‘What a piece of work is man’

books, culture, literature, poetry

wit Shakespeare

I can’t help it, but after trawling through piles of material on Shakespeare I am now feeling very melancholy; that isn’t a stretch for me as my natural inclination is one of profound disturbance around the meaning of being human.  Anyway, in learning more about the man, and I think I have despite all his attempts to evade any sort of factual capture ( he managed to live in London for seven years without signing on the dotted line, it was a legal requirement to observe Sunday service and sign a name against an address, but he didn’t).

The number of tributes to the man was enormous, and so effusive in the language – before we had Oscar speeches and BAFTA awards.  I am talking serious praise from serious people.

‘The morning star,the guide and the pioneer of true philosophy’      Coleridge

‘He is really, really the genius; he has gone to the bottom of everything, divined everything, said everything. He is always true to nature.’        Alexander Dumas

‘Shakespeare is a great psychologist and we learn from him the lessons of Nature’.    Goethe

‘The great master who knew everything.’   – Charles Dickens

So after reading a number of  poems penned by previous poets praising the Bard for his authorship, I came across this one from Matthew Arnold which touched me.  That’s what poets are meant to do – and it is what Shakespeare unfailingly achieved time after time, showing us the joys and tribulations of what it means to live life on earth.  The magic is in the alchemy of turning words into arrows of emotion, mixed with the unprecedented (at that time) unravelling of the human pysche in drama;  he wrote the truth . He wrote it well.

matthew Arnold

references;  worldly wisdom;  http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t5db8q05g?urlappend=%3Bseq=77

Tributes To Shakespeare;  http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t3319w18c

Although reading the tributes has brought out some sadness in me, my greater emotion is one of wonder and awe that ever one human managed to walk the streets of London and know so much about human nature, then be able to communicate it by not one medium, but two. Writing plays is not the same as writing poetry, and I get the feeling Shakespeare had quite a lot of lightness of heart when he left for London to become part of the dramatic ensemble, so when the theatres got shut down for some time because of plague, he turned his attention to poetry and stormed it.

‘He peered thro’ nature with a prophet’s ken,
He pierced her secrets with a poet’s eye,-
With passion, power and high philosophy,
He set the spirit’s inner-gates apart;
He stripped the shackles from the souls of men,
And sacked the fortress of the human heart.

James Newton Matthers 1884

Last word has to got W.H .Auden simply because through all the research I am ploughing through I keep coming back to the idea that there is no actual mystery, the truth of the man is told in the things he wrote, and he wrote for a living. His own life he played close to  his chest, and why shouldn’t he? In a world that was on its head, civil liberties at peril after the horrendous turbulent times at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, spies everywhere, belonging to a family of the persecuted minority ( the Catholics), and new knowledge being disseminated changing the world view. Galileo was born in the same year as Shakespeare, he stood at the beginning of modern astronomy contemporary with Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler.  How would a young man deal with such interesting times, one with a quick intelligence and ambition?

‘To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously. ‘

Lectures on Shakespeare – W.H. Auden


5 thoughts on “‘What a piece of work is man’

  1. I should follow up on Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare; I don’t know anything about them. Is art “frivolous”? I suppose it is — in a certain way. William Faulkner once said, “Everybody likes to have writers around, but nobody thinks they’re really good for anything.”
    Working in a university, I used to teach freshman now and then, and we often read Hamlet together. My department thought that was too steep for freshman, but I liked hearing their un-pedantic thoughts about it, and if we took our time and parsed out the inkhorn terms, it really went over very well. It’s a very great play from the first line to the last.
    It was nice to see the remark here of Charles Dickens, another great writer, in my opinion — who seemed to be able to describe any old thing at all in the most brilliant and unusual way. Dickens was sometimes criticized, I believe, for turning to his own use too much Shakespearen language. Somehow I don’t mind his borrowings at all (nor those in Faulkner’s books). You fellows in the U. K. may — of course — take tremendous pride in both these splendid artisans of our English tongue.


  2. And we do Martha!! My youngest son was berating me the other day for using archaic language, he thinks I am ‘weird’ when using a wider vocabulary than he normally hears. I told him our England has a heritage of language that is treasure. He still thinks I am weird. I probably am! I am loving researching Shakespeare , it is my latest little handmade book project which is how I like to spend my day. Funnily enough I sell far more of my handmade books and cards to U.S.A than here! Clearly there is value in America on our heritage which is sometimes missed over here on a daily basis.
    Good to hear from you, always love reading your remarks!
    Regards Anne


    1. Hey, thanks so much, Anne, for your reply. So glad you are reaching people in the U. S. with your beautiful artwork. I’m looking today at your books and cards — love the card about lichens, i. e. and others on the natural world — also your book on trees. Your art which accompanied the Auden poem on Icarus (and that wonderful reproduction) was what first interested me in your blog.
      I’ll be back home in Ohio in about ten days, where I have a larger screen computer and can more easily order some of your work.
      I also hope to get back to my own Books in Brief on my own blog and let people know where they can find, inexpensively, certain of my books, none of which are well known but sometimes valued by serious readers more or less off the pale.


      1. Just managed to lose my reply to you!! I had written how wonderful the internet is as a resource. I have just finished my tribute to Shakespeare and have loved the research.. I can find it quite uncanny how connected one can feel to creatives, transcending time and location. I once read an obituary to Stanley Kunitz – a poet I hadn’t read, and after reading the piece I wrote a poem about him. When I read his work I was blown away about how close I felt to his mindset. I will try and blog it for you sometime!


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