When I mentioned to a relatively new mum-friend that I had stayed up much too late last night reading, she was surprised to hear that the text in question was Hamlet. Yep, still working my way through the early 1600s of fiction and drama. Why Shakespeare, of all things?
Besides setting completely arbitrary book goals like reading through the fiction I own in a mostly chronological order based on publication date, I can say certainly that I enjoy Shakespeare. There was one high school teacher (who was a large part of the reason why I chose to study English literature in university) who suggested that we act out any monologue of our choosing, for bonus points. I saw this as an opportunity to wear a wooden sword in school and brandish it willy-nilly, even though the part (Iago plotting in Othello) didn’t really call for one. I still nurse a small hope of acting in a local drama some day, and even better if it’s Shakespeare!
Another fun fact is that I borrowed the wooden sword from the guy that would later be my husband, and he has no recollection of the matter.
But why Shakespeare? I suppose the short answer is that he explores a depth of emotion in so few words. Take Polonius’ speech to Laertes, just before his son takes leave of him (you can read the speech in full here):
… BewareShakespeare, W. (1993). Hamlet. Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment (I, iii, 65-69).
In there, with a few strokes, you have the picture of a caring father. Laertes advises on conduct, character, comrades, and coin; and gives the best of his experience to his son. The relationship here is an ideal, and provides a foil to Hamlet’s lack of fatherly guidance, as well as the distorted relationship he has with his current “parents,” the father-usurper (his uncle) and his mother (who married the uncle a bit too fast for everyone’s comfort after her husband died).
This juxtaposition of ideal and distortion work only, however, because Shakespeare wrote a story towards which his audience would have applied a particular set of morals. The king was under God’s authority, the people were under the king’s authority, and everyone was expected to submit to this father/children role to some extent or another, roughly speaking. An assumption that the world’s correct structure included submission and hierarchy is what endows the characters and their relationships (or lack of relationship) with impact.
Similarly, Sidney’s The Old Arcadia showcases pagan Athens through the lens of a Christian (or at the very least, theistic) writer. When virtuous daughter of the prince, Philoclea, finds herself unwittingly locked in a room with a man who loves her, and with a crowd outside ready to deal judgment (whether or not anything improper has happened), Philoclea decides to submit to whatever judgment may fall on her head, stating:
That we should be masters of ourselves we can show at all no title, nor claim; since neither we made ourselves, nor bought ourselves, we can stand upon no other right but [God’s] gift, which he must limit as it pleaseth him (p. 258).Sidney, P. (2008). The Old Arcadia. Oxford University Press.
Though the story’s protagonists, two princes madly in love with two princesses, have plotted and schemed with hilarious abandon to win over their respective targets, their virtue (or rather, lack of it) is thrown into sharp relief against the actual virtue of the women they pursue. Philoclea’s words would be much less moving were she simply to act as she pleased; submission to a greater authority is key to the emotional tension in this scene.
I touched on this idea briefly in my response to Ready Player Two, where I wondered if the book lacked impact because of its moral relativism. It’s a difficult case to prove especially in the space of a single blog post. There are plenty of books that seek to ascertain the right of the character, or perhaps, of authors and individuals. I suppose these books come from people who are tired of being bound by rules and naysayers all their lives, and I’m sure many of these stories make a fair case for the actions characters take. Still, in reading Shakespeare and Sidney, I think it’s safe to say that there is immense emotional and dramatic depth when characters adopt a set of morals that exists outside, and may be even counter to, their own personal wishes, and this tension is still worth exploring.