In two days I have to give a small guest lecture on Shakespeare to English undergraduates at the university I attended (thanks to a wonderful and encouraging former professor) to try to explain why the Bard is relevant to a young [ostensibly hip] writer like myself. Over the last ten days I’ve been in Germany, partly to visit my sister, and partly to help a friend make a short film—which left me completely distracted from doing any serious reading or thinking about literature. This meant that I found myself reading King Lear on a Lufthansa flight to New York, trying to improvise the lecture in my head as I should have anticipated earlier I would have ended up doing.
The airport, by the way, is a terrible place to read literature, because usually if you’re in an airport it means you’re tired, bedraggled, angry, and displaced—which also, by the way, are some excellent was to describe crazy old Lear himself. Without risking trivializing one of the greatest, maybe greatest single works of literature ever written, I realized that real poetry, real art has the power to transcend not only time and place, as the cliche goes, but also mood and moment—that some language (I was also reading the Duino Elegies for which the same comments apply) absolutely tunnels down to a level of consciousness way below the trivial crap—like being stuck on an airplane.
And this, by the way, was the epiphany I had about preparing my lecture—that Shakespeare’s relevance to us—that is my bedraggled, overstimulated, slightly chronically dissatisfied generation—is his absolute lack of relevance to us: to the particular details that comprise (and compromise) who we think we are. Shakespeare, as has been said so much better, and so often by others, deals with people are more primal, primordial level than we often exist on. Lear reminds us—reminded me in the airport—that while standing in a customs line or sitting next to a snorer might make us feel righteous anger, that the true degree, the true depth of righteous anger is much deeper, and much more profound than we sometimes allow ourselves to think.
Reading Shakespeare in the most modern context, in a technological context, is like staging internal satire where we mock ourselves for thinking that our language, our way of thinking is the limit of experience—the best language, poetry, thought are anachronistic; they don’t necessarily progress in a straight line. Growing up in a world where one can legitimately witness computing power double every 18 months, it’s sometimes hard to believe that, well, we, and our art forms, don’t—that art actually, often gets worse with time, rather than better.
Trying to describe to undergraduates why they should read Shakespeare isn’t a matter, I realized, of trying to show how Shakespeare fits into a rapidly [de]evolving cultural universe—but to show how that cultural universe fits into Shakespeare. The greatest threat to education today, I fear, is the conflation of external progress with internal progress. While our environments, our economies, our governments, our worlds are vastly different than Shakespeare’s—our basic moods, longings, fears are not. Reading Shakespeare—coming into contact with great art—after all, isn’t really a matter of generation or hipness, but about the timeless, universal grasping after what it means to be human.
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