We’ve covered this ground before, but as I listen to Bill Bryson’s “History of Everything” book an analogy occurred to me that I wanted to get down.
You can’t ever really fully “get” Shakespeare. The man’s just not around anymore, and he left few clues as to what he was really up to. Even if he was still with us and could answer our questions, we’d still be limited by the simple and unfortunate fact that we cannot crawl in his brain and be him for a little while (though how much we might wish to be!)
There’ve been other analogies – I like the line attributed to Peter Brooks about “splitting the atom and unleashing the infinite energy”. But right now I’m thinking about swimming in the ocean. Go deep. Deeper. While it’s not technically infinite, it’s pretty damned close enough. We’re about as near to understanding the deepest part of the ocean as we are to understanding how Shakespeare felt about his wife and kids. We may think we know, we may have evidence on which to base reasonable guesses, but do we know? Do we have first hand experience? No, not even close.
So, here’s my question. On the one end of the spectrum you’ve got oceanographers who have seen more of the oceanic depths than most mere mortals, and on the other you could occasionally find somebody who’s never actually seen or touched an ocean. And you’ve got a bunch of people somewhere in the middle. Likewise, with Shakespeare, you’ve got figures who’ve spent their lives combing over every last smudge and speck of every letter of every Folio, and you’ve got people who maybe have some general concept of the word Shakespeare but wouldn’t know their Hamlet from Green Eggs and Ham.
Where would you rather have people be?
Most regular people with no interest in studying marine biology can enjoy a dip in the ocean. They may even like to swim with the sting rays or take in some scuba diving. And at every turn there could be a professional who has done more, deeper, saying “No, you fool, you’ve barely scratched the surface, you have no idea what you’re missing! You just don’t get it!”
Most regular people are also not Shakespeare academics, or theatre folk. But they can still take in a play, maybe read them for fun, maybe quote the man from time to time. And there can always be the Shakespearean equivalent of the oceanographer turning his nose up, sighing and saying, “No, you fool, you’ve barely scratched the surface, you have no idea what you’re missing! You just don’t get it!”
You’re down there in the deep end, hanging out, checking out the wonders that only you can see. Perhaps it is your job, and you’ve got the benefit of having someone pay you to get better and go deeper. Or maybe you’re self taught. Either way, what would you rather have? One or two others down there with you who equally “get” it? Or would you rather swim back up toward the more shallow end and entice more people to get into the water in the first place?
In a way it is a very specific, somewhat selfish question – what would you prefer. But it’s also got a broader application. In a given situation where there is some sort of “finish line”, is it better for a small group to cross the finish line, or for a much larger group to all move closer to the line? What if we were talking about something like grade point average? I’m tempted to bust out the Star Trek reference (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), but I’m trying very hard not to make it a question of “outweigh” because that implies some sort of failure of the smaller group, which I don’t think is the case here.
(I’ve also just realized, while writing this, that I caught a piece of the movie “A Beautiful Mind” on television late the other night, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m directly channeling John Nash’s revision of Adam Smith …)
Anyway, that’s enough of that. Feel free to dig in and tear apart.
P.S. – I think regular readers know my answer. I’ll never be a “deep” Shakespeare guy, and even if somebody told me tomorrow that I could support myself doing nothing but this I suspect that I’d still be right about on the same level I’ve always been. I don’t even love having the deep discussions, and admit freely that people lose me quickly. Given the choice, I’ll take a world where in any given crowd somebody could come up with a Shakespeare reference, and have an equal chance that the rest of the crowd actually *gets* it.