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Book of the week: After Shakespeare

By SHIRLEY SAAD   |   July 23, 2002 at 3:11 AM
SAN DIEGO, July 22 (UPI) -- There has been a lot of controversy lately about the relevance of Shakespeare, and if he should still be taught in high schools.

Some teachers and parents are asking, what does Shakespeare have to do with African-American or Hispanic culture, or Asian, or even European culture, in the 21st century? And, indeed, if the teacher is not able to present Shakespeare's work ably and passionately, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello can be quite boring.

I had a teacher who cried every time she read King Lear, and it made us look at the play in a different light. We wanted to know what was in there that could have such an impact on this lady.

Anyone who reads "After Shakespeare: Writing Inspired by the World's Greatest Author," Edited by John Gross. (Oxford University Press, 344 pages, $35.00) will realize that Shakespeare is, and always has been, a source of inspiration for countless men and women.

Who is more amazing, the bard who inspired so many writers, philosophers and politicians, or the man who collected all those inspired writings? Gross must be the best-read man in Europe, maybe in the world.

His book is a compilation of the work of poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, philosophers, composers, filmmakers and politicians, who were all inspired by the works of William Shakespeare.

From Tom Stoppard's "Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead" to the Polish Zbigniew Herbert's "Elegy of Fortinbras," from Brecht to Aime Cesaire to Ionesco, we are treated to a plethora of poems, plays, films, and novels all inspired by the Upstart Crow.

If you are remotely interested in Shakespeare in particular, or literature in general, this book is a treat.

You can keep it on your bedside table and peruse it every night, a little bit at a time. You will discover gems you were never aware of, authors you did not realize had been inspired by Will, or even some of your old favorites, some of which you might not have realized had dipped into the common pool.

Shakespeare's work is not only immortal; it is a source of constant inspiration.

As Charles Dickens paraphrased in "Dombey and Son," here was a man "who wasn't for an age but for all time."

Apart from Dickens, one finds references to Shakespeare in Proust, Rimbaud, Charlotte Bronte, Aldous Huxley and James Joyce, among many others.

In a letter to an unidentified friend, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote: "Remember, when we were very young maids, one day we were discoursing about lovers, and we did enjoin each other to confess who professed to love us, and whom we loved, and I confessed I only was in love with three dead men, which were dead long before my time, the one was Caesar, for his valor, the second Ovid, for his wit, and the third was our countryman Shakespeare, for his comical and tragical humor; but soon after we both married two worthy men, and I will leave you to your own husband, for you know best what he is; as for my husband, I know him to have the valor of Caesar, the fancy and wit of Ovid, and the tragical especially comical art of Shakespeare; in truth he is as far beyond Shakespeare for comical humor, as Shakespeare beyond an ordinary poet in that way."

What a lucky woman!

Shakespeare's influence has reached as far as Japan. The famed film director Akira Kurosawa adapted "King Lear" and "Macbeth" (beautifully, one might add), and the Russian Grigori Kozintsev made film versions of both "Lear" and "Hamlet."

We find Shakespeare in opera too. Verdi, of course, set to music "Otello," "Macbeth" and "Falstaff," but there are also Bellini's version of "Romeo and Juliet," and Berlioz' "Beatrice and Benedick," to name but a few.

Politicians find inspiration in Shakespeare too. The most moving, I thought, was Nelson Mandela, who chose a passage from Julius Caesar.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once. / Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, / It seems to me most strange that men should fear; / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come."

There is also, of course, Virginia Woolf's famous passage in "A Room of One's Own," where she conjectures what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a talented sister. According to Woolf, the sister, faced with gender discrimination, would eventually kill herself -- a foretaste, perhaps, of Woolf's own end. Shakespeare's real sister actually survived her brother and inherited his clothes and 20 sterling pounds.

The German politician, Bismarck, quoted Shakespeare, as did Karl Marx and Freud.

Even Hitler deplored the fact that Germany had no one like Shakespeare to dramatize the history of the German kings.

The list of authors quoted goes from Anna Akhmatova to Francois Mauriac to Leon Trotsky. Gross' depth and breadth of information is breathtaking.

Before his current position as theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph, he was editor of the Times Literary Supplement and editor of several books, among which "The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters" and "Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy".

William Hazlitt said of Shakespeare, "Our admiration cannot easily surpass his genius."

I wouldn't go as far as to call Gross a genius, but I do admire his knowledge.

"After Shakespeare" is guaranteed to provide hours of enlightenment and entertainment.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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