09/03/2010 12:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Labor Day Reflections by William Shakespeare

There's no better time than Labor Day weekend to contemplate labor in the weekday.

Like us, Shakespeare had mixed feelings. He had high opinion of exciting, challenging work: "To business that we love, we rise betime and go to it with delight" (Antony & Cleopatra). And even pointed out its medicinal utility: "The labor we delight in physics [cures] pain" (Macbeth).

But the Bard, as always, was realistic. Such exciting work is exceptional. Most employment causes more pain than it "physics," which we go to with dread rather than "with delight."
We are "winding up days with toil, and nights with sleep" (Henry Vth). Doesn't seem all that great.

Yet Shakespeare had to appreciate work -- cranking out 37 plays in scant more than 30 years, all the while raising money for his performing companies, casting actors for the dramas (many put on each week!), acting in them, investing in theaters and sundry real estate, communicating with (if not commuting to) his family in a distant village.

He -- like high tech types today -- appreciated the 24/7 nature of his work. Both aspects, the 24 and 7, are realized in Hamlet when the soldier Marcellus describes Denmark's shipping yards filled with workers in "sweaty haste, does make the night joint laborer with the day." On top of the 24 comes the 7, as he speaks of "shipwrights whose sore tasks do not divide the Sunday from the week."

The Bard realized that any workplace may be tough to navigate, given personal quirks and boss' demands. Enduring this pressure can cause anyone in an office to sigh, "O full of briers is this working day world". (As You Like It).

Such stress is high today, given dismal unemployment numbers as businesses consolidate and keep payrolls slim. Company officers may cut back so that their core business can thrive -- "Superfluous branches we lop away, that bearing boughs may live." (Richard II). And large firms often buy successful startups: "The great ones eat up the little ones!" (Pericles).

So times are tough for labor. Yet Shakespeare realized that times change, and along with them worker prospects. He thus counsels, "Be cheerful. Wipe thine tears. Some falls are means the happier to arise" (Cymbeline).

Nicest to contemplate this weekend is Shakespeare's nice tribute to the modest, hard-working, content laborer. One such appealing fellow, Corin in As You Like It, says with some pride: "I am a true laborer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, every man's happiness, glad of other man's good, content with my harm..."