I’m currently reading Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation A. Coupland is famous for having his finger on the pulse of modern society, and often writes with his tongue firmly placed in his cheek. Generation A is no exception. This tale is set in 2077 – and the world is recognizably our own – that is to say we are not all aboard a spaceship, or teleporting ourselves from the lounge into the bathroom – thank goodness. Bees, however, are extinct, and have been for many years. Until….one day…five people from around the world are stung. “And thereby hangs a tale” – but sadly I can’t tell you how it ends, as I still have 168 pages to go.
2077 – bees – extinction – Shakespeare? I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost connection with the present in my hours of leisure, and have instead spent many an idle moment contemplating the future. Having recently read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, followed hot on the heels by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and now Coupland’s Generation A – I find myself wondering what Shakespeare saw as the future for this planet, and the people on it.
It seems to me that Shakespeare’s sense of a ‘future’ rarely, if ever, stretches far beyond the immediate steps that need to be taken to bring unity to a world which has been divided by tragedy. Kings assume thrones – characters are given responsibilities – lessons are learned (we hope). For Shakespeare the ‘future’ seems personal and pressing – he is primarily concerned with “what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil” (Hamlet), rather than with what will become of mankind in more general terms. For Macbeth, the idea of ‘tomorrow’, let alone a distant future, gives pause for thought:
“ Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to death”.
There are of course specific moments in Shakespeare’s plays when characters have an eye to the future. After Julius Caesar’s assassination the conspirators proclaim –“How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted over /In states unborn and accents yet unknown” (Julius Caesar), and Cleopatra fears that at some point in the future audiences will watch “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’th’ posture of a whore” (Antony and Cleopatra). The weird sisters in Macbeth make prophecies about the future, as does Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida, and Gonzalo takes time to envision a new commonwealth under his rule in The Tempest. The future is also on Timon’s mind when he asks Apemantus what he would do if the world lay in his power – the response – “Give it the beasts, to be rid of the men” (Timon of Athens).
For me, Shakespeare’s most profound statement about the future comes at the close of King Lear.
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
Shakespeare marries past, present, and future in the space of four lines. The future is uncertain, but it will definitely be the product of what has gone before. Wise words – “not of an age, but for all time”.