Long before our current January Covid pandemic, there was another plague—bubonic to be specific—devastating London in January of 1593. Young William Shakespeare had just written his first two plays, but when the plague closed all the theaters (sound familiar?), he switched to writing long poems. When the disease disappeared eighteen months later, he so missed the theater that he dedicated himself as foremost a playwright, not a poet, from then until his retirement, thirty-five immortal dramas later in 1611. And so I dedicate this pandemic January essay to him.
I came to the Bard after being “Dickens”-ed out. When I first started lecturing to high school students at assemblies throughout the country in 1984, I billed myself as a performer with three areas of expertise: early Dickens, middle Dickens, and late Dickens. Although the English Department chairmen and principals were kind, they let me know in no uncertain terms that if I wished to be invited back, I should widen my repertoire. What they really wanted was a program on Shakespeare.
I wasn’t surprised that Shakespeare was the topic most desired for a high school assembly on literature, but I was shocked when I discovered just how basic the Bard has become in secondary education. Having now lectured in forty-seven states (including, on really long assembly days, despair), I can say with authority that 55% of all high school freshmen in America read Romeo & Juliet; 55% of all sophomores study Julius Caesar; and an even higher percentage of seniors must read either Macbeth or Hamlet. Although there is no other author — British or American — whom high school students must study more than once (not even our Mark Twain), it is a fact that you almost cannot graduate from high school today without three Shakespearean plays either under your belt, over your head, or with great teaching, seared into your memory forever.
I’ve asked numerous English teachers why Shakespeare is taught three times more than any other author. Most have told me that since Shakespeare is recognized in all English-speaking countries as the greatest writer of all time, it seems only appropriate that students would be exposed to his plays in such depth.
But the best answer I received was from an English teacher in Florida who was convinced that the plays themselves were actually secondary to the reason Shakespeare is so often taught. She believed that it was his unique use of language — his genius for clothing his understanding of the human soul in words that pierce the emotions — that kept him so prominent in the classroom. She had observed that even when her students found his plots absurd, his characters puzzling, and his general vocabulary not worth the struggle to translate into modern idiom, these same young people were still jolted and even excited when they read a Shakespearean phrase so familiar and perfectly expressed that, until then, they had assumed it had originally come from God’s lips and then went directly into the King James version of the Bible.
She then offered me a unique proof of his enduring genius. Since Shakespeare authored so many famous phrases, she was sure I would have no trouble at all composing the last three paragraphs of an essay on him with nothing but quotations from his plays, stringing them together with something like coherence.
Impossible? Well…I do like a challenge, and so -- drumroll, please:
If you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance, laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort, or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days, recalled your salad days, or lived in a fool’s paradise, be that as it may, it is a foregone conclusion (as good luck would have it), that you are quoting Shakespeare.
If you clear out bag and baggage because you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, if you think it is high time and that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out, even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low til the crack of dawn, through thick and thin because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge at one fell swoop without rhyme or reason then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known, for surely you have a tongue in your head, you are quoting Shakespeare.
And finally even if you now bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead... as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing-stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blithering idiot, well then — By Jove! O Lord! Tut,Tut! For goodness sake! (and here it comes) What the Dickens! — it is all one to me, even if it is Greek to you, for you are quoting Shakespeare!