April marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of poet and playwright William Shakespeare. In commemoration of the Bard's birthday, J. Dennis Huston, professor of English at Rice University, delivered the following remarks on April 4, 2014, at a reception for the Humanities Texas board of directors in Houston. Huston presented his thoughts on why we continue to find the work of Shakespeare so meaningful and engaging.
Why, in 2014, do we read works, talk about works and stage plays, and watch movies written by somebody who was born 450 years ago? The equivalent of it would be 450 years from now if people were studying very seriously somebody who wrote television scripts, because that is what [Shakespeare] did. He wrote plays to make money.
What made those plays so remarkable are all the things that went into them: Most obviously, great language. Nobody wrote better language than Shakespeare. Soliloquies in Shakespeare plays are spoken all the time by English teachers. But, also, phrases from soliloquies are spoken by almost all of you, and those soliloquies belong to a huge number of great, great characters that define the range of Shakespeare's personality and world.
It's interesting about this man that we would not only, 450 years from now, be studying someone who wrote television scripts, but we would be studying someone who wrote television scripts who went only to high school. There are all sorts of people running around trying to prove that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, because, of course, he couldn't have written Shakespeare because he didn't have a PhD or go to college. They substitute other people for Shakespeare, but for whatever miracle it was, he created language that we still use and hear today.
He also created characters of a great range, characters as different as Richard III and as Bottom, as different as Olivia from Twelfth Night and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. And what we have when we study Shakespeare is a huge range of speeches that characters speak when they're by themselves, but they also speak them to other people. They're great, great speeches. Maybe the most famous one is the Saint Crispin's Day speech that Henry V gives to the troops just before they're about to fight the Battle of Agincourt, when it looks like they’re going to be slaughtered. They were outnumbered somewhere between six and twenty to one. The speeches that Shakespeare wrote are just amazing, and the magic of the language is one of the things we talk about when we talk about the plays, and one of the reasons we keep going back to the plays.
He was also somebody who stole his plots wholesale. There's only one play Shakespeare ever wrote, The Tempest, where we can't find a source. But one of the things that is very interesting about the sources is that he never took a source that he didn't change radically. And the changes all are changes that we think make the plays much more interesting or more fun. For instance, the first comedy he ever wrote was a play about two identical twins who get confused with one another because they show up in the same town. One of them lives there; the other one comes from far away. And it's based on a play by Plautus called The Brothers Menaechmi. But Shakespeare thought, "Well, I can do better than that. I'll have two sets of identical twins, and I'll give them both the same names!" So there are two Antipholuses and two Dromios. They are from different places, and they're identical twins who were separated very shortly after their birth because they were on boats that wrecked and went in different directions. So what Shakespeare does in this play is keep the wrong twins at the wrong and right places all play long, and they never get together. Sometimes the wrong Antipholus talks to a Dromio who belongs to the other Antipholus. The two Dromios never appear on stage together, the two Antipholuses never appear on stage together, and then, suddenly, they all show up at once, which is characteristic of all Shakespearean comedy.
If any of you have ever acted in Shakespeare plays, you know that fifth acts are very, very hard to block because there are fifteen or sixteen people on stage all at once. And it's even true of some of the tragedies. If you think about Hamlet, there's a big problem blocking the last scene because there are all these dead bodies on the stage. It is a sort of magic of the huge and wonderful world Shakespeare creates that we talk about and love talking about.
To be or not to be?
The quality of mercy is not strained.
Screw your courage to the sticking place.
To thine own self be true.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.
He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
Ay, there's the rub.
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.