Friday, June 1, 2018
If Shakespeare Was a Proud Boy, He Had a Reason
Ever since I was a child I have been puzzled by people saying they are proud of things they had nothing to do with. I grew up hearing people say someone should be proud of this or that, or that they themselves were proud to be Americans, black, women, New Yorkers, or what have you. At the same time, I was hearing in Sunday
school, from some of these same people, that pride was bad and goeth before a fall. I partly understand this. I know people often use the word "proud" as code for something else. When a dad says, "I'm proud of you, son," he means, "I'm glad to see you becoming a worthy person, because I love you." He doesn't or shouldn't mean, "I take credit for you." And sometimes by "I'm proud to be [fill in blank]," the speaker just means "I refuse to be ashamed of being [fill in blank] even though the world has told me I should be." But neither of those meanings is the Proud Boy meaning, even if some of them think otherwise. The Proud Boys say they are proud to have created the world. That's grandiose and egotistical. It's also ironic, because many of these P.B.s are self-professed Christians who I assume have read, in the same Bible with which I am familiar, that such pride is spiritually destructive, and also that the fool says in his heart there is no God. I mention God because it's God, not the Proud Boys, who according to this same Proud-Boy-venerated religious tradition, is the actual creator of the world, and if we are subdividing that world into "old world" and "modern world," then the modern one is supposed to be way worse than the original Edenic one, which means no one should be proud of having created it. I didn't make any of these ideas up. I encountered them in some Great Books of the Western Tradition. Can't the Proud Boys read?
It may in fact be that they can't read very well. Here is a Tweet by one Proud Boy, railing against a regular, possibly (but possibly not) more humble Boy who had criticized the P.B. organization: "Whatcha gonna due with that liberal arts degree in feminist studies? Let your wife being home the bacon? We're busy working to build the modern world! Your welcome!" Letter for letter, that is what the Proud Boy wrote. I know we will soon be past the point when grammatical errors will even be recognized when they occur -- the White House is helping with that -- but we're not there yet. So, we see that the part of Western heritage which includes the English language has not been genetically transmitted to this Proud Boy, at least not flawlessly. Could it be life doesn't work like that?
I know. I'm supposed to be writing about Shakespeare, who sometimes spelled funny too. (Or funnily.) I am getting to that shining light of Western culture W.S., by way of making the point that one of the fundamental triumphs of Western culture has been its gradual elevation of the democratic principle that all human beings are of equal value, and that therefore institutions which reward people for having been born into powerful sub-groups --that is, for things they didn't do -- are unjust and should be abolished. In its formation the United States rejected systems of aristocracy and hereditary titles and honors, recognizing that individual achievement was the basis of all deserving. Certainly, if we are thinking "Western," this means that a lad born white has no more reason to be proud of or to lay claim to the inventions and accomplishments of his white Western forebears than does anyone else in the world. They weren't his achievements. Western heritage is "our" (meaning everybody's) heritage in the sense that it is inherited by everyone exposed to it, as are the heritages of any other cultures anyone might be brought up in, learn about, and/or be influenced by. Ezra Pound said it well: "Whatsoever thou lovest well is thy true heritage." A cultural heritage is not mine, or thine, in any other sense. Why should I be proud of Alexander Hamilton, even if he was my great-great-great- great-great-great grandfather? (He wasn't.) It's possible I shouldn't be proud of anything, but if I should, it should be only for what I've accomplished in my life. I can't just start Tweeting boastfully about Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Sojourner Truth as if I owned shares in them because I'm female. If I did, though, I'd spell things correctly.
Now, the Shakespeare part. William Shakespeare was a Western boy, and maybe he was proud. Most people are. But if so, it was probably of things he had actually done. He did a lot. He was the son of a tradesman and was thus not of a social class which ordinarily sent sons to universities, and for this or some other reason, he didn't go. But he worked very hard and read a lot of things and developed his mind to the point where he could write brilliant poetry and plays, which entertained and enlightened thousands in his day and have done so for millions since. He also showed the boldness and savvy to invest in a theater company, and thereby earned more money than his family had ever seen. The cranks who claim Shakespeare had to have been a tutored aristocrat to have written his plays do not really understand how accomplishment works in the modern world (even the early modern world). Shakespeare pulled himself up by his bootstraps. And even though he became a nouveau riche snob and bought himself a mini-title, well, at least he did it with money he'd worked hard for. Occasionally, he told the truth about individual accomplishment in his plays. Perdita, in The Winter's Tale, says, "The self-same sun that shines upon [the king's] court / Hides not his visage from our cottage, but / Looks on all alike." And a king in All's Well that Ends Well defends a lowly woman who has just proved her skill as a physician, saying she is worthy of any husband. "From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by the doer's deed. . . . Good alone is good," he tells the "proud scornful boy" who disdains her.
Proud scornful boy, humble yourself! Repent! Admit you didn't make the world. You were given it. Your own Western democratic principles admonish you. A meritorious person in any culture, Western or otherwise, has more real claim to pride than someone who just happens to have the same genes as an accomplished forebear and also happens, by accident of birth and upbringing, to speak that forebear's language (badly). Anyway, for all you know, your great-great-great-grandpa was a horse thief. Or worse.