This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Will was only 52 when he died around April 23, 1616 (the exact date is unknown), a young age by today’s standards but which probably was considered old in his time.
Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived. But he also poses the greatest challenge to the reader. Let’s be honest: Many passages of Shakespeare can be almost incomprehensible to anyone except scholars who specialize in the English of Shakespeare’s day and how he used the language.
In honor of his anniversary, I have selected a few snippets – taken totally out of context — from Shakespeare’s plays. They’re brief, not too difficult, and illustrate how he could say a lot in a few well-chosen words, and nobody ever chose his words better than William Shakespeare.
Here’s Portia instructing Shylock on mercy:
“Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.”
Two passages from “Julius Caesar”:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
“Cowards die many times before their deaths, / The valiant never taste of death but once. / Of all the wonders that I have heard, / It seems to me most strange that men should fear; / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.”
Some advice about life from “Hamlet”:
“This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
“Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it; he died / As one that had been studied in his death / To throw away the dearest thing he ow’d, / As ‘twere a careless trifle.”
Shakespeare is a master of personification, endowing the non-human with human characteristics to serve his purpose. You insomniacs might appreciate these verses from “Henry IV”:
“O sleep! O gentle sleep! / Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee, / That thou no more wilt weigh my eye lids down / And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”
Here’s one I have trouble reading without choking up. It’s Constance in “King John” speaking of her dead child, in which her mother’s sorrow is personified:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child, / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, / Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, / Remembers me of all his gracious parts, / Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.”
As I hope these brief passages illustrate, although Shakespeare can be difficult, he’s not always so. But hard or easy, he’s worth the effort. After all, few good things in life come easily.
As an aid to understanding his language I would recommend Barron’s “Simply Shakespeare,” which provides a side-by-side explanation of what Shakespeare is saying in his plays. But try to grasp at least the drift of the original first. With a little effort you might be surprised how well you do.
Doug Kneibert is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.