As a writer writing within the English language, I have always in some way or another been aware of Shakespeare. In high school I covered Macbeth a few times between various literature and drama classes. In learning to stage a fight, I played Macbeth to prove my project partner and I could in fact sword fight well enough for the stage. I never did learn to pull my blows though…I may have broken my third sword during the actual graded performance. In my English Literature class we read sonnets, touched on the fact that 10 Things I Hate About You was a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and watched Scotland, P.A. just to make sure I knew Macbeth. As a prop master, I watched a fellow student race out of the theater and spin three times for having mentioned The Scottish Play while we were working on The Hobbit.
I knew Shakespeare, but then again, not at all.
Having known I wanted to be a writer, I immediately chose my major at university. Of course I encountered Shakespeare again. I was prepared for that. Especially while taking English Literature and Poetry courses. My third semester finally lead to my smack in the face recognition of a facet of Shakespeare I had somehow been blind to. In class, someone stated that most accept Shakespeare to be the greatest writer in the English language and that he always would be.
The world paused as that nugget of information sank in, and then as if someone had found the right switch, fire filled my heart as my competitive streak took over. Why did he get to be the greatest writer? Why could no one else ever topple over the pedestal he’d been placed on? WHY? He wasn’t always the greatest writer. There were other writers in the English language before his birth. Why could there not be someone to supersede his greatness in the distant future even if it wouldn’t be me? On my pride as a writer, I just couldn’t let it go. It’s hard to explain how it feels to be a writer knowing this. It may be a universal problem that every writer faces, if only for a moment, that feeling that our work will never measure up as there will always be someone greater. At that point, most people have two choices. They choose to leave writing and try something else, or they choose to carry on writing in spite of this. I choose neither of these options. I mentally decided this meant war.
Only I would get into an impossible writing war with a dead man. Not that I really understood how that battle would be conducted or if I had won it. Part of said war may have included poetry about how much I disliked that no one would meet his ‘genius’ though others may have believed ‘it took the pressure off’ to try to be the best. I was petty and sulky and annoyed by the continued reverence everyone gave him without a definitive reason beyond that his writing was ‘canon’.
My fourth semester I chose to study abroad in England. You can imagine the literature course available for study. I’ll give you a moment to guess what it was called, not that you need it. Saddled with a book heavier than any bible I’d ever toted to my Catholic religion classes, I began to study, in earnest, Shakespeare’s works. We verbally broke apart sections of his plays in groups, acted out parts before the class, and I would occasionally sit alone, tucked in hidden corners of the manor, reviewing his words with a critical eye.
Shakespeare had covered everything. Comedy, tragedy, history. He’d plucked out men’s eyes, encouraged others to charge into battle, and expressed the strange antics of those newly in love. He’d done so much living behind ink. From the words I read, as a writer myself, I began to understand why some might admire his works. The highlight of that class came when I witnessed one of his productions first hand. We were taken to see Patrick Stewart as Prospero in The Tempest. As you can imagine, my inner raised-by-a-Trekkie-child jumped up and down and off the walls at the knowledge.
When you sit down to such a play in such a location, you’re expecting the antiquated costumes, the over the top color schemes, the distance. You’re watching something from history and not really feeling it. You expect the curtain, not a massive piece of gauze showing you a radio. You expect to maybe hear a basic introduction and scene setting, not a weather forecast booming through the theater. You expect the curtains to rise, not a projection of waves and changing weather on the gauze.
Stripped away were the sleeves large enough to smother people to their doom. The technological distance had been shattered at the appearance of the radio. The seeming different world that Shakespeare operated in had been wiped away to be replaced with something curious and intriguing the moment I saw the Inuit design. I’d seen ‘modern’ Shakespeare before, with current times, current settings, and current language. I’d seen ‘proper’ Shakespeare before with the period costumes, period settings, and period language. This production was something new and inspired and I loved every second of it.
The lines suddenly made sense in a way they never had before. Shakespeare’s words and plot revealed just how much he knew of humans and what they were capable of. Even if the location and the costumes had changed, humans had not. As a fellow wordsmith, I could only image how much time he must have spent observing people, listening to their stories, finding the fundamental elements of emotion that drove them. Did he feel a distance from these emotions, as I at times do, for having spent so long looking at sentiment with a scientific eye, cataloging reactions as data, and regurgitating those small gestures to achieve the perfect crescendo of feelings in each play and poem? The image of Shakespeare I’d known shifted in my mind.
I went to Stratford-upon-Avon just after the winter had begun to turn into spring, and admired the garden at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. I also spent a bit of time exploring Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The home was a bit dark with so much wood that it reminded me of the house I’d grown up in. He, too, had been a child once, probably sitting in one of these corners or looking out the window, watching the dawn or the rain or the moon, and dreaming, like I once did.
I signed the guest book and tiptoed around the home, just wondering what it might have been like to grow up in a house like that. How would it feel if someone went to the house I grew up in and wondered the same thing about me? During my time in England, the Shakespeare I uncovered fell short of this great persona I’d heard of, a character talked up until he became legend. No, the Shakespeare I came to know was just a man far too aware of what it meant to be human, whose mind refused to be bound by anything but paper and ink. I could empathize with him now that I could see him as a just a man, no longer a myth.
In his birthplace, I bought the traditional shot glass souvenir and, oddly enough, a wallet. My pound notes fit just fine. When I returned stateside though, I had to fold the green bills to make them fit the size of the wallet. “There is money; spend it, spend it,” had been printed on the lower right corner. The quote has long since worn off in the nine years I’ve owned it, but I’ve yet to change my wallet. Not many hold onto a wallet as a keepsake of their favorite celebrities, and I doubt far less hold onto a wallet as a keepsake a writer whom they admire and hope to emulate, but I do.
Some days I look at it, and it is just a wallet, even as I have to fold my bills oddly to make them fit. Other days, I hold it and remember that while some are born great and others have greatness thrust upon ‘em, a few manage to achieve greatness. I suppose that is the lesson I took from examining Shakespeare as a fellow writer. I was not born great, and I will not sit by waiting for greatness to be thrust upon me. No, I think I’d much rather achieve greatness my labor of ink. I am still amused that it took crossing an entire ocean to let go of my war and find my love of the Bard.
Love and Lighting and a belated Happy 400th to Shakespeare,
-M. L. Trumbull