“There was a star danced, and under that was I born. ” – William Shakespeare
by Kieron Barry
Editor’s note: Mr. Barry was originally asked to appear as a guest for our “What Are People Reading” post. As might be expected from a professional writer, his response entertained us so much we decided it deserved to stand on its own!
This year I’m attempting to read all of Shakespeare’s plays in sequence. This is partly because I feel I should know the works better than I do, and partly to try and get some understanding of how he developed as a writer and a dramatist over his career.
It’s a little odd to think of Shakespeare developing. Looking for signs of him getting the hang of writing is like trying to understand how the parts of creation God made on the fourth day (the firmament of the heavens, for example) are better than the parts he made on the third day (grass and fruit trees, say).
Given Shakespeare’s reputation and achievements it’s actually rather difficult to think of him as a human being at all; he seems more akin to a force of nature. This is certainly how it feels to me, a man with the same profession as his and born in the same town. We instinctively know this is not the same as Anthony Hopkins coming from the same town as Richard Burton, however much Hopkins idolised Burton. Any comparison between me and Shakespeare beyond those two simple, coinciding facts would clearly be laughable. It would be like someone who happened to be born in Nevada seeing the Grand Canyon and saying, ‘Yeah; that could be me some day.’
Even ignoring his contribution to the theatre, it’s impossible simply to speak English without standing in the shadow of the Bard. His contribution is, in the strictest sense, unbelievable. On an average day, The New York Times will – proper nouns aside – express itself with just 600 different words. This is a miserable trickle of a canal compared to the Atlantic width of Shakespeare’s 17,000-word vocabulary (some ten percent of which he invented himself, including such everyday staples as ‘excitement’, ‘bubble’ and ‘gossip’). No other artist – not Michaelangelo, not Mozart – has left such an imprint not only on their chosen artform but on the day-to-day fabric of the world around them.
Yet as anyone who has tried eating raw kale knows, just because something is incredibly good for you doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy it. Frankly sometimes my project feels like a bit of a chore. Love’s Labour’s Lost in particular I got pretty much zero from; I simply didn’t understand any of the references and found the endless, self-conscious pomposity of it insufferable, as one elaborate metaphor after another turned in on itself.
The sole thought that kept me joylessly munching my way through it, cow-like, was that you never quite know when a character is going to say something casually amazing or arresting (such as Costard delightfully describing Moth as a ‘pigeon-egg of discretion’, or saying of a pregnancy ‘the child brags in her belly’).
There’s no question one can see the writer developing. He starts with the broadest of comic styles in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, yet almost immediately embarks on a dizzyingly ambitious trilogy of historical plays. Such bravura stylistic diversity is akin to Woody Allen, after Take The Money And Run, making not Bananas but the Godfather films. From that point on it’s pretty much a world-class masterpiece every six months.
I was fortunate that my mother loved Shakespeare, particularly the witches in Macbeth. This play is a good one to start with; since you expect the witches to be weird you don’t notice for a while that the language is a bit odd, and before you know where you are you’re simply wondering what happens next; the perfect state for any reader or audience member.
In my current quest I’ve got as far as Much Ado About Nothing, about halfway through the canon. Most of the heavyweights are still ahead of me; Lear, The Tempest and my most beloved Hamlet – for me one of the very few plays that stands up in its own right today as a gripping thriller with all the sinewy heft and urgency of something newly minted for our own times.
Much Ado is a well-oiled machine, a perfectly structured and surprisingly affecting comedy. By this point Shakespeare is wholly relaxed in his medium, and the bold journey through the plot feels effortless. The conventions of the form; the dupes and decoys, the concealments and misunderstandings, are as established and predictable as those of today’s romantic comedies. We know these two people belong together, but of course they themselves are the last to suspect it and neither they nor we can quite see how it’s going to happen.
Hardly novel, yet Shakespeare here demonstrates such a lightness of touch that readers find their sense of wonder preserved. Despite its lack of surprises, the form feels fresh.
His characters are alive and immediate, and in particular Beatrice is one of the best female characters in theatre.
The beauty and purity of Shakespeare’s mind – the essential decency, if you like – can be glimpsed in lines such as Benedick’s when despairing of how swoony Claudio has become; ‘I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armour.’ This is a glorious throwaway observation, intended to be amusing and yet also rather touching in its portrayal of an earnest, honest young man. But above all it is vivid and economical. Even Homer would surely struggle to convey the type of man Claudio is in so few words.
Shakespeare’s unique skill seems to be his ability to swoop from a beautifully-observed miniature to a comment on the human macrocosm. Claudio is asked when he plans to wed. ‘Tomorrow, my lord,’ comes the response – or at least that’s where most other writers would have left it. Shakespeare has him continue: ‘Tomorrow, my lord. Time goes on crutches till Love have all his rites.’ Yet the dialogue continues as if this searing image had not been mentioned.
Similarly, when speaking of her disdain for romance Beatrice declares ‘Would it not grieve a woman to be over-mastered with a piece of valiant dust?’ Valiant dust? That’s you and me, gentle reader! Try getting on with your evening after that as if nothing had happened.
And that’s the key to Shakespeare’s majesty; his plays are the best instruments we have to unpick the tangle of our own ailing lives. Dressed in the gaudy, bawdy rags of entertainment, his work smuggles into our culture a profound and complete commentary of the frailty of humanity’s estate. Our condition may be inherently tragic, but there is still comfort in having it expressed so perfectly.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Kieron Barry is the recipient of three Peggy Ramsay Foundation awards and a Norman Mailer Fellowship. He was also nominated for a London Evening Standard Theatre Award for his play Stockwell, which enjoyed two sell-out runs in London and was described by The Times in its five-star review as ‘more gripping than anything else to be seen in the London theatre.’ His other plays include Mahler & Rachmaninov, Cumquats – developed with the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain – and The Kilkenny Toe-Tingler.October 2013