Confucius and Shakespeare

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To begin, Confucius says “study the past and you would define the future.”  This is a sentiment that has prevailed even unto modern times, it’s similar to the idea of “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.”  The general idea here is that you can learn from what past generations have done.  Learning from past generations can tell us both what to do and what not to do.  The saying “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it” focuses more on the negative side of things.  So if we look at Confucius’ quote from that aspect, we understand that we should look at the past and focus on mistakes that were made.  These mistakes could be anything—it could be something as broad in scope as social discrimination, or it could be something as narrow in scope as learning from the mistakes of one’s parents and acting in a way that avoids those mistakes.  Whatever the scope of the lesson may be, one truth contained in Confucius’ quote is that we can look to how previous generations have made mistakes and ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes.

But I think that there is more being said here by Confucius than just “don’t make the mistakes of the past.”  I think that Confucius is probably arguing just as strongly, if not even more strongly, that one should imitate the virtues and customs of the past as a way to foster and cultivate a strong future.  This is a reading which depends on greater context of the Analects.  The quote taken in isolation can be read either way (either approving or disapproving of the past), but if you take it in context, it is probably more appropriately read as an approbation of past generations than a condemnation of it.

For Confucius, righteousness is intimately related to respect for one’s ancestors and respect for custom and heritage.  Confucius goes to great lengths throughout the Analects to argue that subduing one’s self to virtue is done by respect for propriety, which is essentially custom or ritual.  Confucius places a heavy emphasis on the role that one’s social relationships play in the development of virtue, and that one must respect family and friends.  In this way, Confucius’ writings are sort of imbued in Chinese and general Asian culture given certain elements like ancestor worship and a great deal of respect paid toward elders.  For Confucius, having respect for elders and the ways of the ancients is more or less one and the same as virtue itself.  A virtuous person is not an iconoclast, a virtuous person is not a revolutionary, a virtuous person is not someone who looks to the past with a desire to abandon it, but instead to adopt it and to bring it to the present.

The second part of the quote we’re looking at is “who heeds not the future will find sorrow at hand.”  This can be understood in an isolated way but also in relation to the early part of the quote.  In the isolated sense, it means that those who do not have regard for their future will not even be happy now.  But it becomes more of a profound quote if we look at it beyond the plain isolated meaning.

Given what Confucius says about the importance of looking to the past as a way to help plan for the future, and also considering that he probably meant something more along the lines of implementing (rather than rejecting) the past when considering one’s future, we can see how Confucius regards a lack of respect for the past as an indicator of someone who is not happy.  For, it is plain enough to see that someone who neglects their future won’t be happy when the future is at hand, but that’s not even what Confucius is saying.  He’s saying that if you don’t plan for the future, you won’t even be happy in the present.  Now, if planning for one’s future entails respecting the past, that also means that if we don’t respect the past we are guilty of some lack of virtue here and now.  It means that we are failing to be virtuous in our day to day actions.  It is a vice and a sorrow that we aren’t just going to experience, but one that is already present and will only get worse as the future reveals itself.

So when we take both these quotes together and think about it in context there’s quite a lot to unpack.  On the one hand Confucius is repeating a common axiom, which is that we need to learn from the past.  But more than that, he’s not just saying that we need to avoid mistakes of past generations, but that we need to be respectful of what past generations did, thought, etc. and generally think the same, because in this respect for custom and tradition we become virtuous.  We become virtuous in the present and we also establish a more virtuous future by applying the past to it.  If we fail to pay heed to the future world we are creating (by ignoring the past) it is indicative of a present lack of virtue.  It’s common enough to claim that a lack of attention to the future will cause problems in the future, but Confucius is going further and claiming that such lack of attention also causes problems now.

Shakespeare: “All the World’s a Stage” (As you like it, II, VII, ll. 139ff).

Jacques’ speech “All the World’s a Stage” in William Shakespeare’s As You Like it is a speech that has a great deal of philosophical content in it.  From a high level the speech is basically a metaphor or an analogy between the (theatrical) stage and each person’s journey through life, and the idea is that people play different parts when they go through life.  But the way that Jacques presents the idea is not in a happy or frivolous way.  He’s essentially despairing life, or at least coming close to despairing it, struggling to find profound meaning in it.

In the speech, Jacques describes how man’s life can be broken into seven different ages or stages.  Each of these stages isn’t presented very nobly.  Man starts as a careless and useless infant, becomes a whiny child, becomes a naïve lover, fights in wars, becomes notable in society, and eventually becomes old and is essentially like a crying baby again, without teeth or hair and unable to care for himself.  This is a very sober and somber way of looking at life and it isn’t a very cheery outlook.  Jacques is fairly cynical about whether or not there is anything particularly special about man.

But the cynicism goes deeper, because Jacques is hinting at a sort of lack of genuineness in life.  He says that all these ages of man are parts played, which sort of suggests that they are not legitimate or organic ways of going through life.  People are basically actors who fill out these archetypal roles (he argues).  And this is the real cynicism and despair of things: are we living up to be what our potential is?  Can we, even?  Are we “bound” or otherwise “fated” to just act out some universal prototype of a human person?  These are really deep philosophical questions that Jacques is grappling with.

At the bottom of these questions we are faced with confronting matters of free will, happiness, and so on.  If man just acts out some role that he inherited from every generation before him—whether he was “fated” to or not—then maybe man isn’t really free to do much of anything.  And the degree to which he does manage to do some thing or another is somewhat dubious, since rather than looking at an individual man’s merits and achievements, we might just point to the fact that he is simply fulfilling what was expected of his role.  At best, he is a good actor, rather than being a free and responsible creature.

Some additional insights can be gleaned when we think about how this speech fits into the play as a whole.  As you like it, despite having this somewhat serious speech, is a comedy.  It is generally light hearted and ends in marriages.  So the speech is not quite as contextually existential and desparate as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” or as Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquies.  With that in mind, it is more of a contrast or a foil against the different love affairs and relative frivolity present in the play.  Jacques is a very brooding, sort of out-of-place character (relative to Rosalind and the royalty) who brings a different perspective to the table.  He’s basically there to question the genuineness of the oft-repeated love story that always ends happily.  But the thing is, As you like it does end this way, so whatever force there is behind Jacques’ speech is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Shakespeare ultimately follows suit and gives the audience “what they want” in a conventional comedic ending.

All in all we might find Jacques speech to basically be Shakespeare having some fun with the audience.  Shakespeare had a habit, especially in his comedies, of reminding the audience of the fourth wall and of trying to sort of mess with their heads.  He does this most notably in Midsummer Night’s Dream but to some degree or another it happens in many of his other comedies, and As you like it is no exception.  The “all the world’s a stage” speech is a challenging thought for a viewer who just happens to be watching these events on a stage.  It makes a person think about what is real and what is imaginary, what is genuine and what is put on for show.  Shakespeare liked to ask present these questions to his audiences and use his creative control to challenge them.

So the speech is one way to do that.  As you like it is a fairly conventional Shakespearean comedy, it’s based around royalty falling in love, anxiety over whether or not the love will be realized in a marriage, a fair amount of confusion, and some injustices and seizures of power—all of which are resolved by the end and everyone basically gets over their problems and loves each other by the conclusion.  So even the title of the play might be a bit of a dig at the audiences, since Shakespeare is giving them “what they want” or a play “as you like it,” while perhaps he would have been more interested in doing a different play.  Similar to how movie directors often make bad movies just as a way to pay the bills (like Coppolla with Jack) so they can go on to do what they really want.  Shakespeare might have made the whole play to just “pay the bills” so he could move on to writing and producing things that he was really interested in.  To that end, he still wanted to include some tidbits and challenges for the audience, little teases and authorial idiosyncrasies that might frustrate them and hint at his own disdain for how conventional the whole thing is.  And if that was his intent, Jacques’ speech was a great way to do it.





























Confucius. The Analects. Retrieved from

Shakespeare, William. As you Like it. Retrieved from