No one says it quite like Shakey
Bill, the Bard, William Shakey: call him what you will – ‘what’s in a name’, after all? – the fact remains that Shakespeare has, in the ever-astute words of David Tennent, ‘a way of saying things that has never been bettered.’
When writing, last week, about Leonardo (no, not di Caprio: da Vinci), I mentioned the challenge of knowing where to start; the scope of his endeavours was – and remains – frankly overwhelming, and the same goes with bells on for Shakespeare.
It’s the reason why, at uni, he had his own courses, when no other writer did – at least, insofar as I recall. Of course, the poets had their posses and the modernists had their clique – but no one, other than Shakespeare, was openly acknowledged as necessarily constituting a one-man show with multiple acts.
Indeed, even within the great umbrella kingdom of study in which he reigns a law unto himself, these courses were divided up thematically: comedies, histories – tragically and unfathomably not the tragedies – sexuality, power, the list goes on…
As You Like It famously opens with the suggestion that all the world is a stage. So famously, that I debated opening with it here – the irony of a well-employed cliché is, after all, a fine line to tread – but its sentiment lies at the heart of my musings, and so open with it I shall:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Such an image is an inherently unifying one; for a start, it makes the world seem smaller and as one entity, as opposed to the spherical hive of divisions through which we seem so attuned to viewing it today.
Divisions aside, we are all players (merely players at that – lest, when all has ended well, we re-emerge with an overly-inflated sense of our own importance); perhaps not always in the same subplot – one can only imagine how tiring that would be for Fate to work out – but, nevertheless, we are united in our shared experience of, and roll within, the overarching ‘play’.
I first became properly aware of Shakespeare’s timelessness when we were taken on an A-Level class trip to watch a National Theatre Live screening of Othello, and I fell in love with Rory Kinnear for his compelling portrayal of Iago – unlikely, I know, and yet, ‘farewell the tranquil mind!’ thought I to myself. I later saw him in James Bond and was somewhat less enamoured: my mind was tranquil again.
‘What was he wearing?’, I hear you cry. Wouldn’t you like to know! Costume seems a rather superficial way through which to consider the essential spirit of the play, but it is effective when addressing (pun intended) this notion of timelessness.
The truth is they were, for the most part, all in army camouflage and, thus, several stones’ throw away from that in which they were no doubt strutting about during the sixteenth century.
But I suppose that’s it: times change, costumes change, but the tendency of our emotions does not; love is, after all, ‘not love which alters where it alteration finds’, nor is it ‘Time’s Fool’, but rather an ‘ever-fixed mark.’
I remember feeling somewhat sceptical, concerned that perhaps we wouldn’t have the full, ‘authentic’ experience if it were all in modern dress. But I was seventeen and naïve; on the contrary, it simply made their words all the more pertinent.
And indeed, it’s this pertinence that makes each of Shakespeare’s works so remarkable. The enduring nature of their popularity and success – their very timelessness – is testimony to the nail-on-the-head, uncanny astuteness with which he portrays human nature.
As David so succinctly puts it, ‘he’s got a way of getting to the nub of what it is to be a human being’: love, hate, jealousy, revenge, loyalty, betrayal, peace, war, life, death, happiness, and woe – it’s all there. As Shakespeare himself wrote, ‘no legacy is so rich as honesty’ – and Shakespeare is nothing if not honest.
As people, it seems that we – almost without fail – do not learn from the experiences of others; of course, we care about them and we listen to them, but we don’t often act according to them. I suppose it’s because we’re meant to ‘learn through [our own] experience’, and, therefore, deciding not to do something against the advice of others – and, often, our better judgement – just because it didn’t work out so well for someone else isn’t reasonable enough grounds for us not to go and do precisely the same thing. Added to this, ‘I told you so’ would cease to provide even the faintest glimmer of satisfaction.
As people, moreover, we often seek the reassurance of knowing that what we are feeling is normal and to be expected, that we are not alone in what we feel, when what we feel is not so pleasant – essentially, that what we feel is ‘what it is to be a human being’.
Compassion is reassuring because it invokes a sense of fellowship and camaraderie that can transcend the trials posed to us, and, conversely, creates a jovial sense of occasion when things are well again.
What better way to receive this reassurance, therefore, than by watching others play out these – our – shared emotions upon the stage, or by seeing them written upon the page. It is the accessibility of this reassurance that, I think, defines Shakespeare’s success.
In the words of Scottish moral philosopher, Adam Smith: ‘we can never survey our own sentiments and motives...unless we remove ourselves...from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them...at a certain distance from us...as other people are likely to view them’ (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759). Shakespeare allows us this cathartic distance, and therein lies his undying appeal.
It also links back to that initial sense of unity, as it is made clear that this reassurance is sought throughout each of the ‘seven ages’ of (wo)man: it’s not just the star-crossed lovers in their first youth, nor is it just the wizened Lear in his final moments; it’s everyone at every stage of life, from the opening fanfare to the closing curtain.
Shakespeare’s writing encompasses every fibre of life’s tapestry – everything that people feel, have felt, and will continue to feel – to such an extent, and with such sympathetic clarity, that, inevitably, we cannot help but to keep coming back for more: as bees to honey, moths to light, and as players to the stage.
In keeping, therefore, with the idea of ‘an ever-fixed mark’ – and in light of it being, after all, his birthday – I’ll conclude by saying that I for one remain firmly fixed in my consideration of him as our greatest national treasure; like poor old Yorick (alas!), he remains ‘a fellow of infinite jest’ and, indeed, still, no one – even at the ripe old age of 456 – says it quite like Shakey.
- Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman