Shakespeare: A Poet for this Earth

by Michelle Fram-Cohen

For many readers, Shakespeare is known as the dramatist who immortalized man's fatal flaws with great talent — the poet who used his imagination and wit to portray the defeat of potential heroes by their weaknesses. That Shakespeare should be identified with his tragedies, however, is indicative only of the person (or culture) making the identification, not of the bard himself.

Shakespeare was not primarily a tragedian. He wrote comedies, historical plays, and many love sonnets. Of the 38 plays attributed to him, only 6 are tragedies, while 13 are historical dramas. The rest are comedies and plain dramas with happy endings. There is no apparent flaw (fatal or non-fatal) in the title character of Henry V, who wins the admiration of his subjects, the war over France, and the heart of the French princess who becomes his Queen. There is no doom in store for the steadfast lovers Valentine and Silvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, who overcome betrayal and banishment to live happily ever after at the end. There is no malevolent streak in the good-natured fun poked at the fickleness of lovers in comedies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream or Much Ado About Nothing. Even the malevolence of Shakespeare's tragedies can be reevaluated. Romeo and Juliet are undone not by their own flaws, but by the feud between their families, and they do achieve a triumph of the spirit at the end. Hamlet and Othello are heroes undone by their fatal flaws, but their tragic stories properly inspire pity and awe, in the tradition of the Greek tragedies.

From a historical perspective, Shakespeare's view of man is a quantum leap from the Middle Ages. Man is no longer a two-dimensional sinner or saint in a morality play like Everyman, or a brainless pleasure-seeker in a satire like Canterbury Tales, but a three-dimensional human being living on earth. God never plays a major role in Shakespeare's plays and several of them take place in pagan Greece. Ulysses himself makes an appearance to present a logical view of the universe:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center
Observe degree, priority, and place,
In fixture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order.
(Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.84-87)

When Shakespeare's entire oeuvre is examined, what emerges is a linguistic, artistic, and psychological genius. Shakespeare's language is a landmark in the transition from Middle English to Modern English. His neologisms and epigrams transformed the English language. The enduring popularity of his plays almost 400 years after his death and their successful transfer from the theater to the movies is a good indication of his greatness as a dramatist. The perceptiveness and depth of his portrayal of a vast variety of characters from all walks of life leave no doubt about his psychological insight. His plays express vividly the souls of heroes and villains alike.

Shakespeare's characters follow the principle defined by Aristotle in his Poetics: "In the portrayal of characters also, as in plot construction, one should always strive for either the necessary or the probable, so that it is either necessary or probable for that kind of person to do or say that kind of thing, just as it is for one event to follow the other." (1454a33-36) Each act is in accord with the character's personality and each character has his reasons for his actions. The villains have a reason to be evil, which they are aware of and share with the audience. Their actions are intelligible, if not justifiable. Consider Richard III's soliloquy:

I that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up —
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them —
Why, I in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
(Richard III, 1.1.16-31)

If ever was a moment of conscious, deliberate, free choice — this was it.

The Aristotlean principle of the Golden Mean fares high in Shakespeare's mores. Following one's passions to extremes proves to be ludicrous (Titania falls in love with an ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream), reckless (Claudio denounces his bride without examining the evidence in Much Ado About Nothing), or cataclysmic (Othello kills Desdemona). Reason is upheld as a desirable, if not always practiced, virtue. Says Hamlet:

Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart.
(Hamlet, 3.2.69-71)

In his review of Shakespeare's Twenty-First Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money by Frederick Turner, Paul A. Cantor points out that:

in Shakespeare's treatment of marriage, he does not divorce financial considerations from emotional ones, as a Romantic poet would. In Shakespeare, the successful marriage is a very practical matter and unites emotional and financial well-being. That is why he ultimately focuses on the marriage bond. Turner makes much of such dual meanings in Shakespeare, when such words as trust, interest, debt, redeem, and venture have at once spiritual and financial significance. (Reason, March 2000)

Interestingly, most of Shakespeare's comedies can be termed tragicomedies. Their plots include a potential tragedy that is averted by an accidental sequence of events as well as by the actions of the characters. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, a bride is publicly charged with infidelity by her jealous groom through the schemes of her father's enemy. The groom's best friend is pressured to challenge him to a duel and the bride's father's alliance with the groom's military Commander is shattered. Only the friend's level-headedness prevents Much Ado About Nothing from deteriorating into a full-fledged tragedy. Soon, the villain's scheme is revealed by the father's guards, who overhear an accomplice bragging about his mischief, and all ends well. Such an accidental development, however, is not necessarily a matter of random luck. It demonstrates that evil is ultimately impotent and that the good triumphs at the end. Indeed, Much Ado About Nothing is a good place to start for someone who wants to discover Shakespeare's benevolent side — his merriment, joy, and delight.

For Further Exploration

Readers may also enjoy Michelle's review of a film version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.