Date: May 01 2012
Whenever I want to depress myself, I make a list of Shakespeare plays and cross out the ones whose plots would be ruined if any of the characters had a smartphone. What remains is a short list.
Soon, if we want to do a modern staging of his work, we'll have to stipulate that ''In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/The cell reception was spotty/From ancient grudge that brake the AT&T.'' Well, not that. Something better.
''Romeo and Juliet would obviously text each other about the poison,'' audiences would point out. ''Why doesn't Hermia use her GPS?'' ''If he was so worried about the Ides, Caesar should have just telecommuted.''
Misunderstandings and missed communications now come in entirely different flavours. We are all in touch all the time, and the confusions that blossom from that are not quite the ones at which the Bard guessed. Autocorrect replaces malapropism. You don't leave your fiancee asleep in the woods unless you want to wind up on a Dateline special. When your co-worker implies that Desdemona is cheating on you with Cassio, you don't go ballistic demanding handkerchiefs. You just log her keystrokes.
And the words. (''Words! Words! Words!'' as Hamlet says.) What are we supposed to do with them?
To make it through his works, high school students consult books such as No Fear Shakespeare, which drains out all the poetry in the hopes of making him comprehensible.
This is Hamlet's most famous soliloquy:
''To be, or not to be? That is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep
No more - and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to - 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub.''
Insert it into the grinder of that book and you get: ''The question is: Is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all? Dying, sleeping - that's all dying is - a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us - that's an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep - to sleep, maybe to dream. Ah, but there's the catch!''
''But Shakespeare is life glimpsed through the cut glass of poetry,'' you cry.
Ah, but there's the catch! What's the point, if the language is so far away that we have to do that to it?
Maybe Shakespeare has nothing to say to us. Nobody else from the early 1600s still sees himself so regularly adapted. When was the last time you watched a BBC version of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine?
There is a certain level of celebrity occupied by people who are famous primarily because they are famous. Is Shakespeare one of them? Do we read him only because we've seemingly always read him?
We don't even know who the guy was.
He's an awfully hard man to nail down. As a historical figure, he is proverbially skittish. He might have been Francis Bacon. You wouldn't get in the car of a man who said he might be Francis Bacon but was not sure. Why read him?
Besides, Shakespeare was obviously a hack. Nobody who thinks he's producing Great Lasting Works of Genius is as prolific as Shakespeare. He's more a P. G. Wodehouse or an Agatha Christie.
Look at his most famous play. Hamlet? A whiny college student, evidently overeducated and underemployed, comes home for break, sees a ghost and dithers. Eventually some pirates show up but, wouldn't you know, they remain offstage. How many writers, given the option of including pirates in a play, think, ''Nah, you know what? I'd rather have this dithering hipster talk about mortality some more.''
Come to think of it, maybe Shakespeare has never been more relevant.
People complain about their Millennials moving home. Try having Hamlet in your basement for a semester. ''Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, nor customary suits of solemn black …'' That would get old at breakfast, I imagine.
His plays still tell the truth, boiled down to their essences.
King Lear: Your kids put you in a home? You should be so lucky!
Titus Andronicus (or, Guess Who's Coming As Dinner?): Cannibalism is never the answer.
The Tempest: Wizards pretty much get to do whatever they want.
Shakespeare is a common vocabulary, a common set of heroes and villains, and everyone in between.
These are not plays we read and see together as a generation or a country. They're works we enjoy as a species. Shakespeare offers a road map to the human. And he does it in verse - sometimes tightly knotted little ornate gardens like A Midsummer Night's Dream, other times vast prosy expanses such as Hamlet. Before Sarah Palin was coining new words, the Bard was on it. Write what you know? Shakespeare didn't. But in the process, he wrote what we all know. And he didn't need a smartphone to do it.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.
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