Finger painting is fun. I always loved it as a kid. Getting your hands into squishy, spreadable, colorful paint, applying that paint to a surface, watching the colors pop against a white background, or mix into something new, or line up side-by-side in wild contrast is an enjoyable way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Monet is beautiful. Looking at the same scene at different times of the day, or the year, or watching how sunlight plays off the surface of a pond, thrills the soul. I don’t know a lot about visual art, but when I look at a Monet I know I’m seeing something special.

Does the experience of finger painting help us appreciate Monet? I think it does. I think understanding a little about how colors mix and play and contrast helps us understand what the great artist was about when he set to this amazing work.

Right now I’m reading a book by another great artist, physicist Brian Greene. It is called Until the End of Time. In this book, Greene discusses how the universe came alive, from the Big Bang, to the formation of stars, to the seeding of planets by those stars with complex elements, to the beginning of life itself. It is the story I will tell to my middle school learners beginning this fall.

At the same time, I will be teaching my learners about finger painting. Not really, though that would be fun. Instead, I’ll be giving them experience with sources of light and diffraction gratings. We’ll explore invisible radio waves, and invisible electric and magnetic fields. We’ll watch as radioactive elements transform themselves into something new inside a cloud chamber. And we’ll experiment with momentum and inertia, discovering how stars explode and contract.

These experiences don’t teach my learners all there is to know about the universe. But they give my learners a new perspective, mental images to grab onto to make their learning more concrete. I feel uniquely blessed to be at a school where I can combine my two great passions, hands-on experiences and deep scientific exploration, to create a curriculum that at once engages my learners with real, felt (and fun!) experiences and at the same time transports them to the stars.

Introduction: Death is Irrelevant

When Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise is captured by the Borg, they tell him in their collective voice,

The Borg:
“Captain Jean-Luc Picard, you lead the strongest ship of the Federation fleet. You speak for your people.”

Capt. Picard:
“I have nothing to say to you; and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.”

The Borg:
“Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.”

Capt. Picard:
“Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.”

The Borg:
“Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.”

Capt. Picard:
“We would rather die.”

Now, any other villain would have menacingly spat out, “Then you will DIE!” But not the Borg. Instead, they deliver the most chilling pronouncement I’ve encountered in fiction.

The Borg:
“Death is irrelevant.”

Patrick Stewart aboard the Borg Ship

For me, this statement makes the Borg the greatest villains ever created. They aren’t interested in negotiating with us. They aren’t interested in scaring us. They aren’t interested in us at all, at least not in the parts of us we think make us important. To the Borg, we are just a resource, a commodity to be sliced up and digested, assimilated into the Borg’s own structures and knowledge.

In this essay, I’ll consider the Borg in two different ways. First, in a straightforward way as a rival technological civilization. In that guise, I find the Borg unlikely to exist. Second, though, I’ll consider them as a metaphor for the universe itself – a universe that is not malicious toward us, but merely indifferent. In this sense, the Borg are very real, and represent, as far as I can tell, the universe in which we all find ourselves.

David Deutsch, physicist and author of The Beginning of Infinity, has written about the human future in compelling terms. Deutsch writes that,

“Like an explosive awaiting a spark, unimaginably numerous environments in the universe are waiting out there, for aeons on end, doing nothing at all or blindly generating evidence and storing it up or pouring it out into space. Almost any of them would, if the right knowledge ever reached it, instantly and irrevocably burst into a radically different type of physical activity: intense knowledge-creation, displaying all the various kinds of complexity, universality and reach that are inherent in the laws of nature, and transforming that environment from what is typical today into what could become typical in the future. If we want to, we could be that spark.”

A little Borg-like, no? As Deutsch explains, humans (like any intelligent beings – what Deutsch calls “people”) are universal constructors, capable of transforming anything into anything else, constrained only by the laws of physics. He points out that such transformations are merely a matter of knowing how. For if any such transformation were impossible, that in itself would be a law of physics. Such transformations are exactly the sort of assimilation the Borg are so famous for.

And yet, whereas I find the Borg approach to the unverse both chilling and unlikely, I find Deutsch’s vision of our future to be the most optimistic I know. And it is a future that is well within our grasp – if we choose it.

Why the difference? Because the actual creation of knowledge is utterly different from the Borg approach of assimilating and cataloging what already exists. In the same book, Deutsch explains the origin of explanatory knowledge. He says we create knowledge by guessing.

Guesses aren’t enough, of course. Critically, we have to check our work. Error correction, which leads to a tradition of criticism, allows us to try out many ideas, reject those that don’t work, and keep the ideas that lead to progress. But it all starts with guesses – conjecture.

An encyclopedia is full of knowledge, but it isn’t intelligent. So far, even our best computer programs are unable to create knowledge, no matter how clever the program is at reading medical scans or breaking complex codes. As of now, the only source of explanatory knowledge we’ve ever encountered is ourselves. Why?

A good guess (see what I did there?) is that explanatory knowledge must begin with the ability to conjecture. What makes a good conjecture? Later in this essay, I’ll explore that question more deeply, after I talk a bit about my two favorite Shakespeare plays, Hamlet and King Lear.

I’ve written before that I see Hamlet and King Lear as polar opposites. That’s an overstatement. Both plays deal with questions of choice, of individuality, and of the whole point of being a person in this universe. The two plays come, I shall argue, to drastically different conclusions. That’s what makes great art. As Niels Bohr said, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. Let’s start with the great truth to be found in Hamlet.

Part One: Hamlet and the Divinity That Shapes Our Ends

For the first four acts of Hamlet, the prince goes about questioning himself and all he encounters. When we first meet Hamlet, he is sad. He investigates that sadness, tries to seek out its cause and its remedy. Next, Hamlet is curious. Why has his father’s ghost returned to the castle? What does this ghost have to tell him? Hamlet is so eager to hear from the ghost that he threatens to skewer his best friend Horatio if Horatio tries to intervene.

The ghost’s news of murder and “incest” makes Hamlet angry. He expresses that anger by lashing out at his love-interest Ophelia, but in reality Hamlet is angry with his murdering Uncle Claudius and his (possibly complicit?) mother Gertrude. Hamlet knows that what the ghost has compelled him to do will lead to his own destruction, and he famously (in the “to be or not to be” speech), tries to talk his way through this “sea of troubles.” Even here, Hamlet is continually questioning, questioning Ophelia’s motives in talking to him, questioning his own motives in holding off his revenge, questioning the motives of his duplicitous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The middle part of the play is consumed with one ongoing question – did Claudius actually kill the king? – and Hamlet’s attempt to uncover the answer with his play, “The Mousetrap.” Hamlet is so focused on increasing his own knowledge about Claudius that he entirely ignores how his clever stunt will reveal to his uncle just how much Hamlet already knows. This puts Hamlet in immediate peril, long before Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father Polonius in his mother’s chamber. Even then, when he should be thinking about how he will protect himself from the king’s inevitable counterstrike, Hamlet continues to question, this time questioning his mother so forcefully that the ghost returns to prevent Hamlet causing his mother harm. Even as Hamlet is carted off to England to be executed, he can’t stop questioning, wondering why men are willing to go to their graves “for an eggshell” when Hamlet still can’t convince himself to take revenge for his own father’s murder.

Then in the fifth act, everything changes. There’s no more talk of revenge, ghosts, or “the undiscovered country” that so dominated Hamlet’s thoughts in the first four acts. In the graveyard scene, the questions are still there, but with a difference. Hamlet is resigned to death as a physical reality, and this resignation makes everything else seems pointless. Hamlet even finally realizes his own love for Ophelia only after learning that she is dead. Having Ophelia dead and in the ground certainly makes the relationship less fraught.

David Tennant as Hamlet and Peter De Jersey as Horatio (Yorick uncredited)

The most revealing passage in the play comes when Hamlet talks with Horatio after Ophelia’s disaster of a funeral. Any fool could see that Osric, the King’s messenger, is delivering Hamlet into an obvious trap. In fact, the plot Claudius and Laertes have set against Hamlet is so transparent that one has to believe Shakespeare is deliberately sabotaging his own play. Hamlet must realize the fencing match is a ruse; he just doesn’t care.

Prince Hamlet’s great truth is the truth of peace and acceptance in the face of forces beyond his, and our, control. He looks into the abyss and sees “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” Hamlet’s not wrong here, by the way. There really is a divinity shaping Hamlet’s ends – it is Shakespeare himself! Hamlet is the closest I’ve ever encountered to a real person trapped in a play (a play he, by this time, doesn’t much like). It’s really a remarkable idea: a character so real that he realizes his own unreality. He looks out of the pages and sees Shakespeare there, quill in hand. This, I believe, is why Hamlet so willingly goes to his end. He doesn’t want to play anymore.

In the remarkable and maddening fifth act of this remarkable and maddening play, Hamlet finally surrenders to his fate. “Not a whit,” he says to Horatio when his friend suggests that maybe he shouldn’t so willingly walk into an obvious trap, “we defy augury.”

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

And that is what makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s second best play.

Part Two: King Lear and Nothing

In the world of King Lear, the special providence Hamlet refers to is gone. There is no divinity shaping our ends. There is no divinity at all.

In King Lear, the great truth is the truth of human forgiveness and love in the face of an uncaring universe. In the play’s most moving scene, the Princess Cordelia speaks her father Lear out of his madness.

CordeliaO, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.

LearPray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For (as I am a man) I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

CordeliaAnd so I am! I am!

LearBe 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.

CordeliaNo cause, no cause.

Romola Garai as Cordelia and Ian McKellan as Lear

Cordelia’s “no cause” takes us back to the “nothing” of the first act. Nothing is the key word in Lear.

King Lear presents us with a stark choice. The events of the play are so horrific, from Edgar’s feigned madness, to Lear’s real madness in the storm, to Edmund’s treachery leading to Gloucester’s unbearable blinding, to the death of the good servant and Cornwall’s command to “(t)hrow this slave
Upon the dunghill”, on and on, right up to Cordelia’s pointless and devastating death, that we are left with a choice. Either, as Gloucester says, “As flies to wonton boys, so are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” or, the only other option available, the gods are merely absent. They are, literally, nothing.

Notice just how wrong Gloucester is in his pronouncement. He wants to blame the gods for his blinding, for Lear’s losses, for Edgar’s banishment, and all the rest. But, unlike Hamlet and Macbeth, there is not a hint, not a whiff, of the supernatural in King Lear. In fact, Edmund, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, explicitly denies any supernatural “heavenly compulsion”:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are
sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make
guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if
we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;
knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine
thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay
his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father
compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my
nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and
lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the
maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

In Shakespeare’s time, atheism was dangerous, but it was also intellectually unsatisfying. While, as David Deutsch again points out in The Beginning of Infinity, supernatural explanations are always bad explanations, it is undeniable that before the discoveries of modern science it was hard to see how the complexity we observe around us could have arisen without some sort of “divine thrusting on.”

Today, we are in a much better position. To explore our modern view of “nothing,” I now turn to Lawrence Krauss.

Part Three: A Universe From Nothing

In A Universe from Nothing, Dr. Krauss describes the growing scientific consensus that what we always thought of as empty space is far from it. Instead, the closest thing we have ever observed to true nothingness is itself a roiling, energetic field of possibility. This is a direct result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and it really is among the best-established ideas in science. It leads to the most accurate predictions in scientific history, those predictions of the masking effects of the space within atoms.

Consider a hydrogen atom, the simplest atom that exists. In its nucleus there is a single proton, with a positive electric charge. On the outside edge of the atom, flitting about hither and yon, is a single electron, with a negative electric charge. Is that all?

No, says quantum mechanics. In the space between the proton and the electron is a continually roiling cauldron of virtual particles which pop into and out of existence before we can even measure them. However, their presence is manifest, in the behavior of the hydrogen atom itself. Because the proton has a positive electric charge, the virtual electrons that pop into existence within the atom are attracted toward it, and so are more likely to be found between the proton and the “real” electron. The virtual positrons (just like virtual electrons, but with a positive electric charge) that pop into existence at the same moment are repelled from the positive charge of the proton, and so are more likely to be found beyond the “real” electron. The same is true for all the other particle-antiparticle pairs that might, from time to time, appear in the space near a hydrogen atom.

Hydrogen atom and virtual particles, from A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

The result of all this is that the real electron feels the pull of the real proton a little less fully than it would otherwise. The virtual particles essentially shield the real electron from the real proton. This causes the real electron to behave slightly differently than it would otherwise, and we can measure this different behavior. As stated above, the predictions made by this virtual particle model provide the most accurate predictions in the history of science.

(By the way, it also leads to the worst prediction in the history of science, a prediction that, when applied to a different effect, gives an answer that is wrong by a factor of a 1 followed by 120 zeros. But that – an idea that shows just how far we are from understanding the universe – is a story for another time.)

But what does this result, which springs automatically from the uncertainty principle itself, say about nothing? Quite simply, empty space is anything but. Empty space is itself is always roiling, always changing, always producing and then annihilating particle and anti-particle pairs. This happens in our universe today, and it happened over thirteen billion years ago, in the “space” forever inaccessible to us, in which our tiny dot of a universe first began its period of rapid inflation that led, eventually, to us. In this instant, the space we know, the time we know, everything we know, came into being, from nothing.

This short summary skips over many important details, of course, including how the detailed geometry of our universe demonstrates that its total energy is exactly zero (positive mass and kinetic energy plus negative gravitational potential perfectly canceling out) and how a sort of “phase transition” (something like water freezing into ice) in our part of the universe caused inflation to finally stop, dumping its energy into the very particles that today make up you, me, and the pages of the first folio.

The point is this: the more we learn, the more we see that the universe itself appears very much to have sprung from exactly nothing. Modern science doesn’t require atheism (well . . .), but it does make atheism, and the idea that we ourselves emerge from nothing, intellectually satisfying. Something, it turns out, can come from nothing.

And so where King Lear (the play) asks, “where are the gods?”, we can finally give a coherent, satisfying answer, “they are nothing.” The gods don’t refuse to intervene because they are uncaring or malicious. They don’t intervene because they do not exist.

Part Four: Creativity

So where does this leave us?

Hamlet looks into the abyss and sees a divinity that shapes our ends. Why try to avoid the envenomed sword or the tainted goblet? What’s the point? Let be.

King Lear looks into the abyss and sees . . . the abyss. And that is terrifying. But the play tells us to deal with the terror, to make our own way, anyway. As Edgar tells the blinded Gloucester,

“Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all.”

Carl Sagan said it best. “We make our world signficant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” We care. We ripen. And, as Cordelia shows us, we love. That’s what matters.

The Borg are right when they say that death is irrelevant – not because the universe wills it so, but because the Borg themselves have created a society where death isn’t to be feared. We could do that, too, but our great hope must be that we do so without stumbling into the same trap. The Borg have lost their individuality. In the process, they’ve lost their ability to strive, to question, and to love. They are bare intellect. For the Borg, the words of Macbeth are true.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

And that’s why I don’t believe the Borg could exist.

If knowledge creation involves guessing and checking, it seems to me that a collective mind like the Borg would be particularly bad at guessing and checking. Conjecture of necessity involves incomplete knowledge. It is inductive rather than deductive. Creation requires a striving to know, a desire to fill in missing gaps in understanding, a leap from the known into the unknown. The collective thoughts of all the Borg don’t look very creative.

If it is true that knowledge is built by conjecture and testing (and I think it is), then what we need is an engine for generating creative guesses. This should be an engine that can take disparate ideas, perhaps from very different fields (like Shakespeare, Star Trek, and cosmology, for instance) and combine them in novel ways. Usually the combination will produce junk, and the mind that produces them must become good at throwing away the junk at the right time. As Murray Gell-Mann said, all he needed to do physics was a pencil, some paper, and a wastebasket. One of the most important keys on the keyboard is delete.

Sometimes the junk slips through, and then others, when reading the junk, will call it out. This is called peer review.

On occasion, novel combinations will produce something truly new and worthwhile. My thesis is that while the Borg may be able to create novelty in a sort of automatic way, they are unlikely to recognize it when they see it. Also, because they can’t allow individuality to thrive, they must stomp down novelty. Such a civilization would be unable to solve its ongoing problems. As David Deutsch said again, “Problems are inevitable.” Eventually a problem will occur which the Borg are unable to solve through assimilation of existing knowledge, and at that point, their civilization will fail.

But as I said at the beginning, I’m using the Borg in two different ways. In the other approach, the Borg are a metaphor for the void itself. When we tell the void that we’d rather die than lose our individuality, the void (if it could talk) says, “I don’t give a rat’s ass. Die, don’t die, become like the Borg, remain as you are, big whoop. I’m just gonna keep expanding until space rips apart, or whatever.” Since we can’t talk to the void, we use the Borg as a stand-in. The void itself? Just too terrifying.

So what do we do? How do we follow Carl Sagan’s call to make our world significant? How do we keep ourselves? Joseph Campbell said,

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

This is the best statement of art, of science, of existence I’ve ever encountered. It captures exactly why I love Shakespeare, why I love baseball, paintings, riding my bicycle, loving my wife and my children, and why I love teaching. All these things remind me that I am alive.

And it gives the reason for causing that spark that David Deutsch talks about. Knowledge creation isn’t just something to do for the sake of transformation, for the sake of assimilation. We do it because it is fun! As Richard Feynman said, “I like to find out.” Sure, it helps us solve those inevitable problems, and that’s a very good thing to do. As Deutsch also said of problems, “Problems are soluble.” But the fun is in finding the problem, thinking through the problem, trying out different solutions, learning what doesn’t work, and trying again. Feynman again,

“The prize is in the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery.”

When Lear and Cordelia are captured and are headed off to prison, shortly to be executed on Edmund’s secret order, Lear speaks in somewhat hysterical tones about the wonderful life they will have together. At the end, though, he says, “Have I caught thee?” This always reminds me of another quote from Joseph Campbell, a quote that again signals to me what it is we’re trying to do together on this spinning globe.

When asked, “Why myths? What do they have to do with my life?” by Bill Moyers, Campbell answered with the following:

Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers

“My first answer would be, go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in subjects because they’re said to be important and interesting. I believe in being caught by them somehow or other. But you may find that with a proper introduction, this subject will catch you.”

I think we could do a lot worse in this life than this as a commandment: get caught by something. The courage of our questions. The depth of our answers.

For Cordelia, death was not irrelevant. Her death was a tragedy because she made an individual choice, a good choice, the right choice, to forgive her father Lear. In that moment, she and Lear felt the rapture, the deep experience of being a living, breathing, thinking, loving being in a universe that doesn’t care. Cordelia’s choice led to her death, but while she and Lear lived her choice made all the difference. Death is not irrelevant. Resistance is not futile. Because we decided so.

Did I catch you?

I thought I was finished with my Shakespeare summer. After 24 plays, all watched and read in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus quarantine, and after memorizing and then performing (badly) Lady Macbeth’s Act 1 Scene 5 soliloquy just for myself, I was ready to take a short break from Shakespeare as I prepared for the coming, very different, school year.

In my last week of self-learning, I decided to re-watch Civilizations on PBS. A powerful eight-part program full of great insights, Civilizations was a conscious attempt to correct the Euro-centrism of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 13-part program Civilisation. The thing is, I really enjoyed Civilisation the first time I watched it, so I decided to do so again, Euro-centrism and all.

Kenneth Clark in Florence

One thing to know about Civilisation is that in style and tone it was the father of Jacob Bronowski’s work The Ascent of Man, which came out a few years later, and the grandfather of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which appeared a few years after that. All three have had, and continue to have, a strong influence on my view of the world.

In Episode 6, Clark comes to Shakespeare, via the Reformation. The episode, titled “Protest and Communication,” is all about how the reformation freed the European mind to become skeptical about received religious truth. Clark’s shows that the Reformation made possible Michel de Montaigne, and the skeptic Montaigne made possible Shakespeare.

I think I can buy that. Clark quotes Montaigne as saying, “Sit we upon the highest thrown in the world, yet we sit only upon our own tail.” Compare this to the ruminations of Richard II, Henry IV, and of course King Lear himself, as they realize that being a king is a ridiculous task for a mere mortal – just as any other task we might take on is ridiculous in its own way. As Hamlet realizes,

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

O, that that earth which kept the world in awe

Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!

Clark says something profound about Shakespeare, something I’ve been thinking but have been unable to quite put into words. Clark says that Shakespeare’s skepticism as exemplified in Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy was:

“unthinkable before the break-up of Christendom, the tragic split that followed the Reformation; and yet I feel that the human mind has gained a new greatness by outstaring this emptiness.”

“Outstaring the emptiness.” What a lovely phrase. This, of course, is the great tragedy and the great maturation that came with the realization that God was a myth. At first, our courage came in braving the world on our own, demonstrating to God that we could cross the street without help. Then, as we dodged the oncoming traffic (occasionally getting flattened), we looked back and realized that God wasn’t there. There was no deity to overcome. Instead, we found ourselves tasked with outstaring the emptiness. We were on our own.

Was Shakespeare really an atheist? Probably not, at least not in my sense of seeing a Universe with no place for the supernatural. Rather, Shakespeare’s later plays, from Hamlet on, reveal a writer that is a-theist, in other words an author not particularly interested in any god’s plans or desires for the world. Shakespeare was concerned – first, last, and always – with people, with human strivings and desires. He wants to know what happens to us when we stare into the emptiness. Can we find meaning, as Cordelia and Lear do in their beautiful scene of forgiveness? Or do we, indeed, collapse into meaninglessness as Macbeth does when he reads the tale told by an idiot? This is the drama Shakespeare wanted to explore, and it is what makes him still worth reading today. It’s a question we all must answer, once we give up our imaginary friends. When we stare into the emptiness, what do we see?

This was to be my summer of Lear. Finally, after waiting many years, my local acting troupe, Actor’s Theatre of Columbus, was planning to perform my favorite of all Shakespeare’s plays in Schiller Park, among the most lovely and cosmic of backgrounds for this horrific, cosmic masterpiece.

The stage at Schiller Park; still my favorite Shakespeare venue

And then coronavirus hit. All shows had to be cancelled. It was the right decision, of course. There will (we all hope) be other summers.

I’ve still made it a summer of Lear. I’ve watched several versions, including the Ian McKellan/Trevor Nunn rendition that is not only the best Lear I’ve seen, but among the best of all Shakespeare adaptations. I’ve re-read the play, once while listening along to an audio presentation (if you’ve never done that, I highly recommend it – it’s a beautiful blend of words on the page and live performance). And I’ve read and re-read what others have said about this much-written-about play.

I also listened, on my morning bike rides, to a lecture series about the idea of evil in Western thought. I realized early on that the lecturer wouldn’t spend much time – if any – on Shakespeare, yet I thought and hoped there might be an opportunity to use what I learned there to deepen my own understanding.

Well, it was something of a disappointment. Not without insights and great suggestions for further study, but the lecturer (a theologian) started, I believe, in the wrong place. The origin of evil is not to be found in how we view stories such as Adam and Eve or Gilgamesh, but rather in the true beginnings of our species, on the plains of Africa.

(Trust me, I’ll get back to King Lear. It’ll take a few steps.)

When a male lion or gorilla takes over a pride or band by defeating the previous alpha mail, its first action is often to kill all the infants. This makes evolutionary sense, as the females that were nursing young will now be available for mating. It’s easy to see how natural selection could lead to this behavior. However, if it happened among humans, we would surely label the action as evil. I will argue that such action among humans is evil, while this same action among non-human animals cannot be defined as such. Somewhere between lions or gorillas and humans, the definition changes. Why?

For thousands of years, the answer was God or gods. I don’t have that answer at my disposal, so I must look deeper. I will accept Sam Harris’ idea that morality has to do with the flourishing of conscious creatures, but for the purposes of this essay I will draw a distinct line between non-human animals and humans themselves. I might be wrong about this. Certainly, though, no one is suggesting (I don’t think) that the male gorilla or lion who commits this in-species infanticide be put on trial for murder.

OK, so something happened, deep in our past while we were still just an isolated band on the African plains, that changed us into creatures with rights, creatures capable of doing good, and of doing evil. Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, suggests that this great leap forward was the ability to believe in fiction. I like that idea a lot. Let’s use it. Once we started believing in fiction, we became human, and for the first time became capable of doing evil.

(Note the implication: evil is fiction. So are rights. That doesn’t make them any less important to us, as we shall see in the course of this essay. It does, though, set a context. Human ideas matter because we decide they must matter.)

And this, then, brings me back to King Lear. Consider how Lear reacts to the disguised Edgar in the storm:

Is man no more than

this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast

no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three

on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself;

unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked

animal as thou art.

Of course, Lear is out of his mind at this time. But as so often in Shakespeare, it is when characters lose the defense of their sanity that their deep truth comes out. Lear, who has lived his entire life immersed in the ultimate fiction of royalty (not just a person with rights, but a king with unlimited power), is now seeing through all the fictions, recognizing that under the layers of fiction lies a “bare, forked animal.”

This isn’t the first time Shakespeare has looked at the fiction of kingship. In Richard II, in Henry V, and certainly in Hamlet (“The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing- Of nothing”) Shakespeare wrote of the impossibility of a mere man fulfilling the impossible task of being a king. But here Shakespeare goes further, investigating the impossible fiction of being not a king, but merely a human, when at base we’re all just animals.

The villain Edmund makes an analogous point when he shows that the ideas of bastardy and legitimacy are just as fictional as the idea of a king.

Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops

Got ‘tween asleep and wake?

Yet these fictions, for good and ill, are how we define society, and therefore how we define good and evil. Is it evil for Edmund to take the land that legally would pass from Gloucester to Edgar? What makes the land Gloucester’s in the first place? Is it evil for Lear to disinherit Cordelia? Why should Cordelia, or any of the sisters, expect to inherit anything? Is it evil, even, for Cornwall to put out Gloucester’s eyes? Only if we decide that Gloucester, as a person with rights, is entitled to bodily autonomy. So why should we decide that?

Lear gives us the answer, or at least one answer, to this question. Unaccommodated man is free, but also vulnerable. “I’m not ague-proof,” as Lear later states. The world is a dangerous place, and so we build structures, we make and wear clothing, we try to control our food supply. But all these things imply ownership – a fictional idea. And of course ownership can be taken away. To protect our fictions, we create more fictions – laws, political structures, and social norms.

As the play begins, Lear wants to keep the things he owns – the name of king, the respect a king is afforded, his 100 knights – but abandon the maintenance of these things. This isn’t impossible, but Lear makes it so by banishing the one person in his life – his daughter Cordelia – who would have loved him enough to keep him in comfort in his old age. Naturally love itself is yet another fiction, but what we see in the course of Lear’s journey is that without love, none of the relationships work. As a fiction, love can be faked – just as Goneril and Regan do in the play’s first scene. Cordelia, who refuses to have her love tested, shows in the reconciliation scene of Act 4 that her love for Lear (though just as much a fiction as her sisters’ fake love), is so much a part of her that it will always prevail over any anger.

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.

Cordelia. No cause, no cause.

So much for love, a fiction without which we would all be so much the poorer. Fiction can be good.

What, though, of the profound evil present in this epic play? How can it be understood in the context of Harari’s view of fiction making us human? Two acts of evil stand out for me. First is the blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall. The other is the murder of Cordelia, ordered by Edmund at the play’s close.

Cornwall is ambitious, certainly. More, though, Cornwall is overly certain of his own control over every situation. He enjoys the power he exercises in putting the disguised Kent in the stocks, bragging to Lear that “I set him there, sir; but his own disorders Deserv’d much less advancement.”

While blinding Gloucester, Cornwall is outraged that his servant, a social inferior (yet another fiction), would dare intervene. Most tellingly, when Edmund, who utterly outclasses Cornwall as a villain, betrays his father Gloucester, Cornwall foolishly believes he can keep Edmund under his thumb:

I will lay trust upon thee, and thou shalt find a dearer

father in my love.

One regret I have about the powerful and telling moment when Cornwall’s servant takes up arms against his master is that Cornwall’s premature death prevents Edmund from taking the popinjay down. In short, Cornwall believes his own press. He is evil, not by compulsion, but because he believes he can get away with it. Like the pirates of the Spanish Main, Cornwall believes he can be evil because once he has the gold he can expect everyone else to respect his ill-gotten gains. He can’t imagine anyone being more evil than he.

One of my favorite choices in production is to have Regan, once she realizes that Cornwall is mortally hurt, abandon her husband to bleed to death on the floor. In that moment, Cornwall can realize just how much his over-reliance on fiction, on his own press, has cost him.

Edmund is a more complex evil-doer, not only because we know some of his backstory, but also because of his dying desire to do some good.

First consider the moment we meet Edmund. His father Gloucester is speaking of him to Kent as if Edmund is not standing right there, hearing the whole humiliating thing. Gloucester is crude and hurtful, and his words here will echo through the play.

Earl of Kent. Is not this your son, my lord?

Earl of Gloucester. His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often
blush’d to acknowledge him that now I am braz’d to’t.

Earl of Kent. I cannot conceive you.

Earl of Gloucester. Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew
round-womb’d, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she
had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?

Earl of Kent. I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so

Earl of Gloucester. But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year elder than
this, who yet is no dearer in my account. Though this knave came
something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was
his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the
whoreson must be acknowledged.

Gee, thanks, Dad! After this, who can really blame Edmund for being a little salty toward his father and the “son by order of law”?

Edmund sees through these fictions of land and title, as pointed out above. Why should law and custom doom him to a life of servitude? After all, it’s not like he chose his mother or his father. Edmund is like the tree seed that falls between the cracks of a boulder. It might not be in the best place to grow, but what choice does the tree have? Edmund recognizes that his ambition and intellect are his alone, not the property of the gods, the stars, or his father:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are

sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make

guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if

we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;

knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance;

drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of

planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine

thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay

his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father

compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my

nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and

lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the

maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

Edmund believes in the fiction of individuality – as do I, so I have to be careful with him. Edmund’s plan, then, is to prey on everyone else’s reliance on their own fictions – family love, marital fidelity, and romantic attachment – to cause others to bend toward his will. He disposes of Edgar with a clever trick, playing on his father’s belief in his own powers of detection. Edmund next disposes of his father and tricks Cornwall into making him, Edmund, the new Earl of Gloucester. He tricks both Goneril and Regan into believing he cares for them. In Edmund’s final soliloquy, we learn he’s using both to advance himself and eliminate the Duke of Albany:

To both these sisters have I sworn my love;

Each jealous of the other, as the stung

Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?

Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d,

If both remain alive. To take the widow

Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril;

And hardly shall I carry out my side,

Her husband being alive. Now then, we’ll use

His countenance for the battle, which being done,

Let her who would be rid of him devise

His speedy taking off. 

And then Edmund performs what must be his most evil act, commissioning the murder of Lear and Cordelia.

In the end, Edmund believes his own fictions too much. Being an individual who lifted himself up, he accepts the challenge of an unnamed knight, his brother Edgar, who slays him. But most interestingly, before he dies, Edmund tries to undo some of the damage his belief in his own fiction might cause:

I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,

Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send

(Be brief in’t) to the castle; for my writ

Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.

Nay, send in time.

So much to say about this change. Edmund seems to realize that for Goneril, at least, the game they’d been playing was very real. Goneril loved Edmund enough to kill for him, to die for him. Maybe, after the callous way Edmund had been treated by Gloucester in the play’s very first scene, this realization was enough for Edmund to see through his own fiction.

But of course it is too late. Cordelia is dead, soon to be followed by Lear, Kent, and Edmund himself. Evil can’t always be taken back. As actors in this world, sometimes our actions have consequences that neither we nor anyone else can change.

Perhaps, finally, this is the most important meaning of King Lear. We humans are far from powerless. Our ability to believe in fiction gives us great power. (In Grendel by John Gardner, the title creature calls humans “pattern-makers” and realizes this is what makes us so dangerous.) King Lear shows that neither the gods nor the stars will mitigate that power. Gloucester famously says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.

They kill us for their sport.

As we’ve seen here, this is exactly wrong. It’s not the gods who kill us; we do it to ourselves. The beast is here, within us. Gloucester lost his eyes not because of the gods, but because he denigrated and humiliated his bastard son. That son Edmund dies at the hands of his brother Edgar not because the gods are just (as Edgar incorrectly states), but because Edmund, like Cornwall, misreads the world’s response to his own evil.

The gods have not, in King Lear, performed a morality pageant for our benefit; Cordelia is dead, not for cause, but because Edmund’s conversion came too late. We must not depend on the gods to save us, because in the end they aren’t there.

(There I go again, believing my own fiction of individuality. Well, in the end we all have a petard on which we will be hoisted. I suppose I’ve found mine.)

In the Trevor Nunn/Ian McKellen version of Lear, of which I am so fond, Edgar is left alone in the last scene after Lear, Cordelia, and the others are dead. In a final, desperate attempt to find meaning, Edgar lifts his arms skyward, imploring as he had earlier the intervention of the gods. But then he thinks better of it, drops his arms in disgust, and takes in the universe as it is. Now king, he must go about that task he explained earlier to his father Gloucester. Edgar sees that he must endure his going hence, even as his coming hither.

Ripeness is all.

First a note about life. I am a middle school science teacher. Through the school year most of my time is devoted to my learners – building lessons, giving feedback, helping them explore this marvelous and magical Cosmos. My summers I devote to other pursuits – riding my bicycle, baseball, some science reading and writing, and lots and lots of Shakespeare.

This pandemic summer has been like no other. While live theater has been canceled by the coronavirus, I’m so thankful that The Globe in London and the Stratford Festival in Canada made available for free many of their past productions on line. They, along with my wonderful local public library, have made it possible for me to watch 24 different Shakespeare plays this summer, several of them in more than one version. Despite all the trouble and uncertainty this summer has brought, Shakespeare has served as a wonderful escape. I finish with King Lear (I’m still working on a piece about that, what I believe to be the greatest of all Shakespeare’s works) and The Taming of the Shrew.

Shrew is a difficult play for me. Honestly, it is the most difficult of all Shakespeare’s plays for me. There are difficult plays that I love, such as Measure for Measure, Othello, and certainly King Lear itself. There are difficult plays I think are worthy of close study, such as The Merchant of Venice and Henry V. There are plays that are just bad, such as Henry VIII and Timon of Athens. And then there is The Taming of the Shrew.

I don’t want to be clever about this play. I don’t want to ask those clever, literary questions, like “who is the shrew, really?” I don’t want to point out that Kate is rebelling against a system that is rotten to its core, in contrast to the simpering and shifty way her sister Bianca uses the system to her advantage. I don’t want to try to find excuses for Petruchio, such as seeing in him a rebel who teaches his wife not to care what others think. I don’t want to try to read into Kate’s final submission, to look between the lines for some redemption (hint: it’s not there).

I don’t want to do any of these things because it just feels gross. I watched Stratford’s 2016 production of the play and it sickened me. Not because the acting or directing was poor – I thought they did a fine job. Not because the writing is poor – this is Shakespeare, after all, just finding his power as a young playwright in the big city. I feel gross and sickened because what I saw on the stage was a tragedy, not a comedy. What I saw was a fiercely independent woman destroyed utterly. All I could think of was the end of 1984, when Winston Smith decides that maybe 2 + 2 can equal 5, after all.

Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson as Kate and Petruchio

The actors felt it, too. In that final speech, Deborah Hay so wanted to break out, to let Katharina out of the cage Petruchio has put her in. She came so close to doing so, and it was brilliant acting, beautifully controlled. Ben Carlson as Petruchio seemed for a moment utterly heartbroken by what Deborah had just done, by what Kate has become, just before he bellowed, “Why, there’s a wench!” Sickening line. The two actors then left the stage, apparently converting all that emotion into lust, as Kate could barely keep from ripping Petruchio’s clothes off as they headed to the bedroom. Gross.

So, did I like it? Maybe I’m still trying to figure it out. After all, I don’t like the ending of King Lear, or Othello, or Measure for Measure, though I consider them among the greatest achievements in art. I’m not happy that Cordelia has been murdered, that Othello has smothered his innocent wife, or that Isabella is forced into a marriage she clearly does not want, but I understand these endings to be the necessary tragic fruits of the dystopian societies Shakespeare is exposing to us.

But in Shrew (in some ways similar to Merchant of Venice), we have to go a long, long way to get to the realization of that dystopia. I think we can get there with Merchant; Shakespeare gave us just enough clues that he sees Shylock as a tragic character, and his forced conversion as a heinous crime. With The Taming of the Shrew, I just don’t know that I can get there. Kate is wrecked, destroyed, Stockholm Syndrome’d into submission, and it seems just fine and dandy to all involved.

My usual approach to these difficulties in Shakespeare is to conclude that Shakespeare was writing for us, for a time when the world would be better, when we would be better. Indeed, that’s why Shakespeare put into his plays clues about Shylock, about Isabella, and about Caliban in The Tempest. He knew that we would be better someday, that we would follow the meager breadcrumbs he left. But with The Taming of the Shrew, I don’t think I can get there. I don’t see any breadcrumbs. Kate is destroyed, and Petruchio is the hero for destroying her.

The play’s only saving grace is perhaps that Shakespeare wrote it early in his career. He needed to grow up. And that’s what he did. Thankfully, he didn’t die of the plague and leave us only this sadistic play to remember him by. Suppose he had, though? Would anyone who defends this play today do so if it were not the beginning of a long career but the end of a short one? I don’t think so.

Maybe all the wonderful and powerful women Shakespeare wrote after – Juliet, Beatrice, Rosalind, Cordelia, (dare I mention Lady Macbeth?), Imogen, and the lovely Perdita – are his answer to the tragedy of his willful, cruel, and, in the end I have to conclude, irredeemable destruction of Kate.

This is Shakespeare’s most underrated play. It is another difficult play, with many parallels to that other problem comedy, The Merchant of Venice. Like Merchant with Shylock, Measure for Measure features a character in Isabella who experiences an unwelcome reversal. Whereas Shylock is compelled to change from Jew to Christian, Isabella is compelled to transform from novice nun to newlywed bride. In both cases, Shakespeare’s audience may have had no problem with these transitions. We in the modern world do not share this privilege.

I refer here, of course, to the Duke’s ludicrous proposal of marriage to Isabella at the end of the play. Isabella has exactly zero lines to respond, so her response is left utterly up to the director and the actor. How to play this critical moment, the last in the play before the action ends, will for me make or break the performance.

Mariah Gale as Isabella and Dominic Rowan as the Friar/Duke at The Globe

The first time I read Measure for Measure I was blown away. I had to go back and read it again. Realizing that the Duke is in love with Isabella from the moment they meet in the jail changes everything. From that moment on, everything the Duke says and does needs to be interpreted in that light. And it makes the Duke even less attractive. Consider:

When the Duke first encounters Isabella in the jail, he gives away his feelings. We just didn’t know.

The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good:
the goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty
brief in goodness; but grace, being the soul of
your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever

The first time you read that, you think the Duke, disguised as a friar, is merely being complimentary to a young woman who has experienced two difficult encounters, first with Angelo and then with her brother. When you realize that the Duke is in love with Isabella, this speech takes on a new tone.

When The Duke and Isabella next meet it is at the moated grange, there to tell Mariana of their plans. After Isabella and Mariana walk off to talk, the Duke delivers this very strange speech:

O place and greatness! millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report
Run with these false and most contrarious quests
Upon thy doings: thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dreams
And rack thee in their fancies.

Upon first reading, you think he’s referring here to Angelo. Now, though, that we know the Duke’s nefarious purpose, read it again. Is he also talking about himself?

Now we come to the Duke’s great crime. After Angelo goes back on his word to pardon Claudio in exchange for a night of sex, the Duke uses his influence to save Claudio. Isabel comes to the jail to learn if their plan has succeeded. The Duke plays this cruel trick, which suddenly makes so much more sense when we understand that this sadistic man is planning to make Isabel his wife:

The tongue of Isabel. She’s come to know
If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither:
But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.

Least expected, and most likely (in the Duke’s twisted mind) to bring Isabel to him in good time when he, the god-like hero, reveals Claudio to be alive, after all.

Lucy Phelps as Isabella and Sandy Grierson as Angelo in the RSC 2019 production

This, of course, jumps out far ahead of the “main” plot in which the Duke’s substitute Angelo tries to blackmail Isabella into sex to save her brother’s life. These are among the most dramatic moments in the play, where Angelo and Isabella engage in the most intricate wordplay. In their first meeting, Angelo finds himself for the first time in his life unable to control his emotions – in particular, his emotion of lust. In the second, Angelo reveals to Isabel what she must do to save her brother’s life – namely, have sex with him. That second meeting contains the most chilling lines of the play. When Isabella, finally understanding Angelo’s meaning, threatens to expose Angelo to the world, he says:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?

After, as Isabella is left alone and shattered on the stage, she realizes that Angelo is right:

To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me?

As so many have pointed out, how extraordinary it is that in this moment of “me, too”, of empowering those who have been victimized for too long, we have a little-known play that was written over 400 years ago. This alone makes Measure for Measure a play for our time. But ask yourself, given what we know of the Duke now, who is the greater villain? Isn’t the Duke, like Angelo, making Isabella an offer she can’t refuse? He is, after all, the ruler of the realm. Can Isabella realistically say no to such a man?

Isabella has told the world she wishes to be a nun. The Duke will not accept Isabel’s choice. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” he seems to be saying. And Isabel’s response, left unspoken in the play’s final scene: “To whom should I complain?” The answer, of course, is no one.

So what to make of this extraordinary ending? I’ve yet to see a production that truly satisfies me. For all the power of the BBC production from 1979, I can’t get over Kate Nelligan’s meek acceptance of the Duke’s hand in the play’s final scene. A recent Royal Shakespeare Company production does a reasonable job showing Isabella’s misery at the Duke’s proposal, but I think they don’t really show the Duke as nefarious as he should be. In another version I watched recently, Isabella seems to accept the Duke’s offer, but then slips off and drowns herself. It’s a choice.

I believe the play should be played this way. Forget the comedy. Make it dark, gritty, bawdy, with Pompey Bum the pimp as an ascerbic character, Lucio as a busybody, Isabella as beautiful, regal, and utterly cold, and the Duke as a monster. When Claudio and Juliet are reunited, it should be clear that post-traumatic stress will consume them both. When Angelo is married to Mariana, it should be clear that Angelo would prefer death. When Lucio is married to Kate Keepdown, it should be clear that Kate is as disgusted by him as he is with her. And finally, when the Duke proposes marriage to Isabel, it should be clear that she considers his proposal exactly as she considered Angelo’s, as obscene, unwelcome, and wholly misreading her own deepest desires.

Why, then, do I love this play so much (it is fourth on my list, one ahead of the extraordinary Othello, a play I consider to be just about perfect)? It is a play of possibility.

I’m no director – I have no idea how to set a scene or coach an actor. I know nothing of cinematography or stage design. Part of my joy in experiencing theater is that great directors find ways of surprising me, as Rupert Goold does at the end of Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth. I am confident that out there somewhere will be a production of this play that will weave all the disparate parts together into a seamless whole, that will make us understand Isabella, flawed and sexually repressed as she is, as a protagonist worthy of our love – yes, love, even with her cruelties and her loathing.

This director will show us that Angelo and the “Fantastical Duke of Dark Corners” as Lucio calls him, are in fact shadowy reflections of one another, neither understanding their strange and uncontrollable attraction to Isabelle, each desiring to use her to fill their own emptiness, both monsters who must not be allowed to prosper. This version of the play will disturb us, as Cordelia’s death in Lear disturbs us. We will gain the conviction that we do not want such a world as Angelo and the Duke have created in Vienna, and when we will leave the theater we will make our planet a better place. This is what great art can do. Measure for Measure has perhaps not been great art yet, but I believe, in time, it will be.

President Barack Obama’s eulogy of Rep. John Lewis is as beautiful and touching a piece as you will read or see. Obama finishes with some of his most powerful and important words.

“God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.”

The President is here talking about progress. This is an idea I’ve been thinking about lately as we debate statues and monuments, curriculum and culture. John Lewis, and so many more, pull our nation closer to its promise. What does that mean?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “All men are created equal.” We look at those words today and see both their promise and their exclusion. Today we would say that “All people are created equal.” While Jefferson could write those words even as he both owned African slaves and benefited from a culture that placed white, landowning European Protestant males in a hierarchy above all others, we see in his words a greater promise, the promise of a more perfect union in which character, not birthright, determines out trajectory.

Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. He was essentially a rapist. And he supported a system in which human beings were property, to be bought, sold, and disposed of without regard for their humanity. This is part of Jefferson’s legacy, and we cannot wash it away. What Jefferson and the other founders gave us, their great gift to the future, was not a perfect union, but a perfectible union. That’s a very different thing.

Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Jefferson believed in the idea of progress. Of all the quotes in the Jefferson Memorial, this is my favorite:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

This progress will never be complete. Our goal is not a perfect union, but a more perfect union, one that can improve without limit into the future. As David Deutsch said, “We will always be at the beginning of infinity.”

And the point is this: while Jefferson and the other founders gave us much to correct, the most important gift they gave us was the idea that we CAN improve. In doing so we look back and see the imperfections of our “barbarous ancestors.” If Jefferson and the others truly accepted the idea of progress, they’d be disappointed in us if we didn’t condemn their barbarities.

This progress never stops. Even now, my younger child is trying to convince me of the ethical and environmental benefits of a vegan diet. She’s correct, of course, but I’m a hard sell. This is one of the reasons I feel so privileged to be a teacher. My learners have so much to teach me, and I learn from them every day.

Two important points to remember: this progress isn’t guaranteed, and it isn’t linear. The progress we’ve made since Jefferson’s time isn’t pre-ordained. It’s due to the hard work of people like John Lewis and Barack Obama. Progress can stop; it can even reverse. It is our responsibility, our duty, to live our lives in the knowledge that progress is both possible and desirable. If we want our descendants to look back at us as barbarous (and that’s exactly what we SHOULD want), we must keep pushing ourselves and those around us to be better, to do better, to live better. It isn’t easy, but I’m learning.

I leave you with the words of Obama, a man who still teaches me each time he speaks:

“That’s where real courage comes from, not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that, in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.”

I walk with you, my friends.

This, my favorite of the comedies, is Shakespeare’s great exploration of the Green World. In the Forest of Arden anything, it seems, is possible. And yet this Green World is no utopia. As always in Shakespeare, Paradise is not without its vipers.

Rosalind and Orlando meet oh so briefly and fall deeply in love, yet neither can speak it to the other. Soon after, they find themselves separately, and without one another’s knowledge, forced to escape into the Forest of Arden. Already there in the forest are Rosalind’s father the banished Duke Senior and his loyal followers. Here we meet Jacques, he of the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech. Listen carefully to that speech and you’ll hear all the double-edged skepticism Shakespeare has embedded in this Green World fantasy.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

But I’d rather not focus on the ascerbic aspects of the play. I want to talk about love.

Orlando fancies himself a poet, and he goes about writing poetry on the trees of Arden. Yet his poems are truly, truly awful. Rosalind, finding these “tongues in trees”, is thrilled that Orlando is so near her, but also concerned that he’s just not ready for love. Disguised as a boy named Ganymede (in Greek mythology Ganymede was a boy so beautiful that Zeus fell in love with him), Rosalind decides to give Orlando lessons on how to be in love with a woman.

The key question for me is this: how much does Orlando know, or suspect, that this boy named Ganymede is not what he seems? The text (no surprise) is ambiguous, which asks for directors to explore.

Few others seem to like Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of the play, but I think it is wonderful. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Rosalind/Ganymede and David Oyelowo as Orlando. In their critical first meeting in the forest, Ganymede explains to Orlando just how he can be cured of his love for Rosalind. Orlando replies:

Orlando I would not be cured, youth.

“Ganymede” I would cure you, if you would but call me Rosalind, and
come every day and woo me.

Orlando Now, by the faith of my love, I will.

“Ganymede” Will you?

Orlando With all my heart, good youth.

“Ganymede” Nay, you must call me Rosalind.

In Branagh’s version, it’s already established that Orlando is no dummy. He gives as good as he gets in an exchange with the menolcholy Jacques. Are we to believe he doesn’t see through Rosalind’s Ganymede disguise? If not, why does he first say he would not be cured of love, yet then agree to play along?

Shakespeare is experimenting with all sorts of things here, not least the idea of plays within plays, and Branagh picks up on it. In the scene with the mock-wedding, the chemistry between Orlando and “Ganymede” is powerful. Orlando is fully engaged with the fantasy that Ganymede is Rosalind, so much so that “Ganymede” forgets himself and offers Orlando a kiss. Orlando’s reaction is more “are you sure you want to do this now?” than “Hey, buddy, what the what?”

Later, when Orlando is injured and cannot keep his promise to meet again with Ganymede, he seems unnaturally concerned that Ganymede gets the message about his injury. Finally, when Orlando complains that he can no longer play along, he really seems to be pleading with Rosalind herself to finally unweave the fantasy – and that, of course, is what she does. We know from so many other works that Shakespeare loves the play within the play. Here, showing just enough of Orlando to surmise that he’s in on the act is a great choice, and makes this courtship a fun game we can all be in on. I believe Branagh is playing this right, and it makes this version of the play, shot almost entirely in the forest itself, joyful and sun-dappled and giddy.

Yet Branagh hasn’t made the play one-dimensional. In the person of Jacques (played by an understated Kevin Kline), Branagh manages to keep just enough of the meloncholy to preserve the reality that all is not happiness and light.

Just one more note that Ramola Garai, who breaks my heart every time as Cordelia in Ian McKellan’s King Lear, is brilliant as Rosalind’s friend Celia. She is witty, alluring, and playful, and her instant love of Orlando’s brother Oliver blows me away. Okay, Oliver (played by Adrian Lester) is pretty hot; I’d probably fall for him myself.

As You Like It isn’t Lear, it isn’t Henry IV, and it isn’t Measure for Measure (the next play I’ll be watching!). But for what it is, an honest exploration of joy and its limits, it is a pleasure that I will indulge again.

I recently watched Stratford’s production of Romeo and Juliet starring Sara Farb as Juliet and Antoine Yared as Romeo. I’ve seen this play many times, and this production was one of my favorites. Farb in particular captured the soul of my favorite of Shakespeare’s early characters. I’ll talk about her more in detail when I discuss Juliet, but let’s first discuss the two men who essentially cause all the tragedy in this tragic play.

Antoine Yared as Romeo and Sara Farb as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

One thing to notice about this play is that Romeo does everything wrong. He starts the two lovers on the road to disaster by attending the party at the Capulets. He knows that he is risking a violent encounter with them, but attends anyway only to see Rosaline, the woman who has already rejected his advances. Yet he immediately forgets about Rosaline when he eyes for the first time the 13-year-old Juliet. Theirs is not the only encounter, though, as Juliet’s fiery cousin Tybalt spots Romeo and becomes so incensed that he will use Romeo’s trespass as excuse to initiate the fatal confrontations of Act Three.

In that Act Three, Tybalt kills Romeo’s friend Mercutio when Romeo steps between them to break up the fight. Unable to control his anger at Tybalt’s action, Romeo in turn kills Tybalt in the street. Then, by jumping into suicide after learning of Juliet’s supposed death, Romeo foils Friar Laurence’s (admittedly harebrained) plan to bring the pair back together. When he arrives at Juliet’s tomb, Romeo kills Paris in a senseless and gratuitous act of violence that makes us think much less of this “fortune’s fool”. Up until this moment, I think, we can side with Romeo. Once he kills the sincere yet clueless Paris, our sympathies vanish.

The star-crossed misfortune isn’t Romeo’s doing alone, of course. Juliet’s father Old Capulet deserves a share of the blame. Not only does he angrily treat his daughter as property to dispose of as he wished (more on that below), but by moving the wedding up a day, from Thursday to Wednesday, he forces Juliet to take Friar Laurence’s potion a night early, leaving no margin of error in Laurence’s message to Romeo. At the beginning of the play, Old Capulet was the voice of (relative) reason, first insisting that Paris get to know Juliet before contracting marriage, and then calling off Tybalt when the hot-head spotted Romeo at the party. His change by Act Four is extreme, and Shakespeare, the father of two daughters himself, is here I think exploring the dangerous ground of a daughter’s autonomy – ground that is shifting below the Elizabethans’ feet. It is an idea he will visit many more times, in Dream, in Othello, in Hamlet, before delving even more deeply and dangerously into the relationships of fathers and daughters in Lear, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest among others.

Enough about Romeo and Old Capulet, though. There are three remarkable characters in the play that go far beyond these two, and I want to spend the rest of this entry talking about them. They are: the nurse; Mercutio; and Juliet herself.

After Romeo kills Tybalt at the end of Act Three, we see Juliet receive the sad news from the nurse. We in the audience, of course, already know what happened, so Shakespeare has to use this scene for some purpose other than just driving the plot. What he gives us is a moment when we start not mistrusting the nurse. One wonders exactly what the nurse is up to when she lets Juliet believe for a time that Romeo, and not Tybalt, is dead. If the nurse and Tybalt were truly as close as she claimed, she would have known what a hot head he was, that he likely caused the confrontation, that his death was hardly an unexpected outcome of a feud that appears to live in Tybalt’s mind more than anyone else’s.

Later, when then nurse visits Romeo in Friar Laurence’s cell, she leads Romeo to believe that Juliet is distraught over Tybalt’s death at least as much as his own banishment. This is clearly not the case, but by suggesting it, does the nurse make the later news of Juliet’s death more believable for Romeo?

Mercutio’s nonsense speech about Queen Mab is one of the great set pieces in the canon. It’s been said that Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio in Act Three, lest he take over the play. Mercutio has the kind of with and imagination we’ll see later in John Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, and I like to think of Falstaff as Mercutio’s surviving spirit.

But the character that stands out the most in this play is undoubtedly Juliet, a 13-year-old girl who seems to have just awakened in the world. Juliet discovers something remarkable within herself when she falls in love with Romeo. He, by contrast, is totally overmatched by her wit. They have only four scenes together in the entire play: in each of these scenes, Juliet shows a depth and an intelligence for which Romeo the lovesick schoolboy is utterly unprepared. I love the moment in the balcony scene when Juliet tells Romeo to not swear by the moon

the inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

When Romeo asks what he should swear by, Juliet says

Do not swear at all;

Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,

Which is the god of my idolatry,

And I’ll believe thee.

Then, when Romeo starts into another flowery oath, Juliet stops him cold.

Well, do not swear

Yet it is when Juliet is alone on stage that we get our fullest picture of this remarkable human. While Juliet, unaware of Romeo’s murderous afternoon, awaits the coming of night and Romeo to her window, she says:

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

May you have someone look at you the way Juliet looks at Romeo.

Later, after her confrontation with her father, when Juliet learns that the nurse is no longer on her side, she immediately understands what she must do. This scene is played so beautifully by Sara Farb – it and the scenes that follow as Juliet takes control of her destiny are the highlight of the Stratford performance for me, and have changed the way I see this play.

  • JulietSpeakest thou from thy heart?
  • NurseAnd from my soul too;
    Or else beshrew them both.
  • JulietAmen!
  • NurseWhat?
  • JulietWell, thou hast comforted me marvellous much.
    Go in: and tell my lady I am gone,
    Having displeased my father, to Laurence’ cell,
    To make confession and to be absolved.
  • NurseMarry, I will; and this is wisely done.


  • JulietAncient damnation! O most wicked fiend!
    Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
    Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
    Which she hath praised him with above compare
    So many thousand times? Go, counsellor;
    Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
    I’ll to the friar, to know his remedy:
    If all else fail, myself have power to die.

But I want to return to the confrontation with Juliet’s father that prompts this encounter; upon reflection I’ve come to believe that this, and not Romeo’s killing of Tybalt, is the turning point of the play.

Consider: after Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet realizes quickly, as the nurse cannot, that of course Tybalt would have killed Romeo had not Romeo killed him. Juliet still loves Romeo even after his rash act, and still sees a future with him. Ask yourself this: why doesn’t Juliet just run off with Romeo to Mantua after their wedding night? The answer is that Juliet is still hopeful of a reconciliation of her family with Romeo.

Only after this scene, when Juliet’s father reveals himself to be an unreasonable tyrant who will force Juliet into an unwanted marriage, does Juliet realize how badly she has misread her situation. Only then does Juliet go to Friar Laurence in desperation. Only then are the final, tragic events set into motion. Up until her father’s outburst, all might still have worked out.

From left: Sara Farb as Juliet, Marion Adler as Lady Capulet and Randy Hughson as Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

It’s fascinating that Shakespeare shows a man in Old Capulet at first so reasonable and later so tyrannous and self-important. As I said earlier, this issue of fathers and daughters is an critical one to Shakespeare. He shows fathers again and again struggling to reconcile the choices their daughters make. As the world changes around them, era to era and year to year, fathers see their influence gradually eroding, gradually slipping away. This, of course, is how it must be, as our children discover their own internal lives separate from ours. This was part of our journey to humanity that Shakespeare helped us to make. This is one of the moments that makes Shakespeare still worthwhile. As Old Capulet learns to his grief, daughters will make their own choices, whether we old ones approve or not.

It is such a joy to watch Juliet come to life in this play. Even in her final scene before the tomb, as she struggles with little girl fears but overcomes them with human determination to control her own destiny, we see a hero being born. These scenes, just before Juliet’s feigned death, have become my favorite of the play. The fears Juliet describes so vividly are real, yet she overcomes them. It isn’t brave unless you’re scared. I am in awe at Juliet’s courage. As is usual in Shakespeare, the heroine he creates deserves far better than the dull and plodding hero she is given.

Each time I watch or read the play, I’m always rooting for Juliet to wake up in the tomb, see Romeo dead there, say, “you silly boy” and walk out to lead her extraordinary life, sans Romeo, sans Paris, sans her boorish father. Alas, she never does so. But hope is a thing with feathers.

The Merchant of Venice is a difficult and fascinating play. Shakespeare made it fascinating; we have made it difficult.

To explain what I mean, I need to delve a bit into the history of Elizabethan England (and even a bit earlier), and then into the obscene immorality of the mid-twentieth century, to arrive back to today and our modern problem with this problematic comedy.

When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, there were essentially no Jews in England. They had been expelled from the country hundreds of years earlier. So Shakespeare wasn’t truly writing about a Jewish person – Shylock isn’t even a Jewish name, but a name from the Saxon language meaning “grey hair”. On the Elizabethan stage, Shylock would have been played as a comic villain, complete with false nose and long, waggling beard. His final fate, condemned to lose all his possessions and forced to convert to Christianity, would have been met with laughter , jeers, and cheers – the only negative perhaps that the good Christians in the audience might question whether the reward for attempted murder of a fellow Christian really ought to be everlasting life in Christ.

Shakespeare’s play followed his rival Christopher Marlowe’s creation of The Jew of Malta, who really was a cartoon villain, delighting in his own evil until he is boiled alive at the end of the play. Marlowe was bombastic, irreverent, and fun, and Elizabethan audiences must have thrilled at his boistrous plots and straightforward characters like Barrabas, the Jew of his title.

But Shakespeare was not Marlowe. When Shakespeare wrote a play about a Jew (no, the play isn’t strictly about Shylock, but his presence dominates the play, and Shakespeare’s first title for the work was The Jew of Venice), he didn’t follow Marlowe’s example. Instead, as always with Shakespeare, he created a character of nuance and complexity.

OK, stop. That is true, but it hides the reality that is Shylock. For Shakespeare, great writer that he was, could create villains who were deeply interesting yet entirely lacking in redeeming qualities – you don’t even have to leave Venice to find Othello’s nemesis Iago, a fascinating character who is as close to pure evil as Shakespeare (or, I would argue, anyone else) ever gets.

But Shylock isn’t Iago. Shylock is a person. When his daughter Jessica runs away with a Christian, Shylock is devastated. Tubal, Shylock’s Jewish friend, tells Shylock that Jessica has traded a ring of his for a monkey.

Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my

turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:

I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.

Later, our heroines Portia and Nerissa will each give their new husbands Bassanio and Gratiano a ring, making their men promise to keep these rings safely with their persons for life. Yet each husband quickly gives his ring away. While Shakespeare plays this scene for comedy (each, unknowingly, gives the ring to his own wife in disguise), I have to believe Shakespeare inserted this episode with Shylock and Tubal ahead of the Christian ring story in order to set up this striking resonance.

Yes, again, in Shakespeare’s time that line probably would have been met with howling laughter from the audience (“a wilderness of monkeys! Ha!”). But for us, in a different time, the reference is shocking. Shylock is mourning his dead wife, presumably his daughter’s mother, and the loss of the ring she gave him, while the Christian men, newly married, give away their own rings with only a little encouragement.

And here is the point. Shakespeare didn’t have to do this. He didn’t have to give his villain Jew “dimensions, senses, affections, passions” He could have created a Jewish Iago, and the audience would have laughed just as hard at the Jew’s misery, screamed just as loudly as the Jew threatened the Christian’s life, cheered just as vociferously when the Jew got his comeuppance. Why, then, did Shakespeare create a deeply human character so capable of garnering our sympathy?

Hold that question as we move into the second part of my introduction. Shakespeare made the play, in the person of Shylock, fascinating. We make the play, in the person of Shylock, difficult. Why? By way of Auschwitz.

After the Holocaust, after the atrocities that in hindsight nearly two millennia of discrimination and persecution had built, we can no longer cheer when Shylock undergoes his forced conversion. (As an atheist, I don’t understand how anyone could ever have cheered it, but then I’m a product of Auschwitz, too.) Now the problem sets in.

If we are not to abandon The Merchant of Venice entirely (as perhaps we could have, had Shakespeare created a pure comic villain), we have to reinterpret Shylock. But, just as the constancy of the speed of light in Einstein’s theory means that everything else loses its solid foundation, a re-considered Shylock means we must also reconsider Antonio (the merchant of the title), Bassanio, and the heroine of the play, the lovely Portia.

OK, I”ll say it. I don’t like Portia. We’re meant to like her, of course. Shakespeare was a causal racist (in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado, and Dream there are clear allusions to the unattractiveness of the “Ethiope”). Probably the most racist thought in the entire canon (outside of the amazing play Othello) comes from Portia in this very play. In a line that seems to be often cut from modern productions, Portia says this after the black Prince of Morocco fails in his attempt to answer her father’s riddle and so win Portia’s hand:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.

Let all of his complexion choose me so.

OK, it’s just a throwaway line. Portia doesn’t like the Prince of Morocco – it’s clear that she’s already met Bassanio and is hoping that he will be the one to solve the riddle. The Prince tries to win her, and he is rather full of himself. But, wow, talk about an unfortunate way of speaking about “all of his complexion.” Mouth, meet foot.

What makes it worse is that in the very same play, Shylock himself voices Shakespeare’s strongest statement on the hypocrisy of slavery:

You have among you many a purchased slave,

Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,

You use in abject and in slavish parts,

Because you bought them: shall I say to you,

Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?

Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds

Be made as soft as yours and let their palates

Be season’d with such viands? You will answer

‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:

The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,

Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.

Now certainly in Shakespeare’s time “slave” did not necessarily mean “enslaved African.” But the African slave trade had begun, and England was playing its dubious part in the practice. To have an outsider, a Jew, point out to the Christians their own hypocrisy in crying for mercy in the face of a legal claim on another’s body, despite their personal ownership of multiple human bodies of their own, shows again that Shakespeare is up to more here than just the creation of a cartoon villain. And to have that Jew’s eventual tormentor breathe a casually racist line is, well, interesting.

But this line isn’t why I don’t like Portia. My dislike of Portia solidifies in her actions as Balthasar, the Doctor of Law, in the trial scene pitting Antonio and his pound of flesh against Shylock and his forfeited bond.

If you know the play, you know the stirring speech Balthasar/Portia gives in this scene about the quality of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.

And you know also that once Balthasar turns the tables on Shylock, revealing that he can’t remove his pound of flesh without spilling Christian blood, and that this crime carries a penalty of death, Balthasar flat out refuses to show mercy to the Jew.

One can argue, certainly, that Balthasar/Portia is acting here only to punish her husband Bassanio and the merchant who loves him for their continued mutual affection, and for Bassanio’s recent betrayal of his new wife. But that only makes the situation worse, for now Portia is using the agony of Shylock as the means to an end.

Now, when I say I don’t like Portia, I’m not arguing that Shakespeare did anything wrong with this character. If Portia doesn’t do what she does, the play fizzles. In the same way that Ahab must hate the white whale and Satan must engineer the Fall, Portia must punish Shylock. If, for instance, she had told him ahead of time, “You know, you can’t shed any blood – oh, and if you even try to push this case forward, you’re on the hook for attempted murder. Maybe just take the money and go?” then we have no play.

But we, as readers and as viewers, must decide how to feel about Portia’s actual choice. I argue that, if we are to free Shylock from the death camps of the Nazis – camps our ancestors helped build with the awful words of Martin Luther, the religious pogroms, and the forced conversions – we must condemn Portia and her cruel usage and crueler destruction of Shylock to make a dramatic point. In our modern world, Shylock is no hero, but Portia must become for us a kind of villain.

Even more so, of course, must Antonio. Acting out of his (mostly) unrequited love for Bassanio, Antonio nearly loses his life to the Jew. Then, in pitiless revenge, he demands on pain of death that that same Jew abandon his own religion and become a Christian. In a world before Auschwitz, this was high comedy, or at least an offer of everlasting grace. But in this world where we’ve seen the gas chambers and the mountains of abandoned shoes, we know where this sin of religious certainty ultimately leads. As Jacob Bronowski said in his brilliant book and television series The Ascent of Man:

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.

So The Merchant of Venice is a problem. Shylock cannot be a hero (he is an attempted murderer, after all), but then neither can Portia, Bassanio (OK, mostly because he’s just an empty-headed pretty boy), nor Antonio be the heroes of this play. I’m still looking for the modern production that handles all this just right (though the 2004 movie with Al Pacino as Shylock comes awfully close). Portia, I think, is the hardest to get right, as we are so on her side for so much of the action. We have to work hard to remind ourselves just how terrible she becomes.

Merchant of Venice.jpg

But back to the original question, focusing on fascination. Why did Shakespeare make Shylock so fascinating? Why did he give Shylock such evocative language? I refer not only to the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, but also to this one, given just after both Bassanio and Gratiano betray their wives, not knowing that their wives are actually there in disguise, hearing all that they’ve said. Shylock says:

These be the Christian husbands. I have a daughter;

Would any of the stock of Barrabas

Had been her husband rather than a Christian!

The irony, of course, is that Jessica has married a Christian, who seems more interested in Jessica’s pilfered gold and jewels than in Jessica herself.

So the question remains: why? I believe Shakespeare was writing, not for his fellow Elizabethans, but for us. He was looking ahead to a time when humans would be better than bear baiting, cat burning, and the persecution of religious minorities. He was looking toward a time, perhaps far in the future, when the experience of the centuries could teach us the worth and humanity of all people. Shakespeare believed we might, one day, get there. I hope he was right.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
April 2021
A blog by Stephen Whitt

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