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Diogenes: Shakespeare and the Inevitability of Change

21 April 2017

The idea that change is always good can be traced back as far as the 5th century BCE. The Greek tragedian Euripides first articulated this notion, although the Latin phrase by Cicero, variatio delectat (‘there is nothing like change’) is usually quoted.

This concept touches on something absolutely essential, notably the question of which is more appealing to man: something pleasing but constant, or change — even if it is occasionally displeasing. Most people would probably choose unchanging pleasure at first. However, after careful consideration, change would be more desirable, as it is the basis of life and the only efficient protection against stagnation, one of man's greatest enemies.

History's greatest authors were aware of this strange truth, but it was William Shakespeare who applied it as the fundamental principle underlying his body of work. His writing offers an enormous variety of topics, situations and characters, and covers practically every aspect of life. Appealing to many people globally, Shakespeare's works treat the most brutal slaughters and disgusting deeds with the same poetic devotion as the noblest minds and the kindest actions. Mighty kings and dignitaries can be ruthless and wicked, while society's weakest members can be gentle and kind. Occasionally, justice is served and the villain is punished; however, sometimes the innocent must perish because the interplay of forces has nothing to do with the human concept of justice.

Rather than romanticizing life's fluctuations, Shakespeare underlined the inevitability of it. As long as people cannot accept inevitability as life’s most fundamental principle, only tragedy can ensue, as is the case with Hamlet. Hamlet rejects his destiny, which leads to a chain of unnecessary deaths, including his own. Like Romeo, he believes that he is “fortune’s fool”, making his tragic end inevitable. The rightful Duke of Milan in The Tempest, Prospero, neither curses his brother nor plans his revenge, knowing that whatever happens is unavoidable and, as such, beyond good and evil.

Shakespeare was not a utopian interested in a better world, but rather concerned himself with the world in which people live, experience enjoyment and suffering, maintain hope and face despair, and come and go according to the interplay of forces. Shakespeare’s works are universal and their events could take place anywhere, at any time. Historical, political, geographical and social matters are occasionally used as themes, but only to serve as vehicles for the emotions and actions of carefully selected individuals.

Many people believe that Shakespeare’s plays are most powerful when performed on stage. They prefer a personal experience above reading the plays carefully and trying to interpret their meaning. Others argue that sophisticated readers will hardly ever visit the theater to enjoy Shakespeare because even an outstanding performance is but a shadow of what one's mind can conjure once the message has been understood.

Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of history's greatest dramatists and seeing his works performed on stage may be considered a must if one wants to belong to the so-called cultured class. Seen that way, there are two Shakespeares, both with a truly global reach: one offered to audiences in theaters, and another read and enjoyed by individuals in peace and quiet. Whichever Shakespeare one chooses to enjoy, it is certain that his fundamental themes underlining the necessity of change and the inevitability of life are still — if not more — relevant today.