Ingratitude. It’s an ugly word matching an ugly behavior. And despite using the word only twenty-one times, it’s safe to say William Shakespeare didn’t like ingratitude very much. Cropping up mostly in the tragedies (my first and enduring Shakespearean love) and mostly in those set before the Christian era—King Lear, notably, and Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens—ingratitude causes disaster for individuals, families, and states.
Of course defining ingratitude remains difficult. Is Cordelia ungrateful when she performs her duty in answering her father, the King? Are Timon’s friends ungrateful when they refuse to help one who seemed to be buying their friendship? Does ingratitude for the Romans differ from ingratitude for Shakespeare or for us? These are questions for scholars and the classroom, but even our everyday acquaintance with ingratitude reveals its sting, its potential for disaster. Worse, our everyday acquaintance with ingratitude reveals its ubiquity. Ingratitude is so easy today we might think disaster must be around every corner.
And disaster may well be, environmental disaster. Gratitude, therefore, is a crucial Shakespearean lesson for the twenty-first century. And not just for those, like me, a working-class kid from southern California, who have been given so much by Shakespeare—and by all who profess and study his works, or perform them. Gratitude is crucial, I think, as we negotiate extraordinary, even existential pressures, not just to individuals, families, and states, but to the great globe itself, on which we all depend. Will we allow “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples” to “dissolve / And . . . / Leave not a rack behind”? I hope not. But I am fearful we will and, like Prospero, I am vexed by the scale of our ingratitude.