Why Should I Learn Shakespeare?
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Ben Jonson on William Shakespeare1
These famous words of praise by the great poet, Ben Jonson, in honor of the even greater poet, William Shakespeare, were published in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, only seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The words of praise have, therefore, become words of prophecy, because none of the Bard of Avon’s contemporaries could have foreseen the extent to which Shakespeare would conquer the world in the centuries after his death. Today, the writer stands as a colossus who straddles the centuries, towering above all other writers, with the possible exception of Homer and Dante. His stature as a giant of civilization is itself sufficient reason to read, watch, and study his works. In spending time with Shakespeare, we are communing with genius. Can there be better and more fruitful and edifying ways of spending our time?
There is, however, another and deeper meaning behind Ben Jonson’s words. It is not merely that Shakespeare has survived the test of time; it is that his plays, and the truth and morality contained within them, transcend time. They are not merely works that endure in time; they are works that are beyond time. They are timeless. They have their inspiration in eternal verities, and they point to those same verities. Such truths do not change with time, nor are they changed by it. They simply are.
Perhaps the best way of illustrating this timeless dimension to Shakespeare is to compare the Heilige Geist with the zeitgeist, the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of the Age. The Holy Spirit does not change from one generation to the next. He simply is. The Spirit of the Age, on the other hand, is always changing. It is subject to time and is changed by it. The literal meaning of zeitgeist is Time-Spirit. One who serves the Time-Spirit is one who wants to seem relevant to the fads and fashions of his own day. He is primarily concerned with being up-to-date. The problem is that those who are up-to-date are very soon out of date, because, as C. S. Lewis quipped, fashions are always coming and going, but mostly going. One who is relevant to the fashions of today will be irrelevant to the fashions of tomorrow.
The reason Shakespeare is not of an age but for all time is that he serves the Heilige Geist and not the zeitgeist. The truths that inspire his Muse, and the truths that emerge in the fruits of his Muse (his plays and poems), are the truths of the Holy Spirit, the truths of the Trinity, the truths of Christ, and the truths of the Catholic Church, which is Christ’s Mystical Body. Such truths do not merely stand the test of time; they are the very truths by which time itself is tested. This timeless aspect of truth is very important for us to understand but is a little difficult to grasp. In order to help us, it might be useful to employ a famous philosophical riddle: If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear it fall, does it make a sound? The answer is that, of course, it makes a sound—because the sound of the tree falling is not dependent on anyone hearing it.
We might rephrase the riddle thus: If Shakespeare’s works are neglected so that in five hundred years from now, when nobody can read, they are no longer performed or read, will Shakespeare and his works cease to be relevant? The answer is that, of course, they are still relevant, because the goodness, truth, and beauty of the works are not dependent on our ability to see or understand them. Indeed, it could and should be argued that a culture that could no longer read Shakespeare because of its illiteracy and barbarism was suffering the woeful consequence of neglecting the truths that Shakespeare’s plays reveal!
Another way of understanding the timeless dimension of truth is to see it in relation to eternity. When we say that God is omnipresent, it doesn’t simply mean that God is present everywhere in time and space, though He is. More importantly it means that everything in time and space is present to Him. There is no past and future from the perspective of the eternal presence of God. His omnipresence means that everything is present to Him. In a similar though less perfect sense, Shakespeare enters eternity when he dies. On the assumption that he goes to heaven and not to the other place, he will enter into the eternal presence of God. He will be timeless. Insofar as Shakespeare’s works are good, true, and beautiful, which (of course) they are, and insofar as they are the fruits of God’s presence in the creative process (which is indubitable), those works will be enshrined with Shakespeare in eternity. They will be with him because they are an integral and essential part of who he is. In this sense, Shakespeare’s works simply are. They will be even when the world passes away.
These metaphysical first principles are crucial to our understanding of why we should learn Shakespeare, or indeed why we should learn anything else that contains goodness, truth, and beauty. The learning of such things points us towards eternity and helps us to get there. Can anything else be more worth learning?
Lest we be tempted to think that the foregoing discussion means that the learning of Shakespeare is purely a spiritual or mystical undertaking, connected solely to what philosophers call the anagogical meaning of life, we should remind ourselves of the paradox that the timeless is always timely. If the timeless resides in the eternal, it means that all times are present to it. If it is timeless, it is always true—and if it is always true, it is always relevant. It is for this reason that Shakespeare’s works are rightly listed amongst the “permanent things,” those things thatare and will always be, and, in consequence, those things that are and will always be relevant.
Let’s conclude by looking at a few of the timeless truths in Shakespeare that are also and always timely.
In Romeo and Juliet, the difference between true and false love (i.e. rational and irrational love) is highlighted. The sobering lesson that the play teaches is that the thing possessed possesses the possessor. This is evident in Romeo’s blasphemous remark in which he exclaims that “heaven is here / Where Juliet lives.” Juliet is Romeo’s alpha and omega, his beginning and his end. She is the goddess to which he owes the sum of all his worship. It is for this reason that he chooses this “heaven,” even when it becomes his hell. In Dante’s Inferno, the lustful are described as “those who make reason slave to appetite” or as those who let their erotic passions “master reason and good sense.”2 Like Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno, Shakespeare’s lovers have overthrown reason in pursuit of passion. Embracing their madness and blindness, their “love” has surrendered to the force of feeling. Their love is headless and, therefore, heedless of the bad consequences of the bad choices being made. Shakespeare and Dante, both believing Catholics, are well aware of the danger of separating love from reason. Love, like faith, must be subject to reason; a love that denies or defies reason is illicit and is not really love at all.
In some ways, Romeo and Juliet can be seen as a cautionary commentary on the two great commandments of Christ that we love the Lord our God and that we love our neighbor. The two lovers deny the love of God in their deification of each other, with disastrous consequences, and their respective families deny the love of neighbor in their vengeful feuding. It could be said that the venereal and vengeful passions of Verona represent the culture of death in microcosm. A society that turns its back on Christ and His commandments is on the path to suicide, to its self-annihilation. If the lessons are not learned and the warnings heeded, the sinful society will be doomed to be damned.
Similar lessons to those taught in Romeo and Juliet are taught in The Merchant of Venice, in which the test of the caskets shows that true love is about dying to oneself in order to give oneself fully and self-sacrificially to the beloved. This true love is contrasted with the self-centered desire of those who fail the test. In similar vein, the test of the rings at the end of the play reinforces the necessity of self-sacrifice in the sacrament of marriage. Finally, of course, Portia’s timeless wisdom reminds us that we must love our neighbor, showing the quality of mercy that God has shown to us.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare pours scorn on Caesar’s vanity, on Antony’s bloodthirsty opportunism, on Cassius’ ambition, and on Brutus’ brutal idealism. Yet, he is not cursing from the perspective of a worldly cynicism but from that of a believing Christian, at a time when believing Christians were being tortured and put to death by the vanity of monarchs, by bloodthirsty opportunists, by political ambition, and by brutal idealism.
There is, however, a deeper level of meaning in Julius Caesar that is all too often overlooked completely. It is the sound of silence within the play—the scream in the vacuum of the play’s vacuity. It is the unheard and unheeded voice of the virtuous. It is the voice of Calpurnia, which, if heeded, would have saved Caesar’s life; it is the voice of Portia, which, if heeded, might have urged Brutus to think twice about his involvement with the conspirators. It is the voice of the Soothsayer and of the augurers. It is the voice of Artemidorus, a teacher of rhetoric, whose note to Caesar is devoid of all rhetorical devices and direct to the point of bluntness. The note is not read, the voices are not heard, and the consequences are fatal. All that was missing in the play is the one thing necessary: the still, small voice of virtue and wisdom that the proud refuse to hear.
The whole of Hamlet turns on the crucial distinction between reason and will, and between that which is and that which seems to be, and the test of success is the extent to which the protagonists conform their will to reason. This is Hamlet’s struggle throughout the play. In the end, through conforming his will to reason and in connecting reason to faith, he becomes the willing minister of Divine Providence, bringing justice to the wicked King Claudius and restoring justice to the realm.
In many ways, Macbeth can be seen as an anti-Hamlet. Whereas Hamlet begins in the Slough of Despond, temperamentally tempted to despair, he grows in virtue throughout the play until he reaches the ripeness of Christian conversion and the readiness to accept his own death as part of God’s benign Providence. Hamlet grows in faith because he grows in reason; Macbeth loses his faith because he loses his reason.
In a more general sense, the dynamism of the underlying dialectic in Shakespeare’s plays, and therefore of the dialogue, is centered on the tension between Christian conscience and self-serving, cynical secularism. Whereas the heroes and heroines of Shakespearean drama are informed by an orthodox Christian understanding of virtue, the villains are normally moral relativists and Machiavellian practitioners of secular real-politik.
In the final analysis, the right reason for learning Shakespeare is to learn the right reason that Shakespeare teaches!
Joseph Pearce is a writer, editor, and Professor of Humanities; Series Editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions; and Executive Director of Catholic Courses.
Joseph is a recipient of the John Pollock Award for Christian Biography (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University) and received an honorary doctorate in humanities from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
An author of twenty books, Joseph is also the editor of approximately twenty-five books. His articles have appeared in a wide variety of periodicals including Gilbertand St. Austin Review.
Professor Pearce and his wife homeschool their two children.