Shakespeare's Wit and Humor, Pathos and Anger Remains Vital, 450 Years After His Birth

by Daniel Rasmus

21 May 2014


For Those Disturbed and for Those Enamored

During the week of Shakespeare’s birthday, the Bard of Avon appeared on the cover of British Science magazine, New Scientist. Two articles focused on the science in the plays, pointedly on medicine and astronomy. He wrote about topics like the heliocentric solar system and the infinitive of space, as in the Hamlet phrase, “a kind of infinite space.” Was Shakespeare a direct member of scientific discoveries sweeping Europe during the Renaissance? Consider this: Tycho recorded detailed observations of a new star, a super nova, from the island of Hven, near Helsingør (Elsinore), which the setting for Hamlet. Interestingly, two of Tycho’s relatives were named “Rosencrans” and “Guildensteren”.

It seems that Shakespeare’s real genius was in finding a way to trigger emotion and autobiographical memory in ways no other author did.

The second piece explores how well Shakespeare reflects the diagnostic language of aliments like psychiatric breakdown and sleep disorders. The article quotes Brandy Matthews of Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, “The art of medicine is strikingly similar to storytelling. No matter how amazing the technology that supports clinicians, nothing trumps a careful history and physical examination.” Shakespeare’s approach to documenting the human condition, it seems, still has something to teach to modern physicians when they want to explain themselves to patients or peers.

Perhaps most interestingly is an article on the statistical analysis of Shakespeare’s language that offers a new insight about his use of language. Although often considered to have an unusually large vocabulary and to have coined more words than his contemporaries, neither claim holds up under statistical scrutiny. Shakespeare, unlike Marlowe and Johnson, does, however excel at the use of the “functional shift”, which changes the grammatical class of words to meet a need, such as Iago’s line to Othello: “tis the spite of hell…to lip a wanton in secure couch.”

It seems that Shakespeare’s real genius was in finding a way to trigger emotion and autobiographical memory in ways no other author did. Guillaume Thierry of Bangor University in the UK says he “was forcing the brain to reason and to function more – to process information at a deeper level.” Hundreds of years before statistical methods measured social media engagement, Shakespeare mastered a use of language that set people’s brains ablaze—a worthy field of study not only for linguists, but perhaps even more so for modern marketers.

So one of the leading science magazines chooses to dedicate its weekly features to Shakespeare, 450 years after his birth. This suggests a profound admiration for the writer that likely goes beyond the scattered science musing that punctuates the plays. Even those not seeking Harold Bloom’s “invented human” among the works, Shakespeare the storyteller continues to enlighten across discipline boundaries—his approach to the story offers today’s professionals lessons on how to communicate more precisely, and more engagingly, how to convey meaning and generate interest on everything from economic situations to the history of the universe.

Back at the Globe, I watched as the staging team prepared for the Hamlet that would be performed that afternoon, our guide, Irish actress Julie Addy, reminded those assembled on her tour that Shakespeare plays were more intimate. The stage was not a barrier to the work, but more a transition. Unlike modern stage plays that create an artificial barrier between artists and audience, plays performed at the Globe embrace the patrons standing in the pit. For one character who was seemingly upset Addy recalls, “an audience member offered her a tissue.” Regularly the audience answers rhetorical questions asked by actor in character.

There is something very 21st Century about the intimacy of a place like the Globe. As the Internet and social media break down barriers of various kinds, it’s good to be reminded that over 400 years ago the kind of subtle, even shocking transformations experienced in modern history had their analogs. The play as formal entertainment, and as literature, was just coming into its own.

More profoundly, the English Reformation, following on the heels of Luther in Europe, was a foreboding, bloody and transformative event that changed England, the Catholic Church, and the world, forever. Social, economic, political and technological change continue to sweep the world. Many should be happy that they have had to suffer little beyond the evolution of music from vinyl disks, to tape and digital disk and most recently to an ephemeral stream of bits. For across the world, in places like Russia and China, in Africa and Afghanistan, the stuttering pangs of progress continue to reshape the world, yet among the strife and disorder, each nation finds a way to welcome Hamlet. Perhaps they will find some self-reflective catharsis in a play that for so many, may still reflect their reality.

In my office, as I compile these thoughts, my own LEGO-like Shakespeare stands before several leather bound volumes of The Complete Works and Poems, looking out from a privileged perch in search of an undiscovered country. Near him a cardboard box of Shakespeare volumes houses pieces of Shakespearean Insult Gum. They share the shelf with an Angry Bird. A bust of Shakespeare sits behind me on a table, draped in a Platform 93/4 ticket, accompanied on his side by a stuffed doll version of the playwright.

Shakespeare’s works, various commentaries and research materials makes up the single largest collection in my library. I don’t know how many of the other works that reside on my shelves were influence by him. Easy candidates include T.S. Eliot’s poetry and plays and several Star Trek scripts.

As I look around my library, I’m reminded that Shakespeare is also at the heart of another very modern phenomenon, the conspiracy theory. Despite being buried and having a monument erected while his wife and children still lived, and having his plays published by his closest colleagues, many people believe that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. The personage of Shakespeare to them is either a fiction or a fraud, the later take being the perspective of the Roland Emmerich film, Anonymous and books such as Kurt Kreiler’s Anonymous Shake-Spear. The Man Behind, and Mark Anderson’s “Shakespeare” By Another Name.

I have no doubt about who wrote Shakespeare’s works, and enjoyed very much Ron Rosenbaum’s account in The Shakespeare Wars of all of the misdirection and misinformation infused in Shakespeare scholarship. Although a shift from Shakespeare to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, would decimate Stratford-upon-Avon’s tourist trade, that can’t be the motivation. Rosenbaum reasons rather that it arises from aristocratic prejudice: “In a snobby way, they can’t believe that a middle-class glover’s boy without a university education (like theirs) could possible write Shakespeare’s witty and erudite verse. It’s an affront somehow to their self-image, so they must imagine instead a hidden aristocratic progenitor, someone more like them.” With the scant records that exist, the Shakespeare wars will continue through fabrication and speculation well into this century and beyond.

Shakespeare remains a major influence on civilization. It isn’t enough to say 21st Century life, because when I look back across the centuries, despite ebbs and flows in popularity, Shakespeare remains an inspiration, a challenge and a benchmark not only for playwrights and actors, but for thinkers and lovers, for those disturbed by the world around them, and for those enamored with its intricacies. Shakespeare teaches appreciation as much as observation, engagement as much as reflection.

So, 450 years after his birth Shakespeare remains a perpetual meme, truly a discrete package of culture that travels by word of mouth. Shakespeare is a meme wrapped inside a meme. His stories, his phrases and his characters live on without him, creating their own swirls and influences through history. As the creator of these iambic fictions, Shakespeare is perhaps the ultimate meme as the invocation of his name stirs a cascade of associations, memories and feelings to all of those touched by his work.

Standing at the Globe, taking notes for this essay, I feel connected to a thread of humanity that reaches back before Shakespeare, to the characters he embellished that predated his world, and to the royalty, the knights, the common people and supernatural beings that inhabit his plays. In our lives, we seek to find context, and for many, if they know it or not, much of their context derives from a middle class country boy who decided that he would construct universes with the same delicacy and integrity with which his father manufactured gloves.

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