Reading Shakespeare

Taking the measure of language—and humanity.

James Mustich
May 15 · 7 min read

A reader might well spend a lifetime exploring a single shelf, if that shelf is labeled ”Shakespeare.” On it are some three dozen plays, a sequence of 154 sonnets, plus a few odds and ends. Together these works compose as rich a portrait of human nature — and the fates that test, excite, exhaust, and exalt it — as has ever been penned. Shakespeare’s art has such magic that this portrait evolves with us through the passages of time, so that even a familiar text will speak new truths to our hearts and minds at each stage of our experience.

From the ardent aspirations of young love (Romeo and Juliet) to the obdurate realities of old age (King Lear), Shakespeare parses the emotional grammar of living in ways that reveal its meaning even as they honor its mystery. As adept at the restorative silliness of low comedy as he is alert to the startling recognitions of high tragedy, he is a master of many registers of feeling and of myriad entertaining modes. With equal brilliance he explores the shadows cast on the public sphere by the dark energies of politics and power (Julius Caesar, Macbeth) and plumbs the private depths of searching consciousness (Hamlet).

The largest claims have been made for the scope of Shakespeare’s achievement. The critic Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare, by virtue of his profound and original conception of personality, with “the invention of the human.” By dint of his vision of the English past as a narrative of national inheritance transcending the discrete dramas of violence and valor that mark its progress (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V), the playwright seems to invent our idea of history as well. Whatever Shakespeare’s exact influence, his gallery of character, incident, metaphor, and reflection has supplied readers with the means to take the measure of humanity.

Despite an ever-growing stock of biographies, the documented facts of Shakespeare’s life could fit on a few pages. This only deepens the puzzle of his gifts. How did a provincial young man, who possessed at best a grammar school education, become the most esteemed author in the annals of literature? We know that he was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon to a family of some standing in the town, that he was married at eighteen to Anne Hathaway, and that he fathered three children. We know that in 1592, without explanation or fanfare, his name surfaced in the annals of the London stage, and that his reputation as actor and dramatist grew even while the archival record of his engagement with the repertory company of the Globe Theater remains spare. For all practical purposes, the Bard of Avon comes down to us as an artist more than as a man: His enormous reputation rests solely on his unparalleled achievements as a dramatist and poet.

A hands-on ingenuity for exploiting the exuberant irregularity and makeshift legacy of English

That prism, of course, is Shakespeare’s language. Elegant, eloquent, rough-and-tumble, graceful, jocular, commanding, wise, delicate, muscular, frolicsome, inspired — English is a multifaceted marvel in his hands, revealing its potential without restraint, acknowledging no restriction on its ability to express every nuance and enigma of experience. The edifices Shakespeare builds with his blocks of verse and voices — from the castles-in-the-air of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the brooding battlements of Othello — hold, as Coleridge put it, “all the forms of human character and passion.”

In his dramatic writing especially, Shakespeare exhibits what can best be described as a hands-on ingenuity for exploiting the exuberant irregularity and makeshift legacy of English, doubtless honed by the demands of theatrical deadlines and the always ad hoc nature of performance. In an essay exploring “the peculiar qualities of English,” Robert Graves and Alan Hodge once compared the “apparent chaos” of our language to “the untidiness of a workshop in which a great deal of repair and other work is in progress: the benches are crowded, the corners piled with lumber, but the old workman can lay his hand on whatever spare parts or accessories he needs or at least on the right tools and materials for improvising them.” No literary workman in the long history of our tongue has been as dexterous and versatile in this regard as Shakespeare. His toolbox, as inventoried by poet Ted Hughes, holds some 25,000 words, “more than twice as many as Milton, his runner-up.” A good number of them — amazement, bedroom, dwindle, dishearten, clangor, watchdog, obscene, swagger, to mention but a few — were, if not invented by Shakespeare, first recorded in his lines.

This stock of words served a peerless gift for turning phrases, and Shakespearean coinages by the hundreds have escaped their original confines to enter the language at large: sound and fury; the dogs of war; the time is out of joint; something wicked this way comes; to thine own self be true; the better part of valor is discretion; screw your courage to the sticking place — it’s a foregone conclusion that the Bard was the be-all and the end-all of phrasemakers. His felicity beggars description. Although some of these constructions even a blinking idiot will remember as Shakespearean — to be or not to be; neither a borrower nor a lender be; the winter of our discontent; what light through yonder window breaks — others are by now so common that even the learned may be surprised to discover whose quill first inscribed them: wild-goose chase; breathe life into a stone; strange bedfellows; fair play; he hath eaten me out of house and home; more in sorrow than in anger; a dish fit for the gods. To read Shakespeare is to tour a veritable factory of the English language and watch its most beautiful and durable products being made.

Ay, there’s the rub: How do you navigate the daunting seas of Shakespeare’s soliloquies and sonnets?

The very best way to read the Bard is out loud, alone or in company. Letting the words lie silently upon the page misses a great deal of Shakespeare’s power and playfulness, as well as much of the pleasure to be found in his work. Speaking his lines, following your voice through their intricate choreography of sound and sense, helps you grasp the glory of his inventions. He wrote for performance — no one has ever done so with more mastery — and until one plays the plays, however modestly, one doesn’t know the half of Shakespeare.

In the act you’ll be aided by the characters whom the words bring to life, for the plays are peopled with men and women whose heartbeats can always be heard through the dignified rhythm of the iambic pentameter that shapes their utterances. These indelible creations — Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff and Prince Hal, Ophelia and Hamlet, Iago and Othello, Cordelia and Lear, Ariel and Caliban, Prospero — are the flesh and blood Shakespeare’s language conjures out of the “airy nothing” of mere words. Larger-than-life, yet somehow never more than human scale, they are members of a cast with a depth and diversity of soul unrivaled in all of literature. Like us, they are, in the Bard’s own formulation, “such stuff as dreams are made on,” and they name in their persons the faiths and frailties of us all.

Excerpted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

James Mustich

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Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (Workman Publishing). Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.