Happy birthday, Shakespeare: Toast his brilliance, but quote him well.

Published by the Des Moines Register; http://m.dmregister.com/news.jsp?key=243863
April 22, 2008 04:36 AM

It's Shakespeare's birthday, reputedly, April 23. He was born in 1564, 444 years ago. Family dates may be tough to remember, but Shakespeare's birthday is always clear in my mind. Lodestone of the English major, I suppose. But think. If that wife-murdering King Henry VIII hadn't started a few little public schools, if William Jolliffe hadn't been given the charter for such a school in Stratford, if Will Shakespeare hadn't attended that school, where would we be?

We'd have no star-crossed lovers by whom to judge all the others - Tony and Maria, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Bill and Hillary. Our theater people wouldn't know where bad luck came from. (It's from quoting "the Scottish play," so referenced to avoid saying "Macbeth" aloud.) Hamlet would not have set the collegiate record for "worst spring break anyone ever had." Pontius Pilate would stand alone as our only archetype of the guilty leader seeking absolution with a hand-wringing, hand-washing motion. No Lady MacBeth following behind him to remind us, once your hands are bloodied, you really can't get the blood off. Ever.

No complaining that today's banks seem like usurers and want their pound of flesh (or noticing that, in our day and age, we can spare it). No happy misquotes of "Macbeth" by folks out doing geocaching. "Lead on, Macduff," we say. But it's "lay." And Macduff doesn't lead, he fights. "Lay on, Macduff. And damned be he that first cries, 'Hold! Enough!' Alarums. Retreat. Flourish." And on stage comes the swordplay. No fabulous allegory of the playwright's life, his world a Tempest from which he creates a "brave new world." (Not Aldous Huxley's dreadful version, but simply one where a young woman can spy her first rather glorious young man, in a place where free spirits frolic and Calibans lumber around doing most of the work, like misanthropic stage hands.)

We'd miss some moments of family fun, like one multigenerational Thanksgiving gathering when a slacker promised she'd do her chore "tomorrow." Someone else piped up, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." By the second line, the whole crew was chanting "Macbeth." "Creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time...." So many different schools, but every English teacher had been the same. Another Shakespearean family moment came as teenagers pitched in to carry great leafy branches of a downed tree out to the curb at dusk. "Like Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane," someone said, recalling "Macbeth" again.

Do you feel it pulling on you a little, that unity of culture that knits us together? But if we had no reading-and-writing Billy Shakespeare to give us archetypes, insights and moments of shared culture, we would also be free of the misused quotes from Shakespeare. Consider, especially, Polonius, the quintessential "yes man" to King Claudius the usurper. Hamlet's evil uncle may have poured poison in the true king's ear, but Polonius lives on to pour saccharine into the queen's, until someone finally stabs him. Not, as you might expect, for being so sanctimonious, but for rustling in a closet like a mouse. (It's my favorite moment in the play. I've been wanting to stab him myself since he first yammered onstage in Act I, Scene 2.)

Polonius uttered the words, "To thine own self be true," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," and "If this be madness, yet there's method in it." We remember his saying, "Brevity is the soul of wit," but not the drivel around it, such as, "What day is day, night night, and time is time." His words were never meant to be immortal. They were meant to be puerile, infantile, sycophantic, and on their face, ridiculous. The fact is, it does not "follow, as the night the day," as Polonius says, that being true to yourself makes you true to others. If you're true to yourself, you're ... well ... selfish. Sorry, but day's day, night's night, truth's truth and Polonius was an ass.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was not. He gave us much more than tedium in 12th-grade English class, yawning line by line through Julius Caesar. He gave us common stories, common characters, common culture and uncommon brilliance. Remember to quote him well but wisely. Happy birthday, Will!

LEE JOLLIFFE is an associate professor at the Drake University School of Journalism.