Happy Birthday Shakespeare: Or What You Will

Rafael Major

April 1, 2005

April 26, 2005 marks the 441st Birthday of the author known as William Shakespeare. Another encomium is hardly necessary to praise his name to others, but it behooves each one of us to make the attempt for ourselves. The necessity of articulating our attraction to Shakespeare is best summed up with the following observation: We live in a world in which modern intellectual forces have all but discredited the old fashion notion that “reason” can serve as any sort of guide for human thought or action. Academic integrity has come to be synonymous with the doubt and immobility of a Hamlet and “reason” — we are told — is but a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yet Shakespeare still speaks to us… how is this possible?

I will skip over the common questions concerning Shakespeare’s identity, his sexual orientation, and his possible educational background. These controversies over the historic Shakespeare are irrelevant precisely because they only serve highlight the more important question: Why do we have a predisposition — each of us — to read these plays?

Perhaps the answer is Shakespeare’s politics. Not our politics, but politics in the old fashion sense—understanding human beings for the purpose of understanding ourselves. Regardless what we have been told by the ponderous forces of modern life, we find ourselves in the same situation as every human being who has lived and breathed. We have been born into a world we did not create, and hence must struggle with longing, love, and loss. It is in this circumstance of uncertainty, however, that we must undertake the urgent search for guidance.

Could it be the overwhelming suspicion that Shakespeare’s plays must contain such guidance that incites us to read him? Some say no, but even these readers find evidence in Shakespeare for their probity—for their “proof” that life provides little or no solace. But any way you wish to have it, the text of Shakespeare still requires that we gather and use all of our native powers to understand his plays, but the very use of our powers necessarily sharpens them. Willy-nilly, these plays educate.

April 26 has been celebrated for 441 years because Shakespeare still remains a cause for wonder. But if this is true, then this same wonder is a kind of proof that the human mind is able to understand a nobility that is lasting precisely because it is undeceived by present circumstances. Such a possibility should provide us all with solace, guidance, and hope for a deeper understanding of our selves and hence a healthier governing of our lives.

I attribute such reflections to Shakespeare’s reason, you can call it what you will. Happy Birthday!

Rafael Major is an visiting professor of political science at Ashland University and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.