The Greatest Gift of All

OMG, you guys! Let’s talk about the legendary William Shakespeare, like, seriously, major respect for this literary icon. He was like the ultimate trendsetter of his time, making those classic plays hotter than a runway show. It’s, like, crazy how his work is still relevant today, like a timeless fashion piece. Bow down to the Bard, you guys! #Shakespeare #LiteraryIcon #OGWordsmith

Before you look up from your screen and ask, “Has Philippa lost her brain across the Pacific?,” I’d ask my own question: what if those words came from Kim Kardashian, one of the goddesses recently created in the absence of convenient kings? Well, they do come from her – almost! I went to ChatGPT and asked for “a paragraph on Shakespeare in the style of Kim Kardashian.” In the AI-created voice of KK, context aligns with the language, and a reader could even be charmed by such 21st-Century homage paid to a 400 year-old man with a ruff and a codpiece rather than an Armani blazer.

Speaking of which, I’ve often written about the 16th and 17th centuries as a time when “clothes made the man,” meaning that the more effort a person put into matching their clothing and decorum with inherited station, the more “true” they were to themselves. Shakespeare’s was not a society where you dug to find a self that was assumed to be deeper and more profound than your outward deportment or demeanor: it was one in which a self was most successful when outside and inside were perfectly aligned.

But Shakespeare’s plays get their very juice and vibrancy from disharmony: his protagonists, in finding themselves alien to the very communities that have produced them, invite interpretive attention and intrigue. I’m struck by the recent screen works whose worlds draw from a similar disharmony. The Father won Anthony Hopkins an Academy Award in 2021. It shows an old man struggling to control his life and identity and to fight against loneliness and death. The shadow of Lear is filled out and complicated by ingenious details like the presence of Cordelia in both of “the Father’s” daughters, living (Anne) and dead (Lucy). Anne’s decision to move with a partner to France upends her father’s plans for his own aged denouement. King Lear makes use of the heath and the storm to provide language for feeling, and The Father draws on King Lear to expand its own emotional world. Hopkins’ movie offers a stunning representation of loss. We make the discovery – too late for the Father himself to understand – that while ego without power may be ridiculous, it is still so human and so very vulnerable. And it’s all-consuming. Anne has to go to France to have any chance at a life for herself, and we’re left with the frail old man, awash in abandonment, imagining a reunion and crying for his “mummy.”

Shakespeare’s silhouette can also be detected in the blockbuster, Succession, which cleverly centers the Lear-figure (in this show, tycoon Logan Roy), while shifting the emotional focus to his three grown children, whom he pits against each other to compete for inheritance of his empire. Logan Roy never actually gives up his power, and so he never experiences the kind of undefended nakedness that propels Lear onto his wretched journey on the heath. Bloody-mindedly resolute, Roy dangles the golden egg in front of his children, whose inheritance of blind privilege renders each uniquely incapable of grasping it.

Then there’s the recent period drama, Bridgerton, featuring the intricacies of high society and the pressures it exerts on people to conform. Bridgerton plays with the central dynamic of The Taming of the Shrew by having older sister Kate Sharma holding the reins for her sister’s fate. Kate doesn’t trust Anthony Bridgerton when he starts courting her younger sister Edwina, who’s been nicknamed the “diamond of the season.” Anthony can’t marry Edwina without Kate’s approval, and in proving herself stubborn and willful, Kate also wins attention (and more) from Anthony. The lens of Shrew, held up to Bridgerton, illuminates themes of isolation, abandonment and social misunderstanding that speak across centuries in ironic and reverberative ways.

So what do these cross-century, cross-society parallels amount to? Human beings, over four centuries later, still breathe, have appetites, feel love, hatred, loss. In our current days of societally-anointed royalty, Kim Kardashian may undergo extensive cosmetic procedures; and in the days of Elizabeth I, monarch of England for half of Shakespeare’s writing career, great care was taken to use every cosmetic procedure then available, most prominently red wigs, and the lead-based makeup used to paint the face before any exposure to the public. (The only time in which Elizabeth I ever showed her naked face and hair was when she walked in her private garden in her nightgown before breakfast). I don’t think it’s particularly useful or revelatory to make point-for-point comparisons between the disparate times: but rather we might notice that for our brief time on earth, history offers us mirrors by which to see, in our reflections, the whole panoply of those who, like us, yearned; served the ambitions of selves and others; might have felt so momentarily desperate that they’d willingly exchange a whole kingdom “for a horse.” And when all is said and done, love and redemption teach us that in the chance to start anew – even as Lear himself does at “four score years and upward” –  life is not necessarily about ends, but about beginnings. And beginnings are not nothing. They are everything.

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