Put on your best British accent and repeat after me: “William Shakespeare.” Feels heavy, doesn’t it? The unrivalled cultural weight afforded to the name is almost mythic. Yes, William Shakespeahhh. Literary genius! Bard of Avon! Writer of premium love poetry! The guy has a sonnet form named after him. Even Milton – that egotist who literally coined the phrase “self-esteem” – felt the anxiety of influence from old Will. And let’s face it, we’d all need some self-esteem in comparing ourselves with Shakespeare. Unquestionably, the reasons for reading Shakespeare are endless. English literature majors know that, in addition to fulfilling a quota of Renaissance courses, their degrees almost always require a separate compulsory Shakespeare credit.
At the Annual Shakespeare Lecture last Thursday, however, Paul Yachnin – Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill – argued against such glorified portrayals of the Bard. Instead, Yachnin’s lecture, “The Beast in Shakespeare” reveals how Shakespeare was also simply an animal – just like you and me. Borrowing a quotation from Montaigne’s Essays, Yachnin states that Shakespeare’s plays strive to bring “all human things…under the same general throng.”
From Auschwitz to the subjugation of women, equating humans with animals has been used persistently to justify forms of brutal exploitation. Shakespeare’s plays confront such vulgarities of human immorality; not coincidentally, the early days of European trade on African shores coincided with his life. The lecture concentrated on The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear – written at opposite ends of Shakespeare’s life – to reveal his gradual meditation on facets of human animality.
In Shrew, Yachnin focused Petruchio’s domestication of Katherine through tactics of starvation, constant close surveillance, and forced labour. As an aside, Yachnin wryly noted the practice of similar methods still used today. Feminists and those behind modern restagings of Shrew have long struggled with the famously misogynistic conclusion to the play: Petruchio’s successful domestication of Katherine. His categories of animalization not only justify degrading the human shrew, they also work. “If Katherine is a falcon, then Shakespeare is a crow,” says Yachnin. Through the outspoken Katherine, we glimpse Shakespeare voicing his own social anxieties from the inside. Indeed, Shakespeare’s legendary status arises in part from the improbable nature of his success. Born in a small town without wealth or a university education, Shakespeare – despite his own ordinariness – somehow became the greatest playwright of all time. Shakespeare represents his own status as a commoner through highly articulate and eloquent creatures; not only are these animals, but they possess the ability (and will) to speak publicly.
While Shrew concludes happily with a jubilant marriage, Yachnin calls King Lear Shakespeare’s “darkest and truest play.” Written much later, Lear achieves a sharper recognition of humans’ bestiality. Defined social categories are dissolved as Lear discovers personhood in animals, finally realizing that “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, / forked animal.” Illustrative of the work’s gravity is the final scene – where Lear carries a dead Cordelia across the stage – about which Yachnin told an anecdote. When renowned Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier was asked about his portrayal of King Lear, Olivier answered, “Get a light Cordelia.” Although the crowd laughed, Yachnin immediately emphasized the bleaker implications of Olivier’s advice. Words no longer adequately convey Lear’s sorrow and Shakespeare intends for both actor and audience to feel the weight of Cordelia’s dead body. “Human animality,” Yachnin states, “gives us back our love.” But this love simultaneously comes at a great cost. The equivalence of humans and animals necessitates our acknowledgment that we share their physical mortality. This theme of fatality gives Shakespeare his greatest resonance today, for our inevitable death threatens our unfulfillment. Do I relate with Juliet’s cry, “Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”? Well, yes. Don’t you?
Alongside his characters, Shakespeare invites us to “sing like birds i’ the cage.” With wings to ascend toward the divine or feet to tread the grounds of humanity, Shakespeare’s voice continues to sing for us all. And really, who can deny Shakespeare’s insight on the radical nature of our responsibility to others? In fact, Yachnin makes this responsibility to both humans and animals explicit. His lecture was dedicated to his recently-deceased dog, Sophie, from whom Yachnin learned about “love, loyalty, and natural civility.” Sound familiar? Indeed, after Yachnin’s lecture, Sophie and Shakespeare seem to have much in common.
Since he’s been on sabbatical this year, Yachnin’s absence has been felt throughout the English department, as students wait anxiously for the reappearance of his Shakespearean Publics course in the catalogue. We scholars of American postmodernism and the Bloomsbury Group must pay our dues. Supplied with a new outlook on Shakespeare not as literary giant, but as an animal like us, we are ever the more prepared.
Our fidelity to Shakespeare – the reason every English department requires its students to dedicate courses purely to him – stems not only from his formally beautiful language, but also from the enduring social and historical meaning behind such beauty. Yachnin believes we relate best to Shakespeare when he is most a man of his own time: “He speaks to us and we to him because he faces with open eyes the limitations of his own understanding of the world.” The more personal his struggle, the more universal his message becomes. Shakespeare’s allegiance to his contemporaries makes him our contemporary too.