What made Shakespeare a genius? | Daily News

What made Shakespeare a genius?

This country has many great heroes and heroines. Take your pick, from Alfred the Great, who beat off the invading Danish hordes, to Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing; from Queen Elizabeth I, our greatest national leader when this country was emerging as a proud nation state, to Lord Nelson whose naval brilliance ensured the eventual defeat of Napoleon.

What is Shakespeare when compared with these practical heroes and heroines? What did the genius who died 400 years ago today do except write plays?

Well, he was incomparably the greatest poet in the English language. And he brought to life a cast of unforgettable characters — from melancholy Prince Hamlet to highly comic Bottom the Weaver in Midsummer Night’s Dream; from Romeo and Juliet’s headstrong but doomed heroine to murderous Macbeth.

He also defined all that is best about Britain, having lived at a time of quite amazing national revival. ‘This happy breed of men, this little world,’ he wrote of our island. ‘This precious stone set in the silver sea…This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’

William Shakespeare defined all that is best about Britain, having lived at a time of quite amazing national revival. ‘This happy breed of men, this little world,’ he wrote of our island

Whoever you choose as your favourite hero, mine will always be William Shakespeare.

More than any other writer, he had the capacity to think himself into the minds of other human beings, and to summarise the great range of our emotions in words that are simple and supremely eloquent.

It is why his plays remain electrifying to this very day, and why they are played over and over again, to audiences all over the world.

Genius

No other individual contributed more words to the English language. ‘Critical’, ‘advertising’, ‘eyeball’, ‘submerge’, ‘lonely’, ‘obscene’ are but a handful of the 1,700 or so said to have been brought into general use by Shakespeare.

No one invented more commonly spoken phrases: ‘a sorry sight’; ‘all of a sudden’; ‘and thereby hangs a tale’; ‘as dead as a doornail’; ‘as pure as the driven snow’; ‘at one fell swoop’ — these are just a fraction of the ones beginning with the letter ‘a’.

Choose another letter — ‘s’ for example — and you can find ‘salad days’; ‘sea change’; ‘send him packing’; ‘set your teeth on edge’; and ‘stiffen the sinews’, among a litany of other examples.

His characters, complex and riddled with human imperfections, are as universal as the problems they face in his dramas.

The 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt observed that Shakespeare’s genius ‘shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar’.

He dramatised all his creations’ different concerns — their ‘passions, follies, vices, virtues, actions, motives’ — in a way that everyone still understands and empathises with today.

Desdemona, innocently in love with her homicidally jealous husband Othello. Henry V, a soldier among soldiers talking to his men on the night before battle. Macbeth the psychopath killer. A broken King Lear howling in despair during a storm.

Word power

No one invented more commonly spoken phrases: ‘a sorry sight’; ‘all of a sudden’; ‘and thereby hangs a tale’; ‘as dead as a doornail’; ‘as pure as the driven snow’; ‘at one fell swoop’ — these are just a fraction of the ones beginning with the letter ‘a’

They are all so vividly real that we know them almost as well as we know our own families.

In fact, so visceral, so harrowing is Lear’s desolation that some used to consider the play beyond the pale.

‘To see Lear acted — to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting,’ wrote the Regency critic Charles Lamb.

But it was England, and our nation’s prodigious reinvention of itself during Shakespeare’s own lifetime, that gave him his first great themes. When he was 24 years old, in 1588, England was threatened with invasion by the Spanish Armada, which aimed to sail up the Channel, smash the Royal Navy, and then bring an army of 30,000 across from Dunkirk.

Philip II of Spain was poised to take over England, kill her Queen and force her subjects back into the Roman Catholic Church — just as we had established ourselves as an Anglican country.

Francis Drake and the other naval officers who led the resistance to this enormous enterprise were a terrifying lot. They won. The weather was on their side, and any Spanish ships they failed to sink were blown around our coast, some wrecked off Scotland, others off Ireland. No wonder Queen Elizabeth had a medal struck with the words: ‘God blew with his winds and they were scattered.’ It really looked as if England had the wind in its sails.

Philip II of Spain was poised to take over England, kill her Queen and force her subjects back into the Roman Catholic Church — just as we had established ourselves as an Anglican country. Francis Drake (pictured) and the other naval officers who led the resistance to this enormous enterprise were a terrifying lot. They won and no wonder Prince Charles thought it apposite to read a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII about the first Elizabeth as a birthday tribute to his mother this week: ‘She shall be, to the happiness of England, An aged princess; many days shall see her, And yet no day without a deed to crown it.’

Proud certainty

It was a glorious time for England and from the proud certainty of that Elizabethan age, Shakespeare looked back at the previous century when the country had been torn to bits by civil wars — the so-called Wars of the Roses.

Using contemporary chronicles of those wars, he turned them into the great drama of his early plays.

Richard II, dithering, effete and pathetic. The repellent but impressive figure of Henry Bolinbroke, who overthrew Richard and became Henry IV. His son, wasting his life away in the taverns of London’s Eastcheap with the most fascinating, dissolute comic character ever invented — the fat, vain and tragic knight John Falstaff.

And then, that same son, Prince Hal, growing into Henry V who beat the French at Agincourt.

English history, with all the vivid personal dramas attached to it, came alive before the Elizabethans’ very eyes. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, into an adventurous country which was in every sense renewing itself —renewing its trade, its industry, and its expansion overseas.

He was a grammar school boy who learnt Latin and possibly Greek, and was given a solid grounding in the great classical works of Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Cicero and Seneca. All the evidence suggests he left school in his early teens to help his father, an impecunious tanner and wool trader, and then became an actor.

It was a time when great literature was flowering in England: Shakespeare’s contemporaries or near contemporaries included Edmund Spenser whose epic The Faerie Queene was an allegory of Britain’s political expansion; the plays of Christopher Marlowe (Dr Faustus), Ben Jonson (Volpone), and a dozen others were all being produced. In London, the modern theatre was invented. Up to this point, plays had been performed on make-shift stages in the open air.

Firm’ views

This probably explains why, in 1941, Joseph Stalin banned Hamlet. As the U.S. historian Arthur P. Mendel explained, the idea of a thoughtful, reflective hero who took nothing on faith, and who intently scrutinized life around him to try to separate truth from falsehood without prompting, seemed ‘criminal’ to the Soviet dictator and his thought police.

Shakespeare’s plays teem with varied characters, throb with passion, and pulsate with intellectual energy precisely because Shakespeare did not attach himself to ideology. People have tried to persuade themselves he was a Catholic, an agnostic, a fascist or communist. Perhaps he was all these things inside his head.

Ideologues think it is not possible to hold incompatible opinions. Shakespeare shows that it is not only more than possible, but that many if not most of us are in that position. Having ‘firm’ views on every subject under the sun might make sense to fanatics but to the rest of us it’s the start of madness. At the beginning of every production of Hamlet the audience wonders: ‘Why can’t he simply make up his mind?’ By the end, if the play has worked, the confusion and ambiguity of what it means to be human will make decisive figures in the play — such as Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who murdered the young prince’s father and stole both the queen and crown —seem the weirdos.

The doubting prince has become our friend. His lack of ideology, his absence of fanaticism and inability tobe doctrinaire, epitomise so much of the human condition.

They are traits that also happen to be very, very English. -Daily Mail.uk 


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