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A Happy Birthday to the Bard, that Rascal!

by Josina Reaves on April 23, 2012
Emma Smith and Josina Reaves

I love Shakespeare, and I loathe him.

His words are enervating and exasperating, his plots dizzying yet familiar, his characters lively, sexy, and dangerous. As amazing as it seems, William Shakespeare chronicled human passion and motivation–past, present and future–in less than 40 plays.

And yet, despite his having been dead for almost 400 years, he is still as slippery as an eel, unknowable, inexplicable. How many other artists are still so distant and unattainable so long after the production of their work? Sure, there are those who require as much study and inspire as much pondering, but Shakespeare persists as a kind of unique Gordian knot.

Last summer, I completed my course work on a Master of Letters degree in Early Modern Drama and sat for an exam to prove my five summers of study had been well spent. For three hours, on a late July afternoon, I pounded away at a keyboard and tried to produce a paper that drew on my years of research in a cohesive and sensitive manner. When it was over, I felt a little sick about the whole thing. Had I really been prepared? Had I made any sense? Had I adequately expressed my thoughts? Were my thoughts even reasonable? I couldn’t be sure.

Four days later, I sat down with my professors to defend my paper. I knew I was in trouble right away. The questions were too pointed, too exacting, my teachers too hard to read for my comfort. I battled back, floundered, soldiered on, and began to surprise myself with a growing confidence.  And then I took a hit to head. My dear and beloved tutor, Emma Smith, said, “I’ve never heard anyone compare Richard II to Macbeth that way, by which I mean, I think it must be wrong.” Gunh!

Fortunately, miraculously, in fact, I passed. I got my degree and graduated in fine fashion. But I was left with a feeling of hollowness. I had spent five summers at Oxford University sitting at the feet of scholars and in the stacks of great libraries, and I felt like I had learned nothing. I had studied, and studied hard, but I was still so far outside, so far from clear and confident in my subject. I had seen the plays, read the plays, examined the plays, and still…nothing. How could that be?

And then I realized I was not alone. Shakespearean scholars do not continue to write and rewrite the same book; they keep writing new ones because there are always new questions to ask and answer, new mysteries to discover and solve, new problems to write down and sort out.

Shakespeare is exhausting because nothing about him stands still for long, no facet of his work is straight and clear no matter how brightly it gleams. We strive and search, and still he eludes us. And so, I keep searching because I want to know.

Luckily, I do learn a bit more with each search, and the reading and the viewing are more satisfying (or more frustrating–Declan Donnellan, I’m talking to you!) depending on what I see, but that’s what keeps me coming back for more, year after year.

By the way, checkout today for more blog posts about the man we all love (despite ourselves).


One Comment Leave one →
  1. i love shakespear too. belated or advance happy birthday :D

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