These are trying times. Much of the world is locked down. The spectre of death is looming over some of us. The inglorious uncertainty and the associated helplessness are the most horrifying elements. All of a sudden, we are all susceptible. All of a sudden, amidst tempest we are all in the same boat. In such times general philosophical statements on life come to our mind. Here, we would like to find solace in Shakespeare’s philosophy. But did he have one? Did he advance any solutions to the existential problems?
Shakespeare’s Philosophy Exists Not
Normally Shakespeare seeks not to interpret or guide life, but to present it. There is no symbolism in most of his plays except such as it may please the ingenious hearer to introduce. One of his tragedies that is universally acknowledged to be the most laden one with thought is Hamlet. Yes, it seemingly touches on many problems – vengeance, suicide, love. But does it truly advances a solution for any of them? The tragedy provides the spectacle of the trouble of Hamlet’s soul and attempts no more. Shakespeare gives fewer direct lessons than the dramatists who, like Ben Jonson, pose as censors of morals. Systematic thinking has marked his work less clearly than that of the revolutionary Marlowe.
It is tempting to imagine that the collection of the scattered fragments of his thought would constitute a body of doctrine which would yield an answer, his answer, to the riddles of life. Protestants, Catholics, and free-thinkers have with equally plausible arguments claimed Shakespeare for their own. But it is vain to hope, by gathering them together, to arrive at a pearl of higher wisdom which was the poet believed in. They are not maxims accumulating to produce a total result. The philosophical outpouring is overwhelming but the number is commensurate only with the diversity of human judgments. The dialogues that strike us reveal only the playwright’s marvellous versatility. He is sharply conscious of the relative nature of all things. His plays have appropriate philosophy for each temperament and every circumstance. Still, no higher doctrine embraces and resumes them all. In truth, Shakespeare’s philosophy exists not.
Sound and Fury
In our view, the deduction is allowable that the playwright’s thought rarely went beyond earthly life. If at all he glanced further he soon brought his gaze back to this world, which seemed to him a man’s all. He does indeed admit with Hamlet that human reason is limited and surrounded by a great mystery:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Yet Hamlet himself says, ‘To die: to sleep; no more,’ for all that he keeps
the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns.
Other characters in the plays make more decided denials. It may mean nothing that Macbeth, the murderer, thinks
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
It may mean no more then, that Jaques, the melancholy philosopher, states
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
Here, Touchstone, the fool, presents Shakespeare’s philosophy on the limited view of life:
It is ten o’clock:
Thus may we see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot:
And thereby hangs a tale
It is, however, difficult to think that Prospero did not voice matured Shakespeare’s philosophy when, reflectively, he averred that:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
This is to speak as a philosopher of antiquity rather than a Christian. Yet the saying was not such as to scandalize an audience of the Renascence or to mark Shakespeare’s plays as more impious than those of his contemporaries. Marlowe had written more audacious lines. Shakespeare did no more than find rare and unforgettable forms in which to enclose the secular thinking of the men of his time.
Following New Historicism, we may say that at times Shakespeare’s plays were about real people in a real setting, pressed by real politics and brutally exigent power struggles – only it was exalted by high poetry. He never wrote a discourse on public matters. Yet, he must have his thoughts and point of view. We have to dwell upon his plays to discern his view of life and philosophy. So, thus we allow the poet cognitive or referential power. He composes in the particular social conditions of composition, in a particular social milieu.
Read: Shakespeare’s Art
In Hamlet, the playwright shows near-obsession with matters legal. Re-read Act I, Scene I. In between a narrative of Hamlet’s victory over Norwegians, Horatio raises a technical point that forfeiture of land to the victor has to be ratified. Son of the defeated Norwegian King also raises that point. The climax of the Merchant of Venice transpires in the court-room. So, our point is that Shakespeare wasn’t just an arms-chair playwright producing dialogues consisting generalities. He kept himself well-grounded in the world he lived.
Religion was at the centre of public discourse in those days. Christianity was splitting into Catholicism and Protestantism. To which side was Shakespeare sympathetic? What did he think of Reformation? He must have noticed that Reformation was not the flavour of the season for the people in an influential position in those days. He sure portrays Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1 as the vile witch of the Protestant propaganda. A dance of ghosts is a Catholic apparatus of Shakespearean drama. To note, though written towards the end of the 16th century, Henry VI is set in pre-Reformation England.
He, however, seems to have played on both sides. He refused to play the Protestant game and join the chorus of denunciation. In those days of intense persecution, he in his plays took care to hide any hint of specific allegiance to either side of the divide. In those years of religious turbulence, his audience included the class, too. However, Shakespeare designed the same for reader-audience beyond centuries when those religious matters had settled. Therein lies his universal appeal. To note, Spenser was strongly Protestant. In a word, later Shakespeare was as Jacobean as early Shakespeare was Elizabethan. However, he purportedly tried to keep the plays unaffected by the historical context.
In The End…
This extended and likely re-extended lockdown in human history presents an apt moment to recall Macbeth, the exalted murderer, lamenting: “Life’s but a walking shadow…” We are becoming acutely aware of what damages we have done to the environment and ecosystem. But, no, the political-industrial complex doesn’t learn that easily. It may break against an unseen smallest possible enemy but it won’t bend before the demands of the poor people.
A virus is undermining all the advancements that human civilization has made so far. It is a slap on the human ego. Bats can cohabit with viruses, we the superior crumble. An all-inclusive model of growth is the pressing need of the hour. It should include not only the poor humans but the other species as well. Annihilate them and get annihilated. That is the message. And, I am not thinking of socialism.
Ending with a note on Shakespeare’s philosophy, although full of sound and fury, it does signify enough to warrant our attraction and admiration in these trying times.
Get a book: Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor