A Poet's Place In This World

The Person

"The latest generations of men will find new meanings in Shakespeare,
new elucidations of their own human being;
new harmonies with the infinite structure of the Universe;
concurrences with later ideas,

affinities with the higher powers and sense of man."

— Thomas Carlyle

 

The Spirit of Shakespeare

 
Hereafter, in a better world than this,
I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.
— As You Like it (I.2)

In the beginning, when English theater was on the rise, Shakespeare wrote amazing plays for the London stage and the Globe theater.  When the art of storytelling was being revived in this ancient form of entertainment, Shakespeare penned plays of magnificent quality that have been staged worldwide.  Now, the mighty spirit of Shakespeare hovers over the globe.

Shakespeare is the preeminent poet of the English language, and due to a variety of factors unbeknownst to him at the time, the language of his isle of origin, England, would one day become the language of global business and entertainment.  The man who made his mark at the Globe Theatre would become the playwright renowned in theaters all over the globe.  Shakespeare is the poet and playwright of the global language, and is among the chief storytellers of the world, whose fame exists alongside great Greeks and Romans of history, as well as renowned Hebrew prophets who told stories still celebrated by many peoples and religions.  Just like everyone knows stories told by Moses, the slave-liberator, and Jesus, the son of a carpenter, everyone knows stories told by an English country boy who moved to London to write and act for the English stage.  Everyone knows William Shakespeare.  And if we don’t, that needs to change.  Let us consider why.

This great poet and playwright has forever impacted literature, theater, and art.  He is the writer by which all writers measure themselves; he is among the great thinkers of the world.  He did more than compose beautiful words and phrases and stories, he put these words and phrases on the lips of great characters and told wonderful stories through them.  The world knows very little about William Shakespeare’s personal life, but the words spoken through his characters live eternally on our lips.  From famous existentialist questions like Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be, that is the question” to the timeless love story and plea by the love-stricken Juliet, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” to Macbeth’s dark proclamation, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — words penned by Shakespeare are alive.  His plays are forever played.  His stories are a permanent fixture in our lives.  Whether we recognize it or not, his lyrics and lines flow through the air and can be heard daily on the lips of people across the globe.  We live in a world influenced and impacted by his spirit.

In the 21st century, now more than four hundred years after his great 20-year career on the English stage, as we attempt to understand the world, why things are as they are, Shakespeare is one of a few lives that form a great lens to understand reality.  By studying his life and works, we will have a great starting point to understand the modern world, including America.  There are reasons why great storytellers, like William Faulkner and Aldous Huxley, name their masterpieces from lines taken from his plays; why great filmmakers and actors, like Kenneth Branagh and Michael Fassbender, devote large portions of their careers to bring Shakespeare to movie theaters and playhouses around the world; why famous scientists, like Sigmund Freud, cite his characters as examples to explain their theories; and why great Americans throughout history, like Tupac Shakur, Dr. King, President Lincoln, and our founding fathers, quoted him and loved him.  Shakespeare is an important person for us to know, study, understand, and love.  Which is exactly what we will try to do with this book.

Shakespeare lived in the crossroads of various great social movements that forms our atmosphere.  In Shakespeare’s time, England was about to move from a small island nation hidden away in the North Atlantic, known more for clouds and rain than sunshine, to become an Empire on which it was frequently said, “the sun never sets.”  During his life, a New World was being settled across the Atlantic Sea by Europeans, Africans, and soon Asians.  The brave new world was a continent of marvelous beauty inhabited by great peoples.  At the same time, the Catholic church, which had held preeminent influence in Western Europe for over a millennia, was being vigorously protested by new forms of Christian communities.  Various forms of Christian religion were taking root all over European soil and were soon shipped to the New World by various settlers and conquistadors.

Moreover, even language was at a crossroads.  For the first time in history, local languages were able to be set on a printed page.  Living languages like Italian, Spanish, French and English were set to written form, and found a stability previously unknown.  Before, local languages always seem to be in flux, changing as rapidly as cultures and people do.  Moreover, the classical and “dead” languages like Greek, Hebrew, and Latin would soon find competition from these local languages.  Writers would soon stop writing in the “learned languages” of classical Europe and instead tell stories and sing songs in their native tongues.  Writers — like Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes — no longer felt the need to write in the ancient and learned languages but would produce marvelous works in their own native tongues.  The need to learn classical languages, though always useful, was no longer was necessary.  The marvelous invention of the printing press allowed stories to be written in local languages of the common people, allowing ideas to blossom and bloom not only among the elite of European societies, but all over the world.  Many languages found stability and permanence as they were birthed on the printed page.

Because of the unique time period of Shakespeare’s life, loving Shakespeare has the added benefit of shining much light and insight into the world at large.  For example, when Shakespeare writes of Roman and English history, these were the stories Americans loved when we rebelled against the Empire and formed our Republic.  When Shakespeare writes of tragedy and comedy, these are the stories ingrained on the hearts of presidents and poets, singers and civil rights activists, as they fight for the universal human rights we believe in and love.  

And so, let us look to Shakespeare to understand our world.  For the triumph of William Shakespeare, Bard of Avon, Poet of England, becomes the triumph of people everywhere.  For in truth, there’s wondrous things said of him.  And surely, in a better world, many will desire to know more about the great Shakespeare.

Let us start by looking at the shadow Shakespeare casts upon America, the brave new world explored and first settled by fellow Englishman as he wrote for the London stage.  While his goal may have been to simply educate and entertain English audiences, we will soon see why this great poet becomes the hero of American rebels in England’s imperial colonies.  Even though Shakespeare passed away in 1616, at the age of fifty-two, and one hundred sixty years before America declared independence, and even though he was laid to rest next to his ancestors in a small church in his hometown of Stratford-upon Avon, his spirit lives powerfully in America.  His shadow is strongly cast from his native English soil and covers the globe.

 
Speak to me,
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
which happily foreknowing may avoid, 
oh speak!
— Hamlet

Shadow over America, 1564-1776

 
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world 
that has such people in’t!
— The Tempest (V.1)

The Old World exodus of many Englishmen started in the beginnings of the 17th century.  Before then, there were English sailors and explorers, but not yet any settlers.  That all changed while Shakespeare commanded the English stage as the renowned playwright of the early 1600s.  The society that produced Shakespeare was also the society that produced America.  Let us simply consider a timeline of momentous events for Shakespeare, England, and early settlers to America.

Shakespeare was born at an early age in 1564 in a small town, Stratford Upon-Avon, about 90 miles from the English Capitol, London.   Thirty years before, King Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church in England in order to secure a divorce from his wife who did not bear any male children.  The daughter of his second wife became Queen Elizabeth I and reigned most of Shakespeare’s life, her reign lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603.  She was among the longest reigning monarch’s in the history of England.  Before her reign, there was much turmoil as various siblings were crowned sovereign and then quickly passed away.  Queen Elizabeth I brought much needed stability to this small island, and for this, she is often fondly remembered by various monikers like The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess.

The twilight of her reign saw Shakespeare rise to prominence in the English stage.  His career took off in the early 1590s, lasted through the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and continued through the rise of King James VI of Scotland, now known more famously as King James I of England.  This is the King James famous for producing the King James Bible in 1611, published in the last years of Shakespeare’s life.  The production of Anglican scriptures and the publishing of Shakespeare’s folio in the early part of the seventeenth century are the key events which cemented our English language and fills our ears with phrases from these great canons.  Even though to modern English ears these words or phrases sometimes sound old, with the thees and thous, they are largely understandable, hence their staying power.  While older English works like Beowulf or Canterbury Tales are a version of English that often needs to be translated and modernized, Shakespeare and the King James Bible often only need to be explained with brief notes, and not translated in whole.

King James is also famous for sponsoring the first English settlers in America.  Under Queen Bess, English explorers — or, possibly pirates depending on your perspective, like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh — sailed the high seas and told tales of the brave new world with infinite riches and beautiful peoples.  Under King James, Englishmen were given official charters under the authority of the King of England to settle the “new world.”  In 1607 — around the time masterpiece plays like Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth were playing on the London stage — other Englishmen set sail to settle Jamestown, Virginia.  In 1620 — a few years after Shakespeare’s death but before the publishing of his plays in the famous First Folio of 1623 — the Mayflower pilgrims, famous in our Thanksgiving Day celebrations for sailing near Plymouth Rock, settled in Massachusetts.  And finally, under James’s son King Charles I, Lord Baltimore received the charter to settle Maryland as a Catholic colony in 1632.  The new world was not only being plundered and explored, but colonized and settled.

Shakespeare and his works are vital to study because his art functions as a valuable testimony of the many changes facing the small island country on the cusp of becoming a world power.  Moreover, Americans should have particular interest in knowing and loving Shakespeare because our English forefathers and settlers who crossed the Atlantic Ocean were part of a great exodus of people hoping to settle in a promised land, where the promise of riches and religious freedom gave hope to many, and still does to this day.  And so, while there may have been sadness in leaving one’s homeland, there was joy in spreading liberty and freeing oneself from being “subject to a tyrant” in order that people might “excel the Golden Age” and “make this place Paradise”.

As we know, one day there would be tension between the Capital and the colonies.  Wealth and freedom was at stake.  To protect the colonies, there were great expenditures and risks borne by the British.  At the same time, the risk of toil and hardship in frontier lands as settlers clashed with natives, colonials didn’t want to be taxed and their wealth taken without a say in how the wealth was to be used.  America did not want to fund English expansion in other areas of the world, that was a concern of the Capitol, not the colonies; America did not want to fund an English army that oppressed colonial settlers, that was not the purpose of an army, armies were to secure and fight for freedom, not oppress people and limit their freedoms; and finally, America did not want to fund a government which did not hear her voice, for she came to believe that “governments are instituted among men to secure their God-given rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And so, the time came for English settlers to alter their form of government, abolishing the grip of the British Empire over American colonies and instituting a new government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  In 1776, it was time for thirteen colonies to become one united nation.  The colonies declared and secured their independence to form the United States of America.  The great English exodus that started while Shakespeare acted on the London stage found its fulfillment more than a century later as a new nation was born in the promised land of American shores.

In equal scale there was delight and dole, for people that were once kindred became less than kind, war was waged to secure independence.  There was both joy of a new nation’s birth and sadness at losing the ties that bind; there was dirge in separation and mirth in independence.  Our rebellious forefathers declared to British Imperial powers, “We announce our Separation and our Independence and from now on hold you as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”  The heart’s cry of their fathers, “to liberty, not banishment” was finally secured by the sons of many Englishmen who earned the right to fly our stars and stripes higher than St. George’s cross.  For America, 1776 was the year the English exodus was completed.  The promised land was achieved.  The exodus of our forefathers was not one that ended in exile or banishment, but one that led to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as a new nation under God.

 
Thou know’st ’tis common: all that lives must die,
passing through nature to eternity.
— Hamlet

Thank Our Lucky Stars

 
This story shall the good man teach his son
— Henry V (IV.3)

When the colonial rebels secured their independence, as a symbol of this newfound independence, they chose a liberty bell inscribed with a piece of holy scripture from the law of Moses, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  And while our founding fathers did not agree on any one version of religion, fortunately, they did agree on the greatness of Shakespeare.  Let us consider a couple quick anecdotes and a few examples about the mutual love for Shakespeare that our founding fathers and other great Americans share.

George Washington, our first president, was an avid theater goer.  The great biographer, Ron Chernow, tells us few forms of entertainment matched “his sheer delight in a good play” and notes the abundant theatrical imagery in Washington’s writings.  Our first president, Chernow records, “saw himself as the protagonist of a great epic, dazzling an audience that had its eyes peeled on his every action.”  For an avid fan of the theater, it is no surprise that Washington quoted Shakespeare frequently.  “His letters are filled with passing references to Hamlet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest.”  Moreover, in wartime, Washington “plucked timely quotes from the Roman and history plays, including Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Henry V.”  It’s clear, Washington loved and appreciated Shakespeare.  But how does this love of Shakespeare translate to Washington’s everyday life?  Let us us consider how Shakespeare may have influenced Washington through his plays.

A famous passage from the comedy, As You Like It, hits right at the heart of Washington’s comment to his young relative that he was about to “enter upon the grand theater of life.”  Shakespeare writes, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”  This captures perfectly our Washington who was at various stages of his life a frontiersman, planter, general, statesman, and president before becoming a living legend and forever loved as a great founding father.  And this is nothing to speak of the personal side of our president as a family man, husband, mentor, and friend.

As a general and president, his love for Othello functions as a great warning for all leaders.  For the tragedy of Othello is that this war-hero and general is duped by trusting the wrong person, his second in command, the great villain, Iago.  Othello’s downfall happens simply because he only gets his information from one source, Iago, who unbeknownst to Othello has sworn to hate him and do him “hell’s pain.”  Throughout Washington’s life, one of his great traits was to make decisions by seeing issues from a variety of perspectives while holding firm to his convictions.  He lived out the fatherly wisdom that Shakespeare wrote, “take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgement” and “to thine own self be true.”

Also, Washington is honored for his great wisdom in drawing the best out of the people around him.  Washington knew how to “give every man thy ear but few thy voice.”  As President, he corralled the great talents and services of many great men, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  By doing so, Washington stabilized a newborn nation as a sovereign Republic.  He was without doubt one who was not “false to any man” as he had a great reputation for strength and humility of character, much like the great heroes in Shakespeare’s stories.

Moreover, Washington was known as a “leader of the people”.  On the eve of great battle, Washington is said by Chernow to have “shown a touching solidarity with his men, akin to Shakespeare’s Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt, sleeping under a tree amid his army.”  Prince Harry is one of the famous character transformations of Shakespeare, from a vagrant hoodlum prince to respected King and leader who suffers alongside his men at war and stirs them to greatness.  King Henry takes a ragtag troop of warriors and inspires them with one of the most stirring passages of war literature, as he tells them before battle,

"This story shall the good man teach his son,
And the memorial of this day shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers —
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile. 
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon this great day.”

Shakespeare’s Henry V is a great hero for Washington to keep in mind as he lived out the harsh realities of war.  For Henry waged war “by God’s grace” and sought only what was justly his.  Henry believed the outcome “lies all within the will of God, to whom I do appeal, and in whose name tell the prince of France I am coming on to venue me as I may and to put forth my rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause.”  Both Henry and Washington were general’s of a ragtag of hungry soldiers fighting for their rights.  Washington’s ability to lead alongside his fellow warriors is a remarkable show of servant leadership, exemplified by the great heroes and leaders of holy scripture and Shakespeare.

When we wonder why Washington had such an excellent reputation for how respectfully and generously he treated enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, one need not look further than the maxim of the King of the Jews, “Love your enemy and pray for your persecutors” as well as the words of Shakespeare’s great Henry V, “And we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the Enemy upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”

It’s not simply that Shakespeare was a great playwright who combined verse with virtue, a marvelous storyteller who gave us in-depth studies on human nature, it’s also that Shakespeare’s canon spans the breadth of the human experience.  So Americans of many kinds can draw wonderful wisdom from Shakespeare.  His stories contain extreme mixes of comedy and tragedy, of love and hate, of romance and goodness.  Shakespeare’s plays touch on eternal human themes like life, liberty, joy, justice, goodness, romance, and love.  And for George Washington and other great Americans to fall in love with this English poet is a great gift for us all.  For this is the gift that ensured our founding fathers did not simply undertake a revolution for the sake of war, but rather fought for the peace that only comes when every human’s God-given rights are protected by God and neighbor.  Shakespeare is a great gift to our nation, and we should give thanks for he is probably the Englishman most influential for securing independence from tyrants by a rag-tag group of colonies who desired to be their own nation, a nation whose flag would grow from thirteen stars to fifty in the short course of a couple of centuries.

Let us consider also our next two presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  When both were in London they set out in a holy pilgrimage to visit the sacred site of Shakespeare’s relics and resting bones.  When they arrived at Stratford-on-Avon, Adams said that Jefferson “had actually gotten down on his knees and kissed the ground.”  Adams was on a journey to understand Shakespeare for he was distressed by how “little evidence remained of Shakespeare, either of the man or the miracle of his mind.”  Adams noted, “There is nothing preserved of his great genius…which might inform us what education, what company, what accident turned his mind to letters and drama.”  But fear not, dear reader, for what was hidden from Adams has been revealed in due time.  Understanding some part of Shakespeare’s genius is what this book is dedicated to.  For now, let us simply note the great love that these two Presidents had for a gentle playwright whose house was “as humble as could be imagined.”  Both of them cut off wood from the chair he once sat upon as was “according to custom” and for their own memorials.

It’s not just our founding fathers, but other great and influential Americans likewise loved Shakespeare.  Abe Lincoln, the great slave liberator of the 19th century, frequently traveled with the bible and Shakespeare, both having a profound effect on his eloquence.  A great biographer of Lincoln notes that while President during the Civil War, “Lincoln would read for hours from Macbeth or Hamlet or Richard II”.  These plays were important chronicles English history, focusing on troubled kingdoms suffering from civil war and usurping powers straining for supremacy.  Lincoln's secretary, John Hay, heard Lincoln read aloud the outburst of despair from Richard II,

"For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d.”

And on the other side of the emotional spectrum, from despair of life to love of wife, and more recent than Lincoln, the great American civil rights leader of the 20th century, Dr. King, would quote Shakespeare while wooing his bride,

"Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove. 
O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark.”
 

On a later date, Dr. King finished a funeral eulogy with a quote from Hamlet.  While honoring the martyred children of a Sunday morning bomb blast in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King said, “Shakespeare had Horatio utter some beautiful words over the dead body of Hamlet.  I paraphrase these words today as I stand over the last remains of these lovely girls.  ‘Good-night sweet princesses; may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.’”  

Dr. King would also quote from Hamlet in Stride Toward Freedom and also in a book of collected sermons, The Strength to Love.  As a preacher, he reflects on the slavery experience of Ancient Jews in Egypt, and notes “slaves do not always welcome their deliverers.  They become accustomed to being slaves.  They would rather bear those ills they have, as Shakespeare points out, than flee to others that they know not of.  They prefer the “fleshpots of Egypt” to the ordeals of emancipation.”  

Again, another great American, our own Dr. King, relies on and uses the wisdom of both holy scripture and sacred Shakespeare to help our nation align with our core values, that all men are created equal with God-given and inalienable rights.

In these five great Americans we have five great lovers of Shakespeare.  And what a five!  Our first three presidents, two of whom wrote and edited our Declaration of Independence while the other secured as general to our army.  This great General secured the Declaration as a preamble to us becoming a great nation by leading a rebel army in war’s victory.  Otherwise, if we had lost, the Declaration would have simply been the musings of men striving to be free, a curious document lost in English history.  A fourth American, as President, became one of the greatest slave liberators of mankind.  And a fifth American, though not President, he is a King.  And this King, whose birth we celebrate every January, preached about the other king whose birth we celebrate every December and whose resurrection we remember every Sunday.  Four great presidents and a wonderful King — all loved Shakespeare nearly as much as their savior.

Ideas influence our actions, and great Americans have taken their ideas from many sources, but chief among them are religious scriptures and plays by Shakespeare.  It’s important that they loved Shakespeare because of the concern Shakespeare had for just wars, sincere revolutions that sought to make the world a better place, the peaceful transfer of power, and the rights and duties of rulers and people, among other important human concerns like love and romance.  

Shakespeare’s plays help us see and know good and evil.  He gives us ideals to strive for and examples of evils to avoid.  And so, let us give thanks and praise that our founding fathers and other great Americans loved Shakespeare.  A love of Shakespeare is among one of many gifts we received from our English forefathers, and as we live free on this side of the Atlantic, on these sweet American shores, let us thank Divine Providence, and maybe even our lucky stars for Shakespeare.

 
His greatness weighed, his will is not his own. 
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
 carve for himself, for on his voice depends
 the safety and health of this whole state,
 and therefore must his choice be circumscribed
 unto the voice and yielding of that body 
whereof he is the head. Then if he says he loves you, it fits your wisdom so far to believe it.
— Hamlet
A great while ago the world begun, hey ho, the wind and the rain,
 but that’s all one, our play is done,
 and we’ll strive to please you every day.
— Twelfth Night (V.1)

The Twelve

 

Numbers, numbers, numbers, our life is ruled and governed by numbers.  Our earthly pilgrimage and sojourn revolves around all sorts of numbers, and among the greatest of these numbers is twelve.

Twelve is beautiful for many reasons.  It can be easily halved, quartered, and cut in thirds, which allows various ways to organize and group things and people.  Our day is broken up into two sets of twelve-hour periods, our years are organized into twelve months, our music scales are often in twelve notes, and delicious donuts come in dozens, another name for twelve as well as a game of insults.  The foundation of ancient Israel was twelve tribes and the foundation of Christian religion was set upon twelve apostles.  There are many reasons to love and celebrate twelve, and for the sake of space and time we will simply note this ancient love for the number twelve extends throughout humanity to various cultures and peoples.  

Now, with modern man in the digital age, number base systems of ten make sense, for decimals allow for minute computing and are easier to handle than fractions thanks to calculators and computers.  But before these modern inventions, many of our systems were based off twelve because of the ease by which we can organize and divide based on twelve.  This is one of a variety of reasons that a full circle has 360 degrees rather than 300.  While decimals use systems based on ten, degrees of a circle are based on a multiple of twelve.  And so, while ten is useful and great for fingers, toes, and divine commandments, twelve will be our foundation for which we will continue our studies on Shakespeare.

We shall pick twelve plays to study Shakespeare.  This book aims to be a wholistic look at the life of Shakespeare and the influence of his plays, but it is best that we use a part of his canon as representative of the whole.  It is not that we will ignore the other plays, for we shall talk of them if and when appropriate, but for our purposes we shall pick twelve as foundational.  The twelve will give us what is necessary to understand patterns in Shakespeare’s plays, while also allowing for brevity as we need not exhaustively know all his plays to learn these patterns.  But once the patterns are learned, they can be applied to the whole of his canon.  The question now becomes, which twelve?  And this is a hard decision, for inevitably great plays, characters, or lines will be left out.  Nevertheless, we shall pick twelve.  Here they are — 

Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth for being renowned masterpieces.  Twelfth Night for being a hilarious comedy about an English religious festival that culminated on the twelfth night, our favorite number for this endeavor.  Richard III for being an early play and also because it is concerned with English history, the last play of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy.  Coriolanus for being one of my personal favorites as well as a play about Roman history.  Julius Caesar for its infamy as one of the most famous betrayals in human history.  Romeo and Juliet for being one of the most famous romantic tragedies in all of literature.  Merchant of Venice for its meaningful message on justice and mercy.  Measure for Measure for its important insights on law, love, and forgiveness.  Othello for its great villain, Iago.  And, finally, The Tempest for being popularly considered Shakespeare’s last play.  That’s the twelve, if we haven’t chosen wisely, I hope we have chosen well.

In those twelve plays, people will realize we are missing great comedies like As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and the fairytale-like MidSummer Night’s Dream.  We are missing Shakespeare’s version of a horror play, Titus Andronicus.  We are also missing the masterpiece Antony & Cleopatra, great heroes like Prince Harry, and great characters like Falstaff.  This is simply a mark of how great Shakespeare is.  Any time we have to chose plays from his canon, inevitably great plays are left out for no good reason.  Please forgive me for this error, but the cause is a desire for brevity mixed with Shakespeare’s greatness.

This particular twelve we’ve picked offers opportunities to cover a wide range of his catalogue.  We have recognizable masterpieces and tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth), we have a play from his histories (Richard III), which often refers to English history and not Roman, and we have comedies (Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest).  We have one of the problem plays (Measure for Measure), we have Roman history (Julius Caesar and Coriolanus), and we have romantic tragedy (Romeo & Juliet and Othello).  Finally, we also have great heroes and villains (too numerous to mention).  Also, these plays span his whole career, allowing us to see his development as a person, poet, and playwright.

Finally, five of the plays (Richard III, Romeo & Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear) were available during Shakespeare’s lifetime.  The other seven plays (Julius Caesar, Twelfth, Measure for Measure, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and The Tempest) exist today because of the work of his friends, mostly thanks to the First Folio published years after his death.  For one reason or another, Shakespeare did not seem to care whether or not his plays were published.

With these twelve plays, we have a strong foundation to understand the whole of Shakespeare’s canon.  And in understanding Shakespeare, a great labor of love will be won.  As the publishers of his First Folio recommend, “Read him, therefore; and again, and again.”

 
I think it lacks of twelve. Oh, answer me!
 Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell,
 I will follow it. Heaven will direct it.
— Hamlet

Love's Labor's Won

 
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
— King Lear (I.1)

Since no playwright has arisen in England or the world like William Shakespeare, whom all peoples recognize as a great genius, we shall endeavor in this book to learn and love Shakespeare, not only by understanding his influence on America and art, but by learning how to hear Shakespeare’s message as he intended his original audiences to hear him.  The labor of our love will be won as we review the place he called home and its influence upon the world (The Place), as we understand how the laws of England forced him into creative greatness as a playwright (The Playwright), and as we reflect on the twelve plays mentioned earlier to learn to hear his message as he desired his audiences to hear (The Plays and The Prophet).

At the Globe Theater and elsewhere, the great and awesome plays of Shakespeare were on display in the sight of all of England and later the world.  Let us learn to see and hear Shakespeare in truth and love.  Hear, O world, Shakespeare is great and it is he that we shall endeavor to know and love.  Take to heart these words which we share today, and let those with ears to hear, hear, and let those with eyes to see, see.  And then, only then, may love’s labor be won.

Yea, from the table of my memory
 I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
 all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
 that youth and observation copied there,
 and thy commandment all alone shall live
within the book and volume of my brain,
 unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by Heaven!
— Hamlet