A Humanist life from Shakespeare

Published Fri, 08/07/2016 - 14:12
John Bell - Australian Humanist of the year for 2016
John Bell - Australian Humanist of the Year 2016

John Bell was named Australian Humanist of the Year for 2016 joining such people as Lionel Murphy (parliamentarian and jurist who introduced no-fault divorce and civil marriage ceremonies among many other reforms), Fred Hollows (ophthalmologist), Eric Bogle (singer/songwriter) and many others. It is customary for the recipient to give an address on the occasion of their presentation. Unfortunately, John Bell wasn’t able to be present in Brisbane in person but gave his address from Humanist House in Sydney. His address is reproduced here in full where he speaks about his life journey through the works of Shakespeare and how it has led him to a humanist philosophy and outlook on life.


Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon – I hope you’re all enjoying the Conference and it is my pleasure to join you, albeit from afar.

I’ve been invited to share with you my experiences of a lifetime’s acquaintance with Shakespeare, and how that acquaintance has led to what might be loosely termed a humanist philosophy.

Going through high school in the 1950s, I was part of that generation who experienced Shakespeare as a rather major part of the curriculum.

That’s different now: Shakespeare and a lot of other classics have been made optional for many students, and I’ve come across a surprisingly large number of people who have never seen or read a single Shakespeare play.

Not in my day –

I regard myself as extremely fortunate in that during my 6 years in High School we studied 6 Shakespeare plays in enormous detail. I was doubly fortunate in that, throughout that time, I had two wonderful English teachers who were consumed with a love of literature and both of whom encouraged me in my ambition to become an actor and a Shakespeare devotee.

My first encounter with Shakespeare came at the age of 13, when our teacher slapped down copies of Midsummer Night’s Dream on our desks and then proceeded, not to read the play, but to perform it for us – stamping up and down the aisles, putting on different voices and describing the sets, costumes, gags and pratfalls, all with enormous relish. He was a big man (the football coach as well as being a published poet) with an enormous voice and a talent for ham acting.

Naturally Bottom was his favourite role (His Titania, Queen of the Fairies, was less convincing).

The play introduced me to a world of folklore, mischievous spirits, good-natured buffoonery and adolescent sexual confusion – heady stuff for a 13 year old.

The next year we delved into Macbeth and a labyrinth of witchcraft, evil, ambition, murder, paranoia and madness – all the darkest recesses of the mind. This was all tremendously exciting, and written, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a language that is so visceral, rarefied and packed with explosive imagery that it made my head spin. I became obsesses with Macbeth.

But then we moved on to Hamlet and I found myself totally absorbed in the world of Elsinor with its Big Questions of suicide, the Hereafter, treachery, betrayal, fratricide, and frustrated sexuality. The encounter was reinforced by seeing Laurence Olivier’s film of the play and his charismatic performance. The previous year I had seen his movie of Henry V and walked out of the cinema fully resolved to be a Shakespeare actor for the rest of my life.

The Tempest provided a complete change of scene – from sturm und drang to a metaphysical fantasy involving magic, monsters, masques and music as well as the entrenched Shakespearean theme of family – fathers and daughters, sibling rivalry, the Pitfalls of Patriarchy. Exquisite, tantalising stuff.

After that, Henry IV came as a shock – so down-to-earth, bawdy and gritty: the world of realpolitik. Plots and strategies set against the chaotic insouciance of the almighty Falstaff – the Lord of Misrule. Like Breughel’s paintings, Henry IV gives us totally convincing snapshots of a medieval everyday life – high and low.

Realpolitik culminates in Julius Caesar, that most perfect study of loyalty, betrayal and overweening ambition. In language that is as spare and taut as plays like Romeo and Juliet or Richard II are flamboyantly decorative, moral dilemmas and political opportunism are vigorously scrutinised.

In other words, by the age of 18, through Shakespeare, my eyes and mind had been opened to many worlds and the infinite possibilities of a life of the mind.

Shakespeare seemed like the literary equivalent of the Big Bang – an explosion that happened some time back, but which initiated an ever-expanding universe.

Alternatively, he seemed like a long corridor in Alice in Wonderland with many doors branching off. Every door you opened led into other corridors with more doors leading off: a study of Antony and Cleopatra led you to a study of Roman history, the art and religion of Ancient Egypt, the writings of classical authors, and renaissance commentaries.

It seemed to me that our minds are like coral reef: even though bits may die off, they can repair and constantly extend themselves. When you absorb a great work of art or philosophy you actually add it to your own mind, it becomes part of you, and your own mind becomes the larger and richer for it.

Shakespeare was born at a fortuitous moment in English history. Burgeoning trade and mastery of the seas bred a confident and prosperous middle-class with the means and leisure-time to support the proliferation of theatres which both fed off and encouraged fanciful experiments with the English language.

The Age of Faith had given way to the Age of Scepticism. The infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church was displaced by the State-sanctioned imposition of Protestantism and the individual’s response to sacred texts. Hundreds of years of certainty, custom and practice were overthrown. But the goal-posts kept shifting with the advent of a new monarch.

Henry VIII had disposed of the Pope and declared himself the Head of the Church of England. The mercifully brief reign of his son, Edward VI, was marked by savage persecution of Catholics. This was reversed by his sister, Queen Mary, who burned Protestant heretics and married the King of Spain. Her successor, Elizabeth, tried to maintain a policy of religious tolerance but was pushed into a more aggressive stance against Catholics by the hatching of various Catholic plots against her, especially that headed by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth’s successor, James I tried to be moderate too, and took a Catholic Queen. But again the Catholic cause was spoiled by troublemakers like Guy Fawkes with his Gunpowder Plot, unleashing more persecution of Catholics.

So whatever your private beliefs, it was advisable to keep your head down and appear impartial. Little wonder that intelligent folk inclined to scepticism when faced with the old adage: “Behold how these Christians love one another.”

What did Shakespeare himself believe? That is one of the great enigmas about him.

On the one hand he was too smart to declare himself in those dangerous times, but it’s also very possible that he ended his life as an agnostic or atheist.

The Catholic faith was a strong part of his family history, as it was for most people, and frequently the plays display a certain affection for old customs and beliefs. But from his earliest days as a playwright, Shakespeare exhibits a mordant scepticism about the efficacy of prayer and the compassion of Heaven…

One of his first plays, Titus Andronicus, is the story of an old Roman general who is betrayed by a tyrannical emperor. Titus’ sons are arrested on trumped-up charges and Titus pleads for their lives. The emperor agrees to spare them if Titus chops off his hand and sends it for ransom. Unhesitatingly Titus does so, and the emperor returns his sons – but only their heads. Titus grieves:

“Oh here I lift this one hand up to heaven
And bow this feeble ruin to earth,
If any power pities wretched tears, to that I call.
If there were reason for these miseries
Then into limits could I bind my woes.”

Shakespeare wrote that in his early twenties, but this bleakness and nihilism is still a feature of his great tragedies more than 20 years later. We hear it in King Lear:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods –
They kill us for their sport.”

And the most nihilistic statement of all is uttered by Macbeth:

“Out, out brief candle;
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor Player
That struts and frets his hour. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

Of course that’s Macbeth talking; Shakespeare himself may have believed quite differently.

His Grammar School education had taught him how to argue both sides of every argument – excellent training for a dramatist.

Whatever his attitude to Christian Orthodoxy, Shakespeare seems never to have lost his faith in human goodness and the potential for virtue to triumph. King Lear is indeed the bleakest picture ever painted of the human condition, the depths of man’s capacity for evil and cruelty. But our lasting memory of the play is of the characters who endeavour to combat evil: the loving and wronged Cordelia, the loyal Kent, trusty Fool, and Edgar, an exemplar of integrity and self-sacrifice. Across the blighted landscape, these green shoots promise some kind of renewal. Endurance and courage are all: “We must endure our going hence as our coming hither,” says Edgar. The only answers to life’s miseries are to be found in honesty, truth, loyalty and integrity.

Of all writers, Shakespeare had the most extraordinary gift of empathy. He could identify with characters from all walks of life, men and women, young and old – princes and gravediggers, emperors and clowns. He could put himself inside the mind of a 14 year old girl or a grizzled mass-murder: Juliet, Lear, Macbeth, Rosalind, Flastaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra – he is all of them.

And since he is so much all of them, none can be entirely dismissed or written off – every hero has his flaws and every villain a saving grace or a moment of self-realisation.

Does this mean Shakespeare was tolerant? Well, yes and no. He was certainly not tolerant of fools, liars, traitors and cowards. But he nearly always put himself on the side of the underdog, the outsider.

In The Tempest, it’s Caliban, the ugly misshapen progeny of a witch. He is enslaved by the supposedly benign lord of the island, Prospero. Treacherous, murderous and resentful, Caliban is still given the most beautiful poetry in the play:

“Be not afeard:
The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That if I had then wak’d after a long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.”

Foreigners were not popular in London, especially black ones; and Queen Elizabeth herself complained that “too many negras have crept into our kingdom.” So a theatre audience could not be expected to take kindly to the sight of a black man strangling a white woman in her bed. Yet Shakespeare makes Othello one of the greatest and most sympathetic of his tragic heroes.

During Shakespeare’s time in London the streets were full of rioters attacking foreign refugees to the old familiar tune of: “They’re coming to here to take our jobs.”

This is address in the play Sir Thomas More in a speech which is the only surviving manuscript written in Shakespeare’s own hand. Sir Thomas More speaks to the rioters:

“Grant them removed and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed.
What had you got? I’ll tell you:
You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quell’e; and by this patter
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self-same hand, self reasons and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
What country, by nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?
Why you must needs be strangers!
Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like doges; what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case,
And this your mountainish inhumanity.”

I don’t know a more pertinent statement for the times we live in.

Anti-Semitism was not a big issue in Shakespeare’s England, as the Jews had all been banished by Edward I in 1290.

Nevertheless, the bogeyman of the murderous Jew could still be conjured up on occasion. In 1594 the Queen’s physician, Dr Lopez, a Portuguese Jew, was framed on a charge of trying to poison the Queen. Although assumed by many to be innocent, he was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason. The case unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism, capitalised on by Christopher Marlowe with his popular melobrama The Jew of Malta, and its hero, Barabbas, the archetypical murderous Jew who poisons a whole convent-full of nuns.

Shakespeare cashed in too with his play The Merchant of Venice; but audiences who came along expecting another anti-Semitic diatribe would have been shocked to see the so-called villain, Shylock, given the floor and permitted to attack his Christian persecutor, the Merchant Antonio:

“He hath disgrac’d and hinder’d me of half a million,
Laughed at my losses, mock’d at my gains,
Scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool’d my friends,
Heated my enemies; and what’s his reason?
I am a Jew…
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew
Hands, organs dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If was are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be, by Christian example? Why, revenge … The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

No anti-Semite could have written that speech.

Shakespeare’s depiction of women is another example of his growing humanity and impact on our culture. In creating some of the greatest female roles ever written, he revolutionised the theatre and made possible careers of artists from Sarah Bernhardt to Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. His great female characters have also had a profound effect on other artists and the way we portray and regard women in our own 21st century culture.

We have to remember that in Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed on the stage, so all the female roles were written for, and played by, men. The result, understandably, was a lack of initiative in creating great female roles. The women’s roles tended to be minor characters and fairly stereotypical. The efforts of the young Shakespeare tend to follow that patter, and women are seen as a threat to male authority. So we get the tomboyish Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc) in Henry VI, the monstrous Tamora, Queen of the Goths in Titus Andronicus, and Kate the Shrew.

As he developed, Shakespeare longed to give women more of a voice; but even in liberal England, women had little say in important issues, despite there being a woman on the throne. The only way women can have some authority in these later Shakespeare plays is by getting into male costume and impersonating men. Thus Portia assumes the disguise of a male lawyer and saves the life of Antonio, the Merchant of Venice.

Disguised as a boy, Viola is able to wait as a page on Duke Orsino and eventually win his heart; and most spectacularly of all, Rosalind, the gorgeous heroine of As You Like It, gets into male drag to follow her lover Orlando into the Forest and teach him the real nature of love (It also provided Shakepeare with the neat hat-trick of using a boy actor to play a girl who disguises herself as a boy impersonating a woman).

The mature Shakespeare has no trouble giving women a voice. They may range from the cruel and heartless (Goneril, Regan and Lady Macbeth) to the most tender of heroines (Juliet, Desdemona, Hermione), but they are all exceptionally strong characters and persuasive depictions of womanhood.

In fact in the final plays, PericlesLearWinter’s Tale and The Tempest, the women form the moral core of the play and offer the men redemption and forgiveness.

All this says a lot about Shakespeare’s growing artistry, but also, I think, his personal maturity and development. Perhaps having a devoted wife and two daughters had something to do with it.

Finally, at a time in our history where we are so concerned about Climate Change and the adverse impact man is having on our natural habitat, nature lovers and conservationists can find some solace in Shakespeare’s response to Nature.

As a country boy growing up in Straford-on-Avon and playing in the Forest of Arden, he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of animals, birds, plants and trees and a keen sensitivity to the changing seasons and cycles of Nature. His delight in the beauty of Nature is manifest. Listen to these lines of Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
where oxslips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscuious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and eglantine;
there sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in …”

And in the same play, he depicts the devastation effect man can have on Nature, Granted Oberon and Titania are the King and Queen of the Fairies, but they are very human in their rages and quarrels, and are shown as being directly responsible for what we call Natural Disasters. Titania accuses Oberon:

“Never since the middle summer’s sprin
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By pav’d fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beach’d margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
Bu with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud,
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in van,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drown’d field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock;
The nine-mens’s_morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread are indistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest;
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;
And on Hiems’ thin and icy crown,
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveriers; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now know not which is which.
And this same prgeny of evils comes
From our debate, from dissension;
We are their parents and original.”

A pretty devastation picture of Climate Change being the result of human folly. Was Shakespeare prescient or what?

So all in all, I’d like to put the case that Shakespear knew more about human nature than Freud, more about history than Tolstoy, more about Politics than Machiavelli and almost as much about nature as David Attenborough.

One of his enduring appeals is that he is never didactic – he asks the questions but makes us find the answers for ourselves. Thus his plays stay flexible, alive, open to interpretation and challenging each new generating, which inevitable sees itself reflected in Hamlet, a young man disillusioned with the failings of his elders, disgusted with the hypocrisy and cover-ups of the Establishment, searching for truth and identity, working out who to trust and what to believe. He is always the first modern man.

I count myself very fortunate to have been able to walk side-by-side with Shakespeare on a daily basis for the best part of 60 years. I’ve learned a lot about Shakespeare, but I’ve learned a lot more about myself; and I made it my life’s mission to transmit, as best I could, some of the inspiration I’d got from Shakespeare and share it with as many Australians as possible.

That was the raison d’etre of the Bell Shakespeare Company, which over the last 25 years has performed to three and a half million Australians, playing in over 30 venues all over Australia each year, as well as in schools (both primary and secondary) in every State and Territory; and in prisons, indigenous communities and juvenile justice centres.

All of this has confirmed my belief in the remedial and healing power of Shakespeare as well as the inspiration he provides the reader and the delight he affords the playgoer.

By any definition, I believe, Shakespeare must qualify as a great Humanist, and the words he gives to Hamlet might equally be applied to himself:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”

John Bell AO OBE
Presented at the Australian Humanist Convention 2016 on Sunday 29 May

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