End of Civilization. Shakespeare. Disagree?

I’ve told this story before, but this time I want to turn it into a discussion. Eons ago, when I was working at the supermarket during my college-ish years (that’d be circa 1988-1994 for anybody that wants specifics), I got into a discussion about Shakespeare with one of the ladies that worked with me, who I think was an English teacher in a past life.  I asked her what she thought of Shakespeare, or whether she was a fan, or what her favorite play was … I can’t remember the question.  But I’ve always remembered the answer:

I think that if the entirety of human civilization were to end tomorrow, and only one book survived that might show whatever comes next what once was, that book should be King Lear.

High praise.  But do you agree? Let’s put that out there as our sci-fi hypothesis.  Mankind?  Wiped out.  Maybe some of us blasted off on a rocket and came back around again a few thousand years later, or maybe it’s the aliens coming to see how exactly we blew ourselves up. They’re picking through the rubble, and they find a book.  What book?  Shakespeare?  If not Shakespeare, then who? Hold your horses, before everybody jumps in with “Bible!” I will extend the question – are you picking a book that is supposed to represent human civilization the way it *was*, good and bad? Or the way you wish it was? Do you see this as an opportunity for a historical record of what was, or a recipe book for how to change the future?

4 thoughts on “End of Civilization. Shakespeare. Disagree?

  1. The weight of this sad time we must obey;
    Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
    The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
    Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

    (last lines of King Lear)

    Lear is a bit apocalyptic, and suggests how to move on after the catastrophe.

    In the Folger comments on Hamlet, the reviewer mentions that if all plays were wiped out and only Hamlet remained that would be enough for the theater.

    I've just re-read Hamlet. Act III, Scene 3 is absolutely amazing. The whole thing is wonderfully layered and so subtle and complex. I see in Hamlet, maybe what Harold Bloom calls "the birth of Human". (I haven't read his book).

    Civilization! Well, I forget who said it, but one of the key features that distinguishes our civilizations is memory–how and what should we remember. I hope we'd be able to remember a lot more than Lear! But if that's all we get, then I wouldn't complain.

    Sorry, not much help.

  2. I always found King Lear to be in some mysterious, intangible way, quite removed from our universe. Maybe not largely removed, but to me, (setting aside the time of the play itself) the things that occurred, the environment, the way people acted…all came together to create the feeling of a world that was just slightly off kilter from our own earth. Like an alternate dimension just a few feet over. So I don't think Lear would be the best choice as a representative of what humanity once was.

  3. One volume: The Folio of 1623; and if not the real thing, then possibly Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. He and S. pretty much sum up the civilized world. Will Durant's Story of Civilization gets a vote if none of the others would be possible. If one play, then I say Hamlet.

  4. I find that with all of the advice in Hamlet, I often find it easier to quite the play than sum up some idea I want to convey, such as, "There is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so." which is used today to describe a professor's way of discussing literature.

    I wasn't going to comment here because I'm not actually sure what I think of this thought exercise in general, but after I found myself quoting hamlet to get my point across, I figured I should contribute.

    Whether you think Polonius' speech is ironic or not it is full of good advice. Hamlet's advice to the players is again useful. The sparrow speech interesting with its "the readiness is all" line.

    It gets my vote.

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