400 years later, 4 ways to fall in love with Shakespeare

Choose how rude you want to be, and who you're insulting, to generate a genuine Shakespearean insult

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  • Kate Maltby: To mark 400 years since Shakespeare's death, 4 great plays, sonnets, characters, introductions to the bard

Kate Maltby is a theater critic for The Times of London and regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics. She is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. Her website is www.katemaltby.com The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Even if you've never read one of his plays, you'll probably have noticed by now that this Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.

I fell in love with Shakespeare as a child, first, for the prolific variety of his stories -- finish one, and there was always another adventure to read -- then, when I was older, with the beauty of his language.
    Kate Maltby
    If you're a newcomer, close your eyes, forget the fear and listen to a pro recite each beat of his poetry. (When I review Shakespeare performances in the United Kingdom, that's always my first test of whether the actors understand the text). You'll catch the emotion in the rhythm, whether or not you grasp every Jacobean metaphor. Then you can start to tackle the intellectual ambiguity of each play.
    Shakespeare's plots might stem from old tales, but everything that's mythic or basic in these narratives becomes nuanced, complexly modern, as soon his characters open their mouths.
    Anniversaries have a way of stripping the joy out of any artist's work. The government's focus on Shakespeare as a brand has been controversial: as my fellow critic Lyn Gardner wrote recently for The Guardian, "in commandeering Shakespeare as part of our heritage industry, too often we have failed to dust off the cobwebs of 425 years of performance."
    Certainly, here in the United Kingdom the 400th anniversary has become a cash bonanza for any public institution with even the most tenuous link to Shakespeare: There seem to be as many museums displaying a thread of Anne Hathaway's undergarments (she was Shakespeare's wife) as monasteries that once advertised fragments of Christ's cross. But it's also provided a valuable opportunity to remind ourselves why this particular young man, born to a middle-class, middle-England family in 1564, still captivates us.
    So, four centuries after his death, here are four ways to understand what the fuss is about.
    Four great plays:
    4) "Richard II" kicks off Shakespeare's War of the Roses cycle, a meditation on monarchy, ambition and Englishness. Unusually, it's all in rhyming verse, but hear an actor like Eddie Redmayne or Sam West in the role, and Shakespeare's verse emerges as darkly troubling, not twee.
    3) "Hamlet." To be or not to be - that is the question. There's a reason the world acknowledges this as Shakespeare's masterpiece. It asks, fundamentally, if life is worth living.
    2) "The Tempest" is routinely staged nowadays as a metaphor for colonialism, but this late play explores every possible way that humans have sought power over each other. Despite myth, it's almost certainly not Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, but is nonetheless a simpler, bittersweet answer to some of his earlier work, thanks to its fragile, trepidatious message of redemption.
    1) "The Merchant of Venice" is often labeled a "problem play," because it's neither tragedy, comedy, nor history. That's what makes it, to me, the most interesting. Let me explain:
    Fathers and daughters, justice and mercy, and our need for the scapegoat: "The Merchant" covers everything. Sit down in any merchant bank today, and you'll be faced with the same conundra about credit, contracts and exploitation that Shakespeare weighed up 400 years ago ("twill be recorded as a precedent," complains the Duke of Venice when someone suggests freeing a desperate man from a debt - before worrying about Venice's regulatory competitiveness as a global trade hub.)
    Drenched in Greek myth -- penniless Bassanio woos the heiress Portia as Jason, hunting the golden fleece -- "The Merchant of Venice" asks us what we value, love or money. It's the text that defined the modern meaning of the word "venture" -- and after all, as a shareholder in the Globe theater, Shakespeare was there at the start of venture capitalism. In the portrayal of Merchant's Shylock, literature's most famous Jew, Shakespeare neither condones nor condemns the anti-Semitism of his time (and ours), simply depicting a nasty Jew, nasty Christians and the social causes of their mutual suspicion.
    To see a great performance of "Merchant," get yourself a DVD of Jonathan Miller's 1974 film for the BBC. Laurence Olivier (Shylock) and Joan Plowright (Portia) might seem plummy voiced or old school now, but thanks to Miller's vision this was the radical post-Holocaust production that turned Shylock from traditional villain to modern victim.
    The relationship between Shylock and his daughter Jessica, who converts to Christianity, becomes central: In the closing seconds, she is heard, wracked with regret, reciting the Kaddish for her father.
    Four great sonnets:
    A performance of a play can be a remote, expensive affair, but anyone can pick up a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets. The joy of reading them like this is that they allow Shakespeare to speak directly to us, unfiltered by his characters, constrained and succinct.
    They're short poems, once circulated by aristocrats for private pleasure, but Shakespeare probably oversaw the publication of his own complete sonnets for their commercial value.
    The first 17 of Shakespeare's sonnets, in publication order, are among the most well-known but they're the most likely to have been commissioned by a patron. Shakespeare really gets going when he's writing for himself, chronicling his misery in a duplicitous bisexual love triangle.
    So skip the clichés and head deeper into the sequence. I'm most fond of "Sonnet 29." It's about the salvation offered by love, but it could also be a thank-you to Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton.
    When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
    I all alone beweep my outcast state,
    And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
    And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
    Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
    Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
    With what I most enjoy contented least;
    Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
    Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
    Like to the lark at break of day arising
    From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
    For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
    See also:
    2. 73
    That time of year thou may'st in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
    Shakespeare's meditation on aging is one of his most controversial sonnets. Do the references to "bare ruined choirs" suggest a suppressed Catholic nostalgia for monasteries despoiled by Henry VIII? Or is this a reference to "quires," a Tudor word for the pages of books? For a poet, there's no greater fear than the thought that, like "yellow leaves," even the pages of his books may fade away.
    3. 20
    "A woman's face with nature's own hand painted
    Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion."
    If anyone asks you about Shakespeare's sexuality, read them this poem.
    4. 129
    "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    is lust in action".
    Yes, it's a metaphor for the sexual act. Definitely not safe for work, it's the language of a poet repulsed by the material reality of erotic desire.
    Four great characters:
    1. The villain: Richard III
    "Richard loves Richard. That is, I am I."
    True evil is utter self-absorption: But isn't that egotism something with which we all sympathize?
    2. The heroine: Rosalind in "As You Like It"
    "Men have died, and the worms have eaten them -- but not for love."
    Under her cynical exterior, Rosalind is a hopeless romantic -- but she won't reveal it until she's tested the devotion of her lover to the utmost. She's sharp-tongued, too, telling another girl to accept a suitor: "Sell while you can ... you are not for all markets."
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    3. The flawed hero: Coriolanus
    Recently played by both Tom Hiddleston and Ralph Fiennes (check out the latter on film), Coriolanus is the embodiment of traditional masculinity. Which is why he destroys his family and the city he loves. Sworn to the earthy virtues of the battlefield, he tragically fails to adapt to the more sophisticated politics of Rome.
    4. The fool: Feste in "Twelfth Night"
    Ten times as educated as the aristocrats he entertains, Feste is one of Shakespeare's wittier clowns. As he puts it, "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit."
    Four great introductions to Shakespeare:
    4. "Romeo + Juliet" (1996) film by Baz Lurhmann
    Chances are you've already seen it but if not, you're missing out. Lurhman turned a generation on to Shakespeare with this modern Miami update, even while maintaining Shakespeare's unique language.
    3. "Dream: A Play for the Nation," a Royal Shakespeare Company production now touring the United Kingdom nationwide
    Erica Whyman's update on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a demographically diverse celebration of modern Britain. But it's still true to the joyous energy of the original.
    2. "Shakespeare's Language" (Penguin, 2000), literary introduction by Sir Frank Kermode
    For a more committed reader, this is an erudite crash-course in Shakespeare's words.
    If you want to get your kids into Shakespeare, find them a copy of Leon Garfield's "Shakespeare Stories." Unlike most children's books based on the plays, Garfield's versions all maintain much of Shakespeare's original language, weaving his metaphors into the thoughts of his characters. The series was also filmed as 12 30-minute plays, under the name "The Animated Tales."
    ****************
    And finally, four people who weren't William Shakespeare
    1. The Earl of Oxford (Dissolute aristocrat)
    2. Francis Bacon (Brilliant scientist and court intriguer)
    3. The Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's patron)
    4. Elizabeth I (Queen of England)
    If anyone tells you that there's little evidence to prove that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote his own plays, it's a myth. If you're in London, check out King's College London's superb exhibition "by me, William Shakespeare" to see the court documents and performance records for Shakespeare's personal role in the life of his theater.
    Most conspiracy theories about Shakespeare insist that the true author was a secret nobleman, which suggests a residual snobbery about the idea of any genius emerging from Warwickshire grammar school boy. (No surprise that one of the leading proponents of the "Oxford" theory is the son of the current Duke of St. Albans, who claims his ancestor really wrote the plays). For a great overview of the authorship controversy, and the cultural assumptions behind it, check out James Shapiro's "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?"
    Of course, it doesn't really matter who wrote these plays -- we should be celebrating the fact that they exist at all. But one of the many remarkable things about Shakespeare is how defined by place and time he seems -- using Warwickshire slang in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," discussing 16th century theology in Hamlet -- even while he speaks to universal longings.
    His rival, Ben Jonson, called him "the soul of the age," but in the same poem, he calls him: "not of an age, but for all time!" Which is it? Pick up a play, and find out.