Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Continuing the journey along the Avon River

By Dan White – Special to the Sydenham Current

This week we continue our journey along the Avon River, and perhaps a little time at the shores of the Thames, in England of course.

We are once again talking – Shakespeare.

Let’s start by elaborating on a point I touched upon last column.

Many people claim that they can’t understand Shakespeare.

If you are reading this, I would ask what stops you from reading and comprehending Shakespeare?

Not only did Shakespeare write in English, he invented over 1,700 words.

How does one go about “inventing” words?

He has the first recorded use of these words.

His inventions may be changing the use of a word for instance from a noun to a verb- to elbow someone out of the way
– it could be putting two existing words together for the first time as he did in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when he first used farm-house as a description of a rural dwelling.

I have a book titled, Coined by Shakespeare, which lists hundreds of his words and the etymology.

They include: deafening, gloomy, monumental, unclog and obscene. Of course, you can also find such information on the web, but I like my book.

Shakespeare truly did have a monumental impact on the development of his language.

However, that is not the primary factor that makes him a writer worth learning about.

Shakespeare wrote about timeless themes such as life and death, youth versus age, love and hate, fate and free will, to name but a few.

These are generally considered to be universal themes because we humans grapple with those subjects.

They have withstood the test of time and the lessons in the plays continue to show wisdom and insight.

Shakespeare showed insights that were well ahead of his time.

In As You Like It, Jacques “All the world’s a stage” monologue boils down human life to seven stages where life is a full circle.

Hamlet states “… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it.”

Shakespeare understood that the mind, thoughts and dreams were important barometers of mental health: two centuries before Sigmund Fraud developed the study of psychology.

So why do so many struggle to understand the words of one so insightful and influential well beyond the stages of London, England and still relevant four hundred years after his life?

I would suggest that first there is the stigma that I wrote about last column.

It is often poorly introduced and then used as a bludgeon in many classrooms.

We argue that we can’t understand the language, yet many people read from the King James version of the bible which was published in 1611, during Shakespeare’s life. So that doesn’t really meet the litmus test.

Many younger people are very adept at understanding rap, which is very much a dialect and has continued the evolution of the language, but would swear on the aforementioned KJV that Shakespeare is impossible to comprehend. Balderdash!

Many people approach The Bard the way I have seen friends react to Joni offering them stuffed grape leaves.

They recoil in some form of physical pain at the thought of trying something unfamiliar.

I first tried them after meeting Joni and my initial reaction had all of the enthusiasm of, “Um, yeah, sure, I can try.” To my surprise, they were and are delicious!

My last name is White, I never have to spell it out when leaving my name with someone, I grew up in a meat and potatoes home and I did not have a courageous palate.

But life is too short to stay narrow in thoughts, tastes, or attitudes.

Shakespeare has some great insults too… Joni and I selected our five favourites.

“Away, you three-inch fool!“ The Taming of the Shrew (Act 4, Scene 1)

“More of your conversation would infect my brain.” Coriolanus (Act 2, Scene 1)

“The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.” The Comedy of Errors (Act 5, Scene 4)

“Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.” Richard III (Act 1, Scene 2)

“You have such a February face, So full of frost, of storm, and cloudiness.” Much Ado About Nothing (Act
5, Scene 4)

Having written all this I recall that the year after my retirement there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth by colleagues who were being told Shakespeare would be taught only twice in high school English.

In its place the Grade 10 English class would start studying Indigenous writers and their stories.

Shakespeare tells an important story well.

But our country is currently immersed in the tragic reality that comes from ignorance of the value of diversity in culture and tradition in any community.

To all First Nations families who have been impacted by residential schools and the decades long ripple that so tragically touches your lives, for what it’s worth, you are in our thoughts.

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

– William Shakespeare

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