Shakespeare from stage to pageScholars think Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died on that day in 1616. During three decades of adulthood he produced some of the most perceptive and beautifully expressed observations about the human condition that the world has ever known. No wonder the standard joke about the plays is that they're just a bunch of quotations strung together. We quote him constantly because he said almost everything better than anyone else.
This haunting language explains Shakespeare's status as an icon of world culture. Who better to explore it anew than lifelong scholar and fan Frank Kermode? He has written about everything from the nature of narrative to romantic imagery, and now he has created an important and charming book, Shakespeare's Language (Farrar, Straus ∧ Giroux, $25, 0374226369). What a concept: a scholarly book so straightforward it requires no pretentious subtitle.
Kermode himself has no need to hide behind arcane platitudes. He is to the sandlot league lit-crit crowd as Shakespeare is to the open-mike poet at the local coffee shop. There are two kinds of literary critics: the small-time talentless nobodies who live off their hosts like parasites, and the world-class celebrators who clarify for us the reasons why we love and need a certain artist. Kermode is prominent in the latter camp.
Shakespeare's Language is divided into two parts. The first presents those plays prior to Julius Caesar and Hamlet, which launched the playwright's more profound and complex works and were also the first to be performed at the Globe Theatre. Kermode perceives this time, around 1600, as the beginning of Shakespeare's true flowering as a great dramatic poet. One point Kermode makes is that Shakespeare was just as much a challenge to his own contemporaries as he is to us. Granted, we have the extra barrier of first deciphering the archaisms and faded topicalities, which further distance him from us, but once we understand his lexicon, we still must face his psychological and dramatic depth. So did his fellow Elizabethans. Frank Kermode explains why we still bother.
Although Shakespeare is a poet whose language can be read on the page, he did write it to be spoken on the stage. Not surprisingly, his work has adapted well to the latest evolutionary mutation movies. Douglas C. Bode, professor of film at Syracuse University, wittily traces the history of the Bard on celluloid in Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love.
Shakespeare in Love is a good place for Brode to end his survey. Its popularity indicates just how well modern movie audiences, almost four centuries after Shakespeare's death, still respond to his words and themes. Brode describes it as a literate crowd pleaser. Brode doesn't simply annotate a chronological list of movies about Shakespeare. Instead he looks at the treatment of each play during the movie-drenched 20th century. Romeo and Juliet, for example, ranges from George Cukor's cautiously interpretive 1936 version, through Franco Zeffirelli's informal and shamelessly Flower Child revisioning in 1968, to Baz Luhrmann's 1995 frenetic music-video take. What survives every quirky directorial self-indulgence is Shakespeare's language and characters.
Playwrights know that, unlike novelists and poets, the success of their visions will be subject to the differing interpretations of directors and actors. The authors' words are their own, but each generation finds its own voice in which to speak them. Every work of art, like every artist, is a product of its time, and reflects the values and assumptions of its time. George Cukor could not possibly have envisioned Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet. For that matter, neither could Shakespeare.
Both Kermode and Bode address different ways of reading Shakespeare as dramatic poet and, well, as screenwriter. Shakespeare would, more than likely, be astonished by the attention still bestowed upon him. But he would be pleased to see that it is still about the art an art that, so far, remains timeless.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).