I judged Prospero once. However, this morning when I savagely arose from my bed, hunched from achy sleep, my Caliban shell offered a new knowledge. I am Prospero. Even worse, I am Prospero in a Caliban body (as I struggled to straighten myself). In the style of my teen pupils, I offered my spring apprentice essay on The Tempest to my mentor, harshly judging Prospero and his decision to use magic to manipulate people and his surroundings.
Is Shakespeare a moral enigma? Many critics have thought so. Take the late Anthony Nuttall, who contended that “we have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question”—or Harold Bloom, who has argued that the Bard was “too wise to believe anything.” Such remarks challenge Shakespeare enthusiasts: When a play like Twelfth Night contains such a diverse cast of characters, such a motley crew of moral viewpoints, how can we know which characters represent the playwright? How can we know what Shakespeare thinks?
Recently our entire high school of 125 students and a handful of teachers saw Thornton Wilder's play Our Town at a local university, free I might add. For a play written in 1938, it was indeed a snapshot of its time, approaching mid-century America post World War I and the Great Depression. After the country had seen so much loss of life (and quality of life), it was no wonder that a certain hopelessness invaded the story. In essence, Wilder simplistically depicted the passing of time in the place and people of Grover's Corner, Americana. Yes, Americana.
Have you ever read “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth’s famous 1807 poem about the daffodils? It is worth quoting in full, and for a reason that you may not have considered:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Instability reigns; unlawful authorities seek selfish gain; violence is advertised as entertainment; brothers turn betrayers. But just when the world seems unbearable, a place of escape is found—a green world, full of music, to which, it turns out, the rest of the good people have already fled, and in which they have made a haven. Here, labor is rewarded with feasting, courage with honor, and longing with love.
In response to a student petition, the Yale University English faculty recently voted to “decolonize the English department” by rearranging their course requirements to minimize exposure to, among others, Shakespeare and Chaucer. New course requirements mandate that undergraduate students choose three out of four core courses, in which only one includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, while another includes Milton.
I’ve slowly made a discovery over time. Modern and post-modern artists can often make a great show of why they create art and the substance of it—ideally things that promote sales and highlight the uniqueness of the work. However, when you get to popular creativity, a little more of the true heart and motivation emerges.
It has been said, mostly in old westerns, “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.” However, that does not rule out going all the way across and deciding you’re riding the wrong horse, or that you crossed the wrong river, or that you’re going in the wrong direction, or that something screwy is going on. Anyway, I have such a story to tell.
The best literature teachers rely on classic books, but how can you tell a classic from a non-classic? One popular answer to this question is that you have to wait because it takes time to identify one. You must wait and see which books manage to transcend the concerns of their own time and place and speak to the hearts of people from other times and places; which books, in other words, address universal themes in universally compelling ways.
At a crucial moment in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, protagonist Brutus bemoans the “spirit of the age,” a disposition toward tyranny that allows Caesar to assume the power of a king over Rome’s erstwhile republic. Brutus and his friends conspire to defeat this insidious evil by murdering Caesar and restoring popular government to Rome.