His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can but operate upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find.
Such was the verdict of Samuel Johnson in a preface to one of the many published editions of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and it was the beginning of a sentiment that is often thrown around, but never elaborated on, in many academic and conversational settings. Every classroom I have experienced has thrown the phrase about at least once; Shakespeare has a supposed “universality” that speaks to all of humanity within his writing, but this is a phrase used and discarded at a whim, never fleshed out and just accepted prima faci. Is it true though?
To call Shakespeare a universal poet is to declare that there can in fact be a poet that speaks for and to all of humanity. This seems an unlikely possibility at best considering our multitudes, but to call it an impossibility seems to undersell the power of artistic creation to me. We should rather examine if Shakespeare in particular has a sufficient case for the title of the “universal poet.”
Without examining the actual writing itself, one could argue that purely from a globalization standpoint, Shakespeare is the most important poet within Western culture, a culture that has diffused across the face of the planet, and so our society as a species has been majorly influenced by the writings of the Bard. While this is a legitimate point, it lowers the argument to the level of semantic technicality and discards the “human” part of “universal humanity.” When we ask ourselves whether Shakespeare is the poet for all people, we don’t mean whether all people, consciously or not, have been affected by him. We are asking whether or not the poetry of Shakespeare speaks to the human experience, the struggles and emotions and ideas and complexities that are present in every single being at any point in history. Here is where the measure of the poet lies.
Many who decry Shakespeare as only an English poet, speaking exclusively for the white male world have a point; there is a certain amount of privilege inherent in proclaiming a white man as the paragon of all humankind and an implication of a sameness throughout humanity that must exist in order for all of humanity to have one single spokes-poet. Diversity is absolutely something to be celebrated, but is not mutually exclusive with our shared personhood. The capability for love, for rationality, for hope, for fear, for curiosity, and for all of our complexity wrapped up within our experiences can be expressed through a single poet, and Shakespeare, of all poets, has the strongest case for this human encapsulation. We may not find within his stories the cultures and habits of all nations and people across the globe, nor will we find the same expectations and societal pressures. But we will see contemplation, internal struggle, and raw emotion on an intensely personal level. The uncertainty and expectations of Hamlet when contemplating death in all its aspects, the rage and vengeance of Edmund against fate and society, the pragmatic cowardice of Falstaff juxtaposed with the royal aspirations of Hal’s and their ensuing relationship struggles, these are all conflicts that, while they take place in the minds and company of white men, are not limited by their agents. To say that Hamlet’s fear of death, Edmund’s rage against his own helplessness and his desire to take action in the face of that, Falstaff’s personal honor that he acts upon over his nationalism, and Hal’s attempts to rise above his past and achieve the status and behavior of his expected station are all emotional, human challenges that it doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate to our own lives.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s universality lies not in the large scale, in the scenarios and plot contrived around these characters, but in the characters and interactions themselves. After all, the idea that Shakespeare had very few original plots is almost as commonplace an assertion as that of Shakespeare’s universality, which leads me to the idea that what Shakespeare special is not his plots, not his settings, not his social commentary, but on the people and emotions that inhabit and populate his texts; he holds the mirror up to human nature, not to human’s creations and constructs, and the struggles of humanity on display in his works speak to a larger, existential condition which all is subject to and participates in. My perspective is a limited one, of the same party that Shakespeare is accused of catering to, and I cannot speak for anyone other than myself or any culture other than my own, but if there is a poet able to transcend his context, I believe that Shakespeare should certainly be considered for the role.
Image courtesy of the UK cover of Shakespeare in Swahililand at http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/11/02/the-meaning-of-the-bones/