Posted By Leda Zakarison on December 6, 2011
Guest post by Leda Zakarison*
I’m one of those people who should love Shakespeare. I fit the bill perfectly for a teenage Shakespeare fanatic – I read books, speak French, and participate in class discussions.
I’ve always bought into this notion, too. I liked the idea of sitting in a corner of the library, sipping fancy tea and pondering Hamlet.
And yet, try as I might, I could never really get into Shakespeare the way I was “supposed” to.
I tried every angle of Shakespeare study – I read the plays in class, watched the movies, got myself those read-along guides, even played Juliet in a class production. I could understand the plots, the things you write about in 9th grade book reports, but Shakespeare didn’t come alive for me the way I thought it should. I never identified with his characters, never had an insight about humanity while reading his plays.
I felt like there was an impenetrable glass wall between Will and me – I could see the depth in his words, but I couldn’t figure out how to get to it, to really understand. I blamed my problems mostly on the oldness of the plays; I told myself I just didn’t “get it” because the language was so archaic, the contexts were too ancient for me to understand. The plays were just big, dusty, out-dated books to me.
Yet I continued to be obsessed with trying to adore the Bard. So fall semester of my senior year, I found myself in English 205: Intro to Shakespeare. Reading our first play, Twelfth Night, I found I could indeed understand the words; I was even getting some of the word play and hidden meanings by myself. But there was still something very two-dimensional about it all. I honestly couldn’t imagine the words to be stemming from anything greater than some character’s mouth. There was no context behind them for me.
But then I met the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.
He was, in my mind, everything I expected Shakespeare to be – well-educated, interested in poetry and art, connected to the court, a bit rash, and somewhat mysterious. Okay, so my vision of de Vere sounds more like the perfect 16th century boyfriend. But you have to understand how much this guy changed my life (or at least my Shakespeare studies).
The concept that Shakespeare was, as the movie Anonymous bills him, “a fraud” opened up an infinite number of doors for me. Suddenly, it was acceptable to question Shakespeare, to look critically at his works, to do my own reading about him. Being allowed to question Shakespeare’s authorship allowed me to question other elements of the work. It freed me from the need to sheepishly copy down and parrot back whatever my teachers told me “the point” of a play was.
It was like the first time your parents are wrong about something, the first time you realize that hey! maybe the planets don’t really revolve around the Earth. It opened up myriad possibilities for my further studies.
But my love of Oxfordian studies (or O-philia, as you might call it) wasn’t fully cemented until I read Hamlet.
I figured that Hamlet, being the most most alluded to and most revered of Shakespeare’s works, would prove the especially frustrating for me since in the past I couldn’t seem to grasp any of Shakespeare’s larger meanings. I tried to read the play before but always stopped frustratedly somewhere in the middle, unable to figure out what Shakespeare was getting at. I just couldn’t understand the character’s motives or mindsets at all. The essential problem, I realized, was not the Bard’s but my own.
I have been raised thinking that empathy was everything. I was taught that there are always two sides to every story, and that it was my job to learn both. At my church, context is always contemplated – we constantly discuss the time in which Jesus was living, the mindset of early Christians, and the other cultures the Israelites were surrounded by. It’s hard for me to understand people fully unless I know where they’re coming from.
Needless to say, trying to analyze Shakespeare with only the scantest bit of knowledge of his life was nearly impossible for me. I mean, you’re talking to a girl who reads that little inside back flap of books so she learn about the author before she starts reading. And before this year, I had no inside book flap whatsoever for the Bard.
Approaching Hamlet with my new Oxfordian mindset was a whole different story. Now I had context. I had back story. I knew about the author’s childhood, his wife, his relations with the Crown, his areas of expertise. I could understand a little bit more about how Oxford’s mind might have worked, what internal conflict he might have been struggling with as he wrote, his struggles with questions of identity and reputation.
In turn, I gained insight into Oxford’s mind by reading his works. Being able to place Hamlet in time transformed his story from a random, tedious contemplation of mortality into a journey into the multifaceted world of a troubled, brilliant mind.
Knowing that the ideas of the play were stemming from a tangible person’s experience, that the pain and joy expressed were someone’s real, deep-felt emotions brought the play to life for me. All those things I had been searching for in my Shakespeare studies finally fell into place.
Hamlet’s last words, entreating Horatio to “draw thy breath in pain/to tell my story” (V.ii.344-345), are perplexing and a bit troubling when taken at face value – why would someone who exerts a great deal of effort to convince people that he’s crazy have last words that are so focused on reputation?
Even I was a bit upset that a character who spends as much time in self-reflection as Hamlet, who seems to understand life so well, would have such a superficial last request. But if you look at Hamlet as essentially Oxford’s autobiography, pair this perspective with the preoccupation with reputation seen in Othello, and add a bit of an idea about Oxford’s mindset (he was hiding the secret that could have cemented his deserved place in history), suddenly Hamlet’s words make perfect sense – they are, perhaps, Oxford’s own personal entreaty to make his story, his secrets known.
The Oxfordian context makes these lines even more heartbreaking than they are when taken at face value. With my Oxfordian knowledge in mind and my Hamlet text in hand, I was finally able to break down the barrier of understanding that lay between Will and me.
In everything we do, there’s that “ah-ha” moment – the moment we finally stay up on our bike, that e=mc2 finally make sense, that we figure out what really happened in the War of Roses. For a very long time, I was looking for that “ah-ha” moment to occur for Shakespeare and me. It wasn’t until I learned about the Earl of Oxford that that happened.
Though I’m nowhere near the most prolific Shakespeare scholar out there, I’m finally able to come to some conclusions on my own, to divine those long-sought hidden meanings without having to rely on a professor or Sparknotes. I can now empathize with Shakespeare’s characters, feel their sorrow and joy with them. And, most importantly, I’m finally beginning to love Shakespeare the way I always aspired. And for that, I will always be grateful to Edward de Vere.
*Leda Zakarison is a Senior at Pullman High in Pullman, Washington. In fall 2011 she enrolled in Dr. Michael Delahoyde’s popular ENGL 205, Introduction to Shakespeare course at Washington State University. Warning: Don’t take this class. You might actually start to understand Shakespeare.