On this day, four hundred and fifty years ago, one of the greatest writers to pen in the English language came into the world. That’s right… I’m talking about Shakespeare.
There’s a lot I can say about my experience with Shakespeare. I could tell you about reading Romeo & Juliet in ninth grade and the five quizzes per act my teacher forced upon us. I could tell you about the first time I saw one of his plays live–a production of Macbeth at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis five years ago. I could tell you about the time I lived in England and got to see a show at the Globe. Or when I visited Stratford-Upon-Avon, toured his birth home, and cried a river of nerdy English major tears over his grave.
But, instead, I’m going to let the man speak for himself. Here’s a passage from Hamlet–my favorite Shakespeare play thus far. It comes from Act 2. Scene II where the title character talks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When I stood in the room the Bard was born in, there was an actor sitting in the rafter reciting these words. It was so beautiful, so poignant, I was rendered motionless, standing stupidly, unknown emotions pouring through my poor English major heart. These words, on the surface, don’t appear to be anything special. They’re not “to be or not to be”, or Macbeth’s “Out, out brief candle”… but in that moment, they were special. So here they are.
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king
and queen moult no feather. I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not