by Maria Rioux
I suppose my first exposure to Shakespeare was through my mother who fixed her unwavering eye upon this offending child and asked, “To be or not to be, that is the question…” While she was not contemplating self-slaughter, her thoughts were murderous all the same. The language was not one to which I was accustomed, but the meaning was clear. Much of what was familiar to Elizabethan audiences will be foriegn to us, and yet we can appreciate the full beauty and nuances of the English language as well as the deeper meanings and themes expressed. I have been asked to choose from among Shakespeare’s works four plays suitable for high school students. The difficulty lies not in selecting four suitable plays, but in limiting the selection to four.
Shakespeare’s plays can be divided, roughly, into three categories: comedies, tragedies, and histories. I have chosen one play in each style, and Shakespeare’s undisputed masterpiece, Hamlet. When reading the plays one must bear in mind that, while Shakespeare is a master, he is not a god. We should resist the sort of unwholesome reverence which renders him unapproachable. We may marvel at his ability and delight in his gift, but we should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by him. Shakespeare himself wrote for the masses and would consider his work a failure if it could only be appreciated by the erudite. While students may not grasp all the subtleties and implications of the plays, they will undoubtedly understand the universal human themes and interpret these at their own intellectual and emotional level. In recent years, students have approached Shakespeare much like David approached Goliath: out of a sense of duty and necessity, an undesired and seemingly insurmountable task, little knowing their God-given ability. Like David, students can conquer, given half a chance.
Shakespeare’s strength lies in his ability to delight us with the beauty of his phrases and the wisdom and truth we find therein. These truths are eternal: they are what make Shakespeare truly great and relevant now as much as then. Human nature does not change, and Shakespeare does know human nature. Shakespeare’s genius lies in his ability to express with uncommon clarity and depth the full range of human experience. Through him we stand alone with kings, weep bitter tears and plot revenge with the oppressed, and bask in the wonder and tenderness of love. This is the art of poetry, of which Shakespeare himself said, “The poet’s eye in a fine, frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And, as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination, that, if it would apprehend some joy, it comprehends some bringer of that joy; or in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i )
His plays are sometimes bawdy and violent, which appealed to the masses then as much as now. And yet, every play Shakespeare ever wrote has, beneath this crowd-pleasing surface, elements of beauty and truth that raise its subject to the sublime. He is a master who fascinates audiences today no less than the patrons of the Globe Theatre centuries ago.
In making my selection, I chose plays that have themes with which the student of today will identify, plays which parallel contemporary problems or ask eternal questions. King Lear asks the question: What is a man? While no simple answer can be given, we do see one thing through the play: when a man loses everything, his worldly wealth and position, his children, and even his reason, he is yet able to love and be loved. Lear reminds us of the truth in St. Paul’s words: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians: 13: 2) It shows us, apart from any religious commandments, that man is man through his capacity to love.
The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is Shakespeare’s most famous play. How does this beloved and intelligent prince fall so far so fast? Hamlet has gone down in history as the world’s greatest deliberator. He delayed so long and deliberated so much, that as a result of his all but standing still, those nearest and dearest to him died, and he loses his own life. Hamlet is not a man who does not know how to act; what Hamlet cannot bring himself to do is to avenge his father and murder his uncle. While he vows, “with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love…sweep to my revenge,” (I, v, 27-29) he does not do what he knows he ought. He is the great procrastinator, and every student knows what evils result from procrastination!
The comedy of The Taming of the Shrew has been roundly criticized for its brutality to women, but this may be due more to a certain sensitivity of our times than to any real cause in Shakespeare. This is not the tale of the taming of an insufferably bad tempered woman by an equally intolerable brute. Petruchio alone sees the good hidden behind the shrewish Katherine and loves her enough to teach her that she is better than this. He disguises himself as what she has allowed herself to be; he is a mirror in which she may recognize the ugliness of her own contrary and willful behavior. The end of any play, as Shakespeare tells us, is exactly this: “the end of playing is to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Hamlet: III,ii,22-23) The battle these two fight is not based upon intense mutual dislike, but rather on ever-increasing love. Petruchio could not abide a tamed and broken wife any more than Katherine could have endured a meek and timid husband. His intent is not to break her spirit, but rather her pride. In Katherine’s final surrender we have a meeting of the minds, and the two come together in an elegantly negotiated, not an imposed, peace.
Most children will fantasize about castles and kings. In Henry V our fairy visions vanish; we come to feel the burden and loneliness of command. Henry has wonderful speeches, delightfully comical and yet tender wooing scenes, and carefully constructed phrases that identify him with God and England. Henry was wildly popular, and Shakespeare presents him as a good and noble king. The battles he fights are God’s battles; he knows the humility and infinite responsibility of the man who must commend thousands of men to their deaths. His St. Crispin’s Day speech would stir men’s hearts and rouse them to battle as effectively today as those many years ago:
“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered; we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so base, this day shall gentle his condition: and gentlemen in England, now a-bed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here; and hold their manhoods cheap, whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.” (IV, iii, 35)
Shakespeare’s plays are simply that: plays. They were meant to be acted, seen, and heard. If these plays are to be kept alive, it must be through the medium of theatre. Students of Shakespeare would do well to read and study; they would do better to perform.