Great authors such as Shakespeare should be read and heard in their own voice, yet there exists a temptation to impose what we wish they were saying on them rather than what they are saying. This is hard not to do. Too often classical Christianity education makes this mistake. . .mining every writer for whatever dogma they already affirm. An equal error is to hunt older writers for falsehoods that we can use as sticks to beat modern dogmas of empiricism or other untruths.
How can we avoid this? One way is to listen to other interpretations of the author and examine our reactions to them.
Jeff Williams is no Christian, but an interesting and highly educated voice who has some thoughts on Shakespeare worth reading. He begins with the assumption that Athens did not need Jerusalem and that is interestingly wrong enough to have provoked a response from me! As usual with guest voices, I will let his piece stand and then respond after about a day of reflection.
I have put links to the “complete” Williams at the bottom of this post.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V)
The first essay I wrote for Eidos focused on a metaphor of Christianity as an odd Eastern religion grafted onto the body of Europe, and the history of slow rejection of this graft over the centuries.
Here I wish to elaborate on this particular passage of that essay focusing on the Renaissance and William Shakespeare:
The late Middle Ages, dominated by the Church, showed their greatest poets in feverish nightmares of Hell and its various tortures; but with the Renaissance the vision turns to the universe and man’s place within. With Shakespeare, of whom it is often said he was certainly a catholic… or a pagan or an atheist, attention no longer centers on God, but rather on this nature of man and his measure of the world.
This, of course, refers to what many see as the motto of Renaissance Humanism, the dictum of Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things”. This heralds an abrupt turn away from the dry Scholastic metaphysical search for truth forever apart from the physical world and toward a rediscovery of pre-Christian European experience of man and his place in this world.
Shakespeare is a singular figure, not just within the period of the Renaissance, but within all of Western history. No poet of any language or country, in my opinion, has ever matched the music of his poetry or the profound insight into man’s nature and cosmic station. And for the subject of this essay, it is especially important that he came along as the graft began showing signs of rejection. Shakespeare’s role in the rejection was to reunite Europe with its pre-Christian past, both that of classical Greek and Rome as well as pagan Northern Europe. I do not mean to explore whether he was Catholic, Pagan, or Atheist. All three elements infuse his works and perhaps he was a bit of all three. What is important is that he reconnects his time with the prior, which is why in a single work we have contemporary and ancient elements co-existing with Christian and pagan deities.
Let’s bring to mind his early comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s setting is ancient Athens, its gods are pagan, yet in its midst we have the mechanicals, a group indistinguishable from English Renaissance master craftsmen, and northern European fairies and sprites – his contemporary England situated in classical Greece with mystical winds blowing in from the pagan North.
In stark contrast to the madman whose poetry is morbid with scenes of devils and the tortures of hell – a metaphysical realm beyond the physical world, this play celebrates the lover’s thrall of Helen’s beauty told by the poet in a fine frenzy stoked by the unseen worldly powers at play. This was nothing like looking to the cold stars and journeying through hell for the spiritual purification sufficient to connect with Beatrice, but moonstruck lovers wandering the dark forest buffeted and inflamed by the whims of the gods and the primordial drunkenness of love beaming down from the overpowering moon. This is Dionysian revelry, not meditation.
Ontology and Epistemology are also transformed. It is the poet, not the theologian or scholastic philosopher, who brings the cosmic secrets to light, and he learns these secret truths through Shakespeare’s two primary modes of being: dreams and music. This is a purely physical knowledge, derived from the earth spirits and the lights in the sky. All is physical substance that becomes music in our souls and visions of unbearable beauty, although perceived differently by different stations of men and in kind responded to by everyone from fools to the very most noble – and all have their place in Shakespeare.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the experience of these two modes through Shakespeare’s song. Nobody ever understood better than Shakespeare that poetry is language dripping with the music inherent in unmediated experience of the cosmic gods, who are the essential powers of the being in this world. Poetic language is literally music, not metaphorically musical. Its meter is musical rhythm while harmony occurs through the vowels, the rhymes, assonance and dissonance of the sounds. Deep into the moonstruck night we see Lysander transform moonlight into long vowel sounds:
Fair Helena, who more engilds the night
Than all you fiery oes and eyes of light.
And through that transformation we experience a knowledge of the mystery of being no syllogism could ever deliver. This passage also introduces the irrational dream visions upon which we build our conscious experience. The synesthesia of gold and musical tone, common among musicians, is the correlative of music as visual poetic imagery and combine to form the physical stuff of our lives.
This presence of dream image and music pervades Shakespeare’s great works. In what is either his last or penultimate work, the mature Shakespeare brings this idea to perfection in the soulmate to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest. In a world once again driven by sprites, witches and magic, Prospero gives us the unforgettable expression:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The somewhat surprising wording is intentional. Stuff means physical substance, and that is what we are. We are a substrate upon which the forces of the universe weave a dream, this dream containing the richness and beauty that makes life precious. That most profound truth and beauty is not of otherworldly origin but surrounding us here in this world at every moment. And our nocturnal irrationality leaves us open to the experience of the mysterious forces around us and carries us through the mundane toil of the day.
In an overwhelmingly life-affirming gesture, Shakespeare gives the Tempest’s most beautiful poetic lines to the grotesquely misshapen and mistreated Caliban:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The play ends with a Christian-like message of forgiveness and reconciliation, but in a different setting. It is a message derived from the beauty of this world and the inner gentleness of people who inhabit it, and implies one great command:
Be gentle with another’s dreams.
Mr. Williams previously argued that Athens has no need of Jerusalem, which contributes nothing good to Western civilization. I responded and enjoyed the interaction immensely. Since this Shakespeare post depends on his l0w view of Judaism and Christianity, you should read the original post by Williams and my response to what I take to be both an intellectually indefensible and historically dangerous idea.
Williams has other ideas we discussed at some length also worth exploring as they represent an alternative intellectual tradition sadly rare in modern discourse.
Mr. Williams has taken the time to discuss Martin Heidegger, a philosopher not much in favor when I was in graduate school. I have enjoyed reading more Heidegger (alas in translation). As usual, I allowed his post to stand without comment for a time and now here is a response. Mr. Williams suggested to me that I had not gotten him right, so it seemed decent and in order to let him respond. I suggested that Mr. Williams has ended up looking for a pony, because he has found a pile of LEGO blocks shaped like a pony.
Mr. Williams finds my response lacking, so I joyfully invite you to follow the argument where it leads. In this case, it leads to a sadly dogmatic physicalism (or materialism) that sees “gaps” or problems where there are none. We also learn that having a bad history of the philosophy of science can lead to some bad conclusions. Williams has come back to straighten me out. Sadly, I am not straightened out by this response, since I do not think Mr. Williams makes arguments. On the other hand, Williams is my friend, because he is honest, forthright, well read, and unafraid to speak what he thinks is true.
Mr. Williams felt I had done him wrong so he wished to summarize his credentials and his case. The first are impressive, the reader can decide on the merits of the second.