Published on May 3rd, 2013 | by Thompson0
To Err is Shakespeare
William Shakespeare wanted us to make mistakes. He knew, both first-hand and through his writing, that error was the foundation for learning. But Shakespeare also recognized which errors were worth making and which errors could kill us. Shakespeare may have written to entertain, but he also wrote to educate. His audience consisted mostly of under-educated, middle class citizens, and thankfully, he had enough artistic integrity to use his genius to help people.
After expressing my interest in Shakespeare’s sermons preaching err, a friend of mine told me to focus on the issue of class because most of his audience could neither read nor write. Though my friend has little experience with Shakespeare’s works, his words are worth noting, because a writer of Shakespeare’s caliber not only knows the golden rule of writing – write for your audience – but also knows the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Some of Shakespeare’s family was believed to be Catholic after all, despite it being illegal, and though his audience wanted nothing more than to be entertained (not much has changed), Shakespeare took it upon himself to do more than simply entertain. He realized these people of the pit needed guidance and the only way they were going to get it was in that very pit. There were no public schools for them. There were no books they could read, no movies they could see. And, most importantly, there was no one that cared enough to educate them. It was in the best interest of the body politic to keep these people ignorant in order to take advantage of them, and Shakespeare wasn’t having any of that.
Instead of making “art for art’s sake,” art that has no moral or didactic purpose, Shakespeare did battle with his superiors using his pen, and though I won’t make you read the cliché, he won, despite our current state of affairs. The loss is our own, as we have moved further and further away from the teachings provided by William Shakespeare, perhaps due to a dwindling intellect, our commodified existence, or an extreme case of laziness. Whatever the reason, it’s not much of a reason at all. If Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are the best writers of my generation, we should probably keep reading the classics. Hell, we might learn something.
The idea that art requires no moral or didactic purpose, one that was advocated by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Théophile Gautier (who made it his motto), and even Allan Kaprow (who established an art of “Happenings,” consisting of performances of everyday life), is not an idea we should have a problem with. Art shouldn’t have to meet certain didactic standards, or any standards for that matter. If that were the case, we’d all have to meet the standards of Shakespeare, and not much would have been published or performed after his death in 1616. But all art is created with one thing in mind – value. Even Shakespeare was writing to feed himself and his family, and though his works’ value was inherently linked with its entertainment value, it was important to Shakespeare that his work did more – that it educated those who needed it most. The best way to receive that education is to take Shakespeare’s words to heart:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts” (As You Like It, II-7, 1037-40).
If we go through life acting as if the world’s a stage, it only makes it easier for us to learn from our mistakes. Life is but a rehearsal. We practice and practice at being the best actor we can be only to fuck up the performance over and over again, just as the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the mechanicals prove that putting on a great performance isn’t necessary to entertain or even educate. You can be an atrocious actor, or in our case an awful person, and still have an effect on people. It’s only your exit that is affected by your performance. Some of us just want to be scenery; others hope to exit early. But there are others looking to outshine the rest of the world for as long as they can, and those of us who would love to upstage the shining stars for just a few acts and bring them to their end. Everyone has his or her preference, but everyone exits. Everyone dies. The length of our stay on the stage depends on the errors we make and how we handle those errors – comically or tragically.
The following blogs will explain why Shakespeare wanted us to err and why it’s important that we do so. It will address what errors he considered educational and what errors he considered deadly. And it will interpret how Shakespeare thought we should deal with our errors, using his plays, sonnets, poems, and personal life as references.