“I think I may be in love with William Shakespeare.”
I tell this to my academic friends and they answer with sceptical faces. “How?” they ask. And there is one major consideration that obviously makes my relationship with Bill very problematic. William Shakespeare was born in the sixteenth century and is more than 400 years my senior. Aesthetically, I am in love with a corpse, and I think that may be the hurdle many of my friends cannot mentally overcome.
But why must I love a man for his physique? It was his ideas that wooed me, his ideas that move me. Still, 400 years later, William Shakespeare has the power to touch the world.
Don’t get me wrong, the poetry is beautiful. Juliet’s epithalamion on the balcony moved me in a way no declaration of love has before or since, and there is no speech of love more unsettling than Richard III’s wooing of Anne. There are no words on aging more desperate and sad than poor Lear’s mad end, with his daughter dead in his arms and his fool hanging alone from the rafters. Macbeth’s soliloquy, where he makes the conscious choice of ambition and power over love and happiness, breaks my heart. Falstaff’s wit and unconventional humour makes me cry tears of laughter while Emilia’s brave defiance makes me cry tears of frustrated sadness. The words given to these characters stay with me, their influence indefinite. But the words alone are not why I am in love.
The plots are complex and catching. The twists and turns that conclude with Hamlet atop a tall pile of bodies are tragically brilliant. Iago’s scheming and its successes spits in the face of fate. Prospero’s daring plan of vengeance fits together flawlessly. But a clever plot is not enough.
For me, at least, it is the ideas that are the threads that pull everything tightly into place.
It is these ideas that reverberate through western culture 400 years after the original words were spoken on stage. Many people will age like Lear, will love like Romeo and Juliet and will hate like Iago. Many people will feel betrayed like Hamlet or will question their identity like Richard II. Many people will feel the ambition of Macbeth. Adultery is real, love is the only surprising action left, jokes still make us laugh and betrayal punctuates our relationships.
These universal ideas, filled by beautiful language and propped up by exciting plots, have staying power. You cannot hold an idea, or touch it, or taste it. But you can love an idea.
“I am in love with William Shakespeare.”