Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Gathering honey from the weed of adversity

I've been looking for the real personality of William Shakespeare for decades. I studied his images for about a year, turning key images into a wall hanging. Then I laboured over his Sonnets which appear very personal but give nothing away. Now I am reading his history plays with care.

It is well known that apart from what is called his "presiding" voice, Shakespeare is the most self-effacing of English poets. There are feelings expressed, but no personal preferences or colours, which for readers might denote the person underneath. I have long thought that in London, he erased all his own feelings possibly to avoid being regarded as a rural talent, rather than as a court poet. He was also very secretive by nature, while at the same time being overly open about certain things (such as lust).

But finally, I have found a few lines which for me open a door on his personality. They are a chink in the armour. I was quite moved by them, as for me, it is like savouring the odour of an ancient Cognac. The "chink" is in lines spoken by Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt. These lines express Shakespeare's own feelings, not a King's:

"There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out.
For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers
Which is both healthful and good husbandry.
Besides, they (evil things) are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all, admonishing
That we should dress us fairly for our end.
Thus may we gather honey from the weed
And make a moral of the devil himself".

This is William Shakespeare ruminating on the adversities in his own life. How do I know? Well, what King sleeps next to a "bad neighbour" who wakes him consistently early and makes him get out of bed at dawn. My guess is that in Shakespeare's rented room in Bishopsgate in London, the poet was woken early and after a period of initial resentment, and then adjustment, he used those early hours from dawn to write. It has always been assumed that Shakespeare wrote after dark using candles. But candles were costly. It is much more likely that the great plays were written just after dawn, before the day's noise and work began. And so stepping into the role of his favourite insect, the bee, the honey-tongued Poet gathers pure honey from the weed. In fact, bees do not differentiate weeds from flowers, as this is a human perception. They love dandelions and clover and all sorts of other flowering weeds. Their honey does indeed often come from "weeds".

The whole idea expressed in these lines is wonderful. Bad things happen to us and we fail to look for the honey hiding in them. Bad things can used to an advantage, if we will only look at them correctly.

These lines tell me that Shakespeare suffered and philosophised about his suffering as a Christian, to counter negative feelings. Because he had a superb mind, imagination and elevated soul, he could draw the good out of the evil. This skill, I believe, is the source of his famous "balance". John Keats once wrote that the wise, mature soul can see the "balace of good and evil". Here it is. What a skill it is.

We could all work to follow this advice in our own lives and turn everything bad to "gold".

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