6B Wednesday, January 23 2013 // The Statement
Prof. Ralph Williams: A modern day Prospero
by Peter Shahin
An interview with Ralph Williams is a
daunting task - one I wasn't wholly
prepared for. In the Daily's online
archives, which go back just over a decade,
there are more than 90 articles that either
mention or are directly about him. This is
impressive amount for a time period that
barely scratches the surface of the half-cen-
tury Williams has spent at the University,
first as a student, then an English professor.
In those articles, there are overviews of
his involvement with the Royal Shakespeare
Company, highlights from his more famous
lectures, an analysis of his handwriting and
profiles more or less like this one.
The collection, however, doesn't seem
to capture much beyond the surface of his
achievements. He remains, for the most part,
a splendid enigma. No mention of his early
life, few mentions of a personal philosophy,
nothing about his struggles - but plenty of
triumphs - and little about the soul of the
Williams's return to the lecture hall was
a surprise to many - though, perhaps, not to
those who know him well. He retired in 2009
with a grand send-off and a final lecture enti-
tled "How with this rage shall beauty hold a
plea?" given to a packed house at Rackham
Auditorium. In 2012, he made a much-herald-
ed return to teaching, though he had contin-
ued to be deeply involved with the University
during his absence from the classroom.
Nearly four years after that "final" lecture,
Ralph Williams is still enraged.
"There is in me a deep - shall I call it
anger? - at social injustice more widely," he
said. "Life has in many ways been gracious
to me, but the level of profligate waste of the
world's resources, the profligate destruction
of the world's peoples, is justifiably a cause for
anger. There is a question about where to put
that anger, how to deal with it in ways that
aren't sentimental, saying, 'Oh, I forgive so
Of the many characters he's studied
throughout his storied career, he sees him-
self now as Prospero, the betrayed and exiled
duke from Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
Among . all of Shakespeare's characters,
Prospero is perhaps the most wronged by
the world, but he remains conciliatory and
forgiving. Against great odds, and with a bit
of magic, Prospero regains his holdings and
leaves something better for the next genera-
"That play shows a Prospero who doesn't
give over his ground, if you will," Williams
said. "He has been deeply wronged - there
is wrong in the world, and one appropriately
responds to that with something that can be
called anger. The issue of how one redirects
that with all that one can do into not only an
action and appropriate action, but beneficent
action, while retaining or re-achieving, as in
Prospero's case, a goodwill."
"I suppose from where I am, that must be
so ... in such a way as to open the way for the
next generation, even as realizing one's own
limitations in time."
Any student who has learned from Wil-
liams will know that he is unabashedly Cana-
dian. Growing up in St. Marys, Ontario, his
family later moved further to the country-
side. His mother raised him and his four sib-
lings while their father worked as a machinist
in Niagara Falls and was frequently away.
"Milton, Shakespeare, were part of the
daily vocabulary of the house," he said.
"Their phrases were part of the language of
self-expression. There was nothing preten-
tious about it ... it was just how you talked!"
His primary education occurred in two
one-room schoolhouses. Each day's task was
written on the blackboard as the lone teacher
roamed the room helping students with their
work. Instead of simply completingwhat was
assigned to him, Williams completed all the
other grades'-assignments too.
"Knowledge didn't come in neat little
packets," Williams grinned.
He also faced tragedy in his childhood -
one of the darkest moments of his life. As he
recalls those bleak dayshis voice weakens
and his eyes look, as they often do, into the
distance as though he is narrating his own
memory. In 1948, Bill, his brother suddenly
died from what was thought at the time to be
"His last words were, 'Give me a kiss good-
bye, mother,"' Williams recalled, his expres-
The aftermath of his brother's death was
"real terror" for his mother. The family
wasn't sure ofhow communicable the disease
was and whether or not any of the other chil-
dren were afflicted. In the wake of the loss,
she turned to the Bible for comfort, making
each child memorize the Psalm 91:5-6.
"Thou shalt not be afraid of the terrors by
night, or the arrow that flyeth by day, and of
the pestilence that walketh in darkness ..." he
repeated from memory.
"(My early experiences) both made me
acquainted with the resonance (of) those roll-
ing phrases (and) of the comfort presented
there, and started a lifelong dialogue in many
ways with those texts because (they) made a
promise that didn't get fulfilled," he said. "It
said if you were a good guy, then God would
keep a pestilence from you, and God didn't
keep'pestilence from Bill. And so it started a
long clialogue about the status of those prom-
ises and the relationship between their elo-
quent majesty and the root facts of life."
His undergraduate years weren't easy,
either. He attended Andrews University in
Berrien Springs, a 7th Day Adventist institu-
tion, where he found himself stifled by a con-
servative Christian worldview.
"It was an interesting experience. By
the time I finished there, I decided I wasn't
'that,'" he said. "I actually may be one of the
last to get myself called up in front of a uni-
versity president on charges of atheism. It
wasn't true at the time, anyway, but there it
He arrived at the University of Michigan
as a doctoral student in the mid-1960's, and
apart from a brief teaching stint at Cornell -
been here ever since.
Still, his many years of learning and grow-
ing at the University have not brought him
unrequited happiness. Aside from his broth-
er's death, Williams said grappling with the
implications of the Shoah - more commonly
known as the Holocaust - challenged his
most basic human assumptions.
"Ina life that has known a number of chal-
lenges, it is the case that the answer needs to
be related-to what's indicated in what I call
an old 'Williams-ism:' that happiness is not a
state into which you fall. It's a choice of the
will, and it's always against odds."
He looks down at his large hands and
pauses as he ruminates over the implications
of what he said.
"This means that I don't know whether
we're going, as a species, to make it," he said.
"I can't rely, you see, on notions that we are
basically good ... The Shoah took care of that.
I have no moral alternative but to try - do
you know? That trying itself, as an individual
and in relation to others, can be a source of
That famous grin reappeared, more hesi-
tantly this time. For Williams, his drive to
"try" comes from both the campus and his
"There are three trees (outside of Natural
Science auditorium) that, as you go toward
them, they have the most marvelous mot-
tled bark," he said. "The mottled-ness of the
bark reminded me of the mottled-ness of
our human nature. We are creatures of the
motley. Shakespeare was intimately aware
of this... And (the trees) became, if you will,
my friends over the years. Sometimes I feel
I want to do more for my students, I want to
be worthy of my students, and some days I'd
worry, 'Am I worthy of them today? Can I be
with and for them, as I want to be? DoI know
enough?' And I'd walk by (the trees), and I'd
look at them, and I'd smile, and I'd go into
the lecture hall strengthened by their very
beauty and the reminder of the mottled-ness
of us all."'
His learning process isn't over. I didn't
ask him if he ever intended to retire again. I
didn't feel I needed to.
"When I was a man of 20, I thought to be
a.man of unchanging principle was the best
thing I could possibly be. I no longer think
that. Over the years I've changed principles,
I've jettisoned some, I hope in favor of larger,
more capacious ones. What gives me the most
joy right now is the experience in the aston-
ishing variety of ways the human good can
work itself out. That's the texture of my life
- it's ongoing."
outtakes photo by patrick barron/daily
>_ on the record
"The problem is if we keep swinging at each other, we'll
get to the point where we can't ... have the ability to do
- REP. JOHN DINGELL (D-Mich.), on the need for Republicans
and Democrats to work together in the new term
"Guys were out there, we were out there in the war, we
had to stick it out in the second half."
- TREY BURKE, sophomore Michigan basketballguard, on the
team's 83-75 win on the road against Minnesota
"That is, Obama said, 'our generation's task.' Not his task,
not the government's responsibility, not God's will. It's
completely up to us, as citizens, to have
hope in each other."
- ADRIENNE ROBERTS, Daily Editorial Page Editor, reflecting
on her experience atPresident Obama's inauguration
"The fencing mask - the most effective form of birth control since 1200 B.C."
Submit your own photo caption on The Michigan Daily's Facebook page for next week's outtake.
Though he confessed
last week to soiling
his pants in the White
House in 2002, TODAY
show co-anchor Al
Roker kept it clean
when covering the
He landed the first
interview with the new
Commander in Chief
without having to go
NFL coaches Jim and John Harbaugh
will take sibling rivalry to the next level on
Feb. 3 as their teams face off in the Super
Bowl. If only all sibling confrontations
included a Destiny's Child performance.
L Though accused oflip-syncing, Queen Bey
won the people's heartswith her performance
atthe inauguration. More importantly, she
prohably was on the receiving end of the selfies
Sasha and Malia took on stage.
dip this week
country with the
coldest air in two
experts. Cue the
of weather apps!
Cue the "pity" of