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Shakespeare’s World

Shakespeare’s life spanned both Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a dynamic period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment, yet his view of the world (Weltanshaung)  was quite different from ours.

Though Copernicus had died 21 years before Shakespeare’s birth and he was born in the same year as Galileo, his world view was still geocentric rather than heliocentric; that is most people still believed that the earth was the centre of the world with the sun and planets revolving around it. 

His was a uniform, unanimous or monolithic world with one ruler – a monarch, one church – Anglo-Catholic/, one economic system – feudalism, and a conformist outlook in life. 

His was a profoundly Christian society, believing in sin, an afterlife of heaven or hell, yet also easily influenced by pagan ideas of fortune, the stars and supernatural spirits, ghosts and goblins.  Fortuna, the pagan goddess with her wheel of fortune is prominently referred to in his plays. Many of his plays are set in pagan eras, though some like Hamlet clearly show the conflicting ideologies such as revenge.

He believed in order; a place for everything and everything in its place, especially in matters of governance. Themonarch is supreme and his plays are strongly critical of improper succession of monarchs which could give rise to chaos or anarchy. Shakespeare’s  many history plays subtly  mirror his society.  Hamlet and Richard II warn about proper succession, while Lear could be a subtle warning to the new King about flatterers and sycophants in his court.

History Plays became a device to bring the cultural and national inheritance to the common illiterate masses.  Through entertainment it helped the common people appreciate the famous victories and noble heroes of a great nation.  None was more admired than Henry V.

Society believed in hierarchy – the order of degrees in society, though already there is evidence of an emergent middle trading class striving for political power.

The smaller world of man, the microcosm, is a reflection of the macrocosm and what happens in the macrocosm is an omen of what will happen in man’s world, indicated by the night Duncan is killed by Macbeth, natural storms presage a disturbance in the social and political order of things. In Julius Caesar, a turbulent night presages the assassination of the ruler.

Finally he believed in the Great Chain of Being with God, the Angels, Man, Animals, Vegetable and last; the inanimate.   Man exists in a state between the Angels and  was capable of transcending to the level of Angels but also prone to descend to the level of animals.

Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. When Shylock denounces the Christians for their slave trading, he is giving back as good as he got for their abuse of his usury. Despite some leaning towards monarchy, the plays contain more than enough regicide and Bad Kings to satisfy the staunchest Republican. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities.  As John Bell states:

 “he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance....he didn’t have to believe anything.  His great objectivity leads to ambivalence because life is ambiguous.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values.   The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles.   To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic, confusing and distressing.

Where he does show his hand is his intolerance of pretence or affectation.  He lampoons pomposity and is bigoted towards posturing and all forms of hypocrisy.

His tragedies are is a rich mother lode of layers and layers of meaning.  Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on.  

Shakespeare often gives the best lines to his worst characters such as Polonius' advice to Leartes regarding integrity or Iago (Othello) pontificating on the importance of “reputation”.  Some people can "talk the talk", but fail to "walk the talk" or demonstrate that theory and practice can be quite dissonant.

“This above all, to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man”

Integrity is related to a sense of honour; that of your name or reputation.  Shakespeare again addresses this issue in Othello when he has Iago tell Othello,

“Who steals my purse steals trash; …………

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.”

Sometimes a throw-away-line can convey profound sentiments as during the Ghost swearing scene Hamlet tells Horatio:

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Is this Shakespeare having a swing at academics, that life has many imponderables not evident to intellectuals in their ivory towers?

Shakespeare was baptised 26th April, 1564 and buried on the 25th April fifty two year later. The death of his son, Hamnet, eleven, in 1595 affected Shakespeare greatly.  Soon later a plague killed off half the population. The wrote few plays in the next nine years and when he began again, they were the dark tragedies of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

The grieving Constance in King John laments:

           Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

          Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

          Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

          Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

          Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form….

The Elizabethan Age was marked by stability, growth and prolific artistic creativity but her failure to provide an heir returned the Stuarts (Jacobean era) to the throne with their ideas of the Divine right of kings and absolute authority of monarchs.  Shakespeare was profoundly affected by the transition of monarchs as many of his plays indicate.  His concern is about legitimacy, orderly succession and husbandry.  King Lear (1606) may be a warning to the new King James I about several issues; the   false flattery of courtiers, breaking up kingdoms and whether or not a King is a king forever.  All his historical plays explore the relationship of power and good governance.

Here is Helen Razer on recovered ancient wisdom

Some of us look for a return to the idea of universal truth in art and this, in part, is why Shakespeare has survived for centuries.

Shakespeare was, of course, very good and we can still take authentic pleasure in his filth, his wit and his durable rhythms. But, his works can claim to give us no universal truth; other than those aesthetic ones he himself created. This doesn’t stop everyone, from directors to feminist scholars to earnest teachers of English, making the claim that Shakespeare is universal.

Like everyone, Shakespeare came to us within a sociohistoric context. Talent is not sufficient to deliver anyone from their time and it will not deliver access to those “fundamental” truths we have deluded ourselves we no longer need but chase with unprecedented passion. Still. People go on about how Macbeth is eternal and no fewer than 50 film directors have sought to prove this on screen; perhaps least notably, Australian Geoffrey Wright whose 2005 casting of the witches as sexy schoolgirls show us how a desperation to believe in a noble truth from outside ourselves — in this case, Shakespeare — accidentally reveals an obscene truth from inside ourselves. I.e. I think sexy schoolgirls have mystical powers.

Thomas Bowdler, now rightly reviled as a silly censor, was really just doing the same accidental strip-tease with his famous Family Shakespeare where he turned Ophelia from a vessel for suicidal feminine shame into someone who accidentally fell into a river. Shakespeare was not around to complain but, when his famous work Death of A Salesman was revived for a 50th anniversary production, Arthur Miller was and he did not hesitate to express his revulsion for the director, Robert Falls, who had made Willy Loman into a diagnosed depressive. ”Willy Loman is not a depressive,” Miller said. ”He is weighed down by life. There are social reasons for why he is where he is.”

Falls had, in one sense, performed a reverse Bowldlerisation. Whereas Bowlder had made Ophelia emotionally functional, Falls had given Loman dysfunction. But, they were both “freeing” characters from their sociohistoric moorings in order to say something “universal”.

As Miller said before he died, Salesman was a document of a time. Loman is worn down by social expectation and labour just as Ophelia was extinguished by the impossible idea of the feminine. To suppose that either of these texts can offer us a universal truth about the human condition outside the circumstances of their creation is hooey.

In offering “trigger warnings”, as some English departments in American colleges now do, or in “modernising” Shakespeare as many directors are compelled to — if I had my way, every production of Shakespeare would be performed entirely by men dressed in doublet-and-hose — the contemporary interpreter is at odds with himself. The urge here is to make great works available and palatable to a more diverse audience and to agree, at a very basic and flawed level, that the human experience is social and historic and is not universal. But, to achieve this by taking the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn or, as is often the case, the anti-Semitism out of Merchant of Venice, seems a bit upside-down. Of course, in the case of these two texts, there is an argument to be made that the authors were decrying and were not endorsing racism but even, and especially, if they were not, why spare Twain or Shakespeare the trouble of being seen as racists?

It is easy to understand the urge of professors to seduce their students from detachment with literature. But, it is not so easy to understand how a discussion of Merchant or Finn would be possible without addressing the racism that informs not only these texts by the eras in which they were produced. Universalising the human condition could itself be seen as the foundation of racism. By the Bowdlerisation of these texts, and former Globe theatre director Mark Rylance has admitted to taking the anti-Semitic references out of Merchant, we permit the idea of the “universal” Shakespeare.

Our era of self-examination leads us to hide our history. We feel we have addressed racism, sexism and other grave ills by redacting them from Shakespeare and other texts. And this approach to “universal” art that exceeds time and social conditions is as good as giving Willy Loman the keys to the car.


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