Lord, What Fools|These Mortals Be

     Five hundred and forty-seven years ago Saturday, more or less, our planet’s greatest artist was born.
     Four hundred and ninety-five years ago Saturday, exactly, he died.
     William Shakespeare may or may not have invented the modern human being, as Harold Bloom put it.
     Bloom is a bit of a stuffed shirt, but he’s no dummy.
     What’s certain is that Mr. Shakespeare was the first poet-playwright who put the real action in his plays not just onstage, but in the 5 inches between his characters’ ears.
     Read Malory, Chaucer, Beowulf, Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Caesar, the Norse sagas, the Tristan legends, Froissart, you’ll find great poetry, rollicking stories – but you won’t find any heroes worrying about what they’ve done, or what they’re about to do.
     And even if you do find it – I couldn’t – that won’t be the point of the story.
     In Shakespeare’s great tragedies – Hamlet, Lear and MacBeth – that is the point of the story.
     That’s how Shakespeare invented us, modern human beings, or anticipated us. He invented us all – for good and ill.
     As for those Great And Powerful human beings today, who make history, but don’t worry about what they have done – and I could name names – these people are less than human.
     They are not important.
     Even Socrates, perhaps the first inventor of the human being – certainly one of history’s few truly great men – didn’t worry about what he did. He wondered about it, he doubted it, he questioned it, but I don’t think he worried about it.
     Socrates drank the hemlock in peace – I would almost say in contentment – that’s how sure he was. Imagine such a thing.
     Today we can’t even live in contentment.
     Even Kit Marlowe, the only contemporary who could possibly be compared with Shakespeare, fell on the other side of the line that makes us modern humans. (I exclude Ben Jonson from this argument because he was an odious human being. You may make any arguments about him you wish. He’s your problem.)
     Marlowe’s characters – Faustus, Tamburlane, the Jew of Malta – may have been humans, but they were solitary humans, surrounded by totem poles, by gargoyles empty of character. They were men surrounded by symbols, not by humans.
     Open a page of Shakespeare, or better, go to one of his plays, and you’re surrounded by humans – none wholly good, none absolutely evil, none just a symbol of something else. Just humans.
     In this sense, Shakespeare was more modern, and a better human being, and above all more honest than any of the so-called great men in our country today – certainly a greater man than any of our politicians.
     When you’re talking about Shakespeare, Hazlitt said, you’re talking about a crowd.
     But that’s not really true. When you’re talking about Shakespeare, you’re talking about one guy – an actor, a poet and playwright, a man who had to earn his daily bread, and did earn it, who was born 547 years ago Saturday, more or less, and who died 495 years ago Saturday, exactly.
     Shakespeare’s characters, unlike most characters, unlike you and me, unlike most humans who are born to live and suffer and die in this world, are not empty placeholders, they are not symbols of something else, they do not mean anything, or prove anything, or redeem anything. They are, as Borges said, an exception to the vast inhumanity and enigmatic stupidity of the cosmos.

%d bloggers like this: