For the faithful or cynical, Shakespeare


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Category: Reflections Date: 23 Apr 00

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks

Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

As You Like It.

William Shakespeare


English language speakers quote Shakespeare so naturally and unconsciously that he is built into our psyche. We have all heard someone say with a deep breath of relief “All’s well that ends well”; or wisely intoning, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”; “love is blind”; “much ado about nothing”; and many others in between.


The one I think of most often is from what I consider among Shakespeare’s greatest plays: King Lear. Alas, I don’t remember the precise quote, but its essence is never say that this is the worst thing that has happened to you, until you are absolutely sure because things could get worse.


The thing about Shakespeare (and I believe this is true of all great writers and philosophers from Socrates, and Balzac, from Voltaire to Hardy,) is that he had human nature down pat.


He didn’t have access to the plethora of “experts” like Freud and Jung, or psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, cultists, psychics, and quick fix spiritual doctors who have sprung up to service the growing market of people suffering from the malaise of our age of the individual: Nihilism. When everything leads to nil, annihilation, nothingness. Isolation. Emptiness. An image of a white empty walled off void leading to eternity. The silent scream where the horror is too much to evoke sound.


I have to be careful here to make a distinction that appears to be very difficult, even impossible, even for people within the profession. Great strides have been made with mental illnesses with the understanding of conditions such as depression, anorexia, aphagia (inability to eat), autism, (withdrawing from reality) bipolar disorders or manic depression (alternating periods of elation and depression) bulimia, dementia, amnesia, and schizophrenia (psychotic illness with wide range of symptoms from delusions to hallucinations). These discoveries and their cures have given new life to people who would have otherwise thought themselves freaks of nature, worse, given up on life.


I’m talking about people whose lives are abundant with human rights, wealth, education, choices and possibilities that they can afford to be fashionable self-indulgently neurotic, and pay someone to lie down on a couch so, they can relinquish all adult responsibility for themselves onto their shrink.


The demand has been so great that the mental health professions have found a name for every quirk of human nature, every phobia: Fear of ghosts (phasmophbia), missiles (ballistophobia), money (now which crazy person started this? chrematophobia) committing sin (peccatiphobia). The shrink-speak goes on and on and attempts to cut up, box and label all human characteristics, and now the individual is confronted with becoming something generic. Not generic in the sense of the way things used to be in the ages when people were forced to cooperate as groups and communities in order to survive. But generic in a plastic lonely kind of way. I am an individual but there are many like me.


We live in a time when instead of our children crouching over a puddle wondering how all the colours of the rainbow came to be reflected in it, they are logging on to find out more about the latest American blockbuster film or gimmicky characters like Pokemon. And those are the good lucky children. Ironically, we’ve lost the age of the child. Reverted to Victorian times when children were viewed as little adults and treated and acted as such. So our five-year-olds are kissing in the playground like the people on TV and our 11-year-olds can tell us all the facts of life from sex and drugs to violence and technology.


Without a doubt words are comforting in an age when we are caught in a rat race, a time of shifting sands, growing technology, rapid change in human values. And lucrative. Ask the psychics, the preachers, the cult leaders, the writers of Mickey Mouse Self-Help books.


But who can describe the feel and meaning of a ripe sapodilla in your mouth, a shaft of evening light in your eyes, or the way the early morning breeze makes you hopeful? All people have their rites of spring. Renewal. Like vegetation, fruit and flowers. Shedding the old husk to make way for the new harvest. We have ours in abundance. There’s the confetti of the pink and yellow blossoms of the Poui trees; the splash of coloured water on white clothes, brown skins and black soaked hair at Phagwa; the fishermen out at sea before dawn cracks open, hot crossed buns. For the roar and rage in our hearts there is the Bobili, the large rag dolls made at this time by people who keep traditions, which we can punch until it disintegrates while our souls remain intact.


Perhaps we instinctively know that no matter what words the experts of minds and souls use to interpret our dreams and actions, describe our anxiety, rage, pain or joy, it will all continue to flow in us, that Life itself brings about change and resolutions that continue to surprise and heal us.


There is depression, irritation and anxiety around us - inevitable baggage carried by us all. Sometimes its lighter and sometimes its heavier. It could always be worse. But on this Easter Sunday, one can’t help feeling that for those who believe, in whatever way they do, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”; and for the cynics, or those want a little extra faith there’s always Shakespeare.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur