Words " the Stuff of Morality " and Will Shakespeare

Dr. Michael A. Mikolajczak

He certainly would have applauded all the money going into the pockets of his fellow show people. For Shakespeare was interested in money, property and social advancement. He was a successful entrepreneur in a "rough-and-tumble" trade that was at once patronized by the aristocracy (including the sovereigns Elizabeth I and James I) and disapproved of by the London city fathers as a nurturer of profanity, drunkenness, and sedition.

The earliest theaters were thus built outside the city limits, at first north of the city in Shoreditch and later across the river in Southwark amidst taverns, bear-baiting gardens, and the stews — the brothels — some of which were illicit and some of which (since 1161) were under the licensing and taxing authority of the Bishop of Winchester. The city used every pretext and opportunity — the most serious being the plague — to shut down these crucibles of debauchery.

How Shakespeare came to enter the acting business is not really known. Around 1588, he left his native Stratford-upon-Avon and his wife, Anne Hathaway, for London and the growing profession of the theater. Soon he was writing scripts for his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He would write 38 of them before retiring in 1613, and his success was such that early on he garnered the envy of his peers, some of whom did not like being outclassed by a commoner who had not been to university. Robert Greene, for example, called him an "upstart crow" and described him as a "Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde." Not very flattering, this first piece of Shakespeare criticism.

Perhaps one reason Shakespeare was such a success is precisely that he was an upstart — one with an excellent grammar school education in Latin but free of the straight-jacketing homage to literary convention that marks the work of Ben Jonson. Or perhaps his desire for financial success and for the coat of arms that would raise him to gentlemanly rank had an oddly freeing effect on his imagination. Or perhaps he was more drawn to the inner life of his characters than to the Procrustean beds of convention and humor psychology.

What has been certain down the centuries is that this "upstart crow," son of a glover, had an imaginative and linguistic genius that may well be unparalleled. Consider the extent to which he has shaped the English language. Anyone who says "caught a cold" is speaking a metaphor coined by Shakespeare. We are speaking Shakespeare whenever we say someone "cudgeled his brains" (beat his brains), "wore his heart on his sleeve," "painted from life," "made an abrupt answer," or found himself or herself to be "fretful," "fancy-free," "heart-sore," or "dog-weary."

"Hamlet" alone has given the language (and this is a mere sprinkling of examples): "to the manner born," "rich but not gaudy," "it smells to heaven," "the glass of fashion," "more honored in the breach than the observance," "hoist with his own petard," and — an all-time favorite — "the dog will have his day." And no one has been a more prolific originator of words: "countless," "auspicious," "dwindle," "disgraceful," "gloomy," "laughable," and "savagery."

Shakespeare reveals ever so subtly, yet to a breathtaking degree, the energy and shaping force of language. And yet, Shakespeare the speaker would surprise modern ears in sounding Appalachian rather than BBC. In his mouth, "dream" would have sounded "drame; "get," "git"; and "seldom," "sildom." "Eternal" would have tripped off the tongue as "etarnal," "virtue" as "vartue," and "nature" as "nater."

Shakespeare is now so ensconced in school curricula and high culture that we forget he lived in a dangerous city, stench-filled and without sewage control, in which everyone had fleas and that he worked in a "carnival world." Today’s doyen of critics, Yale’s Harold Bloom, more realistically opines that Shakespeare "did not like lawyers, preferred drinking to eating, and evidently lusted after both genders." He also contends that Shakespeare invented personality — an audacious claim but one that may well be so. According to Bloom, Shake-speare’s "principal characters have become our mythology, and he, rather than his involuntary follower Freud, is our psychologist."

Bloom is especially taken with Falstaff, the bibulous, bag-of-guts wit of "1 and 2 Henry IV". He also thinks Hamlet a superb accomplishment. And since I agree, as do most "common readers," let’s reflect on him for a bit. But let’s also add to our consideration his feminine counterpart: Rosalind of "As You Like It".

Hamlet is a character with a larger-than-life capacity for thought, feeling, and experience. He has a vibrancy of life in him that makes everyone else in the play pay attention and every serious actor want to play him. He is a character of tenderness who is quite capable of cruelty. He has powerful poetic and theatrical gifts and a rare analogic power coupled to wiliness. Above all he is a person of conscience, one who was not made for crude revenge but for religion, philosophy, poetry, and love.

Through Hamlet, Shakespeare questions the morality of personal revenge and asserts the providential order of existence: "There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Hamlet is a man of complexity who teases us out of thought, who will forever remain a mystery, because he has that rare quality — imagination — an ability to discern the interpenetration of unity and multiplicity. To be a person of imagination is, in the words of Northrop Frye, to be about "the very simple and primary things that the imagination is about: life, love, freedom, dignity."

Unfortunately, Hamlet finds himself in a world of coarseness, confronted by a situation that causes intense psychic pain and that rattles his rarefied sensibility. He is what we all should strive to be — one who looks on the skull of Yorick and sees the mutability that is the shaping force of everyone’s existence, including Alexander the Great. To learn memento mori is to know life as shadowy fleeting. And, as his final request of Horatio indicates ("Absent thee from felicity a while, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story"), he knows the power of story and the importance of history.

Shakespeare is known for his "unruly women," women who refuse to accept gender subjugation, who are unafraid to challenge received conventions, who sometimes need to step in (in disguise) to save men from their own folly, who — in seeking self-fulfillment — show the way to human authenticity. He is also aware of the constraints on women’s freedom and the injustices they face in their struggles for self determination. Rosalind of "As You Like It" is one of Shake-speare’s most brightly lit women. She is to her play what Hamlet is to his.

According to Harold C. Goddard, in the presence of Rosalind, the other characters of the play are "like match flames in the sun." Like Hamlet, she is "fill’d / With all graces," and the limitations of all other characters are thrown into relief. She stands in contrast to the play’s manipulators of language, Jacques and Touchstone (they use words as advertisers do today — with scant respect for the truth or the dignity of human beings).

Against their triviality and cynicism, Rosalind asserts the language of authenticity. She teaches Orlando an authentic language of love. She gives him the gift of heartfelt speech. She almost literally gives him words, and in so doing, gives him the stuff of morality. Rosalind gives Orlando the education he needs and deserves and that his elder brother churlishly denied him. She enhances his sensibility and gives him the gift of himself. And like Hamlet, she has the power of imagination — the power to see, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, "the deep-down freshness" of things.

Shakespeare is inexhaustible. Every production, even the crummy ones, shows a new facet of his imagination. His scripts have the "infinite variety" of his Cleopatra, the witty spunk of his Beatrice, the grit of his Portia, the searing honesty of his Cordelia, and the wonder of his Mi-randa. They provide a staging area for enacting our own soul making.

This money-interested script writer — William Shakespeare — endures because he renders the human heart to an uncanny degree. He knows it as a broken altar on which love can nonetheless be whispered into existence. His sensibility is a religious one (in the sense of religare, a tying together). He knew the Bible well in its Bishops’ and Geneva translations. Recently, there has been a revival of what my teacher Tinsley Helton calls "the vexed question" of Shakespeare’s denominational affiliation.

Was he a Catholic? Who knows? The evidence on the matter is slim indeed. There was a conference on the question last summer in Lancashire (where Shakespeare once supposedly hid out with the Jesuits or worked as a schoolmaster/entertainer in a Catholic household), but all it did was rehash the old, inconclusive speculations. In my view, this question is not decidable nor even very interesting; and I suspect it of the sin of pigeonholing and perhaps triumphalism.

What is of interest — and an occasion of grace — are the people of Shakespeare’s plays.

What would Shakespeare make of the latest Bard-biz — the films by Kenneth Branagh (that hungry aspirant to Olivier’s mantle), the Michelle Pfeffier-Rupert Everett-Kevin Kline midsummer’s night romp, and that charming bit of froth that snatched the best-picture Oscar — "Shakespeare in Love"? Amused, I think, but pleased.

Dr. Michael A. Mikolajczak, associate professor of English, began teaching at St. Thomas in 1989. Holder of a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee), he is chair of the English Department. The article is dedicated to Miss Tinsley Helton, professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee), 1953-1985.