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On Hearing Shakespeare

I discovered Shakespeare about the time I discovered movies. There was a TV show, “Saturday Showboat,” that presented what then were already “old movies,” and one morning it was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Max Reinhardt’s 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s great comedy. Reinhardt had directed it the year before on stage at the Hollywood Bowl.

I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time and, having rewatched the film several more times over the last six-plus decades, I can no longer recall how much of Shakespeare’s glorious language I actually understood in the 1950s.

But I do recall that at some point on that day I first watched the movie, my parents were chuckling about something silly a neighbor had done (backed his car into the garage without first opening the garage door, I think), and I’d said, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Mom and Dad looked at me: questioning, amused.

This column is not another to argue either against the Oxfordian heresy [1] or for Shakespeare’s recusant Catholicism [2]. I will say that the notion that Shakespeare, the actor, was only the front man for the real author of the plays, Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford, originated with a man named Looney. And the evidence of Shakespeare’s Catholic faith is increasingly clear and strong.

I simply here want to suggest (and parents take note) that hearing Shakespeare (on film or stage or in, as my college Shakespeare professor put it, reading the plays “in the theater of your own mind”), makes you a more intelligent person. I mean that. And I’ll say the same for the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin – to name just four great composers among many others. I think looking at great art can have the same effect.

And do not think, as some do, that intelligence cannot be improved. We have genetically determined IQs, but intelligence is fluid and is affected by many environmental factors, intellectual and emotional. And few writers (none, in my opinion, in the English language) are as likely to provoke thought and trigger feeling as is Shakespeare.

Reinhardt’s film was among the most star-studded produced in its era. Actor-director, and fellow immigrant William (Wilhelm) Dieterle, is listed with Reinhardt as co-director, but his role was primarily as translator: to aid Reinhardt, who at that point spoke little English, in communicating with James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Ian Hunter, Victor Jory, Anita Louise, Jean Muir, Dick Powell, and Mickey Rooney – among others.

I have not ceased my ongoing project of self-improvement and salvation. In this latter regard, I pray more, attend Mass more frequently, and subscribe to the monthly Benedictus [3] (“The Traditional Catholic Companion,” a kind of breviary for laypeople). I daily listen to great music (I have nearly 6,000 tracks on my iPhone), which provides much pleasure through good headphones or through the sound system in my car, and at least several times a week, I’ll watch clips online from theatrical and cinematic performances of Shakespeare, usually on YouTube.

Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy is just three minutes and a few seconds long, and you can find versions by Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Andrew Scott, Adrian Lester, David Tennant, Mel Gibson, Richard Burton, Nicole Williamson (not a woman), and Marie-Claire Wood (who is a woman). Take your pick.


Perhaps the most famous (between 189 and 286) words (depending on the quarto) in the Shakespearean canon, the soliloquy awakens contemplation of mortality, yet resonates with hope, too. Hamlet never surrenders his honor. He embraces despair but never succumbs to it.

He contemplates suicide, but then admits the reason why a “bare bodkin” cannot be the answer:

the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of . . .

To the extent that Shakespeare himself was Hamlet, he was, in effect, anticipating “Pascal’s Wager [4].”

Shakespeare addresses nearly every aspect of human experience and emotion, from murder and despair (Hamlet) to bravery and joy (Henry V – see today’s TCT Notable). He was a genius.

And I do not mean he had an IQ at the level of, say, Albert Einstein (between 160 and 225) or John Stuart Mill (180-200). Shakespeare loved language and people to such an extent that he was able to portray humans in a continuum from sinner to saint. Head and heart and soul.

He was also an artist capable of knowing his audiences – which word I make plural, because his listeners (most were not readers, nor was his work available to be read) – ranged from the groundlings at London’s Globe Theatre to the Queen of England herself and everyone in between. In my opinion, his rivals in all of literature include only Homer and Dante.

I’ve seen many performances of the plays, indoors and outdoors: very traditional prosceniums; theaters-in-the-round; open-air theaters. But no matter the venue, it’s always the playwright’s language that matters. It’s what you hear.

American education may be in decline, yet you could take a class of sixth graders from any school district in the land to a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and they will be rapt. It does not matter if much of the language slips past their understanding. And it does not matter that some students, having sat through the story of the star-crossed lovers, will be happy never again to do so.

But they will be few. And some will be changed, as anyone can be in encountering the incomparable. And there’s a place in Purgatory for those who dumb down the plays in order to make them more . . . relevant. No. Leave the words alone and let them uplift listeners.

One line from Romeo and Juliet always moves me. The teen lovers have died, and the feuding, now grieving families stand before Escalus, Prince of Verona, who looks upon them with righteous anger:

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

Genius. To my mind, Romeo and Juliet is the most tragic of the tragedies. And how it anticipates the sad consequences we see daily on modernity’s mean streets where brothers battle brothers for urban turf, as Hamlet says, “Which is not tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain . . .”


*Image: The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets [5] by Frederic Leighton, 1854 [Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Learning from Romeo and Juliet [6]

Anthony Esolen’s Imagine . . . What We Already Are [7]

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.