The National Post
May 19, 2011
What if Shakespeare had never lived? What if he, like so many children of the 16th century, had died in childhood, just another lost infant son of an unknown Stratford glove-maker? Instead of the bland monument with its threatening inscription -"cursed be he who moves my bones"-imagine a nameless grave, a corpse knocked about and forgotten long ago in the Warwickshire muck. How would the world be different without him?
Most writers spend their lives avoiding the question of what writing amounts to. It's an annoying question, and tends to be asked by annoying people, like your parents and their friends and the businessmen at gala fundraisers. I've never yet heard a satisfying answer, because no matter what anyone says there's almost always a better way to achieve the intended goal than by writing. If you want to improve the world, go plant a tree in the desert or chain yourself to a whaling vessel or sign up to teach underprivileged kids in an at-risk neighbourhood. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century critic and wit, famously said that anyone who doesn't write for money is a blockhead, but sadly the opposite is true. If you want money, may I suggest corporate law? Or at least aluminum siding.
Shakespeare is the exception. He was the most influential person who ever lived. He shaped our world more than any political or religious leader, more than any explorer or engineer. The gifted playwright who moves audiences to laughter and tears has also moved history. Do any other poets even begin to change our behaviour or our environment? W.H. Auden once wrote that "poetry makes nothing happen. It exists in the valley of its saying where executives would never want to tamper." Shakespeare has wandered away from the valley of his saying and hangs around in the most unlikely places, in 1950's teen rebel movies and in psychoanalysts' offices, in nightclubs and in mall food courts, in voting booths in the American South and in the trash of Central Park. The effects of his words on the world have been out of all proportion, monstrous and sublime, vertiginous in their consequences, far beyond anything he could have predicted.
Shakespeare's power is evident everywhere if you know where to look. He shows up in obvious places -he remains the dominant influence on Hollywood and Bollywood -but he also shows up in places you might never expect. The reason there are starlings in North America? Shakespeare. On March 6, 1890, a New York pharmaceutical manufacturer named Eugene Schiefflin released 60 starlings into Central Park, following his plan to introduce every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare into the New World. Those 60 birds swelled to over 200 million birds today, and they have wrought havoc on our public buildings as well as on our agriculture. He has an amazing knack for showing up at key moments in American history, too. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was a major inspiritation for John Wilkes Booth who explicitly compared himself to Shakespeare's hero in a diary he wrote on the run: "After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun-boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honoured for."
His intellectual influence is simply without parallel. Shakespeare changed our conceptions of race and sex and adolescence in the most profound of ways. There would be no Obama if there were not first Othello, just as there would be no Leonardo di Caprio if there were not first Romeo. He changed the English language beyond recognition, inventing over 1,700 words, words like "jaded" and "bandit," "advertising" and "skim milk," "glow" and "gnarled" and "gossip." The name Jessica comes from The Merchant of Venice. He is, as Virginia Woolf put it, "the word-coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping."
The question that naturally follows this mysterious power of Shakespeare's is why. What is the source of all that influence? To people largely unfamiliar with his genius, the name "Shakespeare" can produce a vague impression of British stuffiness, of Cambridge dons in tweed and Wednesday matinees attended by school groups in rose gardens. The truth is that he belongs absolutely to our moment, to our experience. The world he created and inhabited is filthy and exalted, cheap and rarified, gorgeous and vile, full of confusion and sudden epiphany; in short as full and complicated as our own. Nothing in literature captures the surging cacophony of voices and perspectives or the dazzling diversity of present-day cities like London, New York or Mumbai more than the plays of Shakespeare. He is more than ever our contemporary -a myriad-minded man for a myriad-minded world.
The breadth and depth of his appeal verges on the bizarre. I remember during one particularly dreary February in Toronto while I was studying for my Ph.D., locked in the library, I discovered the fascinating way in which the residents of Carriacou in the Grenadines take up Shakespeare. Every year, on Shrove Tuesday, young men, dressed in elaborate Pierrot-style costumes and animal masks topped with crowns of ficus roots, go from crossroads to crossroads, performing passages of Julius Caesar competitively. They call it "The Shakespeare Mas." The game goes like this. One team captain shouts out a challenge to a member of the other team to recite a passage. (For example: "Will you relate to me Mark Anthony's speech over Caesar's dead body?") If the competitor gets through the passage without error, he can ask his opponent to recite another passage.
The contest is watched over by the huge crowds who scrutinize the speeches for mistakes. Players encourage their teammates with shouts of "brave," "tell him," "go on," and "that's right." Anyone who fails to recite the passage correctly or who mixes up the words, earns a beating from his opponents. The whips used for these ceremonies are serious business, made from telephone wires. The government had to intervene in the 1950s when the Shakespeare Mas degenerated into a huge battle between the North and South island contingents, fuelled by women who supplied the combatants with boiling water and stones. Everyone, throughout the proceedings, is hammered on the local overproof rum, Iron Jack.
When a folklore researcher asked one of the participants why they recited Julius Caesar and nothing else, his answer was simple but there can be none better: Shakespeare was "sweeter." To illustrate his point, he burst into Mark Anthony's famous speech: "O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth."
Shakespeare belongs to anyone who wants to tell his stories, no matter how remote. There's a famous anecdote, beloved by Shakespeare professors, about an anthropologist named Laura Bohannan who went to study the Tiv tribe in a remote corner of the Nigerian interior during the early Sixties. It was the rainy season in Benue, when the Tiv can't work and can't perform the rituals that anthropologists like Professor Bohannan study. Instead, the Tiv start drinking in the morning and they tell stories all day. Eventually they asked Bohannan for a story, and it just so happened that she had a copy of Hamlet with her. She decided to give it a try.
The questions began immediately, from the first scene. The Tiv could not understand why the ghost would come for Hamlet. It wouldn't be the duty of a son to revenge his father, but the duty of his father's brothers. They also heartily ap-proved of Claudius's marriage to Gertrude, which is a problem if you want the play to make sense. An old man commented to his companions: "I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they were really very like us. In our country also, the younger brother marries the elder brother's widow and becomes the father of his children." It took the anthropologist several attempts to untangle this knot of contention, but the whole play required a separate Tiv explanation. When Hamlet confronts his mother, the audience erupted in "shocked murmurs." How could a son scold his mother? Hamlet, as written, was all too unbelievable. So the Tiv insisted on straightening it out for the anthropologist. Once they had corrected the play, though -explaining the chains of magic and revenge that fit the Tiv worldview -they enjoyed it. "Sometime you must tell us some more stories of your country," one of the old men told Bohannan. "We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom."
Shakespeare teaches us all wisdom, though we all make our own Shakespeares out of his work. When you become familiar with Shakespeare, you see him everywhere. The leaves change in the fall: "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." Madonna is in the news again: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety." Chilean miners are stuck half a mile underground: "The earth has bubbles as the water has." He is like a witty friend constantly making the perfect aside on whatever action the world is performing. And it's a testament to his ongoing relevance and vitality that his plays resonate well beyond the stage.
Shakespeare's various effects on world history would have boggled his own capacious imagination. He's been the unwitting founder of intellectual movements he would never have endorsed and the secret presence behind spiritual practices he could never have imagined. He has been used as a crude political instrument by all sides in conflicts of which he could never have conceived. His vision has been assumed by saints and by murderers. At the bottom of all these slippery chains of consequences and perverted manifestations of his talent dwells the unique ability of Shakespeare to place his finger on people's souls. His strange power, all his world-shaking, reality-transforming impact begins from a simple but mysterious truth: His stories sound good to everybody.