William Shakespeare's Importance to the Liberal Arts
By Ben Gee
In Ray Bradbury’s famous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, a ruthlessly authoritarian government religiously and aggressively suppresses its people by burning books. Yep, by burning books - that, and some fearsome mechanized hounds, but they are besides the point. All the more amazing is the undeniable plausibility of Bradbury’s harrowing world, with the lurking sense it inspires that burning books can somehow serve as the supreme tool of oppression and authority. Why are books so dangerous to even the most powerful of fantastical dystopian regimes?
The answer lays grounded in our history, our culture, our very identity as human beings: books are the depositories of thought through which we learn to think critically, grow and develop as persons, and ultimately achieve a revolutionary level of self-awareness and individuality. They represent who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be; by pouring ourselves into them as writers and readers alike we become something greater than we were before we read them. It is said that in the act of reading, we can discover ourselves - Franz Kafka once stated, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” It is no accident that print has survived well past its own age and into one of high-speed, all-capable technology; this longevity owes itself largely to the timeless quality of the book, an instrument of self-recognition and intellectual enlightenment well beyond technical obsoletion in our information era.
However, a book’s existence alone does not make it a Book - at least not one of the books Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 sought so vigorously to destroy. That depends on the substance enclosed within its opposing covers, the quality of art it contains. As the printing press became a main source of an ever-widening expanse of printed thought, the eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire exclaimed in dismay, “The multitude of books is making us ignorant.” Today, Voltaire’s lamentation is even more true than it was before. It can be difficult to recognize a true masterpiece amidst the ceaseless clamor of so many people, so many voices, and so many books. This problem becomes compounded when society is faced with the problem of how to educate its youth, whom deserve an education worthy of our increasingly complex and global world. It is for this reason that the Liberal Arts exist, and also for this reason that Washington and Lee University exists.
W&L’s mission statement reads, “Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students' capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates will be prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.” In essence, W&L is committed to teaching processes of the mind that contribute to the overall well-being of the person, empowering the entire individual rather than aiming merely for future profit margins or impeccable vocational skills. To accomplish this task, Washington and Lee University requires its students to take courses in every subject area from the most abstract arts to most hands-on sciences, in hopes that the student’s mind will become open to limitless possibilities for academic engagement and thus grow in their eventual chosen area of study.
A vital component in cultivating a liberal arts education is exposing students to the Great Books, the triumphs of human imagination that have served as the basis for our literary growth throughout history. These works and the authors who wrote them set standards all their own, and their influence on us cannot be overestimated. Above all, these authors were unique in their abilities to craft and present stories that changed the world and that change those who read them. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Dante, Cervantes, and their peers form a tradition that epitomizes the evolving thought of Western Civilization and the true intellectual origins of contemporary society. Despite the eminence of these authors, very few were able to capture the imagination of the world and hold it forever, to permanently imprint their perceptions of human nature into our collective psyche. Some stories and their authors them have become practically synonymous with Western Civilization, because their contributions mark a high point in humanity’s journey of self-discovery that future authors can only hope to emulate. But one author stands alone, the reinventor of an entire language who wrote some of the most timeless stories ever put to paper. That author, of central importance to the liberal arts and to W&L as a derivative institution, is William Shakespeare.
When I arrived at W&L, I found to my surprise that no active organization exists dedicating itself to the appreciation, honor, and study of Shakespeare. Washington and Lee’s mission statement declares its commitment to teaching students how to think “critically” - a term first employed by Shakespeare, and that owes its very presence in the mission statement to the playwright’s boundless linguistic ingenuity. W&L extols its students to “live lives of consequence” - but how to we define consequence? Did Macbeth live a life of consequence, impacting the lives of many thousands and an entire nation despite his brutal collapse into infamy? Might Romeo’s immortal, fatal dedication to transcendent love constitute a brief yet consequential life? How about Feste, the sage clown of Twelfth Night who raised no armies, nor courageously fought against societal faults, but through living modestly and kindly ensures the final happy unification of his play’s lovers? Shakespeare implicitly addresses this profound question in his plays, as well as many other inquiries into our individual natures. Shakespeare is the source from which the Liberal Arts flow, and honoring him should be the highest priority for any self-respecting institution of higher learning. Before this year, W&L’s part in preserving his legacy through student appreciation was decidedly lacking, but that must change and will be changed for the better.
There is now a Shakespeare Society at W&L, committed to honoring and experiencing Shakespeare’s works in an open and lively setting. It meets Fridays at 5:00 PM in the Payne Hall Seminar Room (212), and there is no outside work required - it meets and reads and discusses plays and sonnets during each meeting, and in an informal student-led environment. We believe that it is important for W&L to have an organization focused on one of history’s supreme storytellers, and our goal is to make Shakespeare accessible to students of all years, majors, and prospective professions. As long as Shakespeare’s memory and appreciation lives in the hearts of intellectually passionate people, we will have preserved the most vital articulator of ourselves and of mankind. I hope you can join us in this mission to preserve the legacy of a man to whom we are each beholden in his or her own way, some never realizing it but indebted all the same.