Literally the Best Thing Ever: Shakespeare

Illustration by Leanna

Everyone knows who William Shakespeare is, of course, because of his insanely huge and awesome body of work; but there’s surprisingly little concrete knowledge out there about the man himself, his actual life. He moved to London around 1586, but his plays didn’t appear on the city’s stages until 1592; scholars call the years in between his “lost years.” How fun.

Frankly, I love the mystery that surrounds Shakespeare. It’s so different from the cult of celebrity nowadays, where we consume all the minute life details of almost anyone. But for all his mystery, no one besides religious figures has made such a huge impact on our culture—Shakespeare’s work is second only to the Bible in terms of best-sellers. He let his writing do the talking.

Untangling the knots of the Shakespeare conspiracy theories, what we (almost definitely) know for sure is that William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. Sorry, Italy—he may have loved your country enough to set many of his plays there, but we’re keeping him. But it’s remarkable that so many people from so many places would like to claim ownership of Shakespeare, to forge a connection with him. I do this too. Shakespeare and I share the same birth county and birth month (maybe even the same day—only his baptism date is recorded, and I like to think we share April 24).

When you grow up in England, Shakespeare is just one of those things you take for granted. You absorb his cultural significance from an early age, and you’re aware for as long as you can remember of his “greatness”—not just as a writer, but as a symbol and icon of English history. When you are young there are cartoons and Animated Tales to introduce you. You are taught a separate play each school year, and you tell yourself you can swallow and comprehend every monologue, every soliloquy, every extremely outdated sex joke. But you can’t—and that is a great thing. I’ve felt Shakespeare’s presence since I was little, and I will continue to learn more about and from his work until the day I die. One of the monologues in As You Like It reflects on “the seven ages” of development (infancy, childhood, the lover, the fighter, justice, old age, and death), and I see all those ages reflected in all of his plays and sonnets. A lot of people like to question the authorship of Shakespeare’s work; I think it’s because his words seem to know everything, more than any one person should. His words are able to reflect, with glimmering accuracy, every emotion and every age.

Shakespeare is everywhere, in one way or another. I continually find amazement in how his words can make ripples in every social and cultural context. This year there is the World Shakespeare Festival, which has directors and actors from around the world doing plays across the UK; in the past the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged his plays in all kinds of different languages. One year my family and I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream spoken partly in Hindi. It was beautiful.

Some of my favorite art, music, and dance is based on Shakespeare. Not to mention the countless film adaptations, old and new. The teen versions are, of course, amazing.

Reading and watching Shakespeare today is proof that humans haven’t really changed since his time. He covers power, youth, love, and dying for love. Innuendos abound, as does genuinely funny and clever comedy. Sex has always been on everyone’s minds. People still kill one another—and themselves. Ophelia went mad, Lady Macbeth became obsessed with washing imaginary blood from her hands—what more could you possibly want?

My favorite character is the wise and hilarious Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, a woman who proclaims that she “would rather hear [her] dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves [her].” There is nothing more satisfying than learning by heart Shakespeare’s one-liners. And nothing more dramatic nor heart-rending than the speeches in his tragedies. Delving into all of his characters and his plays, and noticing new things every time, watching words come alive off the page but be so old and having been spoken by so many other people through time, then having them be spoken by you, alone in your bedroom, feels like actual magic.

I believe that William Shakespeare gave the world all of those words, but in the end, does it really matter? He is more than just one man now, he is a whole world. All of his work gave voice to basic human emotions that resonated not only in 16th century England, but through time and throughout the whole world. I bet that even in deep space, Shakespeare has a fan club. As his friend Ben Jonson said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” ♦

September 19, 2012

Caitlin: “I WANT TO BE IN A GIRL BAND, I’ve fallen back in love with Joan Jett, I JUST WANT TO BE A ROCK STAR.”


Who am I now? Read More »


Adults are weird and illogical. Read More »


I usually feel like little kids are annoying and hard to deal with, but I love Saigon. Read More »

Saving Yourself

Collage by Sonja

For as long as I can remember, my family, my super-close friends, my kinda close friends, my not-so-close friends, and sometimes total strangers have come to me with their problems. I’m the one my friends go to when they are having relationship problems. They constantly tell me that I’m like a “big sister” to them. One of them said, “You just have a listener’s face; it makes people want to vomit their feelings at you.” If I go to a drugstore and stand in the shampoo aisle long enough, it’s all but inevitable that some elderly lady will come up to me and ask me for assistance and then end up telling me about her life. When I took a 50-hour Greyhound from Iowa City to San Francisco, I sat next to a woman who was fleeing her abusive husband; I listened fitfully and tearfully to her story of how she sold her possessions and bought a bus ticket to Sacramento. Sometimes when I sign on to Gchat I get this fearful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see which of my friends are online, and the horrible, heartless, calculating troll heart inside my regular heart takes over and starts thumping real fast, telling my brain, “Sign off before he/she starts talking about how depressed he/she is and how everything is awful and there is only despair to be felt!”

In the past several months, I’ve spent hours on the phone and on chat and in person talking to my friends who are depressed. I’ve spent nights talking people out of suicide. I recently went on the National Suicide Hotline website, not because I was feeling suicidal, but I had been the confidant to so many people’s suicidal thoughts that I started to feel like I needed some support in order to support others. At first, it seemed indulgent to feel this way, like I was trivializing other people’s real problems and somehow making it all about ME—how exhausting it was for ME to be everyone’s confidant, how awful it was for ME to always have to be around people who were deeply, deeply depressed—but after the fifth night of sleeping three hours because I had stayed up until two in the morning persuading someone not to hurt themselves and to see that they had a lot to live for, and then getting off the phone, crying into my pillow until I was dry heaving, and turning on my computer and finishing an essay that I had neglected all day to work on, I realized that I wasn’t making it about me enough, that I needed to make things more about ME, because the ME that my friends relied on when they were feeling desperate, the ME that my friends believed to be strong or cheerful or resilient, was getting weaker and darker and more fragile with each passing second that I was neglecting to look out for myself.

How do we take care of ourselves when other people need us to take care of them? How do we create space and time to nurture and love ourselves without feeling like we are abandoning the ones we love, people who rely on us and need our support? I haven’t totally figured it out yet, but perhaps these next few tips can at least get us all on the right track.

It’s OK to not be OK.

When I was a teenager, I felt like the adults in my life were constantly telling me that I was really lucky and that my problems were trivial and in like 20 years I would see how good I had it. I hated hearing that, because who wants to wait 20 years to be able to say MY PROBLEMS WERE AND ARE STILL REAL. Let’s just get this over with now: YOUR PROBLEMS ARE REAL. It doesn’t matter if someone says to you, “You don’t seem like the kind of person who gets depressed,” because there is no “kind of person” who gets depressed. There isn’t a category of people who have sole proprietary rights to depression.

Not being OK can look a million different ways. There are some very visible warning signs of not being OK, but there are also lots of ways in which a person’s pain can seem invisible. My friends who are cutters, my friends who are public criers, my friends who write poetry about their blood and guts, my friends who abuse alcohol and drugs on a regular basis—their pain has always been so, so visible. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that your pain isn’t legit if you’re the one who is listening to your friend’s sad poetry, or the one who holds your friend’s hair back when she pukes. Pain can be dramatic and sharp and obvious, but it can also be muted and nuanced and inconspicuous.

In college, I had a “spot” that I would go to every single night to cry. No one knew about it. One night, when I was feeling particularly sad, my good friend told me, “This is really weird. You’re normally so cheerful. I never thought I would see you in a bad mood.” I realized that I hadn’t been honest with her. I had been tightly controlling how much of me I allowed her to see, and as a result, my problems were invisible to her.

Make your own needs visible to others. Tell someone you’re not OK.

My little brother has really severe OCD, and two years ago, when his illness was really spiraling out of control, we would talk every night before bed. One time, I had my door open and I was crying on my bed when my brother came in to talk to me about his OCD stuff. I wanted to pull myself together so I could help him, but I was too sad and too weak. I thought maybe he would be freaked out by my crying, but to my total surprise he came up and asked if I was all right. Instead of saying “I’m fine” like I usually did, I said, “I’m not OK. My boyfriend broke up with me and my heart is broken and I feel like I can’t live.”

And you know what? My baby brother, who was born on Christmas nine years after I was born on Christmas, who used to snuggle with me in my little twin bed when I was in high school and he was in elementary school, whom I taught to say “Can I have a drink, please?” instead of “Thirsty, please,” who used to pee into jars that I had to hold between my legs in the car on long road trips, whom I have taken care of since he was born, whom, prior to that moment, I had never even once considered confiding in, helped me. He talked to me about my relationship and gave me advice and listened to me and told me, “I wouldn’t grovel and beg someone to take me back, because, uh, I have too much self-respect, and no one is really worth that,” which turned out to be the most calming thing anyone could have said to me at that exact moment in my life.

Don’t underestimate the people in your life—sometimes that younger sibling, that friend who always seems so needy, may very well surprise you and be there for you in all the ways that you have been there for them. Which brings me to…