Shakespeare’s Bare Bodkin

Christopher Flannery

April 1, 1998

The last week of April offers an adequate excuse each year to think again for a moment about William Shakespeare. We know that Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564. Because of this, his birthdate has traditionally been set at April 23, coincidentally (or not coincidentally) the feastday of St. George, patron saint of England. April 23 also happens to be the date on which he died, in 1616, fifty-two years later. But any excuse is a good excuse for remembering the Bard.

Lately we have an added need for recalling Shakespeare, since many of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities have forgotten him. It has become fashionable in recent years for institutions of alleged higher learning to remove Shakespeare as a required subject for English majors.

This is a terrible mistake, and it does a great disservice to a whole generation of students, who are paying in the neighborhood of $30,000 a year for an "education." The great English poet John Dryden tells us why. Shakespeare, he wrote, was "the man who of all modern and perhaps ancient poets had the largest and most comprehensive soul."

When Dryden speaks of Shakespeare’s "comprehensive soul," he means that Shakespeare’s genius plumbs the deepest depths and scales the loftiest heights of human nature and encompasses the broadest reaches of the human condition. Shakespeare’s themes include virtually every interesting aspect of human life—love, revenge, beauty, ambition, virtue, vice, justice, free will, providence, chance, fate, friendship, loyalty, betrayal; the interplay among passions, reason, and will; truth and illusion, men and women, mortality and immortality; the vast variety of human characters and societies—stuff like that.

This astounding scope of Shakespeare’s genius led the classicist and Aristotle scholar Henry Jackson to think of him when trying to convey the greatness of one of the most comprehensive minds of all time. As Jackson wrote of Aristotle’s Politics, "It is an amazing book. It seems to me to show a Shakespearian understanding of human beings and their ways…"

In some thirty-eight plays, traditionally divided into Tragedies, Comedies, Histories, and Romances, Shakespeare casts the penetrating light of his insight into the mysterious heart of great and enduring questions: What are the boundaries of human possibility? What are the coercive necessities of life? What are the circumstances in which human beings everywhere and always find themselves? What are the sources of human hope, fulfillment, unavoidable suffering? What are the types of human soul, of human fates?

Of course, we read Shakespeare for the pure and hearty pleasure of his poetry. But because of his range and penetration, reading Shakespeare thoughtfully cannot help but elevate, deepen, and refine one’s understanding of the human predicament.

Come to think of it, maybe it is best not to entrust such interesting matters to contemporary elite English departments—where "deconstructing" Beavis and Butthead is a more common, and perhaps more suitable, occupation.

Shakespeare gives us many insights into his own understanding of the purpose and the power of his dramatic poetry. In Hamlet, for example, Prince Hamlet instructs a group of actors in the nature and purpose of dramatic representation: The purpose is "to/ hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature." That is, by seeing our human virtues and vices, dilemmas, hopes, fears, etc., re-presented poetically, we can see the reflection of our human nature as in a mirror.

Holding a mirror up to nature with his drama, Shakespeare does not mean just to let us see what a literal mirror reveals—the material surface. Rather, as Hamlet does—very painfully—to his mother, Shakespeare gives to his audience "a glass/ where you may see the inmost part of you." If we look at all closely into the mirror held up for us by Shakespeare, we see that, like Hamlet’s mother, our eyes are turned "into [our] very soul." The effects can be devastating.

Although recently he has been replaced by the likes of “Dumb and Dumber” in parts of the American academy, Shakespeare has been an integral part of American culture from the beginning.

John Quincy Adams, who was born in 1767 and grew up to become the sixth president of the United States, described a typical experience when he wrote of his early and lasting acquaintance with Shakespeare: "at ten years of age I was as familiarly acquainted with his lovers and his clowns, as with Robinson Crusoe, the Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible. In later years I have left Robinson and the Pilgrim to the perusal of children, but have continued to read the Bible and Shakespeare."

In America in the revolutionary and founding years of the late eighteenth century, Shakespeare was far and away the most popular dramatist. In the nineteenth century the influence of the Bard only grew. Shakespeare’s plays continued to be by far the most widely performed plays in the relatively sophisticated cities of the east coast, and Shakespeare readings and performances followed as American pioneers pushed the frontier westward.

In the 1830’s, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville travelling in America found Shakespeare in "the recesses of the forests of the New World. There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare."

In the 1880’s a German traveler named Karl Knortz found Shakespeare so influential in this country that he wrote a book about it: Shakespeare in America. "There is, assuredly, no country on the face of this earth," he wrote, "in which Shakespeare and the Bible are held in such high esteem as in America… If you were to enter an isolated log cabin in the Far West… you [would] certainly find the Bible and in most cases also some cheap edition of the works of the poet Shakespeare."

Because Shakespeare was so widely and popularly known, he could be parodied and mangled with great comic effect, as he was in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884. Here Huck and Jim, while rafting down the great Mississippi, are introduced to two rascals pretending to be a king and a duke, who plan to make some loot by performing scenes from popular Shakespeare plays. Huck and Jim marvel at them practicing Hamlet’s famous soliloquoy:

"To be or not to be: that is the bare bodkin,

That makes calamity of so long life;"

and onward and downward from there.

In Twain’s time, the average school child was literate enough to appreciate the joke. Soon, it may be over the heads of graduates from our most expensive educational institutions. Is this a tragedy or a comedy? Don’t ask them. They will not have learned to tell the difference. The joke, it turns out, is on them.

Christopher Flannery is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.