William Shakespeare was an ordinary man who was prepared to see the truth of the society in which he lived. His plays were a vehicle to show 16th and 17th Century England the truth beneath the characters they played.
"All the world’s a stageAnd all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances And one man in his time plays many parts." (As You Like It – Act II, Scene VII) ~ William Shakespeare
Shakespeare was an ordinary man who was prepared to see the truth of the society in which he lived. He was a man who witnessed some of the ugliest and most insidious sides of the human condition and through the writing and performance of his plays, sought to reflect this back to the anarchic society he saw concealed behind the veil of social structure.
He was first and foremost a philosopher who shared his insights with humanity through the characters he created and the stories he built and performed as plays in his theatre business. He was a presenter of the ageless wisdom, observing the outplay of life around him and reading a deeper level of truth, which he then offered back to humanity.
Shakespeare’s works were designed to show the people of 16th and 17th Century England that they were living lives that were mapped out for them by the beliefs and consciousnesses they subscribed to, the hurts they carried, and the various securities they sought. Shakespeare asks us to question who we truly are, and consider if we are more than the ‘human condition’ depicted across all of his works . . . and every now and then, he gives us a glimpse of what life could be like if we chose to extricate ourselves from the shackles of that human condition.
Shakespeare created three different types of characters to deliver his message to the people of all social standings and classes who came to see his plays. These three were re-costumed and saddled with various personal histories and struggles to overcome, across the broad canvas of all the plays. Though given a different name, story and set of issues, each character reflected the same roles that Shakespeare saw throughout the social hierarchy of his time, and, through this repetition, he communicated that underneath our different ‘stories’ we are essentially all the same and that every story is no more than a misguided and imprisoning game that we play.
In every story, Shakespeare gave us those who were swept up in the machinations of human life – these make up the vast majority of his characters and, interestingly, he painted heroes and villains with the same brush. Many scholars have spent their careers trying to determine which was which. Shakespeare shows us through the troubled truth seeker, Hamlet, just as vividly as he does through King Lear’s charismatic villain Edmund, that both archetypes are simply people who have lost their way.
Next he gave us the fools, and so they were openly called in many of Shakespeare’s plays. The fools were characters on the fringes of society and separate enough from it to be able to see what was actually going on beneath the dramas that the other characters were swept up in. Often depicted as eccentric and outspoken, the fools are the night vision goggles for the reader to see the truth behind the bluster and pomp, torment and entitlement. The right to speak unwelcome truths was a privilege that the court ‘fools’ (royal entertainers) were often afforded in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare uses this character to show his audience that even from deep within the illusion, people will often welcome an anchor to a truth they know, but are not prepared to live.
Finally, in the midst of the chaos, Shakespeare places truth – a glimpse into the simple, honest and truer lives we could lead if we cast off the fabricated characters we paint ourselves to be. These steadily shining beacons of truth are the loyal friends and the humble, steady compatriots who walk amongst the lost without becoming lost themselves. Though not perfect, they see the behaviours and choices of those around them and seek to understand rather than judge, to love rather than capitalise. They are the ‘Banquos’ (Macbeth), ‘Horatios’ (Hamlet) and ‘Kents’ (King Lear), who ask their audience to consider a truer way of living.
Though written over four centuries ago, Shakespeare’s works are as relevant today as they were then. Though we have changed our costumes, ‘tech’d’ up our work and social lives and now have the luxury of indoor plumbing and electricity in our homes, we are still making the choice to be actors in the various plays we have signed up to take roles in, that do not reflect the truth of who we are. Shakespeare taught us that we play many roles but at any time we can choose to step off the stage, rediscover the truth of who we really are and walk this amidst the pandemonium, holding and loving our equal brothers until they too decide to exit the stage and enter into a grander and truer way of living.