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How Shakespeare Saw Through Rationalist Myths

My favorite lines of Shakespeare have no poetry about them, and no style. They’re simple words, uttered in desperate circumstances. They remind that life is not, for the most part, made out of logic and language.

I’m thinking of lines like that of Macduff’s in Macbeth, spoken after he has learned that Macbeth has had his wife and all his children killed. At his side is Malcolm, a gracious young politician who is busy assembling an army to seize power. He tries (as politicians will) to turn misery into anger that will serve The Cause. Think, he says, about revenge.

Macduff replies: “He has no children.” Meaning, all at once: I can never do to him what he has done to me (he has no children); and this has made me the kind of man who would kill innocent babies if I could (he has no children); and, I, who minutes ago had family life, am now alone—a man about whom others say he has no children.

Shakespeare is most Shakespearean in that line, and in Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never,” and Shylock’s “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor” and in many like them. These words reach beyond the limits of language—at least of the beautiful and precise language we generally admiret—to express what words usually can’t: the things we know without knowing that we know them, the causes of our actions that stand outside awareness. This quality, not his high style, is what makes his work so powerful. Shakespeare’s plays are the stem cells of literature. Pluripotent, they can become anything the audience needs them to be—that’s why Shakespeare can speak Russian, Kazakh, Swahili and even Highschoolese.

Today is probably Shakespeare’s 447th birthday (he was baptized on April 26, so this is a guess) and it’s the 395th anniversary of his death. So for the next few days I’m going to look at his plays here, and make this argument: He saw that a certain kind of person in modern age ahead of him would celebrate reason. And he saw, and depicted, the feeling that as a guide to life and an organizing principle of society, reason isn’t inadequate. About which more tomorrow.


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