A few years ago, Harold Bloom produced a work on Shakespeare, by no means his first, entitled, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999).
Bloom’s title poses an interesting and rather dazzling thesis, but Ms. Dana Dusbiber, a teacher from Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, will have none of it. In last week’s Washington Post she published the following complaint:
“What I worry about is that as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important.”
Of course, the one white man is Shakespeare.
There’s much that annoys in Ms. Dusbiber’s piece, such as her politicizing of time-honored studies and her rather artless admission that she finds Shakespeare difficult to read. But there’s also a good deal of plain silliness. Is there any educational program that teaches only Shakespeare? If one exists, it can hardly be representative of American educational practice, just as surely as it cannot be worthy of the Washington Post’s notice.
But here’s an idea: Suppose Shakespeare were the only author one had to read. The thought may seem odd, but we’ve all compiled our “desert-island” lists of this or that, haven’t we? And if our book list consisted of one item only, well, what would you choose? It’s a fair bet that Shakespeare would stand atop many a westerner’s list and, if we scan some of the notable countries eastward, not just a few Japanese and Russian as well.
If the Bard provided inspiration for three of Tchaikovsky’s finest compositions — Romeo and Juliet (1870), The Tempest (1873) and Hamlet (1888) — and Shostakovich’s greatest opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934,), and Akira Kurosawa for the screen, “Ran” (1985), who are we to argue?
As for the Chinese, there have been 22 translations of “Hamlet” since 1922, an interest that seems to have survived even Mao and his much less memorable Quotations of….. In the words of Ruru Li, “[Hamlet] rapidly became established in Chinese minds as the greatest literary masterpiece.” Hmm. Must be something universal there.
But back to our desert island; each of us existing as Robinson Crusoe — another book that must distress Ms. Dusbiber: What would Shakespeare teach us? I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure that at least in the early stages of insularity I would be desperate for rest. No time for Shakespeare, right?
But memory is a marvelous thing. Shakespeare’s words have a way of rising from the recesses of the mind, such as this gem for the man, well, desperate for rest: “Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, / Chief nourisher in life’s feast . . .” The thought itself, so thoroughly apt and expressive of the thing described, might well create a peace conducive to sleep in trying times—though admittedly not for Macbeth after murdering King Duncan.
And concerning murder, didn’t Shakespeare sum up the horror of the crime of crimes when a few lines later the anguished Macbeth lamented, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas in incarnadine, / Making the green one red”? In the space of thirty-two lines, we have the extremes of peace and turmoil in miniature, except there’s nothing miniature about it.
Lesser authors know how to make great things great, but Shakespeare has a way of also bringing the great out of the small. Of music — and on our desert island we’d soon hollow out a reed and begin to play —Shakespeare had much to say but perhaps never so well as in Lorenzo’s musings in The Merchant of Venice:
. . . therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. (V.1.80 – 88)
“Let no such man be trusted.” And what of a woman, say a teacher from Sacramento, deaf to the music of great poetry and drama? Shakespeare, more or less shorthand for the entire Western tradition, and perhaps its greatest literary manifestation, contains in abundance the most sublime meditations on nature and, outside of scripture, the deepest insights into the soul of man quite likely ever written: high ambition, hilarious folly, bestial desire and the most refined love.
Deaf to Shakespeare? Let no such human, man or woman, be trusted.
Ruri Li, “Hamlet in China: Translation, Interpretation and Performance,” MIT Global Shakespeares.
William Shakespeare, The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, Alfred Harbage, ed., Viking/Penguin (1977).