O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest Heaven of invention...
- William Shakespeare, Henry V
Usually – though not always – it’s best to begin…well, at the beginning. The first Shakespeare I remember being exposed to was in my eighth grade English class. We read Romeo and Juliet out loud, in class. I hated it! Being a shy kid, I resented being made to read in front of the class. And, I’ll admit, I didn’t get much of what Will was saying.
After R&J, we read Macbeth. That was better. Witches and sword fights, ghosts and bloody murders, suicide and a severed head – that was cool. Though, again, I didn’t understand many of the words, and I was too young to appreciate the language Will used.
The first Shakespeare I ever truly understood was Henry V. In 1991, I was serving in the United States Army in the Republic of Panama. One afternoon – in between missions to the darkest jungles you can imagine and cutthroat games of Dungeons & Dragons – one of my roommates, Darryl Weeden, got his hands on a VHS copy of Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of the play. Darryl all but forced us – our other two roommates and I – to watch it with him.
I enjoyed it right from the start: Canterbury’s intrigue; Hal’s response to the Dauphin’s gift; his speech when treason is discovered in his midst; the siege of Harfleur; all of it. What truly set the hook, however, was that speech. The one Hal delivered to his men right before the battle of Agincourt:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3)
To borrow from Hal’s speech before the walls of Harfleur: Consider my sinews stiffened! Saying that I was blown away would be a gross understatement. The beauty of the language struck me. It wasn’t only what Hal said, but how he said it. The next day, I borrowed a copy of H5 from the base library and devoured it. That’s when my love of Shakespeare began. I read every play the library had. And, after I left the Army, I began buying my own copies of Will’s work.
These days, my Shakespeare collection rivals that of the local college library. I own three copies of the Complete Works, individual copies – in many cases multiple copies – of the plays and the sonnets, and numerous books about The Bard and his works.
In addition, I buy movie versions of every play I can get my hands on, and regularly attend stage productions of Will’s work performed by several theatre companies in and around New York City. Then, of course, there is the Shakespeare action figure, the Shakespeare bobblehead, the Shakespeare doll, the bottle of Shakesbeer, the skull…you see where I’m going here.
While I admire all of his works, Shakespeare’s Histories are my favorite plays. The jealousy, greed, and villainy; as well as the loyalty, bravery, and self-sacrifice portrayed in those 10 plays remains unmatched. Truthfully, is there a villain in literature better than Richard III? (One might make a strong case for Iago in Othello. But, did Iago have his own nephews killed? His own wife? Wait, ummm, scratch that last one, bad example!)
Of course, there are theories that Richard didn’t order the murders of the princes in the tower. Some think that King Henry VII (Richmond in Richard III) had them killed to strengthen his hold on the throne. And, that argument illuminates yet another way to appreciate these plays. As a student of history, I enjoy comparing Shakespeare’s version of events with that of the history books and the theorists.
Twenty years on, Henry V remains my absolute favorite play. I read it again every couple of years, I’ve seen three different stage versions, and I watch various film versions a few times each year. As I watch, I think about my roommates, and the other members of my unit. I think about how Darryl – the oldest of us; he was 24 and a fantastic artist serving in the Army to make enough money to attend art school – made us all watch the Branagh film, and how we were inspired. I think about how Shakespeare really got it right with those lines; how those guys, who I probably would’ve barely spoken to if I’d met them back “in the world,” became my brothers.
I laugh when I think about my adventures with those guys. Like the time 20 of us piled into a room to watch the animated dinosaur movie The Land Before Time. When an earthquake struck, and the baby dinosaur became separated from his mother, we – 20 trained soldiers; men who would kill with their bare hands, eat someone’s guts and ask for a second helping – had tears in our eyes. Though, none of us would ever admit to that.
I remember our “Pool Assaults;” a score of Infantrymen scaling the 10-foot high decorative concrete wall of the base pool in the middle of the night. We’d climb up to the 10-meter diving platform and all dive at once, then scurry back to the barracks, leaving a trail of water for the MPs to follow. Why? For no other reason than it was something to do. We were Infantrymen; we worked hard and played harder.
I think about the night my friend Ken Perkins cut open a Cyalume stick in an attempt to discover what made it glow in the dark. It spilled all over him when he split it open. He then proceeded to leave glowing hand and foot prints up and down the barracks hallway.
Or, I recall any of the dozens of other good times we had in spite of the heat and humidity, and between the push-ups, and the jungle, and the stuff I wish I could forget.
When Hal urges his men to the breach once more, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because I’ve been in situations that required that kind of bravery and I have had such brothers beside me.
That is where Will’s power truly lies. Not only can he use language to take me somewhere I’ve never been – Agincourt, Dunsinane, Verona, or Cyprus, for example – he can also take me back to the places I have. His writing connects the then and the now, the character and the reader.
When Romeo first sees Juliet, I know how he feels because his words remind me of the first time I saw the woman who broke my heart. When Hamlet contemplates suicide, I can feel his anguish because I've had those same arguments with myself. And, in the epilogue to A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Puck begs for my applause – "Give me your hands if we be friends" – I give it to him. No, not because I am a "merry wanderer of the night," but because he and his fellows have bewitched me with their words; words given to them – and in many cases created out of thin air for them – by the author.
William Shakespeare did not make me a poet – it took the aforementioned broken heart to do that. But, he lit the path by showing me how to use words to translate my feelings, experiences, and dreams into language. Using his form – the sonnet – just felt natural. (And, though some will argue that adherence to any form stifles creativity, I contend that it challenges a poet to become all the more creative.)
So, from The Mad Sonneteer to The Master, happy birthday, Will. “To me, fair Friend, you can never be old,/ For as you were when first your eye I eyed/ Such seems your beauty still.” – Sonnet XIV