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Shakespeare in the 21st Century
I am teaching Shakespeare this fall and was recently asked whether his works are still relevant to the modern world. I think Shakespeare writes about human behavior, which is so stable across time and space that changing only a detail here and there, his plays might easily be about our own world.
Take the ever-repeated problem of politicians who gain power and change their behavior. Measure for Measure takes the likelihood of such change as its starting point, as Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, leaves Angelo as viceregent, specifically to see "If power change purpose" (1.3.54). And of course power does change purpose, so that the apparently puritanical Angelo puts to shame what we've seen in so many of our recently fallen politicians, priests and preachers.
But Shakespeare does not tell us simply that men are fallible and fall. The play asks us to ponder profoundly human questions. How should the law deal with evil-doers if the agent of the law knows himself ultimately to be as guilty as the person being judged? Does the desire for social order require an absolute rigor in the exercise of law? Is mercy an essential component of justice, or does mercy simply encourage further lapses?
Shakespeare rarely—I think never—presents us with an ideological response or pat answer to the problems his plays raise. On the contrary, Shakespeare holds a "mirror up to nature" (Ham 3.2.22), and asks his audiences to respond to the reflection in much the same way as we respond to the real world.
Reading the plays becomes training in reading life, forcing us to ethical reasoning of the highest order. In a classroom, of course, we are obliged to justify our points of view. Rip-roaring arguments sometimes begin when students face an ethical conundrum that each resolves in a different way.
In Measure for Measure a young woman, Isabella, is offered the chance to save her brother Claudio's life—but only if she is willing to sacrifice her virginity to Angelo, who has sentenced Claudio to death. Do we agree with Isabella that she cannot possibly do as Angelo requires? Do we value virginity more than life? Or does compulsion change the ethical dynamics of the problem so that to accede to Angelo may be a loss of virginity, but does not damage Isabella's integrity? Is valuing the life more than virginity a sin? Or vice versa? A student who came to the question convinced that Isabella's virginity had to be preserved at all costs, hearing Claudio's heartrending plea, broke out in tears as she came to understand the price she was asking of the brother; but still she maintained that Isabella is right to reject Angelo's offer. A very tough decision that others in the class challenged.
As we talk through the plays, we give immediate voice to what we feel and think, arguing verbally and making good cases for our positions. But the students must also perform a more rigorous, written analysis of the challenges of the plays, exercising all of the skills of critical reading, thinking and writing that are at the heart of any meaningful education. They consult the text, their consciences, secondary sources stretching from the refined arguments of Shakespeare Quarterly to what their classmates or roommates say. And they distill their ideas into cogent prose.
Regardless of the degree of success in any given paper, the effort to come to terms with the plays is its own reward.
Ultimately the plays stick with the students beyond the classroom because they express so accurate an appraisal of our existence. Consider the very contemporary echoes rippling through the problems of legitimating a government in the four plays that take us from the deposition and murder of Richard II in 1400 to the death of Henry V in 1422. Shakespeare's Richard is a terrible king, a kind of very high-class frat boy more concerned with pleasure than governing. Suddenly faced with political problems far beyond his capacity to resolve, he loses his throne. But deposing him leads to years of unrest, rebellion, lawlessness. Henry IV, who deposes Richard, is helpless to correct the civil strife because, having privileged his own ambition by promising change that the people can believe in, he is responsible for putting the country into disarray.
How can the mess be fixed? Is Henry's son, Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V, justified in lying to his people and conducting a preemptive war against France, so that Englishmen stop thinking about the disarray at home and instead focus on the wealth—not of oil but of land—that they can gain in France? Is state interest synonymous with the welfare of the people? Is the leader of a nation licensed to lie, steal and cheat? The politics of 15th century England are so parallel to recent politics that students sometimes find themselves arguing in the present tense, substituting Iraq for France, the U.S. for England. And, again as usual, Shakespeare does not
But for me the most important aspect of Shakespeare's works involves the eternal relationships between men and women. Most of us are not often faced with solving problems of life and death, war and peace: but I think we all navigate the waters of gender relations moment by moment, and so I look to the plays to see how Shakespeare represents the Scylla and Charybdis of men and women disporting themselves together.
Very smart people have read Shakespeare's plays and concluded that he was a misogynist pig; equally smart people have concluded that he was a feminist. I fall into the second camp, although I understand and sympathize with the other side of the argument. There are profoundly misogynistic passages in Shakespeare, not least in the sonnets to the so-called"dark lady," who is the source of every corruption imaginable—including of the writer's reason, so that supremely"masculine" characteristic simply fails in the speaker.
By implication the sonnets and plays suggest that all women are such powerful sources of passion that they reduce men to brutes. But the earlier sonnets, addressed to the "lovely boy" (126.1) whom Shakespeare has courted for over three quarters of the sonnet sequence, tell us that the "boy" has had exactly the same effect on the writer. If the dark lady corrupts him, then so does the young man. As a student once said, "I thought that Shakespeare's women were weak, but now I see that it's the men who're the wusses." I sort of agree. In effect, Shakespeare suggests that men and women are identical in their sexual, moral, social, spiritual lives.
Dismal as it is in its conclusions about humanity, that insight—and countless others—is why we keep reading, discussing, acting and applauding as we have for the past 500 years.
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