“Now is the winter of our discontent.”
Shakespeare’s words ring just as clear in this time of COVID, floods, and climate change as they did 400 years ago. The crisis changes. The characters change.in appearance but not in character. The plot and the theme remain surprisingly the same. The beauty and authenticity of the written word is what endures in documenting the human experience.
As a little girl, on trips down to see my father in California, The Gutenberg Bible and the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at The Huntington Library were annual parts of the trip. My most special gifts from my father are the two books he bought me on our last visit together to The Huntington Library in 2015. The staging of the displays in The Huntington Library provided part of the awe. The dim lights. The quiet. The illuminated letters. The artwork in the text. An actual printing press. The special focus on the books created a sense of magic. That sense of awe would only increase as I aged.
The Gutenberg bible helped me to understand the impact that the written word could have on culture and spirituality. Stories that had been passed down through the oral tradition, all the sudden had the power to change lives for the better, or for the worse. The words could impact human thought on a massive scale. Those words could be used to build community, teach empathy and spread love. Or those same words could be used to consolidate power, judge, assume superiority over others and propagate hate. And all this power is possible from the telling of a story. In elementary school, I did decide it would be important to read the bible. The lists of who beget who quickly lost me. It was the parables and the psalms that held my attention. And story and poetry has held my attention ever since.
The Canterbury Tales was fascinating because although it was written over 500 years ago in medieval times and was never finished, yet the characterization of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury grabbed and consolidated appreciation of Chaucer as one of the most influential writers in history. Chaucer not only brought to life people living in medieval times but created sketches of people we can identify in our lives. The Physician who loves gold, the unscrupulous friar, and the merchant who is known for business yet is deeply in debt are just a few examples of characters that we love to hate. I would not get to know these characters until high school because I found it impossible to decipher the old English. Yet, that experience in itself, gave me a healthy appreciation that language changes over time and the importance of it being accessible.
The First Folio of William Shakespeare has garnered the enthusiasm of Vancouverites. I arrive at 9 am for the early viewing event for members at the Vancouver Art Gallery. A maximum of 20 people in the fourth-floor display resulted in a very long, socially distanced line. The recent acquisition by the University of British Columbia, the First Folio was on display along with the other three of Shakespeare’s seventeenth century Folios. The excitement in the room was mostly due to the people choosing to gather to view the exhibit. There were the photographers, people drinking in the quotes and information on the walls, and the people with earbuds using the QR codes to hear the moderated presentations and relishing in the familiarity of Christopher Gaze’s voice. And then there were the groups of friends.
As an aspiring writer, I am well versed in eavesdropping. The friend groups were the people most wanting to share their own Shakespeare experiences with each other. They would congregate in front of a book and then talk about Bard on the Beach in Vancouver, the Strafford Festival in Ontario, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. At the time, I was a bit annoyed that they were blocking the text needlessly. However, I could appreciate that if my Bard Buddy had been feeling better, we would have been doing the same thing. My friend John is masterful at remembering when we saw each Bard on the Beach production since started buying season’s tickets many years ago.
As a literacy person, my main focus was in the enduring quality of the written word. These plays that were written 400 years ago, capture all the basics of the books we flock to read today. Love, sex, jealousy or perhaps envy according to Brene Brown, and a quest for power and prestige, weave in and out of all our most popular books. When I sit down to write, I’m possessed with creating something original, and yet over the course of the last 500 years, we are simply writing redoes of the great themes in The Bible, The Canterbury Tales and the works of Shakespeare. The context changes and challenges change but they look remarkably similar in comparing texts. Perhaps all we can bring to our work is our authentic voice in writing our stories and poetry.