Some think there were few Consumptions inn the Old World, when Men lived upon much Milk. — Sir Thomas Browne
The modern trouble with Shakespeare is that, like everything else, he has been modernized. It is not that one can now view Romeo and Tybalt brandishing their guns; it is not even so much that iambic pentameter can sound more like Lil’ Romeo than Romeo, son of Montague; it is that the comedy of Romeo became the tragedy of Romeo which became the love story of Romeo. But anyone who knows even the smallest part of Romeo’s story knows that the last thing Romeo’s story is is a love story. But in order to see Romeo’s story as the comedy for what it is, one must first do away with the all-too serious notion that Romeo should be imitated as a lover. It is not until we can see Romeo as a tragic character–and a tragic lover–that we can see him as the comedic character that he is. If Romeo’s “come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!” is seen as his wish for death if he cannot have love, then it is far too serious even to be funny; if he is railing at the heavens–at the general fate of mankind–then he is tragic and possibly even comic.
I suffer from the unfortunate notion that most of Shakespeare’s lines were written not to be directed at characters and crowds but at the firmament. Why, just the other day, a group of friends and I attended a local Shakespeare festival. As we paid our small fee, we entered a new time period–one of blacksmiths and archers, axe throwing and ale drinking. We waltzed along the wooded area from booth to booth under lights that lit up like giant fireflies. The scene was rather serene: small town folk chatting and clambering, for everyone knew everyone, and random Catholic priests appeared in their robes as men bit off chunks of turkey legs or ate pizza made from brick ovens, while the children galloped in groups or gambled at games, and actors from the stage waltzed around in their costumes like demigods from the seventeenth century. I have wondered, more than once as of late, why modern man does not strut around more often as if he is a great player on this great stage of life–why does man content himself with railing not at his neighbor but at fate? Why is it more common for the modern garbage man to bemoan to his boss, instead of moralizing to the skies? The common notion is too often to want what one is not; the common notion is too often to seek advancement or enlightenment; it is too often that the banker chides the garbage man for not being a banker and then laments when his fellow bankers can’t count; but the truth is that more bankers should probably seek to be janitors than janitors seek to be bankers, for it is better to have a janitor who values cleanliness than a banker that can’t count.
The problem as I see it is not one of social advancement but one of social contentment. All men are but players on this great stage of life–each playing his part and doing it with a pomp and a zeal–a holy pride–that doesn’t worry about what it isn’t. But, on seeing the wild peculiarities of who he is, the player strolls around town as if he is–as if his occupation is–as serious as an academic’s. It’s all too likely that it is. The world could do without any academics, for janitors still read books; I’m not sure the world would be as beautiful without janitors, for academics do not empty the trash and create enough of their own.
The players who waltzed around the Renaissance-like booths took the stage after intermission. The play was As You Like It, featuring one of my personal favorites, the melancholy Jaques. It is another all-too prevalent consequence of our all-too serious times that (1) we don’t have pointless jobs like attendants and (2) those who work those pointless jobs, or any jobs for that matter, are not very philosophical, if they’re spoken to at all. The wealthy classes among us should not be derided for their wealth–as if anyone should envy that. But they should be derided for not spreading that wealth by way of creating pointless jobs.* A wealthy businessman today buys a house and fills it with two children and maybe a nanny and a house cleaner. But would the house not be livelier if it was smaller? Would it not be more chaotic–and thus more poetic–if it included a butler and a cook as well as a personal attendant? The problem with America is not the disparity of wealth, for surely that will always be there; the problem with America is that there are far too few Pickwicks and even fewer Wellers.
Every wealthy man should hire an attendant of some sort who does nothing but follow him around. But it is not enough that he should be followed around; he should constantly be moralizing and philosophizing on both his state of affairs and–more importantly–the inevitable contradiction that is his boss. But then he should not be quarreling with his boss; he should be railing platitudes at the sun; he should be stating deeper truths to no one in particular–metaphysical asides, if you will. And though much of what he has to say will be melancholy, even very depressing, for whatever reason it will be humorous. I could not help when I was watching the melancholy Jaques that evening but be somewhat disappointed at the directors’ take on him. I must first state that the actor did a very nice job before stating that the entire conception of his character was off. For melancholy Jaques was not melancholy, he was angry, and unless angry people are throwing tantrums, they are not funny, usually. And so when Jaques stated the all-too famous lines about our world being a stage and everyone only merely a player in it, I found it to be somewhat lacking, and this was due to more than just his being angry; it was somewhat lacking because someone was listening. During the whole epic speech, the Duke and his merry attendants kept nodding and smiling and rubbing their chins as if what Jaques had to say was all very interesting. But it’s not so funny if what Jaques says is both interesting and heard; it’s funny if the Duke, having himself moralized, ignores his attendant as if his four lines are superior to Jaques’ twenty-eight; it’s even funnier if after these twenty-eight lines the Duke bats not an eye and attends to Adam who has just entered. All comedy rests on a serious, even melancholy, frivolity; it rests on the joker’s ability to say something he well knows is funny, something he is even willing to laugh at, but something said as serious as a fact; nay, more serious–said as serious as a joke, and said to no one in particular but said simply because it need be said. One may say that if a joke is said to no one in particular then it risks the possibility of never being heard. But then perhaps the greatest jokes are those that go unheard. Perhaps the most humorous essays are those that few men ever read–essays that do nothing but state philosophical platitudes and random railings at no one in particular, essays only laughed at by their narcissistic and overly self-conscious author.
Sam Snow, theficklefarce.com
Written in haste after fighting with a dip pen,
September 24th and 28th, 2014
Transcribed by Adam the Scribe II
In the Kansas State English Building,
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Painting: “A Scene from ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare”
By William Hamilton
Oil on canvas, 1790
*Those brave souls who do read through to the end of these railings will observe that I have been practicing what I preach in recently hiring a transcribe, a job pointless for him but eternally valued by me.