What Shakespeare Taught Me About History

Reading, analysing, and/or producing a play by Shakespeare (or any other early modern playwright, for that matter) is often an exercise in futility and frustration. Futility because there’s absolutely no way to get it right; frustration because I so badly want to feel that I’ve got it right. I’m a self-acknowledged perfectionist / borderline control freak, especially when it comes to research and production. I have a deep psychological need to be right. At least I admit it–they tell me that’s the first step to recovery. But it makes it damnably difficult to accept the inherent ambiguity of dealing with something written by a dead guy. 

You see, even if we could resurrect Mr. William Shakespeare from his grave (or, more likely, from somewhere downstream of his grave) and ask him what exactly he meant when he wrote ‘To be or not to be’, or whatever, we still might not have a single “correct” answer. It’s entirely possible and even probable that his zombie-self would use words that carried a different meaning in the seventeenth century–a meaning now lost to us. Shakespeare’s zombie could therefore easily misrepresent himself unintentionally whilst attempting to clarify his own texts. That’s assuming, of course, that the undead Bard knows how to explain what he meant. Creators are so often unable to speak objectively about their creations; attempting to analyse, explain, or justify one’s own work is a worthwhile but incredibly difficult academic exercise. This fun little fantasy also assumes that twenty-first-century English-speakers would understand the dialect of a long-dead Stratfordian playwright. I think you understand my point: it is all but impossible to definitively interpret a document produced by someone who has long been dead and buried, at least in arts and humanities. 

So it drives me a little bit bonkers when people claim that they can definitively interpret an historical document such as, say, the United States Constitution. 

(Quick disclaimer: I have nothing against my country or its Constitution. I just think it’s impossible to know exactly what John Hancock and George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and all the rest were thinking. I’m no expert in politics, and most of my legal knowledge comes from Schoolhouse Rock, so I’m going to stick to the text. That’s all.)

There’s no question that the Constitution is well-written. There’s no question that the people writing it had intentions for its interpretation. There is also no question that it is impossible to determine exactly what those intentions were. Let’s take a look at just the preamble in order to prove this point: 

‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’ 

It’s very stirring, isn’t it? It’s structured logically, with a build to the crescendo of announcing ‘this Constitution for the United States of America’. It also fits nicely into a Schoolhouse Rock tune. 

We’re in interpretive trouble from the very beginning, however: ‘We the People of the United States’. First of all, who is included in that ‘We’? Are the delegates to the Constitutional Convention referring to themselves specifically, or to a more general group? Based on syntax, one might reasonably suggest that ‘We’ refers generally to ‘the People of the United States’ rather than exclusively to the delegates. Before the “Captain Obvious” jokes start, stick with me for a second. Who, exactly, are ‘the People of the United States’ in this document? Its citizens? I can say with confidence that citizenship meant something very different in the 1780s than it means today, but the writers of the Constitution chose ‘People’ over citizens here. This choice leaves more ambiguity. Is every inhabitant of the newly established country included? Are women and children ‘People’, for the purposes of this document? What about native Americans? Or African slaves? Do they count? What about white men who don’t own their land? What makes someone a part of that ‘We’? In 2012, most people would probably agree that no one with legal status in the United States is excluded from the ‘We’; in 1789, I can’t imagine that the general mindset was so egalitarian. 

This small example illustrates my general point: that interpretation of the Constitution is integral to its usefulness in the present, but contemporary interpretation should not and must not be confused with authoritative knowledge of what the Founding Fathers did or did not intend. We do not have that knowledge, and we never will. As I demonstrated in the Shakespeare-zombie example above, even a time machine could not provide definitive knowledge of their intentions. We have the document in which they did their best to express said intentions, but we can only interpret it through the lens of the present. This is true of any historical document and its author(s). What matters is not how George Washington interpreted the Constitution, or even how Abraham Lincoln or FDR or Ronald Reagan interpreted the Constitution. What matter is how we, in 2012, in the current version of The United States of America, interpret the Constitution. The words on the page are all we have, frustrating though that may be. And while it’s interesting and even worthwhile from a scholarly perspective to research how previous generations may have interpreted a document, we need to live with it here, in the present. And so, frustratingly, Hamilton’s (or Shakespeare’s) intention doesn’t matter because there’s absolutely no way to know what it was or how it might apply today. 

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