Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Real Life Conversion Experience

Recently, I made some new Staunton friends: young artists who asked me about my work at the American Shakespeare Center. They started by asking the standard "Do you think Shakespeare was a real person who actually wrote all those plays?" questions, to which I gave the standard "Yes, we know he was a real person who wrote those plays, and though he collaborated occasionally, the theory that somebody else wrote them is just an elitist mockery of everything I hold dear." (I love the authorship controversy because regardless of how ill-informed it is, people who don't care about Shakespeare find it interesting, so it's a gateway into a deeper conversation.) They were fascinated and polite, but confessed that they had no real knowledge, background, or specific interest in Shakespeare or his plays, despite living two blocks away from the world's only re-creation of the Blackfriars Playhouse. That's fine - it's not like I'm some sort of Shakespeare evangelist, determined to turn every social gathering into a treatise on why he's so amazing.
The conversation meandered away into discussions of art, literature, and then philosophy. One of my new friends started to expound on the ideas of fate, free will, and determinism. "None of these things matter, you know," he said. "The future doesn't matter because it hasn't happened yet, and you can't predict it anyway. The past doesn't matter because it's already over and can't be changed. All that really matters is this moment… and now this moment… and now this moment."
"I'm sorry," I interjected, "but I just have tell you about this moment in one of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet.
I ran down the basic plot ("It's kind of The Lion King") and then jumped into an explanation of my favorite quote from my favorite scene. "In 5.2, which is almost the end of the play, Hamlet is asked to fight a duel. He agrees, even though he knows it's a trap and that he'll die. His best friend Horatio tells him not to do it, and he says, 'Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be to come, 'twill not be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man knows of aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.'" I stopped to "translate" since Shakespeare's language can be tricky at first blush, but my new friends waved me on - no translation needed.
"'The readiness is all.' That's my motto," I continued (and it is - I have "the readiness is all" tattooed on my back). "After that, Hamlet goes out to fight the duel and (spoiler!) dies. It's complete acceptance of fate or lack thereof: we don't know what's going to happen or not happen or maybe happen. You could get hit by a bus or win the lottery or die in a duel or spontaneously combust. Worrying and worrying and worrying, like Hamlet does throughout the play, won't do you any good. All you can do is be ready. You've heard the phrase 'to be or not to be,' right?"
They all nodded.
"Well that's the answer. Let be."
The friend who started this conversation blinked and said, "That's such an… obvious way to put it. A perfect way. That's amazing. I've thought about that exact thing, the exact idea of "the readiness is all," but never phrased so well. Tell me more."
We kept talking about Hamlet, but 10 minutes later, the conversation had veered away (as conversations tend to do) and my new friend started talking about the concept of "nothing." "Everything in this room is something," he said. "How can you have nothing? What is a thing that is no thing?"
"I'm sorry to do this again," I said, "but do you have any idea how obsessed Shakespeare is with that?"
Everyone laughed at my 500th repetition of the word "Shakespeare," but they let me continue anyway. "The word 'nothing' appears 580 times in the canon," I said. I ran through King Lear and Macbeth and parts of Much Ado about Nothing, telling them how the idea of "no thing" appears over and over again in ways that are baffling, tremendous, sorrowful, and amusing all at once. "I still don't know what, if anything, Shakespeare's trying to tell us about 'nothing'," I said. "I don't think anybody does. But it's a question that I love to ask and think and talk about."
"This is nuts," said my new friend. "I never knew about any of that. I always thought of Shakespeare like… well, no offense, but in a 'what's the big deal?' sort of way, you know? It was boring in school, and I didn't get it, and I didn't care. But I had no idea."
I live my life and work my job in order to hear those exact words from as many people as possible. I mentally fist-pumped the air. "Well, you do have a world-class Shakespeare theater right down the street," I said.
"That we do," he replied. "Looks like I'll be going to a show."

--Lia Razak

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for mentioning the authorship controversy, Lia. I dismissed it myself until I learned from the New York Times ten years ago that the passages marked in Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible have a striking correlation with Shakespeare's biblical allusions. Okay, maybe somebody came along later, knew the canon well, and for some unknown reason decided to mark the related biblical passages.

    But then I found previously unknown echoes of the Sternhold and Hopkins Whole Book of Psalms in Shakespeare's plays and poems. No one had known about this before. I found those echoes studying the 14 psalms marked with manuscript manicules (pointing hands) in de Vere's copy. Notes & Queries had me condense the 10 brief articles I sent them with these discoveries into two long articles, published in 2009 and 2010. (I was humbled last October, when the first one was the most-read online article in that journal since its inception.)

    Authorship research is like fishing in a stocked pond. The psychological grip of the traditional theory (along with powerful group dynamics) keeps traditionalists from even looking at the Oxfordian hypothesis with the close attention it deserves.

    That's okay-- it gives me the privilege of making further discoveries!

    Most of my 40 publications on Shakespeare are at