Why It Matters: Shakespeare

Lars tells you how Shakespeare will make you a better person and a better nerd.

Some years ago I heard a radio piece broadcast on This American Life, called Act V. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever heard on radio. The long-form story reported by Jack Hitt was about a prison program staging Hamlet with an all-inmate cast. During the course of the broadcast there are interviews with the inmates/actors about the characters, and the motivations of the characters as they relate to their own experiences as human beings, inmates and (in some cases) murderers. It’s a tremendously moving piece and it filled me with wonder at the power of Shakespeare’s words to show us a window into our own souls.
Shakespeare is still widely read throughout the world, and wherever there are actors his work is continually discovered anew- seemingly as a kind of conspiratorial, underground text with a unique message for each subsequent generation. There’s little danger that he’ll ever go unread and I’m sure the Shakespeare family is swimming in royalties, but I’m not writing for Paris Review here. I’m seeking to convince Badass Digest readers that they should read Shakespeare today. You should read Shakespeare because he tells a better story than any other author, any filmmaker, anyone at all, because he tells your story. His characters are alive.
I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. These characters are so distinct and keenly revealed that we may measure their vital signs and find them as alive as we ourselves. They are us. We are all Hamlet and Macbeth and Othello and Falstaff. While Shakespeare was apparently not an especially learned man, his understanding of human nature is huge and endlessly surprising. You can peel away the layers of excellence in Shakespeare and keep finding more and more layers of excellence.
Every so often, a new “code” is found in Shakespeare, signifying that Shakespeare was a hidden Catholic or a revolutionary or a pioneering gay rights advocate. There’s no reason to suppose any of this is false. Like the (much less enjoyable) Holy Bible, Shakespeare’s works are rich enough to sustain every manner of interpretation, even directly contradictory ones. If you are a screenwriter or author and you haven’t read Shakespeare’s major plays, you may as well have never learned to type. You are actively ignoring the greatest assistance you could possibly hope to receive.
If you are merely trying to live a passable, conscious life on planet Earth, you’re in luck. Shakespeare’s got you covered. Those dumbasses who talk endlessly about the “meaning of life” haven’t bothered to crack the spine of the Complete Works. It’s in there. To bypass these riches just because you’re afraid of a couple of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ is like not leaving the house because you’re afraid of squirrels. Shakespeare is not only the finest author of all time, he is also the smartest person who has left a mark for posterity, and for my money, the number one human being of all time. It’s worth overcoming a few obstacles to experience one of the greatest pleasures known to mankind.
You can pick up his complete works for a few dollars, though I recommend picking up the individual Arden editions of his plays, which have excellent notes. You will not get it all on the first go-round. That’s okay; don’t be discouraged. The portion of Shakespeare’s genius that sticks to you will make your life far better. Remember, most of the contemporaneous audiences who watched the plays were the scum of London, 'groundlings’ who were much less well educated than you. They did what you’ll have to do. They pieced it together from context. Shakespeare made up hundreds of words and his audience somehow deciphered his meaning. You can do it, even if you’re still smarting from the painful memory of having the bard shoved into your brain sideways by some unfeeling professor.
It may help to listen to performances of the plays as you read. King Lear, to use only one example, can be difficult to understand - but when you hear Alec Guinness speak the words, his inflections can give you keys to the meaning that you might miss otherwise. On the other hand, As You Like It is a relatively straightforward, easy to understand play, but hearing Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind will give you a sense of the character’s guts and daring. While you’re downloading big mp3s, go ahead and check out Charles Altieri’s excellent Shakespeare course, available here. Altieri is both knowledgeable and very funny, and he will surprise you with his insights into Shakespeare.
It’s a long road, but it’s a good, important one. It will lead you to new places and show you many new sides of the old places you thought you knew already. A study, even a half-ass study, of Shakespeare is the best possible use of your head-meat. It will make you a better nerd.