The Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture Series, sponsored by the Folger Institute from 2014-2017, featured leading scholars offering their insights into Shakespeare and his works. The series began with Brian Cummings’ “Shakespeare, Biography, and Anti-Biography” to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Lynne Magnusson delivered the lecture in 2015 on “Shakespeare and the Language of Possibility.” In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the series expanded to four talks: Tiffany Stern, “From Script to Stage to Script”; Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare’s Life Stories”; Kim Hall, “Othello was my Grandfather: Shakespeare in the African Diaspora”; and Joseph Roach, “Stars Down to Earth: Materializing Celebrity.” The series concluded in 2017 with Michael Witmore, “The Wisdom of Will,” which was also the final event in the Folger’s commemoration of Shakespeare’s death.
This series also marked the 30th anniversary of scholarly programming for the Folger Institute’s Center for Shakespeare Studies in 2016.
Brian Cummings: “Shakespeare, Biography, and Anti-Biography”
Thursday, April 3, 2014
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Lynne Magnussen: “Shakespeare and the Language of Possibility”
Thursday, April 16, 2015
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Tiffany Stern: “From Script to Stage to Script”
Thursday, March 17, 2016
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Stephen Greenblatt: “Shakespeare’s Life Stories”
Monday, April 25, 2016
Kim Hall: “Othello was my Grandfather: Shakespeare in the African Diaspora”
Monday, June 27, 2016
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Joseph Roach: “Stars Down to Earth: Materializing Celebrity”
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
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Michael Witmore: “The Wisdom of Will”
Monday, April 24, 2017
Michael Witmore: It’s an honor to be here speaking with you as the 68th lecturer in the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture Series. I am tonight going to stay on the humanities side of the divide, because I like it there.
I’ve learned a lot in the last 18 months. It was 18 months of “The Wonder of Will,” which included a First Folio tour across 50 states and two territories, exhibition work that went around the country, education work with teachers, digital exhibitions, commissioned theatrical works, commissioned musical works—we were busy in 2016. And 2016 lasted a long time. Seven hundred and fifty thousand people encountered our exhibition work face to face this year. Three million people encountered us online.
Looking back on all of this, I can say that Shakespeare is more popular than ever and that the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is the largest collection of its kind, is committed to being the ultimate resource for Shakespeare and his early modern world. We’re put here to share this collection and the story of this remarkable period in history, something that we intend to do with greater energy and on a greater scale in the years to come.
But tonight, I want to reflect a little bit on the ways in which Shakespeare’s writings, particularly the plays, have served as a source of wisdom and inspiration for readers and playgoers since the 17th century. While scholars aren’t usually fond of talking about wisdom—I think that’s because it’s hard to say where it comes from and what it does—wisdom is something that Shakespeare’s audience would have looked for in his plays.
Partly, we know this from the humanist practice of commonplacing—which is the way in which the humanists, like little bees, would go out in their reading and find the pollen, the quotations, the proverbs, the maxims, and then copy them into their commonplace books, so that they could mull them over and turn them into something, the Renaissance called it sweetness and light. It’s what comes from the wax and the honey, from the work of this bee. Sweetness and light, perhaps even honey. We know that they did this, because we have copies of Renaissance books in which humanist readers actually commonplaced, or provided proverbial glosses, on the texts that they were reading.
One of the most beautiful Folios—alas, it’s one that’s not in the Folger collection—is a Folio at Meisei University in Tokyo. This Folio was annotated by a 17th-century annotator almost line by line, obsessively copying out phrases and, more significantly, finding proverbs that he—likely a he—could write in the margins. In one of the blank sides of the page of Merchant of Venice, for example, the annotator writes “All that glitters is not gold.”
Commonplacing: a way of bringing wisdom, of digesting pieces of knowledge and experience, out of the text and taking it for later. That is a practice that is attested to in our vast collection, a collection that shows signs of just this kind of use. In the 17th century, they called the collection of wisdom, the publication of collections of proverbs and their application, an art of construction.
The idea was that you would look at a situation, you would look at a person, you would look at an event, and then apply the proverb that would make sense of it. You look at a young couple, you see they’re upset, and you say, oh, “the course of true love never did run smooth.” I’m quoting from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But you can see how this quotation, which is probably drawn from experience, can be imported directly into a play. There is even an online resource called Wiktionary that catalogs all of the proverbs that can be found in English, and their gloss, or it’s a modern translation of this particular proverb, is: “There will always be problems in a romantic relationship.” Without poetry, a certain amount of wisdom is lost.
Shakespeare even applied proverbs and maxims, or clever turns of phrase, to the titles of his plays. For example, All’s Well That End’s Well, What You Will [the alternative title for Twelfth Night], Measure For Measure. I suspect that he, too, thought that people would look at the situations in his plays and then think about the principles that they illustrate.
Not that such lessons are easy to find. For any proverb that proves a point, others can be found to prove the opposite point. “Fortune favors the bold” is an example of a proverb that tells us to seize the moment. But then again, there’s “A bird in hand is worth two in a bush.” It’s best to stick with what you have.
Any attempts to navigate the world will lead in circles with proverbs. But they do call attention to particular features of situations and they tell us what characters are encountering. They heighten our perceptions of a detail, of a moment, of a gesture, of a thought. And for that reason, I think it is still useful to look at Shakespeare’s plays and ask if they illustrate principles that we could use to navigate our daily lives today.
Well, why plays? Why Shakespeare? Because these plays, charged as they are with beautiful language and intense action, offer a miniaturized version of life and experience of how things go and of what people do. Like the bees gathering the pollen, we can read Shakespeare’s plays like Renaissance humanists, extracting what we find and saving it for later.
So, here are 10 things that Shakespeare knew that we should know, too. My version of the “wisdom of Will.” I’ll be talking about several plays tonight as I go through these 10. I’ll probably talk for about three points on Lear, and by the time I end Lear, we will be at number 10.
Number 1. We’ll begin with something that jazz musicians, theater artists, and politicians already know well. Shakespeare knew that you have to improvise to get things done.
When Shakespeare thought about improvisation, he would have thought about the art of rhetoric. And, as Kathleen mentioned, rhetoric is something that I think a lot about. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is “the faculty of recognizing the available means of persuasion in any given situation.” Great definition. I’ll repeat it. It’s “the faculty of recognizing the available means of persuasion in any given situation.”
Rhetoric is an art of preparedness. It’s a perception. It’s an ability not to just do things, but to scan a situation and figure out, What is it for? What is its potential? What can be said? What cannot be said? In the end, it’s an art of recognizing. And since situations change from day to day and moment to moment, it has to also be an art of improvisation.
One of the greatest improvisers in Shakespeare’s plays is Viola, who, as you remember, is washed up on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck, believing that she has seen the last of her drowned brother. The sea captain tells her about the land where she is, tells her about Olivia, a countess who’s lost her father, lost her brother, and who has become a recluse in mourning. Viola sizes up the situation with her best wits, and she decides at that moment that she’s going to bide her time.
Here’s what she says.
Viola: O, that I served that lady,
And might not be delivered to the world
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is.
(Twelfth Night, 1.2.43–46)
“Made my occasion mellow”—”mellow,” as in ripeness of a piece of fruit. She knows that she can’t act yet, she needs to wait.
Later, when she’s been mistaken for a man and is now the object of Olivia’s advances, she throws her hands up and she says:
Viola: How will this fadge? (Great verb, “fadge”)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . .
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.
(Twelfth Night, 2.2.33,40–41)
Someone who was watching this action, and thinking about the word “occasion,” would have brought to mind an emblem—which is one of those beautiful allegorical pictures that were created in the Renaissance, glossed by proverbs—the emblem of Occasio.
Occasio is a goddess who stands on a sphere. She is able to adjust her actions and her weight instantaneously to every change. She’s the perfection of the instantaneous correction. She’s also depicted as being bald. With a single forelock here, kind of like a forward ponytail. And if you look at one of these emblems, it takes a while to figure it out, but the idea is that when opportunity, or occasion, or chance, gives you something, as it comes toward you, you have the opportunity to grasp it; as it passes you by, there’s nothing to hold onto. Chances missed are chances lost.
Viola is someone who knows how to wait for the moment to act, and it’s something that a great director knows how to do. It’s something that a great rhetorician knows how to do. But Shakespeare liked to show things in opposites, and so, let’s consider someone else who’s a virtuoso improviser.
This time, it’s Iago, when he tries to frame his rival, Cassio, who has been promoted to lieutenant, as they arrive at Cyprus. Cassio has embarrassed himself by fighting while drunk when he was supposed to be holding military watch at night. Iago has framed him with a man named Roderigo. Cassio decides to try to win himself back in the graces of the general, Othello. And as Iago and Othello are walking up, they see Desdemona having a conference with Cassio. And Cassio turns to leave and walks away, and Iago says [finger snap]:
Iago: Ha, I like not that.
Othello: What dost thou say?
Iago: Nothing, my lord; or if—I know not what.
There’s an art in the Renaissance called sprezzatura. What it means is practiced ease, practiced casualness. You’re pretending to do something by accident, but in fact you’ve been rehearsing it already. You can see how this applies to politics. What he does is, he seizes that opportunity, the forelock he sees. This is the point at which I’m going to frame Cassio, I’ve got the set set up, I’ve got my actors, and now I need to call attention to it. I’ll pretend like I’m noticing it. “Ha, I like not that.” And then he feels like he said too much.
The danger of being around a great improviser if you don’t know if they are trusting to chance. You don’t know whether they are making their own fortunes or whether they are seizing on a misperception.
Number 2: Shakespeare knew that decisions must be made in the absence of all the facts.
Knowing what to say in a shifting situation, where sometimes an audience looks one way and sometimes another, means that you don’t really know everything about what you ought to do. And the conditions that undergird rhetoric, the art of making of decisions in the moment, are also conditions that undergird decision-making in life. Drama is, almost by definition, taking an action when you don’t have all the information. That lack of clarity is what makes a situation dramatic. You have to consider what you would do in the same situation, in the audience, with the same amount of information or knowledge.
Hamlet’s often been described as a play about someone who couldn’t make up his mind. I would prefer to say he is a man who chose to test things and test them obsessively. The ghost: Is it a Catholic ghost or is it a Protestant ghost—”a spirit of health or goblin damned” (Hamlet, 1:4.44)? He also tests his uncle with the play called The Mousetrap.
Hamlet: The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
Nineteenth-century German romantics loved this indecisive prince and called attention to his slowness in making decisions. But in fact, Hamlet was like a scientist. He set up experiments. He set the conditions in which he could observe, and so confirm, what he thought was true.
There are other people making decisions and testing things in Hamlet. You’ll remember that Polonius is employed in the task of figuring out what Hamlet truly is brooding on. He sets up a scene like a director, in which his daughter Ophelia, once the lover of Hamlet, is going to walk down upstage, she’s going to be holding a prayerbook, and, as it were by accident, encounter Hamlet.
When they observe this interview—the interview in which Hamlet says, “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.131) and at the very end of which he says, “Where is thy father?” (3.1.141) maybe sensing that it’s a setup—Claudius makes up his mind almost immediately.
King: Love? His affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood
As soon as he’s figured this out, he writes the death sentence on a letter and sends Hamlet to England. Claudius is an executive. Claudius makes decisions, and no matter what we think of this character, I think Shakespeare went out of his way to show someone who could make a decision on the information that he had, and he used that to contrast with his more pensive, deliberate hero.
A different scene of weighing probabilities or figuring out what you have to do without all the facts occurs in the opening act of Othello, where, as you’ll remember, the Venetian Senate, after Othello clears his name and acquits himself of the accusation of witchcraft, tries to decide where the Turkish fleet is going. Is it to Cyprus? Is it to Rhodes? Conflicting accounts come into the Senate. The First Senator says, after hearing the two versions,
First Senator: We must not think the Turk is so unskillful
To leave that latest which concerns him first,
Neglecting an attempt of ease and gain
To wake and wage a danger profitless.
He’s using the probabilities. Why would the Turk be headed to Rhodes? It’s not a useful objective. And in the context of deliberations in the Senate, this is a perfect example of how you sift the probabilities based on the information that you have. Now it’s true that people sometimes lie about or obscure where their armadas and ships are going. It’s a question of weighing probabilities versus acting rashly.
What makes life dramatic is that we have to act without complete information. It’s an unavoidable fact of our existence, a fact that makes all real choice in human life compelling.
Number 3: He knew that reputation is a bubble, and that it is easily popped.
If you look at 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings, sometimes you will see a figure of a child with a little pipe blowing bubbles. It’s called the homo bulla, and it’s an example of one of the vanity themes in Dutch still-life paintings and one of the warnings against vanity. Reputation is like a bubble. It inflates and then, somehow, by its own size and elasticity, suddenly it pops and it’s gone.
Cassio feels this after he has lost his command in being lieutenant—the brawl happening at night in Cyprus.
Cassio: O, I have
lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. . . .
Iago: Reputation is an idle and
most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost
without deserving. You have lost no reputation at
all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.
(Othello, 2.3.281-3, 287-90)
That’s the first time the word “loser” is used in that way in English.
The problem is that it is difficult to un-hear things. Advisors to generals, kings, and presidents can fall from their perch in an instant because of a weakness. In the case of Cassio, he’s described as being like an “equinox.” His powers and his skills are almost equal to his vices; in this case, his vice is drink.
And I think, in the end, Shakespeare sided with Iago. In the Seven Ages of Man speech, Jaques describes the soldier searching after the bubble of reputation. It’s something you can’t control completely, even though entire professions—rhetoric in the Renaissance, PR today—were created to try to protect it. Maybe the real Internet bubble is reputation.
Number 4: He knew that power is harder to give away than it is to get.
This is the lesson of King Lear and the history play Richard II. Consider the famous opening scene from Lear in which he says,
Lear: Which of you shall we say doth love us most
. . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. .
[And his daughter Goneril arrives, right on time—great improviser—with:]
Goneril: I love you more than word can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight
(King Lear, 1.1.56, 60–62)
Lear’s attempt to give away power to the next generation may seem to go badly wrong, because one of his daughters refuses to play the game. But the problem starts earlier. Power isn’t something you can simply give away. There needs to be a ritual, there needs to be a way, some order in which it can cleanly be passed from one person to another. Shakespeare thought about this in his second tetralogy—a play, a beautiful play written entirely in verse, called Richard II.
Richard II was a medieval king—and we’ll set aside the question of how accurate this depiction was. Richard II was a man who deliberated. He is a faithful man. He is also someone who acts rashly, he doesn’t consider what he’s doing, and that weakness is shown to be his downfall in this play.
At one point, a man named Bolingbroke, who will eventually become Henry IV, rebels against Richard, who has gone to Ireland. Richard hears the rebellion and he says, how could this happen?
Richard II: Show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship,
For well we know no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our scepter
(Richard II, 3.3.79–82)
He is a divinely anointed king. He’s the one who occupies the king’s two bodies, the physical body, proper to him, his as long as he’s alive, and that second body, which attaches to the first, the body of the kingdom. The voice that comes from an anointed king is not the voice of one person. It’s the voice of a multitude, it is everyone speaking through one person.
Bolingbroke corners Richard, demands the crown. Richard gives it. He says,
Richard II: Now, mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy scepter from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown
(Richard II, 4.1.212–7)
The imagery here tells us that Shakespeare is suspicious. How can tears of water “wash away” the oil of an anointed king? It won’t work. Carlisle prophesies that “the blood of English shall manure the ground” if he [Bolingbroke] is crowned. This is a story that Shakespeare has already told in the Henry VI plays, where Bolingbroke’s grandson loses what Henry V gains in France.
There’s a connection here, I think, to American politics. This country’s founders, many of whom read and reread Shakespeare, knew that a good constitution solves the problem of how to give power away. The solution is: You don’t. Instead of giving away power, you have to return it, because the power in a constitutional democracy is only ever on loan to whoever wields it.
Number 5: He knew that our love of legends is greater than our love of facts.
Shakespeare wasn’t a historian, but he sourced his stories from chronicles by Holinshed and Hall, chronicles that are in our collection downstairs. When Shakespeare was writing, there wasn’t anything yet like the modern discipline of history, where you sift evidence, a bit like sifting the probabilities—deciding what’s likely, what’s unlikely, using methods of comparison.
Nothing like modern history yet, and yet, there’s a tendency in the histories that Shakespeare read, and the history plays that he wrote, to cast real people in history acting as heroes or villains, martyrs or saints. That certainly happened in the history plays. Think about them as an exercise both in history storytelling, the stories of medieval kings, but also, mythmaking in and of itself, showing characters who themselves are in the process of making their own myths.
So even while Shakespeare’s sources were biased—and look at what the Tudors made of Richard III, something that Shakespeare himself repeated—they also show his tendency to think of history as if it were a play. In Henry V, some of the most important action is related by the Chorus. It’s a device that Shakespeare uses because he can’t troop an entire army onto the stage and he can’t get his characters and his action to fly to France, “the vasty fields of France” (Henry V, Prologue.13), in an instant. But of course, the imagination can do that.
The Chorus describes the night before the Battle of Agincourt. The men are up. They are nervous. There’s nothing asleep. The blacksmiths are pounding rivets for their armor. The sound of war is everywhere. And in the midst of that nervous army, there goes Henry. And here’s what the Chorus says.
The Chorus: Every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largesse universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
(Henry V, 4.Chorus.42–48)
The Chorus is helping us make up the scene, and Harry, in going out to the night to raise the spirits of his troops, is also thinking about the legend of Harry—about what will be said, not what he’s doing. And like a good leader, or a politician, he can’t ignore that aspect of what he does.
Contrast to Harry, Richard III, another person who loves to talk about what he’s doing and who loves to think about himself as if he’s a character in the play. Early on in the history of Richard III, Richard says, after noting that he is deformed, saying, I’ve been created to “descant on mine own deformity,” to look at my shadow and curse,
Richard: And therefore [he says], since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
(Richard III, 1.1.28–31)
He’s a villain, and later when he’s talking to the two young princes who are about to go into the Tower, he calls himself a Vice figure, like a figure from the morality plays. Richard knows that his audience knows that he’s a character in a play. And he also knows that history likes such characters. Historical figures sometimes styled their actions after stories that they had encountered in sacred texts or in folk tales.
Politicians, as well as actors, keep an eye on where legends may take them. No modern president can avoid being compared to others whose actions were larger than life—a Lincoln or a Reagan. Both of these presidents were well aware of the way in which life becomes a story. Lincoln, with his frequent readings of Shakespeare, and Ronald Reagan, quoting the films in which he was a star.
Shakespeare would have appreciated what Jimmy Stewart says [meaning, what is said to Jimmy Stewart] at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Number 6: Shakespeare knew that race is a kind of script that governs our actions.
The period in which Shakespeare lived and worked was a period in which some of the foundations of what we now call the modern world were set. He had a front row seat to colonial expansion, the beginning of the modern corporation, scientific communication, international commerce, double-entry bookkeeping, trade, religious conflict, and the media revolution that was the printed book.
He also saw conflicts around race that mirror our own. For example, Shylock’s brutal treatment at the hands of his Christian counterparts. Aaron the Moor’s mockery of “white-limed” Romans in Titus Andronicus. And the fact that Othello must constantly disprove the assumption that he lacks the moral temper of a Venetian or a Christian.
A script says what will happen. It puts words into people’s mouths, which is just what assumptions about race do in Shakespeare’s plays. Antonio, for example, is following an anti-Semitic script when he mocks Shylock for loaning money at interest. Shylock repeats the script back to him when Antonio asks for a loan, noting the Venetian’s lapse in memory.
Shylock: In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe).
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
(The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.117–24)
It’s interesting that Shylock is the one doing the reminding here. The fact that only some people have to negotiate race all the time, that Jews, Africans, and non-Christians in these plays have no choice but to think twice about what they say and do, is a telling one. If race remains a script in contemporary life, Shakespeare’s plays show us not only that it exists, but that part of its power resides in the fact that some people have no option to ignore it.
Number 7: He knew that words can do almost anything.
We’ve been talking about the art of rhetoric and improvisation. The plays are filled with moments where an improviser takes a situation in which he or she is cornered—Isabella talking with Angelo, Desdemona confronted by accusations of witchcraft, Othello accused by the Venetian Senate—and they acquit themselves. They find a way to turn that situation. They do something with words that is very special. They do with words what physical contact cannot. They can sneak around behind and grab someone from the point of view where they’re not expecting. Part of what words can do is reframe a situation, forcing a listener to approach a topic in a completely different way. I think about the opening act of King Lear, where Edmund the Bastard begins to talk to his father, Gloucester, about his brother, Edgar, who is legitimate. You’ll see an Iago-like trick here.
He says to his father—as he’s talking about the beginning action of the play, he actually puts something very quickly into his pocket. And his father, Gloucester, says, What is that that’s going so quickly in your pocket? What is that? Why are you so quick to conceal that? He says:
Edmund: I beseech you, sir, pardon me. It is a letter
from my brother that I have not all o’erread; and
for so much as I have perused, I find it not fit for
(King Lear, 1.2.38–41)
Of course, that creates curiosity and curiosity leads to suspicion. The sense that he doesn’t want to show it implies that he also is withholding something—something that therefore must be true. Push comes to shove, his father takes the piece of paper from him, and Edmund says, well,
Edmund: I have heard him oft
maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and
fathers declined, the father should be as ward to the son,
and the son manage his revenue.
(King Lear, 1.2.75–78)
It’s a scene where everything turns upside down. Another one occurs in one of Shakespeare’s late plays, a play called Pericles. It was performed here at the Folger.
In this story, a wandering prince named Pericles loses his daughter in a series of accidents at sea and in typical romance form—and this is the style of storytelling that Shakespeare adopted more toward the end of his career: Cymbeline, The Tempest, Two Noble Kinsmen, Pericles—she is kidnapped by pirates and then finds herself, as one does, in a brothel in Mytilene. Romance does not help you suspend disbelief. It does the opposite, and I’ll come back to that.
She encounters the governor of Mytilene, his name is Lysimachus, who is the first customer whose advances she must resist, and here’s what she says.
Marina: If you were born to honor, show it now;
If put upon you [if that honor was thrust upon you], make the judgment good That thought you worthy of it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Lysimachus: I did not think
Thou couldst have spoke so well [he says], ne’er dreamt thou couldst.
Had I brought hither a corrupted mind,
Thy speech had altered it.
What Marina is able to do is say something quite realistic: I know why you’re here. I know the fact that you’re here means that you don’t think you have the virtue to turn around. Well, let’s reframe it. Let’s think about the people who thought you were virtuous enough to be the governor. Why don’t you honor their hope and faith in you rather than your own? It’s brilliant.
Shakespeare also shows words failing—a wrenching possibility, but always a possibility when we’re dealing with language and human beings. Think about Lear again, at the beginning of the play. “What can you say” (here, to Cordelia), to earn yourself a bounty, “a third more opulent than your sisters’?” (King Lear, 1.1.94–95).
Goneril has gone. Regan has gone. They’ve said what he wants to hear, both of them improvising beautifully. Cordelia’s gambit, if that’s what it is, is to say nothing. “Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear says. “Speak again” (King Lear, 1.1.99).
Cordelia tries to speak the truth to her father. I owe you a divided duty, the duty I owe to you as the person who raised me, but there is also the duty I will owe to my husband. You’ve just heard your daughters write checks that they could never cash, pledging their entire loves and lives to you. I, who love you, will tell you a just reckoning of my love, of who I am. And Lear spurns her. Eloquence, even simple eloquence, doesn’t work.
By the end of the play, in one version, King Lear has his daughter, who has been killed by the guard—the messenger didn’t come in time. He puts a feather over her mouth, and he says:
Lear: This feather stirs. She lives. If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
(King Lear, 5.3.319–21)
Words can do almost anything. Almost.
Number 8: He knew that the capacity to forgive is precious, and it goes hand in hand with the capacity to love.
Continuing on with Lear, Shakespeare begins this play with a man who is utterly unforgiving. His youngest daughter disappoints him in a love competition and the punishment is swift. When Kent begins to object, to say, Lear, you’re moving too quickly, he says, “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (King Lear, 1.1.136).
“The bow is bent,” the shaft is drawn, make from it. Just step back.
One of the most important moments in the play occurs when the tables have turned completely, and Lear must ask for forgiveness. Asking is not enough, however, since the asker has to recognize what he’s done. That moral recognition coincides exactly with his recognition that the woman in front of him is his daughter.
Lear: I am a very foolish fond old man,
. . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
(King Lear, 4.7.69, 77–79)
He’s just climbing down from the “wheel of fire,” getting his bearings in this new world where his daughter is really his only hope.
Later, he looks to the future and thinks about the ways in which his experience could be redeemed. He looks to his daughter and says:
Lear: Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause; they have not.
[And she responds:]
Cordelia: No cause, no
(King Lear, 4.7.81–87)
Later, he looks at his daughter and says,
Lear: Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness.
(King Lear, 5.3.9–12)
It’s not the prodigal daughter, it’s the prodigal father who comes home and he kneels in front of his daughter, a clear sign in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture that he is the child. This moment of loving connection, which is a dreamy exclusion, yet one remove away from the trials of this world, is one of the only respites that’s given to the audience in this play, for whom King Lear’s trials are experienced as a kind of ordeal that the audience has to sit through as well.
At the play’s opening, such a change could have seemed nearly impossible. But of course, in the theater, it’s not. Which leads us to our ninth point, and my last remark about Lear.
Number 9: He knew that people actually change.
Changes of heart require changes in perception. That’s a crucial point in the plays, whether they’re comedies, histories, or tragedies, or what we call the late romances. How hard is it to see things in a different way? How do we know that a character sees things anew? In Lear, the answer is signaled by language. In this case, a language that mixes simplicity and concreteness.
This is a play with some of the most devastating Anglo-Saxon monosyllables in the Shakespearean canon—that low voice, that low music of the left hand that we can play in English about life, about love, about the body, about our world. “Poor,” he says:
Lear: Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp. [Take your medicine.]
[He then says:]
Lear: Is man no more than this?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Thou [looking at Edgar], Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated
man is no more but such a poor, bare,
forked animal as thou art.
(King Lear, 3.4. 32–38, 109–10, 113–5)
Lear changes his mind after his trial and the storm. The experience of nature prompts him to return to humility.
Shakespeare also used the theater itself to change people. And here we turn to one of his late plays, my favorite play, The Winter’s Tale. Like many of the other late plays, The Winter’s Tale is filled with fantastic events, chance encounters, lost children, special tokens of recognition, and, of course, a dreamy reconciliation and reunion of a family that was once separated at the very end of the play. It’s a bit like a “once upon a time” story. It’s an adult nursery rhyme, because it begins in a realm of fantasy and sudden violence.
Leontes turns against his wife before we have any sense of why he might be jealous. His turn against his wife kills his son. His son, Mamillius, dies upon hearing the news of what his father has done. And this leads to the death, he thinks, of his wife, Hermione. He also exposes his daughter, Perdita, who is somehow taken up, taken away by sea, and brought back for a reunion.
Paulina, who is Hermione’s lady-in-waiting, does something very interesting. By the end of the play, Perdita is back in Bohemia with Leontes. And Perdita says, Come into this space. I want to show you a statue. It’s a statue that is preternaturally like the image of Hermione, of this woman who is gone and who is dead. Here’s Paulina gesturing towards this sculpture.
Paulina: So much the more our carver’s excellence,
Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her
As she lived now.
Leontes: As now she might have done,
So much to my good comfort as it is
Now it is piercing to my soul. O, thus she stood,
Even with such life of majesty—warm life,
As now it coldly stands—when I first wooed her.
I am ashamed.
(The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.35–43)
A work of art, and we’ll soon learn what kind of art, has brought Leontes to a full and frank admission of his terrible error, and the price that he and others have paid for it. That price is too high, something that Shakespeare asserts with the deaths in the middle of the play. But this is a play, and even in the very adult world of jealousy and unforgivable error, the audience wants some kind of reconciliation. And here we learn something about ourselves and our stories, as Shakespeare cues the ending to The Winter’s Tale.
And now our final point, number 10. He knew that our hopes sustain us even when we think they cannot be satisfied.
The adult pleasures of The Winter’s Tale, the persistent hope for an outcome that we know has passed out of reach, the truth of our longing for the impossible, which is what theater and poetry deliver, not in a naïve way—as in a “once upon a time,” this is a story told by the fire, that is what a “winter’s tale” is—but in a way that makes his audience, its hopes, its longings, the efficient cause of the miracle the theater creates. Leontes, looking at the sculpture:
Leontes: What you can make her do
I am content to look on; what to speak,
I am content to hear, for ’tis as easy
To make her speak as move.
[In other words, I don’t expect either one.]
Paulina: It is required
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still—
Or those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.
(The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.114–21)
Music strikes. And as surprising as it is to Leontes and his daughter, it’s also a surprise to the audience: Hermione comes back to life. She steps back into life, the impossible revival that the dramatist said could not happen, at least from the middle of the play.
What theater creates in this moment is a world in which one thing and one thing only is utterly real. Shakespeare believed in the persistent reality of our longings for justice, for a world in which the good prevails. Even as he and we know that we are being told a fairy tale.
It’s a knowing falsehood, but it’s also one of the great comforts of the theater. We don’t come to the stage with equal gifts. We find unequal freedoms, unequal access to the precious things of this world. But in the middle of all these things that we bring, free and unfree, into the sunken depths, the bitter, empty-handed end of knowledge, Shakespeare creates a democracy of perception.
Theater gives us the ability to see. There are things, true things that we can all witness in the theater, even if we do not equally possess the power to act on those things. That’s the great gift of these plays, the last, great gift of Shakespeare. It’s the one to which we must all hold fast.