Back home in Canada a few weeks ago I contemplated buying three or four books about Shakespeare and his times, one of which was yet another new biography of him, another a comparison of various Shakespearean critics and their diverging theories, another doubting whether the man we know as the playwright really wrote the texts at all, and the last being a chronicle of a year in the life of the British Bard -- but then I thought, wait a minute: Maybe I should actually read some more of his plays before I read more about him.
I've always been intrigued by Shakespeare, but scared shitless to read him. I remember as a teenager being stunned to discover that all of my favorite lines in Oliver Stone's brilliant film J.F.K. were lifted from good old Willie. ("One may smile and smile and be a villian...") And there's a scene where Costner, comparing their current national crisis to Ceasar's own conspiracy, asks his colleague, played by Michael Rooker, if he reads his Shakespeare. ("Yeah, boss," he says. "I do." Which made me think: Damn, maybe I should too...)
I mean, I'd read some of his stuff; you can't finish high school without tackling the stuff, and I did go to high school, as did you, so I've read my fair share. Let's see: Julius Ceasar, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet. In university: King Lear.
And, um, that's about it. (I don't suppose watching the movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, the one with Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves and Kenneth Branagh and Denzel Washington, kinda sorta counts? And though I've never actually, you know, read Richard III, I did see Al Pacino's version of it, the one he brought to the Toronto Film Festival ten years ago, where I managed to shake Pacino's hand, so that right there's gotta get me some theatrical brownie points, is what I'm thinking.)
I always tell myself that I'm going to dive into Shakespeare, and yet I never do. Part of it is because I've always seen the language itself as being a barrier into the story. It takes hours and hours to make your way through the plays, and half the time I have no idea what's happening. I guess I could read numerous summaries and synopses before I begin, but that would take away half the challenge. The stuff's supposed to be hard. Therein lies the satisfaction when you finally figure out what's going on.
So, recently, for no reason whatsoever, I decided to try and read as many of his plays as I could over the next year. (And given that I'll be moving back to Japan -- at least for a little while -- starting next week, this may put a crink in my plans, but we'll see what happens.)
Last week, while on the bus to (and from) Manila to apply for my working visa at the Japanese embassy, I managed to make my through The Taming of The Shrew and A Midsummer's Night Dream. (My only previous exposure to the first play was Rodney Dangerfield's classic line in that classic film Back To School, when spots Sally Kirkland, his hot new English teacher, and says: "I'd like to tame her shrew!" Does that make me cultured?)
I managed to understand about, oh, sixty, seventy percent of Shrew, and not once did I look at the meanings of the words down at the bottom of the page. (Of that I'm proud.) A Midsummer's Night Dream was a little bit more difficult; I got about forty percent, maybe, and then near the end of the play something happens and I'm not sure where the hell the story goes but I didn't go with it. Of that I'm certain.
I've realized that I'm going to have to read each play at least three times before I begin to get a true sense of what goes where, and who says what, and why. Once without the notes, once with the notes, and once one more time to see if it all comes together.
Strangely enough, the language -- which before seemed like such an impediment to comprehen-
sion -- is now the main reason why I'm reading the stuff to being with. How does he bend words; how does he twist them; how does he gain insight by balancing various modes of expression? If words constitute meaning, then what do these words, in this order, signify? That's what I'm after. I figure, if I can't figure this stuff out at thirty, I'm never going to be able to take a crack at it.
Another odd notion: The book I'm reading now, The Anatomy of Dependence: The Key Analysis of Japanese Behavior, is also intensely concerned with words and what they do to us -- as humans, as cultures. The author is a Japanese psychiatrist who has built his entire, book-length analysis around the significance of a single Japanese word -- amae, which means, roughly, the feeling of warmth, security and comfort a baby feels at his mother's breast, a word that has no rough equivalent in English, but can, apparently, explain almost everying in Japanese culture. And related to this word are a number of other words that play off of, bounce off of, and link themselves to other notions of society and identity and bla bla bla.
How does this circle back to Shakespeare?
Mostly (in my mind, anyways) because with Shakespeare you can't take the words for granted. They leap out at you in their inventiveness and dexterity. You're forced to figure out why they are there, and what they're supposed to do, and to what ultimate end. And his medium of choice (or necessity) is English. And here is this Japanese writer writing about one word, a single word, and how it has shaped and defined a millenium of people. It's hard enough following his argument about this solitary word; comprehending Shakespeare's use of thousands of them is mind-blowingly intimidating in comparison. But both writers -- the famous playwright, the not-so-famous Japanese psychiatrist -- are using language to make sense of who we, as humans, sometimes, rarely, often actually are.
In other words, words matter. They do things to us; they make us think, or act, or isolate ourselves from one another. Or sometimes they bring us closer.
Anyways, we'll see. I'll either abandon Shakespeare's plays and dive into the various biographies and non-fiction works on his life and his craft, or else I'll plug along at irregular intervals and see what there is to see in his multiple plays. I probably won't finish them all until I've shuffled off this mortal coil, but that's okay. Gives me something to shoot for.
Or, just to make myself really crazy, I'll try to read Romeo and Juliet in English, side-by-side with its Japanese translation.
Which will make me truly want to eat my words, of that I'm sure.