Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. —All’s Well that Ends Well
Shakespeare uses the word “trust” 254 times throughout the canon–it appears in every single play. When I notice something like that, it makes me wonder if he mentions it so much because there is an abundance of ____________(whatever word), or because there is a dearth in his world. I think I know why it is so prevalent in the world of 2020….I mean….we no longer seem to trust even that series of numbers. Since when was it a thing to blame an annum?
But here we are.
As I think about the challenges we have all faced when it comes to trust in the last few years, I keep returning to the idea that faith in others is an essential part of who we are—almost like breathing. With so little trust to be found, whether in our leaders—international, federal, closer to home—or in the patterns of life we used to hold as a given, is it any wonder that we are feeling unmoored? So, I opened my complete works and looked at the table of contents.
This Riverside Shakespeare has been everywhere with me. It was in our house before I was in elementary school. It survived a fire when I was in eighth grade. Mom let me take it to college with me—it was pretty clear that my life was wending that way, and she was teaching American Literature, so she wasn’t referencing it much anymore. This 5-pound book has survived a lot of backpacks falling apart from its weight and sat on many bookshelves, in my bedroom (Shakespeare invented that word), my dorm room, my offices. Sometimes, I’m surprised the words are still visible on the page, given that my eyes have swept by them so many times. In this book I trust. There is something to this 400 year-old cornerstone.
We know that Shakespeare was born into an era of mistrust and upheaval. His country changed the state religion with every monarch—of which there was quite the quick succession.
|Henry VII (d 1509)
|Henry VIII (Anglican church: 1536) (d 1547)
|Mary I (d 1558)
|Edward VI (d 1553)
|Elizabeth I (d 1603)
They rode the waves of plague and a lack of food security. Their theatres closed and their homes were sealed against each other. The intervening 400 years have not cured these ills.
Little surprise, then, that trust—and its broken state, often—figures so prominently in every play he wrote. Just as dystopian literature soars in times of crisis, Shakespeare seems to have found a crux to explore in a number of ways. He examines a lack of trust between family members in Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant Of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like it, and so many more. Distrust of religion or “the other” takes center stage in Othello, Titus, Merchant, Henry V, etc., while distrust of money and power feature in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Timon. Jealousy and lover’s spats figure in Midsummer, Much Ado, 12th Night, Antony and Cleopatra. And on and on.
Shakespeare doesn’t hide this facet of humanity, he embraces it. He has characters talk about it, shows what happen as the result of broken faith, and gives alternatives—follow Richard III blindly and you might end up with your head cut off, or give some time and space, and you could celebrate a double wedding. Maybe there is a lesson for us here. In our crazy-fast world, taking time to let Hero be missed, or to look for Hal instead of jumping to conclusions means less angst and more truth. It is difficult in a 24-hour news cycle, but if we trust that truth will win and can take time to let the mechanics of its reveal happen, then maybe, like for Malcolm or Imogen, the pieces will right themselves. Breathe. Love. Trust. Be kind.