When I am lucky, I get to teach Shakespeare to high school students during the day to feed my stomach, and write stories with his ghost hovering over my shoulder at night to feed my soul. When I teach, I research the assigned texts far more deeply than I need to for high school freshmen. In the process of getting ready to teach Romeo & Juliet, I read that Shakespeare had written Paris’ lines in the then “old-fashioned” Petrarchan verse, and the lines spoken by Romeo and Juliet to each other using the meter and rhyme scheme of what we now call a Shakespearean Sonnet.
This is pretty esoteric stuff. The groundlings and many others at The Globe would not know the rules of Petrarchan verse, even if they sensed the difference in how Paris spoke to Juliet, and how Romeo talked with her. However, I’m sure the likes of Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, or Thomas Dekker would have known what Shakespeare was up to, and probably nodded in admiration, or perhaps shook their heads in jealousy. And yet Romeo & Juliet is a crowd-pleaser 400 years later: In my darkened classroom, when – in Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic version – Romeo lifted the vial of poison to his lips, one of my students yelled out, “Don’t drink it! She’s alive!” But Romeo didn’t hear my student, and the classroom gasped as he drank it down and Juliet awakened. Now, I had slowly and carefully gone over the prologue with these same students. Some had even seen the movie before. On an intellectual level, my students knew what was coming, but Shakespeare swept them along in the story as the characters were swept along, and at that moment my students wanted to stop this impending tragedy from happening when the players themselves were completely oblivious to it. Romeo & Juliet was an old story even in Shakespeare’s day. But, the way he put the words words together and constructed his version made something new, something we still use as the basis for big-budget movies.
How can one not be awed by that power, that mastery of words? And to make it worse he was popular in his own lifetime and made lots of money. He was not a starving artist scorned and ignored by his contemporaries, dying alone and penniless, only to be discovered after his death. No, no. He was a genius, and was recognized and paid handsomely for it! As someone who would love to feed his stomach and not just his soul, with his writing, it would be easy to shake my fist and curse Shakespeare in a jealous rage. Or to be passive-aggressive and dismiss him as just another stuffy and irrelevant writer from the past. However, his success fills me with admiration. His career is the best argument that art and commerce can (should?) be intertwined. One can (should?) create stories that ask deeply human questions, and simultaneously keep the audience on the edge of their seats. One can (should?) play with language, writing heady, lyrical prose about base jealousy, unrestrained greed, and raging-teenage hormones. He proved these things possible by doing them – more than once.
Taking this (some would say idolatrous) view inspires me. While I doubt anyone will be reading my stories 400 years from now, my goal is always to write stories that are well written, if not lyrical, and at the same time cause the groundlings to cheer the hero and hiss at the villain. After all, if this standard was good enough for Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.
Happy Birthday, Will.
For more blogs dedicated to William Shakespeare on his birthday visit: Happy Birthday Shakespeare