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Shakespeare and the Human Condition

John Dorney By John Dorney Published on April 22, 2016
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Why Shakespeare, at the time of his 400th birthday, still matters today. By John Dorney

I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I am an admirer.

I well remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. I was 15 years old and had to read The Merchant of Venice in school.

At first it seemed a grievous chore. The language was archaic English of course – ‘and thus verily do I truly think you doth...’ etc. – to the degree that it needed explanatory notes down the side, almost a translation, for a speaker of modern English to follow.

And there was more. My teenage self found an aversion, common I think to that age, to anything written more than 50 years previously. How, if it was written so long ago, in an age so different from ours, could it possibly be relevant to us? Weren’t all its ideas outmoded, all of its assumptions wrong?

Take The Merchant of Venice for instance. The play is essentially the story of an Italian Christian merchant, Antonio, who borrows money from a Jewish money lender called Shylock. 

Antonio cannot pay back the loan after the ship his merchandise was on sinks, and Shylock attempts to collect, per the contract, a pound of his flesh. At the last minute, Antonio is improbably saved by the deus ex machina intervention of Portia, a wealthy heiress. The wicked Jew is ruined at the end.

On the surface, this seems to be a crude story of anti-Semitic prejudice, with an improbable plot twist. What quickly became apparent though, even to an adolescent was that in Shakespeare’s hands, the tale is full of complexity and human insight.

Antonio's melancholy

Let’s start with Antonio, who is introduced with the speech, ‘in sooth [truth] I know not why I am so sad’. His friends ask him if he is worried about business, tell him to snap out of it, find himself a girlfriend, to occupy himself, but he finds he can’t; ‘It wearies me, you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff ‘tis made of, where of it is born, I am to learn’. 

Anyone who has ever suffered a bout of depression or even melancholy knows all about this. The most difficult thing is understanding why one feels that way.

That Antonio embarks on a reckless, apparently altruistic escapade, guaranteeing his spendthrift friend Bassano’s loan is also typical of someone suffering from their own demons. He will do anything for what he thinks of as ‘redemption’ in the eyes of his friends, such is his feeling of guilt and worthlessness.

Shylock and the bitterness of the humiliated

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Moving on to Shylock. The Jewish money lender is of course the bad guy in the story – at the time most Christians believed ‘usury’ or charging interest was a sin and Shylock, who demands human flesh is a grotesque parody of a Jewish ‘bloodsucker’. 

But what really fascinated me upon my first reading was the power and insight Shakespeare gave the character. Shylock sets the punitive conditions for repayment of his loan to Antonio because Antonio has publicly insulted him, ‘scorned him’ as a Jew.

In Shylock’s famous speech one can feel the bitterness of the humiliated, ‘He hath disgraced me ... Laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, Scorned my nation, Thwarted my bargains, And what's his reason? I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? ‘

But also, and this is crucial, Shakespeare understood the bitter burning desire of the humiliated and powerless for revenge. Shylock continued ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’

The feelings are not outdated, what Shakespeare captured are enduring features of the human condition. Injustice breeds hatred and bitterness more commonly than a virtuous desire for equality.

Macbeth and the logic of mass murder

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My second meeting with Shakespeare was Macbeth, the bloody story of a power struggle for the throne in Scotland.

It so happened that as I was reading Macbeth in school, I was also learning about Stalin and the Soviet Union. What I learned in history was deeply shocking for a young man with socialist sympathies. How could the Soviets, supposedly the messengers of human progress have killed so many millions, in the gulags, before firing squads, and in torture chambers?

Loss of naive idealism is probably something we all go through at some point, but learning about the Stalinist period also posed a philosophical problem; How was it possible to suspend all human sympathy so as to commit such ghastly atrocities?

Oddly, Shakespeare’s Macbeth provided some answers . Macbeth first kills the incumbent king Duncan, partly out of ambition, partly at his wife’s urging, thinking that ‘it would be quickly done’. One act of bloodshed that could be quickly forgotten about, ‘a little water’ Lady Macbeth says, ‘clears us of this deed’.

But then Macbeth finds that once he has killed to seize power he must kill again, first to eliminate his friend Banquo, who suspects him of the King's murder, then to do away with other rivals, and finally, to eradicate even potential rivals. 

By now he has committed so many terrible acts it scarcely seems to matter if he commits more; ‘All causes shall give way. I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more. Returning were as tedious as go o'er.’

Stalin and other tyrants over the centuries no doubt thought much the same. Stalin is even supposed to have said, ‘One death is a tragedy, one million deaths are a statistic’. Whether he said it or not, it echoes alarmingly with Macbeth’s speech.

Shakespeare then, is not and probably never can be out of date. That he retains his place in English literature is no accident. In this age of hyper information we learn from Shakespeare’s writing that we are not the first generations to confront human problems, nor even the best at understanding them.

Shakespeare remains, of course, a man of his time, but his insights into the human experience, as well as the beauty of his prose speak just as clearly to us today.

Irish historian. Author of 'Peace After the Final Battle' The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924. Editor of the Irish history website www.theirishstory.com

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