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The Whole of Shakespeare

By Dr. Michael Platt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #15, 1997.

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Dr. Michael Platt


Shakespeare represents a great deal of the world in his writings. All his readers acknowledged that, and yet it is hard to tell just what his view of the world is, let alone what his view of the whole that includes the world is.

Although his works represent human times from the Trojan war to when Europe discovered the new world; although they portray with fair accuracy the manners, dress, and look of many peoples, from pristine Rome to commercial Venice; although they represent the history of his own nation in fond detail; although they present nearly 900 characters so substantial they can be distinguished from each other by their speech alone; although Shakespeare's works mention monsters of the deep, birds of the air, and God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit - still it is not easy to know what Shakespeare thought.

Shakespeare wrote both tragedy and comedy, which makes him the English Sophocles and the English Aristophanes; but does his comedy include his tragedy, or does his tragedy include his comedy? Was life a comedy or a tragedy to him? Did he laugh more than he wept, or weep more than he laughed? It is hard to say.

Perhaps he was most comprehensively an historian. After all, his greatest innovation is the History play, of which he wrote ten. For sure then, he is the England's Thucydides, as well as the its Sophocles, and its Aristophanes, but that only suggests how big he was, not how he understood the whole that can be viewed tragically, comically, and historically, and which only he of all poets, save Dante and Goethe, viewed in all three ways.

Of course, many readers and students of his work fall into the habit of saying "Shakespeare says," but he never does. Although Shakespeare sometimes refers to "our author" or puns upon his first name, he never presents himself in his work. In no work of Shakespeare is there a character called Shakespeare. All his characters, you may say, are portions of himself, of his self-understanding, for what they know he must know, too; but that does not help, because there are near a thousand of them, and they do not agree with each other.

Did he pour more of himself into some? Certainly the speeches of some seem more inspired than others. There is for example the heavenly speech of Ulysses to the perplexed assembly of Greeks in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom in all line of order.
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose med'cinable eye
Corrects the influence of the evil planets,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check to good and bad . . . . (1.3. 85 ff.)

From these heavens Ulysses looks down for the same order on earth:
How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Perogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels
But by degree, stand in authentic place? (1.3. 103 ff.)

And then follows the vision of human affairs declining when we do not imitate the heavens:

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather right and wrong . . .
Should lose their names, and so should justice too;
Then everything include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite.
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself. (1.3. 109 ff.)

However, in Shakespeare there is also the unheavenly speech of Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5. 19 ff.)

Which character did Shakespeare put more of himself into? Ulysses from the lighted heavens or Macbeth from the dark earth? And which speech expresses Shakespeare's own view of life?

Of course, we would like to believe that there is more of Shakespeare in the words of his Ulysses than in the words of his Macbeth, but can we be sure? While speaking these words on order and degree, Ulysses is actually upsetting order and degree; for if King Agememnon hearkens to these words, which are addressed to him, then Ulysses will rule him. Moreover, since these words are spoken in public and because they do rule Agememnon, they diminish the very authority of Agememnon, and elevate that of Ulysses.

And what of Macbeth's speech? Since it is said in solitude, it cannot have an ulterior motive. It is what Macbeth really feels. Is it also what Shakespeare really thinks? Perhaps it only shows how a man will feel when he has chosen crime, and then more crime, and ends by becoming almost nothing but crime, and perhaps the plot tells us where Shakespeare's thought is. After all, Macbeth loses, good rule is restored, and Macbeth dies. But Macbeth dies bravely, and while we may be relieved by the rise of Malcolm to the Scottish throne, there is no speech of joy, or even good cheer, to overmatch, let along match, the speech of sober despair that Macbeth has delivered. Moreover, whereas Ulysses' speech on order and degree is taken from Hooker's great work of Anglican theology, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Macbeth's speech is taken from nowhere. To express nihilism more perfectly than any English-speaking author before or since, Shakespeare needed no one else's help. Could this be because it is his own creed?

It seems to be a draw. What Shakespeare's view of the whole was cannot be decided in this way. He poured himself into both Ulysses on order and degree and Macbeth on tomorrow and tomorrow. What is Shakespeare's view of the whole? Can it be discovered? Did he even have one? Naturally, to find out, we would have to read his works slowly, all of them, and study them carefully. Of course, there is no loss in that. To read Shakespeare aloud with friends is fun; to take parts, with your older children too, is a delight; and to tell the stories to your younger children (from Charles Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare, Manchette Chute's similar collection, or E. Nesbit's Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare) is a pleasure, as homeschooling families know, and you do not need to know Shakespeare's worldview to start.

Still, something can be learned of Shakespeare's view of the whole from a survey of them, either before you begin to read them or after you have studied them. First of all there is Shakespeare's vocabulary. In his word hoard, there is not only a rich variety (29,066 words in active use), there is not only a wealth of new coinages (from slug-a-bed, to mind's eye, to the indispensable sweetheart), but there is a kind of order and degree.

Consider the adjectives his characters most often employ: good (2985), great (952), fair (885), sweet (876), true (854), noble (660), gentle (397), honest (301), kind (300), strange (264), worthy (238), happy (217), holy (208), gracious (197), sad - which also meant serious (186), content (177), merry (177), wise (176), brave (174), valiant (157), just (149), excellent (128), and loving (127). These are then the chief qualities that the multitude of his characters discern in each other, in the world, and in the whole they make up.

Now consider as well the contrasting adjectives. The opposites of good, such as bad (133), wicked (70), evil (68 times, but sometimes as a noun), and a word that had a very strong meaning in his time, naughty (15). Even if you add all these instances together, the total is less than a tenth the frequency of good (2985). So, too, the opposites of great, little (529) and small (98), do not come close to its total (952); and the opposite of fair, namely ugly (30) is a thirtieth as frequent as fair. Likewise, the opposites of sweet, namely bitter (76) and sour (36), compose only an eighth of its total (876). It is true that the opposite of true, namely false, occurs more than a third (318) of true's total and that the opposites of noble, such as base (174), vile (83), villainous (27), and ignoble (9) approach the same percentage; but the pattern of well below a fourth reasserts itself as we continue. The opposite of gentle, harsh, appears only 31 times; of honest, dishonest (11) (for of course, false, listed above, was used of dishonest persons and acts). And so it goes: the opposite of holy, namely profane appears only 18 times; the opposite of gracious, rude, 74 times; and unjust 25 times. With the word excellent we come to a blank, for there does not seem to be an opposite in Shakespeare's vocabulary; he does not have the word mediocre. And finally, the opposite of loving is hated (29), hateful (46) - Shakespeare does not have the word hating.

In all cases, the opposites of the good words appear far less frequently in Shakespeare. From this comparison, we may conclude that Shakespeare's characters attend to good things far more than to bad. They see more good in life, in the world, and in the whole, than bad.

Shakespeare certainly understood evil - consider his Iago, his Edmund, and his Richard III - but he seems not to have thought the whole of life evil, and he probably did not even think that evil was the most interesting part, despite his remarkable discernment of it, nay because of it.

For us however, the absence of other words, especially words familiar to us today, may be most instructive. We could hardly get along without words such as value, concept, objective or subjective. Shakespeare could. No one in Shakespeare uses them. No one speaks of facts, or contrasts them with values. (Instead, they speak of truth, and because they deem truth invaluable they do not call it a value.) Shakespeare never uses the word theory in the modern sense of a mental construct, nor, correspondingly, does any one in his works ever speak of applying such a mental construct. The scientists in his works, such as Friar Lawrence, are not very good people. Mastery over nature is what drowns Prospero in the end, as he submits to the nature that includes his coming death and will spring him to resurrection. To Shakespeare's characters nothing is aesthetic; instead they say beautiful (17 times) and above all fair (885 times), for beauty is not a sensation but a property of real things. No human being in Shakespeare calls anything human creative, since the word, if he had used it, was reserved for God's singular work of bringing something out of nothing. Nor do his characters speak of things creating themselves blindly, of evolving as Darwin holds. Likewise, although Shakespeare knows that each human being is equally a human being, his characters do not speak of equality as a goal, and they know the passionate desire to level all things as an evil. So, too, you will not find the word psychology in his works, which know more about the soul than any psychology, and so use the word soul, not psyche, to name something most precious. Shakespeare did not need these words, which we may find indispensable, to describe the whole of what he saw. And this tells us much about exactly how his view of the whole is superior to ours.

But above all what describes the world Shakespeare viewed, which is the world we view, too, is the adjective that surpasses in frequency all the others by far - good. Shakespeare's characters needed good nearly three thousand times to describe what they viewed, and Shakespeare needs them seeing good nearly three thousand times to present to us his great view of the good whole that we live and move and have our being in.

Shakespeare, the justly preeminent poet of the English language, is a measure of colleges today. Thus, for a college to announce that it no longer requires Shakespeare, as we hear so often, most recently even at a college with a core curriculum, such as the University of Dallas, is to suggest that its faculty has become deaf to tradition, indifferent to students, and even blind to the good. Yet the way Shakespeare is taught in many English departments today, as the underminer of traditions, as the liberator of students from truth, and as the teacher that there is nothing good in itself, only will, and himself the most beautiful willer there has ever been, may be more deleterious.

So parents and children deciding on colleges need to check and see if Shakespeare is required, but they also need to find out how he is taught. Shakespeare is not only the measure of man but of colleges.


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