A time of paranoia. A time of threats within and without. An old way of life has been discarded in favor of a new world of new ideas, sacred and profane. Burning convictions, resentment, plots, a controversial leader, terror and Holy War. Being on the wrong side of the state is ruin, and the wrong side of your faith, damnation. A time of darkness and confusion desperate for a light.
Welcome to Elizabethan England. The treacherous world inhabited by William Shakespeare. The man who reinvented a nation on the edge of destruction.
“You can take away cricket, you can lose the last night of the Proms, you can even lose an empire, but if you lose Shakespeare — as far as I’m concerned — there is no England anymore.” Declares historian Simon Schama in the opening of his series Shakespeare and Us.
This two-part BBC series (available on Curiosity Stream) places us in the fraught world of Shakespeare. A time when the Pope had granted a ticket to paradise to whoever would kill the “bastard” and Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Barely a generation after her father Henry VIII had made his separation with Rome, his son had smashed the ancient stained-glass windows of the churches, and his first daughter had attempted to reinstate the old religion through terror; Elizabeth replaced the worship of the Virgin Mary with the cult of the Virgin Queen. Meanwhile, her spies instituted a security state to stave off rebellion from within, as the Catholic monarchs of Europe eyed her crown from abroad.
If ever Joseph Campbell’s insistence that all ages need their unifying myth were true, then Shakespeare’s was such an age. And he had a powerful new means to communicate his vision: the stage. The subject he chose was England herself. The time, the Wars of the Roses, the bloody civil wars over the crown of England. And by turning those exhausting slog-fests of names and dates into exciting drama, unforgettable characters and thrilling action, he created a new vision of England. One that the English have relied upon through the centuries, whether during the Blitz or to this day.
But for the heroic patriotism of the cry “For Harry, England and St. George!” Shakespeare’s vision was not one of blind nationalism nor of cynical criticism. Instead he used his history plays “to hold a mirror up” to his own times. To reveal both the heroes and the villains, the high and the low, the centers of power and the landscape of the sceptred isle in its honest glory.
With infinite compassion, Shakespeare laid before his audiences themselves, their land, their leaders. A vision as wide, gentle yet crude, loving and base, comic and tragic, as all-encompassing as old Jack Falstaff himself. And, in doing so, he created an idea that could touch all of England’s people, caution its leaders and comment on his times.
We live in times like Shakespeare’s. A similar moment. The old myths of our nation may be dead, but they haunt us daily in the victim’s of mass shootings by the disaffected and deranged who cling desperately to an older vision of the world. They’re in our desire to protect both our selves, our nation and our liberty. Present in our fear of war, of our neighbors and nations, of immigrants, of pretenders, of tyrants, of our past, of this ever-changing world.
Our national dialogue has devolved into two choirs endlessly preaching to themselves. The only interaction between the two camps of this new civil war exist online in nasty Facebook memes and hateful comments, and in confrontations between the armed and unarmed on our streets.
Everyone deplores the chaos, cries out for it to end. But we don’t know how to even begin.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell warned about the chaos of a culture without a unifying myth. Shakespeare responded to the hero’s “call to adventure”, traversed the “dark forest”, faced the dragon and returned with a boon to mankind. Today we must all respond to this call. We must all be heroes.
We must search for the raw materials from which to reconstruct our myth of America, liberty, fraternity and equality, the West, the world. Learn to transform our hatreds and fears into understanding and empowerment. Discover how to use that great force of communication of our day, the internet, as Shakespeare used the stage.
Whether the subject be in space, or fantasy, modern drama, our own history or a combination, I am unsure. But I am certain we all need to look for that thing that will the hold the mirror up to ourselves, to allow us all to laugh and weep and thrill and, finally, to heal.
That other “Great” man of England, King Alfred said, “In prosperity a man is often puffed up with pride, whereas tribulations chasten and humble him…In the midst of prosperity the mind is elated…in hardship he is forced to reflect on himself, even though he be unwilling.”
In this time of hardship, no matter how unwilling or afraid, we must force ourselves to reflect, to accept the hero’s call like Shakespeare. And we must do it in the manner of Shakespeare: with exacting honesty, unflagging commitment and all-soothing compassion. We must use our new great medium as Shakespeare used his stage, to spread what our reflection teaches us. The time of the “Great Man” who changes history may be past, but today, with the internet, we can all be great. Billions of heroes, billions of great people, singing their portion of a great song of a great people.
What will your verse be?