In Love With Shakespeare

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In Love With Shakespeare

"About any one so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong." --T. S. Eliot (Eliot 107)

Like all great artists, William Shakespeare is thoroughly conscious of his medium. His plays consistently call attention to the theatrical. "With Shakespeare the actable and the theatrical are always what come first" (Frye 5). In fact, the metaphor of performance is central to the Shakespearean canon. "When we are born we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools," Lear declares to Gloucester ( 178-179). "All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts" (As You Like It, II.vii. 139-142). This self-referentiality reflects a concern that the audience not be passive in its participation, and that the boundaries of the theatrical experience not be restricted to the stage. Shakespeare layers connotations and meanings into his plays that reward the self-conscious auditor.

Though much of our modern entertainment seeks to make the auditor oblivious of the medium, Shakespeare’s plays demand a sophisticated self-consciousness on the audience’s part. Part of the pleasure of viewing a Shakespearean play such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in recognizing the irony of its self-contained mini-dramas. In the "Pyramus and Thisbe" scene, Shakespeare satirizes theatrical convention. At the same time, however, he satirizes the naiveté of the audience that doubts the transforming power of the imagination. As Shakespeare continually points out, the acts of performing and viewing are not confined to the theatre. Life reflects the theatre just as the theatre reflects life. Furthermore, when taken seriously, great theatre can change its audience. For this reason, Shakespeare seeks to make viewing a conscious act. The full benefit of the theatrical experience is felt only when the auditor recognizes his role.

Clearly, in Shakespeare’s view, life is very much like a play. For one thing, all human beings are actors, or as Hegel says, "free artists of themselves" (Bloom 6). As "real" as we perceive ourselves to be, Shakespeare’s great characters demonstrate that personal identity is an assumed role, a fabrication. We are all playing characters. When the mad and weather-beaten King Lear declares himself "every inch a king," his exclamation is a melancholy reminder that power and authority are based upon image and ceremony.
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