Scribbled on a wall near the production site of the Bard on the Beach is the statement “Shakespeare IS God.” The present tense is always reassuring, especially for those of us who agree with Harold Bloom’s statement that “if any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare.”
But the origins of “Bardolatry” are not modern. It was in 1769 that the actor David Garrick held a three-day jubilee for the Stratford native, where he proclaimed him “the god of our idolatry,” and it was a century earlier in 1623, when Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, wrote the following about his friend: “Thou art a monument, without a tombe, And art alive still, while thy booke doth live.’’
I don’t mean to offend with such blasphemous anecdotes, but only to point to one of the more vile cultural norms of today: the relegation of Shakespeare to the confines of the classroom. Doing so has led most students reading him to the conclusion that Shakespeare is an academic exercise best kept as such, and reaffirms the echoes of students past: that Shakespeare is somehow too distant or difficult for them to enjoy and appreciate.
Of all the saddening opinions which have coagulated about Shakespeare, that last one seems the most unfortunate.
Shakespeare sits at the head of the Western literary canon because his works mirror life better than anything else. If there is any writer more apt to cure those stuck in the gloom of educational anxiety, it would be Shakespeare. The poetry of his works, what C. S. Lewis calls “the highest type of lyric,” is never as complex as people make it, and the merest attempt to comprehend it will usually lead to the clear manifestation of Shakespeare’s genius.
Counteracting such notions is always difficult, but one can hope that productions such as Bard on the Beach can help. One of the show’s producers told me that if the yearly shows can do anything, it is to remind or show people that Shakespeare is actually quite entertaining. After all, Shakespeare’s works were meant to amuse a stadium of individuals, most of whom were standing, for hours at a time.
If Bard on the Beach can help prove this, then perhaps it can also entice those flirting with the prospect of reading Shakespeare to dive in.
The three plays to be performed this year are some of his best. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s first true work of genius, punctuates C. S. Lewis’ recognition of the sweet thunder of Shakespeare’s lyricism, and his ability to weave a story through the creation of the most interesting of characters.
The Tempest, like so many of Shakespeare’s great plays, has divided many over the interpretation of its characters, giving more credence to the notion that, with Shakespeare, one can never exhaust all interpretative possibilities about his plays.
The character of Iachimo in Cymbeline, is a wonderful hint at the more famous characters of Shakespeare’s high tragedies, and acts as a positive vestigial of the author at his best.
All critics agree about the genius of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but hesitate when it comes to the latter two. Regardless of where the last two plays hover in a ranking of the Shakespearean canon, I suspect that they will prove entertaining and linguistically pleasing, and hint at the possible joys one can get from Shakespeare.