I’m often confronted with students who have absolutely no idea why the collected works of a seventeenth century showman are inflicted upon them with such relentless regularity. The thing is, I generally meet these kids when they’re at the point of having suffered through nearly half a decade of this strange phenomenon and, for some reason, nobody has ever satisfactorily answered their very natural question, “Why the hell are we doing this?”. This being the case, I intend to attempt to answer that question here.
If we accept that literature and history are intimately intertwined, which I don’t think is controversial, then we can put forward the idea that literature can serve the function of being a history of human thought. Not in any thorough or rigorous way, but in a sort of ‘highlights reel’ sense. The New Testament marks a high point for the Near East in social and religious thought, Beowulf marks the first signs of Dark Age mythos and soul searching, Chaucer shows us the earthy intellectualism of the upper classes in the Mediaeval, and Joyce neatly bookmarks the point when the Modernists actually disappear up their own jacksies. Okay, so I don’t like Joyce, but you catch my drift. What Shakespeare roughly marks for us is the appearance of the modern mind.
Considerations of quality and entertainment aside, Shakespeare just happens to be writing on the cusp of a massive change in the way people see the world – the rejection of determinism and fate in exchange for a burgeoning sense of human agency. In this period, for the European world, at least, we can see the last remnants of Mediaeval Christianity loosening their hold on the human mind. No longer is everything pre-determined and attributable to God – there is a growing body of thought around the idea that fate is not fixed, God is not necessarily agent in the anthropomorphic way previously imagined, and therefore human ethical thought, scientific enquiry, and moral responsibility to ourselves and others become increasingly important. This has huge ripple effects, not just in the high altitudes of philosophy, but right down in the dust where people look at themselves and wonder what to do with their lives.
The exciting thing about Shakespeare is that we can see the tension between these two points of view being mapped and explored in his characters. In Macbeth we see a man who is apparently clearly pre-destined by fate (somewhat unoriginally portrayed as three women) to follow a tragic arc of ambition, murder, and madness. But is he? In the very first instance we find that he’s not able to make up his mind to murder the king. It’s his wife who urges him to act, and if he hadn’t told her of the witches’ prophecy, could this have actually happened? If he hadn’t also decided to murder Banquo, to act generally in a way which made it morally impossible to accept him as the new king, would he have died on that field?
We can see that Shakespeare has grasped the essential dichotomies around fate and free will in the uneasy awareness his protagonists have of both concepts, and their eventual acceptance not just of the things they can’t control, but also of their responsibility for that portion which they can. Hamlet’s “providence in the fall of a sparrow”, Richard’s capping of a night of self-doubt with the simple act of putting on armour and heading out into the field, come what may – again and again we see his characters coming to variations on the same conclusion. Fate and God are all very well, but we are possibly more trapped by who we are and what we do, and because it’s who we are and what we do, we’re also responsible and must accept that. This is a kind of subtlety you simply don’t see in earlier Mediaeval authors, and it marks a major shift in human thought. So we study Shakespeare, in part, to get as close as we can to watching that shift play out, live and in colour, in front of us.
Language is another consideration. The official designator is something like ‘Early Modern English’, and to a lot of students the whole thing just seems like unnecessary gibberish. The thing is, though, that the language of Shakespeare is seminal with regard to the language we speak today. Something like 1000 words and phrases enter standardised modern English through the printed works of Shakespeare, which is a factlet every student eye-rollingly knows. But what they generally don’t know is why this is important. Shakespeare’s language, apart from just being beautiful, provides us with a kind of ‘source code’ for understanding why and how we speak and write the way we do today.
I’ve seen a similar process in marine diesel engineering. The best way to understand modern marine diesels is to take apart an old one. There’s no complicated EMS threaded through the whole thing, no assumption that this is a finished product nobody but the manufacturer’s certified techs will touch. All the components are simple and raw and, when once the whole assemblage is understood, revealing of the inherent reasoning behind the entire mechanism. Deconstructing Shakespeare’s language works a bit like that. We can see from the clunky hand-crafted components, the crazy syntax and rhythms of multiple legacy systems of grammar, just what is possible with language, and understand the path of evolution from multiple distinct dialects of English to the slick, pre-packaged Newspeak of today.
And finally, there’s the counter-intuitive fact that Shakespeare’s plays are trash. What I mean by this is that they are very certainly not the gold standard of highbrow discernment we see them as today. In his time, he was a popular entertainer. And what’s both interesting and important about that is that he’s in just the right sweet spot to simultaneously be a participant in and inventor of a totally new way of amusing the masses. What this means for us is that he’s a seminal story teller. When we look at The Tempest, we see a plot to marry some people for underhanded purposes, which people inconveniently fall in love for real, thus derailing the original plan and cue hugging and learning. This is exactly how a good proportion of romantic comedies work today. Broken down into their component parts, we can actually see the roots of almost every story and myth we make in films and on television now and ever since. And whether or not Shakespeare invented any of this stuff is completely beside the point – the point is that he’s arguably the best and completest example.
So why do we study Shakespeare? For the same reason we study anything from the past: to better understand the present. And with the Immortal Bard, there’s also the added advantage of jump scares, rivers of blood, and endless cock jokes.