To the Bard Who Died on This Date, 400 years ago

Everything about his plays is fatefully aware that it is in a play, a means to a predestined end.

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Much like many other literature enthusiasts, I find myself falling in and out of love with Shakespeare again and again and again. My main quarrel with Shakespeare, which incidentally is also my main quarrel with George Orwell, has to be that despite his creative vision, there is always a flagrant sense of intentionality to all of the characters, that their fate is already laid out no matter what complications may arise, as if the characters exist for the service of the plot alone and don’t have their own momentum. Othello is always meant to die, because a sketchy character such as Iago does not exist outside of his function as a plot device to consummate a tragic ending as befits a tragedy. Coriolanus has to die, because anyone so unversed in earthly matters has no place in a happy ending.

They all have to die in the end, or if it is in a comedy, they all have to fall in love. This kind of fatalistic design satisfies the purpose of the crowd who buy the tickets to enjoy a good show, but it simply isn’t good enough to convince anyone that any of it exists outside the show at all.

This reminds me of the disappointing ending to Marquez’s masterpiece. I remember my frustration as I read toward the end of A Hundred Years of Solitude, as Aureliano reads the decrepit parchment of Melquiades that has prophesied the fate and falling apart of the Buendias family up till the moment that he is reading it.

Yes, it is a neat ending – everything is blown out of the face of the earth and not a dust is left – I can’t think of anything neater than this. But there also comes the disillusion. The whole story up till then has been gilded in the guileless yet brutal incisivenss about life characteristic of Marquez’s writing. It is surreal, it is like something out of this world, but with the ending it is pulled back into the narrow-minded realm of a fiction writer, because it has become self-aware. The corny allegory and attempt at irony embodied in the specious ending is merely perfunctory, reminding you that it has to end somehow, and for some reason this is the way to go.

The same disillusion haunted me when my respect for Shakespeare hit rock bottom for the God-knows-how-many time. Everything about his plays is fatefully aware that it is in a play, a means to a predestined end.

But perhaps that is the purpose. Shakespeare wanders in the life of the people, he sympathizes with them, and he wants to tell their stories and convince them that there is poetry in them. Before they have to go back to their abusive masters or be married off to a foreign lord they have never met, the apprentices and the ladies could laugh and cry and wonder, at least for the three hours in the theater, at another life that entirely belongs to them. As for us, even though we are cut out from Shakespeare’s era, and we do not have the privilege to enjoy Shakespeare in the mentality of the audience for whom he has composed the plays, we are able to watch and marvel, more than ever, knowing that those exact same poetic lines have tumbled on the lips of actors 400 years ago, disquieted the dreams of kings and queens, and exhorted tears that have seeped deep into the earth.