As the students come to discover, these questions only deepen with time, demanding not absolute answers but the dignity of what American scholar and author Joyce Carol Oates calls "sustained, collective concentration".
To foster this kind of concentration and to address the question of Shakespeare's timelessness, I find that it helps students to connect with modes of perception that are familiar to them. For example, given that we now live in an image-driven society, one very effective exercise is to compare specific scenes from, say, Othello with the wordless art of photography.
Unless taken with a trained eye, I begin, most photographs carry no certain meaning; they are superficial, recording only the immediate impression of scenes and faces. Photos never tell us as much as we want to know about what is going on inside the subject or what is behind the shot itself. They provide an image but lack context; we don't know what led up to their taking or what followed. In addition, when subjects know they are being photographed, the image may memorialise the artificial or the superficial rather than capture the true or the essential.
Shakespeare's genius - and a key to the timelessness of his characters - is precisely the opposite. The "picture" he creates is dynamic and multidimensional, the context fully established and thoroughly explored.
Through Othello's asides and soliloquies, for instance, the playwright travels to the innermost level of the self, captures dynamic tensions and reproduces his discoveries truthfully. What Shakespeare presents is not a photo's static image that has been randomly and even dispassionately digitised but, as literary critic Stephen Greenblatt puts it, "a fingerprint of his soul".
Shakespeare also establishes a context by revealing what actions and dialogue precede and follow his carefully selected theatrical moments. What to put in or leave out, and how people behave, are all under his absolute control as he draws us into his world, enclosing us in its particulars. And because Othello and the other characters are unaware of the narrator or the audience, the imagined personas come across not as posed but as fully realised. In Shakespeare's hands, a thousand words are worth a picture. His art trumps time.
Once students begin to grasp why the characters' depth and passions speak to any era, they can start to examine the next guiding question: how do Shakespeare's plays help us to interpret human behaviour? As Hamlet tells the Players, the moral function of good theatre is "to hold, as `twere, the mirror up to nature".
For four centuries, the play has made audiences weep. Hamlet's pain is excruciating not because we don't understand it, but because we do. At 16, I read the tragedy for its melancholy; at 25, for its mystery; but at 58, after the death of my father, for its consolation. In all cases, the play deepened my understanding of Hamlet's soul.
When my class begins its discussion of the troubled Dane and his maddening dilemma, I tell them a personal story. The day after my father's funeral, I returned to campus to teach my Shakespeare class; coincidentally, I had previously assigned Hamlet.
As I opened the discussion that day, I sensed my father seated at the back of the room. He was dressed in the dark blue suit, light blue shirt and red tie he was buried in.
I could feel that he was listening intently, as he always did when either of his sons spoke. When I recited Hamlet's words - "He was a man, take him for all in allI shall not look upon his like again" - I was speaking of my father.
When I talked about Hamlet's broodings on death and the life hereafter and then said the lines, "There's a divinity that shapes our endsRough-hew them how we will", my father was taking in every word. Afterwards, one student remarked that he had never heard the play discussed with such passion.
"The sources of the truest truths", said Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow, "are inevitably profoundly personal."
If students begin to understand the common humanity of Shakespeare's plays, they can more easily imagine the Bard sitting with quill in hand, looking plainly into a mirror.
What must he have seen? Was there an upsetting discrepancy between the face he imagined he had and the face he owned? Did he see the truth in the darkest, most perilous of his traits? Surely his greatest tragic characters took years to emerge even half-formed from those depths. This connection is a gateway through which we can explore the impact of the plays on ourselves.
The question of wisdom
From interpreting human behaviour, it's a short leap to understanding our culture through the eyes of the playwright - the next overarching question on our list.
If students are acquainted with the history, themes and development of Western culture, they will quickly realise that allusions to the plays appear in music, painting and sculpture, as well as in our everyday lives, in many of the names we hear, the places we visit and the expressions we use.
If students are familiar with psychology or sociology, they will understand how Shakespeare's work shapes those disciplines' views of emotion, devotion, disloyalty and hubris. If students have studied political thought or business, they will recognise much about compromise, state-building and power struggles. Students of the law will recognise the razor edge of rhetoric, negotiation and strategy.
In other words, in the work are scripted many of an entire culture's thoughts, traditions, institutions, mores, fears, hopes and longings. With Shakespeare we are well connected to the core of English-speaking civilisation.
Of all the questions my classes consider, however, the most perplexing is the last one, as we attempt to understand what led Shakespeare to write at this level. How could one man have seen, felt and known so much? How could he have written with such insight?
Among the responses my students offer are that the man was obsessed, or that he burned with an overwhelming energy, or that he had an intuitive grasp of innate human nature.
The truth is we will never know. When artists perform with peers of the highest calibre, I explain, they are inspired to greater heights in their own work. Shakespeare was certainly aware of his competition, notably Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman and Robert Greene, and he knew that if he were to survive in the theatre, he had to attract thousands with plays that pleased his audiences while delving deep.
We conclude the semester by admitting that there is no clear reason why the son of a small-town burgess and high bailiff should go on to become in little more than 20 years the immortal playwright we have discussed.
But we do know that Shakespeare lived in an environment where his talents could be fulfilled; that he remained fully responsive to all experience, occupations, interests and powers of the body, soul and mind; and that he worked very hard to give expression to all this in some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever written in the English language.
What a noble way to spend a life. What a powerful, potentially life- altering message with which to leave our students - if they are open to it.
Dale Salwak is professor of English at Citrus College in California, US. Read more about Shakespeare teaching on pages 44-45
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