Humanity Celebrates a Birthday at the Library

by Bill Peak

Here's a thought experiment for you. Imagine that science has given you the chance to enter the mind of Albert Einstein, that you will know his thoughts, follow his reasoning, arrive alongside him at an understanding of reality beyond anything ever achieved before (we're talking physics here, not metaphysics). There's only one catch. It turns out that Einstein, when he first made landfall in America, came ashore not in New York but on Tangier Island. That it was there that he learned to speak English. And so it is that, if you are to understand and follow his thoughts, you will first have to become comfortable with the vocabulary, diction, and syntax of Tangier circa 1932. But how hard can that be? It's still English, right? Wouldn't you leap at the chance to learn all those long vowels and reverse negatives knowing they will allow you to commune with one of the greatest minds the human race has ever produced?

Okay, now let's make someone else the subject of our thought experiment.

He was the third of eight children and the oldest boy. At the age of 13 his family's fortunes took a turn for the worse and he was forced to drop out of school and find work. At 18 he got a local girl pregnant and married her. By 21 he had three children and—trying to find food enough to feed them all—was caught poaching. He escaped punishment by running off to the big city, doubtless nursing the sort of dreams young men usually dream in such circumstances. There, he should have disappeared as so many had before him into a hopeless round of makeshift jobs, miserable living conditions, and relentless poverty. Instead, he astounded the world.

William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago this month. Nearly half a millennium later we are still reading his sonnets, performing his plays, wondering at his genius. Or not. If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me they don't care for Shakespeare because his English is hard to understand, I'd have a lot of dollars. There is even a subset of people who like to dismiss the Bard out of hand, as if it somehow showed how sophisticated they were, that they were above having to prove themselves by pretending to care about Shakespeare. I would remind you we're talking about someone who is generally regarded as the greatest writer of all time. Volumes have been written about what Shakespeare can teach us. To turn your back upon such a man is to turn your back, it seems to me, upon life itself. Without recourse to the lessons learned by our greatest thinkers, what hope is there for any of us, for civilization itself?

Remember our thought experiment? Many believe the English Einstein would have learned on Tangier was only a step removed from that spoken by Shakespeare. Wouldn't you leap at the chance to become comfortable with that English knowing it will allow you to commune with one of the greatest minds the human race has ever produced? In honor of Shakespeare's 450th, the Talbot County Free Library will, over the course of the next year, screen movies of his plays and sponsor lectures and discussions of his works. We will begin on Saturday, May 3, at 2 p.m., in the Easton library with a showing of Franco Zeffirelli's Academy Award-winning “Romeo & Juliet.” Exotic sets, showy costumes, comedy, tragedy, a murderous sword fight, and the greatest love story of all time—this one has it all. So please, join us. Who knows what new lessons, what new miracles of life and love, Shakespeare has in store for us this year?