The Mortal Bard

Immortality is one of those words bandied about endlessly in the discussion of literature, despite the fact that we are so inundated with writing these days that you might think we would know better, especially given our meme-driven culture. Ahh, say certain folk, though we might live in an era of ephemera, there still exists at the core of our culture certain touchstones that will always persist. Thus does Captain Picard keep a bound volume of Shakespeare around, for Shakespeare touches upon the human condition in a way that no other writer does, and surely his work will persist through the passage of time, and be relevant even for twenty-fourth century space travelers. He is immortal, in ways that current slingers of fan fiction will never be.

Shakespeare certainly does inhabit that hinge in our history, that transition into what is called “the modern,” with its concerns for the rights of individuals, the rise of a nascent capitalism, an increasingly globalized worldview–all those things that we take for granted, as a given. Even the pre-modern elements of his writing serve to keep our attention, for they represent the authenticity that seems lacking in our modern life: chivalric values, the power of faith, sincerity. Thus does he seem to encompass what is most human about us, and so it’s no wonder that Shakespeare has been adopted and adapted by diverse cultures across the world, most notably by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who himself lived in a time when the Land of the Rising Sun was undergoing a transition into a modern capitalist state.

However, though there may be a central “human condition,” evocations of which will resonate for centuries or millennia, at least so long as homo sapiens remains in its current general form, it is worth keeping in mind that nothing about us or our state is “immortal.” Even much that Shakespeare took for granted in his own lifetime would, to us, sound bizarre and backward, distinctly un-modern. This was rather driven home to me with a recent re-reading of Richard II, in which I found three distinctly rather un-modern motifs:

1. Blood. Namely, the idea of the sacral nature of blood, especially the blood of kings, and the old notion that “blood will out”–that is, that one’s genealogy will betray itself. The word “blood” recurs regularly through the play, especially the first act, wherein folks speak of a person’s “high blood’s royalty” or a “slander of his blood.” King Richard himself regularly refers to his royal blood in the face of adversaries–his lineage is proof enough of the blessing of God upon him. Those who conspire against the king do so even with a reverence for his station, and when Richard is murdered at the end, Henry Bullingbrook, the new king, protests that “blood should sprinkle me to make me grow” and promises a voyage to the Holy Land “to wash this blood off from my guilty hand,” even though it was not his hand that did the murderous deed. Of course, the idea of the value of “blood” continued on into the twentieth century, especially as a shorthand for denoting the evils of miscegenation, the mixing of blood, helping to sustain racist ideologies. However, we’ve rather shed the idea that individual worth is wrapped up in ancestry; say what you will about those tyrants and robber barons, but some of their rags-to-riches stories helped to dash that old notion to pieces. Finally, modern genetics has rendered insufficient the concept of “blood” as a means of denoting inheritable qualities. Even committed racists these days are finding their employment of the “blood” concept problematized by genetic tests that prove the ostentible “impurity” of the contents of their own veins, while diversity-minded youngsters are more likely than their parents to be in interracial relationships. So blood, it’s out, way out.

2. Slander. So our play opens wth Henry Bullingbrook laying down some charges of treason against Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfork, who offers to retrun “these terms of treason doubled down his throat,” laying his life on the line with the offer of combat until death: “I’ll answer thee in any fair degree / Or chivalrous design of knightly trial; / And when I mount, alive may I not light, / If I be traitor or unjustly fight!” To slander someone in our premodern history was, essentially, to take your life into your own hands–likewise, to be on the receiving end of slander. Occasionally, these days an argument will result in the fetching of guns and someone being shot, and “honor killings” of the kind which occasionally occur in Muslim families can be described as closely related to slander (the desire to preserve the image of the self and the family), but by and large, we have rather institutionalized slander and libel. In the United States, there is an entire major news network devoted to describing our president as a traitor to the nation, in league with terrorists across the globe, and essentially un-American. We take our ability to speak our crazy little minds so for granted, forgetting that such could have been a death sentence not that far back. So ask yourself: once you have an entire generation grown up on Twitter flame wars, how much will the idea of slander as something to take deadly seriously make any sense at all?

3. Banishment. So good King Richard does not let Mowbray and Bullingbrook have their fight–rather, he banishes the first permanently, the latter for ten years, later reduced to six. John of Gaunt tries to reassure his son, telling him to think of the banishment as travel taken for pleasure, to which Henry replies: “Nay rather, every tedious stride I make/ Will but remember me what a deal of world / I wander from the jewels that I love.” Indeed, evocations of place and of people’s love for a very specific place abound in the play, as with John of Gaunt’s famous speech describing England as “This other Eden, demi-paradise” and “This precious stone set in the silver sea.” Of course, this was a time when people’s lives were bounded by a few square miles, for the most part, that they knew intimately. My wife lived all of her youth on the same hill down in Hot Springs and remembers when she became conscious of the fact that she knew in what order the trees would bloom in the spring or turn in the fall–it’s the kind of knowledge that comes from being in one place over the years and loving that place. Another friend of mine grew up on a family plot and returned home recently in order to visit a tree, her favorite tree, that was about to be cut down to make way for a subdivision. So people do still grow up on something they would call “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm,” but how common is that experience today? In my own case, I was born on Guam and lived in California, North Carolina, and Texas, all before th age of five. The longest stretch of my life today was in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but even there, I never really bonded with the place, especially given that my parents regularly talked of moving elsewhere, either from necessity or desire. That is probably the more common experience these days–perpetual transition. And though I think that the solution for so many of our problems lies in returning to an ethic of place and home, I cannot honestly say that a comfortable banishment from my current home would be any great strife. My wife lives in exile wherever she goes, but I was born in exile and know little else in my bones. Today, moving somewhere else is simply an accepted, if not encouraged, part of life for young people. Go out and see the world. The United States was founded by migrants and has been defined  by that experience, from the movement Out West to the Great Migration of the early twentieth century to the practice of northerners retiring in various Sun Belt states. I know here in Arkansas a Swedish woman married to a Jamaican man, as well as an astonishing number of Brits who have found themselves here for various reasons. One of my best riends is Japanese living in Oxford with her English husband, and just the other day I was interviewed by a local student born in Pakistan and come to Arkansas by way of New York. Can most of us even understand the pain of being banished from our homes when that is what we do to ourselves for education or love or opportunity?

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