Friday, May 6, 2016

To be, or not to be (and other questions about Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago last month; out of respect, I've been doing some reading. Not reading Shakespeare himself (I like to watch Shakespeare, but I've never been smart enough to read Shakespeare) but reading about him, specifically a biography by Bill Bryson, who's always good for a light-hearted romp through history.

Here are some things Bill Bryson taught me about Shakespeare:

1. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare. He was a person who lived; he married and had some kids; he wrote some plays and some sonnets. That's pretty much what we've got. He was dead for decades before anyone started really digging into his life, and dead centuries before interest in him became serious.

2. Shakespeare is the Jesus of the literary world. He's one of the most recognizable faces who ever lived, but we don't know what he looked like. You always know when you're looking at a depiction of him, but whether that depiction is reflective of one knows.

3. There are six known Shakespeare signatures, and in every one, he spells his name differentlyWillm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere, William Shakspeare.

Not one of those variations is "Shakespeare," but for some reason, that's the spelling we all use.

4. Large numbers of people have devoted their lives to filling in the gaps in Shakespeare's life, despite Point #1. This is so interesting to me, for I, too, know the delicious frustration of trying to piece together someone's motivations based on scant evidence and drawing sweeping conclusions more from personal biases than fact...actually, I believe this is called "the definition of being human."

There's enormous allure in deconstructing Shakespeare because of the tantalizing questions surrounding what he created. How did he do it? What was it about him and his life that was different, such that he did all that, while the rest of us are just us?

But therein lies the irony. Even if we did know more detail, the answers people want wouldn't be there. Most of us can't figure out ourselves at least some of the time, and yet this hasn't stopped scores of people from the overly ambitious task of trying to deduce the inner workings of a man who died four centuries ago and didn't leave behind so much as a diary, all in the hopes of uncovering the unknowable recipe for genius.

There's also the heartbreaking sadness that someone that important to humanity could leave so little of himself behind. It's the art that survives, not the man, and again, that seems not to bode well for the legacies of the rest of us.

But anyway...

5. MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL, there is a curse written on Shakespeare's grave:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare 
To digg the dust enclosed heare; 
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, 
And curst be he that moves my bones

Alright, confession, I already knew about the curse because I saw it on NOVA, where I learned there's evidence someone (presumably now cursed) may have stolen Shakespeare's skull a while back. There was a time when grave-robbing for skulls was all the rage.

And I suppose it says something about me that I find this skull-robbery thing to be the least strange item on this list.


  1. Thank you for the history lesson!

    1. You're welcome! It's quite a fascinating subject to me right now. :)