What would Shakespeare have thought about the things that we take for granted and which he never dreamt of? We all jump in a car at least once a day; we get on a plane and travel at incredible speed from once country to another; we push a button and watch wars being fought thousands of miles away; we watch a play without moving from our armchairs. I could go on forever, outlining all the things we do without giving them a second thought.
Shakespeare regularly commuted between Stratford and London, and each time it would have been a very bumpy journey taking the whole day and possibly longer. We can travel from London to Stratford in about an hour, very comfortably, listening to any music we choose. To listen to music Shakespeare would have had to take the trouble to go the place where the musicians were.
Could he have possibly imagined that we would send people to walk on the moon? That we have landed vehicles on Mars and Titan, sat back and watched moving pictures of their activity there? Even the idea of pictures that hadn’t been painted by an artist would have been beyond his imagination.
The technology of his time was strictly mechanical, based on the wheel and operated by manpower. And he had no reason to think it would go beyond that, just as we, with all our electronic miracles, can’t imagine what our descendents four hundred years into the future will be taking for granted.
Writers today work on computers with the internet running in the background. Whenever they need a piece of information they just make a couple of clicks and they get it. We are overwhelmed by Shakespeare’s knowledge but the truth is that ten-year-old kids have more knowledge than he had. It may be different knowledge but kids have far more knowledge as such.
Shakespeare was well-read but not as well read as the average educated adult is today. He had a few books on his shelf – two history books, a book about classical mythology, a bible, some medieval philosophy – and look what he made of that. All his history plays were based on the stories taken from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of English History and the stories he presents in his Roman plays from North’s translation of the Roman historian, Plutarch. Look what he made of those two sources!
Try and imagine yourself without the internet. Try and imagine what your great great great great great grandchildren will take for granted. You can’t. As Hamlet says: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Shakespeare didn’t know what they were but he knew that they are there even though we couldn’t begin to imagine them.