- Being Stupid
First and foremost – if you don’t have the words it’s kind of difficult to have the thought. And if you don’t think too deep or too much, you are, in a word, stupid. Shakespeare, or any other piece of literature gives you those words. One may well wonder, however, what we need with words such as “pageantry”.
Surely, one might think, a skimpy jog trot through the dictionary every morning would suffice. But that’s here’s the problem with that: words out of context don’t mean a great deal, if anything. Just think about learning a foreign language. So, if you want to see words used and used well, turn to Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot or Austen, or a raft of modern authors. And if you do regularly see words used well, then they become yours: a person with one hundred words for snow may be only marginally better off than a person with ninety-nine, but a person with the word “disheartened” or “addiction” or “bedazzled” is better prepared to engage with the world as they find it today – i.e. this person is a little less stupid.
- Being Alone
As a corollary of the above – if you don’t have the words you can’t express yourself – you limit the extent to which you communicate with others, and the extent to which you can partake of their understanding of the world (i.e. hang out with them, fall in love with them, disagree with them, hate them).
The old conundrum: how can you be sure that another person means the same thing by a word that you do, sees the same thing when you say “green”, feels the same level of antipathy to resort to the word “despicable”, or be in “love” with you in the exact same way, has never been resolved, nor even will be. But without doing some reading – where you see the words “green”, “love” and “despicable” used (and used well) you just won’t be speaking the same language as most other people. You won’t understand them. They won’t get your point. You’ll feel misunderstood. You will be misunderstood. You’ll have to hang out with the other people who just don’t get it, and not get it together.
- Being Dull
There are words and there are super words. Shakespeare is full of Super Words such as “cold-blooded”, “swaggering”, “new-fangled”, “with bated-breath”, “wild goose chase”, “heart of gold”, “to not sleep a wink”, or “to be in stiches”, to be “bloodstained”, and something happening “all of a sudden”; then there’s also even Superer Words such as “Hamlet”, “Ophelia”, “Love”, “Kingship”, “Tragedy” and Comedy” – I suppose these superer words that people play around with so liberally would today be called memes – but if you don’t have them you’re not playing (i.e. no one’s talking to you or listening to you), and all words that will feature in the standard educated person’s lexicon.
Sure, you can use these words without knowing where they come from, which scene, which act or which play; without knowing that they come from Shakespeare, or even knowing their original context – howsoever it might differ to the usage of the word today – but, your grasp of the word, your use of the word, will be that bit weaker. When you say the word, when you hear the word, when you think of the word, there’s going to be something missing. Your armoury of Super and Superer Words will be depleted. Your speech and writing will be dull. This is also called “being dull”.
- Being a Fool
This may seem like a very similar point to the first, but the difference is very important.
The thing is, you, me and everyone else is constantly being played for a fool. Or a mug. Or a sucker. That latter is probably the best word – getting just the right meaning (the difference between the three words is subtle but instructive – if you’re not sure about this, see point 1).
A little allegory is needed here: you wake up at 5am, you drive in the morning darkness, fifty, sixty, maybe a hundred miles, happy to pay the cost in fuel, wear and tear, you’re your carbon footprint, only to arrive at a carpark to pay £9.00 for 8 hours, from which you set off, in company or alone, to walk into a distance that contains little over and above slight changes in gradient, the odd sudden rise or fall of some piece of rock or earth, and every so often you have to cross over a rushing stream. You’ve been played for a sucker.
Why are you here? Because, you say, it’s beautiful. But why? It just is. Ah, au contraire my fiend. You’ve been told it is; you just don’t know it.
Just like a sucker sitting at home and watching the shopping channel, that sucker about to pick up the phone and buy that pointless crap, you have been played. But how? By whom?
Well, it’s not as simple as the analogy (hence the analogy) – but there’s a long line of literary types who’ve been pushing hills, mountains and tress for some time. The Alps were not visited in the middle ages by hordes of tourists – just to look at stuff (hills, mountains and tress); why would you go somewhere that has no amenities, is cold and wet, and where no one lives – other than the most poverty stricken and ignorant of farmers? And what’s more – the area was pretty inaccessible.
You might say that alpinism was invented in 1760. But the idea that these inhospitable places (also The Lake District, Northern Scotland and the Isles, the West of Ireland, the Pyrenees) were beautiful was made over centuries by authors such as Goethe in Germany and Wordsworth in England. So what?
Well, when your kids ask why you’ve just spent so much money travelling for so long just to arrive at precisely nowhere, you can begin to explain to them. Over and above ‘I like it here’. ‘Amm, it’s beautiful.’ Or ‘Just shut up and put on your raincoat.’ You can say – “Just as every other idea in your little head has been put there somehow, my child, the idea that this place is beautiful will one day be inserted there, and for that you will be grateful. Consider why you think pink things are pretty – that idea was put into your little head.”
More importantly you’re a little more aware of what you like and why – which is pretty important, now that we think the individual knows best, democracy and all that.
- Being Alive
The thing is, we’re doomed to be suckers – because, at the end of the day, it’s good to like stuff, howsoever we arrive at this state of liking, or loving, or even hating. It’s better to hate fig rolls, that to sit on the fence: without such emotional investment, nothing we do will have any value for us. Love, is a case in point.
You are invariably waiting for love to strike, in the thick of it, or mourning its passing. But what if I told you, don’t worry, it’s only a word.
Ok, sure. That wouldn’t help. The truth of this point though can, when looked at with consideration, begin to help. Yes, we do do it to ourselves, this love thing. But it is, up to a point done to us to, and not by that handsome boy who sits reading comic-books in the park.
So, who’s done this to us? Well, it’s been kind of a collective effort, maybe starting with Petrarch, whose sonnets did a lot of the spade work; then he was followed by a raft of other authors, Shakespeare being one of the prominent ones (154 sonnets make a cultural dent), and then everyone else since chipping in: “love” is a concept that’s been over-cooked, over-egged and over-overed – but it has been made, and an appreciation of this point allows us to fall in love, fall out of love, and mourn the passing of love with a bit more facility. We are just that bit more in control.
Just like people who struggle with anger in their youth, they need a way of dealing with these feelings. They need to be able to talk to them, of them, through them. They need a vocabulary of emotions at the very least. Even a passing familiarity with the literature of love – an awareness of how this idea was made and how we are its victims – is a useful tool. Better to know you’re a sucker. Or is it?
But to be alive is to like, hate, love, fear… If we don’t read Shakespeare we will like, hate, love, fear a little less; like, hate, love, fear with less subtlety; like, hate, love, fear with less panache; in the final analysis, be a little less alive.
So, read your Shakespeare!