“We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.” — W.H. Auden
From the moment we learn how to read, society, through the education system, is preparing us for the words of William Shakespeare.
The guy’s everywhere. He’s written every possible story, there’s nobody better, maybe it’s more than one person, maybe it’s not, ooh, what a mystery… all of this noise, this hype leads you to be tired of him before you even get to read him. And when you do finally read one of Bill’s plays, it’s likely because you’re forced to in your English class, which is rarely the best way to discover art. It’s like when your friend used to nag you to watch that one viral YouTube clip all day, forcefully playing it for you in his dorm room and laughing over the whole thing and then turning to you: “Hilarious, right?” Sure, man, whatever you say.
In most cases when finally reading Shakespeare, you find him overrated, confusing or just too much work to love if you even manage to finish the play. You watch Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You or Baz’s Romeo + Juliet instead, which is never a bad decision.
I’ve always appreciated Shakespeare, admitted his brilliance while not entirely understanding it, and feeling shame and guilt because of that misconnection. I’m a writer, I’m a reader, I’m reasonably intelligent and I love art. Something must be wrong with me.
It’s tempting to believe that, but no, there isn’t. At least not in the realm of Shakespeare. Art finds you when you’re ready for it and open to it. And it’s silly to judge Shakespeare from reading the text without historical context, without seeing the play. How did us plebes discover Shakespeare when it first came out? In the theatre.
Ironically enough, in a time when there is no live in-person theatre, Shakespeare found me in the form of Ethan Hawke’s fiery audiobook performance of his own fiction, A Bright Ray of Darkness. The novel concerns a famous young actor going through a painfully public divorce with a pop goddess, a man on the wrong side of the gossip mill with only a role in a Broadway revival of Henry IV to keep him not just sane, but alive. Given that he’s a privileged white male and father of two small children, it’s not a flattering look, nor is it supposed to be.
Ethan Hawke writes and performs in constant battle between his balls and his heart, and embraces the contradictions. We are witness to this tumultuous (and goddamn poetic) duel between the dog and wolf inside every man, that threatens to rip Harding apart. All the vain wickedness of self is on display: self-loathing, self-pity, self-destruction. An incendiary war to the (hopeful) death with male ego is at hand, taken to the stage every night when Harding squeezes into stiff leather garb and becomes the combustible warrior Hotspur. Every scene has the intensity of a chainsmoker racing to the end of his last cigarette — each puff an act of survival simultaneously killing him, clinging to the tiny hope that perhaps he will go up in flames before he has to reckon with another pack of smokes. Harding is just a moment away from an erection, a panic attack and/or death at all times. It makes for exhilarating road trip theatre that has forged a Shakespearean fervor in my loins and breast.
A Bright Ray of Darkness features a cavalcade of colorful and opinionated fathers, mothers, actors, directors, critics, cab drivers and lovers telling Harding what to do, how to feel, how to take care of himself, how to move on, how to be, when the man can barely breathe, let alone take anyone’s advice. We want him to listen when he is told: “You need your own opinion of yourself; who cares what anyone thinks about you. Nobody knows anything.” We want him to understand these words: “We don’t need to fear being wounded. Being wounded is the point of this life.” I too want to listen and understand when I hear these words, as neither are new sentiments, but truth is so easily forgotten.
Yet when you’re open to discovery, art will find and remind you.