Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

So did Mark Twain entitle his famous essay that is a sharp, satirical look at Shakespearean authorship. In it he calls attention to the fact that most of the things we “know” about Shakespeare’s life are based on conjecture, the kind of conjecture that is itself, as so often happens with historical authors, back-formed from various details in his corpus. Hilariously, at the opening of the second chapter, Twain writes, “When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him,” and he goes on to show how Satan’s reputation is built largely on conjecture, not clear facts. That, of course, is what he compares our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life to.

Twain’s satirical piece is meant to show us that the historical “Shakespeare,” himself largely a theory anyway, is not likely to be the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He is, rather, likely to be a construct based on bits and pieces of that corpus. What we envision to be his physical body is reconstituted from the body of his work, causing his actual corpse to roll over in the grave. All amusing, all satiric, all well worth a few minutes of your time to read.[1]

I wish that the peevish students of the University of Pennsylvania, where I myself studied literature at one point, had read Twain before they demanded the removal of the picture of Shakespeare from the foyer of the building of the English Department. The painting was replaced with a picture of Audre Lorde, the well-known Lesbian feminist poet who passed away in 1992.

But returning to Shakespeare, I want to stress that while the physical human being, the man who was called Shakespeare is, like Audre Lorde, quite dead—whether he actually wrote any of the Shakespearean corpus or not—the one we call Shakespeare is in fact a tome, a ponderous tome, filled with marvelous plays that come alive for the reader and even more alive for the viewer and hearer of them, the person who goes to the theater to view the spectacle. I can remember my great professor, Philip Ambrose at the University of Vermont, stressing this very point with me in a Greek tragedy class. We were reading the Trojan Women, and he did not want us ever to lose sight of the fact that that play was a sight, a spectacle, visceral, real, meant to be performed, not just read. That is Euripides, and that is Shakespeare. Note the present tense. Euripides, like Shakespeare, is alive today. We can perform them both, we can pick them up. They have become their text and when we read them, when we perform them, we bring them back to life.

But we must, of course, read them, we must, of course, have access to them, and most importantly be encouraged to read them, perhaps in our teen years, especially at college or university. I don’t think most folks will just pick up a volume of Euripides in translation on their own and read him. I don’t think most folks would even think about learning ancient Greek to do so. Indeed, even the headiest college student is not inclined to take a language on his or her own, not inclined to study an ancient language without some reason to do so. Maybe the college will require at least some courses in literature. But the trend is going the other direction, of course, as colleges and universities are increasingly adopting a more practical approach, in some cases becoming more trade-schools.[2] I took a language in college because it was required. I took Latin because I had heard the professor was one of the best that Dickinson had. I only added Greek because that same professor, Philip Lockhart, encouraged me to do so. Years later, at Vermont, reading Greek with yet another Philip, this time with the saintly name of Ambrose, I was so glad I had added Greek those four years prior.

My point is this: if you send your child off to college, I hope you encourage her to go there to get an education, not a job. Of course, you want your child to be employed and to find a vocation that will make him happy, if indeed it is even possible “to find” a vocation. Rather, it is only possible to harken unto it, for the very word “vocation” implies that the job “calls” you, rather than you “find” it. Add to this that true happiness cannot be found in one’s job. It can only be found in one’s heart. You could have a rather unhappy job and still be happy. You could have the perfect job, and be quite unhappy. I know many college professors who fall into this latter category.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone study Greek. But I am suggesting that everyone who has the chance to read Shakespeare do so. He’s alive, even if he is no longer regularly required reading. The same goes for Homer, whether read more quickly in translation or more painstakingly in the original. And Euripides, yes, him too, and Virgil, and Dante, and Milton. Read them precisely because they are alive, and they will tell you something that will last you not one day but a lifetime. And if you’re listening carefully, they may, by the time you’re done reading, have whispered to you the very words that will provide you with happiness, the happiness that can’t come from “job satisfaction” or “finding the right vocation,” but can only come from within, from the heart.

Well, then, is Shakespeare dead? Only if we let him die.

[1][1] Easily found at pagebypagebooks.com.

[2] Alas, the university that I spoke about in last week’s blog did, in the end, decide to produce a rather slender core, cutting out, with a single vote, Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil.

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