The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0503 Wednesday, 8 August 2007
From: Abigail Quart <
Date: Wednesday, 8 Aug 2007 02:06:38 -0400
Subject: WashPost: Ourselves in Shakespeare
I found this while I was checking to see if Barry Bonds was cheered or
booed, and I love it.
Ourselves in Shakespeare
By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; A15
It is a disturbing experience to watch your own brother, your flesh and
blood, dabble in the occult, become consumed by ambition and then
descend by stages into murder. And the last straw was when he ordered
the slaughter of those children.
But it was even harder for my younger brother Christopher to play
Macbeth 13 times at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona,
Minn., giving sympathetic life to a moral monster, under seven layers of
Scottish armor while carrying a 20-pound spear. It is a tribute to his
skill that when Macbeth's head was finally brought on stage in a bloody
sack, it did not feel like justice done but like the departure of the
play's vital, lawless center.
Every summer, the church of Shakespeare holds services called festivals
in Alabama, Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, Hampton Roads and nearly every place
with cultural ambitions. There is Shakespeare by the Sea in Redondo
Beach, Calif., Shakespeare on the Green in Wilmington, N.C., Shakespeare
on the Sound in Norwalk, Conn., and Shakespeare Under the Stars in
Wimberley, Tex. And the worshipers are fervent and knowledgeable; an
actor at the Winona festival was distracted one night by an older woman
in the second row who mouthed the entire play along with the production.
Some of this attraction is the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare's
words -- the tumble of ideas and images that yield more meaning on the
10th hearing than on the first. But the amazing achievement of the
plays, as critic Harold Bloom and others point out, is when characters
such as Hamlet, King Lear or Macbeth transcend the words they speak and
come to life- transformed into what the poet Shelley called "forms more
real than living man." Other playwrights use characters as mouthpieces
for their own wit or philosophy. Shakespeare's greatest characters seem
to possess the spark of their own identity. They have somehow escaped
the cage of the author's intentions.
These fictional but living characters have influenced politics and
history. Abraham Lincoln was obsessed by Shakespeare's histories and
tragedies, once writing, "I think nothing equals 'Macbeth.' "There is
something eerie about his brooding on the examples of leaders driven by
ambition, cursed by fate and destined for a violent end. After visiting
a fallen Richmond in 1865, on his river trip back to Washington, Lincoln
read aloud a passage from "Macbeth" about Duncan's assassination:
"Treason has done his worst; nor steel, nor poison / Malice domestic,
foreign levy, nothing / Can touch him further." Moved by the words, he
read them over again.
Not long ago, according to historian Michael Beschloss, archivists
discovered a high school essay written by a 16-year-old Harry Truman on
"The Merchant of Venice." As a student in Miss Brown's English class,
Truman argued that after 2,000 years, the Jews were "a nation apart from
nations . . . persecuted for their religion" and still "waiting for a
leader" to gather their "scattered people." Many decades later,
President Truman took a grave and controversial risk by recognizing the
state of Israel-an issue he had first considered as a teenager at
Independence High School reading William Shakespeare.
Yet Shakespeare's influence is not primarily ideological or even
religious; his views on these topics are cloaked and obscure. He does
not attempt to explain history or the gods to men but rather to explain
men and women to themselves. His narrow topic is humanity, and it is
immense: everything from stalking guilt to bawdy humor, from insanity to
jokes about passing gas, from love to death to those moments when they
In a time deluged by ideology-when everyone is urged to take a side and
join the political battle-Shakespeare offers a different message: that
the most important and dramatic choices are made in the human soul. Some
steps, once taken, cannot be retraced. Some appetites, once freed,
become a prison.
But the plays are not simple sermons. Fate can be indifferent to our
best intentions. Even the purest love can lead to disaster. All our
explanations of suffering are incomplete.
We watch the struggling souls in Shakespeare's plays with uncomfortable
self-recognition. In their raw honesty we see our own nature, even those
parts that are despairing and lawless. And as these characters are
transformed, we see ourselves differently as well.
And so we enter a dark theater (or green or beach or riverside) and
escape to what is most real.
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
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