But What If You Would?

There’s a certain contradiction that I struggle with when trying to explain to people why Shakespeare is so frickin good.  I usually start with the argument that there are real people portrayed up on stage; Shakespeare illustrated the entirety of human emotion before our eyes.  “But!” counters today’s cynical audience, “How can we related to characters who run around and kill each other?” It’s a good point.  Maybe you’ve been in love, but have you ever been so in love that you’d kill yourself for it?  Maybe you’ve been ambitious at work.  Would you kill your boss?  It’s easy to say that today’s teens can’t relate to Romeo and Juliet because the idea of killing yourself over a boyfriend or girlfriend is just so far out of their realm of comprehension. But what if you would? What if within each of us lies the capacity to feel that level of emotional response?  Take whatever stupid thing that one of Shakespeare’s characters is about to do – kill himself, kill the king, kill his wife.  Come up with a reason why it is stupid and why you wouldn’t do it.  Now imagine having an emotional response so strong that those reasons don’t seem like enough to stop you.  It’s not that we *can’t* react like Shakespeare’s characters…it’s that we choose not to.   We choose not to because we must continue to exist in society.  You can’t go around killing people when you’re upset.  It’s like that cliche we hear all the time in the movies when the good guy chooses not to finish off the bad guy:  “You’re not worth it.”  Longer version:  “The strength of the emotion I’m feeling right now that’s driven me to hang you upside down off of this building does not outweigh my understanding that if I drop you, I will go to jail for the rest of my life.”  But what if it did?  Shakespeare’s tragedies are an illustration of how that would look.  They are tragedies for a reason.  The character who lets emotion rule all, who ends up doing the stupid thing that we wouldn’t do, ends up getting taken out of the picture.  Not too many characters escape that punishment.  So maybe it’s more of a vicarious thing, then.  Maybe Shakespeare’s not always showing us what we *are*, but what we have the potential to become. Maybe that’s why we say things like “The greatest Lear of his generation” but not “The greatest James Bond of his generation.”  Somebody gets to step into the role of Lear or Hamlet or Richard the III and, however briefly, leap into the depths of what they *could* be, if the world were a different place.  We, as the audience, watch in a combination of admiration and fear.  Admiration for these characters who are not constantly reigning in their emotions for fear of societal reprisal.  Fear of what happens when they don’t.

One thought on “But What If You Would?

  1. Isn’t that what a lot of theatre is about? Extremes? It’s not just Shakespeare showing us that “we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

    Who among us is exactly like Willy Loman? You could write up the a similar argument about not being able to connect to that character as the kids with Romeo or Juliet. The idea isn’t just that they kill themselves, what about all the despair. false hopes, family, love, all those themes?

    I had a professor that told me that most theatre is about the most important part of a person’s life. I think that applies to all of Shakespeare’s plays, any greek drama, all of Arthur Miller, and many many more.

    And when we see a human being acting with no limits because of emotions that are so strong that they can kill, doesn’t that speak an author’s message about human nature more loudly? How far is too far? Well we don’t know unless we see someone go too far.

    We’re more likely to be moved emotionally. That’s why the average teen drama doesn’t do much for us but Shakespeare does. It ain’t just the pretty words.

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