Wednesday 1 August 2012

What's so good about Shakespeare?


In English Literature, Shakespeare is first; and the second is a matter of dispute (Milton, Byron, Walter Scott?) but far below.

Indeed, Shakespeare is - in terms of influence and attention - first in the world.

But why?


Obviously it is for the quality of his language, the 'poetry' of his language - its suppleness combined with crispness... yes, but how do people know about this?

Modern high brow purism has obscured the reason: Shakespeare is the most quotable writer. He works better than any other writer when given in digestible chunks.

No doubt, these quotable sections work even better in context, but the point is that they work superbly well even completely out of context.


This was brought home to me by a recent visit to Stratford upon Avon were I saw dozens, nay scores, of quotes from Shakespeare, engraved, carved and posted here and there, out of context; and where I also saw excerpts from the plays on video, and done live by one or two actors.

Some were so effective they literally brought tears to the eyes.

What other writer can do this?

The answer is simple: the answer is none.


In the time when Shakespeare became established as the pre-eminent writer; he was, indeed, presented almost wholly in excerpted form - in anthologies such as William Dodd's Beauties of Shakespeare of 1752 which inspired Herder who inspired Goethe and led to the deification of The Bard (this coming back to England from Germany, where Shakespeare was until then under-rated).

And from the 19th up into the early 20th century, Shakespeare was usually presented in a severely cut and edited form by the travelling Actor-Managers such as Sir Henry Irving and his successors - as more or less a collection of the best quotations and most dramatic scenes.


I suspect that the above are indeed the 'best' way to present Shakespeare the mass of people (including myself); not least because his philosophy of life, in so far as one can be discerned from his high points of poetry and rhetoric, is so bleak and pagan as to be hardly bearable except in brief-ish chunks.

But also because, with very few exceptions (e.g. for me Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet), the plays are very patchy indeed in terms of quality and coherence - so little is lost and much is gained by shortening and concentrating.



dearieme said...

I've just been reading Shapiro's "Contested Will" (excellent). In it he quotes Ben Johnson's view of Will's writing, which boils down to its being marvelous, but it would have been even better with good editing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - you refrained from noticing that two of three second placed British Eng Lit writers were Scottish...well, Byron less obviously so than Scott.

I personally find it incomprehensible that Byron is placed so high; in the sense that his writing seems pretty worthless, insofar as I have managed to force myself to read some - but in terms of international influence and attention he is a big hitter, apparently.

Scott is more obviously great. I must admist I don't really appreciate him, but I do appreciate that he has thta Shakespearian quality - and at some point (probably when the mass media have collapsed) he will return to his rightful pre-eminence.

While at Stratford we visited Kenilworth Castle, which was made famous by Scott, such that everybody who was anybody seems to have visited it in the 19th century, purely from reading Scott.

When I lived in Scotland I was surprised that more was not made of Scott - his house at Clarty Hole, (Abbotsford) could be integrated with the lovely nearby Melrose to rival Stratford; if there was any enthusiasm for the ma - but the Scottish literati all but unanimously dislike Scott, wh is regarded as a traitor for his Tory and pro-Union views.

Nonetheless, all the millions of people who wear 'tartan' are evidence of the influence of Scott, who more or less invented the stuff in its modern meaning.

(The earliest 'tartan' is, of course, English and Northumbrian - dating from Roman Times. I have a tie made from its pattern!)

dearieme said...

At school the compulsory authors - in the sense that there were guaranteed to be examination questions about them - were Shakeshaft, Chaucer, Burns. And jolly good too. (That was Chaucer in the original, not in translation.) You were obliged to answer at least one (or two?) WS question in Higher English. Perhaps that applied to Chaucer and Burns too but I can't remember. Or maybe Chaucer was compulsory at O-level.

Naturally we read much more. What I remember of Milton (apart from Avenge oh Lord thy slaughtered Saints) was that I reckoned he was doomed because the intensity of classical and Christian allusion would soon mean that nobody much would understand him.

I think I was right - how often do you see his stuff compared to, say, Shelley's (especially the simple - but excellent - Ozymandias, for example) or Wordsworth's (e.g. the daffs).

As for Scott, it's true that, like WS, he could have used an editor. But as you hint, it may just be that the literary establishment hated his politics (and his uprightness?).

P.S. did you receive a comment of mine about the Church of Humanity?

dearieme said...

P.P.S. If it dates from Roman times it can be neither English nor Northumbrian.

dearieme said...

P.P.P.S. I suppose Scott's role in the rise of the novel means that he is a civilisation-making genius in a way that neither Milton nor Byron are.

Wurmbrand said...

I had the impression that it was widely thought that the greatest English poets were Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, and perhaps Wordsworth as a fifth. I wouldn't be able to say where I saw this, but since I generally avoid modern critical-theory writing, my source might have been some older literary history, or even a comment by Owen Barfield. It wouldn't have occurred to me that Byron would be rated among such peers.

C. S. Lewis's paper (address) on Scott is a good place to get oriented towards Sir Walter -- and the comments in Lewis's youthful letters. The paper contains his immortal putdown of an unnamed critic who disparaged Jeanie Deans (Heart of Midlothian) as being motivated by envy of her pretty sister -- that the comment sounds like something from a review by a jackal of a book by a lion.

A good rule of thumb with Scott's novels is: start at Chapter Two.

Wurmbrand said...

As for Shakespeare, I recommend S. L. Bethell's Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, and essays by E. Stoll (e.g. on Shylock). They help one to avoid misreadings that we are likely to make because we are familiar with conventions of the modern theatre and the novel.

Tom Shippey's material in The Road to Middle-earth on "when all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones" (Milton!) helped me to read King Lear profitably -- as a thought experiment, imagining glimpses of holiness in a dark, even heathen era.

Tolkien usually is not thought of as appreciating Shakespeare, but he approved the two Shakespearean essays in R. W. Chambers's Man's Unconquerable Mind.

Pentheus said...

Thanks for introducing a literary topic for discussion. Hope you will welcome some contrary views in furtherance of this comment thread:

Whatever are Shakespeare’s considerable merits, Bardolatry has been a pernicious detriment to the health of literary knowledge and awareness, in schools and in the public discourse generally. I don’t have to denigrate him at all to say nonetheless that I regard Shakespeare as being highly overrated today, if for no other reason than that people, having no idea of any other poet anymore, and hearing about Shakespeare all the time, necessarily overrate that one of whom they have heard so frequently.

The most quotable and quoted author, I would wager, in having generated into our language the most commonly-used phrases, is probably Alexander Pope. Such is his greatness in this that people quote him all the time without knowing it. “To err is human; to forgive, divine;” “break a butterfly upon a wheel” and many more. When someone quotes Shakespeare it is obviously a quotation of flowery poetry.

(Tom Wolfe, also, has generated a staggering number of phrases which have gained common currency, like those of Pope. “The right stuff,” “radical chic,” “the Me generation” to name just a few.)

Probably the greatest genius in creating archetypal plots which in turn generated thousands of literary and film productions, is H.G. Wells. He is truly something like our time’s Homer in this. Shakespeare, by contrast, did not create any plots himself; and those he used were not really influential except for Romeo and Juliet (chick flick with action), and Macbeth (the original gangsta!)

The poet who most continues to touch men’s hearts is John Keats in his odes and sonnets.

The most truly original poet was Walt Whitman. William Blake, also; however he labored ever in obscurity and did not have wider influence until much later in history. Whitman is the father of modern poetry, all by himself, and from Hicktown America, no less. He had the happiest life story of any literary avant-garde-ist. And Whitman, like Keats, is still a poetic spring from which many can continue to draw true refreshment to their souls.

The greatest all-around literary genius – of any country at any time -- and most important person in his lifetime was, easily, John Milton. Milton’s life and work also has the most usefulness for us today in our political and cultural situation. Yet I get only blank looks whenever I mention him, including the so-called educated people.

One of my problems with Bardolatry is that we know almost nothing about Shakespeare, and what we know is not important or interesting except that it is about Shakespeare. He was not an important person in his lifetime, did not participate in any great actions. There is nothing in the life to inform or inspire us.

Milton was objectively a greater individual and as important in politics as in literature. He was a Puritan revolutionary who barely evaded execution upon the Restoration.

And for anyone in the “man-o-sphere,” Paradise Lost, and his prose work The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, should be central texts for your understanding of the Battle of the Sexes.

Bruce Charlton said...

I forgot Chaucer, probably because I regard Middle English as a different language - but if it is included then Chaucer is indeed second to the Bard.

@Dale - yes, I agree about your list - at least that was what was on offer at good English universities for about the first three generations of the 20th century.

@Pentheus - some excellent perspectives. If you widen the argument, or take personal preference as the test, then there is no single figure.

Thursday said...

The high place of Byron and Scott is mere fashion and 19th century fashion at that. Byron was an early version of the poet as rock star and Scott was the the 19th century equivalent of George Lucas, a mediocre stylist who had a knack for stirring adventure tales in exotic places. Deserving of his popularity, but far from the first rank. Milton, Chaucer and Dickens would be the authors nearest to Shakespeare in eminence.

Thursday said...

Jonson's estimate of Shakespeare seems to have gone up radically in the elegy compared to his early remarks in conversation. In fact, he revises his opinion that Shakespeare wants art and ranks him above all other English authors and notes how the ancients no longer please when compared with his contemporary.

Thursday said...

It is not true that Shakespeare's reputation had to wait for the Germans. It would seem to have started with the high praises of Jonson and Milton. Then there is Dryden's Of Dramatic Poesy: "[H]e was the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul." Then there were the editions by Pope and Johnson, the lavish attention of which other poets were not given. Shakespeare had reached his full reputation in Britain before Goethe, Schiller and the Schlegels.

Thursday said...

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, and perhaps Wordsworth as a fifth

Yeah, this is the general consensus.

drizzz said...

Can't argue about Shakespeare being quotable, part of the secret is the wide range of situations and emotions they apply to. Emerson and Chesterton (to name two) are also incredibly quotable whether you agree with them or not. To me, they both write in a style that oftens seems like nothing more than an endless string of quotable sentences that could perfectly stand by themselves.

Bruce Charlton said...

@drizzz - yes, good examples. But Shakespeare is quotable and *beautiful*.

The only other book/s with a comparable beauty and quotability to Shakespeare are the 16th and 17th century Book of Common Prayer (Thos Cranmer compilation and composition), Psalms by Coverdale and the authors of the 'King James'/ Authorized version of the Bible.

Bruce Charlton said...

The following was the quote which made me think to write this post - it was on a statue in the garden of Ann Hathaway's cottage, and reading evoked both welling eyes and lump in throat:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Wurmbrand said...

Thursday confirmed:

(Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, and perhaps Wordsworth as a fifth)

Yeah, this is the general consensus.

1 August 2012 20:13

Can anyone cite an authority to which I could point if one of my students asked me where this consensus is expressed?

dearieme said...

And remember, Bruce, the chaps who made an England that was unitary and non-fleeting, were the Norm.......

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - this is a quote from Harold Bloom's The Western Canon:

"Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt, contributed to the canonization; but Milton, like Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare before him, and like Wordsworth after him, simply overwhelmed the tradition and subsumed it. "

This suggests that these particular five were defined by Milton and supplemented by Worsdworth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - Henry Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion gives this following triadic canon:

"A woman who utters such disgusting and depressing noise has no right to be anywhere, no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech, that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible. Don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon."

stephen c said...

fascinating comments here, it is nice to read the observations of people who respect the poets who really cared about this world we have been given. Personally, I believe Shakespeare would have preferred to be the author of Genesis, Psalms, Song of Songs, 1-2 Samuel, Proverbs and even Job than the author of the 35 plays that are not Hamlet or Lear, even though I think he knew as well as we do how good those other plays were ... and I think (just to mention Europeans) he would have been amused by Milton, flabbergasted by Dickens, enthused by Scott (regardless of literati's opinions), humbled in a way by Keats and Tolkien (for example, in describing what God's nightingales mean by their song and what a living forest would actually be like)... and we know he produced beautiful variations on Chaucer, Spenser and several continental writers (Montaigne, Cervantes, Petrarch)

Wm Jas said...

If quotability is the standard, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has more quotations from Shakespeare than anyone else (of course), with Tennyson in second place and Pope in third.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm Jas - that is very neat, since Tennyson comes close to Shakespeare in sheer sensuous beauty of language; while Pope comes close to Shakespeare but in terms of general applicability to life.

FHL said...

Dr. Charlton, I have a question. Perhaps this is a slight change of topic, forgive me if it is.

(I had to split this into two messages, I was over the character limit)

I love Shakespeare, but his tragedies have always disturbed me slightly. I know that is the goal of a tragedy, but I am also disturbed by the fact that someone wants to disturb me. Of Shakespeare, you mention that "his philosophy of life, in so far as one can be discerned from his high points of poetry and rhetoric, is so bleak and pagan as to be hardly bearable except in brief-ish chunks." His bleak worldview certainly stands out but I had never thought of him as pagan until I read this post. But now that I think about it, I realize you are correct. For example, his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, concerns "star-crossed lovers." It's like a world where the gods rule from on high- untouchable and unapproachable, their fury and benevolence chaotic and meaningless and dependent on their whims, which are like the changing of the wind. Human beings are just tossed around in their game.

I never thought of Shakespeare as a Christian writer (although I do not know what his personal views were), but I know that he inhabited a Christian world. Was Shakespeare popular in his day (I really don't know)? Because if he was, I'm not sure how Christians reconciled his plays with their views, which were not merely views back on those days, but their entire lives. Do you think that his plays were good or bad, in the moral and spiritual sense? Did anyone back then oppose his plays?

I took a class on the Philosophy of Tragedy a year ago, the central question being "Does tragedy as an art form have a role in Christianity?" Some people said no, that tragedy goes against the hope and joy presented by Christ, others, such as myself, said yes- tragedy reveals the reason why we need Jesus Christ.

But I am starting to reconsider.

When I compare Shakespeare and other classical tragedies (such as the Greek tragedies) with distinctly Christian work, I find a severe gap between the two in tone. The Lord of the Rings has many tragedies within its epic tale, but there is a hope that runs through it like a current. Perhaps it is not obvious, but it's there, woven into the fictional world. Even J.K. Rowling, with all her modern influences, wrote a deep, painful, yet hopeful tale. Can you imagine how the tone and meaning would have been different had Harry Potter simply been killed at the end? Or if Gollum had just murdered Frodo and Sauron was victorious? And even in C.S. Lewis's "darkest" story, Till We Have Faces, there is a hope presented at the end. The story shows that we are evil, and our world is cruel, sure, but it always shows that God is merciful and loving and can make everything new again.

I do not see the slightest hint of that in Shakespeare's tragedies. They remind me of a "new and improved" version of the pagan Greek tragedies.

FHL said...

I recently read a cheesy pulp fiction,a "horror/thriller," called The Ruins by an author named Scott Smith.


It ends with last surviving character "realizing" God doesn't exist, losing hope, and then slitting her wrists. That's it. I regret reading it. It was terrible, and I don't mean terrible in form or style or plot, but spiritually terrible. Who would write such a thing and for what purpose?

I realize this author is not a Christian, and I realize I didn't have to read the book (I knew it was a horror before I read it, so count me guilty), and I also know this Mr. Smith is nowhere near Shakespeare, but I'm starting to think that some fiction is just evil irregardless of the merits of "artistic value." The despair at the end is the same. Recently, I have been tempted to agree with Saint Augustine- there is something wrong with these tragedies. Something morally and spiritually off-kilter. I'm not sure what I fully think of this, haven't really thought it fully through yet, but do you have any thoughts on this? Do tragedies have a role in Christian life? Should we read and "enjoy" tragedies?

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - I am very sympathetic with what you say, and I certainly believe art can do real harm - perhaps the greater the art the more harm it can do. Being great art does not make something good.

I would go further - I think many young people (especially, because of their rawness and sensitivity) may be harmed, some permanently, by horrible, depressing, nihilistic art which is forced upon them in the course of their education, under the conviction that it can only do good, that teachers have - indeed - a duty to expose students to this, and that the students have a duty to engage with it.

Prime examples of this would include the plays of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter which are - if effective - horribly demotivating and despair inducing, and seem to have been designed precisely to accomplish this.

There are, however, varying levels of sensitivity in people. I am very prone to being harmed and distressed by nihilistic and pessimistic art - for example, I absolutely loathed Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and found the blinding scene in Lear almost unbearable, and the sympathetic treatment of Iago very hard to stomach. I walked out of one Royal Shakespeare Company production of a play by Webster (at the interval) because it was so horribly depressing.

I disliked even more the Jacobean Tragedies which followed Shakespeare.

But for some reason Hamlet does not strike me in this way - indeed there seems to be a strangely hopeful quality about the play just before the tragic end.

This is one of the reasons why I like excerpts from Shakespeare. In context, the seven ages of man speech from As You Like It comes across as affected and and the aggressive act of a nasty man - but presented alone it has such beautiful language and imagery that it simply comes across as a perspective or mood about life which needs to be accommodated.

But it is not just tragedies. The Restoration Comedies by people like Congreve and Farquhar are vile, to my mind (as is Dangerous Liasons). And of course this applies to most modern comedy - especially farce. Comedy must have heart or else the laughs are merely painful.

Wurmbrand said...

In response to Dr. Charlton's response to FHL.

1.It's regrettable when young people are taught Beckett and Pinter, especially as two among relatively few authors. I don't suppose that the students are also reading, e.g. Sir Walter Scott.

2.Iago treated sympathetically? Given the travestying being done to other noted classic works, one is not much surprised.

3.Yes -- C. S. Lewis too deplored Restoration comedy.

4.I think the best cure for the view of Shakespeare as dark and pagan is to revisit the plays while looking concurrently into the writings of Christian commentators such as Samuel Johnson and S. L. Bethell. Peter Leithart might be a good antidote to the fashionable Left nihilism of our day.

I see that the conservative Roman Catholic publisher Ignatius Press has a whole series of guides.

Such books are being used by homeschoolers in the United States. I think these young people have a chance of getting something much better than modern obsessions about sex and meaninglessness from their reading of Shakespeare!

Darayvus said...

The high place of Byron and Scott is mere fashion and 19th century fashion at that.

Yet, they are still with us . . .