The Masculine Urge to Surpass Shakespeare
How can you tell a better story than someone who wrote the story you tell about yourself?
The hard part of interpreting Shakespeare is that Shakespeare is interpreting me. Every time I think about his plays I think about myself a little bit differently. I can’t think about Shakespeare from some place that didn’t exist before him and still exists without him afterwards. He manages to do this without ever having some Shakespeare-standin character walk out on stage and tell the audience What To Really Think about his plays. Dante’s narrator in the Divine Comedy is a noble anchor for the action, Cervantes’ narrator in Don Quixote constantly pulls the book apart and puts it back together again, while Shakespeare’s narrator is nowhere to be seen. We are alone with his characters, alone with ourselves. Shakespeare’s best characters speak, notice themselves in their speaking, and change themselves in response to what they see. They, like us, are forever in a dance of self-discovery and self-creation.
Not all of his plays are great, but the great plays are great in a way that marks the horizon of western verbal/narrative art. This horizon is both inspirational and discouraging at the same time - inspirational to know that art like that is possible, discouraging in that nothing you might do as an artist will ever come close to it. Why write anything when you could just read Hamlet again?
Are you worthy as an artist if you can’t do something new? If you can’t make an original contribution to the human experience? For many, the mark of success is to have your name ascend from “noun” to “adjective” - ‘Shakespeare’ lived and died long ago, but ‘Shakespearean’ plays and ‘Shakespearean’ people will walk this world for a very long time to come. It’s a distinctly masculine psychodrama, the drive to replace your father as the leader when your time has come and have your time in the glorious sun, and writers and thinkers from Freud to Tolstoy to Joyce to Wallace have spilled rivers of ink trying to assert themselves as separate and worthy individuals over and against Shakespeare’s endless influence.
I think it’s an impossible challenge to see worthy adulthood as only attainable by surpassing the people who have influenced you. A much more powerful approach, for me, is to reframe my encounter with the world such that I can see my old authority figures as fellow sufferers, animals dying in fear and pain just like me. By “authority” I mean “the people who have authored my life”, those whose descriptions and assertions have led me to understand me as me. This includes philosophers, artists, politicians, parents, mentors, and romantic partners. “You are a man”, “you are American”, “you are selfish”, “you are smart”, “you are worthy of love no matter what”. The people who said these things to me have no privileged relationship to the truth, no more nor less than I do. I can resist influence, but I can’t resist it all at once. I have to tell a story about myself, but I can change that story at any time. I can never become the final authority on myself, but I can add my voice to the chorus. My life, like Shakespeare’s plays, will be forever open to re-interpretation, long after I’m gone.
I can’t ever say for sure if something ‘timeless’ is touched upon by Shakespeare in his best work - all I know is that I can easily imagine myself reading and rereading his plays for the rest of my life, that if there’s any recognizable afterlife that I’d spend at least some of it talking about Shakespeare with the people who read him and wrote about him long before I was born. I’m happy to be influenced by him - I can’t ever escape his influence over my self-understanding, and I also will have a voice in my life that he could never have, one that I’ll have for the rest of my days. After that, well, people can make of me whatever they want. After that, the rest is silence.