I recently had the good fortune of seeing a copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio. The book is part of a travelling exhibit honoring the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and it arrived at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts earlier this month. As a writer and admirer of Shakespeare, I was moved to see the book that, when published, contained the first printed versions of many of his plays, including “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar.” Behind its display case, the book is opened to the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet” — when I read the lines in the folio, which I had read many times before, I felt a sense of the sublime.
When I read the Bard’s plays, I am filled with a special kind of awe knowing that I have chosen the same craft that he did. The richness of the language in his most eloquent lines touches me in a way similar to how the melodies of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk might affect a young jazz pianist, or to how the writings of Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking might impact a young physicist. Yet, for me and others encountering the works of the acclaimed predecessors of our chosen trades, inspiration can turn into paralysis. Instead of continuing in our pursuits, we consider giving up.
As the semester winds down, we find ourselves trying to do something meaningful with our resources and time. We want to make the most of our years at Brown so that we can do important work in our lives. But when we focus on our artistic and professional role models’ accomplishments, we might feel small in comparison. The question arises: Why do anything if I’m nowhere near as good at it as those who have come before me?
One way to overcome a sense of futility and to escape from the shadows of those we admire is to attack our heroes. As a writer, I might say that Shakespeare is overrated, for example. But I don’t want to do that, nor do I think it productive. If we’ve come to admire certain individuals, we shouldn’t cast aside appreciation for them just to make ourselves feel better.
I reject the idea that work and art are part of an ongoing contest to determine who will have the largest impact and be remembered by history for the longest time. Instead, I embrace the idea of a tradition of passing on a torch, of building on what has been done before.
This perspective is a lesson that Shakespeare teaches us. Several of his plays are not original stories; they are based on tales written earlier or on the life stories of historical figures. For example, “Macbeth” is loosely based on the life of an actual historical figure named Macbeth. The introduction of the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play states that Shakespeare encountered a version of the real Macbeth’s life story while reading Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland” and altered this story for his play. The brilliance of the play emerges not from the story alone, but from the execution of the tale — the complex dialogue and powerful symbols woven throughout.
Thus, Shakespeare looked to his predecessors, and we can do the same. We can see our heroes as building the foundations of our chosen fields and ourselves as adding bricks on top of those foundations. We can take elements that we like from the examples provided by those before us. We can take inspiration from numerous sources and combine it with the perspectives we have developed throughout our lives in order to make things we can call our own. In this way, we take the torches from our predecessors, and when we put our work out into the world, we pass on those torches to our successors.
Personally, I find inspiration in the potency of Shakespeare’s language and his sharp insights into the complexity of human nature. Macbeth, who has been driven by blind ambition to murder many innocent people, arrives at a moment of clarity near the end of the play. After his wife dies, he gives a soliloquy in which he realizes the pointlessness of his actions and the meaninglessness of life. The metaphors Shakespeare uses here are despairingly nihilistic. I have memorized this soliloquy, and whenever I recite it, I shudder at the power of the language. This power convinces me that Shakespeare himself did not have a bleak outlook on the world and found writing meaningful.
I won’t feel paralyzed by my heroes anymore. Shakespeare is one of several sources of inspiration compelling me to keep writing today and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.