Despite our having optimistically named ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens—the doubly wise human—most of us, most of the time, stand far off from that ideal. Folly, not wisdom, seems to be our native medium and natural state; error, not rectitude, is our common mode; confusion, not clarity, is our customary condition.
We “see through a glass darkly,” discerning more shadow than substance. We are dense and descending, not soaring in glory. At most we muddle through, relatively unscathed by our stupidities, causing not too much harm to others, and humbled by how short we fall of grace and brilliance.
Yet the spiritual sunshine of wisdom continues to brighten and warm us from above, far beyond our reach and grasp, though still exalting to our souls: flowers yearning skyward toward that radiance.
We never can be wholly wise, but only grow in that direction. We are not “doubly wise” but merely wisdom seekers—when we’re rightly oriented. First we discern, by our best lights, how wisdom would comport itself. We look for archetypes and models of sagacity, heroes and exemplars who have manifested wisdom most distinctly. Then we take their path and go their way as best we can, hoping to end as well as they.
How do things look when bathed in the glorious sunshine of wisdom? Beautiful. Kindly. Authentic. Wholesome.
Whatever genius is, he had that gift Of godliness which could imagine lives And lines and plots in language deft and swift That towers over time and still survives, Thus rivaling the Eternal in his scope. Not only for his age, but for all time (As Jonson claimed) he satisfied the hope Of all poetic minds—to live in rhyme. Yet more than that, he rivaled history And passed philosophy by telling tales That live more vivid than reality, Instructing when no lecturing avails. His Globe became a microcosmic stage Where folly struts, but wisdom shines more sage.
Macbeth and his cruel lady would be great, Which draws to them dread agencies of Fate Who spur them on to doing deadly deeds, Planting in them a crop of evil seeds That breed a sense of false fecundity, Disguising their innate sterility.
Knowing our inclination to be evil Is soon exacerbated by the devil, Whoever would be great must be as good As any lowly human being should: Vaulting ambition drives a soul to dare To execute those deeds which breed despair.
Unless at heart we’re pregnant to good pity, Our path shall never find the Holy City.
Out of one sound how many thoughts may ooze? There are such hoards of words from which to choose That rhyming sounds are virtually a Muse: At every turn they offer up fresh news And like bright sprites inspire and enthuse.
Let other writers turn to drugs and booze; I find in rhyme the hunches and the clues I need to lead me on to novel views, Discovering more matter by the slues, As out rhyme’s spigot inspiration spews.
My only worry’s how not to abuse Your ears with dinning repetition whose Unmeant consequence might make you snooze, In which case you may win, but I shall lose.
How could a playwright today use language for dialogue as enhanced as Shakespeare’s was in his day?
Somehow, Shakespeare could get away with inventing speeches far removed from ordinary discourse, especially speeches in blank verse or in rhymed couplets or even in sonnets. These were conventions tolerated and appreciated by audiences then and thereafter, despite their flouting of “realism.”
One can almost say that all his speeches, even by the lowest of characters, are meant to be sung rather than said. Compared to dramatic dialogue in plays today—prosaic, conventional, realistic—his language sounds operatic, larger than life, unabashedly so, replete with rhetorical flourishes, sonorous effects, and memorability. They are lines to be savored and retained. But convention and taste today do not allow such range and virtuosity.
Why not? Were a genius of Shakespeare’s kind alive today, with comparable linguistic and lyrical aptitudes, similarly inclined toward making plays, what would he do? How would he write? How curtailed would he be by the tastes and expectations of accepted theatrical conventions? At least, he would be heartened that Shakespeare’s plays themselves still flourish, are still performed and eagerly responded to—as period pieces. But would he not lament that the tastes of contemporary drama forbid the exercise of such linguistic scope and exuberance? Would he not feel like a caged eagle or nightingale?
I suppose he might go to Hollywood, not Broadway, and he might opt for some genre of fantasy, even science fiction, that would loosen the parameters of realism and open the dialogue to exotic idioms.
But then, taking my hypothesis a step further and supposing that this new dramatic, poetic genius were in fact the reincarnated soul of Shakespeare, invigorated by a youthful body yet still possessing his accumulated expertise, what then might he do?
He’d write more Shakespeare plays, anachronistic though they’d be. He’d find new matter in old manuscripts, in ancient tales and histories, and then he’d pass them off as newfound antiquities— Shakespeare’s Lost Plays.
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry Distinguish form.
The tricksy anamorphic art Shakespeare knew of and alludes to in his plays and sonnets, those ambiguous images that create different impressions depending on one’s angle of view—“painted one way like a Gorgon, The other way's a Mars”—such graphic art is emblematic of his own dramatic art.
Tragicomic plays are a simple and obvious example (such as The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale) in that severe and ominous events in the early part of each play, portending a catastrophe, suddenly shift before the end to allow all to end well, as a tragic perspective shifts to comic.
More complex instances of Shakespeare’s anamorphic perspective appear in plays that represent a deep existential ambiguity in the very nature of the world—as does Macbeth. Here there’s no confusion about genre; clearly this is tragic drama depicting the fall of a great man from high to low estate in mind and body—a classic Aristotelian paradigm of tragedy. What is intentionally ambiguous, though, is how we ought to comprehend the instigation or the etiology of Macbeth’s fall.
One way is to notice the fateful temptations of the three weird sisters and conclude that wicked machinations cause a good man’s downfall, and the devil made him do those manifold evils he goes on to do. But a contrary way to reckon these tragic events is to take the perspective of illness rather than of evil—to see a mind diseased, even to madness, rather than malicious. Call that the ambivalent perspective of e’il/ill, a kind of pun delightful to the paronamasiastic mind of Shakespeare.
Of course, such a dichotomy finally proves false, for a comprehensive view allows us to see not either/or but both/and. “Two truths are told,” and though they appear opposed, they prove complementary—a valid contradiction, not unlike a paradoxical Zen koan.
The most useful and hopeful way to think about evil is not to see it as demonic, the instigation of antagonistic spiritual forces assaulting us, but as maladic, a disease that infects and debilitates us. Even though we speak of “fighting off” a disease and of “battling cancer,” thus blurring the distinction between evil and malady, significant differences remain between these two conceptions of why and how things go badly for us.
Engaging in militant antagonism means using violence against a hated adversary, an attitude destructive of both opponents, even of the presumed righteous warrior, who pays a psychic toll for entering into such conflicts, spiritually sullied by such negative emotions. On the other hand, seeking to remedy a malady, to cure a disease, to salve a wound is a spiritually uplifting enterprise—salvation, not destruction, is its aim.
While Shakespeare employs both metaphors (evil and illness, malice and malady), his tragedies tend to emphasize the demonic theory, his comedies the maladic. Inveterate evil overwhelms the souls of tragic protagonists, whereas comic protagonists find relief from their agonies, release from their diseases, salvation from their ailments—and all ends well.
When fools and dolts and idiots abound, When wisdom’s scarce and reasoning’s unsound (When is that not? Such folly’s ever been!) Then take a breath and look around again, For with a kinder eye you’ll also see Compassion, care and generosity; You’ll find some earnest, thoughtful folks who try To ferret out the truth, expose the lie, And grope their way to a commanding height From where they gain a visionary sight. Stand by their side to share their clearer view Then hope returns, faith rises up anew. Where do you look for such a crew? Oh, yes: Bill Moyers Journal, Fridays, PBS.
Here comes a newborn human to this world In whom potentialities lie furled, Each needing to be triggered to emerge So we may ever flourish and diverge, Adapting to all circumstance and change, Extending our experience and range.
Yet in his case, what is the likelihood That his potentiality for good, His aptitude to help the world advance Toward Love and Wisdom has a decent chance Of being realized against the odds That he’ll succumb to lures of lesser gods?
How can we shape our babies to become A whole that’s always greater than our sum?
Each morning before daybreak I go fishing, Yet not for fish, but as a kind of wishing, A mental exercise of reeling in Ideas and images that might begin A line of verse which plays out to its end, Whereby I might some notion apprehend.
Discovery is the aim of such a sport, Toward which gay rhymes and rhythms both cavort, Though who knows where such frolic may conclude, Except in fun—a jolly interlude.
Helena (in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well) is, of course, far better than Bertram deserves. He is as outrageous in his headstrongness as is Kate, the Shrew, in hers (in The Taming of the Shrew). Both these extravagant souls need taming, restraining, civilizing—curing of their temperamental maladies so as to bring them to sanity and clear-sighted recognition of what is truly valuable—true love. In both cases extraordinary means must be used to rein them in and cure them.
Just as the God of Christians looks with sorrow upon all soul-sick, wayward human beings, knowing them intrinsically defective, damaged by the primal disobedience of Original Sin—yet nonetheless graces them with charitable care—so Helena loves Bertram for the goodness he was meant for, despite his callow lapse from grace. She knows a natural nobility inhabits him that may yet be reclaimed, despite his willful dishonoring of his heritage and nature.
A just God would condemn Bertram for his devious egotism, but a merciful God excuses the willful blindness of his youthful pride, lust and rebellion, generously bestowing on him the healing love of Helena, a paragon of devotion. Though more than he deserves, she’s what he should have prayed for.
The ancient word for illness—malady Had no correlative, like benedy, Just as for ages illness merely meant The lack of health, a nominal content, But nothing better, loftier than that, No greater state we might be aiming at.
But then, a few decades ago, the term Wellness evolved revealing, past the Sturm Und Drang of life’s vicissitudes, a way Had opened showing where perfection lay: A stage of optimal humanity Not simply health, but higher sanity,
A vision of true wholeness we can grasp In thought then struggle mindfully to clasp.
Though Youth’s attached to our true Source, With Age befalls a great divorce, For then our primal Innocence Succumbs to harsh Experience, And what at first were Trails of Glory Devolve to a more sordid story: Original Blessing’s our first state Corrupted by lust, pride and hate. Temptation, ego, rivalry Supplant innate felicity. Romantic sages thus construe (Rousseau and Blake and Wordsworth, too) A non-demonic cause of sin Hoping we’ll end where we begin.
What’s now awry shall soon be rectified, All maladies shall find their remedies, Those rent by rifts shall be again allied, And all the sick be healed of foul disease. So runs the course of Doctor Shakespeare’s plays In which all sundry illnesses abound And souls are lost in foul miasmic haze Till sight’s restored and spirits are made sound. Some remedies are medical and some Are remedies in law and governance, For as the corporal body may succumb, The body politic needs too the lance That cleans its wound and lets what’s ill grow whole: In either case, it’s physik for the soul.
Shakespeare’s insight into the nature of evil is implicit in our language—that evil is an illness, an ailment with which we are afflicted, but for which sometimes we may find a cure, a remedy for our malady.
Evil is a disorder that sometimes may be restored to order; a chaotic, erratic malfunction or misgovernance of systems which are properly integral, whole and healthy—when disease returns to ease and discomfort to comfort. To be in comfort is to be “with strength,” with wholesome health—a holy state.
Some evils, though, like some diseases, are past cure, if not past care. So virulent and entrenched are they—cankers gnawing on our bowels—that no remedies can extirpate them or restore order to a ravaged victim.
Such evils act like poisons disguised as cordials, sweet and savory to sip, which then destroy the heart of him who swallows them.
[Thou] mightst bespice a cup, To give mine enemy a lasting wink; Which draught to me were cordial.
Such rooted evils cannot be deracinated but consume the malefactors from within: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Claudius, Edmund, Goneril, Iago, Shylock—consumed by poisons they thought would nourish them, deluded in their fallacious follies, fallen into sin.
Come, cordial and not poison, go with me To Juliet's grave; for there must I use thee.