Open sewers run through the streets. Disease is rampant, up to and including recurring outbreaks of the plague. Criminals are routinely castrated, disemboweled, and hacked to pieces in public executions. The rotting heads of political enemies are mounted on public gates. The bloody torture of animals is a popular form of entertainment. Wretched poverty is commonplace. Literacy is not. Deference to a rigid caste system is expected of everyone. Weekly attendance at a church of the official religion is mandatory, with crippling fines imposed on those who abstain. Government censorship is taken for granted. Prejudice against foreigners and indeed against anyone even slightly divergent from the norm is encouraged.

Is this some third-world hellhole? Some imaginary world of dystopian fantasy?

No. This is England at one of its greatest historical moments, under the reign of its most esteemed monarch, Elizabeth the First. This is the England we romanticize and glorify and consider the forerunner of our own modern liberal democracy.

And astonishingly, almost miraculously, this is also the world that shaped the most brilliant literary mind in human history. This culture that would be alien and repulsive to us were we suddenly to find ourselves in it, stripped of the cleansing distance of centuries, somehow gave rise to a visionary who crafted timeless works that speak to us today every bit as much as they did to audiences four hundred years ago. A man whose artistic insight encompassed not just linguistic invention but social dynamics, personal psychology, and humanist philosophy.

How is this possible?

I can’t answer that question. But I can’t help asking it. I’ve always been fascinated by the period, and my reading of late has included a Shakespeare biography and various literary analyses of his work, pushing it again to the foreground of my attention.

Even by the standards of his own time, Shakespeare would not have seemed a distinguished figure. He was the son of a small-town glovemaker, with no more than a grammar school education, a father and thus a husband before he was out of his teens, who wound up making his living in a disreputable profession (the theater). How then did he manage to anticipate everyone from Hume to Freud, while leaving such an artistic mark that even people who have never read nor seen his work consider his name synonymous with “literature” and unknowingly quote his phrases? How did he manage to immerse himself in his culture and absorb everything it had to offer, yet simultaneously rise above its limitations in a way that was both unprecedented and inimitable?

This paradox has provided employment for generations of scholars, but ultimately it remains as perplexing as ever. I certainly don’t pretend that I can shed new light on it here. Ultimately, we have no choice but to accept him as sui generis. However… from the question itself we can perhaps derive some insights into the human condition.

The very existence of Shakespeare, after all, the paradox he embodies, bespeaks a condition of possibility that goes beyond the commonplace. To (almost) anyone living in Elizabethan England, the genius of his work, the revolution in human understanding and artistic potential it generated, would have been literally inconceivable. To anyone at all in that time and place, Shakespeare included, the society we live in now would have been absolutely unimaginable.

Yet in a mere sixteen generations, less than a half-dozen consecutive human lifespans, we have progressed from the world described in the first paragraph to the one we inhabit today. Wide as the gulf seems—and our perceptions of that paragraph put it in stark relief—it was a direct journey from there to here. Shakespeare may have anticipated the course in countless ways—Harold Bloom credits him with nothing less than “the invention of the human” in modern terms—but he didn’t lead us here. The Bard himself unapologetically borrowed from and built on countless sources who had come before, and our progress since his time has likewise been a cumulative and collaborative effort… the work of writers and philosophers, statesmen and scientists.

Shakespeare (in Hamlet) may have invented nihilism, but clearly it didn’t define his time and shouldn’t define ours. None of us is what he was, and even for the best of us it’s hard to see very far down the road and imagine how different the world and our perceptions of it might be. But still (to paraphrase another literary giant, Shaw), we should not mistake the customs of our tribe for the laws of nature. However dire current problems may seem, however troublesome the obstacles (both human and circumstantial) that impede us, and however tempting it is to take for granted the conditions of our world (as Shakespeare must have felt about the world of that first paragraph), things will change. That much is certain. It’s incumbent upon us to exercise such perception and intellect as we can to impose some direction on that change.

Could we somehow travel back and tell him the impact his work has had, he surely would not believe it. Likewise, we today cannot know which insights, which creative visions, will stand the test of time and shape our own future. We can only seek out what moves and inspires us, add to it as our abilities allow, and work it into the ever-evolving mosaic of human culture.

And certainly that mosaic will continue to include Shakespeare, from whom there is much we all still can learn, about both his world and our own.

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2 Responses to “The paradox of Shakespeare”
  1. I wonder what Shakespeare ever imagined he would be so well know for so long after his death.

  2. Andrew says:

    To be or not be … and from this you can write a whole damn bookstore!

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