Shakespeare and Liberal Education
R. Jeremy McNamara
Assistant Professor of EnglishWhen I first knew that I was going to give this talk, I spent several days probing for a topic. I found myself wishing that I had done something exciting or novel that I could talk to you about. Certainly personal experience is one of the easiest areas to explore and exploit, and one is a bona fide expert in what he has done – and facing an audience of college students one would like to feel he is an expert in what he chooses to talk about. But as I reviewed my life I realized with a growing despair that I had never been a communist for the FBI, I have no athletic or theatrical triumphs in my past, and I have not even spent a term away from the campus to study at such exotic places as Mexico City, the Sorbonne, or Washington, D.C. It did eventually occur to me, however, that I am a member of the English department at a liberal arts college and that whatever else I might teach – by natural inclination, by rational choice after some years of study, and by virtue of a doctoral dissertation – I am a specialist in Shakespeare: the writings, for the most part 37 plays, of an Englishman named William Shakespeare, born just over 400 years ago. As I reflected on this somewhat commonplace state of affairs, I began to feel a little reassured to note that I had two topics to talk about – the two halves of my title: Shakespeare, liberal education. This was fine, except that the Chapel Committee didn’t invite me to make two talks. So I had a problem even more difficulty than having no topic. I had to chose between two areas of experience, both of which I am interested in and "somewhat expert" in (for I not only teach at a liberal arts college, I am proudly and even militantly a graduate of a small liberal arts college). This problem vexed me until I recalled an incident from my graduate school days. I was taking an oral examination for a graduate degree and the examining professors, as is customary, were trying to put me at my ease. One professor, knowing that I was interested in writing plays, asked me what I had learned from Shakespeare that would help me in my own writing. Since I was primed for academic questions, I didn’t do too well in reply (and naturally was even more ill at ease), but the question stayed with me and later I realized that it contained a valuable but fundamental lesson. I had always separated contemporary playwriting – involving the real world of modern people and issues – and the study of Shakespeare – a fascinating, but after all antiquarian pursuit. That professor’s question made me realize the two could be related and, in a broader sense, I began to see the relevance of the past to the present. But, more immediately, the recalling of the incident suggested to me that I combine my two topics into one. Unfortunately, every time I solved one problem, a new one arose. How should I combine these two subjects? "Why study Shakespeare in a liberal arts curriculum?" "How to get more Shakespeare into the liberal arts curriculum" – these and other topics crossed my mind. I settled however on the simpler "Shakespeare and Liberal Education." Those of you who paid attention in English 101 will realize that the important word of my title "and" is a broad, ambiguous connective. In my title I am doing nothing but linking two terms and saying nothing very specific about how the terms are related. To that extent my title is an accurate reflection of my talk this morning. I am going to make some remarks about both topics without forcing the connection between them. At the outset, about the only obvious connecting link that comes to mind is that both these items are unpopular in a very basic sense – not too many people care about either one of them. I could then plead my topic to you on the basis of snob appeal, but I hope, rather, that I can get you to see the value in both and that the unpopularity is simple a shortcoming of the populace.
A few minutes ago I mentioned my despair at not having done anything exciting that I could talk about. We are certainly beset on all side by doers, by active people, people who get things done and who learn from experience. This characteristic seems American and modern– so much so that I would say that the outstanding characteristic of our contemporary society is the emphasis on the practical. One obvious, but meaningful illustration of this would be the reasons people attend college. If you set aside the frivolous reasons – I came to college to get a husband, I want to make a name to play pro football, I want to stay out of the army – I think you will find that most people come to college to prepare for a job or career – whether to train for a particular job or just to get the degree which will open up job opportunities. This is the ultimate practical viewpoint about college. You may have noticed that I refrained from using the word "education" for the simple reason that such a viewpoint towards college does not result in education but merely training. Now I do not wish to condemn this view. Certainly our society needs trained people and colleges are equipped to train doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and so forth. But the burden of my remarks this morning is to suggest that a liberal education is more than job training, that students who do not progress beyond this conception are not receiving a liberal education even though they may graduate from a liberal arts college. Perhaps I can suggest to you a little of my idea of a liberal education by another personal reference. A few days after I received an honors degree in English literature from a respectable liberal arts college I went to work as a shipping clerk on the night shift at a shoe factory. Not only did my college degree not prepare me to do anything "practical," it almost kept me from getting this particular job.
On the surface it would appear that William Shakespeare is an unlikely person to mention in connection with liberal education. Almost alone among his contemporary playwrights Shakespeare was not a university man, a fact he was not allowed to forget. I’m sure most of you have heard of Ben Johnson’s somewhat sneering remark that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek. At various times people have even denied that the actor named Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the plays because he was too low on the social and educational ladder to suit their snobbish tastes. But the very fact that I cannot hold Shakespeare up as a model and tell you all to go and do likewise suits my purpose. To be sure Shakespeare had a grammar school education, but he was denied the highest formal Elizabethan educational attainment – a university degree. Yet no one will deny that Shakespeare was very knowledgeable of and perceptive about those two great areas of concern to most human beings – nature and people. He must have gotten this information informally, without benefit of formalized university instruction. Of course allowance must be made for genius. But I believe this informal quality is important. If this sounds strange coming from a college professor at a college function, let me explain. My ideal of an educated person involves the person’s attaining the marks of this education informally and individually. In other words a liberal arts college is not needed to achieve a liberal education. Certainly an education is not limited to selected 17-21 year olds in particular institutions, nor does the possession of a degree necessarily evidence an education. But most people need to be pushed, pulled, prodded, led.
For this reason colleges have a real part to play. The four-year intensified period is important and can be essential for most people. The best college, however, achieves the goals of a liberal education with a minimum of organizational apparatus and red tape.
A good analogy here might be religion. Presumably an individual’s relationship with God and the grace of God are informal; "unformalized" matters. Yet churches and vast, complex religious organizations exist which attempt to clarify and to make more accessible the grace of God for individuals. Religion does not happen only in churches just as education does not happen only in colleges. While, to take Christianity as an example, matters of organization – bishops or not, and business – money to run the church and erect buildings, and articles of faith and the sacraments are all important, religion ultimately transcends these matters and becomes a case of the individual person and his relationship with Ultimate Power. Colleges, too, are organizations which need money and buildings, have course requirements and rules, but these things are not the essentials of education.
Shakespeare can serve as a further illustration here. I am not forgetting for a minute that Shakespeare was a practical man of the theatre, that he was not only a playwright but a shareholder in his theatrical company as well. A small town boy, he went to the big city, made good in an intensely competitive business, then went back home to buy the biggest house in town and retire near his grandchildren. Such a figure is especially attractive today; it’s the All-American business success story all over again, almost as if Shakespeare had hired a press agent to map out his career for him. But this is not the only Shakespeare, and not, I believe, the real Shakespeare. Because this man about the theatre produced a volume of literature unsurpassed in the English language and hardly equaled by any other writer known to the world. He did this by living fully in the world, by experiencing what the world had to offer and then by transcending the merely material and physical and contemporary. Make no mistake. I’m not at all even hinting that Shakespeare or any other great writer floats down from the skies and beholds the human comedy from a godlike eminence. Rather, to change the figure, Shakespeare pictures for us a grand forest not because he is so far away that he can see only the broad
outlines, but because first he thoroughly explored every tree, every branch, every leaf, and then, instead of being bogged down in hopeless detail, withdrew to achieve a simultaneous intimate knowledge and broad perspective.
It is this quality which a liberal education can foster. The quality known in Latin as sub specie aeternitatis– under the aspect of eternity. The end result of a liberal education should make you have equally developed the quality of involvement and the quality of detachment – of withdrawing and observing yourself and your surroundings from a composite, universal viewpoint. College exist to make this attitude possible for you. I won’t run through our entire catalogue, but certainly some of the organizational factors of our college exist for this purpose. Course requirements are often irksome to students, but think for a moment about our most general requirement. Each student will take a certain number of courses in Humanities, in the Social Sciences, in Natural Sciences and Mathematics, as well as compete a field of concentration. In simple terms Monmouth and any other college I’ve ever heard about requires its students to achieve a broad understanding of the world as well as a deep grasp of one limited area of human experience. A liberal arts institute does this more thoroughly and consistently than other types of schools which are more narrowly professional or pre-professional in intent. Surely this requirement has an obvious correlation with the quality of sub specie aeternitatis. What is means to you as an individual student is that every paper you write, every experiment you perform, every fact about government or the economy you learn, every poem you read is both significant in itself and in its contribution to the total, composite viewpoint achieved by the truly educated person. I would hope that each course is presented in this way. I certainly try, myself, to indicate the significance and relationship if individual items of information, to chart out where specific facts may lead. If this process is done often enough, the result, I believe, is that the student will achieve the quality I am discussing: simultaneous narrowing and broadening, grasp of the specific and the general, complete engagement and withdrawal. Neither is any good without the other.
To change pace abruptly, I often find that students are bothered by a quality of older literature, one which is also seen in Shakespeare– namely, lack of originality. In the introductions in our texts we see analyses of the sources Shakespeare used. As we go on in our knowledge of Elizabethan drama we find Shakespeare borrowed or adapted from his fellows: the conception of giving the chronicle play dramatic unity originated with Marlowe; the pleasant, witty heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies were first developed by Robert Greene; there was even a popular, pre-Shakespearean Hamlet. Such knowledge often results, quite naturally, in skepticism: Shakespeare wasn’t so great – he simply pulled together bits and pieces from other people and was luckier than they were. I don’t intend making a full-scale answer this morning, but will simply take refuge in the judgment of the past 400 years that Shakespeare did these things better than anyone else. I leave the proving of the case to get on with the relevance of this point to education. I believe a very common complaint among college students involves impatience with authority, with book learning, with the situation, in short, which has them spending their time mastering what a lot of other people have thought and said and done. Such students often go on to point out that they came to college to explore and develop themselves and the course of study hinders rather than advances this purpose. I would make two answers to this charge. One is that I doubt if anyone ever got very far in self-knowledge by following only the method of introspection. Two, such students can learn from Shakespeare. One can supremely by himself even when handling materials originating with someone else. Excellence does not depend on originality. And certainly a liberal education should foster a sense of excellence. This sense of excellence involves doing the best one can in any situation and this in turn involves knowing the extent to which one can perform. My two points are then related. One attains a great deal of self-knowledge and self-mastery by honestly, sincerely, completely doing his best with the materials and experiences of this world, very few of which originate from inside him.
One who reads through Shakespeare’s plays realizes very quickly that Shakespeare is a changing and developing playwright. The early plays are often obvious and sensational in their dramatic effects, rigid and bombastic in language; then comes a period in which the poetry dominates and Shakespeare becomes a lyric poet of the stage; then there is increasing mastery over characterization and plot structure, with less rhetorical language and subtler poetry resulting in the masterpieces of the first genres Shakespeare worked in – the history play and comedy; then these developed artistic powers coincided with Shakespeare’s profoundest insights into the nature of man, giving us the great tragedies with their exploration of confused, mistaken, evil, misguided humans; and finally a series of plays at the end of a long writing career in which the same tendencies toward error and evil are changed, are transformed (often with specifically Christian language and symbols) into a newness of harmony, peace, serenity and beauty.
Comparably a liberal education produces changed, transformed people. This change is not necessarily a moral one as I have implied by my reference to Shakespeare, although a person who is exposed to the range of values presented in the curricular and extra-curricular activities of a college may well become better. The change is always, however, and for those who do not resist it too strongly, an intellectual one. Simply put: an enlightened person is different from an unenlightened one. When a person responds to the experience of a liberal education, he is a changed person: he sees himself and everything around him in a different way. Whether he is getting married and raising children, voting, working, socializing or reflecting on himself and the universe, he will think and act in a way different from and superior to the person who has not responded, for whatever reason, to the benefits of a liberal education. This superiority involves the quality of sub specie aeternitatis, of seeing the forest and the trees; it involves a sense of excellence in both subjective and objective standards– this sense of excellence involves in turn a sense of honor which is not made a matter of codes and oaths and therefore one more external obligation which can be broken, but is rather an internal quality, a way of approaching the world so that only the honorable course can be taken.
To the individual and to his immediate happiness or peace of mind, this change is not always positive, not always a blessing. Knowledge is often a burden. Certainly the more one knows about the significance, the implications of alternatives, the harder it is to reach a decision. But I and my colleagues on this faculty and everyone else engaged in intellectual pursuits are committed to the idea that an enlightened life is ultimately more productive, more beneficial, more satisfying to the individual and his society. And, speaking realistically, I believe that, given the institutions of our society, a liberal arts college is the best means we have of generating such an enlightened life.