I turn 20 today.
Like all birthdays, it’s just a number.
I’ve lived two decades.
The concept of two decades didn’t really hit me until I read the syllabus of a Shakespeare class (taught by Professor Teskey – this post is credited to him) this late afternoon.
Apparently, Shakespeare’s writing career was also two decades.
What is remarkable about Shakespeare’s career as a playwright isn’t just the short duration of two decades (always begging the question what have I been doing with the two decades of my life) but rather the consistency.
Shakespeare didn’t stop at a time that was convenient for him: the publication of Hamlet, which was exactly ten years into his playwriting career. Exactly in the middle.
Ironically, Hamlet is widely considered to be Shakespeare’s magnum opus (Romeo and Juliet comes as a close second, but I personally consider Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear to be his defining pieces – more on this in later writing). Nonetheless, the difference between Shakespeare stopping at Hamlet and Shakespeare continuing to write plays after Hamlet is very salient: it marks the difference between Shakespeare being known as very very very good and Shakespeare being known as truly truly truly great.
Shakespeare’s works up to Hamlet, those plays of the early half of his career, can be characterized by his ability to create reality by the coming together of opposites. Two of the most famous images in popular culture brought to life by Shakespeare involve Titania embracing a donkey garlanded with flowers and Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick. From these two images we come to appreciate beauty (a beautiful, stunning Titania) interspersed with the vulgar (a rather unaesthetic donkey) and the exploration of consciousness (Hamlet during his prime) and the extinction of consciousness (the lifeless skull of Yorick). Beauty, Vulgarity, Exploration, and Extinction (these four qualities as presented by Shakespeare) have ultimately defined our cultural internalization of what it means to be human to this very day.
If I may self-indulge, I have also found these initial twenty years of my life to be the coming together of opposites – an Eastern heritage and a Western upbringing, an engineer for a father and a poet for a mother, genesis from the West Coast (Arizona) and exodus to the East Coast (Massachusetts), the list goes on. Like all college students and young people, these first twenty years of my life have primarily examined what it means to ultimately be me, the steady reconciliation of external influences and internal aspirations. It’s a beautiful chapter of my life that I am so grateful to have, because for once, I have a moment to myself to develop a kernel of authenticity that follows for the rest of my life. But have I developed it truly?
It’s always funny to think that at the time, Shakespeare had no idea how great he would be. He didn’t stop after Hamlet for all its commercial and literary successes because he clearly was not satisfied on a personal level, the supposition “What if I’m finished now?” is evident in his work. Very much as how Hamlet doesn’t quite say what he means and doesn’t mean what he says, Shakespeare himself struggled with achieving his own artistic vision – and while Shakespeare struggled, it is precisely around this time that Shakespeare also experiences a deterioration of health and a spiritual mid-life crisis, the typical human maladies we forget while the going is good. No more Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and more of The Tempest. These later plays, from Macbeth to Anthony & Cleopatra to Henry VIII, take on a darker tone from his earlier plays – a more pessimistic portrayal of human nature, the great Shakespearian tragedies.
And all the while, there begins the second half of college, the post-20-year-old Justin, no longer a “teen” but an adult with very adult-like problems. Like the second half of Shakespare’s plays, my life sobers up and loses playful brilliance, but I believe it is for the better, for it is a chance to live my life from what has been a very, very, very good life to a truly, truly, truly great life.
I mentioned how Shakespeare’s defining plays are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Coarsely, these respective plays examine the loss of self, the loss of marriage, the loss of family, and the loss of friendship – losses that will decrease in frequency the more I search beyond myself and losses that will remain losses until I’ve finally learned to make it my own.
And that relationship with loss is what 20 means to me.