Shakespeare shows us that there are none so blind as those who will not see because they prefer the darkness of sin to the light of virtue…
All the world’s a stage,
And 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 was very much aware that the lives of the characters he depicted on the stage were a reflection of the lives of real life characters beyond the stage. This made his work a powerful commentary on his own times and, insofar as his work reflects the timelessness of man’s eternal nature, a powerful commentary on all ages. And yet great drama does much more than this. It also shows us that the real world, the primary world of Creation, is itself a drama, written by the Divine Playwright with the hand of Providence, in which each of us are playing a part. All the world’s a stage and we are merely players in a Divine Comedy in which tragedy plays an integral part.
Shakespeare was so patently aware of this metaphysical dimension that he employed the metaphor of the world being a stage more than once. Two or three years before the metaphor appears in As You Like It, it was uttered by Antonio in the opening scene of The Merchant of Venice: “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano; A stage where every man must play a part, And mine is a sad one.” Most memorably and most dramatically, he incarnates the metaphor, bringing it to life in the plot of The Tempest, in which Prospero serves as a metaphor for the mortal playwright (Shakespeare) and also the Immortal Playwright (God). Prospero’s “magic” is the hand of providence, in the sense in which the playwright controls the plot of the play but also in the greater sense in which the Divine Playwright makes the whole of history His Story.
Understood in these terms, it can be seen that watching a Shakespeare play is not a flight from reality but a voyage deeper into it. Numerous examples could be given to illustrate this, so many that one hardly knows where to start or when to finish. Portia’s wisdom in The Merchant of Venice shows that the quality of mercy is a divine attribute and that, in the absence of the divine, mercy evaporates into a blind vengeance masquerading as justice. The same lesson that Portia teaches was taught two thousand years earlier by Sophocles in his portrayal of Antigone’s heroism in the face of a godless and therefore merciless ruler. In a further parallel with Sophocles, Gloucester, in King Lear, blinded by the wrath of a merciless adversary, remarks that he stumbled when he saw, reminding us of Oedipus who sees more as a blind beggar than he ever saw when he was a ruler of men, blinded by his pride. And, of course, Gloucester and Oedipus are but followers of the blind seer Tiresias, who sees more clearly than others the metaphysical realities that undergird physical reality because he sees with the eyes of faith.
In contrast to the wisdom of the blind who see, Shakespeare shows us that there are none so blind as those who will not see because they prefer the darkness of sin to the light of virtue. We see the idiocy of Falstaff in his blind pursuit of lustful and gluttonous appetite, not only in the history plays in which he serves as a cynical fool but most splendidly in the rambunctiousness of The Merry Wives of Windsor in which he is made a laughing stock, becoming folly’s fool. And then there is the darker idiocy of Macbeth in his blind pursuit of worldly power culminating in the ultimate blindness of nihilism:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
There is indeed no blindness as dark and stark as Macbeth’s sin of cynicism and the cankerous and cantankerous nihilism to which it leads, the blindness of despair which cannot see the sense in reason itself and is left with nothing but the nonsense in which it believes.
In contrast to Macbeth’s despairing perversion of the providential meaning of the metaphor of the world being a stage, Hamlet reminds us of the moral power of drama to reflect the drama of life itself. In the staging of The Mousetrap, the play within the play, Hamlet remarks that “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” The Mousetrap is to Hamlet what Hamlet is to the world. As with Shakespeare’s other plays it is meant to catch our conscience, making us see as we are meant to see so that we can act as we are meant to act. Such is Shakespeare’s genius in showing us not merely that the world’s a stage but also the part that we are meant to play in the drama of life and faith.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (May/June 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.