Sunday, 7 December 2014

Shakespeare The Humanist

This was a talk given by David Seddon at the November GMH Meeting.

David began by stating that while much has been written about Shakespeare, little is actually known. He then summarised what we do know from the historical record:

  • He was christened on the 29th April 1564 and that in those days it was the tradition to perform the christening within the first month of the birth – so his exact date of birth is not known. 
  • He died on the 23rd April 1616.
  • His father was probably a glove maker.
  • In 1582 aged 18 he married Ann Hathaway who was 26 at the time and gave birth to their first baby some 6 months after the marriage. 
  • He went to a Grammar School in Stratford. 
  • Within a few years of being married he moved to London. 
  • In 1585 his wife Ann gave birth to twins Judith and Hamlet, but sadly Hamlet died at the age of 11 in 1596. (There’s no reason to believe that the play Hamlet which was written in 1599 had any association with his son of the same name.)

David next talked briefly about Shakespeare’s life as a playwright in London where he wrote 37 plays which were performed in the various theatres of the day including the Globe.  Some years later Shakespeare returned to Stratford to live. Several reasons have been proposed for this including that it was due to a gay relationship but the fact is nobody really knows why. 

David then moved on to the topic of the talk, i.e. Shakespeare the Humanist. He addressed this by referring firstly to the 3Rs: Renaissance, Reformation and Revolution (the French one). The Renaissance, he explained, was the rebirth of classical thinking; the re-examination of classical history and literature from the Romans and Greeks; of scientific learning from the Arabs; of dangerous ideas like democracy from the Greeks; and the creativity of the Italian masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He also highlighted the work of Erasmus who was more interested in the human than the divine. It was known, David explained, that Shakespeare had read Erasmus’s works; he’d also read Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch’s works on Roman history. From these influences Shakespeare starts to think about people’s motives for their actions in history; and in the context of Roman history therefore, the story of Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, Augustus et al which feature in the play Julius Caesar.

As well as his attention to people’s thinking, David identified Shakespeare’s use of rhythm and language as something unique in his writing. Shakespeare frequently used phrases based on 3 stressed beats to a line as well as the more common iambic pentameter of his predecessors (5 to a line).  One other feature, he said, was Shakespeare’s lack of references to God, referring instead to ‘nature’, which is a more humanist expression.

Moving on to the Reformation David referred to the period between 1483 and 1546 when people like Martin Luther started to critically examine religious doctrine, and to expose the nonsense of original sin and the power of the Catholic Church. Luther, David continued, makes the point that individuals matter. So it is on the back of this thinking that Shakespeare talks about individuals.  He introduces in his plays the motives, thoughts, actions and ways of behaving of individuals, and uniquely he uses the soliloquy as a form of expressing and individual’s thoughts to the audience. 

David observed how this idea is developed in the book, Shakespeare the Invention of Character by Harold Bloom, where Bloom talks about the ability of Shakespeare’s characters to over look themselves (meaning to think about themselves). And that in this book Bloom also proposes that Shakespeare created the two greatest characters ever in the form of Hamlet and Falstaff; two complete extremes character wise. Hamlet because he starts out being self satisfied but ends up full of self loathing. And Falstaff who is a complete rogue who steals, lies, womanises, and basically does whatever he wants but is entirely likeable nonetheless. David’s own view is that Lady Macbeth is another extreme of character. The play Macbeth is all about her strength of character and her use of psychology to encourage Macbeth to commit murder against his will. This play also delivers the idea that when life is over – it’s over - a very humanist idea.     
David finished by saying that while Shakespeare’s humanism doesn’t conform to our views of humanism today, he invented the idea of what we now call personality. And while there’s a lot of politics in his plays, most of all they are love stories. If there were ever a perfect piece of literature, he believed, it is Romeo and Juliet.

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