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The House is on Fire: Which Shakespeare Play Would You Save?

Peter Diamandis has suggested we need to practice “planetary redundancy” and back up crucial information “off the planet.” What achievements of mankind deserve a place on this digital Noah’s Ark?

In Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, the character Sheldon Flender poses the following existential question:

“Let’s say there was a burning building and you could rush in and you could save only one thing: either the last known copy of Shakespeare’s plays or some anonymous human being. What would you do?”

For Flender, this is not even a question. Save Shakespeare! 

But what if the proverbial burning building was the earth? Peter Diamandis has suggested we need to make a digital copy of information such as our genetic code and “back it up off the planet,” just in case something bad happens here. What other achievements of mankind deserve a place on this digital Noah’s Ark?

What if the choice was not between saving Shakespeare’s Complete Works, but individual plays? Which works would we choose to save, and which ones would we kick out of the canon? Big Think Guest Editor Kenji Yoshino posed a version of this question to professor of English, James Shapiro, and psychologist Carol Gilligan

Kenji Yoshino: Is there a Shakespeare play that you feel has been underappreciated that you would canonize more? And is there a Shakespeare play that you feel like has been over-hyped that you would run out of the canon? 

Carol Gilligan:  Well it’s so obvious, Taming of the Shrew, that dreadful ending.  I mean, I think if that play is never done again, it would be wonderful. 

Jim Shapiro:  I don’t teach it. I just refuse to teach it.  I just draw a line right there. If students say they want to read it I say, “Go read it.” 

Kenji Yoshino:  And the Merchant of Venice is different because? 

Jim Shapiro:  It’s very different. It’s a rich, complicated play that gives two sides to every question and in a way that Shrew doesn’t, but I think of the stock market.  It’s a terrible thing to think of, of plays as they go up and down in value, which plays should be more valued and inside trading right now with all of you, so I would invest heavily in Comedy of Errors stock because that is one of the undervalued plays and it’s just not done enough and it’s foolproof and psychologically it touches on, especially for young people. 

People think of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet as the young people’s plays, but the Comedy of Errors—what does it mean to feel like you don’t belong to your family, to feel like an orphan, to feel like a foundling, to have a twin, to be separated and the whole notion at the beginning of the play of a family split that comes back together and is reunited in the final moments…It doesn’t have all the soliloquies, but it really explores family dynamics, marital dynamics, fraternal, sisters, brothers.  It’s really a play that I can’t think about enough. 

Kenji Yoshino:  Have you seen a good production of it because all I’ve seen are slapstick kind of farce productions of it? 

Jim Shapiro:  I like my Comedy of Errors dark.  I think it’s a very dark play.  There is a lot of depression in that play.  There is everything from domestic abuse to just couples that don’t know each other, parents and children that don’t recognize and can’t hear each other.  That is bedrock stuff and I think directors are almost fearful of going there because there is no tradition of going there and you need somebody like a Peter Brook or something to say let’s just wipe the slate clean and do an earth-shattering production of how this is one of Shakespeare’s great, great, great plays. 

Kenji Yoshino:  What about the core question, Hamlet versus Lear?  

Carol Gilligan:  I vote for Lear.  

Kenji Yoshino:  Are you a Hamlet or a Lear guy? 

Jim Shapiro:  You know I wrote a book called 1599 that ended with Hamlet and now I’m writing a book on Lear, so the answer is Lear.  I think Shakespeare went from Hamlet to Lear for good reason. “Hamlet pleased all,” somebody wrote in 1602.  Lear doesn’t quite please all, but I think that the pleasures of Lear are deeper.   

Carol Gilligan:  My favorite line in Shakespeare comes at the end of Lear, “The wisdom of this time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”  I mean as motto for today I think it would be incredible. 

Kenji Yoshino:  Do you find age-based differences in this?  Do you find that your younger students like Hamlet, taking up the idea that Hamlet might be a younger author’s play and Lear is an older author’s play?  

Jim Shapiro:  I think that most young people I know don’t want to really wrestle with mortality in a way that Lear forces you to.  

Kenji Yoshino:  I actually think that—I’m always surprised that this is even a question.  There is a whole book written about Hamlet versus Lear and I’m just like Hamlet is clever.  Lear is sublime.  

Jim Shapiro:  Well when Rich Foakes wrote that he was also—he tilts towards Lear.  

Kenji Yoshino:  Well that’s a bias we all acquire over time, right.  I think for me Lear has been so powerful precisely because I think that it’s the closest access that art gives us to death.  Freud is very famous for saying that we can’t really contemplate our own deaths because whenever we try to imagine it there we are in the act of imagination, but I feel like Lear is the closest I can actually come to apprehending my own mortality, so it’s actually the gift of being able to have some access to what it really means to be mortal and to face your own death. 

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Jim Shapiro:  You know what the other great line in that scene is great thing of us for God that we pushed out of our conscious the only things that matter and in the ways in which we’re so preoccupied in our lives with the pettiness and then a moment later enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms is a kind of rebuke to how we live, how I live my life, how I don’t want to live my life, always that great of us forgot, like what was I thinking about instead of what I should have been thinking about.  Every line in that play is like a hammer.  

Well, there you have it. The jury has reached their verdict. Taming of the Shrew: Out. Comedy of Errors: In. Lear over Hamlet. What do you think? 

Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the guest editor of this series. He is the author of A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice

How does the greatest poet of the English language speak to our most pressing contemporary issues? A distinguished panel finds in Shakespeare some striking analogies to our expectations of Obama as a leader, the turmoil in the Middle East, and America’s love of revenge. 

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