We are all Shakespeare | Work of Arts
We are all Shakespeare | Work of Arts

We are all Shakespeare

Research by 5th year Arts student Blue Knox explores Shakespeare and contemporary Canadian political leadership and how studying literature can build better leaders

Republished with permission from The Wanderer (originally published on November 18, 2014)
Photo by Joshua Le/Video taken by Robert Lees-Miller

My mother always told me that university is as much figuring out what you do want to do, as it is about figuring out what you don’t want to do. First I was an English major and political science minor, then a political science major and English minor, then I aimed for honors in political science, and now, in my fifth year of university, I am finally on track to graduate with a double major English and political science Bachelor of Arts degree. Every year that I prioritized one discipline over the other, I felt like I was compromising a piece of myself. I couldn’t have the politics without the poetry, or the literature without the debates in leadership.

Whenever I tell people that I have focused most of my research in university on international relations or Shakespeare, they give me a look of total bewilderment, as if to say “You really have no idea what you want in life, do you?” and yet the connection between the two has always been so clear to me. I thought, if there was only some way that I could show my university, my friends, my professors, my family, my colleagues, even complete strangers, how the two were connected, I could help contribute to making our academic community more inclusive and interdisciplinary.

My dream came true when I was selected for the Undergraduate Research Initiative’s researcher stipend for my dream project: researching Shakespeare and contemporary Canadian political leadership to show the connections between literature and leadership. I spent five months comparing Julius Caesar and Brutus from Shakespeare’s political masterpiece Julius Caesar to Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Michael Ignatieff. Then, I had the incredible opportunity to share that research with my friends and family at FURCA 2014 [Festival of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities], and decided to take a risk and try something new (it’s what William would have wanted). Below is the video and full text of “We Are All Shakespeare,” the spoken word poem I performed for my research presentation.

We Are All Shakespeare

Friends, Romans, Countrymen.
Professors, colleagues, Canadians.
I have a story to share with you,
it is one of lies, broken promises, and fury
it is one of truth, hope, and a call to action.

We are at a crossroads in our post-secondary education system
where the value of our degrees is in the look we get when we say
I am earning my Bachelor of *whistle*
This is an educational identity crisis
and every time we are forced to articulate;
why my research is more important than your research
why my faculty is more important than your faculty
why my professors are more important than your professors
we are saying my education is more important than your education
we are adding blocks to the walls that separate our fields of study
and isolate us in echo-chambers of same-thinking

but we are not so different you and I
we are chemists
we are linguists
we are microbiologists
we are economists
we are a community
who are just trying to make sense of the world around us
in ways that are: challenging, frightening, terrifying, and oh-my-god-how-am-I-going-to-have-this-done-by-8-am-ing!

SO… you see
I am not just a Bachelor of Arts undergrad
just an English Major
or just a Political Science major
I am an explorer;
dissecting the syllables of soliloquies with the scientific precision of a brain surgeon
I am a builder;
crafting compositions and contemplating each consonant with the caution of an architect

The first time I read Shakespeare, all I could think
was “wherefore art thou” nearest exit?
Then, I dove in, headfirst and clueless,
like a twelve year old on the highest plank over an olympic sized swimming pool
In Shakespeare I found joy
In Shakespeare I found fury
In Shakespeare I found lies
In Shakespeare I found truth
In Shakespeare I found hurt, and hate, and love, and lust
and in Shakespeare I found humanity

Shakespeare is the past, the present, and the future
it is so far back it is foreign and new again
it is so accurately human, like whoa, who is this guy
Shakespeare is emotion, confrontation, sensation so familiar
it plants seeds in your imagination giving birth to trees of inspiration
Shakespeare is sympathetic, and a relief,
because conflict and turmoil are overwhelming and exhausting
and it is a relief to know that we are not the first ones to have faced these problems

and our leaders are problem-solvers
they must know fiction and non-fiction
Our leaders give us a voice
and they must know who they speak for
because our leaders are heads of households, CEOs of companies, foremen of construction sites, and prime ministers of countries,
so they must know community
but our leaders also sit quietly in the backs of classrooms and boardrooms,
learning leading through following

because great leaders stand for more than themselves
like great writers write about more than themselves

the number of search results for “Shakespeare quote” in Google
but this is literary appropriation and deification for quotation
because those are the words of characters
of plays like Julius Caesar
and Shakespeare was just their inventor
the inventor of the best friend and backstabber
the inventor of the publicly prized politician
the inventor of the ladder our leaders climb to get power
the inventor of the friends at the bottom looking up saying “hey man, when’d you forget about us?”
or maybe he didn’t invent them, maybe he just told their stories (!)

like he told the story of Trudeaumania,
oh shit, did I say Trudeau?
because I meant Caesar
because you see how easily the lines between fiction and reality are blurred
because you see how many times we have crossed over these divides in word
because you see centuries of civilization in the stanzas of one man’s imagination
because you see Cassius quietly dropped this divination:

“How many ages hence,
shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown”

So when I say Brutus
I do not mean the loser
I do not mean the failure
and I do not mean Greg Hicks in the 2001 stage adaptation of Julius Caesar
I mean humility,
I mean honesty,
I mean self-reflection
and I mean a warning;
to trust yourself when everyone around you is telling you
what to do and how to do it, what to say and how to say it
because if you don’t your voice will be drowned out
in a sea of voices who think they know better, and our leaders need to be strong,
So when I see Brutus
I see Michael Ignatieff
I see self deprecation, and political naiveté
I see a man painfully human, noble
I see a man who we have rushed to make forgotten
I see Bob Rae December 9 2008, withdrawing from the Liberal leadership race looking at Ignatieff, his old university friend, thinking “Et tu, Brute?”
So when I see Brutus
I see Ignatieff
in Boston 2004 teaching at Harvard, well respected and content when three men arrive to convince him he is needed for a job he never wanted planting seeds of doubt and discontent
when I see Brutus
I see Ignatieff
killed with the political sword stained in the blood of his public humiliation
and driven from the country with the words: Just visiting

So when I say Caesar
I do not mean salad
I do not mean pizza
and I do not mean some guy draped in a sheet at a frat toga party yelling “YOLOOOO”
I mean strength,
I mean power,
I mean stepping forward and standing for your people;
whether they’re your countrymen, classmates, or coworkers,
and I mean a lesson;
in listening, in stepping back, and being flexible because if you are always a rock you cannot let anyone in, and our leaders need to be able to listen
So when I see Caesar
I see Pierre Elliot Trudeau
I see hero worship and frenzy
I see a man hated and loved who we have desperately sought to replace
I see a man who is remembered
So when I see Caesar
I see Pierre Elliot standing at the brink of a country divided
enacting the War Measures Act turning to a young journalist in front of the parliament buildings saying Caesar shall go forth
when I see Caesar
I see Pierre pirouetting behind the Queen
with all the flair and arrogance of a celebrity
with Canadians roaring behind their tvs offering him our country like a crown, his colleagues glaring with their sharp tongues whispering
“Upon what meat, does this our Caesar feed
that he is grown so great”

So will I be Brutus or will I be Caesar
will I be the winner or will I be the loser
Will I die on my sword, or the sword of another?
Will I be so much a rock that I forget my humanity
Will I be so like a sponge that I drift away, lost at sea

I am here before you like Trudeau
in Montreal 1968 St. Jean Baptiste day parades, daring you to throw your empties at me because I will not be swayed
I am here before you like Ignatieff
in Ottawa 2011 post election defeat, the third ever leader of the Liberal party to not become Prime Minister because I am incomplete

So the question remains as we sort through the pains
of ours country’s cartography of leaders in policy…

Should we Brutus or should we be Caesar?
The answer is, I think, that we must be both, and neither
because they, in some weird way,
are both themselves and they are each other

We are all Ignatieff and Brutus
We are all Trudeau and Caesar
We are all Shakespeare
we can be interpreted a million and one ways
and maybe none of them is right or maybe all of them is right
We are all failure…

So I asked my friends and they told me that
“Shakespeare is…” old english, poetic, mainstream, confusing, genius
“Shakespeare is…” for everyone, famous, wit, public, old, fucking hard to understand
“Shakespeare is…” life condensed, pretentious, beautiful, history, human
“Shakespeare is…” all of these things and none of these things because we all have our own way of understanding things

400 years posthumous Shakespeare is so much more than a flesh and bones human being

it is a myth, with influence so far beyond one author or anthology
Shakespeare is the 17th century Wu Tang, Jay-Z, Andre 3000 rap virtuoso
Shakespeare is every hipster with a tattoo that says “the fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars”

it has twitter accounts with thousands of followers and
it has Ira Glass tweeting “No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”
it is a space for our future leaders to learn lessons that have been learned the hard way for centuries
it is important

So when I say Shakespeare
I do not mean incorrectly cited Pinterest quotes #Shakespeare
I do not mean Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio
I do not mean men in tights with British accents
because my Shakespeare may not be your Shakespeare
my Shakespeare is an exercise in empathy
my Shakespeare is a call to action for students to contextualize their education in ways that inspire them
my Shakespeare is dangerous and risky and experimenting with language
it’s giving depth to my knowledge through poetic form
it’s my Metro morning horoscope telling me to beware the ides of March
it’s poetry, politics, leadership, literature
my Shakespeare is fiction and NON-fiction,
because Caesar Trudeau Brutus Ignatieff are all stories, are all real, are all lessons

and if you do not think our leaders need literature
read history books, you will find them wanting
and if you think Shakespeare sucks,
read into it your own present, not a stranger’s past
and if you feel not moved by poetry,
read people, because they are poetry reflected
and if you feel not moved by my words,
read my emotions for my intention was to blur the lines between my politics and my prose
and if you think I cannot be a good leader through Shakespeare
Just watch me

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