After much debating with myself, I have decided to post the following essay (obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this). I think it will provide a better understanding, for all curious readers, of my references to Dante and other classical things by putting such references in the summarized context of my thoughts about them. I will yet, as I have promised a friend, post something more specifically on aesthetics. At first I wasn’t going to post this because I thought it might be too dull (it is an english essay), but then I thought: if one is fascinated with reading a blog about calculus, he mustn’t find anything to be dull.
A Timeless Shakespeare
Examining Shakespeare from the contemporary age begins with identifying the qualities of our age. Art and philosophy have experienced a dramatic increase in diversity beginning in the early nineteen hundreds, an era commonly defined as the beginning of the postmodern movement. The postmodern movement was the shift from ideologies such as romanticism and arguably even modernism to ones such as relativism and existentialism. As a child of the postmodern age, contemporary human philosophy and art no longer rests itself on absolute truth but on relative values and beliefs which are designed arbitrarily for the sake of creating some sort of order to which humanity may answer. These values and beliefs are not intended to carry any weight on an absolute scale, because absolute truth was rejected long ago, but are there merely to satisfy the natural human longing to believe in something. This new structure of thought that exists in postmodernism, a reaction to the lack of structure behind modernism, creates an anxiety in humanity. The creation of arbitrary values and beliefs certainly does fill part of a void in the human heart, but not all of it. As humans, we not only long to believe in something, but also for that something to be, in some absolute sense, the “right thing.” And this is how the classical style appeals to the contemporary thinker.
Shakespeare is a great, creative and inventive artist, but there have been many such artists across time; it’s his classicality that has, in a sense, immortalized his mortal words. Shakespeare’s era is an excellent one for thinkers and artists of today to fall in love with. He lived in the renaissance: close enough to medieval times to be firmly set on a belief in one absolute God, but also far enough to have an open mind which he may use to explore humanism. Thus, he speaks the rich, classical language of countless, timeless artists, but does so with a highly accessible take. One would think that in today’s age Shakespeare would seem too simple, philosophically, but on the contrary, he is regarded as a firm cornerstone to contemporary thought. Why is that? The best explanation is simply this: we are wrong. We were wrong to reject absolute truth and have gotten further and further off course as we created theories to support this fundamental, modern assertion–for it is the mortal pictures of truth that have become immortal to humanity.
No one wants to believe in a single God and Truth, but at the same time, as T.S. Eliot said, “Dante and Shakespeare,” firmly grounded believers in absolute Truth, “divide the modern world between them; there is no third” (Selected Essays 1932). This paradoxical rejection and adoration of absolutism is best explained as being the result of a much too simple approach to the concept. Today, Dante looks shallow. Everyone seems to agree that his portrayal of Hell as a place of physical suffering where “bad people” go when they die is much too simple. But at the same time, most would much rather read Dante’s Comedy, as it was originally titled, than any of Fredric Niche’s babblings. It seems the most likely reason for this is that Dante is being taken too much at face value. Dante never intended his Comedy to be called “Divine.” He knew that what he was creating was an entirely insufficient model of that which is beyond the reach of human comprehension. Shakespeare knew this as well. As he wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth …/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Shakespeare I.v.187-188). Yet contemporary humanity seems to have forgotten this fact, and thus when they look at Dante and Shakespeare, they see, what they think to be, an extremely shallow ideology, and yet something deep within them loves it. This is because they think that art and philosophy are self sufficient. They no longer look at it as a symbolic representation of truth, but as truth itself, as if the language is the thing which it is describing.
Humanity’s most recent down fall is not in believing in too large of a Truth, though it seems that way, but actually in believing in too small of one. We rejected absolutism because it seemed too simple, but what we have put in its place, though it is well disguised, is actually much simpler. It began with thinking that a more abstract vision of Truth is a bigger one, and then finally led to a belief that no vision of Truth is the biggest one of all. Shakespeare and Dante’s depiction of God, however, is much larger than ours because it is small. It’s as if by virtue of making their vision of God blatantly small, Shakespeare and other similar artists have rejected the idea that their work can come sufficiently close to the truth, and thus have portrayed God to be infinitely large, as He actually is. This is the very essence of the classical style.
Thus, the contemporary world can’t help but love the classical style, and the popular world hardly bothers with anything else. It is the most accessible style because it is the truest and the most popular style because it is the most accessible. Hence, Shakespeare’s enduring fame is, like that of all other members of his style, grounded in the truth behind the style.
Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. The Tragedy of Hamlet. New York: Washington
Square, 1992 Print.