Most ignorant of what we’re most assured

As is well-known, during the apartheid days, in the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela, among others, was incarcerated, a Complete Works of Shakespeare was passed around, and many of the inmates signed their names next to lines they found particularly poignant. I find this story itself particularly poignant.

Nelson Mandela put his own name next to some lines spoken by Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Not that I am myself particularly valiant, and neither have I undergone anything like what the prisoners of Robben Island had to go through, but I have often wondered: of all those passages in that volume (which, over the years, has meant to me more than any other book I can think of), which passage would I put my own name against?

Far too many to choose from, obviously, but I think my own name would go next to this passage from Measure for Measure, in which Isabella, pleading for her brother’s life, flames out into the most visionary of lines depicting our common human lot:

… but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep …

In performance, the drama has, of course, to move on. But when I am reading, I have to put the book down for a while when I come to these lines. I think I’d need to be about as articulate as Shakespeare himself if I were to explain why.

(Please feel free to add a comment below on any passage from Shakespeare that you find particularly affecting.)

7 responses to this post.

  1. Yours is wonderful. Reminds me of the guy who currently occupies the White House.

    One that I’ve saved is from The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

    O how this spring of love resembleth
    The uncertain glory of an April day,
    Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
    And by and by a cloud takes all away.

    Thanks!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Izzy on June 23, 2018 at 5:16 pm

    How ill white hairs become a fool and jester…Also inspired by the fool who insists on dyeing his hair orange…:-)

    Reply

  3. Posted by alan on June 23, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

    In my imagination it’s as if Shakespeare is aware of his abilities and his predicament and this is one of the few places in his work where his personality comes into the foreground.

    Reply

    • I’ve always wondered about that line. On the one hand, it may be saying “Although I am bound in a nutshell, my imagination is such that it can encompass the whole universe!” If so, the tone is triumphant. But on the other hand, its emphasis may be different, and it may be saying “No matter how far my imagination extends, I am still stuck inside this nutshell”. Maybe Hamlet means both at the same time…

      Reply

      • I’ve always interpreted this as Hamlet saying, more or less, that he could be content were it not for the visions of his father. In the next line, Guildenstern mistakes Hamlet’s meaning, never asking of Hamlet what he dreams. It reinforces Hamlet’s theme of isolation. Denmark’s a prison because the king won’t let Hamlet return to college at Wittenberg, but must remain at Elsinore where he must hide his grief and confront Claudius. Meanwhile, everyone thinks he’s just ambitious and envious of Claudius, and/or madly in love with Ophelia, etc. Only Gertrude is on the right track, and nobody listens to her. What a great play.

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