People like to reflect on greatness and to make lists of the ten or hundred greatest men and women in history. Or in Britain, or in America, or in the world.
When the Brits make lists of the greatest men and women in history the list tends to be dominated by Brits, American lists by Americans, German lists by Germans etc. So from Britain you get Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, of course – and always Shakespeare – dominating the lists.
American lists of the great men and women in history are dominated by Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and so on. Of course, William Shakespeare is always there.
A lot depends on who it is compiling the list. I have seen lists that are dominated by men of war and lists dominated by religious figures. American lists tend to leave Darwin out. For some reason Americans generally have more of a dread than an admiration for him, even though he changed our understanding of life on earth more profoundly than anyone else.
I have seen some strange things on the lists I have looked at. Take Shakespeare out of the equation because he is usually there, but, having said that, I sometimes wonder what is going on in people’s minds. Mother Theresa among the top twenty greatest men and women in history? And Billy Graham?
Some historical figures have become legends, their stories reinvented as fiction and told to children in school and so you get people like Florence Nightingale as one of humanity’s greatest people. And David Livingstone! Where is Rip van Winkle on the lists? His presence wouldn’t surprise me.
In a recent list compiled by a British tourist organisation, totaltravel.com, the list went like this: William Shakespeare; Winston Churchill; Sir Christopher Wren; Queen Victoria; John Lennon; Isaac Newton; David Hockney; Charles Darwin; Boudicea : C. 30 – 62.
John Lennon? That great? David Hockney? And Darwin so far down? The compiler was probably trying not to put American tourists off.
In 2003 the BBC world satellite news conducted a poll of overseas listeners and here is their list.
Sir Isaac Newton • Winston Churchill • Princess Diana • William Shakespeare • Charles Darwin • John Lennon • Isambard Kingdom Brunel • Queen Elizabeth I • General Oliver Cromwell • Admiral Horatio Nelson
Shakespeare comes fourth to Princess Diana’s third. What can one say? When it’s left to democracy and you vote on who were the best writers of all time, here in the UK you get people like Jeffrey Archer and JK Rowling topping the polls. I wonder what that just goes to show? I wouldn’t have Archer in the top million writers.
One thing is clear. Shakespeare is consistently on the lists, and somewhere near the top. If you were to find a way of analysing the lists and making an aggregate I think you would find that Shakespeare is The Man.