Nature’s Changing Course
Last night I watched an inspiring documentary by British historian Michael Wood entitled, “In Search of Shakespeare.” With his characteristic passion and enthusiasm, Wood transports the viewer to Shakespeare’s world – that of a young man navigating an unlikely destiny through the treacherous waters of Elizabethan England. How delicate fate seems when viewed in episodes. England’s official religion changed four times in just twelve years and when Elizabeth I ascended the throne, Europe must have viewed her arrival as we do that of a gold-braided general in some dysfunctional banana-republic. William Shakespeare, a country boy from Wiltshire, a married teen with a pregnant wife and still living with his parents. But a chance wind that scattered the superior Spanish Armada and a chance murder of an actor in a traveling theatre group would afford both Elizabeth and William their respective shots at history.
Shakespeare has always occupied a special place in my mind, an exciting realm, at once bucolic and lethal, much like the England of his time. Wood’s documentary transported me to that inner domain, its deep ancient soils and fertile imaginings in stark contrast to the grey urgency of the modern world. My Grandfather first introduced me to Shakespeare as a very young boy and in doing so populated my thoughts with a world of images – the walking woods of Dunsane, the mad prince, the foolish king and the wise fool. At night I used to listen for Lady Macbeth outside my bedroom door, her insomniac pacing, whispering, “wash this filthy witness from my hands!” Later I found an old photograph of my Grandfather, dressed in chain-mail and I was agog at the thought that he had somehow met Lady Macbeth! I was hooked. The iambic pentameter and the unfamiliar English contributed to the fascination. I always knew what they meant even though I didn’t always understand what they were saying. Like an old Greek myth it touched some older part in me. Then came school. We studied Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caeser and King Lear. Today I file my childhood memories within the pages of Shakespeare’s plays. Like old English law books organized according to the reigning monarch, my awareness at different points in my childhood is filed under whatever Shakespearean play that we were studying that year. When I think of Julius Caeser I can recall what it felt like to start secondary school, King Lear guards the memories of my preparations for university. Romeo and Juliet was completely destroyed for me by a rote-learning nun who knew less about passion than she did about art. Macbeth and Hamlet were the mast and main-sail of my awakening. Shakespeare seemed to me to have that divine knowledge, that ability to appreciate both sides of the coin; the self and the not-self, the joy and the sadness, the glory and the pointlessness of all glory. I wondered what had he done and where had he been, to have accumulated such knowledge.
How wonderfully accidental then is this life. Darwin and Hegel have influenced us, unintentionally no doubt, to think that there is some pre-ordained logic to it and that history has some rhyme and reason. But this secular transcendentalism masks the truth that its all just a sloppy mess of order and random chance. Two drunken actors fall out of an alehouse in Elizabethan England, one kills the other, and a new player takes his place. The player dips a feather in ink and 400 years later my world is changed.