“I think in Shakespeare’s time it was easier to express yourself. William Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry. Probably because it was his job.”

We begin here with a student’s frustration at not being able to say what she means. Reading a poem by Shakespeare that speaks eloquently of love, time, death, art, she notes not the complexity of thought, the demands of the sonnet form, the wit driving the flexible central image, but the seeming ease of the verse. Ah, expressing yourself was easier back then, evidently, because this poem never gropes for words, never stops to think: it’s so inevitable.

Then on to the observation that Shakespeare was “good at expressing himself through poetry.” Well, that’s a fact; or, rather, it’s a fact that Shakespeare was good at expressing ideas and emotions through poetry. So much of what a working poet had to say “in Shakespeare’s time” was suggested by convention, model, and genre expectations. Granted, Shakespeare was one of the writers actively developing those conventions and genres; but reading sonnets by other poets of his day will reveal some of the same thoughts, some of the same images, also eloquently expressed.

But why quibble with whether Shakespeare was expressing himself or expressing ideas associated with the sonnet form, filtered through his own experience or beliefs? The wonderful thing here is the afterthought, the tagged-on speculative explanation, that not only undercuts Shakespeare’s achievement but also nicely flips the cause-effect relationship usually implied by “because.” Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry because it was his job.

Maybe today it may seem as if people get jobs and then become good at them: witness any number of pop stars, for example. In fact, to an extent that is always true: in “my day,” before people could major in business as undergraduates, plenty of liberal-arts majors took their BAs into the marketplace and found jobs in business, jobs they actually did learn to be good at once they had them. But generally speaking, I do like to continue to believe that a person enters a profession (or lands a job) because he or she has a talent for it, or has achievements that show an ability or preparation for it: the readiness predates the opportunity.

I know a fair number of poets, but none of them would claim to have gotten the “job” of poet and then become “good at” it.

Well, the student may just have been expressing a wistful notion that if she had the job of poet, she, too, would be good at expressing herself…but until that happy day, she is stuck having a hard time.

Of these possibilities—envy, resignation, desire—which do you think she meant?

Happy Labor Day.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““I think in Shakespeare’s time it was easier to express yourself. William Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry. Probably because it was his job.”

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