may have given up the ghost. I say “may” because, although the site is currently unavailable, I have a sneaking suspicion that Colleen will roll back the stone and resurrect it. At least that’s my fervent hope.

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One Response to On the Importance of Levity

  1. dmf says:

    Love the “I know Hamlet” Keanu comment…so witty Kevin…bravo.

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