Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Wisdom of Shakespeare

The following is the fourth in a series of posts written in the form of letters to my son who will be beginning high school in the fall. To view posts from the start, click here. After reading that post, select "Newer Post" at the bottom left of that post to continue the series. You can also use the "Archives" menu on the right of the page. The series starts on June 11.

Harris, 



William Shakespeare
I can see you now, rolling your eyes and moaning, "Why do we have to read Shakespeare?" Yes, he writes funny and he's been dead for almost four hundred years, but believe it or not, most of what he wrote about remains very relevant today. Whether it's star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet) or the corrupting power of ambition (Macbeth), the man knows what he's talking about. Take Hamlet, for instance.

In Act I, Scene 3, the character Polonius gives some advice to his son Laertes before he leaves for college.  I've studied this monologue with several classes over the years and found that the advice Polonius, and hence Shakespeare, gives still remains sound almost four hundred years later. He tells Laertes, 
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!
John Wooden at a ceremony on Oct. 14, the coac...While the character of Polonius proves to be a hypocritical fool later in the play, his advice here is great for young adults. He begins with "See thou character."  Your character will define you from here on out. The legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are." Shakespeare and Wooden both knew that you need to be more concerned with WHAT you are rather than what others think of you. It's hard to come up with more sage advice than that.

Polonius also warns that you need to watch what you say (or in the 21st Century, what you tweet). "Give thy thoughts no tongue, /Nor any unproportion'd thought his act." Be careful what you say or put out on social media. I'm not sure if I agree totally with this idea. I want you to speak your mind when you feel it is appropriate. But you must understand that before you put something out there, please think about the possible repercussions. That's the second part of that quote - think before you act. This will become especially important as your social life picks up speed. If you ever read Hamlet, you'll discover that Polonius does not take his own advice in this area and pays dearly for it.


You enjoyed great success in middle school both in the classroom and on the athletic field. To that, Polonius would say, "Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:" In high school, try to remain down to earth ("familiar") but don't be crude ("vulgar"). 

The friendships you make over the next few years will be some of the strongest you will ever have so heed Polonius's advice:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade.
Hang on to your closest friends with "hoops of steel", but don't put as much faith in those friends you have just met. I don't think Shakespeare wants you to be suspicious of everyone who wants to be your friend, but to be cautious in trusting anyone too quickly. You've demonstrated great judgement in your choice of friends thus far, so I'm confident that you've learned this lesson already.

Shakespeare also believed that you should stand up for what you believe in, physically or otherwise. "Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,/Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee." Don't go looking for battles, but, if you find yourself in one, don't back down. Stand up for yourself, your beliefs and for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Be an attentive listener, and when it comes time to speak, make sure you speak for yourself. "Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; /Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment." Don't let others put words in your mouth or tell you what to think. You also need to understand that while others will judge you (often unfairly) it is best that you reserve judgement. You read To Kill a Mockingbird last year, so remember what Atticus said about not judging people until you've walked a day in someone else's shoes. Shakespeare would have agreed.

The next few lines of the monologue deal with money and dress. Since you are attending a school with a strict dress code, you don't have too much leeway in that area. Polonius also says that if you loan money to a friend, you'll probably lose both the money and the friend. I would modify that a little. If you loan money to a friend, consider it a gift. If you eventually get it back, great. If you end up giving many "gifts" to the same person, it might be time to re-evaluate the friendship.

Polonius finishes his speech with one on Shakespeare's most powerful lines, "This above all- to thine own self be true." Be honest with yourself and you can be honest with everyone else. Don't allow others to sway your better judgement. I'm proud of the sense of right and wrong you possess now, so let that guide you in your decisions from now on and you will make decisions you can be proud of.

So, now you've had your first lesson in the value of Shakespeare. That wasn't too painful, was it? What makes his stuff great is that it is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. Literature isn't just about decoding words and phrases, it's about understanding humanity and our struggles in the world.

Next post: The Ugly Truth: Teachers and Coaches play Favorites.

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