How has your study of Shakespeare expanded your understanding of human nature?
Well, it’s complicated… That’s what I’ve learned. Shakespeare, like life, is extremely complex and multi-layered. There are meanings beneath meanings and subtext where you least expect it. Am I talking about Shakespeare or just humans in general? Well, both. That is his gift; he captures our confusing complication so well.
In Romeo and Juliet he demonstrated the juxtaposition of love being expressed though hatred. For the Capulets and Montagues, to love one’s kin meant to bitterly hate the perceived enemy of your tribe. Romeo and Juliet, being struck by blind cupid’s arrow, challenged this belief system and payed a tragic price. Their death finally ended the blood feud between their warring families and to this day hopefully reminds readers and audience members that the path of hatred and war can only lead to one outcome: destruction. Love may seem weak in the terrifying face of violent malice, but love is a creative force, whilst hatred destroys both the hater and the hated.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave us a humorous look at the potential of love to cause chaos in the lives of us mere mortals. Again we met an unfortunate couple pursuing a forbidden love. In this play Shakespeare employs quarreling and mischievous spirits whose interference in human affairs help illustrate the unpredictable and sometimes absurd whims of the mortal heart when it comes to love. Where love is concerned we truly are at the mercy of some mystical influence that can overwhelm our reason and cause even the wisest of us to act the fool.
King Lear took us back to the dark side of love and loyalty. This play seemed more concerned with the hollow declarations of affection and fidelity being used as a way of deceptively acquiring wealth and power. The foolish King Lear gives away his throne to two treacherous daughters in return for fictitious ego stroking and is left destitute and insane. The one daughter whose devotion was authentic and attempted to be honest with him was banished and despised by the king. This was a tragic lesson in the power of vanity and our need to feel appreciated by those closest to us. This can be used against us by unscrupulous, silver tongued manipulators who wish to take advantage of us. I guess the simple cliché that may help us all avoid this trap would be: “actions speak louder than words”
We ended our journey with The Tempest, another journey into the world of magic and wonder. However, this one, while having elements of humour, I believe had a rather more serious message for us. This play left me with questions regarding justice and redemption. Prospero had the power to destroy his enemies, yet he chose to forgive them; although he only did this when he was convinced that they were truly repentant for their deeds. I was not quite convinced that they were. I believe they were, like many criminals, only sorry that they were caught and punished. Shakespeare does not force his opinion on us, he merely facilitates the debate. Prospero was done wrong by his brother, but was he himself doing wrong to Caliban? The play like life has many ambiguous qualities.
My study of Shakespeare has been a wondrous and enlightening experience. The texture of the language and richness of the characters are fascinating. Analysing and brainstorming the text with the class gave many valid insights that I would not have discovered alone. Shakespeare’s writing has both complicated and simplified my understanding of human nature. If that last sentence makes sense to you then you may well be ready to immerse yourself into the marvelous world of the bard.