viewpoint. brett hetherington


From across the centuries

As a wordsmith and creator no one compares with Shakespeare

A great thing about Shakespeare –what I love most about his work– is how his characters speak for themselves while showing a universal state of mind. His fiction seems real despite the fact we are reading or hearing his words hundreds of years after he wrote them.

In Hamlet, the title character, the Prince of Denmark, is depressed. His father has been murdered by an uncle and his mother has quickly remarried. Hamlet feels compelled to revenge his father death but his new isolation and sadness drive him to the point of suicide:“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! ...The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.”

To me this is one of Shakespeare's most moving passages. I first heard it performed by Richard E. Grant, playing an unemployed actor at the end of the superb film, “Withnail and I.” The character is making a balancing act in his mind, weighing up the good and bad of his species and the universe. His judgement is a heavy one: mankind does not merit a place in the cosmos. Or is Hamlet just speaking for himself? That is one beauty of Shakespeare's writing; he is a poet and one of the greatest in the history of the English language. His words are open to interpretation still (even after thousands of academics have picked them apart) and this pliability gives his ideas a persistant freshness.

As a wordsmith and creator of English, it's also generally accepted that no one compares with Shakespeare. When he couldn't find a word for the job, he simply invented a new one and many of these words live on in the language today. His writing benefited from his status as an actor. He knew how to deliver lines and had an extraordinary ear for how their rhythm would be heard by audiences.

Sadly, many people's experience of the Bard (as he is often called) was having his sometimes archaic language drummed into them by teachers who knew only traditional methods. I was one of those victims and didn't rediscover the glories of Shakespeare's work until into my twenties. Then I found that I too had to teach his plays. It was not easy but, surprisingly, I found my Catalan students were much more receptive to him than those kids I'd tried to teach Shakespeare to in Australia or England. Catalan students had the advantage of being bilingual and Elizabethan-era English was just another challenge. Shakespeare's timeless themes will continue to reach out across the years, “to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.”

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