Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What are we to be, four hundred years after Shakespeare framed the question?

To those not in the know - if there is such a person - this year (2016!) marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare, a bard without equal.

He died at Stratford-upon-Avon on 23rd April 1616 and was buried it is assumed, two days later inside the church. 

Strangely if these dates are correct, it is probable he died on the 52nd anniversary of his birth. He is entered in the register as " "Will Shakspere gent." 

He may have been unwell for some time as both his will and amendment to it were written earlier in that year. The fact that his brother-in-law, William Hart, a hat manufacturer, died only a month before may suggest some common familial infection, not unusual at the time. (1)

Perhaps it is also worth noting that the death of Saint George, the Patron Saint of England and of other places, is celebrated on 23rd April, the traditionally accepted date of Saint George's death in 303 AD. So rather significantly England's most notable poet and playwright, appears to have died on England's most notable Saint's Day - the Saint that reputably slew the dragon! (2)

Very mysteriously the stone overlying his tomb is not inscribed with the usual information or elegy but a curse as follows: 

“Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

But that is what looks distinctly likely. Recent investigations have confirmed that not only was this a very shallow grave not long enough to contain a body, but human remains appear to be lacking, perhaps confirming at least one story that his skull was removed by trophy hunters in the late 18th Century. (3)

Mystery appears to surround said "Will Shakspere" and many later day scholars of course, have questioned whether said person was in fact the author of all the 38 plays, 154 sublime sonnets and other works, or just a front for someone else - even Queen Elizabeth herself! - who either needed or chose to be anonymous. (4) Perhaps the questions will never be definitively answered.

What is clear is that without 'Shakespeare', the English language would be infinitely the poorer. His works are filled with sayings that have become standard aphorisms and unsurpassed insights into the human condition. One of the best known is the speech in the mouth of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that begins, "To be or not to be, that is the question?"

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d."
(A poignant rendition by David Tennant can be heard here: and an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch on playing the role here:
Most would interpret the soliloquy as a debate within oneself between choosing to live or die; of assessing the 'pros' and the 'cons' - a balance sheet of the reasons for and against. All the "heart-ache(s) and natural shocks that flesh is heir to." In many respects he wishes to be free of them, to be at peace from the stresses and strains of human existence. Life is a struggle and death an obvious way out. 
It takes courage and action to live; but so it does to die, not he concludes, because of the temporary and marginal discomfort, ("when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin" (or dagger)) but what may come after. This remember, was a time in which few questioned a Christian world-view that believed intrinsically in an after-life, as certain as the sentient one. And not only so but that the post-death destination turned on actions in this life. 
It was a time of religious fervour and fiery puritan preachers who preached hell fire for the transgressor and unrepentant sinner, and there was plenty of sin to go round. (5) (In the year that Shakespeare died, Richard Baxter, a notable puritan preacher was born. (6)) Thus people not only had to contend with a multiplicity of human sufferings, it was in the context of everlasting torture if they didn't get things right. In large part it is why the wealthy paid for prayers to be said in perpetuity and alms were given the poor to which our churches, many now 'redundant', attest. 
We now live in a different age, where charity if it is exercised, comes from a different direction and from a different rationale - not from a fear of after-life punishment, but duties consequent on a moral and ethical imperative to help one another in time of need. In general this is a humanitarian position rather than a religious one. 
It is hard to over-estimate the impact of the scientific and philosophical developments in the western world over the last two or three hundred years. Our religious beliefs have become a tentative and delicate thing - almost a cultural flashback to former times without the conviction. Indeed we tend to be contemptuous of those that hold to the sort of beliefs portrayed in Hamlet's outburst. An unquestioning belief in spiritual forces engaged in eternal warfare over the adherence, thoughts and actions of men. 
Islam appears to have retained much that Christianity has disposed of and is ridiculed for it by the 'sophisticated' westerner, uncritical of what has become an obsession with warfare and destruction of those that see things differently. Having dropped millions of tons of TNT, or its equivalent on itself and foreign territories, it has the audacity to label others as a 'death cult'. It would be laughable if it were not so serious.
However, there is a different interpretation to the famous dilemma. Was the author posing an even more fundamental question: How to BE? 

Is it possible to live a whole life 'acting' rather than 'being'? How do we engage with our true human nature, instincts and purpose? Are these, as Christian theology then and now, suggests, something dangerous and 'sinful' to be avoided and controlled at all cost, or should they be recognised and encouraged as beneficial to one and all?  From whence do evil acts spring - from natural tendencies or socially and politically conditioned responses? Basically is mankind essentially good or bad?

Should we be saved from ourselves or become ourselves? What in this 'brave new world' are we to be and what are we to be-lieve? Those are the ultimate questions.

(4) with links:

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