Defending the Bard in a time of strife
C-SPAN recently broadcast an event at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., celebrating “400 Years of Shakespeare.” People from all walks of life shared their “Shakespeare Stories” explaining why Shakespeare remains so relevant today, 400 years after the Bard's death in 1616. There were writers, professors, actors, college presidents, a brilliant high school student, and even a Supreme Court justice. There was a website and an invitation to send in your own Shakespeare story, and I realized that I too had one—and that it was a Yale story, as well.
I entered Yale in 1968 with a class of unusual diversity, full of writers, artists, actors, musicians, and activists, as well as the scientists and athletes who would normally constitute a class. It was also the last class to enter as “all boys” preceding the growing trend toward coeducation among single-gender colleges.
In addition, because it was the pre-Watergate sixties, we talked about civil rights and Vietnam all the time: it was not yet considered impolite to talk politics in social settings, as it is now. Everything was relevant, and there was no shame in expressing oneself. There was a "George Wallace For President" office on campus, an ROTC program, an antiwar university president and university chaplain, as well as a famous poli sci professor who lectured on first-strike nuclear casualties if the delicate U.S./Soviet balance should break down. (Yes, it was still considered relevant to speculate about such things, I suppose.) It was indeed a time of great contrasts—in a world that no longer exists.
Then, within a couple of years, during the ironic “law and order” presidency of Richard Nixon, New Haven became the scene of a trial of two prominent Black Panthers named Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale, and the campus and the city seemed at odds, and not for the first or the last time. “Whitey, get off Dixwell Avenue” was shouted down at us when we were walking home from an off-campus movie theatre.
I was an English major and was sitting in the greatest lecture of my life, the Shakespeare lecture by Professor Alvin Kernan ’54PhD. I wish I had recorded his words, because he had a resonant but soft-spoken voice and would read compellingly and movingly from complete lecture notes. He spoke so philosophically that the capacity audience was totally enthralled by the journey he took us on, bringing every play to life for us. I jotted down as much as I could, but I was as one mesmerized by his superior knowledge and wisdom that transformed the ancient iambic pentameter into living, inspired signposts for human behavior and understanding.
Then one day, up in the back of the lecture hall (which was at street-level, looking down into the well where the professor stood at his small lectern), burst open the door with a clatter, and in strode an interloper from the street outside. The individual drew all eyes as we students turned to look up at him, and he immediately began raining down words of condemnation against the proceedings, and the academic community in general, and what he judged to be our immunity from life outside the university walls. There is a crisis in our city streets, he was saying, and you avoid getting involved at your own peril. He added that what was being taught within the Ivy Walls of the school bore no relevance to life outside, and you must cease your senseless lessons and get involved in real life.
Professor Kernan gave a measured pause, after hearing the young man's call-to-action diatribe. Then, in a strong but quiet voice, emoting depth and reason, he answered this unexpected criticism of his profession by explaining that we were studying the plays of William Shakespeare, dealing with the full range of human emotion, political ambition, civil unrest, and motivation to do good and evil, for love, for hatred, for power, at times comical, at times tragical, sometimes historical or fanciful, but as timely as ever. “What we are discussing is very relevant to the events of today,” he concluded, and the student audience burst into applause.
No one there that day will ever forget Alvin Kernan and his defense of Shakespeare and the full probability of human emotion therein. Has it really been 400 years? Time flies when you're learning something.
Nathan Wise ’72 is currently board chairman of the Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the town which was the original site of Yale at its founding in 1701, when it was called The Collegiate School.