Introduction: The Art of Shakespeare
From Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet by Kenneth Chan
Shakespeare’s plays are astounding works of art because of their poetic brilliance and their profound meaning. All of Shakespeare’s plays are meticulously crafted to deliver deep spiritual messages, and these messages are conveyed through our emotional involvement in the drama. The meaning of each play is found in what the whole action of the play moves us to feel. Here lies the true art of Shakespeare. He reaches us by emotionally absorbing us in the play’s message. Thus, the message in each play takes the form of an emotional appeal that is conveyed to our right brain, our sensitive, emotional and intuitive mind. And here, all the poetry and imagery becomes vital. Here, the incredible artistry of Shakespeare becomes a living legacy.
An understanding of how Shakespeare imparts his meaning also leads us to the correct approach to his plays. We need to immerse ourselves in the action as though it were truly happening. We should not over-interpret the words of the characters, looking for hidden nuances between the lines. We should not interpret the characters as representing something else not openly presented by Shakespeare. Instead, we need to accept the action of the play as though it were real, because the meaning is conveyed through our emotional participation.
When Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, we are to take it that Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, and not, for instance, that it depicts our spiritual nature (represented by Hamlet) destroying our rationalizing mind (represented by Polonius). Or as the reformist movement (Hamlet) striking against the orthodox church (Polonius), or anything of that kind. This type of over-interpretation destroys the aim of the play, which is to immerse us emotionally in its message. We no longer feel the tragedy and horror of the action if we interpret it as a mere symbolical representation of something else. The art and poetry are then rendered useless, and a standard textbook will convey the message just as effectively.
At times, the action in Shakespeare’s plays is partly allegorical or symbolic. In such instances, however, the allegory or symbolism is related to what is already portrayed in the drama and serves as an artistic means to amplify its impact. We must not interpret the play as an allegory of something that Shakespeare does not suggest directly. If we do that, we may miss the message entirely.
We should also not look for the meaning in hidden nuances between the lines of the characters. Shakespeare portrays all his points very dramatically. Also, the message lies in the direct impact of the drama in its entirety and is seldom encapsulated in any one or two lines of the characters. Much less is it to be found in hidden subtleties not openly portrayed. For instance, when Hamlet pours verbal abuse on Ophelia in Act III, Scene 1, we are not to read between the lines that Hamlet is doing so because he realizes that Polonius is hidden behind the arras, listening in. If that were the case, Shakespeare would make it obvious. Once again, we should take what is presented to us as it appears. Otherwise, we will miss the emotional impact as Shakespeare intends.
Also, the words spoken by the characters are always true to their character. They say what their personalities will say, not necessarily what Shakespeare himself feels about the topic. This is what makes the drama so realistic. Thus, the meaning of the plays need not be found in any particular words spoken by the players. The meaning comes from the whole drama and resides in the emotional experience of the entire play.
Thus, when we read Shakespeare – instead of watching the play – we must do so with emotional involvement, picturing the scene laid before us as real. We need to use our imagination to fill in the dramatic visuals and sounds of the scene. For it is only by immersing ourselves in the play, making each scene live in us as though it were real, that the true message will reach us. Then we will learn through the experience, and it becomes a part of our psyche. This is a far more valuable lesson than any intellectual teaching can achieve.
It is thus helpful to read a play in two ways. One reading should be as a form of critical study to understand the artistic techniques that Shakespeare employs to impart his message. The other reading, on a separate occasion, should be in the nature of an emotional involvement. Here, we immerse ourselves and live through the play as though it were real. This second reading is essential to truly gain the message. We learn because in a sense, we live through it, and it becomes a part of us. The emotional reading is like an initiation. And it is here that the artistry of Shakespeare truly comes alive.