Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Bard says bardy things
I read Hamlet for the first time when I was 10 years old. I'd seen the Kenneth Branagh film with my dad and I loved it so I got a set of Shakespearean tragedies from a book order (book order forms apparently used to be a fuck of a lot more hardcore than they are now). The set was a single book that had Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet in it with no footnotes, very little consideration of appropriate formatting, and smudgy, messy print. I read Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in that book before it disappeared forever some time in middle school. But basically what I'm getting at is that I've been reading and enjoying Shakespeare for almost 20 years now, and I didn't get around to reading Macbeth until a couple of weeks ago.
I think I just had a ships-passing-in-the-night thing going on with Macbeth. I didn't read it in high school because I was in a group of students that read Othello and Hamlet instead. I didn't read it at the community colleges I attended because both of the CC historical drama classes I took focused on Hamlet. I didn't read it in my college Shakespeare classes because one class was almost completely focused on Hamlet (fucking shocking, right?) and the other class covered Shakespeare before 1603 (but did NOT include Hamlet on the reading list, which ACTUALLY was kind of shocking) so Macbeth wasn't going to make it in to that material. The Shakespeare before 1603 professor was also a theater historian and so I guess it would have been awkward to spend a week discussing a play while explicitly avoiding saying the titular character's name. It just never came up in my classes and I just never got around to it.
Now that I've read it I'm completely fascinated by a bunch of things that probably shouldn't seem so interesting. I'm old hat at Shakespearean tragedy at this point, I've caught up and done my reading of Ovid, Homer, and Plato so I'm not missing as many of the allusions, and after Chaucer the Bard's iambic pentameter is a subtle and pleasing thing of beauty - I'm not interested in any of the literary fancy-scmancy stuff that I'd have discussed in any of my English classes. But I'm fucking FASCINATED by just how many common English phrases appear to come directly from this single odd play. I'm also really interested in its revision and production history, because those can change a lot about how a play is perceived, but I know there's just WAY too much reading to do when it comes to Macbeth for me to get into that with any sort of authority at the moment.
The play is what you've been led to expect. Witches, decapitations, damned spots, and grand high vintage Elizabethan-era dramatic tragedy. There's nothing there that should be surprising, from a dramatic or thematic perspective, to someone who has read a bunch of Shakespeare. But holy shit the language. There's a lot of the play that's unremarkable, typical stage banter. Then there's the rest of the play that is where we get phrases like "full of sound and fury" and "the milk of human kindness" and it's completely unreal to me that this play is the first recorded usage of the word "unreal." Shakespeare created the fucking setup for knock-knock jokes in this play. We would not have knock-knock jokes the way we do in the world today if not for the fact that in a pretty typical, standard, run-of-the-mill play Shakespeare made up what seems like half of colloquial English. Just because he could. (Well, that and to fit the meter. And I guess because it was just habit to him at that point.)
Sorry. It's just that every time I think about the fact that we might not have words like alligator or eyeball or dwindle (there are only three words in English that start with "dw-" and Shakespeare made up one of them - the others are dwarf and dwell) I start getting a little dizzy, and I started getting REALLY dizzy the further I got into Macbeth.
Shakespeare, William. Ed. Kenneth Muir. Macbeth. The Arden Shakespeare. London:
England. 2005. (1606-ish).