Friday, May 16, 2008

Literature Aloud

I must say, much as I am a fan of literature, that I never liked Shakespeare. My taste, whatever else may be said about it, does not like to be dictated. Which men chose the classics and left better books behind? Must Dickens be praised and Burnett read everywhere while every little author with soaring words is neglected? What is to be praised in Dickens? And above all, why do we give to children what is supposed to be fine and profound literature?

Shakespeare’s poetry does not rhyme, and its meaning is not always evident. To me sometimes it sounds forced. And his plays do not interest me. Literature class forced Romeo and Juliet upon me, and in respect for a friend I read Tweflth Night. So I don’t have a lot of exposure to his plays, and I have never seen them acted. If I had, their interpretation might have more hold on my heart. Most of all I find that Shakespeare is overrated.

Perhaps, however, he is under-read. The one thing that tempts me to scorn my own opinion of Shakespeare is that whenever a true fan of his work, someone who has invested the thought to understand his themes, has described to me a play or a couplet, I have enjoyed the metaphor. The Danish prince on Prince and Me aids the American farmgirl in her literature class by directing her penetration of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My immediate reaction is that any poetry that requires so much thinking is not romantic, though it masquerades as such. Maybe the metaphors were more common, or the objects of comparison an everyday thought. But I must praise the ability to say more with words than the words themselves, to do something with choice of words and order, rhythm and association, pattern and emphasis that has, even to those unaware, layers of influence and meaning. My friend who convinced me to read Twelfth Night explained the statement Merchant of Venice is on Jewish philosophy. I greatly enjoyed that. When Chesterton critiques A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I feel let in on the secret. And occasionally when I catch radio host Hugh Hewitt interviewing David Allen White, a literature lecturer, about a piece of Shakespeare, I am delighted by the events and ideas Shakespeare addressed. How he did it from a cottage in the country I’ll never know.

Dickens always ought to be musical. Because Jo March and her sisters liked him, I always felt guilty for despising his work. I wanted story, and Dickens talked about issues, the dark, depressing issues of London which one hopes have been reformed since his creative efforts to address them. I feel very much as though I was being told what to do, a list of morals told in story form. Again, whoever makes the selections for literature books is sadly out of touch with students. I read a shadowy scene of Pip visits Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and found myself very bored. If Oliver had not been set to music, I would have been turned off by the immorality and violence of the tale. But don’t you see that to make it musical, someone had to understand the story and love it enough to adorn it for the world to enjoy? A radio interview and Chesterton again are responsible for the majority of the interest I have in Charles Dickens. The former described the magic of the words the classic author used, how each word added to the tone of the novel.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote to Dickens, and shared his concern for their country’s social issues. Through her stories I feel as though I receive commentary on Dickens, both a defense and a rebuttal of his work. Her novels are more realistic, more on the border of the issues to enable her readers, themselves well outside the slums, to look in at a window, gently led like Mr. Scrooge by the ghost to look at the needs of others. Her heroes have compassion held as an example to the readers. They learn and love just like the rest of us. Even her villains are not completely bad. Each has a story that, while it cannot justify their rebellion, is a justification for kindness shown to them.

To move my heart a story must be near enough my own experience. Few people today have family feuds preventing childhood romance. No one I know was beaten in an orphanage. Maybe in some parts of the world or my city these things are the case, but my life is without them. Jane Austen appeals to me because she writes about families with normal problems and interests. Tolkien intrigues me because, though he sets it in a fantastic world of elves, goblins, and dragons, his epic deals with the basic cases of right and wrong, sacrifice and friendship, and the choices everyday to turn back. More grown up than when I took literature class, I appreciate biographies for mapping the way individuals of the past navigated the questions of life. New genres are opening to me; maybe soon I will love the classics on my own.

Last summer I hosted a literature party in which each girl or lady was invited to bring a passage from her favorite children’s book. There was Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Little House on the Prairie, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Alexander, and more. I liked best loving those books through the eyes of my friends, to have them share with me what is so relevant or poetic or sentimental about the stories.

So many people talk about classic authors. I wonder if they do not derive some of their potency and meaning from being a matter of commentary and interpretation. Is Shakespeare truly better when discussed? Dickens wrote for the very purpose of stirring thought and inspiring movement in his society. And what writer does not write to be read and to matter?

To God be all glory.


Christina said...


Since you are encouraging comments, I thought I would drop in and say hello :)

Just a little thought on Shakespeare. He wrote plays to be performed, not read. I think your perception would change if you had the opportunity to see one of his plays performed. I have always loved his poetry (Sonnets in particular); however, reading the plays is an entirely different matter.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to see two of his plays performed. Talk about illumination! It was like breathing life into an inanimate doll. The quaint phrases and sometimes awkward (to our ears) wording sprang to life when put into the right context.

So, if you ever have a chance ... I recommend starting with a comedy.

Lisa of Longbourn said...

As a matter of fact I am in the middle of a four-hour movie version of Hamlet, which if it does not end very tragically, will evoke from me a change of mind. Now - some of the too-modern actors have a hard time in this version convincing me that they know what they're saying, but he who plays Hamlet is very talented, and I can see how reading the play would leave out the marvelous change of voice and mood from addressing one character to another. I remain skeptical that the end of this tale will be unduly tragic or ridiculous. Afterward I shall most certainly give my commentary.

But don't most people read Shakespeare?

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn