The Bard for All
By Christopher Bates
Relevance Spanning Four Centuries
Despite being regarded by many critics as the greatest playwright of all time, William Shakespeare is a bane to many a high school student. Often students are caught wondering what use the play before them will have for them in later life or why suddenly they have Greek before them instead of English. A small minority may fall in love with the dense and image heavy texts and the numerous stage or movie productions. There must be some reason for the lasting appeal of Shakespeare’s works other than as prescribed reading in high school and university.
A google search results in a bombardment of lists of five or six reasons why Shakespeare is still relevant to the modern reader. These lists tend to include points such as his influence on astronomy and the fact that the moons of Uranus are named after his characters (Boston 2016), his work courts controversy as to whether he is indeed the author of the many plays attributed to him (Boston 2016), the fact that the name “Shakespeare” is still a profitable brand 400 years after his plays were conceptualized (Boston 2016). These articles are all full of “…quotable quotes.” as one article eloquently put (The Strait Time 2009). These articles tend to ignore or gloss over the most important and lasting characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays: his unique understanding of what it means to be human.
Shakespeare’s Unique Brand of Humanism
To be clear, calling Shakespeare a humanist might be a stretch. We know very little about Shakespeare as a man—be it his political ideologies, religious views, and moral standpoints. All we are left with is his plays, and, in an age where everyone with a smidgeon of fame has an autobiography detailing their innermost thoughts, it seems odd that such a profoundly important figure in culture left only his work behind. On the one hand, it is refreshing to not know what color thong Shakespeare preferred.
With that clarification out of the way, here is a definition of humanism provided by the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:
“An appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality…Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.” (British Humanist Society n.d.)
When we look at the characters that Shakespeare penned, with a skill and talent unlikely to be repeated, they are generally bound by the same superstitions and religious conventions Elizabethans believed. However, the key difference is that, although they will sometimes give reverence to deities, their choices, importantly human choices, are guided by their reason (British Humanist Society n.d.).
This humanist principle—that people themselves are moral agents—is best realized in Shakespeare’s tragedies. It is relatively safe to assume that Shakespeare had come into contact with Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy. Black provides us with a handy definition of Aristotelean tragedy as found in Aristotle’s Poetics:
“The model of an Aristotelian tragedy begins with the protagonist (tragic hero). The protagonist must begin as someone of importance or fortune. The usual example is someone of royalty. He cannot be perfect, though. The audience must be able to relate to the hero, so Aristotle said the hero must have tragic flaws that balance his otherwise good character. Aristotle usually made this flaw hubris (an all-consuming pride that causes the individual to ignore a moral tenant or a divine warning).These flaws culminate in the humiliation, defeat, and death of the protagonist. This should invite the audience to feel a great pity for the character because he can be related to, and the audience can put themselves in his position. The play must end in a catharsis. The catharsis is the event of the audience losing their feelings of anxiety and [fear] and finally reaching a sense of completion. The Aristotelian model also follows the classical unities of time and place.” (Black n.d.)
From the above definition, we can see that Shakespeare was most definitely influenced by Aristotle’s conception of tragedy. He, however, did not always adhere strictly to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Shakespeare further split tragedies into two broad categories: tragedies of the mind and tragedies of the heart (Black n.d.). Regardless of whether the tragedy arises from the mind, as in Hamlet, or the heart, as in Romeo and Juliet, the protagonists in both types of plays are driven by the plot and by their own choices. They are not forced into situations by some higher power (British Humanist Society n.d.). They are moral agents, a key concept to modern humanism. Before psychology was even a formalized field of study, Shakespeare already seemed to have a unique understanding of our nature.
Creatures of Bad Habit
Many of Shakespeare’s plays had themes that were important to the average Elizabethan. Perhaps due to humanity’s inability to learn lessons from the past, many of these themes are still relevant today, even on a far more global scale. Themes like racism and tyranny are still as valid now as when Shakespeare wrote for his audience. Although we know very little of Shakespeare’s own personal opinion, we can guess at them based on the themes that appear on the stage. Rather than preach from a pulpit, Shakespeare gives voice to these themes through his characters.
When we see Shylock’s mistreatment by Christians in the The Merchant of Venice we can sympathize with him at the unfairness of racism, even though, in many ways, Shylock could be considered the villain. When we look at recent events surrounding the treatment of people of different ethnicities or religions, the The Merchant of Venice is more poignant than ever. On the theme of tyranny, one would most certainly be amiss if Julius Caesar was not mentioned. Brutus assassinates Caesar out of a sense of principle and as to prevent future tyranny based on Caesar’s dictatorial changes to the Republic of Rome (Allsop n.d.). Brutus justifies his actions in the play with the following words:
“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?…as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him” (Shakespeare Julius Caesar 3.2.21-7)
Many critics consider Brutus’s actions to be misguided; however, humanity has risen against tyranny whether real or imagined for eons. In the current age of political buffoonery and baffling untruth, Shakespeare’s imaginings take on a new shade of gray and are difficult to ignore. With themes that appear eternally relevant and characters that display the complexity of moral choices, audiences will continue to love Shakespeare’s works, especially because we often color those characters with our own world views.
Popularity Eventually Fades
The high watermark of Shakespeare’s popularity occurred from approximately 1870 to 1970 (Bruster 2014). Now that popularity appears to be fading. Arguments within education departments and university boardrooms continue as to whether Shakespeare is still relevant for educational purposes. In my opinion, bureaucrats are not Shakespeare’s biggest enemy; his own language and style are. His language, although not Old or Middle English, is semantically dense (Tumiel n.d.). Often a single line can elicit entire essays. To any student, this can be infuriating let alone daunting. In an age where the technology available to us is becoming increasingly based on visual cues rather than written ones (Bruster 2014), Shakespeare and his vast body of work may become the next Chaucer and studied only by a few. His often quoted text will become idiom with no one truly caring as to the origin.
I will not attempt to look into a crystal ball and pass my moral judgment on whether the fading popularity of Shakespeare is itself a tragedy. Time passes and nothing is eternally sacred. Rather, I am thankful that I got a chance to study the Bard’s work, not only in high school but throughout my varsity career. His characters have enriched my life immeasurably and seeing Anthony Hopkins portray Titus in a screen version of Titus Andronicus remains one of the most brutal but simultaneously awe-inspiring events in my life.