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Living Words

(Text as at 16/09/2007 12:14:24)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

Why do some texts mean so much to us at certain times? This is a complex matter. It has something to do with things that are worth saying being said well. And it may have something further to do with “hidden depths”. The less prosaic a passage is, the more it is open to us to read into it what we will. No doubt this goes some way to explaining Bible students’ enthusiasm for the Book of Revelation.

Many of the quotable quotes from Shakespeare have both these qualities about them. For instance, Prospero’s speech in The Tempest - Act iv. Scene 1:

“Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, And our little life
Is rounded with a sleep”.

I’m not sufficiently expert to take this much further here, but this should probably be taken as an ultimately pessimistic approach to the permanence of all we know. It is an important and sensible thought well said, and I cannot read it without a thrill and tears welling. I think it’s the alliterative “little life” that does it.

However, I’ve no idea what Shakespeare means by “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. I’m aware that “on” is not a misprint for “of”. While grammatically less problematical, this reading would indeed have been an utterly obscure utterance. I presume the text as written means that we have unfulfilable or insubstantial hopes. But do these dreams continue in the sleep of death, and are they any more substantial there?

The thought of death as sleep needs to move on to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in Act III , scene 1, where he contemplates suicide:

“… To die, to sleep;
To sleep? Perchance to dream! aye, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, …”

This seems more straightforward. Shakespeare seems to be saying that if we weren’t afraid of the unknowns of death, should the occasion warrant it we’d do away with ourselves in the ancient Roman way rather than endure the indignities of life. Because we don’t know what’s beyond death, we cling to any form of life in a cowardly way in the sense of Ecclesiastes 9:4 “better a live dog than a dead lion”, rather than go boldly into the “undiscovered country”.

This could lead naturally on to Hebrews 2:15 where Christ is said to “…release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage”. Shakespeare clearly doesn’t have Hamlet make this connection, maybe because he doesn’t believe it. It would also immediately stiffen Hamlet’s resolve and spoil the play. The terrors of death had been painted in such lurid colours by the mediaeval mind that it would hardly be cowardly to be reluctant to go there. It would only be brave, rather than rash, if you though there was nothing ultimately to fear. This may be Shakespeare’s point, but it’s unclear (to me).

Incidentally, I find Ecclesiastes very Shakespearean, though the influence if any was clearly in the opposite direction!

Previous Version of this Note:

Date Length Title
12/08/2007 10:17:46 2612 Living Words

Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
16/09/2007 12:14:24 285 (Living Words) Sylvia

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