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Shakespeareworms – or the bits of the bard that stick in the brain

BottomFragments of Shakespeare are to be found in forgotten corners of almost everybody’s brains. Even people who don’t like Shakespeare or think they couldn’t quote any of his lines probably have ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ or ‘To be or not to be?’ hidden away behind dust covered memories of school day romances or cobwebbed adolescent existential crises (the latter possibly precipitated by the former).

Apart from the fact they’re both interrogatives, the two quotes share several things in common. For one thing, the language of each is relatively simple, both express profound thoughts condensed into a few words and both deal with essential elements of the human condition: love and death. Hamlet’s phrase is so compacted it could be reduced to text speak as ‘2B or not 2B’ and sounds like a metaphysical equation. Yet while most would struggle to understand ‘E=MC2’ almost anyone might grasp what the prince was on about. Relatively few people can have gone through life without having wondered at least once; a. what is the point of being alive? b. what happens when you’re dead?  and c. what the bloody hell is going on?

Of the quotations, it’s more surprising that Juliet’s should be so widely remembered since two of the four words are archaic and ‘Wherefore’ is frequently understood as meaning ‘Where are you?’ rather than ‘Why are you called by the name you are?’ In brief, her words are generally understood to mean ‘Where are you Romeo?’ but this doesn’t matter. What people respond to is the anguish behind what she says. If the majority of us have occasionally wondered if being alive is such a great deal, most will also have been infatuated at one time or another and found the experience as much full of despair as exhilaration. Love is a bumpy ride.

That the words are phrased as questions is perhaps key to their punch. Had Hamlet and Juliet simply stated how they were feeling, along the lines of ‘I don’t know whether to kill myself or not’ or ‘I’m so upset Romeo is a Montague’ they might have elicited sympathy, but not drawn us into their psychic drama. For while statements close the issue (‘This is how I’m feeling at the moment’) posing the thoughts as questions universalize them. ‘Should I kill myself?’ or ‘Why is he a Montague?’ invite a response.  As members of the audience, we are asked to consider the problems and in contemplating them we automatically draw on our own lives. We too have known the tough moments.

Not all the bits of Shakespeare that stick are especially profound or even beautiful. One line that rattles round my head is Titania’s exclamation when she discovers she has spent the night with Bottom, ‘O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!’ It is the aghast tone of anyone who ever got drunk at the office party and woken up next morning with the odd looking one from Accounts.

Titania’s clipped expression of horror is in wonderful contrast to Bottom’s idiotic remembrance, ‘I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was… The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was…’ He is the frog who marries the princess, the loser who wins the lottery. He is all of us who ever got lucky, if only for a midsummer’s night.

Since almost everything has been given a name by somebody who probably didn’t have enough to do, ‘earworms’ is the term denominating the snatches of music that get stuck in one’s brain and won’t dislodge for days on end. They irritate with repetition but typically were irritating to begin with; for some reason one tends not to download anything actually enjoyable. And earworms tend to be short, one or two bars of chorus rather than a whole song.

Shakespeareworms (apologies, I’ve just discovered I don’t have enough to do) are different in that the pieces seem not to be tiresome, but similar in their brevity. They are more likely to be Titania’s exclamation than Bottom’s rapture.

Working on Macbeth, I find the line that insinuates itself is not a part of his troubled soliloquizings but Lady Macbeth’s ‘When all’s done/You look but on a stool.’ Unremarkable in its way, it yet shows Shakespeare’s seemingly effortless ability to nail personality. Hers is the exasperated voice of all strong women married to feckless men who have just lost the week’s rent on a horse that came in last at Kempton Park or who slept with the odd looking one from Accounts at the office party or who failed in any one of a million other ways.

Why that line chose to stick will remain confidential between me and my psychotherapist. But it’s not the one that is most insistent. That is Lear’s cry on the heath, ‘O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this.’ It is his appalled realisation that throughout his long reign he had neglected the ‘poor naked wretches’ with ‘houseless heads and unfed sides.’

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the utterance is his use of the first person pronoun. For while in Act 1 Lear employs the royal ‘we’, by the time he finds himself in the storm with Kent and the Fool he has been stripped of the comfortingly impersonal plural form along with all his other kingly appurtenances. He knows that it is not ‘we’ as an expression of monarchical office or the embodiment of a social order that is responsible for the injustice, but ‘I’. He has failed the neediest of his subjects. The blame cannot be shuffled off. H

ad Lear retained ‘we’ it might in some senses have implicated everyone in the play as well as those watching it. We as an audience would have been complicit in his guilt; but by definition that guiltiness would have been diffused, shared with everyone else. ‘I’ challenges us to examine our personal responsibility for the injustices around us. And every one of us is at fault.

Oxfam recently announced statistics to show that the share of the world’s wealth owned by the richest 1% has increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the poorest 80% own just 5.5%. On current trends it is claimed that the richest 1% will own more than 50% of the planet’s wealth by 2016.

I have no idea how these figures are calculated, but it is obvious there are huge structural imbalances. And it is equally obvious that we can’t take refuge in the fact that we are not part of the super-rich club.  Even if we don’t own yachts or private jets, pretty much everyone in the West is a pampered aristocrat compared to those in most of Africa or Asia. Our privilege is at their cost.

We are aware that our cheap clothes were produced by sweated labour in Bangladesh, that our smart new trainers were made by children in the Philippines and that our demand for oil has led to the devastation of the Ogoniland coast. If we watch the News at all, we must also be aware that millions of refugees are streaming from Syria into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon; that around the world tens of millions of slum dwellers live in unimaginable squalor near to gated communities of the elite and that homeless people sleep rough in all our major cities. Yet what do we do about it?

More to the point, what do I do about it? How much care have I taken? The answer is not much.  With my wife I have a monthly standing order payment to Oxfam, contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee more often than not, sometimes buy The Big Issue and occasionally give money to down and outs. I once also protested outside a Shell filling station after the hanging of Ogoni environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995. In other words, very little. Enough to make me feel I’ve helped out, but not sufficient to cause inconvenience. Along with almost everybody else, I have taken too little care.

Yet what’s to be done? Mounting the barricades and throwing cobble stones at policemen has been tried and appears not to work. Voting at elections seems almost as pointless as joining a political party. And Shakespeare doesn’t offer any clues. Being a genius didn’t give him all the answers and in everyday life he was almost certainly the sort of man to hide his silver spoons in the thatch and agree with whoever knocked on his door in turbulent times.

In that respect he was like pretty much all the rest of us. If it’s possible to draw conclusions about him from his work, then it would seem he favoured love over hate and order over anarchy. Again, pretty much like most of us.

He doesn’t preach, but shows us ourselves through Hamlet’s doubt, Juliet’s love, Bottom’s rapture, Lear’s madness and more. His plays present a series of problems to which he provides solutions, some tragic, others comic. What we should do, he leaves up to us.


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