Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Shakspere Society of Philadelphia
Maybe not the first, but the oldest Shakespeare club in America or possibly even the world, has kept minutes for over a hundred fifty years.

New Invention of the Human: Shakspere, and Zuckerberg

William Shakespeare, (spelled Shakspere in his last will and testament, and thus arguably the preferred spelling four hundred years ago), lived and wrote four centuries ago. And yet the Shakspere Society of Philadelphia claims to be the oldest continuous Shakespeare Society in the world, dating from around our Civil War. You will have to ask Dean Sandra Cadwalader how that happens to be reconciled. In any event, this Philadelphia Club was founded by Horace Howard Furness, brother of Frank Furness, Congressional Medal of Honor awardee and notorious swash-buckling architect of the Art Museum on North Broad Street, properly pronounced "Furnace". Although the Society started meeting for dinner on Washington Square, it presently meets in the Philadelphia Club on the corner of 13th and Walnut, after meeting for ten years in the Franklin Inn Club on Camac Street of the same city. Much of the early memorabilia are housed in the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, including the Variorum Shakespeare which it originated.


By a series of freak weather conditions, the meeting of the Shakspere Society of Philadelphia on April 11, 2018, had been postponed several times, and thus the reading of the fifth Act of Hamlet fell on that date. According to Harold Bloom in his book The Invention of the Human, the style of Shakespeare's plays changed abruptly at that point. No less than T.S.Eliot referred to the play as "certainly an artistic failure", but most other critics give it a much higher ranking, especially culturally. Perhaps Nietzche had it most accurately when he spoke of Hamlet "not as a man who thinks too much but as the man who thinks too well."

Hamlet is twice as long as other Shakespearean plays. Prior to that time, the plays were either light, frothy comedies, or else bloody assassinations. By contrast during a fourteen month period during the later period, four plays emerged: Othello , King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. His seemingly final comedy, The Tempest, although filled with "farewells", was far from his last play. He died a comparatively young man in his fifties, allegedly in a barroom argument. The character of his final plays was so strikingly different from his earlier ones that many serious commentators associated themselves with the idea they were the product of two different authors.

While the plot of the two aspects of Hamlet is substantially the same, the character of the Prince has been radically and abruptly changed in the second one. To paraphrase Bloom, the earlier character was an archaic avenger much like his ghostly father, while the later one was a renaissance redeemer. The explanation given is the rather unsatisfying one of fear of sending the villain to paradise at the moment of his remorse, thus avoiding his soul from repentance. In short, the choice of a new king originally (a version of the original survives) was a selection of the fiercest defender of his surviving Vikings, whereas the later version starting with the present fifth Act, was modified to be the wisest manager for the flock of remotely related relatives. The directness of the language and the abbreviation of action are certainly accelerated after this time. Placed among his other thirty-some plays, the transformation is certainly striking.


Ignoring the now-largely rejected interval of Freudian viewpoints, the modern transformation of attitude about Hamlet began at the time of my own contact with it at Yale, about seventy-five years ago. Like the memories of Rip van Winkle, they had persisted unchanged from that time, failing to recognize the further evolution, then reconsideration, to which scholarship had taken it in the seventy-five-year interval. A complete transformation had taken Hamlet from archaic avenger to scholarly redeemer. What now mattered was, who would make with the wisest king, not who had the strongest genetics. The external vision of the culture changed from barbarian to Renaissance Church, to secular scholarship. The Church lost its control, replaced by the university, with pockets of transitional viewpoints persisting. It had taken seventy-five years to make the last jump, which had taken fifty years to reach earlier transformations. Following my new profession down scientific paths, I had entirely missed the Freudian adventure.

This probably would have remained a scholarly squabble, had it not been accompanied by a parallel change in society's view about what was truly the wish of the populace, a changed view of what mattered in life, which the cultural image portrayed. It wasn't the theatrical portrayal which mattered, it was the image of it among the populace, changing the way the theater portrayed it.


Imaging the embarrassing interval of freedom viewpoint. The transformation of attitudes about Hamlet sign seventy-five years ago but was abandoned by me by the elections of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The paradox of the two halves of Hamlet had been recognized but largely set down to new attitudes of the Renaissances. When I returned to Shakespeare after retirement from Medicine almost a century later, Freud had come and gone, but the memory of early transformations persisted unchanged like the memories of Rip Van Winkle. My impression returned its focus on the Renaissance because of its focus on the Protestant Revolution by Samuel Johnson and his spiritual discontent Fanny Kemble, while the English Department at Yale had shifted the focus from the church to the spiritual focus of the stage to the secular view of the secular literary critics. From the choice of a king must be the best likely military defender of the popular admission had shifted to the weird spiritual leader genetics and fierceness had shifted to the secular values; the church had given way to the University. Because of my own switch of attention during romance with medical science, I hadn't noticed, and the rest of Philadelphia hadn't paid attention, either because of Fanny Kemble, the computer, and the decline of the influence of the theater. When the subtle shift was announced to Philadelphia, it was treated courteously by Philadelphia, but totally ignored a week later. Literary criticism beyond to New Haven, Philadelphia never expected to change, so it just didn't.

The Nature of Hamlet's Transformation.

The pace of cultural change had been immensely altered by the computer. Only one week later, Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about the mysterious revolution in politics, economics, and culture. We have searched by for a unifying theirs that the search had been abandoned just as it began to be successful, the unifying these emerged as society was giving the battlefield over to specialization. So the politicians saw the cultural infection as political, just as economists saw it as economics, and the press saw it as news.

But what had suddenly changed was a cultural splitting; unification took over from specialization in a week's time the cultural change was going to take longer than the change itself. It took four hundred years to change for something from external changes to

Originally published: Thursday, April 12, 2018; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019