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On Praise of Shakespeare

It was April of 1564. Stratford-Upon-Avon had many reasons to celebrate. The trees were dancing with glee with the gentle breeze as they were charmed by the healthful warmth of the sun. Little colorful flowers which grew near the banks of the Avon River were exuding pleasant sights to the eyes as they welcome the elixir of youth. The birds were singing their most melodious pieces producing a natural orchestra unparalleled not even by the splendid arias of Bernini and the combined powerful voices of Sinatra and Pavarotti. Joyous and lively as the spring was in Stratford, this little municipal borough in Central England in the rolling farmlands of Warwickshire was blessed during this prolific season of the year a writer whose name will be forever etched in the minds of many. His life speaks of greatness and nobility, and his works represent not only humanity but also a spark of divinity itself. His influence is one of transcendental importance respecting no space and bounds as though Cleio herself will be divested of glamour without having a mention of his name in her great pages. His name is William Shakespeare.

Probably no other English author has been so thoroughly studied and documented as Shakespeare. Certainly no stone has been left unturned by scholars to know his life which is shrouded in mystery. A grain of truth that no one may deny, Shakespeares fame is immortalitys kin. While there are many great writers in the world, the influence and impact of their works has been but regional and ephemeral. No other writers enjoy the prestige of having his works spoken in various tongues by

different people of different social, political and religious orientations. Hugo is nowhere so great in France, or Cervantes in Spain, or Tolstoy in Russia. But Shakespeare makes an essential appeal to all cultures. His Macbeth, for example, is a success in Bantu language. The speakers of this language who were literally three oceans away from England and were hundreds of years far separated from the time of Shakespeare and who know the poet no less than from the articles and accounts on books, speak Shakespearean language with fervor and gusto.

With no superior education to boast of as he just received a grammar education in Stratford (equivalent to a high school education), it was by the popularity and aesthetic quality of his writings that he attracts admirers, most of them are writers who glorify his name even years after his death. Ben Johnson, a friend and fellow dramatist, declared that Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time. On his poem entitled The Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, he expressed his admiration to the poet. I take privilege with permission in quoting the following lines from his poem:

Soul of the age The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage, My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie A little further off, to make thee room.

In the same vein, John Milton, the famed author of Paradise Lost addressed him as son of memory and great heir of fame. Though Milton was eight years old when

Shakespeare died and was unlikely to have seen the great days of the Elizabethan age, he nevertheless spent his last days to the poets beloved Stratford. Miltons admiration of his predecessor and master in poetry is most genuinely expressed in the following lines of his poem entitled On Shakespeare:

What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones The labor of an age in piled stones? Or that his hallowed relics should be hid Under a starry-pointing pyramid

Dear son of memory, great heir of fame, What need ist how such weak witness of thy name? Thou in our wonder and astonishment Has built thyself a livelong monument

Several other writers had also cited their accolades to Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson voiced a widely held opinion that Shakespeares drama is the mirror of life. Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to myriad minded Shakespeare. The German author A. W. Von Schlegel wrote: Never perhaps was there so comprehensive a talent for the delineation of characters. John Keats whose life and dreamworld is poetry itself was one of the most sensitive appreciators of Shakespeare. A year before his death, he is said to have written a poem in a copy of Shakespeare poem which he read while sailing for Italy. The playwright Bernard Shaw stressed still another facet of Shakespeares genius, his enormous power over language.

Volume 25 of the Encyclopedia Britannica says of Shakespeare:

he is generally considered to be the greatest of authors in any language, ancient or modernEditions and translations of them (referring to Shakespeares plays) flow from the press 350 years after the publication of the first collected editions, articles and books about Shakespeare appear in such number that no bibliophile can pretend to give a complete list

At the height of his career, he overshadowed some of his contemporaries in terms of popularity and reduced their achievement into dreary insignificance which obviously invited insecurity and jealousy on these writers. An instant case is that of Robert Greene, the dissipated university wit who died in poverty and misery in London. He left a pamphlet called A Goatsworth of Wit Brought With a Million of Repentance. Warning Marlowe, Peele and Wash (all contemporaries of Shakespeare), he wrote, Trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathersand being an absolute Johannes factotum is in his own covert acts the only Shake-scene in a country. (the line obviously refers to Shakespeare). Years later, a fellow writer of

Greene wrote some lines in his work expressing his apology to what Greene had declared in the pamphlet.

This once obscure figure in literature, who according to legends apprenticed to a butcher, for whom when he killed a calf, he would do it in high style, and make a speech, and who began his career by holding gentlemens horses at the playhouse

door of Sir William Davenant, has had a pervasive influence on later writers. References and parallels to his phraseology have occurred massively in literature. Writers as far separated in time as Congreve and Joyce have echoed Shakespeare in their works. The universal popularity of Shakespeares writings has made them a unifying cultural force, and later authors have often been able to give richer expression to their thoughts by quoting Shakespearean passages. His language, literature and thought of following generations have been immeasurable.

Throughout the world, Shakespeares plays are performed more frequently than those of any other playwright. His language has had a profound influence comparable to that of King James Version of the Bible. He is the most quoted author. You use in your writing and speech such expressions as my minds eye, primrose path, sweets to sweet, the milk of human kindness, it was Greek to me, twice told-tale, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, naked truth, play the fool, truth will out, and others without at times knowing that you are quoting Shakespeare. It has been estimated that about 24,000 different words are used in Shakespeares writings. Thus, he probably had the largest vocabulary of any author. English language loaned many words from the works of Shakespeare. From Macbeth come the words assassination and fitful. Courtship and educate first appeared in Loves Labours Lost. Dwindle comes from Henry IV; fretful from Henry VI; barefaced from A Midsummer Nights Dream; and eventful from As You Like It. How these words have helped shape English minds and how they influence the psyche and consciousness of modern readers is undeniably remarkable.

The universality and timelessness of his themes is beyond refutation by any literary critic. His themes range from high idealism of youthful dreams and exuberant spirits; poetic fantasies; romantic comedies; romantic tragedy of ageless beauty and world renown; and serious historical rendering of some tragic personages. His Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Brutus are tragic heroes of magnificent stature and nobility. His clowns and humoristsFalstaff and Touchstone, Bottom the Weaver and Launce with his dog are irresistible. And his womenJuliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Miranda overwhelm us with admiration and wonder. We were charmed and captivated by his A Midsummer Nights Dream; entertained by the Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew; and sympathized with the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet. We admire the intricacy of Julius Caesar, a play whose setting was laid in ancient Rome analyzing mans relation to the State. We have loved reading and will continue to love reading the great Anthony and Cleopatra, a glittering love story of two people who could govern half the world but not themselves. Even greater are four tragedies that touch the depths of human experience in various stages of life. The young prince in Hamlet shows a sensitive and subtle intellect struggling against the adverse circumstances of life. Othello is a powerful study of love in the middle life slain by overmastering jealousy and suspicion. Macbeth analyzes the soul of the mature, grasping ruler who sacrifices everyone to gratify his personal ambition. King Lear gives an unforgettable picture of an aged, childish king driven mad by the ingratitude of his daughters. Even so brief an outline like this helps to answer the question often asked by most students in literature class, Why is Shakespeare so great? Think of the tremendous range of experience

and the variety of characters he has created. Consider his versatility---complete in its full circle with no diminution of poetic power, and which is almost a god in poise. Add to this the intrinsic power and music of his words, to be appreciated only by direct and repeated contact with the plays themselves, and you will realize why immortality has crowned the work of this notable man. It is a sort of paradox that while Shakespeare apparently gave no thought for future fame as evidenced by his act of not writing about himself except in the sonnets, or publishing even a single play that he wrote during his lifetime, he was vested by the gods with immortality through his works.

How great and genius Shakespeare really is? This man, who according to Ben Johnson (another poet of his day), had less Latin and Greek in his command is lined up as among worlds recognized geniuses. According to Bazan and Keenes The Book of Genius, if we are going to rank worlds geniuses using versatility, originality and universality as criteria, Shakespeare ranks ahead of Goethe (probably the greatest German author), Michelangelo (a great Italian artist), Newton (a great English scientist and discoverer of the laws of gravitation), Alexander the Great (the peerless Macedonian conqueror), Einstein (the physicist who unleashed the tremendous power of atom), Thomas Jefferson (US President and brainchild of the US Constitution), the Great Pyramid Builders and Phidias (the Greek sculptor). This fact is not Greek to us. We know from his writings his versatility, power over words, originality, universality of his insights coupled with his deep understanding of human nature such as no other writer has equaled. To borrow the words of Dryden, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, Shakespeare had the largest and most comprehensive soul.

True greatness acknowledges humility. Englands greatest poet is by choice not buried in the Poets Corner of Westminsters Abbey. On April 23, 1616, the same date when his eyes first caught the light of life; Shakespeare also took the last glimpse of this light on the very same day. In the chancel of Holy Trinity Church of Stratford, he is buried near the stone bearing the famous line (in its original text):

Good friend, for Jesus sake forbeare To dig the dust enclosed heare: Bleste be the man that spares these stones And curst be he that moves my bones.

When all is said and done, one thing is certain: Shakespeare is Shakespeare. He is a very rare species of homo sapiens. So rare is his kind that somebody like him exists only every a thousand year. Mankind will have to wait for several generations before a man of equal stature and greatness as Shakespeare may be born.