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Shakespeare : The Seven Major Tragedies

This series of lectures, by Harold Bloom, gave me an interest in Shakespeare I never had before. I never understood the hype, even after reading Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet in high school, and seeing a high school performance of Macbeth (which I realize may have lacked a certain… j’ne sais quois). It was ok, but it wasn’t the sublime ecstasy of poetry and prose everybody yammered on about.

So I judged Shakespeare in complete ignorance: I’d never heard of King Lear, the histories sounded boring, and I was intellectually and otherwise lazy, and unwilling to dig into the characters, or think about their motivation. Approached thoughtlessly like that, everything is boring.

But Neil Gaiman likes Shakespeare, and he has pretty good taste, so I thought I’d give it another shot. This time I’d get somebody to explain it to me. Somebody different from my grade 12 English teacher, who was a few leaves short of a pile of leaves, and more than ready for retirement. (Side note on that: my grade 11 American Lit. teacher, Kris Koechling, was the best teacher I ever had, in any setting. He also taught me creative writing, and introduced me to the writing of Joseph Campbell and by Stephen King’s On Writing, as well as many great films. Great teacher. He deserves a pay raise and better students. In contrast, Lady Leafpile threatened to kill us all the first day, and then told us she was kidding by placing her thumb upside down on her forehead.)

Shakespeare : The Seven Major Tragedies is all about characters. Bloom references the text often, so the listener gets a fair amount of plot, but he’s interested primarily in who the people are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. And that makes Shakespeare live. The plots… not as much. The abundance and worth of Shakespeare is his characterization, his vibrant description of human nature. I’ve read an apt line and thought, yes, that’s me; other people are like me, I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Which reminds me of a radio interview Harlan Ellison gave. In the introduction to Shatterday, he describes–to the radio host–his reaction to his mother’s long illness, how he actually wanted her to die (not maliciously, he says, but he “wanted her gone”) and the emotional fallout of realizing he could feel that way, what a scum-ball he was (his words). But then, he says,

[…] suddenly, there was a woman on the line, coming over the headphones to me in that soundproof booth, with tears in her voice, saying to me, “Thank you. Thank you for telling that about your mother. My mother was dying of cancer and I had the same thoughts and I hated myself for it. I thought I was the only person in the world who ever thought such an awful thing, and I couldn’t bear it. Thank you. Oh, thank you.”

Good literature is telepathy, to paraphrase Stephen King, but it’s also a connecting thread, a tie which binds us to other people. We can–in a limited but real way–love people we’ve never met, and know people who never existed. We love the person we create in our minds, of course, not the real flesh-and-blood person, but that feeling of connectedness is there nonetheless, and I don’t think it’s any less true because it’s imagined.

Bloom’s lectures create a bond between him and the listener, and between the listener and Shakespeare, and this bond greatly enriches both the reading experience, and the post-reading time of interpretation and meditation, which I’d previously neglected. These entries are one way to force myself to produce cogent thoughts on what I read. Whether they make any sense or not is anybody’s guess.

I’ll read Shakespeare differently, and better, due to Bloom’s Seven Major Tragedies. It takes more effort to read well, but the payout is so much higher; it’s worth the time. Shakespeare especially. And I’ll probably pick up Bloom’s Invention of the Human at some point as well.

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