By Dr. Joseph Woodard, CCHE Director of Research

Simply leaping into great books is not a bad impulse, and it’s certainly better than thinking they’re beyond us or our teens. Admittedly, a first exposure to something really foreign sometimes bewilders us—Homer’s Iliad or Aeschylus’ plays—and we just can’t get our bearings. So we might be tempted by an editor’s introduction or internet plot summary; but that can short-circuit the wonder of discovery, the sometimes magical first reading of a masterpiece that comes from having few expectations. Like a first date with a possible future spouse, we want some idea of the author’s intention, but we do not want to prejudice ourselves with a check-list of misguided assumptions.

Sometimes, authors tell us what they’re doing, right in the opening page, and we simply have to flag the signpost. Sometimes, a chat with a friend gives us just enough direction to get us launched. But sometimes, we’ll taste a great book, and then after a few hours, discover we really don’t have an appetite for it. Particularly with teens, if they’ve given it a good try, it might be better to put it down and try later, rather than turn a wonderful discovery into a tedious discipline. Even as an adult, it took me three or four tries to get into Willa Cather’s My Antonia, but when I was ready, it was wonderful.

Ironically, we can have precisely the opposite problems with Shakespeare’s plays: superficial familiarity, iconic characters and block-headed academic commentaries. It can be hard to look afresh at the Bard’s plays, hard to wonder about the characters and their fates. So here, it may do us some good, if we can get some sense of Shakespeare’s general purpose.

First, Shakespeare is acknowledged as the literary pinnacle of Renaissance Humanism. What does that mean? Here is a brief historical rabbit-hole. Throughout the Early Middle Ages, Christendom’s literature was largely lives of the saints or heroes, like Bede’s History of the English Church, or Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After all, in violent times, contemplating the diversity and subtlety of human personality is not a priority. In anarchy, the need is discipline, and discipline needs clear, unambiguous models, saintly and militant.

When conditions ease, however, poetry becomes less strict and more contemplative, like replacing vegetable patches with flower beds. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Mediterranean shore saw the rise of a new urban culture, like a Christian version of the Golden Age of Greece. Prejudiced academics later called it, The Renaissance, but it was really the Third, after a fleeting Carolingian Renaissance in the 8th century, and more enduring, university-building Renaissance of the 12th Century. The High Middle Ages had soared with Gothic cathedrals, Giotto’s paintings and Dante’s Divine Comedy, but (though interrupted by the Black Death) the Rebirth really continued unabated. On Dante’s heels (+1321), came Boccaccio (Decameron) and Petrarch, popularizing newly rediscovered, pagan Latin masters like Virgil, Cicero, and Plutarch. This was a new humanism, the Quattrocento (1400’s) of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael, still deeply Christian, but less mystical or apocalyptic, and celebrating the wonders of human excellence, variety, and sexual love, rediscovered in the pagans, but (naively) “romanticized.”

By the mid-1500s, Petrarch’s sonnets were all the rage in the English court. Prior to that, traditional English poetry used rhyming couplets or four-line quatrains, mirroring the natural rhythms of English folk music, and conveying life-lessons in personal narratives (like Ben Jonson’s wonderful Farewell, Thou Child of My Right Hand, lamenting the death of his young son). The poems of John Skelton, Thomas Moore, Barnabe Googe, George Gascoigne, Thomas Wyatt, and Walter Raleigh, now called Early Tudor Poetry, are typically instructive and morally uplifting. No surprise, however, this became passé among the gentry, supplanted by romantics like Sydney and Spenser. They characteristically used Petrarchan sonnets of fourteen lines, eight-line octets describing the poet’s love-interest, then six-line sestets, expressing his admiration, frustration, or erotic intent.

For his part, Shakespeare married the traditional moral universe with the new, romantic experience, merging the two schools with his Shakespearean sonnets of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet: three vivid, personal facts or experiences, with a hopeful, mournful, or ironic conclusion.  

What does this suggest about Shakespeare’s plays? There’s enduring disagreement about reading them as either implicitly Christian or personally Romantic. Older commentators like Coleridge and Bradley acknowledge Shakespeare’s implied moral judgements, particularly in his tragedies, while later academics stress a purely personal, unavoidable fate. For example, Romeo and Juliet is now read almost universally as simply the tragedy of “star-crossed lovers,” inevitable, unavoidable, and therefore blame-free. A more traditional reading, however, exposes Romeo as embracing, insanely, a selfish lust, and thereby responsible for the disaster he inflicts on Juliet and everyone around him—at least six deaths, or eight, if you count the dying Lady Capulet and Mantuan apothecary. This is enough, quips teacher-scholar John McGee (, to qualify him as a serial killer. No surprise, many high school teachers, eager for the approval of their hormone-driven students, ignore this possibility.

How is it possible for these plays to be open to such divergent, yet equally plausible interpretations? Shakespeare offers a spectacular, almost unrepeatable exploration of human personality, his “diversity of persons,” as commentator Harold Bloom said: “No one, before or since Shakespeare, made so many separate selves.” And like all the real people in our lives—all defying simple categorization—his characters are unfathomably deep. In their little asides, word plays, gestures, and reactions, his characters are more than just “characters,” icons of abstract human types. They’re persons who can be seen, but not pigeon-holed, because Shakespeare sees them. Even minor characters, like Albany in King Lear have quirky reactions, making us wonder at their backstories. And they all have undiscovered backstories. Truly, there are no small roles.

This “concreteness” in his characters has led to an ironic movement in Shakespeare appreciation: insisting his plays be “seen-and-heard,” not “read-and-studied,” so his characters become real, rather than hollow, academic icons. There is much to be said for this (see below), yet there’s a hazard in “only watching.” We can turn his characters into mirrors of ourselves, like Rorschach tests, seeing only who we would be in those parts. If we assume that Shakespeare is wiser than us, if we want to see what he’s so clearly seeing, then we will question his characters. The more we probe what they do, the more mysterious they become.

“Backstory” may be a modern term, but Shakespeare is the master of the buried past, for which our excavators must be constant questions. So first, I must stress: parents need not be familiar already with the plays discussed; these are simply examples of the attitude of a natural observer. For example: how can King Lear’s beloved daughter, Cordelia, simply blunder into his buzz-saw rage? Her older — much older? — sisters did not make the same mistake. If their hatred of their father is slightly less than demonic, we might suppose (with textual support) that they really fear the Old Man, with childhood terror stoking their adult rage. How much younger is Cordelia, Lear’s “kind nursery”? Is she a daddy’s little girl?  The daughter of his twilight years, perhaps of a younger, second wife? I still search the text, but this may explain Goneril and Regan’s bitterness. Manly Kent’s unshakeable loyalty suggests that Lear was fearsome in his prime, but naïve Cordelia might never have seen that in his old age.

When we bombard Shakespeare with such questions, we begin to understand the urge of those who want his plays “seen-and-heard,” rather than analyzed. We enter the world of the stage director, with the constant prompt, “What’s the motivation?” Then we start to appreciate almost inexpressible subtleties. Lear’s oldest, “thankless child,” Goneril, hates her father, hates him. The greatest actress could not give her the most miniscule sympathy. But her resentment of the Old Man, “sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” and even her inability to see him as old, at this we must wonder. Lear was recently played on an English stage as the sexual predator of his eldest daughters, but that goes way too far. The “fixed stars” in Lear’s universe, after all, are the deep loyalty of honest Kent, Lear’s new humility, his reborn love of Cordelia, and her love for him. It’s enough to realize that, as a young warrior, Lear must have terrified his older kids. So it may be enough to play Cordelia as innocently “cute” before her fuming elder sisters.

Of all Shakespeare’s villains, only Othello’s Iago in seems entirely demonic, completely unredeemable, given his nihilistic silence when finally exposed (by his mocked wife!). One suspects that Iago is Shakespeare’s experiment in a supremely envious, and therefore purely evil character. Which brings us to the question we should always ask of Shakespeare: Is the hero redeemed? Now, what redemption means here is not, of course, borne to heaven by angels or hell by demons—though in Macbeth, that’s not precluded. For the Christian humanist, all we can see is a possible answer to the question: in the end, when all is said and done, did they recover or rediscover themselves? In Lear…yes. In Hamlet, certainly so. With Macbeth, probably not.

Now, it’s no good being cute about Shakespeare’s vision of the supernatural. Hamlet’s ghostly father really does walk the ramparts, and really is a ghost, not a figment of Hamlet’s fevered imagination. Traditionalists note his calm skepticism, just before meeting his spectral dad. Likewise, Macbeth’s witches are simply a fact and simply evil. Macbeth’s mucking about with them must shape what we make of his end—another fixed star, like Kent’s loyalty to Lear.  

The three hags aren’t the only witches in Macbeth’s life. His wife is a fount of questions. When Lady Macbeth herself has the chance to butcher the sleeping Duncan in his bed, she balks: “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t” (II.ii.13). What? And what are we to make of her childlessness, especially when she taunts her husband with the memory, “I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis, to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done to this” (I.vii.54). That said, how doltish is Macbeth’s slow realization that, for all he’s now king, “he has no children” to make his crown meaningful. Does this bear on his slaughtering MacDuff’s “chicks”? What is it with Herods and children?

It may be an open question, whether Macbeth corrupted his wife or vice-versa. Either way, his anesthetized reaction to her death—“She should have died hereafter”—shows there’s no longer a real person in him. Such is redemption failed, seen by the humanist. In other plays (like Richard II), a hero’s final resort to arms might be recovering himself, rediscovering his real self, but with Macbeth, “Lay on, Macduff” is no more than a mindless reflex. His suicidal wife had a tortured conscience, but he who first turned to witches has hollowed himself, become the “something wicked” that they celebrate.

With Hamlet, sophisticated commentators (like an obsessed Jorge Luis Borges) read him as Shakespeare’s enlightened victim of “existential despair,” suffering life’s absurdity in a meaningless world. For them, questions of “redemption” are merely naïve—but this comes from not asking enough questions. They focus on the question of Hamlet’s delay: why does he suspend exacting bloody vengeance on the uncle who killed his father, corrupted his mother, and usurped his throne? So the nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche describes Hamlet as having “gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; his action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things…It is too ridiculous or humiliating that he should be asked to set right a world out of joint” (Birth of Tragedy, 8).

 Yet, Hamlet’s world is not philosophically out of joint. It’s really been dismembered. So there are many, many more questions that must be asked. Why, oh why, does Hamlet’s ghostly father forbid him to rebuke his mother about her sordid marriage to his fratricidal uncle?  And then he chides Hamlet (unseen by Gertrude), when he does? How can Hamlet almost abstractly stab and kill Polonius, hiding behind a curtain, when he thinks Polonius is his Uncle Claudius—but he would not or could not kill Claudius face-to-face? Almost trivially, why does Hamlet go to such elaborate lengths to dispose of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when, given his warrior skills, he could have killed them both aboard their ship to England.

In multiplying questions, there is some risk that we get so buried in them, we lose sight of Shakespeare’s real person and hidden backstory. So we should deliberately seek the “fixed stars” in the plot, like Kent’s loyalty to Lear, or Macbeth’s toying with witches. With Hamlet, there are at least two. First, the plot is saturated with the theme of suicide. Second, at the end, everyone who embodies the “rot” of Denmark is dead—Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and of course Hamlet himself—yet none of them has committed suicide, not poor Ophelia, not the hysterical Gertrude—her purgatorial husband’s worry), and certainly not the innocent survivor, Horatio. For a Christian Hamlet, deliberate, calculated suicide can be a quick slide into the “eternal blazon” that his ghostly father bewails.

Indeed, Horatio’s desire to die like “an antique Roman” is forestalled by Hamlet himself, which he would not do, if Nietzsche were right about his “ridiculous and humiliating” world. Confronted by the excruciating perversion of his own family, he surely despairs. Surely, “to sleep” must seem “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Yet he clings to life, even if only because of his ghostly father’s warning—“perchance to dream, aye, there’s the rub.” That Hamlet can cling to life, amid “rot” so damning of everyone he loves, testifies to an enormous strength of character. So why then does he delay in killing his uncle? Hamlet’s ability to kill Polonius behind a curtain, thinking him Claudius, prompts speculation. Hamlet is not merely the Wittenberg scholar, but a renowned Danish warrior, a scion of berserkers. Once he starts splashing blood about the palace, where can it end? In his blood-lust, can he leave his mother—and then himself—alive? The gangrene must all be amputated. All must die, and yet, nobody must kill themselves, and nobody does, especially not Hamlet. Almost seems Providential. 

Yes indeed, this is all speculation, and we always end up asking more questions than we answer, and wondering about backstories we can never prove. But asking often-unanswered questions—why do they do this or that?—helps us avoid sophisticated tunnel-vision, like Nietzsche’s leaping to a stereotyped Hamlet of “existential despair.” So how then do we settle on the “fixed stars” in a particular play? We deliberately note simple facts, quietly asserted (like Kent’s loyalty, or both Romeo and Juliet being punctuated by Chorus), praising or blaming something in a hero’s character or actions. And note, we may (like Nietzsche) try to ignore inconvenient facts, but simply remembering the redemption question can help.
Like habitually questioning a hero’s redemption, we might wonder about a play’s title—its four or five most carefully chosen words. Why, for example, is Julius Caesar called that? The designated hero is dead when the play is barely a third over, so why not The Tragedy of Brutus? And titles are especially worth questioning with Shakespeare’s comedies (“the undeserved good fortune of ignoble characters”), because there, suggesting his real intent, he most often pokes fun at his audience—As You Like It.
For example, why is A Midsummer Night’s Dream called that? Strangely, it ends with a puckish apology, “If we spirits have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here.” Wait, whose dream is it? His audience’s? Is Shakespeare suggesting his audience are all ass-headed Bottoms? The play is framed by the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta, but their relationship in the Greek myth is victor and war-prize—rape. Is Shakespeare suggesting that his young audience is dreaming, if they think they can run around in a dark forest, on a very romantic midsummer night, without risking highly unromantic rape?

In the end, though, because Shakespeare sees his characters so clearly, we should question them simply like the people we see, our “conflicted” friends. Why do they do what they do? What do they want out of life?  What shaped them in thinking that way—all speculative, but so is our experience of anyone real. And in the end, these are fundamentally moral questions. Are they caught up in a vortex of self-annihilating will, or do they rediscover themselves, who they were meant to be?  It finally comes down to St. Augustine’s question, what do they love?

Now, sophisticated romantics may object to branding Shakespeare a Christian humanist, even the possibility of a Christian humanism, and the relevance of any redemption. So we face a fundamental question of human nature. True humanism must assume the nobility of our kind. A humanist need not be religious—given the guiding principle that humanity is higher than clever chimps: “rising higher than beasts, yet lower than angels—even if there are no angels.” Further, we can ignore a corollary: “sinking lower than beasts, yet higher than demons—even if there are no demons.” And surely, a rediscovered (and “romanticized”) Classical ethics was the occasion. Yet, simply historically, Christian culture was patently necessary to nurture humanist realism, the celebration of human nobility and multiplicity—with Shakespeare its literary pinnacle.
The best the Classical pagan world could offer was Noble Stoicism, an anthropology of “the ghost in the box.” The purely “intellectual” soul of Marcus Aurelius strove to escape the fleshy prison of his animal body, to melt again, passionless and impersonal, into the Cosmic Mind. Human nature was a tragic Idea, like a polished marble statue, where all attachments are chains, and all individuality, merely annoying idiosyncrasy or ignoble vice. And when life grows too hopeless, simply opening a vein or falling on a sword settles any problem. Yet Shakespeare seems to have passed judgement on that anthropology with Brutus’ and Cassius’ ironic, disastrous suicides at the end of Julius Caesar—the doom of the Republic and its “rationality.”
Christianity offered more, though it took a millennium to flower fully. The Incarnation of the Son of God as physically, fully human confirmed—within the mandate of Divine Love—human individuality, human friendship, and consequently, human diversity. Particular people might only infinitesimally embody the comprehensive, divine humanity of the Christ, yet divinity it can still be, with all our peculiar temperaments, challenges, and real relations of nurture and love—our “backstories.” Given St. Augustine’s Confessions, the first real autobiography, Christian culture slowly launched itself into the discovery of personhood, unique personalities, and their redemption in Love rediscovered, or waste in Love rejected.
One might argue that an alternative sort of redemption is anticipated in Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Does the hero simply, finally learn himself? And as a humanist and realist, the playwright records only what he can see and stage—subtle intentions and reactions, pointing to whether or not his heroes have finally discovered or rediscovered themselves. Even so, or especially so, the question of redemption remains particularly poignant.

Whatever? What does all this abstract anthropology have to do with reading Shakespeare with teenagers?  Well, today we’re awash in a false, Postmodern anthropology of human personhood. Allegedly, each of us has a hidden identity of appetites and ambitions—the more extreme, the better. These “true identities” have supposedly been suppressed by all our familial, social, political and cultural relations, so any happiness depends on a shapeless, rebellious determination to “invent” ourselves. Now, some of us tried this in our teen years, and it didn’t turn out so well; so we may be surprised to discover it now rules our mainstream culture.

To respond with the obvious: none of us created ourselves; none of us are gods, emerging from a unique Big Bang with a self-contained reason for existence. Our lives are gifts, nurtured and matured within the families and friendships that still shape and give meaning to our days—or which, for whatever reason, fail to do so. Likewise, what we see in Shakespeare’s tragedies are real persons, like the all flawed folks around us, coming to terms with the given, their “backstories,” what they’ve built or destroyed. In his comedies, likewise, we see flawed humans, redeemed by love, despite all our silly efforts to manage it on our own terms.

Some months back, a friend who sits on the board of our local Shakespeare society was lobbying a senior bureaucrat in the Education Department, trying to get more Shakespeare in the public schools. “Shakespeare speaks to everyone,” my friend suggested—to which the bureaucrat sniffed, “Shakespeare speaks to nobody.” My flabbergasted friend then informed him that the most popular plays staged every theatre season across Germany and France today, are still Shakespeare in translation. “Shakespeare does speak to everyone,” my friend insisted, torn between laughter and tears. So we cannot overstate the ideological idiocy, spawned by three generations of academics. Our elites no longer know what they don’t know, and our entire civilization needs remedial education. We must all simply pick up our texts and begin again.

Shakespeare’s plays are an education in human nature, an encyclopedia of experience, to “compare and contrast” with all the people in our daily lives, We can question his “so many separate selves” about their justice or injustice, generosity or resentment, cowardice or magnanimity, in ways that would be extremely impolite with our family and friends. We simply need the courage to begin. And—in appreciation for the advocates of the “see-and-hear” movement—we should read them aloud (a sure way to uncover subtleties), and attend reliable, local performances (with discretion, since there are lots of corrupt renditions), and watch videos with trustworthy reviews. Doing this, we can provide our kids with decades of life experience, and launch them in whatever might be their contribution to our Next Renaissance.    


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