The Timely Wisdom of the Bard.
We are living in an age of uncertainty. All of humanity is affected by some degree or other by a random disease. Arguably there is no better time to revisit the works of England`s greatest playwright. The wisdom contained in his drama is immense. His stunning imagination and insight is vital for these troubled times.
I have written about “Othello” before on these pages. It still stands as a cautionary fable of jealousy. The tragic denouement of the play, Othello`s suicide is a stark reminder of the pernicious effects of envy. Iago is Othello`s nemesis who plants falsehoods in his rival`s head in an attempt to destroy him. However unlike the noble Moor Iago is a contemptible figure who merely arouses pity rather than any iota of admiration.
Shakespeare was no stranger to the cruelty meted out by humans. He was acutely aware of the terrifying savagery that some people were capable of, most markedly in his most controversial play, “Titus Andronicus”. The play is set in Rome during an interregnum where Titus has a fragile grip on power. He was a brave General who made a valiant attempt to build a fortress against the invading Goths. However in his advanced age he needs a younger leader to replace him. His successor is Saturninus, the eldest son of the late Emperor (who preceded Titus), but his succession eventually turns Rome into a land of chaos and barbarism. Saturninus fateful alliance with the Goth Queen Tamora proves to be the catalyst as she was Titus` greatest adversary. The violence that is unleashed, including the savage rape and mutilation of Titus` daughter Lavinia is a consequence of years of acrimony and conflict between native Romans and Goths. Rome is a fading Imperial nation seething with resentment. In the end their destruction becomes complete as animalistic passions surmount reason and humans are irredeemable by their beastliness.
Spite and vengeance are the two main factors that motivate Shakespeare`s villains, like our contemporary world, the most notorious villains forget their own humanity to commit the most heinous crimes. It also seems that pride and any perceived threat to it can lead to the most alarming behaviour. “King Lear” is ostensibly an extended discourse on heredity, but there is an inner story hidden in the drama. Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester finds his status challenging.The circumstances surrounding his conception provoke feelings of shame and disquiet. In truth he feels less than a man compared to his half sibling Edgar, the legitimate heir.
His role is played out in parallel with Lear and his daughters Regan, Cordelia and Goneril. These three sisters use flattery in an attempt to win the King`s favour and ultimately his inheritance. Lear is unaware that two of his daughters are feigning their affections for him. He only uncovers their insincerity when fate intervenes and by then it is too late. Meanwhile Edmund convinces his father that Edgar is engaged in a sinister plot to usurp the Estate, which is in fact a fiction cooked up by his spiteful mind. However the Duke is convinced enough to proclaim that Edgar is an outlaw. Again the extremity of human emotion manifests itself in disturbing scenes.We witness the Duke gouge his eyes out as Edgar wanders the heath in a troubling state of derangement. All of the plotting and machinations of the three sisters come to nothing in the end, after Goneril`s suicide the King dies from a broken heart with his beloved daughter`s body in his arms.
The most thorough analysis of the human experience is detailed in the masterful “Hamlet”. It proves to be the most illuminating drama when it is performed in its entirety. Playing “Hamlet” or “the Dane” is still considered by most actors to be the greatest role in the Theatre. It is a part held with such high esteem that to be chosen to play it is seen as a huge honour and achievement. Only this play reveals our fragility and tenuous hold on the destiny of our lives. Shakespeare was a dramatist with a particularly acute sensitivity to our friable existence. Life itself is subject to random vagaries that make little sense.
Shakespeare`s “history” plays are very effective. They are a perfect illustration of the sinister consequences of war and internecine killing. These are shown to have repercussions even decades after their occurrence. It seems that us as a nation, a world even will always remember troubling events which colour our perception of the present and inform us of our possible future. And it isn`t just violent events which influence us, the most insignificant things seemingly shape our opinions. I must single out Prince Hal in “Henry IV” as the most prophetic character in this regard. Currently the tabloids are sniping at our very own Prince Henry, the descendant of Hal. His forebear`s antics are uncannily similar, and as in Harry`s case too played out in two parts. In the first part of the play Hal is alienated from his father,Henry IV. Hal is weighed down with the burden of taking the Crown, and prefers the company of Falstaff and his louche inn dwelling associates. However by the second part Falstaff descends into a permanent state of senility. There is great pathos watching such a larger than life figure diminish before our eyes. Hal`s confidant vanishes, and he is forced to confront his father. The stiff formality of the King rankles his son, he feels much more at home in the dives of Eastcheap than the corridors of the Palace. Our Harry is the modern equivalent who feels more comfortable with LA society and his beautiful and clever Hollywood wife, yet our Queen is ageing and her time will eventually come and he will be forced to make an unenviable choice.
The comedic plays a vital role alongside the tragic. Humour helps to diffuse the pomposity displayed by the major characters. Also the humour reveals a certain kind of wisdom that is noticeably absent from “heavier” characters. The assorted jesters and clowns are oddly perceptive. The notions of wit and idiocy, and of nobility and savagery are tested throughout Shakespeare`s oeuvre. In his final play “The Tempest” an exiled community are contemplating their fate while stranded on an island. In the play the convention of the noble aristocrat is turned upon its head when the supposed “savage” Caliban reveals his great powers of sensitivity and perception.
In this desperate time we are forced into a state of self absorption and we are compelled to face the fact of our own mortality. Shakespeare is the voice of wisdom which illuminates our darkest days. We should celebrate his memory today and always.