Tuesday, November 01, 2005

William Shakespeare

The other day, I came across an interesting quote from William Shakespeare.
It was this: "So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt." I think that is just brilliant. I won't insult you by explaining it, but I would like to talk briefly about him.

The fact that he can dive headlong into metaphor, see the pattern of irony at that level of subtlety, expose it, make it a lesson, a clever quip, keep it in iambic pentameter, AND still make it rhyme at the same time - is sheer genius of the highest degree. I almost cannot believe that he can write a whole play like that. The insight he has into the nature of people and the ways of the world are truly timeless.
The world has changed, but people are fundamentally the same. They are driven by the same hopes and desires and afflicted by the same weaknesses and shortcomings. His observations are still apt, his arguments are cogent, and he has a wonderfully facile mind with which to fashion these timeless and universal observations, and pass them to us mixed in with art. It tastes sweet, as good art should, but it is also good for us. Yes, true, it is an acquired taste, and it needs an educated palate - but this is the food that educates the palate! To eat is to appreciate the taste better. To learn is to learn better. To know Shakespeare's mind is to know greatness, and to absorb much power. Who can refuse you when you know their mind so well? And Shakespeare has given us a blueprint to the human condition. To the souls of people. Their strengths and their frailties.
In The Merchant of Venice, are the words, 'Methinks thou dost protest too much" thus teaching us that this is a way some people lie. They seek to obscure their own flaws by pointing out flaws in others. They seek to throw off suspicion of their guilt by over-compensating in the other direction. People did it 400 years ago, and 4000 years ago, and still do it to this day. To understand this gives one power. His works are FULL of these little lessons, explained in story form.

No wonder so many people are still devoted to the study of his works 400 years later. It is, I believe, because to follow his words and his works doesn't merely do HIM an honor and a homage, but it betters the person giving the homage. To understand his work, we necessarily become smarter. We become more worthy. To see his observations, we have to see what he sees, and it is subtle irony. A juxtaposition of pleasure and pain. A dichotomy of the price we pay to appreciate the things worth living to know. To know, appreciate and fully understand Shakespeare's work is to know, understand and appreciate the human condition in a fundamental and exquisitely refined and insightful way. The irony is sharp as a blade of Damascus steel. (legend has it that you could throw a silk handkerchief in the air and as it floats down, slice it in two in midair with a sword from Damascus.)

One of my favorite speeches he wrote is the St Crispins day speech from Henry V. This has to be the master model of a speech given by a commander to his men to give them the courage to do a hard and dangerous thing. This elevates the issue above life and death. This makes them care about larger things than their own safety or their lives, even. This allows them to touch upon greatness. He offers amnesty for the past and a rare chance to EARN true nobility and he offers it to men who value and treasure such things. The great families of English nobility had to start somewhere, and it was events like this one where they earned their original fame that their descendents borrowed honor from for centuries afterward. Here is the speech:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars. And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.' Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember with advantages What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester, Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remember'd; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Rarely does a person come along that has this level of talent and knowledge and insight. He was unique in the world. And a treasure of mankind. One of the greatest sons of England. I have always felt that there is wisdom in the bible, but I think there is also a lot of wisdom in the works of Shakespeare. It is also worthy of great study and thought.

Think how far ahead and how elevated our young would be to follow in these footsteps. Think how far they will see when standing on the shoulders of giants such as him. There are some great things in this world. It is good to enjoy them, and appreciate them and revel in them once in a while.


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