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Culture & Religion

Why Shakespeare and I Are Not Soul Mates

On the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (and possibly his birthday too), Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley wrote this personal reflection for Big Think.

When I was a child, I felt a lot closer to Shakespeare than I do as an adult. That I would feel at all close to Shakespeare is clearly absurd, and yet the experience of poring over the texts of plays, understanding very little of what I was reading, and being compelled to go on, was, paradoxically, an activity of great intimacy. I went to a private secondary school; our English curriculum was organized systematically–we read a Shakespeare play every year from seventh through twelfth grade, beginning with “Twelfth Night” and ending with “King Lear.” We discussed the plays for about two weeks, and we read sections of the plays aloud. They seeped in to my brain rather like other barely understood sets of words (think “round John virgin” as opposed to “Round yon virgin”). Since being misunderstood was something adults specialized in, our job as children was to decipher the code.

The effort demanded concentration, and concentration resulted in contemplation–I pondered the bits of “Hamlet,”  “A Midsummer NIght’s Dream,” and the other plays we read over and over. When I finally did see a performance, the summer after twelfth grade (Sam Waterston in “Hamlet” at the Washington Monument), the play seemed to coalesce right before my eyes, to emerge from my inner life and form itself on the stage. It belonged to me, I felt, more than it did to the audience members around me who were yawning, straining to hear, staring at their programs .

In college, of course, we read more Shakespeare, and the play I loved most was “Measure for Measure.” The one I loved least was “King Lear.” I read “King Lear” five times in the course of high school, college, and graduate school, and I never reconciled myself to what my friend William Shakespeare seemed to wish to teach me. Whereas in “Measure for Measure,” fairness won out, and the hypocritical tyrant was revealed and punished, in “King Lear,” tyranny went unexplored. In fact, tyranny seemed to be embraced, and for no reason that I could discern. Was I supposed to pity Lear because he was a father? Because he was the king? Because he was foolish and/or senile? In “Measure for Measure,” the female characters were appealing in their intelligence; I didn’t understand the female characters in “King Lear” at all.

So I set about correcting my friend William Shakespeare–something no sane adult would attempt. I gave the royal family a background and a milieu. I gave the daughters a rationale for their apparently cruel behavior. I gave Goneril a voice and Regan a point of view. I was sure that if I were detailed enough, my friend William Shakespeare would see the daughters as I did. By the time I was finished with A Thousand Acres, I felt that in some ways, Shakespeare and I were closer than ever. I knew that, like me, he had reworked existing material, and found the material to be more intractable than he’d expected it to be. I knew he had wrestled with the logic of the action and the motivation of the characters. I knew that there were places in the play where he had done the best he could to patch it all together. In short, I experienced my friend William Shakespeare as a fellow toiler in the literary muck. But as I pondered those points in “King Lear” where motivation became action and action resulted in reflection, I also learned that William Shakespeare and I were not soul mates, that I was a 20th century female and he was a 16th century male. He expected the world to be a crueler place than I did; he took for granted Lear’s claims as a king and as a man; his poetry voiced feelings and perceptions that were specific to his time and place. I learned that I could not, in fact, think like Shakespeare and that he did not, in fact, foresee our world. In short, when I followed Shakespeare into the Lear material, I discovered that he was human. For a writer, that is the most inspiring lesson of all.


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