By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1193) William Shakespeare (1564-1616) died four hundred years ago, on 23 Apr 16, St. George’s Day, he was probably born on 23 Apr 64. He left three dozen plays, a hundred fifty sonnets, and a couple of narrative poems: we esteem them in that order now: his thought of what would sustain his reputation was the reverse, but as Isaac Asimov once said, “What do I know? I’m only the author.” Shakespeare was the greatest author in the history of English — where there’s a Will, there’s a way — and a candidate for greatest in the world, along with such mind-rackingly different artists as Firdausî (Persia, 940-1020), Murasaki Shikibu (Japan, 973-1025; literary name by which she is known), Pushkin (Russia, 1799-1837; as has been noted, he looked like Ravi Shankar 1920-2012), Tu Fu (China, 712-770) — and Homer (Greece, a millennium and a half earlier) — not counting giants of nonfiction.
Diversity, diversity. How urgent is You must allow me. How hard is I shall allow you. And understanding? You must understand me — yes; and? Pushkin’s great Eugene Onegin (rev. 1837) is set in the 1820s, when Russia was — from the perspective of, say, Lady Murasaki — much like the rest of Europe; only two centuries ago, but we on the other side of a watershed have so much trouble grasping this relatively recent time that with Jane Austen (1775-1817), who wrote in English, we keep trying to remake her into ourselves, despite her warning Turn not windows into mirrors, or we cry against, or mock, her difference. Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956) said in The Essence of Judaism (1905; Howe ed. 1948, 2nd Shocken printing 1965 p. 191) “The command in Leviticus, which Akiba [50-135] called the determining sentence of the Bible, and which is usually rendered ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Lev. 19:18), means in its truest sense, love thy neighbor for he is as thou”; I’ve suggested we might reach still higher to Love thy neighbors for they are not as thou. Perhaps human nature can change; so far it never has; but it gets packed into various baggage.
Shakespeare has been, in the best sense of the word, called the poet of love. I’ve heard him called, by women, an honorary woman. But to see the light he shines we must look. Hans Andersen said (1835) only a real princess could through twenty mattresses and twenty beds feel a pea, but Lao Tzû quoting a Chinese proverb said a journey of a thousand leagues begins with what is under the feet (Tao Tê Ching ch. 64, two centuries after Homer; Waley tr. as The Way and Its Power p. 221, 1934). Opening the blinds to Shakespeare can start with looking up words — like naughty in “So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (The Merchant of Venice Act V scene i), which there means not what it does today.