Shakespeare’s Man

John W. Pinkerton

Years ago when I was still teaching high school English, I was speaking with a friend about Shakespeare's plays.  He attempted to dismiss any relevance of the plays of Shakespeare because they portrayed a different man than the one who exists in today's world.

His contention froze me in my tracks.  I didn't know how to respond.  The assumption that man has changed since the Fifteenth Century seemed bizarre to me then and just as bizarre today.

Did he mean that the Hamlets of the world no longer exist lurking about wondering what it all means or Lady Macbeths plotting the downfall of enemies or Falstaffs clumsily seeking pleasure or any of the hundreds of other characters portrayed by Shakespeare are not relevant in the modern world?

I'll readily admit that the circumstances in which most Americans find their lives is much different from the circumstances of the Elizabethan Age.  Our lives have become much easier because of our affluence and advances in science and technology.  Advances in science and technology but…not in man.  Oh we're taller and probably healthier, but our phyches are identical to Shakepeare's man.

If you want proof that man has not changed since the days of Shakespeare, go around the world to find that in many locations life's circumstances are as difficult if not more so than they were in the Elizabethan Period.  Perhaps in those locations, my friend could have more easily recognized Shakespeare's man.

Perhaps my friend meant that modern man is not as brutal as Shakespeare's man.  Let's take a moment to step back to the 30's and 40's in Germany.  That's a period that was as brutal as any period in history.  It's a period we as part of the Western civilization try to pretend was an abberation which will never be repeated.  Really?

Shakespeare's plays can be pretty violent with a lot of deaths, murders, assassinations: In Julius Ceasar, Brutus, Cassius, Titinius, Cicero, Cinna the Poet, Portia, Young Cato, about a hundred senators, and, of course, Caesar met violent ends.

In Chicago the present murder rate is pretty amazing; so far this year 498 killed in homicides.  Of course, Chicago does not stand alone.  Murders are pretty common across the nation.  Wars as well account for many deaths in the plays of Shakespeare.  Today just look to the Middle East, parts of Africa and other parts of the world for evidence of current armed conflicts.

Although the plays of Shakespeare are filled with violence including warfare, murder, suicide, rape, and mutilation, I doubt that it matches the violence of ISIL today or the recent attacks by Muslim extremist in California.

Romeo and Juliet walk our streets today  just as love-struck, just as star-crossed as Shakespeare's young lovers.

Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare's plays: Henry IV, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  He is vain, boastful, filled with joy and misfortune and carelessness who primarily lives off the funds of others.  You
know Falstaff as well as I know him. Falstaffs abound today.  He's probably a member of your own family.

By this point, I suspect you realize that Shakespeare's man is just as much alive today as he or she was in the time of Shakespeare.

My friend has passed away and of him I say, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” but unaware of the unchanging nature of man.


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