Shakespeare: But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority …

Shakespeare.jpg(This is my 500th post since beginning this blog in December 2013)

Watching and listening to so many politicians, clergy, evangelists, television blowhards, and ordinary citizens in my country today reminds me of one of my favorite passages in all of world literature. It is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it occurs when the character Isabella begs for the life of her brother, Claudio, who has been condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée before they were married.

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

When I hear those vying for the most important political position in the country court the support of those who advocate death for people with certain sexual orientations, and want to kill thousands of innocent civilians—to say nothing of denying homes for refugees, mass incarceration, solitary confinement, denial of health-care and more—it reminds me that puritanical legal codes, barbaric punishments, and ape-brain ignorance are still with us. It reminds me of how those who know so little—of biology, psychology, history, culture, political philosophy and more—propound on those topics nevertheless.

The ignorant are so self-assured. They know nothing of the people they despise, of the countries they bomb, and of the people they punish, but they don’t doubt their own infallibility. They know nothing of economics or climatology, of science or technology, of culture or history, but they correct the experts. And why not? They don’t believe in experts.

They are angry apes—as Shakespeare said centuries before Darwin confirmed the fact. They have no knowledge; they have no self-knowledge. We are not angels; we are modified monkeys. Of course, there are no angels, but if there were they would surely weep at the spectacle. Given a little fame, fortune and authority, and apes become so self-assured.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare: But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority …

  1. It is indeed a quote that appears particularly relevant to our times. But then, Shakespeare was a master at seeing humanity in all its… humanity… and loving it still.
    I also wanted to offer a further interpretation, which is that those who reach high office, often through no merit of their own, or worse, their ability to manipulate the vicious, lazy and weak, often forget their own mortality (figurative and literal). They believe they are invincible when they remain as fragile as the rest of humanity. In this case, the line reads: “… Most ignorant of what he’s most assured – his glassy essence – (etc)”.
    Best wishes, M

  2. Thanks for the insights, Martin. And the powerful corrupt don’t even think about their ephemeral existence.
    John

  3. Gosh,I first read this in a tiny book of verse I found in a bedside cabinet when I was 8 or 9 yrs old.It made me cry and burn with anger because of some remembered recent injustice at junior school.So for me it was a singular man but also humankind and his arrogance.I quoted it at a few male bullies when I was at a loss for other words.Thank you W.Shakespeare.

  4. Beth

    Really appreciate your heartfelt comment. Hope those bullies left you alone. JGM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.