Who knew it was possible to fall in love with a work of art? To enjoy one, sure. To reread or view it again and again, why not?
But to love?
To experience its poetry swimming in your head when buying a bagel, or getting your car’s engine fixed, or walking along the esplanade. To mouth its words as you pass bemused fellow-pedestrians in Harvard Square who make sure to keep an extra meter or two between themselves and you. To grimace, to weep, at all hours when the power of its words finally strike with insight like a bolt of lightning. To keep a copy nearby at all times when you need to go back to it like a narcotic addiction. To bore friends and family with a passion they don’t share but might gently indulge.
It seems like love. The obsessiveness about it, the ascendancy that it reaches over your mind, over all other thoughts. Indeed, it reaches a summit over the world itself that seems to turn reality into a vague abstraction. It stares down as if Zeus on top of Olympus, looking with pity upon the swarming miserable creatures who can never understand its true power. It fills you up and up with “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.”
It’s not quite like love bestowed on other people. It is a love of words, of situation. Of the remarkable mind of man set down in a way that never has nor never will be again by any man’s mind.
From where does the power spring? As C.S. Lewis, who was once smitten by it, asked, is it the Prince or the Poem? Is it the fierce deliberation of one man’s mind that gives it its peculiar flavor, its unmatched intensity, and its startling command of the intellect of the great intellects who devour it? Or is it the beauty of its poetry that seems to penetrate each neuron of the brain?
Maybe it is not a work of literature at all, but the supreme archetype of human existence which we somehow recognize when we come across it because it was already written in our minds and just never set down.
Some say that the holy books of the great western faiths were written by God through the hand of man. But maybe all of these great religions are wrong. Perhaps God was truly waiting to write through the hand of an Elizabethan poet. Perhaps, if we can truly understand this greatest of works, our self-understanding will be complete. Perhaps this is His true Revelation, set before us in an infinitely-layered riddle, a Gordian knot that not even the sword of Alexander could hope to break. And the genius of the riddle is that though it can never be fully unwound, it brings you tantalizingly close to understanding its secrets, and through it, perhaps, the secrets our very existence.
Perhaps you’ve encountered this work yourself. For those of you who haven’t, go down to Lamont. For you first-years, that’s right in the corner of the yard, in the shadow of Widener, on the other side from Weld. Right on the first floor you’ll find the Shakespeare section. Go wild. I recommend starting with Hamlet.