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. — William Shakespeare
Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. I was reminded by a New Yorker piece I read over morning coffee. It got me to thinking about my first “encounter” with Shakespeare.
Most of us educated in the Western world, especially in the English speaking nations, probably remember an English class where you had to read and discuss a Shakespearian tragedy, history, or comedy. I suspect the tragic plays, if any at all, are probably more remembered than any of the other plays: works like Julius Caesar, MacBeth, Othello, and King Lear. There’s a greater weight and imprint to the tragic sense of life. It’s always there, just below the surface, working sadly.
I first experienced Shakespeare’s plays in a high school English class. The most cogent memory is of Mr. Snodgrass’s class at F.W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The course instruction was memorable only in the sense that I was so bored. It was hard to stay awake. I seem to recall Mr Roper calling on me just to make sure I was awake. I was not as good as many of the other guys in class at hiding it. Shakespeare’s idioms and word play required too much thought and had no relevance to my life or my future. Just like those complicated math classes…it was a waste of my time!
Or so my teenage mind thought at the time.
College was a little better. A little more maturity, mixed with the exposure to other interrelated liberal arts courses and, more importantly, excellent teachers, stirred my interest in the subtleties, meaning, and value of the arts. Reading Shakespeare in college was, well, an eye opening experience for me. I don’t recall the instructors name, though I can still see and hear him in my mind. With him Shakespeare came alive and spoke to me. I began to see, and more importantly in art, to feel and appreciate the artistry and creativeness of Shakespeare’s genius.
“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Sure, a psychologists, using different words, would tell you these very basic things: your perceptions construct your world. Most of us understand that. But the scientist couldn’t say it with the poetic depth of a Shakespeare! And believe me when I say delivery absolutely influences receptivity.
Art is the mirror of life as the saying goes. The artist is simply holding up that mirror—words, imagines, and provoked emotions—to stir your soul. Because the active soul engages. And that’s what art, ultimately, is about. Art is about engaging your intellect and emotions so you can see and feel the world differently.