Why Is Shakespeare Great?

Imagine that you have entered, a little late, the classroom of a crotchety, old, dinosaur professor at a major university. You find a seat in the back and look around.

The professor is lecturing from behind a podium using lecture notes and does not look up when you enter. Only half the seats are taken. He wears a worn gray tweed jacket, faded blue shirt, and a darker blue, thin tie. His mottled gray-white hair is splayed out in a classic Einstein.

The students look like first-year university students. Bored, fidgety, a couple actually sleeping. One handsome young woman with short black hair, milk chocolate skin, wearing a black dress and black lipstick, has her hand raised, arm waving slightly, supporting it with her other hand. She looks like she has been waiting awhile.

“…presents the reader with many challenges, not the least of which is Elizabethan diction and Shakespeare’s poetic compression. But every reader willing to take the time will discover a bounty of humanistic treasures.” The professor stops and looks at her over his silver reading glasses. “Yes?” One word conveys his lack of good cheer. Questions are not encouraged.

“I’m sorry, professor, but I just don’t get it,” she says, exuding the sweet arrogance and mimicry of intellectual youth. “Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male eurocentric patriarchy, one that’s hundreds of years old, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me?”

As she speaks, the professor’s eyes glaze and his head lowers slowly until he is staring down at his podium. He gives every appearance of being an old man in constant mental and physical pain. Several students murmur at least partial agreement. The professor stands silent for almost a full minute before turning to the blackboard. He picks up the chalk with a trembling hand and writes two words on the board—chair and stool. He turns and stares at her. He speaks softly.

“Would you say, Miss…..”

“Ms. Powers.”

“Would you say, Ms. Powers, that the words chair and stool distinguish two similar things?”

“Uh, I think…yes, of course.”

“And do you think, Ms. Powers, that these represent a distinction worth preserving? For example, if I were to ask you to bring me a chair and you brought me a stool, would we have reason to believe there existed between us some failure of communication?”

“Yes,” she said confidently.

“What would be the nature of the failure?”

“Uhh…a chair normally has a back for support while a stool does not.”

“Good. So you concede, Ms. Powers, that vocabulary helps us more clearly distinguish the specific differences between like things?”

“Yes.”

“Is it a good thing to distinguish more clearly the specific differences between like things?”

“I suppose.”

“And that it would be better to possess a mind with a larger vocabulary than a mind with a smaller one?” Although he still speaks softly, the air begins to thicken.

“But just because someone has a better vocabulary doesn’t mean that they are a better person.” She speaks less confidently now.

“Ms. Powers,” he said a little bit louder. “If we are going to understand each other, it is best that you respond to what I actually say rather than what you think I am saying. I did not say anything about a better vocabulary or anything to do with being a better person. I asked if you thought it better to possess a mind with a larger vocabulary rather than a mind with a smaller vocabulary. Especially since you have already conceded that it is a good thing to more clearly distinguish the specific differences between like things. Or do you see another way of distinguishing specific differences in ways other than a versatile and specific vocabulary?”

“No.”

“Ms. Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and gardening. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

“Uh….” She is beginning to sense the trap being set for her. She tries to avoid it. “Yes, a little. We would both see the same thing, but I would probably be more knowledgeable about it if you asked me questions.”

“No, Ms. Powers,” he says preparing to close the trap. His face is reddening. His voice gets louder. “I’m afraid you are entirely mistaken. We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. It’s mere appearance. But you, Ms. Powers…You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers—the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies—you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle. By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden. You could predict its course and suggest actions to alter that course. No, Ms. Powers, you and I would not see the same garden at all. Because a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you with a greater awareness, and the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing metaphors and similes, perhaps even analogies, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

He pauses and surveys the room. Here is the theater and the time is now for his signature solo performance that builds in power. Ms. Powers has lost the desire to respond.

“Do you know the number of distinct words in the average person’s vocabulary, Ms. Powers? About three thousand words, assuming that all forms of a word—like run, ran, running—counted as one. Three thousand words, enough to get an average person through the day, and through their lifetime. Do you know how many distinct words are in the King James Version of the Bible? Around four thousand three hundred, not counting names. That means that all of the history and philosophy and meaning, all of the variety of ideas expressed in the Bible, can be transmitted in a vocabulary of forty-three hundred words. Enough to challenge the average reader. Soon we will get to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. John Milton commanded an incredible vocabulary. He mastered several languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and French. He wrote not only epic poetry but many rigorous political tracts. Some of his sentences are so powerful and complex in their vocabulary, grammar, and meaning that they contain several dozen clauses. John Milton was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”

He pauses, and looks out through slitted eyes.

“But Shakespeare,” he says and chuckles. “Shakespeare exists in his own genus. When a rhetorician reads Shakespeare, she,” he glares the sarcastic concession at Ms. Powers, “points out that Shakespeare was a master rhetorician, who knew not only all the technical terms, ancient and modern, but was a master practitioner who applied that knowledge throughout his poems and plays, in ways that have stood as examples for generations to follow. When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden. When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

He pauses, taking a breath, and when he begins again, the tempo and volume increases.

“But that’s not all. In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms, young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states of which you have yet to take conscious stock. His capacious mind wandered everywhere, and in almost every way he has arrived there before you have, articulating it with a mastery that leaves later writers sick with wondering what territory of the human heart, human intellect, and human action is left to explore. He seems to have experienced the full range and depth of common human experience and encapsulated that experience more beautifully than any other. Shakespeare, Ms. Powers, displays a vocabulary of over twenty-two thousand words, almost three times Milton’s vocabulary, and you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”

She sits frozen, unable to respond to the blast that has everyone stunned. In the spacious silence, the professor begins speaking softly again, with a sardonic smile.

“May I suggest to you, Ms. Powers, that you have a choice. You can continue to dwell on the surface of life, holding up external appearances as if they were everything, parroting the rhymes and rhythms of a fast-food consciousness, flaccid and without true self-animation, smug in the knowledge that you have comfortably given yourself over to a group numbness, submitting to mere external authority—or maybe, just maybe, with personal effort, a healthy skepticism, and a sense of individual exploration, you may become your own authority, by expanding your mind in a constant effort to comprehend Shakespeare’s. May I suggest that until you are well along into that journey, your mind and emotions will remain susceptible to every sophistic thought that knocks on your door, seeking to enslave you with its mere appearance of originality. It’s time, Ms. Powers, that you begin feeding on Shakespeare rather than on that damned fast food.”

He pauses.

“That’s all for today.”

************

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