Jon Ferreira’s Answer to the Quroa Question: “I believe that Mozart gave humanity infinitely more than Shakespeare. Is Shakespeare’s fame an accurate reflection of his merits? He has many more Google results.”
Shakespeare & Language
I think that most of the other people who responded to this question did a good job demonstrating just how much Shakespeare has contributed to our society — primarily in the way of vocabulary and language. Shakespeare’s timing contributed a great deal to his legend, due to the fact that he was writing at a liminal period in the history of the English language, specifically in the malleable and fluid early years of Modern English. His invention of words, coining of phrases we still use today, clever use of dialogue and soliloquoy, extensive literary and Biblical allusions, masterful use of meter and verse, and brilliant employment of figurative language and metaphor, are just a few of the many ways Shakespeare innovated the English language, and passed down a legacy we have inherited and continue to use today. There can be no doubt that no other writer has shaped language as impactfully as William Shakespeare. His works have also inspired countless writers since. We still use his language and expressions today.
The Threads of Genius: Mozart vs. Shakespeare
As great as Mozart was, his genius is understandably more limited and less ubiquitous than Shakespeare. You could say that Mozart changed music, and influenced every composer after him, but finding the traces of Mozart in all the various genres of music today is more challenging, and certainly his influence on classical, baroque, etc. is easier to chart a trajectory. Finding remnants of Mozart in rap, for instance, might be a little harder to do. Mozart was a necessary stepping stone, which fundamentally changed music and furthered the art form, but it has splintered and evolved and changed so dramatically in the years since. He was unquestionably a musical genius, and unparalleled in the field, but his influence is necessarily less impactful and felt in our everyday lives, as Shakespeare’s demonstrably is. For example, Shakespeare phrases and words are still uttered by humans every day all across the world. The impact he had on language is unmistakable, and far easier to see the legacy. If anything, Shakespeare doesn’t get enough credit for all that he did. He truly does deserve the high praise and adoration he gets. Mozart may be unparalleled in music, but even though music is important to a lot of people today, we don’t need it to live and communicate. Mozart touched the arts, but Shakespeare has cast his shadow everywhere — through our language, science, art, psychology, and much more. His fingerprints are EVERYWHERE!
Literature Before Shakespeare
The Renaissance was a time when human enlightenment reached new heights not seen since the classical Greeks and Romans. In literature, England had seen Geoffrey Chaucer — often considered the father of English literature, and he had gone far to give voice to his characters and create colorful archetypal roles. The major works of the time are Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ and Philip Sidney’s ‘Astrophil’. The real Renaissance was born in Italy though, and grew out of the productive and verdant period of the late Middle Ages. Before Shakespeare, Italy had its own literary genius in Dante Alighieri, author of the masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (1308-1320). In the late Middle Ages, the overwhelming majority of poetry was written in Latin, and therefore accessible only to affluent and educated audiences. However, Dante defended using the vernacular, and he himself would even write in the Tuscan dialect for works such as The New Life (1295) and the aforementioned Divine Comedy; this choice, although highly unorthodox, set a hugely important precedent that later Italian writers such as Petrarch and Boccaccio would follow. As a result, Dante played an instrumental role in establishing the national language of Italy. Dante’s significance also extends past his home country; his depictions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven have provided inspiration for a large body of Western art, and are cited as an influence on the works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among many others. In addition, the first use of the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, or the terza rima, is attributed to him. So Shakespeare was not the first person to revolutionize his country’s language and innovate freely, but he was unique in how he portrayed his characters. His characters were unusually human and frail, and preternaturally self-introspective. We take it for granted today, but many scholars argue that Shakespeare didn’t just capture the human condition better than any other writer, but that he actually shaped and crafted it. What we take for granted today, might actually have been the Bard’s invention.
Style & Substance: Writing a Character From the Inside Out
Although many people new or unfamiliar with Shakespeare might think his language fancy and unapproachable today, for its time, it was actually quite accessible. It was still elegant, lyrical, and ornate, but it was also muscular and digestible. Before Shakespeare, literature was very florid and characters were written from the outside. Often the poetry or the use of the third person made characters distant and stylized. They spoke very self-consciously, and it often came across as impersonal and obtuse. In the ancient Greek and Roman plays, the characters were much more expressive and emotive, but they were often tied to their own hubris and the will of the gods, that their introspection was minimal as well. Chaucer’s characters were colorful and well sketched, but they were never like real people that you could touch or feel. Their thoughts were prosaic, and did not reach to great depths.
Shakespeare changed all that.
How Shakespeare Shaped Our Psyche & Conscience
Shakespeare changed and shaped the modern psyche more than any other writer in history. His characters spoke eloquently, but also naturally. They asked questions all of us human beings ask, and contemplate mysteries and life’s riddles much in the same way we do. Shakespeare created introspective characters that contemplated their place in the universe, and struggled with their very existence. They were still animals, as we still are today, and caught up in carnal and primitive games of ambition, jealousy, anger, lust, love, etc. but also governed by insightful and rational brains, capable of great honor or deplorable acts of carnage and sin. The Renaissance was an age still ruled by the all powerful Church, superstitions about nature and necromancy, vested in the concept of fate and fortune, and wedded to unenlightened views of medicine, particularly the concept of the Humorism, a system of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body, positing that an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person—known as humors or humours—directly influences their temperament and health. The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, and each corresponds to one of the traditional four temperaments. Conversely, as these rather primitive superstition, witchcraft and devout Christian belief intermingled, there was also the emergence of a new and rational thought. It was not quite the Age of Enlightenment yet, but humanity was beginning to reason more, and science was beginning to shape human behavior. Shakespeare captured all of this.
Shakespeare characters were not only one dimensional characters on a page or pretty poetry to read, but were three dimensional, and asked hard questions of themselves and each other. They contemplated their place in the universe, and were wracked with guilt and shame, as they were forced to see themselves as they truly were, and forced to face the consequences of their actions. The characters were all deeply virtuous and noble in their own small ways (even the “bad guys”) and they were all deeply flawed and petty in other ways (even the “good guys”). Perhaps for the first time in history, Shakespeare had created flawed and inconsistent characters who were capable of good and bad deeds, and who resembled us like never before.
Shakespeare’s characters were all capable of great insights and triumphs, no matter what their station in life. Often the lower class servants were the most wise and empathetic. Kings were allowed to fall, and peasants to rise. Shakespeare was concerned with the human condition, and was truly egalitarian in how he handed out brains, compassion, mercy, empathy, nobility, etc. The good and the bad, the smart and the dumb, the lazy and the ambitious, the comic and the tragic, could all be found spread out throughout his casts, in the high court and low valleys. Shakespeare also employed high brow humor and low brow humor to diversify his cast, and to appeal to a wide audience. That is why Shakespeare was unquestionably the most popular playwright not only today, but in his day….he was accessible to everyone. Shakespeare’s demographic was the breadth of humanity.
There’s a reason why Freud was inspired by Shakespeare to use themes and tropes as the basis for some of his psychoanalytical research. Shakespeare’s plays explore the full range of human emotion and practically every philosophical and Epistemological argument and question a human could ask in a lifetime. Nobody does it better than Shakespeare, and many scholars believe that he asked questions and raised points in ways never explored before. He gave his characters a voice, and subsequently, gave us a voice too. Hamlet became not only every troubled youth and goth/ intellectual kid out there, but a young man grieving a father, a confused boyfriend manipulating his girlfriend, a son angry and hurt by a thoughtless mother, a loyal friend to one and a deadly viper to others. Hamlet was us, and despite all his flaws, we cannot help but love him, and claim him as our own. Even his “evil” characters like Macbeth, Richard III, and Iago are infinitely charming and funny, and can’t help but ensnare us in their traps. Shakespeare wrote human beings, with all their flaws and foibles, strengths and triumphs, highs and lows, humor and stoicism, and every other trait that makes a man.
Shakespeare is more than deserving of his reputation. Not only did he practically invent and innovate a good portion of our language, he defined what it was to be human, and gave voice to our questions, thoughts, and emotions in a way that had never been done before. He helped shape our modern psyche.
I am saddened by the recent string of church burnings in the South. Sadly, it makes me reflect that we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that this is most likely going to get worse before it gets better. And I don’t just mean the burning of black churches. I mean, we’re at a crossroads here in America, and the country’s never been so divided. This is where the older status quo and traditional ways and values clash violently with the more diverse, young, and progressive segment of the population, in a battle for power and domination. One group feels its losing the rights and privileges it’s always known, and that society is becoming more wicked and dissolute as unwelcome outsiders and sinners destroy the fabric of America. The progressive side represents the future of society, and must battle for every inch of ground earned. They say they are just protesting and initiating legislative change to earn the rights the others have enjoyed since this country was founded, and really since the beginning of time. The left insist they are here to capture what is theirs already, and earn the exact same rights as those in power. Time will reveal whether the social progressives were committed enough to social justice to extend that same courtesy to those they unseat from power, or share the bench with. Will they be the bigger party, and treat their foes with the respect they often didn’t always receive themselves? Or will the slave turn around, and be the new master?
We on the Left seem to excuse away the violent crime perpetrated by a disproportionately large number of blacks, and even make excuses for welfare abuses, and other questionable behavior in the inner cities. I do this. Because I think there is a direct corollary between a broken and completely underserving school system, high crime neighborhood, single parent household, no male role models, the allure of selling drugs and getting rich, lack of jobs, crumbling infrastructure, and many more things….and CRIME. Again, African Americans aren’t born criminals, because the vast majority are fine upstanding citizens. But even those that do, weren’t born that way. They learned it. From the mean streets of the ghetto. I think African Americans have been shafted in this country, and giving them the vote and other rights on paper, did not erase everything that came before or the grim future they had ahead. Having said ALL THAT, I would argue that many of this country’s worst bigots and grossly ignorant, are in poor, white, rural areas, many which have the same problems as the inner city. And neither has hope at all. I’m not excusing the actions of bigots, but trying to demonstrate that we can’t ask for tolerance, if we’re not ready to give it, and do our best to understand what made them bigots.
And as we consider global warming and climate change, it must be made clear that over 94% of all scientists agree that these crises actually do exist, and are have catastrophic consequences, if not addressed. That’s nearly 100% of scientists, and not only a majority, but nearly a unanimous opinion shared by all. That does not happen much. And yet, the Right would choose to employ their rogue (and ethically questionable) scientists to distort the facts, and declare it’s all just a scare conspiracy by the Left. What possible gain could be had from trying to save the world? Or if we were faking, what would the end game be there? Haha, it was all a joke. We duped you! This is too serious to ignore, and everyday we stall is a day closer to potential extinction of the species.
But this is a rivalry that has gone on for many decade….centuries, in fact. Scientists are like magicians, who pull rabbits out of hats, and Conservative and the rest of us are humbled and have no idea what it is scientists do. It is one of those professions your stumble into from a job’s wanted ad. These men and women are brilliant, their work is very esoteric and elegant. Too rigorous for our untrained minds. To some extent…that mystery…a job only they can do….it effectve;y makes them some of the most powerful people in our society. They create technology, cure disease, engineer things, and essentially are the engine of commerce and innovation since at least the Industrial Revolution. But this level of tech and science is much more recent….50–60 years. And the rapid rates of development, effectively launching the digital age, is only about 20 years This is an epic showdown, between the scientists, who essentially play God everyday, and create innovation that others simply can’t explain. On the other side, are God’s faithful soldiers, charged with upholding and maintaining the status quo, because they’re working from a playbook over 4,000 years old. And despite the odds against them staying relevant and useful, and about their book being able to address the needs of a 21st Century, they simply respond with ‘faith.’ They are naturally distrustful of each other. One can’t disprove the other. Sure, scientists can talk of the God particle and make huge breakthroughs in quantum physics and make leaps in understanding the Universe better. And yet, they have no smoking gun to disprove God. And likely never will be. Scientists pretend it doesn’t matter, because the burden of proof is on the religious side, yet, they know that’s not entirely true, and the frustration is palpable. They would love to spike the ball in front of the faithful, and have that retribution for so many years of oppression. “This is for Galileo!” Society looks to scientists for answers, the faithful look to God. If many hold scientists accountable if they can’t provide a shred of evidence, the faithful simply get to say “We feel God in the room.” and we are forced to take them at their word. Or not. We can’t prove that they’re wrong. The religious are almost certainly in the win-win position. If they pray and there is a God, they are fulfilling their purpose, but it they pray and there is no God, no one’s the wiser, and they’re still praying to God. And we can’t definitively say their prayers aren’t flying up to Heaven. Scientists must live and die by the scientific method, and test and retest hypotheses. By its very virtue, being a scientist is actually a numbers game, with terrible odds. Scientists ARE wrong MOST of the time. Because that’s how laboratories work. It’s tireless thankless and repetitive work, and it takes a good deal of patience. Yet, no matter how many tests they run or experiments they conduct, most of the time, the scientists will come up empty handed. And it’s so frustrating, because they can rationally discredit God, and point to no valid and uncontested piece of evidence proving the existence of God, yet they can point to dozens, hundreds, thousands of examples that suggest God doesn’t exist. The faithful aren’t hearing it. They have faith, and faith is not a science experiment, it’s the Truth with a capital T.
Atheists will rightly scoff at the idea of dying for a civilizations sins. Even the word sin is probably not in their vocabulary. But again, I would possibly argue here for symbolism, rather than literal interpretation, but I also know even saying that is sacriligeous. I mean none of this as offense, although I’m certain most Christians stopped reading long ago. Who am I kidding? If anyone started reading this, they likely stopped after the first paragraph. It’s important to point out that the prophetic civil rights leaders we cherish in the Left, were also deeply religious men. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy were ostensibly seen as saviors to their people, who were going to deliver them from the misery of their lives, and they each preached a message of love, passive resistance, peace, loving your enemy, and a fierce belief in God. We, as liberals can’t identify men like Ghandi, MLK, and RFK as our heroes and the symbolic fathers of social justice and equality, but then completely whitewash them, and divorce them from their faith. Belief in God cannot equate to lack of intellect or ignorance. We have to be better than that. If we’re asking the Right to accept homosexuals getting married (and that’s in direct violation of the Bible), we at least should do them the courtesy of not ridiculing or discrediting their faith. We have to meet somewhere in the middle.
It’s funny that the easiest part of the Bible to understand are the passages about Jesus. I don’t think that’s by accident, but by design. That’s the message in the book that is universal, and even though I am not faithful, it is the one that I can take away from the Bible. It’s hard to argue against Christ’s message of love. And that’s the most contemporary and topical message in the whole book. It’s the one that is timeless, and could be read another 4,000 years from now, and still be understood. Because Jesus is love, just as every great prophet since, and every religious person that lives by these rules, and even every Atheist, who lives a good life, and treats people as he wishes to be treated. Each of those three Civil Rights leaders were also martyred for preaching the Truth and a message of love that included everyone. They were certainly motivated by faith, but it wasn’t this hateful brand of it we often see today. It was the words of Jesus. and some of the only words in there truly worth paying attention to. No civil society can be built on hate, distrust, condemnation, bigotry, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, agism, classism, religious belief, or any other difference that makes us a powerful and diverse egalitarian society. This kind of love doesn’t have to come from Jesus or religion at all, We all have the capacity for it. But it starts with respect, remember, and looking at the other person. And allowing yourself to see them, and see yourself in them. Then find something you share in common. And words will come. What will the words be that you use? Like the Bible, we each have the capacity for great deeds and to share love, or to commit evil deeds and to spread hate. If the book you read spreads anything but love, it cannot be the Word of God, or anything divine worth following. Even when hounded like a dog, and abused at the hands of brutal oppressive whites who saw him as an instigator and race baiter, Dr. Martin Luther King, chose to answer their hate with love, knowing it was the only way., saying: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I respect your right to believe, and even if you disagree with everything I said, I will fiercely fight for your right to follow your faith. Just know that withholding rights guaranteed by the Constitution is not only bigoted, it is morally abhorrent, and illegal. You can still keep your faith, while opening up your heart. And never forget to ask yourself What Would Jesus Do? I think this world would be a lot safer if more people asked themselves that before they acted.
Answer by Jon Ferreira:
Writing a screenplay or a play from source material like a book or even real life requires a significant amount of editing and cutting material. As opposed to a novel, screenwriters just don’t have the page length to explore characters’ extensive backgrounds, elaborate settings — nor do they have the luxury to include a cast of thousands (or hundreds – or less) all of whom have a penchant for endless verbosity. There just isn’t the time in a two-hour film. Here are some of changes screenwriters make and why:
Books typically have way too many characters since the novel is typically trying to capture the reality of life. Real life has 7 billion people on the planet, and the average person meets 12-50,000 people in the course of their life. Although you really only need 3 characters to write a traditional story most fiction books average at least 20-80 characters. Some books by Tolkien, Martin, Dickens, and Tolstoy, sometimes include casts of hundreds. Because a book has narrative that can take its time, and spend time on each of these characters, there’s no reason not to write that many. In Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the story spans six generations, and in each generation, the men of the Buendía line are named José Arcadio or Aureliano and the women are named Úrsula, Amaranta, or Remedios. There are dozens of characters, and it is confusing enough to follow the relationships on paper where there are names and it’s written in front of you. Try putting that complex family tree on screen where characters aren’t wearing name tags, and it becomes confusing quickly. People watch movies and tv to escape and to watch something they can follow. Nobody wants to be confused and lost for a whole movie.
Consider the show Game of Thrones. In the books, George RR Martin writes an extremely dense story, with a complex plot of interconnecting characters –kings, queens, knights, servants, clergy, dragons, etc. Each character belongs to a different House, like House Stark, and you are told what knights are loyal to House Stark, what commoners are, etc. You learn the whole history of that one house, and all the ancestors. Each have their own names and histories. There are dozens of houses! Martin introduces characters he may never bring back, JUST to fill out his world realistically and create a fantasy atmosphere. Tolkien did it too with the Lord of the Rings series. Of course, the average book is about 1000 pages. The average screenplay is about 100. And much of those pages describe action, not dialogue. Martin’s books simply have too many characters. The show, as it is, can sometimes be hard to follow. And they cut out hundreds and hundreds of characters.
It simply would be too confusing to include every character in a book. They would have to walk on and walk off if they weren’t the main characters, because there’d be no time for them to speak. We wouldn’t get to know them. Additionally, it costs a lot to cast a film of hundreds.
Sometimes we need the information or action that a particular character has or does. Perhaps we need the same from another similar character. Instead of including both, a screenwriter will conflate the characters into one character and take one of their names. This is a way to keep some of the plot but cut many of the characters.
Sometimes it is necessary to invent characters, in order to play off the main characters. For instance, maybe in the book, the character thinks to himself about what he’s going to do. That wouldn’t work in a movie, since most films try and stay away from overusing voice over. It simply lacks action, and can be boring. Instead, maybe they invent a confidante role, who is the best friend whom the protagonist tells all his inner feelings to. Maybe the story needs another villain or a funny character to lighten the mood. Characters are certain archetypes — the mother, the fool, the lover, the soldier, etc. Screenwriters sometimes need to add a certain type to get the movie working.
Often the plot of a book unfolds over several hundred pages, allowing for dozens, even hundreds of scenes, each with their own plot point. If we consider the length of a script, it’s necessary to cut MOST of those scenes. There’s no way a movie could try to show hundreds of different things that happen. Each scene would have to be about 20 seconds long. The writer must choose the scenes which advance the story the most, and are vital to making the story arc make sense. The scenes should fall into the general structure of a play/screenplay…inciting action, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. Scenes that slow the story down are cut, however good they may be in the book. The pacing and movement of the plot are everything in a movie. That means action over verbose talking and deep exploration. Think of it like a movie is the cliff notes of a book. It just covers the surface of the major plot points and no more. Good movies use powerful imagery, color, costumes, sound, lighting, and cinematography to tell a story as much — if not more — than the words. In film, a picture is worth a thousand pages.
A book series like The Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) has at least a hundred different characters leading chapters, where the narrative is from their point of view. We hear them speak, and hear their thoughts as well. In a movie, typically a screenwriter will choose a clear protagonist, and we will see the world of the film from his point of view. If there’s voice over, it will be his. We will see action and character only through his eyes. This isn’t always the case. In Game of Thrones the show, the story will show that character’s scenes, and they are sort of the protagonist of those scenes, but I couldn’t tell you who was supposed to be the protagonist of the entire show.
By its very nature, a book has the ability to describe ANYTHING. Things that don’t even exist in the natural world. Things that have not been invented yet. Explosions that are epic and battles between gods that shake Heaven and Earth. Up until recently, movies haven’t been able to show all of those kinds of things, and action as realistically as real life. There were only models, and fake sets, and budgets were only so big. A movie like Lord of the Rings — as close to its description in the book — could not have been made even 20-30 years ago. Now, with CGI, seemingly anything is possible. But that’s not always true. Some things that are called for can’t be done with CGI, and other things are just too expensive. If a movie can’t afford all the stuff from the books, they pick and choose, and do what they can.
Show, Don’t Tell: Adding Action
On the flip side of the budget concerns, is the frequency of Hollywood to ADD action, to make a film more exciting. The recent Sherlock Holmes movies don’t resemble the books at all, because they have made Holmes into a big action star, and have filled the movie with fights and explosions. This happens in nearly every adaptation, in order to make the stories more interesting. Books have pages of monologues and inner thoughts, and those are boring on screen. The general rule is show, don’t tell. Don’t have characters talking endlessly, when you can visually show it. Action is much more physical and visceral than in books. The audience would rather see action, and sometimes that means making it up.
Not only are dozens/hundreds of characters cut out of a film, the characters that are left, are not nearly as interesting as they may be in the books. In a book, there’s a whole lot of text about the inner life of a character — what he’s thinking, feeling, planning, etc. This kind of thing ends up being boring on screen. That means characters aren’t as complex and deep as they are in a book. We don’t know them psychologically as well as we do in the novels. However, since we can see them, we know them physically much more. Ever wonder why Hollywood is so obsessed with skin-deep beauty, and books tend to be more cerebral? It’s the very nature of how they are made.
In books, the action of the story can take place in dozens, if not hundreds of different locations — both indoor and outdoor. On top of a mountain and deep under the ocean. CGI technology has helped with green screens able to project almost any location, but sometimes it just is no substitute for the real place. Movies may not have it in their budgets to go on location or CGI it in. The other consideration is that sometimes the book will have to be cut so that two scenes that weren’t next to each other in the book, are in the film, and may need to be in closer proximity — the dining room and the bedroom in the country estate, as opposed to the dining room in the estate and a table at the restaurant. Locations are streamlined, for continuity sake.
Sometimes a book simply isn’t written in a way that makes narrative sense in a movie. Perhaps it’s told out of sequence. Perhaps the climax happens to early in the book. Maybe characters are introduced too late. Movie scripts generally have a formula which they stick to — Act I, Act II, Act III — and each has important elements that are supposed to happen during them. Books don’t follow such logic. They tend to be more stream of consciousness, meander more, are verbose, take pages to describe something or someone, and completely mess with traditional narrative and plot development. Books are from many genres, and writers are sometimes experimental and avant garde. Despite being the newer art form, in many ways, film is much more traditional and formulaic. To some extent, screenwriters have to be merciless, and cut and arrange as they feel it serves the film.
Often for the sake of telling a story that may have begun as a 1000 page book, in less than two hours, a screenplay will have to collapse time, and tighten scenes into a logical and more reasonable narrative. This is one of the major complaints about movie adaptations. They often compact time, so that something that happened over the course of 10 years, happens in just nine months. The time it takes to get certain places may be shrunk as well. Famously, in Star Trek, even using their space age warp technology, the starships should take years to go the distances they go in just days in one episode. Of course we don’t want to watch a ship’s entire voyage. In ASOIAF, we’ll see a voyage take weeks or months. On the show, in one scene they’re in Point A, and in the next scene, they’ve already arrived at Point B. Time is compacted. For the sake of keeping things interesting, movies and television always compact or lengthen time, depending what the script needs.
Capturing the Spirit
Ideally, a film will keep as much of the story, and cut as little as possible. Realistically, a movie is a very different medium, with different demands and characteristics. A screenwriter must necessarily cut, rearrange, conflate characters, cut characters, change locations, change the date and setting, or whatever else needs to be done, in order to serve the film. NOT the story. The FILM. A movie is a new work of art interpreted by filmmakers, and based on another medium’s work of art. They can never be identical reflections of each other. However, they can be complimentary works of art, that resonate off each other. They both have value and strengths the other doesn’t. A film is a visual art form, and will always value aesthetic over language. Images are its language. The most important thing a screenplay can do is capture the spirit and tone of a book, and if not every plot point, the major ones needed to resemble the original story. It’s about honoring the writer and trying to maintain the integrity of the book, while making it uniquely a film.
Answer by Jon Ferreira:
Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg, and is home on leave for the funeral of his father and subsequent marriage of his mother and uncle. We get the impression that Hamlet is presumably, a very strong student, a promising mind. and a very capable scholar with a bright future ahead of him.
We can deduce that Hamlet is intelligent based on his level of subterfuge and ability to manipulate those around him. As soon as he meets with the ghost and learns of his uncle’s crime, Hamlet sets about on a path to discover the truth, and if need be, act swiftly and with justice. His clever plan for eliciting the truth is to ‘put on an antic disposition’ by which he will act ‘strange or odd’ and play at being mad. In the guise of madness, he may have more latitude to test theories and push people, since they will be less likely to act against him, and instead give him a wide berth. A valid question audiences must ask themselves is if Hamlet is simply just acting mad, or whether he really is. If he’s only acting, he is very convincing. It’s likely a mixture of both.
In his mad state, Hamlet gets to work pestering, assaulting, and provoking various people around him in an effort to get at the truth. Hamlet sets various traps for Polonius–verbally outwitting the meddlesome and obsequious lapdog. Hamlet purposely ensnares Ophelia in mind games meant to confuse and disorient her –not likely out of outright cruelty, but for the sake of his uncle and Polonius, who are eavesdropping nearby. Hamlet wants the court to know how mad he really is, and especially his uncle. He is particularly cruel and rough with Ophelia. When his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at the request of the king, they are greeted with derision and mockery by Hamlet. Ultimately, their complicity and plotting with Claudius to spy on Hamlet end up killing them, as Hamlet turns the tables on their betrayal. Hamlet assaults his mother in her bed chambers and continues his charade of an antic disposition, but he is also clearly in pain as he confronts her incestuous marriage, and condemns her betrayal of his father and lecherous union with his uncle. Hamlet is purposefully rough with her, leading Polonius to betray himself behind an arras, and inviting his own death at the hands of Hamlet (who thinks it’s Claudius hiding). Throughout the play, Hamlet uses deception to trick the people around him into working for him and giving him clues to unravel his mystery. This clever maneuvering is part of what make Hamlet intelligent.
The greatest indicator that Hamlet is in fact, supremely intelligent — if not a genius — is the complexity and depth of his thoughts. During the encounters above, Hamlet displayed a clever wit and ability to make puns, use figurative language, and construct riddles to further confuse the other person. His madness disorients them, and his arguments alarm them. In his conversation with Claudius and R& G he used calm and rational language, while tricking them into his linguistic traps and forcing them to betray more than they intended. Conversely, in his arguments with Gertrude and Ophelia, Hamlet abandons reason for pure unbridled emotion. He pleads, he yells, he chides, he scorns, he bargains, he condemns, and he becomes cruel and physical. Earlier when Hamlet commented on his mother’s hasty marriage, he said: ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ It’s clear to see from this sentiment, combined with the cruel use of rough and physical violence and his willingness to use caustic verbal abuse, that Hamlet has deep-seated anger and aggression towards women, and a very low opinion of them.
As clever as his dialogue can be, it is in his speeches (monologues and soliloquies) where Hamlet allows us to glimpse his active mind, the profundity of his thoughts, and the haunting poetry of his soul.
The first examples of his probing mind comes in the ‘To be, or not to be…’ speech, when towards the end Hamlet wonders:
“For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin?
‘ Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,”
In his clever linguistic style, Hamlet asks rhetorical questions, that he will then answer. He is engaging in a Socratic dialogue and using a dialectic to have a conversation with himself, and present both sides of an argument. This compare and contrast (this vs that) device is one employed throughout Hamlet and all of Shakespeare. He asks who would choose to suffer in a life of misery when he can put an end to things by taking his own life. He then answers why not, speaking of a fear of not knowing what’s after death. He make an analogy to a traveller traveling abroad to an unexplored and undiscovered country, which no one has ever returned. The very though cripples the will to kill oneself, and convinces that person to endure whatever ills they know about, rather than travel somewhere that could be worse. Artfully, Hamlet ends with the famous line: ‘Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all.’ This means that our gut feeling and inner voice will ask questions regarding the safety and wisdom of jumping into something, which inevitably only serves to frighten us into resistance. This is the most famous speech in any play, and may be the most recognizable piece of text in the English language. It is lyrical and captures the sensitive heart of the young prince, while also speaking in expressive metaphor and simile. He contemplates profound questions of human existance and life after death. His sentiment is something we’ve all undoubtedly thought about at one time. His humanity is self-evident.
Other brief examples of shrewd insight include the line, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet shows maturity and his characteristic rational mind to reason that events, people, objects, etc. have no inherent value — they are neither good nor bad — and it’s all how you look at it. Context therefore plays a vital role in assigning worth and value judgments. The glass is both half full and half empty, depending on how we look at it.
Hamlet’s Quiet Acceptance
In a moment of transcendence, Hamlet reasons, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” suggesting that man’s life on Earth and his relation to the universe and understanding of Heaven are concepts too large and unfathomable for a mere mortal to comprehend. Hamlet seems to take comfort in surrendering to God and nature to determine whatever path he must take and whatever fate befalls him. At this late point in the play, Hamlet has accepted what he must do, and has adopted a sort of mystical Zen attitude above his uncertain future.
Another example of Hamlet’s progressive and enlightened calming and accepting demeanor can be seen in the following speech:
“We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”
Hamlet makes a profound and mature observation that God determines all things, even the death of a small sparrow. He continues, saying that everything will work out as it is destined. If something is supposed to happen now, it will. If it’s supposed to happen later, it won’t happen now. What’s important is to be prepared. Since nobody knows anything about what he leaves behind, then what does it mean to leave early? Let it be. The speech is an elegant commitment to the Elizabethan idea of fate and everyone’s proximity to fortune. Hamlet upholds the idea that it is silly and unproductive to worry about fate, since it going to play out as it must. Perhaps the most profound sentiment in this short speech comes at the end, when Hamlet cleverly points out that nobody knows what happens after they die, so if they die early, how can they miss what they don’t know is going to happen. It’s clever rhetorical ideas like this that demonstrate Hamlet’s dry wit, clever debating skills, fierce intellect, and ability to turn a phrase and use language on many different levels.
Goodnight Sweet Prince
One of the reasons the character of Hamlet has been so enduring and resilient through the ages is the dialectical and contradictory nature of his personality. Hamlet is at once both noble and brave and depraved and cowardly. Perhaps we can all see ourselves in Hamlet’s debilitating funk and Sisyphean procrastinating time loop, where he is struck dumb in his tracks, paralyzed with fear and unable to move forward or step back. Although he wants to believe in the ghost is his dad, he has a rational mind, and he simply doesn’t know if he can trust his senses. He is skeptical, and for good reason. The ghost is asking him to commit the heinous crime of regicide by avenging his father’s death. If he is wrong, he will have made a grievous error, and will pay with his life. Hamlet is about as indecisive as they come. This is a very good indicator of a large brain capacity. Hamlet is a cool and calculating rational mind, but since arriving from Wittenberg, he has been subjected to a wealth of emotions: grief, anger, betrayal, indecision, doubt, incredulity, rage, and many more. He is now ruled by mercurial forces, and he is unbalanced. His rational mind is battling his unbalanced emotions. On top of that, it is pretty clear he is suffering from at least a mild mental illness.
Hamlet is one of the most compelling characters because he is us. Many scholars consider the influence of Hamlet’s character on mankind as being a major contributor in shaping the modern human psyche, with his sophisticated inner life, thorough introspection, ego, humility, emotional regulation, and other factors that make us uniquely human. Hamlet asked questions we’ve likely asked at one point in our lives. He is faced with a terrible choice, and we must watch it rip him apart inside. He is a good young man, and shouldn’t have been put into this situation, but the Elizabethans loved their revenge tragedies, and Hamlet had a duty to avenge his father’s death. That’s an unbearable thing to ask a young sensitive intellectual student, who otherwise wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet is one of the most probing, inquisitive, sensitive, profound, cerebral, meticulous, enigmatic, and clever minds in all of Western literature. His enduring legacy is that he struggles so hard to be a good man and do the right thing, but we must helplessly watch as he completely unravels and plays at an even deadlier game. Hamlet makes numerous mistakes throughout the play, and at points, his hysterically emotional and erratic behavior leads directly to tragedy and bloodshed –he singlehandedly kills an entire family — Polonius, Ophelia (Hamlet was a major contributing factor, along with her father’s death), and her brother Laertes. Hamlet’s cruel and abusive treatment of Ophelia and Gertrude is hard to watch, and hard to reconcile with the sweet and sensitive young scholar we know is hurting profoundly inside. And yet, Hamlet is our everyman (albeit royal, smarter, and wealthier than most of us!). We are allowed to empathize with his grief and anger at his uncle, who brought his world down upon him. He’s a kid who misses his dad, and is estranged from a mother who dishonored the memory of his father by committing a revolting act of impropriety, and crawling into the bed of her brother in law. It might as well be incest, as far as Hamlet is concerned. Part of the strength of the play is that we see all of Hamlet’s objectionable behavior described above, but have to accept them as the inevitable flaws of a deeply troubled young man. We know too much of the rational thinker and sensitive man to disown our protagonist now. By the end of the play, we are vindicated, when we see a Hamlet who has passed through the fire and come out the other side, brave, resolute, and possessing a steady calmness and quiet acceptance. He knows what he must do, and puts his faith in God and Providence to deliver him to his fate–a destiny he has no control over anyway. With steely resolve, we witness the cerebral schoolboy transform into an elegant instrument of revenge, and though mortally injured, he manages to fatally wound Laertes and run his uncle through with his sword. He must also witness his mother die in the fray, In an instant, two entire families are extinguished, and Fortinbras is left picking up the pieces. As Hamlet lay dying he utters his final words: ‘The rest is silence.’ Appropriate last words for a character who has the most lines of any character in the canon with 1495. He practically speaks for the entire span of the show. He’s finally achieved his purpose, answered his questions, and accepts the inevitable silence of his own death. After Hamlet passes, Horatio sends him off with: ‘Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!—’ Hamlet’s flight towards Heaven gently parallels the fall of the sparrow — both agents of Providence.Hamlet is the sparrow, of course, and where he once fell, now he is lifted to his salvation.
“The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
~ William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”, Act 2 scene 2
I can offer no studies or scholarly articles on parables or fiction that parallels real events producing catharsis (as Aristotle would say) intermingled with guilt and horror in viewers who committed similar deeds.
It’s interesting that by the point in the play where Hamlet has the players stage the play, he has only the word of a ghost who is rather suspect claiming to be his father and asking his son to commit regicide and exact revenge on his uncle. Hamlet doesn’t even have circumstantial evidence of a murder, but he does have the very hastily tasteless marriage of his uncle to his mother. But we have no backstory on Claudius, and can’t reasonably assume that a provocative play depicting the events of his cruel deed will compel him to explode in rage, guilt, and horror. Yet, somehow Hamlet suspects he will. He infers in the quote above that he will catch the conscience of Claudius, but we don’t quite know if it is rage at being lulled into a false sense of safety watching a play, only to be confronted by an accusation he was unprepared to address. Or was he embarrassed in front of his court? If we decide Hamlet is prescient about the King;s reaction, than it is indeed guilt he will f
When we commit an act or deed — whether in kindness or in malice — we are understandably focused on the task at hand, and have a limited vision of what the precise implications of what our actions might be. That is why murder suspects — at least in the U.S. — are tried on different counts for premeditated and involuntary manslaughter, among other charges. While in the midst of our actions, we aren’t necessarily outside of ourselves, looking at the events as they unfold. We have tunnel vision, and both see what we want to see, and only see what we can reasonably see. For it stands to reason, if we could see more, we’d likely not want to, and may in fact be thwarted from our purpose. We are the protagonist of our own stories, and like an actor in a play, have super-objective we must accomplish, and must pursue them at any cost, using various tactics to achieve our goal. Actors can only see what the character sees, and not what the other characters or the audience witnesses.
When both Claudius and King David watch and listen to a story hauntingly similar to their own, they cannot look away. They are now spectators of their own murderous past. And as we in the audience do, they are confronted by the heinous nature of their deeds, precisely because they must see the story from every side, as if it were Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, where multiple eye witness accounts describe the same incident from many different perspectives. They are forced to spread empathy and understanding around. A well made play or other narrative work allows us to see the action from multiple viewpoints, and empathize with several different characters at once. If Claudius was forced to witness the murder he committed of his brother, he would have been forced to see an actor portray a happy and healthy King Hamlet, carefree and unaware of the horror that was about to befall him. Claudius likely saw little of this during the act, and for good reason. It’s hard to murder an innocent person, especially when vulnerable. We see proof of this later in the play, when Hamlet resists killing Claudius while he prays. He reasons that it’s because he doesn’t want Claudius sent to Heaven–struck down in the midst of prayer–but it’s more than that, and we know it. Hamlet is not a murderer. The thought of viciously taking a life so mercilessly revolts the otherwise pacifistic and cerebral Prince.
Claudius, like David, must see their victim from the victim’s perspective, and reconcile the justice in taking a life so cruelly and unfairly. They witness the injustice of their acts. Not like when they were committing them, and could only seethe with the rage and sense of righteous cause at what they felt compelled and justified in doing. Now, they could see the other side of the coin. Furthermore, they had to view the bloody act. It’s almost worse to see violence and bloodshed on stage because it has that suggestion of verisimilitude, yet it’s always stylized to some degree. It looks like a gruesome and macabre dance played out on stage, and that sheen of artistry makes it all the more sick and reviling. While it was being done in real life, it was hurried and lasted only a few blurry seconds. In fiction, it is drawn out and magnified, for all to experience the full impact of the deed. For a murderer, it must feel like an eternity to sit and watch undoubtedly the worse thing they’ve ever done in their life play out in front of them. Time stands still, and it’s like being sentenced to some kind of Promethean loop of sin, forced to relive the horror over and over for time eternal.
Once the murder has been committed, the viewer must witness the aftermath of his deed. He must view the lifeless body and contemplate the injustice of taking a life. But he must also see the grief and dismay that the death — any death — has on a family, a community, a kingdom. He took a husband, a father, his own brother, a king, and above all, another human life. And he saw it all played out in front of him.
Fiction and art are not real life. They take real life, and project it through the lens of imagination and the artists point of view. What we end up with is always a mimetic, stylized, contextualized, topical, and slightly exaggerated point of view on a topic or incident, with all the requisite moralizing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing. Even a documentary is not real life. It is a perspective and always has a point of view. A murderer or guilty person being forced to witness their actions is perhaps the surest way to induce guilt and dismay at what they have done. On one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, they show an alternative method of punishment that involves implanting a chip in a prisoner’s brain which then goes off at the precise time they killed their victim, and forces them to witness themselves committing the murder every single day for the rest of their lives. Can you imagine?
Perhaps seeing yourself and your actions portrayed in an art medium offers more context, humanizes the victims, and shows the aftermath of the deed much more than the actual committing it, and only then can a perpetrator feel the true impact of their crime.
Answer by Jon Ferreira:
Um…I think it’s important to remember that we didn’t ‘borrow’ our language from the English. The English brought their language with them from their home country. We were English!!! It’s not borrowing when it’s your own language. We were a British colony, and therefore, spoke English. Presumably British English at first. Our unique dialect developed over time, and obviously varied from region to region.
Would you ask the same thing of all your former and current British colonies? How about Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, British West Indies, and numerous other British colonies and protectorates? Should America be any more ashamed than these vibrant countries? The consequences of being the largest imperial empire since the Roman Empire is that you spread your seed far and afield. The fact that Americans speak English says more about England’s cultural and territorial promiscuity than it does about our perceived shame or fault.
Despite the largess of the British Empire, America has surpassed it in influence, and has had an unmistakably cataclysmic impact on the world, We have exported our technology, art and media, business, democracy, pollution, and general way of life — for good or for bad. As a result, we have arguably been more responsible for sharing and disseminating — if not strong-arming — the spread of English throughout the world. For all intents and purposes, English has become the ipso facto lingua franca of the world. At the risk of sounding nationalistic, much of the credit for the spread of English can be attributed to the globalization — or Americanization — of the planet.
Having said all that, I love England, and am a degreed scholar in Shakespeare, and a history of the English language. George Bernard Shaw once sardonically quipped, ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.’ Perhaps the British know how to use it more effectively than us Yanks, but we have robustly made it our own, and they should be regarded as fond relatives, rather than bitter and resentful enemies. The beauty of language is that it is fluid and adaptable, and always finds clever ways to suit the culture who uses it. Perhaps the Aussies have bastardized and desecrated the English language of their mother country as well, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that they have shaped it to fit their unique and rugged personality. The language is subsequently bold, robust, and above all, colorful. Perfectly suited for their country. Shakespeare himself was absolutely irreverent with English, and audaciously invented words, reconfigured vocabulary, spun new phrases, and treated the language as if it was his own, to use and abuse at will. We should all be so impudent! Like any language, English is not precious, and if it’s worth speaking, it’s worth changing and adapting.
Language is the currency of thought, and is not the possession of one sole country. It is a living, breathing thing, and it’s best to grit your teeth, and hold on for dear life. No, Americans should not be ashamed of using a language that originated somewhere else. English itself originated somewhere else. English is a West Germanic language that was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders or settlers from what is now called north west Germany and the Netherlands. A large portion of the modern English vocabulary came from the Anglo-Norman languages, as a result of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests later in its history. Intermingled with this is the heavy influence of the language of Rome, following the various Roman conquests of Britain. Increased literacy and travel facilitated the adoption of many foreign words, especially borrowings from Latin and Greek since the Renaissance, and during the transition into what we call ‘Modern English.’ In the modern era, English has frequently made use of loanwords originating from other languages. English, perhaps more than any other language, is adaptive, and has grown out of ‘borrowing’ from other cultures. At its heart, our language is a postmodernist pastiche of the world. No shame here.
Answer by Jon Ferreira:
We all know that Shakespeare had a vivid imagination, and much of the details of royal intrigue undoubtedly sprung from his genius mind. Furthermore, Shakespeare was evidently a voracious reader, and more importantly, he was a purposeful reader. He mined historical accounts, literature, and plays for plot lines and the details and protocol of court etiquette. With a few exceptions, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. Sometimes he used old stories (Hamlet, Pericles). Sometimes he worked from the stories of near-contemporary Italian writers, such as Boccaccio—using both popular stories (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing) and lesser-known ones (Othello). He used the popular prose fictions of his peers in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. In writing his historical plays, he drew largely from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for the Roman plays and the chronicles of Edward Hall and Holinshed for the plays based upon English history. Shakespeare was unscrupulous when it came to stealing from his predecessors and contemporaries, and he often took the lead from them.
Finally, Shakespeare was familiar with the Royal Court because he had been there, on several occasions. And sometimes, the court came to him. Throughout his life, Shakespeare was greatly indebted to the patronage and support of royal and noble personages; his royal patrons were Queen Elizabeth and King James I, both of whom greatly loved the drama. The virgin queen used her influence in the progress of the English drama, and fostered the unmatched genius of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was supremely attracted to Elizabeth and her Court, and proved a faithful servant. He was, in addition to being a genius, an opportunist, and was unyielding in his self-promotion and solicitation of support for his theatre company.
According to historical fact, Shakespeare first performed two comedies before the Queen in December, 1594, at the Royal Palace at Greenwich. By that time, Shakespeare had only written five of the thirty-eight plays he would write in his lifetime. Over the course of his career, he would go on to perform as an actor or appear as a playwright before Queen Elizabeth, and later, James I, dozens of times. Undoubtedly, he studied the inner workings of the royal court, and incorporated it into his writing.
Shakespeare may have been a commoner, but he held a very important place in Elizabethan society. He was an actor-playwright, and part owner of the hottest theatre in town. In a time when the average distractions were bear-baiting and catching the plague, theatre was THE entertainment source for both commoners and royalty. Everyone went to see plays! Shakespeare was the hot young writer, and was in popular demand. His status skyrocketed from commoner to darling artist of the court, complete with a royal patronage. He was no ordinary commoner. He had access to the crown, and it all ended up in his plays.
The word ‘Utopia’ was coined in Latin by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The word comes from the Greek: οὐ (‘not’ or ‘good’) and τόπος (‘place’) and can variously mean either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land.’ There is quite an obvious distance between those two places. It’s fitting that the one Greek derivation of utopia would be ‘no place,’ since it would appear that utopia truly is no place that we’ll ever know or find. On its face, today’s violent and barbaric world is not so very different than the time of More, or even Plato, for that matter. However, communication and technology have irrevocably transformed our world and our connection to each other in it, leaving it proverbially ‘smaller.’ We have lost sight of those distant and idyllic civilizations of peace and tranquility once crowding the pages of lore. On a very literal level, we have thoroughly chartered and explored nearly every inch of this planet, and it is increasingly improbable that there are lost Shangri-Las still yet to be discovered. Even our understanding of the deep sea or the depths of outer space is sober and rooted in science, more than fantasy. Science Fiction itself projects utopian/ dystopian worlds—writ on an intergalactic canvas—but still allegories of Earth’s woes. On a theoretical level, ours is a world being culturally unearthed every day, and we are bombarded with new sights (and sites) that dramatically alter our worldview, and invariably make the strange and exotic familiar and comfortable. We may hold onto the last vestiges of enmity and barbarism, but today, it is couched in a highly sophisticated nuance the world has never known. We live in a society where we have adopted the idea that our leaders should look like us, and be superlative versions of ourselves: a little better looking, more stylish, confident, yet humble, etc. We do not inhabit a world where we place our trust in unparalleled giants of intellect and sagacious reasoning. We ask that they be smart and capable, but also possess so much more. Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ is enviable in theory, but our leaders need to be men and women of sterner stuff—of thoughtful and deliberate action, and even more careful diplomacy. They must certainly learn at the feet of philosophers when they deeply consider the natural rights of man, that are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, but are rather universal and inalienable truths and states of being. It is there that Plato’s philosopher king would retreat into his cave and ponderously and judiciously govern his fellow man. Such a ruler would be characterized by a dogged pursuit of inalterable essences and truth in deliberation. This same man would desire to peer beneath the superficial gloss of shallow understanding, and understand the richness and fundamental use and purpose of a thing. Plato’s rulers would thoroughly explore the deepest and most profound meaning in the world around them, to not only understand it better, but also be able to fairly and firmly govern it as well.
I would argue that such a world couldn’t exist today. Our leaders cannot be ascetic philosophers, governing from contemplative places of solace and scholarship. They must be men and women of the world, and exert even more energy engaging their Earthly peers, than exploring the ethereal catacombs of their own minds. We are far less physically active than the ancestors we might call barbaric today, but we are far more active in other ways. Like the increasingly diversified and multi-tasking workplaces around the globe, we elect leaders that demonstrate a wide array of strengths. We cannot solely rely on superior intellect and an exhaustive probing exploration of fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Those are the men and women that populate think tanks and demonstrably affect policy change. These are the loyal aides and advisors, Cabinet members, and trusted friends that think into a problem, so as he may think around it or through it. Instead of electing pure thinkers and philosophers, our world demands a more nuanced politician, and one who understands the delicate, and often perilous, balance between force and diplomacy. Leaders like this must possess: a deep and meaningful emotional intelligence; judicious reasoning capacity; a sizable wealth of knowledge, particularly regarding history and political maneuvering; empathy; and most importantly, a highly evolved, diversified, and adaptable style of communication. We live in a rapidly changing world of ubiquitous technology and communication. Any leader worth his salt, must expertly navigate the waters of diplomacy – with all the challenges of negotiating with adversaries, battling with foes on the home front, and balancing it all in the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Communication is the absolute number one most important trait for any world leader to have. Much of the rest can be learned, but communication—talking, negotiating, forging peace, flattering, standing resolute, warning, cajoling, and all the rest, are vital to a nation’s safety and livelihood. Frankly, it can mean the difference between building new bridges and burning down old ones.
One might find fault with this analysis by pointing out that both More and Plato were speaking theoretically. The work of both men is undoubtedly philosophical and academic, and intended to develop and further the paradigm of a parallel and ideal universe. Not surprisingly, it’s not clear whether More and Plato were suggesting anything more than a theoretical daydream of an n unblemished world. The first recorded utopian proposal can be found in Plato’s Republic. The text is part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, and proposes all citizens be categorized into a rigid class structure of ‘golden,’ ‘silver,’ ‘bronze’ and ‘iron’ socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens would be trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs—the ‘philosopher-kings.’ The wisdom of these rulers would supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, war would be contracted out or eliminated, and there are few laws in such a society. Plato effectively creates a utopian society, but one plagued with a rigid and unfair class system, and a society of wealth and elitism making decisions for the vast unwashed masses. Plato’s democratizing relief comes in the form of trickle down benevolence, and is the direct result of absolute power steadfastly held in the hands of a few titled men. All the cerebral heavy lifting in the world couldn’t account for the vagaries of human nature and unavoidable circumstances and catastrophe. I would argue that it is virtually impossible to solve the many ravishing ill of this planet, while refusing to come out of a gilded box of contemplation. 50 men can hardly provide for the needs of an entire nation, regardless of how smart they may be. Plato’s ‘philosopher-kings’ lack a tactile relationship with the world around them, and could never engage our diverse and challenging patchwork of nations today. However advanced and remarkable Plato’s Greece might have been, it was by no means, an egalitarian society. Plato was undeniably a product of his time and social standing. Even while pondering the ineffable uncertainties regarding the meaning of one’s own life, I have no doubt that Plato struggled with the even greater challenge of grasping life outside one’s own head. Plato’s search for truth was understandably solipsistic at times, and it’s not surprising that we see his utopian leaders look much like himself. Yet, was any of this meant to be taken seriously? Did Plato intend for it to be an academic model of an ideal world, with its sole purpose being for instruction and pedagogical scrutiny? If so, the theoretical proposal is interesting, but one flawed in its applicability.
Even in Plato’s time, his world could have benefited from more diplomacy and less conquest. But of course, holding up ancient Rome to 21st Century values and constructs is unfair and ultimately, a worthless endeavor. I’d like to think we’ve evolved as a people, but perhaps our primitive and savage natures are simply buried under learned civility, but easily awoken should the threat arise. In the conflicts with our foes, lay the conflicts with ourselves, as we are both the instruments of slaughter like our ancestors before us, and are our better selves, who call for peace and reconciliation. We are still evolving, and cannot seem to fully reconcile our animal instincts of defense and survival with our rational goals of peace and collaboration. Ours is a liminal age of great hope, and grave dangers. As we stand at the crossroads, we must choose a future for our planet, marked by cooperation, tolerance, and good will, or divisive territorialism and demonization of those deemed different and threatening to a certain way of life. Such prejudice can be found on both sides of the aisle, and there are heroes and scoundrels in every wolf pack and church choir. When it comes to peace, man’s reach may always exceed his grasp, and some who refuse to let go of their ancient grudges may never learn to reach for something new. As each generation passes on, more and more ancient grudges are buried with them and we seem to move that much closer to peace. In many ways, our miraculous tools of communication and fellowship have opened our eyes to the once exotic, and now familiar. Opposing lifestyles seem more acceptable and those we once feared are suddenly humanized by the time we now share together. In this time of tumult and possibility, more of us are awaking to the inalienable rights of everyone to live lives of liberty, dignity, and the freedom to control their own destinies. Rigid and unyielding institutions of learning, religion, government, and other monolithic pillars of our society, must evolve and accept that their members can live free and fulfilling lives, while investing in the growth and progress of the places they spent years embracing. However, these houses of the holy and home to sacred texts and learning must learn to embrace those who number in their ranks, or else risk extinction from failure to adapt. Even Aristotle concluded that “…it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.” And yet, these aging and immovable people and institutions still threaten our future, as their voices are invariably louder than those who preach peace and acceptance. They still wield the power to influence smaller and smaller numbers of younger folks. And sadly, many occupy the highest offices in the land, and are responsible for making public policy, and reinforcing laws and doctrine that propagate hate and intolerance. These elders of the state are dangerous to our well being, because their actions cast long shadows. In the case of dramatic global climate change, the decisions we do or don’t make now may have catastrophic and irreversible consequences in the very near future. These are just some of the many challenging issues that weigh heavily on our nation, and in turn, the world.
Being President of the United States, or any other country—to a lesser degree—takes a complex skill set, which cannot be forged solely in the furnace of the mind. Plato’s philosopher kings were finally deemed the most desirable rulers, after eliminating four other lesser possibilities. He arrived at this conclusion after deep consideration of the pros and cons of other political systems. After the death of Socrates, Plato was disillusioned with democracy and an Athens that was past its height of power and was waning and groaning under the weight of its pluralistic and populist philosophy. Plato was also fatigued by the loss of life inflicted by a costly war that Athens ultimately lost. Even the class system was clumsy and illogical, rewarding the common and uninformed man with the right to vote and influence law and policy. But Plato’s philosopher kings were not ideal choices, because their ponderous scholarship and search for the truth was self-imposed exile from the nation they’re charged with leading. Plato’s ideal and just state is an aristocracy, the rule of the best. He believed leaders needed to be wise and trained in how to run a state, just as captains of ships are trained in how to run a ship. And yet, his kings are thinkers and speculators, divorced from the needs and wants of the city they serve. They have never wanted for anything, and cannot be expected to equitably serve the needs of a needy and diverse city-state. Training an aristocrat to be a fair and consistent ruler is impossible in a vacuum of academic rigor and the fortification of cerebral acrobatics. As Greece was in decline, the democracy buckled under its own tyranny and corruption. Plato didn’t live to see it fall, and come under the rule of Macedon and later returned to the Greeks. Yet Aristotle did, and fell victim to one of the same charges of heresy that cost Socrates his life. In this instance, Aristotle was not executed, but paid the price in exile and an ignominious death. Although Plato had been his teacher, Aristotle disagreed with much of Plato’s philosophy. Plato was an idealist, who believed that everything had an ideal form and that the ideal government was an aristocratic hegemony of intellect and inherited leadership acumen. His philosopher kings would be well suited to rule, as they were products of superior education, good breeding, and refined tastes. In his ideal world, the aristocracy was preternaturally adept in ruling fairly and equitably. They understood their duty and responsibility. The ruling class was inextricably linked to reason and lived to gain wisdom. Their unquenchable thirst for knowledge and profound understanding would allow them to make informed decisions, forged in the crucible of carefully weighed arguments and facts. Plato believed no other class could provide such measured deliberation. As Plato’s prize pupil, Aristotle disagreed with an ideal state and believed in looking at the real world and studying how it realistically functioned and operated. He ultimately concluded that “…it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.” On the other hand, Plato posited that “excess of liberty, whether in states or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” His ideal state was rigid and despite his severe hatred of tyranny, he chose to put the reigns of power in the hands of a select few citizens. Plato’s philosopher kings were not only perfect in breeding and pedigree, but in their natural reluctance to lead—preferring the ascetic pursuit of truth and enlightenment. Plato found virtue in such hesitancy, reasoning that “The truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.” In the end, Plato concluded: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, . . . cities will never have rest from their evils . . .”
Our world is unmistakably different than the world of Plato and Aristotle, and Sir Thomas More. Their utopias favored the rich and educated, and provided a blueprint for a world perhaps ruled by withdrawn thinkers and reluctant leaders. Such men might theorize the way to win a war, but likely will not taste the sting of defeat or know what it is to lose a comrade. Their leaders will be insulated from their subjects, and know very little about the clasp of a handshake between foes. Our leaders cannot afford to be so aloof. They must inject themselves into the national debates, and make concerted efforts to reach out to their constituents. Not only as a political maneuver and way to bolster poll numbers, but also as a way to understand the thoughts, needs, concerns, ideas, and complaints of the American public. Philosopher kings don’t seek answers outside of themselves, and our contemporary world leaders should not escape into the caverns of their own minds. That is not to say that there aren’t several politicians who could benefit from more introspection and careful consideration. We all know that there are far too many leaders whose partisanship blinds them to the nuances and sober fairness of various laws, compelling them to vote quickly, but not carefully.
In our modern society, we have cowboy legislators and unyielding leaders of churches and other religious bodies, always quick to attack and reject issues of global importance, like climate change and non-proliferation weapons treaties, while fiercely and sadistically denouncing marriage equality and gender parity in the workforce. Such arguments may be rightfully justified in the eyes of their church, but the US government is not an arbiter of taste and morality, but a provider of equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It does not get simpler than this: if you allow the marriage between a man and a woman, you must allow the same between those of the same gender. This is no Jim Crow style justice of ‘Separate, but equal.’ All parties must be afforded the same rights, as mandated in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Similarly, women are entitled to earn the same exact wage as their male counterparts, and any business or entity defying that principle must be fined and held in compliance. These are the kind of raw nerve cases that test the civility of congress and its ability to work together for the common good, but which inevitably divides our government and stops the wheels of progress. Both parties are shamefully guilty of playing politics, and impulsively rejecting legislation, based solely on whom it’s sponsored by. These same men and women are quick to judgment, spin words of discord and blame foes liberally, and are exceedingly fast at taking action, for fear of being left out in the cold. More often than not, this body of legislators effectively function as a plutocracy, and are often tied together through wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Not surprisingly, the vast majority emerges from America’s aristocracy—understandably, given the prohibitive costs of mounting a viable campaign. Although we do not like to think of a rigid class system in this country, there most certainly is. Though they may refer to themselves as lower upper class or upper middle class, or use slippery euphemisms like ‘We were comfortable’ or ‘We never had to go without,’ these privileged few make up the 1%, and make up the populations of Ivy League schools, boarding schools, yacht clubs, golf tournaments, philanthropy and fundraisers, tropical villas, and a long list of exclusive pastimes. Perhaps these are the aristocratic philosopher kings that Plato described. However, on closer examination, it’s painfully clear that despite their education and breeding, a substantial number of our civic leaders are entrenched in their party and religious/ social/ political agendas, to the detriment of reason and careful consideration. Their decisions are hasty and habitually guided by loyalty and political gain. These are not the philosopher kings we seek, and could benefit from honest assessment, a willingness to collaborate and compromise, and a balanced analysis of every proposal put in front of them. It is their job, after all, and they have an obligation to all of us. Ours, it seems, is not a perfect or ideal system of government and our lawmakers (and other government employees, particularly Supreme Court justices) could possibly effect meaningful change in this country, if only they employed more of the scholarship and search for truth that the philosopher kings would naturally possess. Perhaps if our government took a step back to practice reason and empathy, we would reach agreement faster and more meaningfully.
Plato’s philosopher kings were men of learning and scholarship, and reluctant to get involved with affairs of state. They would rule with the commanding power of their own minds, using reason and dialectical discourse to work through problems, and envision scenarios and solutions. They were, for all intents and purposes, reasoning machines, and would perfectly serve the state and fit his ideal. And yet, these loyal and cerebral subjects do not possess the backbone and resolve to engage with the world around them. They are timid and reluctant to engage the common man, and are simply not experienced enough to understand his wants and needs, and serve any class but their own. Their brains are not sufficient enough to provide the wattage it would take to shine a light across the land. They are not men of action, but weak and ineffectual brains upon the throne. In stark contrast, the American political system—at every level—is rife with corruption, dirty campaigning, toeing the party line, making unethical alliances with businesses and wealthy contributors, making deals that undermine the opposing party, sabotaging the political process, hijacking a vote through absence or filibuster, and generally refusing to use reason and logic to work through a problem. These are not Plato’s philosopher kings, and could most certainly improve our crippled political system by resisting hasty reactions and dismissals, while taking time to deliberate and find ways to compromise and find common ground.
In the final analysis, Plato’s philosopher kings are unrealistic projections of who he envisioned as best leading a nation. It is no coincidence that his vaulted rulers look like him, and that he would naturally overlook the many deep flaws in such an impractical system. The reluctant and solipsistic nature of deep reflection and limited to no exposure to the outside world was probably not a viable option for Classical Greece, no more than it is for 21st Century America. At the same time, our system of government is fundamentally broken, and refuses to work together. This governing body is quick to take action and lock horns with opponents, the media, and anyone else that will listen. The one thing they fail to do is use reason to discover that collaboration and openness are not in fact signs of weakness, but rather, the cornerstone of all healthy negotiation and mutual respect. If Plato’s ideal state is anywhere, it is somewhere between philosopher kings and the power-junkie legislators moved by money and party agendas. In the middle lies a moderate engagement with their world, and a thoughtful considerate approach, with always the goal of compromise, along with civility and respect.
In our mythic ideal state, our Presidents and lawmakers and governors, and every public servant would understand that leaders couldn’t escape behind a desk and think through every scenario possible. There is a time and a place to take action, and leaders know that it is imperative that action be swift and purposeful. Ours is a complex world, and it is full of diverse people, separated by distance, language, culture, and belief systems. We must invest in leaders that can deliberate and draw conclusions from the vacuum of their mind, but also be prepared to engage defiant and reluctant foes, reach across the table and make painful concessions, and learn the cultural idiosyncrasies of those you’re negotiating with. When we invest in reason and logic, we understand that modern life is too complex to simply rule from the brain or the heart, and that every great leader is a thoughtful person of action, who is unafraid to defend what is theirs. We can so easily be both cerebral and people of action. The philosopher king is perhaps most unlikely in America, but the essence of disciplined scholarship and careful consideration, are skills every one of our leaders could benefit from. Plato’s aristocratic rulers could just as easily pick up the decisiveness, ease of communication, and skillful navigation through rough and unpredictable waters that are characteristic of politicians in the West. Perhaps together, we could find balance between heart and mind, and action and thought. Our leaders could be philosophers who probed the universe for answers, but also understood that the world around us needed answers and that meant making tough decisions along the way. Finally, we would find compromise, even if we could not agree to the same truths. Our philosophy should allow us to dream of an ideal world, while finding concrete ways to make that dream a reality.