What Shakespeare taught me about climate change - Macleans.ca

What Shakespeare taught me about climate change

“Let not men say / ‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’ / For, I believe, they are portentous things / Unto the climate that they point upon.”

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Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter what you study, as long as you study something, for I have often noticed that many brilliant people have arrived at the same habits of thought through the studies of entirely different disciplines. This is why I rely on my knowledge of Shakespeare to understand climate change.

Now, before you scoff too loudly, understand that I am not about to suggest that Shakespeare knew very much about global climate (when he uses the word “climate,” it is in a more limited sense) or that he was prescient enough to predict our current situation. In fact, the part of Shakespeare studies that I’m thinking of here is the so-called authorship debate. You know, where a small number of observers keep making the case that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have been the author of the plays attributed to him.

Those wishing to make the case for someone other than Shakespeare being Shakespeare can trot out a number of seemingly convincing points, all of which are true, as far as they go:

1. Though Shakespeare is supposed to have gone to the Stratford grammar school, there is no record of his actually having attended there.

2. There are no surviving letters mentioning Shakespeare as a dramatist.

3. Shakespeare’s will does not make mention of any books.

From these facts, the anti-Stratfordians (whoever their preferred Shakespeare may be) go on to draw all sorts of conclusions. If Shakespeare didn’t attend school he couldn’t possibly have been able to write the plays people say he did. If Shakespeare was so famous, why doesn’t anyone mention ever having met him? How could a literary genius not have owned any books? It doesn’t add up!

At least it doesn’t add up unless you know the full slate of facts. To wit:

1. There are no records of Shakespeare attending the King’s New School in Stratford because the records from the period were lost in a fire. Shakespeare’s father was the Bailiff of the town, a position roughly equivalent to a mayor. On this evidence, it is nearly certain that Shakespeare would have attended the local grammar school.

2. Letters from the period do not survive in abundance, especially among the class of people that Shakespeare would have mostly moved in,  so it is not surprising that no extant letters mention Shakespeare as a dramatist. Moreover, many other documents from the period do mention him. So to focus on the absence of letters is misleading.

3. Shakespeare’s will, like most people’s, does  not identify every item that he owned. Much of his estate is left, en masse, to his daughter and her husband. So the fact that no books are mentioned does not imply that Shakespeare didn’t own any. I own over a thousand books, but they are not listed in my will. Further, Shakespeare’s will mentions three of his friends, by name, who were members of his London playing company — a detail that anti-Stratfordians have to ignore or explain away.

My point is that, as Pope said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. With enough half-truths and misleading bits of data, one can make a case for just about anything, and very often an observer cannot see the holes in the argument unless one is an expert. And just about every real expert, every Shakespeare scholar that is, knows that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Which brings me back to climate change. Every time I hear a news report about climate skeptics, or hear someone talking climate smack on the radio, or see a new book claiming that climate change is a left-wing myth, I return to one point. Nearly all of the actual climate experts do believe that rapid, human-made, global warming is happening and its happening because we are burning huge amounts of fossil fuels, increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If climate change isn’t happening, why are so many specialized scholars convinced that it is? There follow charges of stupidity, greed (people seem to think scholars are awash in grant money that they can spend on themselves which is just silly), and conformity. But these accusations sound implausible to me: every scientist that I’ve ever met would kill to be able to prove a well-established theory is wrong. But it doesn’t happen very often.

Now, of course, I could spend a great deal of time studying climate change on my own and learning the ins and outs of every aspect of the debate, but I have my own work to do. And even if I learned everything I needed to know to refute the climate deniers, then there would be the evolution deniers to worry about. And the aquatic ape people. And the Kennedy assassination people. And who knows what next.

So, in the absence of real evidence of a giant cover-up, most of the time you just have to trust the experts. The earth is warming. Humans evolved from other organisms through mutation and natural selection. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Trust me.