During a recent episode of “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” the host took acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler to task for comments he made about Shakespeare. In doing so, Meyers demonstrated how pitifully low late-night comedy (and society) has sunk.
After Wheeler stepped into the role vacated by Scott Pruitt, he held a meeting with his new staff where he said, “Just like me, you came to the EPA to help the environment. We have important work before us. To quote my favorite author, Shakespeare, ‘We know what we are, but know not what we may be.'”
The quote that Wheeler pulled from Shakespeare is a line delivered by Hamlet‘s Ophelia. Confused by Hamlet’s constant reversals of affections and her father’s mucking about, Ophelia is expressing the uncertainty that was eating away at her psyche. Put in another way, Ophelia was confessing that knowing who she was at any given moment was useless because that knowledge would inevitably be upended in the next moment. Uncertainty and confusion bore down on Ophelia and created an existential crisis that ultimately destroyed her.
While I trust that Wheeler is better able to navigate uncertainty and confusion than Ophelia, it doesn’t take a genius to see the appropriateness of Wheeler’s use of the quote to his EPA staff considering the current political climate. However, Seth Meyers, being a leftist, has an a priori commitment to hating anything to do with President Trump, Republicans, and anything to do with conservatives, in general.
Setting aside the politics for others to dissect and discuss, I believe that Meyers’ swipe at Shakespeare is more telling than his swipe at Wheeler. Mocking Wheeler, Meyers also took aim at the greatest writer in the Western canon:
Oh, Shakespeare is your favorite? What a classy way to admit you haven’t read anything since college. And Shakespeare is a playwright, not an author. If he’s your favorite, you should know that. Also, no one’s favorite playwright is Shakespeare. “Romeo and Juliet” is freshman busywork and we all know it. And, it is not a good sign that the head of the EPA loves a writer who poisons half his characters to death.
Depending on the day, Shakespeare is my favorite author and I read close to two hundred books a year. Meyers and his friends may never interact with the great classics of literature, but that doesn’t mean that no one else does. What’s more, I hope that my use of the descriptor “author” was noted.
Yes, Shakespeare was a playwright, and Wheeler knows that. He probably knows that better than Meyers since the comedian basically admitted to having not read Shakespeare since college. Furthermore, if we’re demanding a pedantic and absolute literalness with language, that means that Seth Meyers believes that Shakespeare is still alive — notice his use of the verb “is” instead of “was” when referencing the long-dead author.
Like comedy, good hyperbole is connected to the truth. And Meyers’ hyperbolic claim that Shakespeare poisoned “half his characters to death” is so far away from actually being true that anyone who knows Shakespeare beyond what they were forced to read in high school will be puzzled by it. Even if we’re limiting the discussion to main characters, Shakespeare only killed a tiny percentage of his characters with poison.
That may seem like a petty quibble on my part, but Seth Meyers is a writer and a comedian. Lack of knowledge about the greatest English writer is evidence of how dumbed down late-night comedy is. His dismissal of Shakespeare is a reflection of our society’s untethering from excellence and truth. Those enthralled with the postmodern epistemology (theory of knowledge) of intersectionality (identity politics) hate Shakespeare because Shakespeare is proof that such things as transcendent standards and objective truth exist. Shakespeare pushes back hard on the belief that knowledge is self-defined and culturally constructed.
As I think about it, with all of the uncertainty and confusion about identity and truth created by “self-defining” knowledge, the Ophelia quote may be a scary prediction for our society’s future.