It was the first time I recall Shakespeare ever putting a lump in my throat.
It happened in Rancho Mirage, California, an unlikely place for a literary epiphany. I was attending a two-day forum entitled “Freedom and Western Civilization” sponsored by Hillsdale College, a small institution of higher learning in Hillsdale, Michigan. The goal: to define freedom from the perspectives of politics, economics and classical literature.
Half way through a lecture by David Whalen, PhD., a professor of English and the college’s associate vice president for curriculum, a gleaming sparkler went off in my head. “True freedom,” Professor Whalen said, or words to that effect, “is control over your baser instincts. Only then are you truly free to chart your own path.”
And just like that, Shakespeare spoke to me: Awake, dear heart, awake. Thou hast slept well. Awake.
The quote comes from “The Tempest,” one of the bard’s most famous plays, and the subject of Whalen’s lecture. In it, a powerful sorcerer, ousted from his kingdom to a remote and magical island with his beautiful daughter, Miranda, struggles to regain and redefine his freedom. In an earlier lecture, Whalen had discussed Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” epic poems relating the story of the Trojan War and a Greek hero’s long struggle to return home in its wake.
I might have let it rest there, but for a series of events I took to be utterly random but later recognized as nods from a playful fate. The first came in a new movie called “The Tender Bar” about a young man’s determination to become a writer. The main reason I viewed it, frankly, was to bask in the extended glow of the young man in question; a former Los Angeles Times colleague named J. R. Moehringer, who penned the memoir that inspired the movie. My principal claim to fame these days; that he and I shared a byline in 1994.
Anyway, in a scene set in a Yale literature class during the author’s youth, a professor casually remarks that Homer’s work is the basis of all Western literature. Then I came across a Wall Street Journal column entitled “Reading Shakespeare in a Sea of Troubles.” It’s point: that Shakespeare provides a placid lake of universal human values amid a mountain range of jagged peaks.
“Shakespeare’s plays,” writes Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Honors College at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, “are a means by which we can come to understand one another, no matter how disparate our views. This is the best therapy I can think of for this difficult time.”
That insight, she went on, stemmed from a two-year-old discussion group comprising students of varying ethnicities, religions, political views, ages, and levels of education. “I can honestly point to this online conversation around Shakespeare,” wrote Cohen, who authored a book entitled ‘Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy,’ “as one of the most entertaining and illuminating experiences of my life.”
And so we return to Whalen’s (and Shakespeare’s) theme of conquering our inner demons. They can take a variety of forms, of course, including sexual temptation; the desire for drink, power, fame or all three; and, sometimes, the simple tendency to stay lazy. Certainly, all of us have felt enslaved by one or more of these human pitfalls. Just as they have enslaved the governments, we have so carelessly constructed to keep us in line.
Or, as Shakespeare himself puts it in “The Tempest:” Hell is empty and all the devils are here.
Ah, but then he offers us some relief in the guise of perspective:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
To which I add a humble amen.
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David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, author and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.