It’s been a few years since I worked as a professional Shakespearean, but anytime I meet someone who wants to talk about Shakespeare, I realize my knowledge of the dramatic structures, characters and uses of language can certainly hold its own with the tenured Shakespeareans. One man at the YMCA is taking a Shakespeare class at UCLA, and always has questions for me. This week it’s The Winter’s Tale. He asks earnestly, as if we’re talking about real people, “Don’t Polixenes and Leontes know better than to fly into such destructive rages?”
There’s rarely, if ever, one simple answer to questions like these, but it triggers the memories of having read and seen the play, and what hundreds of critics and students have written and said over the years. I offer some theories that I’m not yet sure I believe, but we’re exploring them together.
After about 30 minutes, I notice I’m getting very excited as all these thoughts are coming back, and talking faster and trying to make my points clearer. When we started the conversation, I was lying down on the grass in the sun, basically trying to relax, but a man walks past and says (kinda jokingly), you guys need to calm down---and it hits me, I’m dangerously coming close to letting all this talk about rage make me lose control. I check it, with an ease that surprises myself (as if I'm in a professional context again!).
For me, this conversation raised some intense issues that made me, more than ever, long to get back into teaching Shakespeare in the classroom, and, yes, there’s a therapeutic dimension. This somewhat clinical discussion of these characters who have nobody to blame but themselves, and their own uncontrollable rages, for the losses they suffered, may very well be the best way to discuss our own rages and failings. I know we can’t help but see some of our own situations in these situations, however different they may be: Mitch has a 25 year-old son, for instance, and I know he has suffered losses.
As Harold Bloom wrote (I think he was quoting Emerson), it allows us to see our own situations with an “alienated majesty” that, at its best, can shine a light on our own issues, but one we can turn on and off, and maybe help ethically structure our emotions in less destructive ways.
I usually felt in Shakespeare’s plays (of any genre) an intense exteriorization, and a very capacious structure, for my own inner turmoil in ways that that the Psychology, Psychiatry, and Wellness industries have not been able to reach. These other fields still involve using words to talk about “me,” in isolation, more than Shakespeare’s dramatic work, with their poetry of deep lyric emotionalism combined with their detached structures. It combines what I loved most about poetry---with its intense emphasis on individual words---with the structures of simple narratives that can especially come alive in collaborative situations, whether the theatre or the classroom.
We all become actors, even when merely discussing Shakespeare’s plays. The formal detachment (and negative capability) becomes a highly useful skill for critical thinking, by presenting situations in which I can identify with more than one character at a time. The social and collaborative dimensions are emphasized; it’s much more like the role of a teacher than the role of a poet giving solitary poetry readings. It’s much more like being in a rock band than being a solo-singer writer.
Talking about Shakespeare's plays with Mitch reminds me how I don’t have to work so hard anymore to still be brilliant about them, because I already spent over twenty years doing the homework, and that Shakespeare is at least as firmly lodged in the iPod of my memory as any song I’ve written or performed.
Yes, the rage, or undifferentiated subjectivity (or what Cognitive-Behavior Therapists call “doing a number on yourself”) can find a structure! And Shakespeare presents one paradigm for it. It worked for me; maybe it was primarily therapy all along; but it was also a profession. It could be therapy again, especially if I can get paid for it!
There must be a way---especially if I’m stuck in a place (LA) that values narrative much more than lyric art forms. In fact, Shakespeare is a great “gateway drug” that allowed me to appreciate the contemporary Hollywood “romantic comedy” genre much more (for instance, the “girlfriend” movie The Best Man (1999), which I’ve recently discovered they’re making a sequel and a remake of