If you are like some of my writing students, most of my children, and my mother, you would be very happy to never have to sit through a Shakespeare play again, much less read anything by him, even an itty-bitty sonnet. I’m not sure where this antipathy comes from, though I blame standardized testing.
However, despite a prevailing wariness about the bard, I was never detoured from presenting his plays and poems during my long teaching career, dropping in Hamlet or King Lear when needed or necessary (which is like always!).
Sometimes, though, I had to spark some interest prior to reading a play, so I found fun facts, film clips, and trivia to entertain my students, lulling them all into a stupor before rolling out the dramatis personae.
Here are some oddities and tidbits that helped wet their whistles.
First, and this is profound, consider that two of his plays—Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing—have been translated into the Klingon language. Yes, Klingon from Star Trek. And mind you, the fully performed Hamlet is four hours long!
The inspiration for the translation is the scene from Star Trek VI, where Chancellor Gorkon says, “You’ve not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read it in the original Klingon,” delivering this statement to a table full of guests from Earth (where, as we know, Shakespeare actually lived) without a jot of irony.
Then Christopher Plummer, playing General Chang, quotes Hamlet by saying, “taH pagh taHbe.” To be or not to be indeed. (General Chang also quotes Mark Antony from Julius Caesar: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Really, the screenwriter was into Shakespeare!)
My students and I watched those scenes (and sometimes more of the film. I mean, Star Trek.) The point is, whether you enjoy Shakespeare’s work or not, you are more than likely saying something (probably not in Klingon) that he invented or coined.
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My novel, The Play’s the Thing, starts with the fact that Shakespeare invented the name Jessica, the titular merchant’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice. All my life, people have been quoting that play to me, recitations I sighed at and simply accepted. (It would be nice to never hear, “My ducats, and my daughter” again. Seriously.)
The plot of my novel starts with the question: What would happen if all the Jessicas in all the world and from all time haunted William Shakespeare nightly? Then arrives my story’s Jessica into his bedchamber, and together, she and Will uncover the source of the visitations before the end of the book.
Shakespeare also invented the names Olivia, Miranda, Perdita, Othello, Florizel, and Imogen. He didn’t stop at names, though. He provided many words and phrases to the world. Mostly, he used existing words and bent and joined and rephrased them. Various language scholars have spent a good amount of time on this study, and here is a sentence crafted with nine words Shakespeare minted, coined, and invented.
Full-hearted from her madcap but reclusive work in academe, Jessica headed upstairs where she hoped to be useful. There she found her watchdog Skimble-Skamble who was eating her silk stocking.
Who knew that we had to invent upstairs! But thank goodness we have a name for it. Let’s all go upstairs, for goodness’ sake.
To get my students ready for some intense play reading, I often printed out a couple hundred of Shakespeare’s original words, put them in a hat, and ask them to pick three or four and use them in sentences. Then we have a read-aloud to prime the class for more words, sentences, and scenes!
William Shakespeare was like no one else, his work influencing space aliens and multiple cultures here on Earth. He was a man with an estimated 17,000-29,000 words in his vocabulary (double what most of us have), but he also knew the human heart.
He understood love and how it feels to find it (Romeo and Juliet) and lose it (Romeo and Juliet). He could whip up the frenzy of love’s madness (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and show how politics can ruin even the deepest of romances (Antony and Cleopatra). He knew sadness and confusion (Hamlet) and intense jealousy (Othello). He knew the madness of old age (King Lear) and the feelings of being an outsider (The Merchant of Venice).
If you ever are in the mood to understand the range of human feeling and experience, crack open a play and start reading. Then get thee to a live performance as soon as you can, with hope, soon, outside, in the summer, dusk falling. You will see. The guy knew it all—and he knew the best way to show us. He understood the play really is the thing.