People ask me often, “Why do you love Shakespeare so much?” Let me count the ways (see what I did there?).
1. The language. Honest to goodness, I cry often when reading or hearing Shakespeare’s words, even when the scene is not emotional, because the words and phrasing are so beautiful. From Prospero’s “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” to Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” From Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech to Hamlet’s iconic “To be or not to be.” First and foremost, my love for Shakespeare reflects my love for words.
2. The characters. Shakespeare created the most memorable characters in all of literature. Puck and Bottom, Falstaff and Jacques, Richard III and Iago, Benedick and Beatrice, Othello and Desdemona, and on and on it goes. As the inimitable Harold Bloom suggested in his indispensable book, Shakespeare “invented the human as we know it.”
3. The talent. From the very beginning, Shakespeare’s writings have attracted the best talent in the world, from Richard Burbage (the first Hamlet, etc.) and Robert Armin (the first Touchstone, etc.) to Mark Rylance and Judi Dench. And Benedict Cumberbatch. And Laurence Olivier. And Richard Burton. And Elizabeth Taylor. And Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, David Tennant, Derek Jacobi, Al Pacino, Sophie Okonedo, Patrick Stewart, and more. The same goes for actors, producers, directors and others who are not famous. Shakespeare attracts the best.
4. The themes. Take The Jew and The Jew of Malta, two plays by other writers of Shakespeare’s day that were basically melodramatic racist screeds. Shakespeare, however, made Shylock a real, not totally unsympathetic human being and The Merchant of Venice became a powerful (if imperfect) play about “the quality of mercy.” He did the same with nearly everything, even when writing Tudor propaganda. He told stories that meant something, and even pushed back against the assumptions and prejudices of his era (a risky thing to do in Elizabethan and Jacobean England).
5. The adaptability. Leonard Bernstein put Romeo and Juliet in mid-twentieth-century New York and gave characters knives instead of swords; Baz Luhrmann placed the same story in late-twentieth-century “Verona Beach” and gave characters guns. Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa told King Lear’s story in a medieval Japanese setting in Ran; Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, A Thousand Acres, imagines Lear as Larry Cook, a wealthy Iowa farmer.
6. The form. I love poetry. And Shakespeare’s plays and poems include some of the finest English verse ever written. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.” The fact and fruit of the bard’s mastery of iambic pentameter and other poetic forms amaze and delight me, whether I’m reading a sonnet or seeing a play.
7. The depth. Like my other great literary obsession, the Bible, Shakespeare’s works not only reward me every time I visit them, I discover new layers of meaning in texts I previously thought I fully understood. I know this is true of many works and media, but I find it truest in the bard and the Bible. Huh. Sounds like a great title for a book.