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 rejecting and traumatizing refugees, mass incarceration and solitary confinement, denial of health-care and more
—it reveals the fact that puritanical legal codes, barbaric punishments, and ape-brain ignorance and treachery 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. They know nothing of economics or philosophy, 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 neither knowledge nor 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 … apes become so self-assured.

[Author’s note. So much better to be a skeptic, a fallibilist, or issue humble disclaimers.]

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11 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.

  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

  5. Maybe Alistair Stewart was “drest in a little brief authority” by dint of his newsreading longevity. And then “the angry ape” just quit in a fit of pique.

  6. But . . . what about the glassy essence? The angels . . . . high heaven?
    You have missed out, while being preoccupied with other’s faults, the spiritual import of his thought. Authority, judgement, role, status etc occludes the stillness and transparency of our souls.
    I’m glad to have sorted that out – but what’s going on here? We are just angry apes writing opinion on the internet! And heaven weeps.

  7. Very much my thoughts N J Wilton, thank you. What Shakespeare ‘knew’ never ceases to amaze and his various use of the word ‘nothing’ ( or should that be ‘no-thing’) is fascinating and very Advaitic ! Take Richard ll’s last soliloquy “But whate’er I be nor I nor any man that but man is with nothing shall be pleased till he be eased with being nothing”.
    Without will only be changed by a change within till then whatever form the Politboro may take it will always be the same.

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