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The Play’s the Thing

April 25, 2018

Shakespeare was the best writer because he had the most fun writing. Admittedly this is just speculation– there is no historical evidence for his enjoyment at the writing desk. But it is the overwhelming impression I get from his work. No one could could write lines like “No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine / Making the green one red” without feeling joy. Because it is so fun. The pleasure of the play of language, the exhilaration of meaning-making and sound-scoring and the way meaning and sound and rhythm can come together and come alive– this was the driving force of his literature. Undoubtedly he wanted to please the audience and make a profit, but he had to please himself first. He had the great good fortune that his self-indulgence was delightedly indulged by others (is there a happier fate?).

The language play comes first. Everything else emerges from that. It is not ornamentation but the creative act itself.  I do not believe Shakespeare had some deep well of wisdom and acute understanding that he simply drew upon, shaping into words that would convey it, bottle it up and ship it out. I don’t think it works that way. Meaning is not articulated, articulation produces meaning. Play produces articulation. To curiously and exuberantly pursue the possibilities of language, cherishing the taste of it, the way it works on you, eager to to discover what it can do, thrumming with its electricity– this the way of a Shakespeare. Do this over time and ideas will emerge. Voices will find form and become character.

Storytelling is a bit of a different gift, and it is notably not where Shakespeare shines best. It is not primary with him. He took his plots from books and let them be an armature for the words of his characters. Event is valued as an occasion for speech.

There is endless speculation over what he meant, what his ideas were, how he thought and felt, what his life was like. I think he meant to write well. His idea was to write well. And that, all and all, he was a person like any other, except he wrote so very well. And what a great time he must have had doing it.

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