William Shakespeare: 400 Years of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon

In defense of genius: 400 years later, Shakespeare is still our guide

After him, to what greatness could a writer in English aspire?

imageThe artist Prince died last week almost 400 years to the day after Will Shakespeare passed away in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare was buried without a coffin in a small church, the humbleness of which still offsets the brilliance of his genius.

Shakespeare warned that so often we “strut and fret” across our mortal span of years yielding “nothing” to signify in any way that we have passed through time and space.

Though long since dead, in so many of his plays Shakespeare has left us a mirror for ourselves — each and every one of us regardless of our race, color, gender or religion. He created characters flush with timeless human truths in their loves, ambitions, fears, follies and achievements.

Each of his character traits predicts the future for anyone who ever embraces it. Shakespeare thus knew our fates better than we ourselves might guess.

Consider Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If elected, what kind of president will they be? Shakespeare tells us.

If Trump is too much Mark Antony, our future will be driven by his lusts. Antony was the leader who moved the people of Rome to “rage and mutiny” and triumphantly sought to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” then smugly concluded “Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt” as he drove his nation toward dysfunctional civil dissension.

If Hillary is too much Lady Macbeth or either of King Lear’s disgraceful daughters — Goneril or Regan, we will suffer much abuse of power during her presidency.

We know that Hillary is neither a Cleopatra nor a Cordelia — both loving but doomed — but more a shrewish Kate.

Shakespeare helps us understand why President Obama has failed as a leader — too much the Brutus — very honorable but consistently unwise in decisionmaking — and too much a Hamlet, in which too much thought dissolves the willingness to act, leaving intellectual brilliance mostly on the sidelines watching tragedy unfold.

Shakespeare could predict all of this for us, because he was a genius.

Four hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, we recognize that his excellence was a combination of insight into humanity and a genius for language. This bust sits above his grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Four hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, we recognize that his excellence was a combination of insight into humanity and a genius for language. This bust sits above his grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Among our human kind, genius opens the door to the household of truth. Most of us, not blessed with genius, make up our own truths fitfully and unhappily. It takes some special character to rise above the ordinary and the conventional to perceive real truth.

Lesser genius only gives us less-compelling tales of truth.

Shakespeare had genius. So did Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo and Mozart, each in his own way, had genius and revealed truth though art. The sum total of geniuses in human history is not many. Perhaps we might add Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Aristotle, some others.

But these days, to our great loss, both genius and truth are out of step with our insistence on political correctness.

Both genius and its mentor — truth — defy equality by setting up standards of better and worse, higher and lower, right and wrong. Genius implies distinction and truth implies that some people can be wrong.

There is no equality in genius or in celebrity, for that matter. I am not, in any really important sense, the equal of Shakespeare — and neither are you.

Genius is given to us in degrees; some have more, others less. Genius is neither monochromatic nor monosyllabic.

And, similarly, truth will never sink into a lowest common dominator, one that merges all of our minds into a gooey blandness, congealing our thoughts in a mindless cultural conformity. Truth is what it is whether we like it or not, and it opposes all of our efforts to have it follow our dictates about fads and fashions.

Emerson asserted that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Equality of minds is like a straw dog from Chinese tradition when truth is eternity’s fire doing away with such thoughtless imaginings.

Equality does not exist on the same plane of being as genius and truth. It is more a moral abstraction, a spiritual state of essential worthiness in each other’s eyes, no matter what our genius might be.

In college one day, a great scholar and teacher — Walter Jackson Bate — came to our class in distress. Perhaps having drunk a bit too much over lunch at the faculty club, he opened class with a confession: After Shakespeare, to what greatness could a writer in English aspire? His implication was: “Don’t try; your case is hopeless.”

Greatness had happened. At best, the rest of humanity could afterward achieve only something less. The cosmos does not permit ever higher and higher expressions of excellence, and Bate was having personal trouble coming to terms with that truth.

Shakespeare’s excellence was a combination of insight into humanity and a genius for language. Whatever he saw with deep penetration, he could put into the tidbits of how his characters behaved and into what they said — created actions and words that expressed so many truths about their lives.

Language empowers genius by permitting it to give us access to the truth.

As for me, I have learned so much from Shakespeare that I am at times only an extension of his genius. I am very glad that his gift of truth is so easily accessible for all of us in the pages of books and in live performances.

And so for both Prince and Will Shakespeare, let us say:

“His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man!’ ” (From Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.”)

“Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (From Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.”)

Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.

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