The Corner

For Shakespeare Buffs *Only*

“Dear Mr. Derbyshire—In your May 14 2004 NRO piece, ‘Here to Stay,’ you

refer to a well-known phrase from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida — ‘One

touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’ The phrase, unfortunately for

your essay — which I am sympathetic with and found rhetorically adroit –

is also perhaps incorrectly taken out of context more than any other in

Shakespeare. The sense of the entire passage is most assuredly *negative*

regarding the ‘the whole world[‘s]‘ very ability to distinguish between the

proven virtues and new-fangled characters and mores.

“In this speech of Ulysses [III, iii], one of the greatest in world

literature, Achilles is sulking in his tent, in large part because he isn’t

being shown the respect he deserves for his acts in the past, vastly

superior to those of the he cloddish young soldier Ajax, who now is being

praised to the heavens. (It may be noted that Ajax is getting center stage

precisely because Achilles isn’t taking part.)

“Halfway into the speech, an image of social time as a changeable is

introduced:

“For time is like a fashionable host

That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,

And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,

Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,

And farewell goes out sighing.

“Now we come to the passage with the ‘touch of nature.’ [I might add that

the opportunity for comparisons here with the travails of Rumsfeld and

Kerry,

with ‘news-cycles,’ etc., run throughout the extraordinarily diverse

political thought and characterization in the play.]

“But the meaning of the entire passage, as introduced [in this excerpt] by

the similie of the fashionable host, is that virtue will be ‘remunerated’

not for what it was, but for what every passing fad says it should be –

people by their very nature will praise ‘new-born gawds’ highlighted by

’envious and calumniating time,’ and they will laud even dust, when covered

with cheap gilt, than gold with some dust on it.

“The phrase, then, cited out of context, is taken to imply that the result

of our shared nature is that we, being ‘kin,’ are all kindred, in the

modern,

morally positive Western sense: ‘we are all brothers,’ ‘we are the world,’

etc. This is contrary to Shakespeare’s meaning; in any other it is simply

tautological.

“Rather, the self-decay of a society blessed with the proven virtuous stems

from in the very ‘nature’ of man (the slightest touch of it, in fact); in

this–this self-destructive and cyclical process–we are ‘all made kin’.

“For beauty, wit,

High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,

Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all

To envious and calumniating time.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,

That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,

Though they are made and moulded of things past,

And give to dust that is a little gilt

More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.

The present eye praises the present object.

Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,

That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;

Since things in motion sooner catch the eye

Than what not stirs.

The present eye praises the present object.

Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,

That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;

Since things in motion sooner catch the eye

Than what not stirs.”

I hope everybody’s got that. Not sure I have.

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