April 23, 2004

"Alas, Poor Ghost"

Today was (as likely as not) the 440th birthday of Will Shakespeare, who as most of you know by now has had some small impact on my life.

Yesterday's post noted the comparison I draw between Shakespeare and sacred texts, which is only a very slightly tongue-in-cheek way of putting the effect his work has had on me over the last fifteen years. But I also think the parallel holds between the person of Shakespeare and the prophets and teachers of various religions. What we know about the Bard of Avon, when it comes down to it, is infuriatingly sketchy, incomplete, controversial, and open to wild speculation - which is about the same place we are with Jesus, Mohammed, Siddhartha, Krishna, and just about everyone else who ever managed to leave behind the kind of spiritual ideas that elevate fringe cults to respectability.

And, like those other worthy gurus, what we mostly have of Shakespeare is his words - or, at least, the words that are generally attributed to him. I tend to steer clear of the Authorship Debate, largely because most anti-Stratfordian arguments are based on a weird kind of classist snobbery, but also because it distracts from what seems to me to be the real point - that the thirty-six (or thirty-seven or whatever) plays in the canon attributed to Shakespeare are a pinnacle of poetry and drama, and collectively say things about the human experience in a way that has not been equalled before or since.

Shakespeare the man is a cypher - each generation, each artistic movement has made of him what they want him to be, finding in the historical record a convenient blank slate rather than the chronicle of a person. He suits all agendas because he answers no questions. But Shakespeare the author is another thing entirely. William Burroughs said, as he came more and more to terms with his own mortality, "The Work is the mainsail to reach the Western Lands." What we have of Master Will is all Work, and if that has managed to suit all agendas as well since it was first performed, it's for the opposite reason: the text here seems to answer all questions, or at least address all matters of living and love and passion and death, and does so every time in an eloquent, concise, utterly convincing manner. And for everything it says, you can probably also find something in the plays that says, just as convincingly, the exact opposite thing. (Sounding familiar yet?)

The upshot of all of which is that it doesn't matter whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or just, as they say, someone else of the same name. We may always have to resign ourselves to a kind of agnosticism on the matter of authorship, and I think that's okay. Shakespeare the author is an eidolon, a mirror we can look into and see whatever we need to see (which is why the major plays can stand a new interpretation every five years or so). Who he "really" was is beside the point, and of only passing relevance to what he has come to mean to our literature, our language, our culture. (The idea of a Bard is a Bard.)

So happy birthday to the Bard of Avon, the master playwright of Lord Strange's company and the Globe, the author of Twelfth Night and Titus Andronicus, of King John and King Lear, of Hamlet and Measure for Measure and Much Ado about Nothing - whoever you were. "Youth's a stuff will not endure," you once said, and you said it over again in a hundred ways as you explored your obsession with time and mortality - that most basic and pervasive of human concerns - and I've only become more your disciple each year the truth of it comes home more and more to me. Here's hoping you rest well in Elysium now, and perhaps look in from time to time on what some of us have made of what you left us, and think on it kindly.

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