Abraham Lincoln found three books sufficient to educate his lofty soul: the Bible, Euclid, and Shakespeare?
In the Bible he met Almighty God; in Euclid he discovered the might of reason; and in Shakespeare he rejoiced in the abundant humanity of the good people, the American portion of whom he would one day serve. There in Shakespeare Lincoln also learned lessons in the statesmanship through which he would protect and increase their liberty; and there Lincoln would later find the solace that fortified his suffering soul during a war longer than either side expected, yet in his judgment, had it lasted two hundred and fifty years, a righteous punishment to both.
And so might a nation, once so educated and so sustained, again enjoy the blessings of liberty and assume among the distressed nations of the world the role its principles deserve, if its children and their parents once again studied these three, the Bible, Euclid, and Shakespeare, steadily and thoughtfully as Lincoln did.
To other occasions, I leave the recommendation of the Bible and Euclid. I come now to recommend Shakespeare and to recommend him for life.
There are at least seven wonders that recommend him.
To know the soul, to know his own and thus all others, was ever his study; and as a consequence the circumference of his representation of reality was all history. Shakespeare represents times and events, men and women, characters, mores, manners and morals, rites and pieties, diets and fashions, and whole world views, from the time of the Trojan War to the time then present to him, and in The Tempest even further perhaps. In Shakespeare we find ancient pagan regimes, such as Rome, both Republic and Empire, civil Athens, and sensuous Egypt; together with these regimes we find the figures that go with them, Senators and Soothsayers, Consuls and Philosophers, Augurs and Slaves. And in Shakespeare, we also find modern regimes, monarchies such as Denmark, England, France, empires such as the Holy Roman centered in Vienna, and commercial republics such as Venice. And with them, of course, we find modern characters: Kings and Priests, Knights and Ladies, Fools and Doctors. Although Shakespeare sometimes errs, for example the clocks in Rome, still he does something historians seldom do so well: Shakespeare shows us life lived everywhere it has been lived deeply. Only ancient Israel and Holy Jerusalem are absent from Shakespeare's sweep of the human horizon, probably because he thought they were better covered by the Bible.
Second, there is a wonder on every page, in almost every speech, sometimes every line: Shakespeare is witty. No other tragedian, great novelist, or epic poet is a tenth as witty. It is impossible to imagine Tolstoy, Aeschylus, or Homer being witty and also being as they are. Shakespeare is witty not only in comedy where we might expect it, but in history, where men dying, such as John of Gaunt, pun upon their names, and even in tragedy, where some comic figure will be licensed to make piercing fun of the hero's suffering, which might help him to redemption.
What witty Shakespeare saw in life required the largest active vocabulary of any author, 29,066 words according to one count, and what he saw was often something never before seen by any one else. No author has coined so many expressions. Among his many gifts to all later English speakers are "give pause to," "slugabed," "tickle a catastrophe," and the indispensable "sweetheart." There are also some we cannot imagine being without; before Shakespeare no one called a road a "road." No wonder it was Shakespeare who coined, or first put into circulation, the phrase "the mind's eye."
As a consequence describing so much, Shakespeare offers the largest array of sententious remarks, memorable sayings, and keen insights of any poet in English and maybe in any language. Almost everything you might observe about yourself and others, many things you might not otherwise be able to, are best said in Shakespeare, so that to the young he gives the best guide to the life ahead, the old the best companion to wrap up your life, and to all of us when troubled, the best comfort, save the Gospels.
Most of us incline to take either a comic or a tragic view of life, to laugh more than we cry, or to cry more than we laugh. A third wonder is that Shakespeare is the first poet ever to write both tragedy and comedy. It is a wonder that the same man could write Othello and Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, Lear and As You Like It. It is a wonder that the same man could imagine a soul as sober as Brutus and as intoxicated as Falstaff, as weary as Gloucester and as vigorous as Hotspur, as domineering as Volumnia and as gay as Rosalind, as severe as Coriolanus, as mild as Barnadine, and as disinterested as Ariel. Yet Shakespeare did. In imagination he was all these tragic and comic persons.
And Shakespeare also wrote histories. The ten he wrote are filled with vivid events and speeches, with such a mix of folly, knavery, and heroism, of piety, fear, and statesmanship, that no English-speaker can fail to learn something to make him a better citizen. In his tyrants free peoples everywhere can recognize their mortal enemy, and in his good rulers, their statesmen. From Shakespeare Marlborough, Churchill, and Lincoln, learned the first lessons of their sagacity and in him Tocqueville found liberal bounty. In writing tragedy, comedy, and history Shakespeare is the English Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the English Aristophanes, and the English Thucydides.
Another wonder is his characters. Because of them we are able to say of some real person, "He's an Osric," or "You are my Kent," or, not without some ambivalence, "She has the honesty of Cordelia." The more rich the character, the more rich the possibilities of recognition; thus, one might distinguish persons in a room, one with the wit of a Hamlet, another with his tenderness, a third with his conscience, a fourth with his imagination, so inclined to plays and playing, a fifth with his sad heart, a sixth with his constancy, so apt for friendship, and a seventh with the fateful simplicity of the final, fine-self-hewn Hamlet. Shakespeare's imitations of human beings are so good they help us to recognize human beings when we meet them, including ourselves. As we read, we feel "This man knows me."
Of course, human beings have peculiarities, things that belong to them and them alone, little habits, quirks, hobby horses, pet loves, gestures, and expressions, ways of walking, sitting, standing. We might say that there is something ipsissimosic about each person, a spiritual equivalent of the fingerprint. Shakespeare knew such "finger" prints as nature makes. "On her left breast /A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops /I' th' bottom of a cowslip," says Iachimo of Posthumus' Imogen and convinces poor Posthumus his beloved has been known. A better lover, Shakespeare, knew of more telling marks not made by nature but by ourselves fulfilling nature highly. Imogen's way of speaking truth was more herself than that mark on her breast. Only Shakespeare of authors has imitated these distinguishing marks of speech so finely and so often. Cover the names of the speakers in a Shakespeare play and you can tell who is speaking by the speech alone. Thus, teachers of Shakespeare can fill their exams with such identification questions. (May they ever do so.)
Shakespeare seems to affirm the proposition that all men are created equally peculiar. Each is what he is through the mixture of virtues and vices he shares with all other humans, but each is who he is because of something rooted in his very being, that make him who he is and no other. "Unique" really does fit each of Shakespeare's characters. And yet we by reading them imaginatively get to be all of them, thus get to understand them, and by doing so, understand much else.
There is much more to say about these wonders, and about some others, and in a little book soon to appear with the Lexington Press imprint of Rowman and Littlefield, I have said something about seven of them. Here let me say something about how readers can enjoy the riches of Shakespeare, such as stirred the soul of Lincoln to assume its mighty proportions.
Shakespeare is like the ocean. In the sun the little waves of wit are so brilliant, vivacious, and multitudinous that they dazzle us; meanwhile beneath the flashing surface, the mighty prevailing currents of Shakespeare's oceanic art carry along whole ships of diverse, contending human beings, on high adventures to realms fabulously real, there to prevail merrily or perish nobly; and yet Shakespeare is so immense that like the ocean we cannot survey the whole from any one point, let alone study it, certainly not at first. However, even if over the course of a life, we shall never embrace that bounteous whole, we may surely, by trying, gain some of the things Lincoln gained. Perhaps we don't have to master this whole to benefit from a few of its parts. Although he read some plays many times, Lincoln never read all.
Of course, the part through which Shakespeare most often invites us to participate in that whole is the play. It is there that we appreciate the speeches, and it is in the course of the speeches that we appreciate the words. Thus the best way to gain the riches Shakespeare holds in store for you is to read the plays.
Meeting once a week with friends, taking parts and reading aloud, you can proceed through all of Shakespeare in less than a year. Such was the practice of Gareth Morgan, that indefatigable teacher of summer Greek, five hours a day, at the University of Texas, in Austin, who every Sunday afternoon in his home led such a group, term after term, season after season, green and sere, year after year. To all who 'read and reread' Shakespeare aloud, as we did, he will be a delight, to many a comfort, to some the open casement to poetry, and to a few he may be the beginning of philosophy.
But the broad and bounteous good of reading Shakespeare is for families, for a community of families, more likely to trust than to suspect each other, and for a country strengthened by such trust, such as America might be once again. To read Shakespeare aloud, taking parts, is to come to know from within, by speaking their words, what our Declaration refers to as "the good people of this land" each endowed by the Creator with the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and as a body worthy, these two centuries, despite lapses, of the great experiment in self-government that America is.
To do so, to read Shakespeare aloud with others, taking parts in turn, is to imitate Shakespeare, who acted in his own plays and who, moreover, in the very writing of them, took all the parts imaginatively, just as that stage-hog Bottom the Weaver in Midsummer Night's Dream would like to. No wonder. It is a pleasure to take those Shakespearean parts: to be angry and yet articulate, line after mighty line, as Hotspur is; or to be witty, howsoever cowardly, line after nimble line, as Falstaff is; to be as courageous as Hamlet, but without danger, as honest as Cordelia, yet without terrible consequence, and as forgiving as Prospero, without having been tempted otherwise. There are good parts in every Shakespeare play for everyone. Also, minor ones suited to our inexperience and yet allowing us to become experienced. And secondary ones with some scope, such as the Nurse, or Friar Lawrence, or Mercutio, to mention some from Romeo and Juliet. Nor need we take parts only suited to us by age, station, and temperament. It is even fun, girls, to be Hamlet (as the actress Sarah Bernhardt was), and it is even fun, boys, to be Juliet (as some Elizabethan boy actor was). And don't shrink back. If you just listen to actors, or watch them, you only imitate Shakespeare's audience. Taking parts, you imitate Shakespeare himself. He learned what he learned by taking those parts, out of thin air when he wrote them, sometimes also as an actor in his own plays too, and you too by taking those parts may learn what he learned, know what he knew.
I am not against listening to a recording, or seeing a live or filmed performance. Listening to a fine recording of the play, you can learn how a word is pronounced, or discover a joke, one you did not catch merely reading, or by watching learn a bit of action you had not imagined going with the words, and from an actor you may learn how a good speaker breathes, varies the tone, brings out a meaning. And taking in the play in a group you are more likely to discuss it afterwards. To be sure, most Shakespeare productions today are just awful, vehicles for the vanity of the actor, the pride of the director, or the veniality of the producer, and often the actor is vain about a vice and the director proud of a big error, but having seen Olivier's movie of Henry V when I was a boy, for me the battle of Agincourt will always include clouds of arrows released by Welsh bowmen, stakes driven into the giving earth, and knights so weightily armored they need cranes to hoist them on their own horse. And Branagh's Henry V is worthy, too, with Exeter's grin, the terrible thunder of the French cavalry approaching, and the pious soldiers taking a bit of earth in their mouths before the battle commences.
Yet we must be wary; Shakespeare did not mean us to substitute spectacle for soul, dazzle for sense, sensation for wisdom. His art subordinates the former to the latter. Most modern productions revolutionize it. Shakespeare's stage was bare for a reason. He and Aristotle agree: spectacle is the least important part of drama. To put a candle beside Juliet as Romeo says "She does teach the candles to burn bright" supposes the audience has no imagination. Nor did Shakespeare mean us to be thinking of the boards of the Globe stage, or how well the lighting is done, even the actress' shapely form, more than what these serve to represent. Still less are we to leave the theater busy either carping or praising the players. An actress who makes you exclaim at intermission about her skill in being Desdemona instead of beholding the mysteries of love, both painful and joyful, that Othello thrusts upon us, is not serving Shakespeare's purpose, which was, and is, to "Mind true things by what their mockeries be." (As the Chorus to Act IV, Henry V says.) Don't be afraid of being accused of not caring for art. One only loves art well by loving what it represents better, as Ruskin said. And the director whose name is in bigger letters than Shakespeare'sdon't trust him; he doesn't trust himself, not enough to put forth his "creativity" in his own name. It is almost always better to be full of Shakespeare rather than yourself.
If classical music were played as unfaithfully as Shakespeare regularly is, cut here, cut there, with passages moved, with distracting effects in the foreground, there would be howls from Vienna to Tokyo. Yet despite the dogmatic repetition of the truth "Shakespeare was a dramatist," the history of the production of Shakespeare's plays since his death is largely one of such infidelity. No wonder that his friends, Heminges and Condell, who preserved his texts for posterity in the First Folio, say nothing about doing so for the sake of dramatic production, even though they were actors, but instead urge us to "Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe."
Now since full, active participation is the way to obtain what Shakespeare has in store for you, it would seem that becoming an actor, a director, a producer, whether professional or amateur, would be the best way to be with Shakespeare for life. Well, there is truth in that. A professional Shakespearean, ought to end up knowing by heart most of the plays line by line and by so doing, know more of life. One who does is Bob Smith, author of Hamlet's Dresser; as a boy Shakespeare saved Smith from misery; as a man he has brought Shakespeare to many others, including the old and forgotten on the way to death. Yet few actors, when you hear them talk, seem to know any more of what Lincoln knew of Shakespeare than the actor Hackett, whom Lincoln conversed and corresponded with.
To enrich itself from Shakespeare, a family does not need professional actors. To revive itself a nation does not need Shakespearean stars. A nation will be richer in wisdom in proportion as its people entertain each other, rather than have professional players do it for them. Democracy requires virtue in the many people. There are a large number of parts in every Shakespeare play and thus ample opportunity for amateur groups to present a play to a community. But before such an amateur group springs up where it has not been before, or before a group of families, for example home-schoolers, recognize they want to put on a play for an assembly, the plays can be read together by a small group of adults and older children.
That this still means that more than one family will be needed is good; this will make gathering to read aloud social; and it will permit it to be studious, from time to time, as well. Commonly four or five is about the right number for such a reading group. Fewer means you may choose two characters who turn up in the same scene and suddenly address yourself, coming and going. More participants means one of you may have to sit out several scenes, or only blare "Alarum" occasionally. If one person is recognized as more experienced, perhaps he or she might do the assigning of parts. Otherwise just taking the parts as they come along, and jumping adroitly, like a logger in the spring as the jam breaks up, from player to player, will be fine.
A mix of men and women, boys and girls, is desirable. As Prospero knew, the family is incomplete; more exactly, as God recognized, man and woman are lonely, and as Christ emphasized, they must "leave" the family they grew up in, before they can "cleave" to another, and become one flesh. Parents who have doubts about the benefits of dating, will appreciate the advantage of such a naturally chaperoned event as reading Shakespeare together. Young persons will too. Many of the plays, such a Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet are about leaving one family, courting, and making a new family. And parents, take note: most of the time, most of the woe comes first from the disordered elders before the frisky youngsters. Tybalt got his hatred of Montagues from the older generation.
Reading a Shakespeare play together is fun. Individuals get to be other human beings. That might expand our sympathies mightily. One of the wonders of Shakespeare is that he "created" so many human beings, over 900 of them, all different, and of them the better part so differentiated that you can tell them apart by their very way of speaking, which is like no other. Lincoln said God must love the people because he made so many of them. Likewise Shakespeare. He so loved the individuality of persons, their pied uniqueness, their ipsissimosity, that he managed to recreate it in his characters as no other author ever has, Tolstoy not excepted.
And the discords, often arising, between our character and the part we are playing, something that can only be appreciated in a group that knows each other, not a professional presentation, can be wonderfully humorous, deliciously so to the group. I once heard Cordelia played by a soft-spoken 250 lbs. former Chicago street gangster. "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman," he crooned gently in his soft and deep base. Such discord, or rather accord, may also be the cause of self-examination. If Claudius had taken part in a play such as Hamlet, and got to see how his attachment to sin would mean he would let the woman he did it for, let her drink poison right in front of him and he not lift a finger, perhaps he never would have taken the first step on the path of evil. When I teach Shakespeare, I encourage the students to prepare for class by reading the assigned play aloud together in small groups. My long hope is that such a good experience will be there in their hearts when twenty years later, adrift in life, in a dark wood, far from the friends of their youth, far from themselves, having done things they never thought they would, and then marvelint only at the fact they are not shocked at themselves,so they might then rouse themselves from misery and sloth, by seeking out such friends as might like to spend evenings, not in our shallow and debasing amusements, but in reading Shakespeare together. A family that gathers before a TV will soon be as incapable of serious conversation, prudent deliberation, patriotic love, holy worship, and just plain good talk, asas incapable as TV itself is.
To be sure, like TV, Shakespeare brings into the home persons no one would ever invite if they came knocking at the door: for example, Macbeth, Iago, and Richard III. And imitating such persons might be as deleterious as Socrates and the Puritans claimed, but Shakespeare's portraits of evil allow you to understand evil, even as you abhor it, and thus to appreciate that, evil as they are, these evil ones are still the object of God's love, for resolute though they are in evil, they can never extinguish the good in themselves, thus they can never extinguish the possibility of repentance and redemption, nor negate the sheer good of their mere existence, which is why their desperate suicides or fatal lunges are always failures. How far in evil these evil ones are, how caught, and how dark their souls, we may appreciate by reflecting that Macbeth, Richard III, and Iago would be incapable of joining a Shakespeare reading group. Even Iago among them, who seems to have studied Othello, really has no power to enter into the soul of another, to understand Othello or Desdemona from within. By contrast, we can easily imagine Henry V, Duke Vincentio, Hamlet, Prospero, and a bevy of Shakespeare's witty lasses doing so.
One encouragement may be needed. In reading aloud you will make mistakes. You will stumble on an unfamiliar word. You will miss the rhythm of a sentence. Never mind. Push on. The point is not, as in my second grade, to see how far you can get before making a mistake, but to get better next time. If you like, listen to a record ahead of time. And if the host supplies mild intoxicating beverages, you may be the better for it. As I learned in Germany, after two beers you will speak your best German. Not your most correct, your most free of error, but the German that will stretch your stiff mind and lift your heavy tongue into speech. Later you can correct it. Push on. Later you will have something to correct. Push on.
Reading in a group naturally leads to discussion. What could be more natural while reading the History Plays than to ask, What do I owe my country and what do I owe my God? What could be more natural, after reading Hamlet, but to ask what should he have done and thus to confront the question that has animated the West since Jerusalem met Athens: How might revelation, such as the Ghost, be proved to reason? And what could be more natural, after reading Othello, than to wonder about love and marriage. So that such reading will lead to such discussion, I recommend that the group read only one half of a play at a meeting, reserving the rest of the time together for discussion, discussion of the play and discussion of the questions arising from it. Both are important. What is Shakespeare showing? and: Is it true? are the two foci of the endless elliptical path he tracks through the universe, his universe and ours.
Whatever important question one of his dramas swirls around, Shakespeare thrusts upon us by dispersing portions of the whole truth throughout the play. So, by taking parts, we are taking parts of truth. Most often, it is opposing characters who enunciate opposing truths. Thus to Coriolanus is given the truth that the noble should rule, and to the plebeians is given the truth that the many should consent to anything touching them mortally. Thus to Hotspur is given all the beautiful attractions of honor and to Falstaff all the amusing attractions of sense. And thus to Angelo and to angelic Isabella is given the truth that reformation, of polity and of soul, is absolutely necessary, and to others in Measure for Measure the truth that severity should be visited on oneself first and only then introduced to others, and even then gently. Yet sometimes it is the protagonist himself who expresses the mighty halves of truth at work in the play. Thus it is Richard II himself who repeats both Christ's assurance that the kingdom of heaven is easy to enter for a child and His warning that it is as hard to enter as a camel through the eye of a needle. Other times it is the doubling and even tripling of the plots that provokes us to think. In the Lear family the best child is the youngest, in the Gloucester family the oldest is best. One example inculcates opinion, two might provoke thought, and three must. To understand the whole of a Shakespeare play you have to find the truth that orders all the examples and all the maxims in it.
Shakespeare's provocation to thought through designed opposition makes his dramas perfect parliaments in eternal session in which the course of the debate makes the impartial spectator better able to deliberate upon whatever emergency and important question is before it. The later liberal hope that if every individual speaks his mind, truth will out in the end, is in Shakespeare made to happen. Thus, as the English-speaking people's love of liberty is brought to perfection in the bounty of his free characters, so the English genius for self-government of such people is brought to perfection in his arrangement of the speakers and arguments in his dramas. Shakespeare is a parliament in session forever.
As his characters exercise free speech, as they contend, jostle, push and pull, pinch and trip each other, Shakespeare arranges for an intellectual order to emerge. And by taking parts reading aloud, you will progress toward that order. In comedy Shakespeare is like a hidden hand arranging for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, far beyond the just desert of most, and in tragedy he is like all-seeing Providence arranging for the more than deserved suffering that tests virtue and encourages self-knowledge. (Whom Shakespeare loves, he crosses.) In both, precisely through the contending partial views, he himself inquires about the whole, and entices us to the task of thinking for ourselves. In every emergency his drama turns on he sees the links to the enduring question at its core.
As a consequence whatever in later ages disturbs the tranquillity of true opinion will have been illuminated by his insight. If we want Shakespeare's thoughts on feminism, then read Taming of the Shrew and one of the comedies, such as As You Like It, with his witty and intelligent lasses, themselves something new under the sun. If we want Shakespeare's thoughts on race, then study Othello, whose color is held against him in Venice, who does think about it, but whose great soul, great though terribly wrong, makes him superior to the native Venetian, Iago. And also makes Othello a great role to play. Likewise Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, who so far from showing a prejudice now attributed to Shakespeare shows his author's humanity, for Shylock's role and his "hath not a Jew . . ." surely extended the bounds of an Elizabethan's sympathy, who had no chance to know a Jew, and maybe extends ours too, and makes Shylock a great role to play. Can there be a multi-cultural culture? A multi-culted country? A multi-religioned city? How much unity and how much diversity, how much unum and how much pluribus, are just right for a country? Well, these two Venetian plays, Othello and Merchant, both set in the one society known to Shakespeare to be experimenting with commerce as the one thing shared by all citizens, are Shakespeare's address to that question. Or if we want to think about religion and politics, what is owed to God and what is owed to man, how these allegiances are to be properly honored, in our souls, in our country, then let us study some of the History plays, especially the sequence from Richard II through to Henry V, which follows the life of Henry V, the only life Shakespeare ever took three plays to portray, and his model of a Christian statesman.
If you immerse yourself in the depths of Shakespeare, you will be happy, very happy, and then when you rise to the surface, all the enraged voices of the present day will seem as shallow and foolish as they are, and those captured by them as petty as a some tourist on the edge of the truly Grand Canyon whining about the mattresses in the motel. Submit to Shakespeare's authority, enjoy his riches, frolic in his pure waters, and all the armor against intellectual knaves you ever need will have already been added unto you.
Shakespeare's plays are made up mostly of speeches. And what speeches! They are so delightful and sagacious, they can be read for their sake alone, apart from their the play, and they are so good to think about, it would be good to take them to heart, by memorizing them. Our ancestors did far more of this than we do. They memorized more poetry, knew more of the great speeches, by Webster, Hayne, Clay, and Lincoln; often they knew by heart the Constitution, or portions of it, and very often they could recite the Declaration line by line. In Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the chapter on the Fourth of July, as one citizen reads the Declaration, it is mentioned that Laura and Mary both know it by heart. Mentioned casually, for in that time, it was nothing remarkable.
Our ancestors regarded memory as one of the powers of the human intellect. They had not memorized that one word cliché, "rote," so as to disparage all memorization. Perhaps they, with the feeble, the dumb, and the senile living among them more, knew better than we do how loss of memory leaves little else of what was dear in a friend or parent or in oneself. (Think of Mr. Reagan who seeing a model of the White House in a fish tank, put his hand in, took it out, and said to Nancy, "I think this had something to do with me.") Perhaps knowing that senility might precede their death, they wanted to be armed with things of beauty to repeat. I once heard of a woman who, learning she would surely die in a year, began memorizing poems. Shakespeare would understand. He wrote for such souls. In Shakespeare's day, and before, and up until about fifty years ago, students did a lot of memorization. Grown men and women sang songs and hymns; they knew long prayers and whole speeches by heart; boys recited addresses, and statesmen wrote them to be recited, and of course, they wrote them themselves.
(Although it may be true that recent education has discouraged memorization, it is not true that the recent world has. It is only that what the recent world wants us to memorize is different. In place of the proverbs, maxims, commandments, prayers, and aphorisms that our forefathers and foremothers learned by heart, we have the clichés, jingles, dull witticisms, and debased coinages of the mongers of various products and services, which when memorized, do impoverish the heart. Some day some one will at last be scandalized that some human beings waste portions of our precious common inheritance, words such as cheer, joy, and elation. to sell soap.)
"Do something worth remembering or write about things worth remembering," was a more heeded precept with our great grand parents. Lincoln did both and could also recite long speeches out of Shakespeare. McGuffey's eclectic readers, with their speeches from Shakespeare and others, in the original, not a dumbed-down version, continued a kind of learning that generations of English-speakers had enjoyed, since Beowulf and probably before.
Although it is true that the meaning of any speech in Shakespeare is only to be ascertained in the context of the play in which it occurs and although it must always be remembered that Shakespeare never speaks in his own person, only through his speakers, so that Macbeth calling life "sound and fury" is not Shakespeare calling life "sound and fury," and so that Ulysses discoursing on "order and degree" is not Shakespeare doing so, nevertheless, there is much good in attending to the speeches in Shakespeare without, attending to their proper contexts. Shakespeare even encourages this attention, for by a strange magic he manages to make the speeches of even his knaves, cowards, fools, and dim-wits sententious. And all of his speakers speak with a vivacity that is infectious, that makes you want to hear it over again,and why not by saying it over again yourself.
Although Shakespeare did make an effort to see that we have his works to read, he first wrote them so that he and his fellow actors could present them in a theater. A good actor and a happy audience want much the same thing; they both want the pace of feeling and thought to proceed minute by minute as well as over the whole shapely play; as an actor, you don't want to feel that the line by line boredom of your part is, after all, justified only by its contribution to the whole afternoon; of course, on the other hand, no good actor wants his part to be nothing but a string of one liners. Late night talk-shows, Shakespeare's plays are not. In his plays he provides the sustaining passions, long designs, and whole plots that make his flashing phrases concentrate into enduring sentences, his witty sentences gather into memorable speeches, his sparkling speeches rise to eternal significance, and all his vivacity be deep.
Is there a page of Shakespeare without a sententious remark or sagacious speech that helps us see our world more clearly? His characters, and through them him, are constantly reaching to say something more perfectly, more wittily, more prettily, with more taste, more bite, and more savor, than we meet with at the ordinary dinner tables of life. Moreover, when his characters reach for something fine, as they constantly do, in wit-combats or out, or alone, they succeed. There are great authors who are not very witty, for example Tolstoy and Kant, and great authors who are not very sententious, for example Homer and Aquinas. Although we come away from them with wonderful things, we do not quote passages from them, at least not often. To share our pleasure in them with our friends, we have to read whole pages from them or tell the whole story, from dinner to sleep, or, with Tolstoy, from dusk to dawn.
Not so with Shakespeare. With him we can pluck out pieces, a sentence or two or a speech and show them around, to let our friends see what gives such pleasure, by giving them some. Homer is like very good bread; five large pieces make a fair sample; Shakespeare is like fine ice cream marbled with real chocolate sauce; five tablespoons are rich enough. Shakespeare may not be better than Homer, but he is richer in smaller portions; one demitasse cup is enough for a morning and yet his whole year is made up of none but such rich, reliable, unrepeatable servings. "He loaded every vein with ore," as Keats, that boy pressing his nose against the candy store window, said. So, with Shakespeare you can show some of the reasons for reading him by reading a passage aloud. With Tolstoy, it's natural to take in the story he tells us, to see Andrei, and see Natasha, and see Pierre as Tolstoy has taught us to and then to retell their story in a night; with Shakespeare it is natural to memorize the speeches he gives us, line by line, and then to recite them.
What speeches there are in Shakespeare! And what a pleasure it is to read them, either aloud with friends or alone and silent, in the mind's ear. There is so much to learn from them. Shakespeare gives us a complete lexicon, from him you can learn to express your needs, your desires, the profound longings of your soul, and your sufferings. Have you lost your wealth, then turn to Shylock to express your pecuniary grief. Have you lost in addition to your wealth, your position and your neglected wife, then lament them with Richard II. Are you falsely accused by one you love, then imitate the dignified Hermione. Are you sad at heart, then read one of Rosalind's blithe speeches, sing a Shakespeare song, or recite a sunny Sonnet:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. (Sonnet XVIII)
Or are you smitten with some lass, then stop gaping, open your Romeo and Juliet, and give a matching tongue to your affection.
Or are you about to commit a crime? Then note what Macbeth observes: "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself" (2.2.73), or observe him later, wading so deep in the river of blood he can't feel a thing, will not pray, and looks forward to nothing happy:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5. 15-28)
Perhaps you have committed a crime. Is your conscience troubled, then read over Claudius' prayer:
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past.
Let us follow Claudius further. I promise you it will be worth it.
But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.
[Retires and kneels.]
Immediately Hamlet enters, sees he may kill Claudius easily, but thinking he may be in a good state of soul, wishing his damnation as well as his death, Hamlet refrains. After which we hear Claudius conclude his effort at prayer
KING CLAUDIUS: [Rising]
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
I have given this long passage for a reason, which will emerge later.
Or are you vexed by disrespect? Do persons in the street fleer at you? Then borrow articulate anger from Hotspur. Are you betrayed, then read something by the patient Imogen. Is your country ill governed, then consider how much one good man such as Henry V can accomplish. Is your country about to be defeated, then behold once again in your mind's eye the night before Agincourt and the battle that follows it. Do you yourself face terrible odds, then read Henry V's "we happy few" speech and be of good cheer. Are you anxious, then read over all calm Caesar's speeches. Are you about to be overwhelmed by death, then remember the Boatswain's farewell to life: "What! Must our mouths be cold?" (Tempest, 1.1)
Memorize the speeches that delight and fortify you. Memorize them now; when you need them most, you will not have time to. When you are in trouble, or your friend is, you will want them right beside you. "When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/ But in battalions," (Hamlet, 4.5.78-79).
And what is true for the single soul is true for a nation. All that a patriot might feel, in pride and in shame, has probably been articulated by Shakespeare.
During the Normandy landing, several bridges lay just behind the beaches. Not to secure them in the first hours of the assault would have exposed the men wading in on the beaches to the swift counterattack of Rommel's panzers, and jeopardized the whole invasion. To take those bridges, it would be necessary to land troops by glider and to land at all, it would be necessary to crash the gliders into the bridges themselves. Upon landing, Commander Gale assured his fellow volunteers:
. . . gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here.
So said Shakespeare's Henry V before Agincourt, and so said Shakespeare, half a millennium later, in the night before Normandy.
And those of us attending to our country thirty years ago, may well remember the opening days of the Select Senate Committee and Senator Sam Ervin's sonorous recitation of Shakespeare's Cardinal Wolsey: "Had I but served my God with half the zeal / I served my king, He would not in mine age / Have left me naked to my enemies." (Henry VIII, 3.2) These sober, repentant lines measured, before the fact, all future excuses, evasions, and falsehoods such as "mistake" and "third rate burglary" that would come later.
Will America ever be tempted by tyranny? One of Shakespeare's greatest gifts to all future English readers is his gallery of tyrants: poetic, wasteful, and willful Richard II; satiric, bloody, and willful Richard III; and ambitious, de-sexed, ultimately demented Lady Macbeth. There are also the extremes, apparently opposite, of misologic, anarchistic, violent Jack Cade and gifted, gift-giving, calm Caesar. Either in power would mean the end of liberty, and with one in power of civility too. Yet, since as Tocqueville says, our tyrannical temptation is soft tyranny, probably Shakespeare's best warning to us today is Henry VI, who wouldn't hurt a fly but ruins a nation. Think of this Henry just as lusty and dominated by women as he is, but in addition not feeble, instead active, eager to rule, and thus resolute to inculcate or, if need be, to enforce his piteous sensitivity, and you have the tyrant of soft despotism. The Sultan of Soft.
Of course, all Shakespeare's wonderful speeches are made up of words. Those who take Shakespeare for life, who read and reread the plays together, who memorize speeches, will have been insensibly studying his words, may have added some to their speech and writing, and begun to reflect upon them.
The scope of Shakespeare's vocabulary far surpasses not only every other author in English, but any author in any language (29,066 words in active use). Which ones are most active tells us something about Shakespeare's view of the whole. The adjectives his characters most often employ are, in order: "good" (2985), "great" (952), "fair" (885), "sweet" (876), "true" (854), "poor" (719), "noble" (660), "gentle" (397), "honest" (301), "kind" (300), "strange" (264), "worthy" (238), "happy" (217), "holy" (208), "gracious" (197), "sad" which also meant serious (186), "content" (177), "merry" (177), "wise" (176); "brave" (174), "valiant" (157), and "courageious" (12); "just" (149); "excellent" (128); "loving" (127); and "virtuous" (104).
These are then the chief qualities that the multitude of his characters discern in each other, in the world, and in the whole they make up. And the sovereign among them all is "good." It is used three times as much as the next adjective. By comparison, the opposites, such as "bad" (133), "wicked" (70), "evil" (68 times, but sometimes as a noun), and a word that had a very strong meaning in his time, "naughty" (15 instances) receive lesser attention. Even if you add all these instances together, the total is less than a tenth the frequency of "good" (2985). And even if you say some of the "goods" in familiar phrases such as good day, being weak, ought to be depreciated, still, from this comparison, we may conclude that Shakespeare's characters see more good in life, in the world, and in the whole, than bad and evil.
And so, I presume, did Shakespeare. Some famous men have questioned the goodness of Shakespeare. Mischievous Shaw wouldn't accept his superiority, the classic French always sniff, and great Tolstoy thundered against him. And today in our colleges, many teachers attack Shakespeare, or, perhaps worse, praise him for being as inwardly enraged as they outwardly are and thus covertly supporting their hatreds. If, as used to happen, the most prestigious colleges and universities of the West were today asked about Shakespeare, they might say he meant to breakup families, undermine countries, and damage 'great' souls, and they would even add, "And its a good thing." (Some universities supported Henry VIII in doing so, by answering the question he put about his marriage.) Are they right? There are dark things in Shakespeare. Not all of him is for the family. So, maybe we shouldn't trust Shakespeare. I think not. The fact that "good" is the adjective his characters need most to describe the world is prima facie assurance sufficient for any impartial observer, neutral, or beginner, of the worth of Shakespeare. And the man who first knew Iago, Richard III, and Goneril, already knows, the souls of his current academic detractors, sympatheticly yet unbendingly.
In Shakespeare's rich word hoard, there is vivacity, variety, subtlety, discernment, and grandeur. And everywhere there is exactness. Such exactness makes him the standard of all good writing, and the thinking that good writing is. His words and phrases are not only there for us to savor, but for us to study whenever we want to use words exactly. To be sure, some of his words have drifted away from him and his time and some so fallen out of use as to need footnotes, but most of his primary words are better and more exactly known in him than in a dictionary, any dictionary. The best writers always know better than the best lexicographers what words mean. Indeed, the best lexicographers do best when they go to the best poets and philosophers to learn the meaning of words. Witness Dr. Johnson. Unlike a modern lexicographer, he thought it his duty to judge words; yet he did not think he was the supreme judge; in establishing the meaning and usage of the words in his great dictionary, he deferred to the best writers, especially Shakespeare, whom he cites frequently, for he knew that rich examples are often more instructive than precise definitions.
Much of Shakespeare's wealth comes from new coinages, more than any other author. How apt the Nurse's waking of Juliet with "slug-a-bed" is! How much we are enriched by Hamlet's expression the "mind's eye." And how truly indispensable to a happy life is Shakespeare's coinage, "sweetheart." (May you say "sweetheart" often, and next time thank the poet.)
Not all his coinages have caught on. Some have breathed a bit, and then expired. Others, however, lived for a time, died, and were revived, especially by readers in the 19th century. So why shouldn't persons who take Shakespeare for life revive some today. In my classes I require students to end their paper with such a candidate for revival and offer extra credit to any who get their revival in the campus newspaper.
My favorite candidate for revival is romage. In Act I, Scene 1 of Hamlet, Marcellus wants to know why Denmark is in such a state:
Good now, sit down, and tell me he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week.
What might be toward that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-laborer with the day? (1. 1. 70-78)
In answer, honest Horatio names young Fortinbras as the cause of the anxious, unrelenting activity that keeps Denmark sleepless. Then he sums up:
and this, I take it,
Is the main motive of our preparations,
The source of this our watch, and the chief head
Of this posthaste and romage in the land. (1. 1. 104-107)
What a wonderful word, "romage!" Every particular in Marcellus' uneasy description is gathered in it: the motion, the lack of direction, the lack of repose and lack of completion. "Romage" is all intense activity that is actuated by fear, distracted by uncertainty, and moved to such sweaty, restless exertion that both nature (sleep) and habit (the weekly schedule) are violated, and all without the relief of engagement with the enemy. It is war preparations without war. It is the condition of a country in a "cold war" that knows it is in one. Or one who expects small bands with terrifying weapons. It is fear in the soul, exhaustion in the limbs, and motes in the mind's eye, as Hamlet says. It is a state you put yourself into by magnifying small hurts, or that an enemy can easily put you into by feints and tricks. Let us revive "romage" right now. And resolve to purge the thing itself from our hasty, distracted, disordered modern livesby forming a Shakespeare reading group.
For us however, the absence of other words, especially words familiar to us today, may be most instructive. We could hardly get along without such words as "value," "concept," "problem," "objective" or "subjective." Shakespeare could. No one in Shakespeare uses them. No one speaks of "facts," or contrasts them with "values." (Instead, they speak of "truth," and because they deem truth very valuable, even invaluable, they do not call it a value.) Shakespeare never uses the word "theory" in the modern sense of a mental construct, nor, correspondingly, does any one in his works ever speak of "applying" such a mental construct. The scientists in his works, such as Friar Lawrence, are not very good people. Mastery over nature is what Prospero drowns in the end, as he submits to the nature that includes his coming death and may spring him to resurrection. To Shakespeare's characters nothing is "aesthetic," instead they say "beautiful" (17 times) and above all "fair" (885 times), for beauty is not a sensation but a property of real things. No human being in Shakespeare calls anything human "creative," since the word, if he had used it, was reserved for God's singular work of bringing something out of nothing. Nor do his characters speak of things creating themselves blindly, of "evolving" as Darwin and a multitude of others hold. No one in Shakespeare ever evades rational judgment by saying that a figmentary abstraction such as "History" will decide. (Some do evade judging by invoking the mystery of Providence.) And no tyrant in Shakespeare ever justifies his killings in the name of "History," which is why Solzhenitsyn says Shakespeare's tyrants never kill more than a dozen, for they lack ideology. Likewise, although Shakespeare knows that each human being is equally a human being, his characters do not speak of "equality" as a goal, and they know the passionate desire to level all things, as he portrays it in Jack Cade, as an evil. So, too, you will not find the word "psychology" in his works, which know there is more in the soul than all your psychology kens of, and so to name something most precious, uses the word soul, not psyche. To describe human beings, Shakespeare uses the words they use, the language of the feelings and the virtues and vices, not of therapy, sensitivity, counseling, and victimhood. Shakespeare did not need all these words, which we may find indispensable, to describe the whole of what he saw. And this tells us how much his view of the whole is superior to our's.
Above all what describes the world Shakespeare viewed, which is the world we view too, is the adjective that surpasses in frequency all the others by fargood. Shakespeare's characters needed "good" nearly three thousand times to describe what they viewed, and Shakespeare needs them seeing "good" nearly three thousand times to present to us his great view of the good whole that we live and move and have our being in.
So far I have been speaking to citizens and parents about embracing Shakespeare for life. The scene of such an embrace is in the family, in groups of families, and in the souls of the adults, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the youngest children. Young children will enjoy their parents and parents' friends playing Shakespeare. Falstaff at Gad's Hill and after back at the Boar's Head is an ever winner. But they may well not be ready to take parts themselves, even after they have become readers. It must then be through stories told by their parents that the youngest will come to Shakespeare. Best would be for mom or dad to retell, in your words, some of the stories of Shakespeare's, plays. For a mom or a dad there will be surprises, I guarantee you. Thus you may find, as I did, that when you retell it to your small persons, Hamlet is the story that raises the question: Should you always do as your father tells you? and you will find, as I did, that when you retell Lear it raises such questions as: Are youngest sister's always best? Are tests of love wise? And: Is it ever right to ask How much to you love me? (These questions indicate why reading of these plays, Hamlet and Lear, ought to be reserved for late in high school at least.) Moreover, all along, father and mother will be discovering just how much of the play they know, for we can only retell what we have understood ourselves.
If we don't feel up to that yet, we parents may read the Shakespeare plots as told by Charles and Mary Lamb, or by Marchette Chute, or for younger listeners, Nesbit's retellings, which are shorter and in simpler sentences. (However, for the young, I would leave Othello and Pericles till later; that a man might be worked upon in a few hours to doubt and then kill his very beloved wife, and that a father might force himself upon his daughter are terrible things best left till later.) By having the plots of the plays, of course, the children will find reading aloud and taking parts much easier later. And as John Jay Chapman said, "The whole future of civilization depends on what is read to children before they can read to themselves."
For the very young then, Shakespeare comes in stories; for young and old, he comes in plays with parts for everyone; for all, his speeches exist for every triumph, every trial, and every failure in life; and for all, his words are there as windows on the soul and on the whole, as standards, as inspirations to like achievements, and as so fit, they bid to be revived.
I do not know when Abraham Lincoln first read Shakespeare. I do know that he grew with Shakespeare, that Shakespeare grew on him as he matured, and that, especially as the burdens of the Union grew heavier and heavier upon him, Shakespeare comforted and supported Lincoln.
Although Lincoln came to the White House with secession declared in some states and building in others, although he soon had to oppose civil rebellion, and then had to conduct a war, which went on and on and on, nevertheless, visitors to the White House were sometimes treated to the reading of a whole Shakespeare play by Lincoln. Such was the man. Such was one of the comforts of his spirit, aids to his thought, and supports of his strength. Likewise, while waiting for his generals, so often sluggish to follow up their victories, Lincoln would recite to his young telegrapher whole speeches from Shakespeare. Such was his concern for the happiness of a youngster, one member of that posterity whose liberty Lincoln was dedicated to preserving, and while he was so preserving, enjoying and imparting, one of the blessings of that liberty, namely Shakespeare.
There is more. Among the few pregnant remarks that Lincoln left to us, from his deep meditation on Shakespeare, is the unusual preference he expressed, to the actor Hackett, for one soliloquy in Hamlet. No, it was not one of Hamlet's seven, but the one I quoted at length earlier, the single one by Claudius, "Oh my offense is rank," in which the usurping king regrets his primal crime, tries to pray, and acknowledges that he cannot pray well while he retains the crown and queen his crime has secured him. Why did Lincoln prefer this soliloquy? Prefer it to the far more famous "To be or not to be"? I have never met an explanation, an attempt of one, or even the question.
Here is my conjecture: like the South, Claudius was a struggling sinner. The conscience of the South knew slavery was wrong, but it had not the strength to give up the gain of slavery; the familiarity of it was too inherited; the ease of it was too binding; and the fear of its disappearance, without the disappearance of all former slaves, all too reasonable. Lincoln thought it was important for the Union to know the South not only as a rebel, not only as a foe, but as a sinner, as a fellow sinner, as one struggling with sin, as a Claudius, and thus as deserving the mercy that his plan of reconstruction proposed, with the Union compensating each slave holder, and which in his Second Inaugural Lincoln forever called upon these our United States to secure, without malice and with liberty and justice for all.
Indeed, for Lincoln Shakespeare was for life, for his life, and for the life of the nation he gave his life for. Perhaps, then, it is not fanciful to think that the book in one of the best pictures of a father reading to his child there is ever likely to be, of Lincoln reading to his boy, Tad, that the book is Shakespeare.