William Shakespeare (baptised 26 April 1564; died 23 April 1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon”. His surviving works, including some collaborations, consist of about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.
“I read and reread many of Shakespeare’s plays as a young man, and I have watched some of his plays, such as Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet. His works were not to be read only once or even ten times. They must be read up to a hundred times to be fully understood.”
“When I read Shakespeare’s first play, I already felt I belonged to him. When I read all of his plays, I felt like a blind man finally seeing the whole world.”
Just like current Premier of China – affectionately known as Grandpa Wen, I’m also very fond of Shakespeare. I never grow tire of him. In fact, I keep going back to read some of his sonnets and my favourite quotations from his plays and poems. Those golden verses written by him more than 400 years ago still hold true.
Like what grandpa Wen says – we need to read Shakespeare’s works over and over again to gain more insight into its full complete meaning. Not only those words uttered by the great bard are relevant till today but I also enjoy the manner and style rendered. The imagery is so real and graphic that it really strikes a chord each time I recite them.
My understanding of Shakespeare matures with my age. As I grow older I find him simply irresistible. Just like old wine mellows with age.
When I was a student in the early 1980s, I remember vividly reading an article in our local Straits Times written by a returned China scholar in his 40s on Shakespeare. Let me sidetrack a little with some background information.
After President Nixon formally established diplomatic relations with China many scholars from China were sent to US universities to pursue western science and technology.
Imagine China’s 1 billion population then. 1% of China’s population is 10 million. 0.1% is 100 thousands. When we say scholars it means the best brains in the country or creme de la creme.
Paramount leader Deng Xiopeng sent thousands of China’s top scholars to top US universities such as Harvard and the Ivy league campuses. Those scholars were in their middle ages usually professors or academics who were specialists in their own respective fields. China did not believe in sending young immature nobodies overseas.
Hence, those accomplished middle aged Chinese scholars sought to learn from the best of the western world in the fields of cutting age science and technology. But then they were trained only in the Chinese language in China’s best universities. They were mono lingual.
When those brilliant scholars – the best China could produce, got interned in US universities, they had to start a crash course in English. American universities don’t teach in Chinese.
According to that Straits Times article, for the 1st two to three years, they did nothing but to learn English from ABC. They need to master English fast before they could receive instruction from the American professors on science and technology subjects.
Some of us took a lifetime and yet could never master English. But those Chinese middle aged scholars were different. They were the best brilliant minds out of the 1,000 million broad base of humanity.
We all know that to learn and master English we must study English literature. It is the same as learning Chinese, French, Japanese or any languages where one need to be immersed in that language of literature in order to excel. William Shakespeare is major part of English literature.
Now back to that Chinese scholar’s article in The Straits Times I read in the early 1980s. The writer said that personally the only best outcome of the grand scheme of things is that he got acquainted with William Shakespeare. Since he had to learn the English language, he was introduced to Shakespeare in the process.
That Chinese scholar waxed lyrical about Shakespeare. Prior to that, he never knew that human existence and dramatic tribulations could be so poignant and surreal. The poetic language of expressions and imagery are so beautiful and eternal that he was so overcome with joy and gratitude.
More than 30 years after reading that article, I could still vividly recall. I tried searching in the micro film archive for that particular article in the library but to no avail. My greatest regret is that I fail to preserve a copy of that article.
I need not heap praises on Shakespeare. Any competent English educated will know Shakespeare. It is a requirement in any English language course. When I sat for my Advanced level English, Shakespeare is one of three papers. Critical Appreciation and Victorian Novels being the other papers.
I’ll blog on some of my favourite quotations on other time. I’ll just concentrate on the most famous and dissected soliloquy in English literature spoken in Hamlet.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
Hamlet Act 3.1
W Shakespeare (1564-1616)
What’s the meaning behind “To be or not to be?”
He is contemplating life – to live or not to live.
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” What he’s saying is: “Is it better to bear the painful burden of life, or to refuse the burden by killing yourself?”
Life is so full of pain, (“the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love”) why do we continue to live when we could just kill ourselves and end the pain (“to die, to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”)?
The only thing stopping us is our fear of the unknown, so we choose life over the risk of possible damnation. (“the undiscovered country from which no man returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of”)
He rationalizes that the reason we are afraid is because we think too much and as a result we fail to act. (“thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”) He knows the reason he has yet to take revenge on his uncle is because he thinks instead of acts when he has the opportunity (“and enterprises of great pitch and moment, with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action”)