Shakespeare and Douglass: Giving Speech to the Soul

In the eighth chapter of his autobiography, Frederick Douglass describes the loneliness that alone attends his grandmother in her final days. She outlives her master whom, in the words of Douglass, she had rocked in infancy, waited upon in childhood, served through life, and cared for on his death-bed. To his bitter service she loses children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Yet when the master and then his heirs die, their wills reward her only with new masters. These, Douglass reports, find her “of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs.” And so they build her a hut in the woods and leave her there — isolated from all her kin — to die.

In much of his autobiography, Douglass adopts a detached tone to record the horrors of slavery. This renders his accounts of whippings and beatings — described in the careful detail one might expect of a naturalist — all the more disturbing in their raw matter-of-factness. But when he imagines his grandmother’s fate, Douglass composes this lyrical stream-of-consciousness:

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

When my students read this aloud in class, I heard in that heartbreaking rhyme — “when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet” — an echo of Shakespeare’s Jaques. I mentioned this to the class, but did not know whether Douglass had knowingly done this. A little research suggests he did. (And it took some time for my excitement to abate to the point where I could write this down.)

The echo originates in act two, scene seven, of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. To the exiled Duke Senior’s hopeful acceptance of suffering, the melancholic Jaques responds with a speech that begins with that oft-quoted line “All the world’s a stage.” I’d guess most know that line are less familiar with the Hobbesian view of human life that follows:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Both Jaques and Douglass see in old age a “second childishness.” “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” the aged becomes as vulnerable as the babe. In time, as Douglass says, “helpless infancy and painful old age combine together.”

I have always loved this scene in As You Like It, not for its cynical summation — or reduction, rather — of the life of man, but for the way in which Shakespeare refutes this view. To quote my favorite deacon: “a text without a context is NO TEXT AT ALL.” This holds especially true for plays, where stage directions can say as much as any line. At the end of Jaques’s speech, Shakespeare gives the stage direction “Re-enter Orlando, with Adam.” What makes this so significant?

Orlando, a young man of noble character, must flee for his life at the start of the play. His devoted servant Adam (who reveals he is nearly “fourscore” or eighty years old) follows him into exile. The two struggle to survive in the woods and, in scene six of act two, Adam says he can go no further and must die for want of food. Scene six ends there, and scene seven opens upon the good Duke Senior’s exiled company, who aren’t faring so badly. Jaques then gives his speech about how man’s life ends in oblivion, in the failure of the senses and total isolation, and in apparent meaninglessness. At this moment, Orlando enters upon the Duke’s company with Adam. Duke Senior says “Welcome. Set down your venerable burthen, and let him feed.” And we realize that the young Orlando has been carrying Old Adam — to rescue, to succour, to a place of rest. Talk about a biblical allusion! The young master, who suffers because of a false accusation, becomes the servant who saves Old Adam. And what artistry by Shakespeare: he quietly counters Jaques’s cynical speech with a young man carrying the old across the stage, incarnating a vision of how precious is a man, even when his body cannot sustain him. I think Orlando carries, against the thought of Jaques, not only the old and infirm, but all whose bodies seem deficient for the purposes of “independent living” with a high “quality of life.”

With this echo in mind, Douglass’s description of his grandmother’s fate becomes even more tragic. For her, because of the cruelty of her slave masters, no youth can cross the stage to hold her in her decline. For her, “there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains.” Infirmity does not rob us of our human natures, our human dignity. Men only become brutes who willingly violate their own natures by violating the sanctity of others.

I pondered all this after class and wondered if I could figure out whether or not Douglass knew Shakespeare’s play. My first internet search for sources citing Douglass and Jaques yielded nothing. But when I searched “Douglass AND ‘As You Like It,’” I discovered a published excerpt of a speech Douglass gave on February 6, 1863, which contained a footnote for act two, scene seven of As You Like It — the scene with Jaques’s speech. I found the full text of Douglass’s speech here (also reported on by the New York Times on February 7, 1863), which he gave in praise of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In the speech, he argues that blacks who wish should be able to fight for the Union Army. “They are ready to rally under the stars and stripes at the first tap of the drum,” he insists. “Give them a chance; stop calling them ‘niggers,’ and call them soldiers. Give them a chance to seek the bauble reputation at the cannon’s mouth.” Though Douglass doesn’t reference any of Jaques’s lines about old age in this speech, that phrase about seeking the bauble [bubble] reputation at the cannon’s mouth comes directly from Jaques. It’s not possible Douglass used such an usual phrase by coincidence. Though the echo of Jaques in Douglass’s description of old age in his 1845 autobiography could still be unintended, this more direct reference in his 1863 speech suggests Douglass did know As You Like It, and knew it well.

Here is a small snippet of the great conversation which I never expected and am glad I could hear. And I expect many more such conversations are going on all the time which I cannot tune in to because I haven’t yet read enough. In the seventh chapter of his autobiography, Douglass says that learning to read and encountering truthful authors “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance [. . .] the reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts.” That is one purpose of reading — that is one purpose of working at listening in on the great conversation: you learn how to understand and articulate the movements of your own soul.


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