Studying the literature and culture of the Renaissance has amplified my understanding of what it is to be human.
Shakespeare’s great success as a playwright comes from the way he unpacks human nature. He opens it up for the audience to contemplate and challenges existing ideas. He doesn’t ever seem to be presenting humanity in a wholly good or bad light, but rather just presents life as he observes it. As a modern-day ‘audience’ to Shakespeare’s work it always astounds me how applicable his works still are. So maybe getting roofied by fairies or stranded on an Island full of spirits isn’t likely to happen to me in my lifetime, but the base conflicts and motivations behind his character’s actions resonate just as loudly today as they did in the first Globe Theatre.
Shakespeare’s romantic sonnets unpack one aspect of humanity that seems to appear consistently in his plays; love. I particularly liked Sonnet 130 as it teaches us two very important things about humanity. Number 1: people have always had a preoccupation with outward appearance. In today’s highly pressured society, it is a nice reminder that its nothing to be taken personally, people have just been that way for hundreds of years. Number 2: is that despite this obsession, real love doesn’t get caught up in such arbitrary assessments, and that too is something that has transcended the ages. It could be argued that ‘What it is to be human’ is the capacity to, and desire for, Love. Is that too cliché?
Midsummer and Tempest bury their love stories in a whole host of complex plans, largely motivated by characters manipulating others in an attempt to achieve their own goals. For some this goal is freedom; Hermia wants the freedom of choice, Caliban and Ariel want freedom from servitude (link to my blog post on this from Ariel’s perspective here). Is the desire for freedom what makes us human? It doesn’t seem quite sufficient an answer to such a large question. Entwined with this is the human desire for control. Control of their own lives or the lives of others causes a number of conflicts in the plays. The struggle between freedom and control is the basis of all human conflict, and conflict has existed for as long as love, perhaps longer. The pessimist would perhaps say that conflict is more a part of humanity than love, but I think one cannot really exist without the other. Conflict is often driven by love, and can we fully appreciate love with some opposition?
I don’t know that this unit has given me a better understanding of what it means to be human. As I write this summery I am faced with more question than answers, it is perhaps an impossible question to answer, but the unit has certainly deepened my exploration of defining ‘human’. In my opinion, what it is to be human isn’t so much a simple answer as ‘love,’ ‘freedom,’ or even ‘prone to conflict’ but it’s about being the complex, multifaceted beings that we are, desiring meaningful interactions with those around us, and looking at life, and the world, with curiosity. To be human is to have the potential for those things and more.