With Shakespeare’s birth and death date happening on the 23rd of April, I’ve been thinking about what a great man he was. So many plays. Such a legacy left behind for the world to enjoy. Generation after generation finding ways to adapt his work to contemporary settings, finding meaning in every scene and soliloquy; the desire to interpret his works never ever fully satisfied. He was, after all, the man who unlocked the secret that is human nature. That managed to encapsulate it so perfectly in his characters. It is because of this ability of his that his early modern works still seem to speak to us. That we laugh at his slapstick jokes, cry or rejoice at the death of renowned characters, an ever-growing feeling of “relatedness” running through the theatrical experience. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how it came to be that a man in the early modern period, gifted and great as he was, managed to unlock that secret. Managed to crack the code that would put an end to futile disagreements between individuals and give way to at least a couple of hours of entertainment for the many, existential realisations for the few. Somehow, despite asserting it in countless essays, I came to doubt the validity of such a statement.
As humans, our experience of the world seems to be some sort of continuous dialogue between the external socio-political, cultural context, and our internal psychological and emotional systems. We can’t help but use the hermeneutics that these external systems provide us to express our internal perception of our experience to others, and it is often in that process of expression that we manage to make sense of it in the first place. In simpler terms, our experience of the world and our place within it is undoubtedly shaped by the language and culture we’re surrounded by. Which brings me to my original point: how could it be that a man, writing in the 16th century, in a single language, had managed to crack the universality of human nature?
It seems obvious that he hadn’t. And there are a number of ways of demonstrating this.
As someone who’s had the privilege of being raised in an environment where learning many languages and being exposed to different cultures was not only encouraged, but often facilitated, the idea that emotions and experiences feel very different depending on the language and context, is quite a recurring theme in my life. I found it ridiculously endearing when I first learned in French that to “miss someone” was described as “you are missing from me”, a fact which seemed to strengthen the idea that relationships involve a relation between two individuals, between two counterparts. I was often confused at the claims made by people who commented on the harshness of the German language, that it spurred in them a recollection of aggressive experiences and emotions. Funny, to me German had always seemed soft, soothing, and comforting. But then again, my years living in the country lie amongst the fondest of my childhood memories…
It’s taken me a while to understand what people mean when they say that French and Italian speak the language of love and seduction. For years all they seemed to me were grammatical structures to play around with and learn, associate with them with Latin and Spanish to make sense of them all, and further my study of them along. There was no room for love in this barren, artificial approach to them. Of course, there wasn’t. Because love, as edgy and mysterious an emotion as it may be, is undoubtedly something associated with feeling, part of the organic essence of language, part of that crucial interrelationship between the internal and external circumstances of experience. So, it couldn’t possibly be found solely through grammatical structures. Or my experience of a French lesson in school, for that matter. No; it required a setting. A set of characters. A plot. And a soundtrack. And it was recently that I found that, neatly wrapped up in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The development of the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse was painted across a canvas of cinematic windy beach walks, and it was to the soundtrack of the French language that I was able to interpret it, able to understand, for once, what people had meant about French-speaking the language of love.
I was having a rather geeky conversation with a friend about phonetics the other day. He asked me how a particular feature of English phonetics would translate into Spanish, how it would sound like. My immediate response was that it would sound like an upper-class teenager, who spent their summers in some kind of yacht in Miami. He laughed (reacted) and asked me to replicate that. Naturally, I couldn’t for the life of me do it. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I was referring to, nor because I hadn’t been exposed to it before. So I went online. Went onto YouTube to see if I could find a clip of Lu from Élite, one of Netflix’s Spanish shows that I’m helplessly addicted to, speaking. I sent it over and that was largely the end of the conversation. But it did make me wonder how and why my brain had decided to collate the two, a linguistic phenomenon and a cultural paradigm, together. Maybe it was because that was something I’d unconsciously picked up on from the way my classmates spoke in school. Maybe because it had become a rather vivid image of my experience of upper class, youth Spanish culture, now, albeit in exaggerated form, made available by a binge-watchable show.
Naturally, none of these unlock the secrets of human nature. They are all still very much a part of the Western world cultural tradition and as such further the accomplishments of Shakespeare only ever so slightly. There is, undoubtedly, a milliard of cultures that I have, as of yet, not been able to experience. And some that I may never experience at all, at least not in the same manner as others. But there was a point to this. A point to my reflection of the experience of how language and culture have brought me closer to that “unlocking” of human nature. Far from giving me a definition, it’s made me more acutely aware of the role language plays in mediating between our internal and external experiences of the world around us. It’s made me crave an ever-growing desire to experience these other cultures, these other sides that makeup if there is such a thing, universal human experience. Which is why, even if it is with subtitles in the language of that great bard who first sparked interest in a genuine possibility to unlock the secrecy of human nature, I shall proceed to embark myself on a voyage of multicultural experience, fencing against layers of meaning, the impact of historical, socio-political events, that remain imbedded in these languages, generations on.