“Brush up your Shakespeare / Start quoting him now / Brush up your Shakespeare / And the women you will wow.” — From “Kiss Me Kate” musical based on “The Taming of the Shrew”
Some critics of William Shakespeare’s day called him a Shake-scene, an upstart crow. One playwright of that era described him as someone who “beautified himself with our feathers.”
The great novelist Leo Tolstoy, who should have known better, said the Bard’s greatest plays–“Hamlet,” “King Lear” and “Macbeth”–left him with “an irresistible repulsion and tedium.”
But Shakespeare’s contemporary, playwright Ben Jonson, was far wiser. While wishing that the Bard had “blotted a thousand” lines, Jonson described him as “not of an age but for all time!”
Several decades after the death of Shakespeare in 1616, poet John Dryden lauded him as having had “the largest and most comprehensive soul.”
Yes, Shakespeare stole many plots and characters from other writers like Boccaccio and Plutarch. He dug into Holinshed’s Chronicles for the history of England, Scotland and Ireland. But he embroidered them into great dramas. He was not writing historically accurate accounts. He was a theatrical genius, not a dull academic.
The world is justly celebrating the 400th birthday April 23 of the Stratford lad who never went to college but outshone every other writer who ever lived, including many with university degrees.
Hamlet, the melancholy Dane: “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
In the depressing “King Lear” the blinded Gloucester is told “to smell his way to Dover.”
Macbeth soliloquizes: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time, / And all our yesterday’s have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare an anti-Semite? Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice: “Hath not a Jew eyes? / hath not a Jew hands, organs / dimensions, senses, affections, passions?/ …If you prick us do we not bleed?”
Fat, sack-drinking Falstaff is perhaps the greatest comic figure ever created. He says of himself: “Banish plump and banish the world” Indeed!
And Shakespeare’s magnificent sonnets:
No. 29: “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.“
No. 35: Here’s another for Bardolators in troubled times: “No more be grieved at that which thou hast done: / Roses have thorns and silver fountains mud; / Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, / And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.”
No. 60: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end…”
No. 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds / Or bends with the remover to remove.”
To sum up, Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright, the world’s greatest poet and the greatest literary gift to the world.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)