I fell in love with Shakespeare’s work watching presentations of his plays on TV as a teenager. In 1980, Derek Jacobi played Hamlet and my family taped his performance with our new VCR. I watched that tape over and over, mesmerized by Hamlet’s struggle with doubt, by the inevitable destruction of the prince and those around him, and by the brilliance of the language.
Since then, I’ve seen many of Shakespeare’s plays, either live or recorded, and read some as well. I’ve added titles to my list of favorites — The Tempest, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet — and been entranced repeatedly by his work.
In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday 450 years ago today, here are just five of the many gifts his writing has given me.
1) “To thine own self be true”: Although pompous Polonius’s advice to his son is usually played for laughs, when he reaches this line, you realize that he is not entirely a fool. These are words to remember and to live by, that cut to the root of true integrity, for if you follow them “thou canst not then be false to any man”. (Hamlet, Act I, Sc. iii)
2) Hamlet: Both the character and the play. It’s still my favorite after all these years. Hamlet is an intelligent man full of passion but hamstrung by doubt. I also constantly doubt myself, so I am fascinated with his story. Like many of Shakespeare’s characters, he is easy to identify with as a person, which is what makes his downfall so tragic.
3) “A Muse of fire”: When I am caught up in obsessive creation, I know what is happening to me. I am being driven by a muse of fire, a demanding taskmaster who requires frantic creation until my goal is achieved. Shakespeare gives me the perfect words to describe how I burn with inspiration. (Henry V, prologue)
4) Intense dream worlds: I am struck by the fantastical beauty in Midsummer-Night’s Dream, the lovers’ passion in Romeo and Juliet, and the solemn heroism in Henry V. The intensity of Shakespeare’s visions wake me up, make me feel — joy, sorrow, love, hate — so strongly that I come away both dazed and fully alive.
5) “Words, words, words”: Much as his characters and stories have infiltrated our culture, what stays with me are his words. The archaic language that can be challenging to comprehend is also full of glorious poetry, creative word use, burning images, apt comparisons, and humorous observations. To listen to lines by Shakespeare is to sit down to a sumptuous feast where every bite is full of complex, satisfying flavors. My appetite for it never fades. (Hamlet, Act II, Sc. ii)