As fate will have it, Shakespeare and I are born on the same day. Actually Shakespeare was baptized on April 26. Close enough.
This column gathers together 10 quotations from Shakespeare that have had an impact on my life and I believe reveal a wider wisdom from Shakespeare. There are three parts -- youth, life, old age.
All speak to our time and our frailties. On his birthday, we can ponder some of the things he had to say.
Lessons from my parents too often ignored: The first two from Father the third and fourth from Mother
For a man, honour is the most important principle.
But it takes many forms -- Shakespeare gives us no guidance and in South Asia, honour can lead to some horrible outcomes but:
“Mine honour is my life; both grow in one;
Take honour from me and my life is done.” Richard II
Closely behind is Shakespeare’s rapier exposure of the difference between the courageous and the coward:
“Cowards die many times before their death;
The valiant never taste of death but once.” Julius Caesar
We all want to be brave but often fail, Shakespeare has caught the consequences in this remarkable quote.
Justice can be a cruel process, often blind to the complexity of human behaviour, to often the poor and weak feel the harsh hand of justice more than the rich. Portia gives us a different standard:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
Merchant of Venice
Parents plead keep working, keep studying:
“Many strokes though with a little axe, hew down and fell the hardest timber’d oak.” Henry VI part 3
First a realization that comes to all of us: ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’
First a realization that comes to all of us:
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” The Tempest
Still more we understand:
“When we are born, we cry, that we are come to this great stage of fools.” King Lear
Then reality dawns:
“Life’s but a walking shadow,
A Poor Player that struts and frets his turn upon the stage,
and then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Macbeth
Finally, the culminating wisdom of experience:
“Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall.” Measure for Measure
There are no illusions left.
“You cannot call it love for at your age
the heyday in the blood is tame.” Hamlet
Finally, Shakespeare spells out perhaps the greatest mystery, a mystery of a mystery:
“They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
By the time we understand these words it is too late, only death is left.
Happy Birthday Shakespeare.
Forrest Cookson is an American economist.