Shakespeare’s Second LIfe

Duke Pesta

Good Friend For JesusSake Forbear To Dig The Dust Enclosed Here Blest Be The Man That Spares These Stones And Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones

Exactly four centuries after he died, Shakespeare’s epitaph remains as shrouded in mystery as every other aspect of his enigmatic existence. Offering a blessing and a curse, these lines are equal parts jaunty doggerel, affected memento mori, and poignant plea for an existential quietus—in this world and the next. We have no evidence Shakespeare wrote them, and every reason to believe he did, based on the many moving verses he devoted to death in his plays. Like Michelangelo, who died the year he was born, 1564, and Cervantes, who died on almost the very day he passed in 1616, Shakespeare’s art is rich with themes of death, decay, and remembrance. For all great Renaissance artists, Time was the chief enemy of all things mortal; decay was Time’s agent of oblivion; and remembrance the key to artistic immortality beyond the reach of Time and Death.

The monitory verse etched on Shakespeare’s gravestone in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, encapsulates the anxieties of an age of profound faith and troubling superstition, an era of startling discoveries that shook the very foundation of received wisdom both classical and Christian. From the macrocosmic displacement of the Earth as the center of the solar system to the microcosmic terrors triggered by public dissections of the human body, Shakespeare’s world struggled with the somatic contradictions of bodies created in the image of the everlasting God that nevertheless die, rot, and return to dust: “And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, / And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot.”1

We are not entirely sure that Shakespeare’s earthly remains molder under the stone that for centuries warned away macabre trophy hunters and probing archaeologists alike. Despite repeated appeals to excavate, the authorities of Holy Trinity Church have honored the poet’s wishes and the stone has never been moved—as far as we know. A magazine story from 1879 asserts that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen in 1794. Recent noninvasive radar scans show damage to the “head end” of the vault and a makeshift repair, raising the possibility that the death’s head was removed. Perhaps this was grim poetic justice for the skull that waxed so philosophically about the skull of Yorick, untimely removed from its own grave.

So much for the remembrance of Shakespeare’s corporeal death: the poet understood better than any that “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers come to dust.”2 Of much greater importance to Western culture—and humanity—is how Shakespeare’s ongoing artistic, poetic, and philosophical life after death continues to influence the culture, how his “powerful rhyme” still outlives “marble and the gilded monuments of princes.”3 His body was scarcely cold in his grave before contemporaries asserted his poetic immortality as master chronicler of the human condition. Ben Jonson, the greatest Renaissance playwright not named Shakespeare, eternized his friend as the “Soul of the age.…not of an age, but for all time,” and as “a monument without a tomb…alive still while [his] book doth live.”4 Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet John Taylor, eulogized that “Forgetfulness their works would over run / But that in paper they immortally / Do live in spite of death, and cannot die.”5 And Leonard Digges memorialized the poet in the First Folio of 1623, insisting that Shakespeare’s works would “out-live / Thy Tomb”: “Be sure, our Shakespeare, thou canst never die, / But crown’d with Laurel, live eternally.”6 The tributes have not stopped since.

In 1621, Shakespeare’s son-in-law commissioned Gheeraert Janssen to sculpt the Holy Trinity Bust that still stands above the gravesite. The accompanying inscription reads: “Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem / Terra tegit, populus moeret, Olympus habet” (“Wise as the man of Pylos, inspired like Socrates, and with the skill of Maro. Earth covers, the people mourn, and Olympus holds him”). Heady company for Stratford’s Will Shakespeare, the glove-maker’s son, celebrated among the wisest judges of human nature: on par with Nestor of Pylos, the Greek sage of the Iliad and Odyssey; in-spirited with the knowledge of Socrates; adorned with the poetic grace of Virgil. The best of the classical tradition transmuted for groundlings on the London stage. His fame eclipsed them all. The body may be “compounded…with dust, whereto ’tis kin,”7 but the spirit endures immortal on Olympus or the poet’s peak Parnassus.

This apotheosis from bodily death to immortal life in verse has endured a tidy four centuries, each generation reinterpreting Shakespeare’s plays to resemble, challenge, parallel, undercut, shame, or inspire the brightest of their hopes and ambitions, or stoke the darkest of their fears and prejudices. Shakespeare has been staged, taught, researched, and adapted on six continents in more than a hundred languages: he has been acted by all-black troupes, all-gay troupes, all-female troupes, all-incarcerated troupes, all-children troupes, troupes of puppets, nudists, Legos, men in drag, clay figures. His writing has become the stuff of opera, ballet, symphony, film, farce, television, soap opera, melodrama, cartoon, modern dance, and rap. His impact on the English language is immense, rivaling that of the King James Bible (to which he may have contributed). His influence on subsequent British, American, and world authors and literatures is simply incalculable; his effect on generations of students palpable: even the most intractable and anti-Shakespeare of pupils still use words, images, and adages sprung from his pen.

I consider myself but one modest dowel in this gaudy plume of Shakespeare’s diverse influence, having chosen to specialize in him and his world twenty-five years ago in graduate school. The first person in my family to attend university, I was faced with an embarrassment of riches, drawn to Greek mythology, biblical studies, Roman history, and the medieval church, as well as Dante, existentialism, drama, Russian literature, biography, and the study of C. S. Lewis. I have been fortunate to teach each of these topics from time to time at the various universities at which I have worked, but year in and year out I teach Shakespeare. Even as a grad student in the 1990s it was clear that my focus—the one subject that would always retain its scholarly fascination and wonder—was Shakespeare. Since graduate school I’ve taught hundreds of classes on Shakespeare and written about him extensively in articles and books. And in “my salad days, when I was green in judgment,” I even dabbled in Shakespearean acting and directing. Age and familiarity have not withered, nor custom staled his infinite variety—for me or for the remarkably diverse collection of students who have studied Shakespeare with me over the years.

But even as I was writing my dissertation on Shakespeare the ideological winds of change were blowing cold over the humanities, the English departments in particular. The postmodern reading strategies—including deconstruction, feminism, cultural materialism (Marxist criticism), and post-colonialism—that dominated the classroom of the 1980s had, by the 1990s, become embedded in teaching, research, and service across the humanities. This much ballyhooed “theory revolution” did not die of ideological excess, as some like to argue. Instead, those excesses became institutionalized, all but driving out—or underground—longstanding traditional approaches to literature. Questions of truth, beauty, and art gave way to the radical politicization of the undergraduate classroom, the graduate seminar, the thesis defense, the academic conference, and the university press.

Most damning, these approaches swamped already floundering departments of education. As a result we have churned out class after class of young teachers who in many instances cannot teach literature in its own context. They are uncomfortable with poetry and lost amid the classical and Christian allusions that populate our great books. Many of these young educators lack the philosophical, historical, and theological framework to make sense of distant cultures. In short, “no profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en,”8 and the students who labor under these methods pay a high price. When I question my students about high school encounters with Shakespeare, their responses do not vary: they read the plays out loud in class—without much pause for interpretation, discussion, or reflection—or watched a film version. At one college, it was my job to observe student teachers of Shakespeare in local high schools. The experience was always the same: the student teacher offered a few prefatory words, then shut the lights to show the movie. During one observation I watched twenty heads hit their desks as soon as the room was dark. After the film, one of the few sentient students asked, “Why are so many characters in Macbeth named Earl?” The student teacher’s bemused response: “Earl was a very popular name in Scotland.”

Not only are college students increasingly unable to read Shakespeare, they also bring a sense of frustration, and in some instances hostility, to his work. My classes have become exercises in remedial reading and basic cultural literacy. When I began teaching, I presented ten plays a semester. Now I teach five, at most. We move through such works as The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, and The Tempest slowly—often passage by passage—parsing, defining, explicating, challenging, and always opening the text to modern-day parallels and applications. It’s amazing how quickly students come alive once they are taught and are able to read the poetry and immerse themselves in allusion, imagery, and historical context. Surprise gives way to relief, which leads to genuine enjoyment as the figurative lightbulbs pop and sizzle above the students’ heads. Simply understanding what Shakespeare writes and how he writes it instantly dispels all of the politically correct baggage that contributed to their original anxieties. Once they have the literacy code, our students are way too savvy not to see how Shakespeare transcends the politics of race, class, and gender approaches—as all great writers do—omitting nothing human in the striving for universal understanding.

Shakespeare the man died four hundred years ago. Unlike many poets since whom we no longer read, he obtained that which he sought: literary immortality through his remarkable plays. This second life beyond the grave has survived the vagaries of sixteenth-century publishing and doubts about authorship, cataclysms and civil wars, intellectual revolutions and ideological purges. Through it all the art still speaks for itself—if we have ears to hear. In his own time, Shakespeare understood that the key to literary immortality depends on basic literacy: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”9 Wherever Shakespeare’s skull currently resides, it is not chap-fallen: unlike Yorick’s skull, it continues to converse with us. The rest is not silence.

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