Still Shakespeare After All These Years
April 25, 2016
I read this piece on the State House floor on April 22, 2016, as my annual devotional (usually dedicated to Wm. Shakespeare).
Tomorrow, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. All around the world, Shakespeare has been celebrated — a tour of papers related to him and his works found itself in Middlebury this past winter.
When I was in college, during the early 1980s, I thought I was as smart as can be, and I spent many an hour, inebriated or not, arguing about how much the human race had evolved in their thinking, and arguing that we were so much better off than we were, even as recently as 400 years ago. To me, the characters in Shakespeare were not terribly complex, and, as thick as Shakespeare’s poetry was to me, I certainly did not appreciate that, in fact, Shakespeare’s characters were intensely human, reacted in human ways, and were, in fact, much more three dimensional than I could possibly give them credit for at that age.
Over time, as I aged, I read essays on Shakespeare’s works, and grew to love how he was able to shape his characters in a way that was, in the words of Professor Harold Bloom, the “invention of the human.” What he meant was, “the invention of the human in print.” To me, with the help of essayists such as Bloom and Harold Goddard and others, I learned that Shakespeare’s characters were as rich as any characters created in the 18th, or 19th, or 20th century. In fact, I learned, or was reminded, that I wasn’t as smart as I wanted to be, and that humans have not, truly, evolved or changed very much over the last 400 years. We still have the same traits, the same faults, the same foibles, as humans from all ages. We choose love, or greed, or hatred, and we harbor murderous or exploitive or altruistic thoughts and feelings as we have for millenia.
The relevance of Shakespeare’s words remain fresh, 400 years later. And, during this year-long celebration, this relevance was seen most clearly in a piece of writing within a little known play, only parts of which were written by Shakespeare. We know this because one of the very few pieces of paper with Shakespeare’s handwriting that still exists was a speech he contributed to this play, Sir Thomas More. The central theme in the play concerns immigration, an issue fresh in our mind this year with the influx of Syrians into Europe, primarily, and to other countries across the world, including ours. And like our conversation about immigration today, much of the play concerns the fears of the local population of how poisonous such an influx may be. In the play, Sir Thomas More faces down an angry mob set on ridding London of the dirty immigrants, and rises to speak of tolerance for what is referred to in the play as “strangers.”
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound.
Whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.
We discuss the importance of words in this building every hour of every day. And sometimes we think that just because the words are old, that they are out of date. And sometimes we’re right. But before we dispose of them, we owe it to ourselves to read them, interpret them and take great care before we change them, for they were put in place with, probably, the same motivation and care we use today.
Human behaviour is rarely new — it is old wine in new bottles. I am not always upset that human thinking and acting hasn’t changed. Sometimes I respect that we seem to have a limited number of responses to any number of situations, and mastering those is more effective than wishing for an evolution.