While others chatted about the changes that should be made to the English major at a curriculum review committee meeting last semester, I couldn’t help but think of one change (or rather, one re-institution) of a requirement that had been recently expunged: Shakespeare.
Perhaps this was because I had just read Hamlet for the first time, and was so rapt by its dense beauty and irreducible implications, that I was vociferously in favor of reinstituting the Shakespeare requirement. But upon further thought, I don’t think I was blinded by fever, just guided by an intense belief, an infectious, aesthetic fervor for the West’s greatest writer.
Now, I don’t want to pretend I’m an anytime Shakespeare reader. Often, my mind either feels inadequate to the task, or only feebly plumbs Shakespeare’s bottomless genius. But I think even on a bad day Shakespeare gives us irreproachable greatness. Apologies for bringing in film, but the comparison is apt. Critics often kvetch about the debasement of popular taste, how blockbusters choreograph action and explosion in a bang-bang, CGI circus of violence and vengeance. “Good action,” as a term, has been sucked of nuance and doled out as a catchall for production value that looks pretty but has little substance. Popular films are selling tickets to see a kind of warring Cirque du Soleil on the screen, engrossing audiences with balletic bloodlust that most of the time simply echoes some previous banality.
But the notion that audiences dislike difficult art, or that they can only enjoy hedonistic, simple-minded movies can be proven ridiculous (contrary to what I’ve complained about in these pages before). Once we, as viewers, readers and listeners can anticipate a plot-point, message or even incoming melody, we become passive. Boredom blooms from a legible future. Any whiff of complacency lays a film over our eyes and permits our brain to half-listen. We can then become accustomed to that feeling, and translate it into “personal taste.” This is where my complaining comes in: prolonged exposure’s infecting our artistic expectations.
Edward Norton, on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, cited Chinatown as the epitome of the inscrutable film. Heralded as one of the best films ever, Chinatown is confounding, but it’s also delightful. The first time anyone sees it, for about 80% of the film, one hasn’t a clue as to what is happening. It’s cloudy, with a chance of corruption, though an even littler chance of knowing what exactly that corruption is. It’s inexplicable. But Chinatown actor Jack Nicholson’s own confusion morphs into the pleasurable, perplexing visual pageantry of character and atmosphere, animated by ethos and flavored intensity. The film suspends us in a mixture of its elements, with barely any dashes of plot to distract us. Through the denial our conventional appetites, Chinatown can work on critical and aesthetic perception, can envelop us in the medium of film, and, so says the record, we’re ok with it.
So, Shakespeare. Nixed presumably because students claim they don’t like the stuff, find his style and composition too difficult to follow, can barely extract any plot, etc. But, like Chinatown, Shakespeare does other notable things. Again, I, too, have those conventional frustrations. But even if I only receive a thin minimum of the basic elements I want from a Raymond Chandler novel in Hamlet (Margreta de Grazia, among others, calls Hamlet “plot-resistant”), the other gleanings – human insight, linguistic experiment, word invention, scheme, et. al. – are warrant enough to keep reading. Plus, I have a professor to ask about the rest!
Ben Johnson said Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time!” Why? Well, let’s defer to the voluble Polonius, who thinks a play that disregards classical unities (Hamlet) becomes a “poem unlimited.” Precisely. Timelessness and irreducibility characterize Shakespeare’s work, just as our own soul’s irreducible dimensions characterize us as beasts of becoming. Shakespeare dissolves our preoccupation with straightforward virtue (and, I think, by extension, the inherited “virtues” of a comprehensible work of art) and complicates our relationship to art and the self by allowing us an occasional peek inside. Reading Shakespeare becomes an act of endless interpretation instead of a verb-predicate trail of knowledge. Which is a good thing! Our attempt to understand Shakespeare in any banal sense can be met with one of cinema’s most quoted lines: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”