Address by Marjorie Garber

Presented by Sue E. Houchins, associate professor of African American studies, for the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters

unedited transcript

It is a very great pleasure and a very great honor to come before you today and to have the opportunity to congratulate you on your achievements and to wish you well for the future.

As you’ve heard, I am by trade and good fortune what is known in my profession as a Shakespearean, which means that I’ve had the opportunity to talk, write and think about Shakespeare’s plays with students, colleagues, actors, directors and the general public over the whole course of my career.

Shakespeare is often invoked on celebratory occasions as the perfect authority on, well, everything: graduation to marriage to the stock market. Sometimes these quotations from Shakespeare are inspiring; often they are often also somewhat comic or even double-edged (if you happen to remember the play). Thus for example the various wise sayings of Polonius, in Hamlet, are frequently quoted in places like the Congressional Record. “This above all: to thin own self to be true.” “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” And so on. This is all good advice. It was good advice in the Elizabethan time, and it is, generally speaking, good advice now. But you might remember that Polonius, who was offering this advice to his own son, Laertes, as Laertes was about to take off for Paris after college, is painted as something of a buffoon, spouting these bits of other people’s learning as he has collected them in his commonplace book. In fact, Laertes and his sister Ophelia are often contrived to look bored on stage while their father rumbles on.

More to the point, the minute Laertes departs, Polonius, the father, arranges to have one of his servants follow his son and spy on him, trying to catch him in some discreditable activity [unintelligible]. Polonius’ good advice is in fact put into the play by Shakespeare in part as a warning to the audience about good advice, reminding us to remember the context and also the conduct of the speaker.

Or consider one of the most famous and apparently admirable pieces of Shakespearean wisdom, the well-known passage in which one character advises another on the importance of personal integrity and reputation over mean advancement or financial gain:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls;
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

It is a terrific speech; Shakespeare is a terrific writer. But the speaker, of course, is the greatest hypocrite in all of Shakespeare: Iago in the. What he says may be true, but he doesn’t believe a word of it. He is using this good advice to persuade a fellow to doubt to the integrity of the fellow’s own wife, Demonia. Shakespeare’s advice is now become the province of experts on business and professional management, with many books with titles like “Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage.” In one of these books, Lady MacBeth’s advice to her husband, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail.” is included in a section about the fear of failure and the importance of preparation. No one bothers to recall that Lady MacBeth is trying to persuade her husband to kill the king!

It is therefore with some trepidation that I’ve come before you today to cite a piece of Shakespearean advice that I do hope you will heed in the next months and years. As the authority I am going to quote to you is both irresistible on this occasion and probably relatively unfamiliar, for his name is, “Bates.” John Bates is a soldier in the army of King Henry V on the battlefield of Agincourt, the defining battle between the English army and the French forces. Bates is presented by Shakespeare as the prototype of the honorable, careful man, enlisted into the ranks of the army. He’s a common soldier, not an officer. He is worried about the battle will takes place on the following day, and he wonders, too, whether the king fully understands the fears and the hopes of those who will fight with him.

Brilliantly, Shakespeare has Bates express these fears, together with a strong sense of loyalty, to a stranger in a cloak who comes among them on the eve of battle. The stranger is, in fact, the disguised King Henry V come to learn from his soldiers something of their private thoughts. The phrase of the soldier John Bates that has always stuck with me from this scene, and I myself often remember out of context in many other moments that little to do with Shakespeare, is the way he tries to resolve internal disputes. Hearing an escalating quarrel between this stranger, the disguised king, and another solder, Bates offers healing advice. The quarrel, in fact, is another of King Henry’s social laboratories, and experiment designed to prove that dissidence is not inconsistent with political loyalty, and speaking truth to power can have beneficial effects. Here is what John Bates, the voice of the common man, has to say: “Be friends, you English fools, be friends: we have / French quarrels enow….”

Forget for a second the historical specificity, the impending battle between the English and the French. What Bates the common soldier here counsels is that parties who disagree on political or social or other matters should come to agreement, resolving their internal difficulties in order to face a larger threat from without. In one of the greatest scenes of this play, the national identity of a new English state emerges from a conversation among four ethnically different captains: a Scotsman, an Irishman, and Englishman and a Welshman, on stage as a talking map of the new nation. “Be friends, you English fools, be friends.”

For our own time, the point here is not about local politics and local personalities but about bigger questions: questions like world health, and famine, and global warming, and AIDS and other issues that should unite us rather than divide us in our resolution to do battle against them. These are matters in which some of you will play roles of policymakers, and all of you as participants. Be friends; we have external challenges aplenty, external challenges we will not resolve completely in our time. But we can try. Be friends. Be friends with each other. Be friends with those with whom you disagree; friends with other nations; friends with the other citizens of this very small world, this globe, in which we all live and act and perform. As John Bates, common soldier, minor character, Shakespearean truth teller, cautions us, in terms that resound from his time and Shakespeare’s to ours, anything else is folly. We have quarrels out there enough.