Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Reasons Why I Love … Shakespeare

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

PREVIOUS TOP TEN TUESDAY TOPICS:


The hardest part of this topic was choosing the focus of it: I love so much that to choose one genre, one author, one book is awful. I could apply this tag to almost anything on my blog or in my reading. Fantasy as a genre, or detective fiction or poetry; YA fiction or literary prizes; Akwaeke Emezi, Tana French, Frances Hardinge, Patrick Ness…

But let us approach the icon at the heart of so much, Shakespeare.

I mean, whilst I am not citing this in the list, that earring!

It is one of the trials of being a teacher, the approach of that part in the term when we turn to Shakespeare. The Bard. The upstart crow. Because I do love Shakespeare! His characters, his language, his humanity are so wonderful! He is the benchmark by which all other texts are judged, at least to my mind. There are a whole vast array of other wonderful writers, I know, but there is something just iconic about old Will of Stratford.

What could I point to?

Shakespeare’s Vocabulary

The vast vocabulary in his works? Some 31,000 individual words in his written lexicon (and who knows how many others in his spoken lexicon which never reached the plays, poems or sonnets) compared to the 10,000 – 20,000 words in an ‘average’ person’s vocabulary.

Shakespeare’s Neologisms, our debt to him as English speakers

The wealth of neologisms in his plays? Borrowings (or thefts) from other languages, novel pre- and suffixes, new verbifications and nominalisations, conjunctions… it is estimated that perhaps 1700 new words were first used in print by Shakespeare, most of which were probably in fairly common verbal currency… but maybe 422 specifically coined from his pen.

How many remain in common usage? Accessible. Addiction. Admirable. Aerial. Bloodstained…

Shakespeare’s Language

Perhaps the felicity of his language, bringing together striking and wonderful phrases which lifted themselves from the stage, from the page, and into our national consciousness.

We could take but one example and consider the phrase “sea change”, a profound and transformative alteration which derived from Ariel’s song in The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:

Shakespeare’s characters

For me, however, it is the characters that make Shakespeare.

His plays abound with the most wonderful characters – which is a testament to his actors as much as to him. Rich, complex, flawed in every conceivable way. Vivid and alive in the way that few other writers manage even today – more alive than those modern writers obsessed with Freud and Myers Briggs personality charts manage.

His are characters that have become myths – some drawn from myth – in their own right, who are symbolic, iconic…And (almost) all of them are psychologically convincing. When compared to his contemporaries, to the mystery and morality plays that preceded him, these are a seismic shift, a sea change, in literature and writing.

Let’s continue the list by looking at these iconic characters within the drama they inhabit. I could probably cite almost all of his plays if I am honest – once we get past A Comedy of Errors and Coriolanus anyway! But I want to focus on the greatest characters in the greatest drama so…

King Lear

This is the epitome, the pinnacle of Shakespeare for me.

The domineering flawed father of Lear, the eternally loyal and wonderful Kent. The Fool. The glorious bastard Edmund, who is everything Iago should have been.

Every scene is exquisite! The bleakness of Cordelia’s “Nothing.” The Heath. Gloucester’s blinding “Out, vile jelly!”

The play balances so wonderfully the darkness and bleakness of the world were “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport” with a simple joy in the power of the language. Just look at these examples: Edmund’s prayer to nature in defence of bastards; Kent’s diatribe against the sycophantic Oswald; Lear’s blistering invocation of the storm on the heath.

"Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,--legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"
"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our teeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurour and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!”
“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.”

And think how the play echoes the lightness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: urban conflict resolved through a transformative flight into the natural world; Edgar who hides in the “happy hollow” of a tree and chooses to “elf all my hair in knots” becomes a Puckish character… the young exuberant poet maturing and developing and deepening his craft year on year without ever losing that initial passion.

Henry IV Part One

Falstaff for me carries this play.

Is he grotesque? Absolutely! He is “this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh”

Is he trustworthy? Good lord, no!

Is he good? By no stretch of the imagination!

But he is utterly compelling in his grotesquery! Look at the quotation below

“Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon, and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.”

“Diana’s foresters… minions of the moon… governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress of the moon…” He invokes beautifully the slippery, fluid, fickle image of the changeable moon – the moon by which Juliet refuses to let Romeo swear lest his love prove equally fickle. For all his bulk, Falstaff has that same moonshine quality that appears in Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, that appears in Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra. Would the same actor have played all those roles? I can only imagine so – what a wonderful and glorious co-incidence of Shakespeare and that actor to have come together because I doubt either could have some up with these characters alone.

Much Ado About Nothing

Whilst I do love Romeo and Juliet, I find them intensely irritating, irrational and naive – so very juvenile – especially Romeo who is constantly brought back to earth by Juliet in the balcony scene, a girl who seeems a tad wiser than her thirteen years. I was on Beast’s side in the live action Disney Beauty and the Beast in this scene

Beast: Well, all that heartache, and pining, and…

[shudders and sticks out his tongue]

Beast: So many better things to read.

But how I would love to see Beatrice and Benedick take a detour from Messina to Verona and walk into the play. What advice would those two give to the young naive newlyweds?

Beatrice and Benedick, the jaded, cynical lovers of Much Ado About Nothing whose “Merry War” subplot of Much Ado About Nothing absolutely overshadows the main plot. The wit shown in their exchanges is such a gorgeous piece of theatre

BEATRICE
I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
BENEDICK
What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
BEATRICE
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
BENEDICK
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
BEATRICE
A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
BENEDICK
God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
scratched face.
BEATRICE
Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
BENEDICK
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
BEATRICE
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
BENEDICK
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.

And that quiet hurt in Beatrice’s aside “You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.”

Oh! And the wonderful joyous gulling scenes between them. Yes it has become a familiar enough trope… it is featured on TVTropes… but this is still fresh and credible. Unbelievably so, considering it was written five hundred years ago!

Shakespeare’s Political Subversiveness

Shakespeare was barely able to avoid subverting everything!

In terms of politics as well as literature, his plays are shockingly subversive.

Just take Hamlet. To present a play where the King has married his brother’s wife which (along with the fratricide that facilitated it) caused there to be “something rotten in the state of Denmark” in a society ruled by a Queen whose father married his brother’s wife…?

And there was something treacherous even in the whole idea of theatre as common men dress up as kings, as if the costume was all it took to become royal – and oh! there are some wonderful lines about costumes and appearances and clothes in his plays, perhaps unsurprisingly for the son of a glove maker? Where is the distinctioni between the royal court and the theatrical stage? Both are bedecked with props, costumes and rituals where words have a power beyond their usual meaning.

Certainly plays were scoured by the censor for anything treasonous and Shakespeare’s colleagues and friends did fall foul of the Tower of London and the executioner.

Shakespeare’s Literary Subversiveness

And in terms of literature, Shakespeare was more than happy to subvert the traditions he inherited. Romeo spouts the cliches of courtly love to Juliet who wants no part of that nonsense in that balcony scene:

JULIET
How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.


ROMEO
With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls;
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt;
Therefore thy kinsmen are no let to me.

And as said before, that relationship is wonderfully undercut in Much Ado About Nothing, twisted and made so much more satisfying, more real, more true.

And take the traditions of the Petrarchan love sonnet and look at how Shakespeare turns them on their head – especially in the iconic Sonnet 135.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare’s Mystery

This is the wonderful thing about our Will as an historical character: his personal life is so mysterious and shadowy and lost despite the profile of the man that he can be anyone and everyone’s Will.

Those lost years between 1585 when a young father of 21 years had his twin children baptised in Stratford, and when Greene attacked him for being the upstart crow in 1592 as a 28 year old striking it out in the theatre scene. Anything could have been happening in those seven years and a multitude of theories abound – training as a lawyer, teaching, tutoring the Catholic Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire, soldiering, travelling – with little to flimsy evidence.

But it means we can project on him anything.

We can imagine him as gay or bisexual and point to those apparently homoerotic sonnets, with no evidence to contradict us; or we can dismiss them as dramatic exercises or written under patronage, or celebrating a strong and intimate and emotion but platonic male-male friendship. We can imagine him as gender fluid, pointing to the complexity of gender on his stage as male actors dress as female characters – or as Cleopatra laments “I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore” – who so often disguise themselves as men where they fall in love with women before revealing their own gender.

Or we can dismiss all that as applying modern terms on a man who would have no conception of them.

Did he adore his wife, Anne Hathaway, or did he get trapped in a shotgun wedding after she revealed herself to be pregnant and flee from her to London at his first opportunity? Did he mock her by only leaving her the second best bed in his will, or celebrate the intimacy and tenderness of the marriage by leaving her their own marital bed? Whichever version you like, you can identify with, you can keep. For myself, I love the voice Carol Anne Duffy gave to Anne in the poem Anne Hathaway

‘Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed…’
(from Shakespeare’s will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, cliff-tops, seas
where he would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

That phrase “his touch / a verb dancing in the centre of a noun” is one of the most erotic lines of poetry I have read!


So, there we have it: some of the reasons I love Shakespeare. It is terrible that some school curriculums offering him up as some sort of sacred relic from the past. He is – even at his most bleak, and there is a lot of bleakness in the plays – a playful and joyful writer. He is on such a strange tightrope: as an actor and a playwright, there is something unsavory and dangerous about him, almost criminal, almost Falstaffian – I love the story of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men stealing the fabric of The Theatre at the end of its lease and taking it across the river to reconstruct as The Globe and I’d love to imagine he was there overseeing it under cover of the night; simultaneously, he was under official patronage and royal attention and in some plays terribly aware of that.

FORTHCOMING TOP TEN TUESDAY TOPICS:

  • May 26: Opening Lines (Best, favorite, funny, unique, shocking, gripping, lines that grabbed you immediately, etc.)
  • June 2: Books that Give Off Summer Vibes (or winter if you live in the southern hemisphere) (submitted by Kristin @ Lukten av Trykksverte)
  • June 9: Books I’ve Added to my TBR and Forgotten Why (stolen from Louise @ Foxes & Fairy Tales)

9 comments

  1. Great list! King Lear is quite possibly my favorite of Shakespeare’s works! It’s been since high school since I’ve read his plays, but I really learned to appreciate them. I listened to Macbeth on audio a year or so ago and it was amazing, with a full cast performance. I’d love to listen to a performance of King Lear! Happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.