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The Myth of Shakespeare

What is the true preeminence of The Bard?

Wikimedia Commons

"Shakespeare and Empire"

April 18, 1923

No one knows exactly when William Shakespeare was born, but his many acolytes have adopted this day, the anniversary of his death in 1616, as an opportunity to celebrate his life and work. At any rate, this year marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's arrival on Earth. In a 1923 issue of the New Republic, the literary critic Waldo Frank, who was expelled from high school for refusing to take a Shakespeare course, dissects the popular cult of Shakespeare.

WIDESPREAD among the civilized, and almost universal among the English-speak­ing, is the assumption that William Shake­speare is the greatest literary genius of the Western world. This assumption is so seldom examined that it is in reality a myth—the Myth of Shakespeare. Goethe, Schlegel, Coleridge, Taine, Suarès are archetypes of the imaginative critics whose evocative energy and need of worship have moved them to nurture it. Voltaire, Tolstoy, Shaw are examples of the controversial men who by the miscarriage of their disapproval have nur­tured the myth no less. A part of Shakespeare's genius lies in his choice of foes. If I am right and he is the most charming, rather than the profound­est of writers, we see how his charm works both ways. For he charms his lovers to furious hyper­bole (and naught convinces like the madness that says Yea) and he charms his critics to misfire (and a challenge ill-couched, a blow ill-aimed, is a defeat foredoomed).

Yet surely among the literate there must be those who stand by me in my conviction that Shake­speare's powers, however feat and great, are not so preeminent as his myth would have them. …Aeschylus: the tragic depths of life made crystal, made massive with facets of golden song. Plato: a true theatre of the mind. Dante: a universal form where life, scaled by a vast mind's voyages, is essenced to a subjective passion as unitary as his stuff is infinite. Rabelais: a book which gives sheer, whole, the soil-base of mankind and man's proud sublimation into thought and laughter, a book honest and intact as a child's body, fresh as a young forest, sounding as the sea. And beside this book whose prose crowds with scarce a drooping line in the densest of warm rhythms, another book glowing with a mellow love as far beyond the Rabelaisian prose as fire is beyond the mellow­est carved wood: this book the matrix of a char­acter more significant than any other literary creation since the figure of Christ: the book of Cervantes, a book as simple and as intricate as the peaked plains of Spain. Intellection, distilled of its reducing elements and held to an aesthetic form that is its essence, the true pure prototype of mod­ern art, the Ethic of Spinoza: a Temple whose stones are manifold mind. Montaigne: whose name is a people's will to challenge the pride of mystery with their own, pride of knowledge; Pascal: whose lucid and impregnable prose is the response to the people—these two the dialogue of France. The moulded confessional of Villon, the fire-parabolas of Blake, the "wild-earth" urns of Keats, the dawns of Shelley; the macrocosm of Walt Whitman. ... Or the great organic visions: the human will unbridled and extended as in Boccaccio and Chaucer, the human will compressed into a social or an individual soul, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. . . . The Shakespearean is aburst with his answer.

"Of course," laughs he, "how clever! To top­ple the master from his Imperial throne, you as­semble the kings of the literary world. What better way could you prove Shakespeare's vastness than by this need of leaguing the perfections of all the literatures against him?"

Before we answer this answer, let us examine it. It has a tinge which for want of an apter term I might call imperialistic. "Shakespeare," it sug­gests, "covers the literary world. To match him, or to find him, you must go afield in the five king­doms of letters. Each has its kings. Shakespeare the emperor of them all."

What is the true preeminence of Shakespeare?

Elizabethan Drama, as I understand it, per­fected four large forms. In two of these, the town or genre play and the masque, Jonson, Dek­ker, Middleton and Ford take easy precedence over Shakespeare. In the other two, the romantic comedy and the poetic melodrama, Shakespeare is supreme, although certain pieces by Marlowe, Tourneur and Webster attain a pitch of intensity and shock that even Lear scarce passes. But it is true: the qualities of As You Like It, The Merry Wives, Much Ado, Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, are unique. Here is charm perfumed, and grace. Here is a moving spectacle of wit, laden with hearty hungers, charged with loves; a tracing of curves and feints upon the flat of Time unequalled for freshness and for fairness. Here are dreamed women, the very breasts of adolescent worship. Here are brave men, the very boast of lusty boast­ful boys. This motley of clowns, courtiers, vil­lains, lovers lays a fragrant field beneath our stumbling and sore feet. And the heavier battal­lions: Othello, Macbeth, Timon, Brutus, Lear—what singing charm in their compact of fury! Could lyric boys aping the elements want more? High scenes: the very extravagance of prospect. Resonant lines bristling with hard long words as Roman marches bristle with swords and spears: how the groundling must have loved them! Are they not the apotheosis of youth, making noble gesture, making noble speech? Are they not the pageant of Adolescence?

Surely the tragedies of Shakespeare are the most fetching of melodramas. This array of Richards, Harries, Antonies and Iagos looms in the mind of youth as do the adventures of wonder­land in the heart of Alice. But shall we compare them with Prometheus, Oedipus, Medea? Shall we compare them with the tragic masks of Cer­vantes and Dostoyevsky? Do not these kings rule over a child's work?

Shakespeare takes his tale and runs his figures through it. He takes his characters and pins on them his intricate wordings. If the axis of the Wheel of Life revolves at the heart of the dramas of Othello, Macbeth, Lear, I have missed it. The aesthetic consequence of these high-pitched con­templations thrust within the chaos of their form is to shrink the plays, to give them as organic wholes a fading and frail life. The parts in Shakespeare are ever greater than the wholes. His plays are parcels of splintered splendor, because he lacked the austere power to hold the slow moulding of his vision against his world's en­croachment. Glimpses we have of the Wheel: the speeches flash upon revelation and fall back. But the plays roll rather ridiculously off, beneath the high burden of their words. They are like floats on dumpy wooden wheels, bearing aloft an un­related splendor.

To shift my figure: I find in the plays of Shake­speare his greater intuitions playing like fireworks above the scant frames of his action. Macbeth must stand apart to utter loveliness, Portia must stand apart to be wise. Lear must rave in a storm to be more than a booby. The plays are pot­pourris, brilliant machines of horror and of move­ment: the very masterworks of melodrama. Take them all in all, I find them as organisms shallow, as mechanisms for profound emotion sprawling, as vehicles of vision lifeless: albeit a genial poet has lavished in them his lovely bloom of pleasaunce, vision and surprise.

Bring up the others. . . . For me the spheric realm of Dante reduces Shakespeare to a province. The lusty blast of Rabelais and the meadow-breathing breath of Chaucer shrink the Shake­spearean afflatus to the vapors of a stuffy stage. To me there live in a shut room of Dostoyevsky deeps and parabolas of soul beyond the reaches of Shakespearean halls. Prometheus, Ulysses, Quix­ote, the Villon and the Whitman of themselves outstature every character in Shakespeare: and there is in Dante and Balzac an organic mass by contrast with which the Elizabethan's plays dwindle to the work of a man who took the stuffs of his age, the needs and manners of his craft and, little moved to cast them all aside in a Dionysian gesture, did well with them, did supremely well—did better than his fellows. …

Perhaps it is the essential limitation of Mr. T. S. Eliot that he should have seen so clear the organic chaos of the material of Shakespeare's Hamlet and yet so wholly missed that this very chaos offered the poet a substance harmonious with his spirit and hence aesthetically ripe to be fused into the unity of a play. The cross-stresses of material in the earlier Hamlets gave to the half-conscious Shakespeare his chance to create a masterpiece. Hamlet is a frail bewildered figure and the play's background bears him out. Hamlet thinks in doubts and poignant vapors and the pulse of villainies and hazards but half real. And such too is the rhythm of his world. The conduct of his uncle is held to the consistency of a frail tissue. The mock crime of the actors is almost equally dense with the actual crime that, significantly, is related by a ghost. Ophelia is the fragrant cob­web even a slight man's will can brush through: and at the end she melts in the waters of a brook. Polonius is a gentle fool. Laertes, Fortinbras, Horatio are hesitant half-looming men. Hamlet moves through a physical diaphony of life like his own self-defeating inner shifts. He suffers in a milieu that is the picture of his soul. For once, then, the riddled stuff of the play is the stuff of the poet's intuitions. Drama, word, and dramatist are one.

Hamlet is Shakespeare true to his own inner turmoil. Master W. S. of London was a more commanding fellow. He was an exquisite spirit thrust in a coarse world, who yet had just the can­niness to overcome it. His way was to "play the game." He borrows the fury and fustian of the age—all the worn armor of Kyd's Spanish Trag­edy—and he struts through London. His strutting is Macbeth, Lear, Falstaff: a most successful posture. So, at the end, he can retire to his ease in Stratford. But the soul of Shakespeare lan­guishes as the body fattens. (Why was Hamlet stout and short of breath?) The soul of Shake­speare is repugned by fustian, horrified by ghosts, dismayed at the clash of "Elizabethan" action. The career of the man is his other plays. The soul of the man is Hamlet.

Let us see this successful play in the clarity of its own life. Is not the antique "mystery" of Hamlet but the fog of the clash of his most ex­pressive play with the Imperial Shakespearean Myth? Of course, if a Titan wrote Hamlet, there's a mystery. But it seems to me that Hamlet is far more clearly present than the Titan. Hamlet is exquisite and feminine. Hamlet elects defeat rather than ride the world. His murder is the first of the modern suicides. The downfall of his house is the alternative choice of a passive man to the urgencies of action. Hamlet is proud. But in his temper and his acts, do there not live the signs of the ultimate weak, world-weary, sentimental hero? Who are the successors of Prometheus, Ulysses, Job, Jesus, Don Quixote? The hero is ulti­mate as the sun. He does not dim to a dynasty. But the successors of Hamlet are Werther, Adolphe, Childe Harold, Max Beerbohm and the mooncalves.

The Tempest is the paradise of Hamlet: the Sonnets are his breviary. Retreating from the challenge of the Elizabethan world (as England has retreated) the poet finds the island of Miranda. There, upheld by the wand of Prospero and happy in his bitterness at last, he stands re­vealed: prince of the yearning and the wistful, forefather of our romantics who make their cover from the high angry noon of life to the crepuscular peace of death. Good! But where is your hero? Where is your mountainous master? Shall the maker of Hamlet be adored with the makers of gods?

In their weakness, equally as in their strength, this fortunate man's plays have worked to win the worship of the modern crowd. He is romantic and he is sentimental. His sonnets show in mere nakedness the supine tenderness by which his hunger wreathed its way into the "heart of the world." But the feminine qualities of Shakespeare could not alone have won his place. The secret is, that these are subtly concealed and vehicled in a play of strength that is our modern image.

Think of Lear: how at the first onset of emo­tion it spills into pageant and excess, and these the conveyancers not of strength but of sweet wistful­ness—the pity of Cordelia, of Edgar, of old Lear. Compare the Promethean fragment of Aeschylus: the fettered Titan, the driven Io who, still upon a naked stage, with her words wanders the world, and the murmurous flowing Chorus of the Ocean-ides like a human tremorous flesh about these two great contrapuntal Voices. And now, hearken to your neighbor as he extols our age for its engines, for its guns, for its radios and fortunes. Here is strength he can measure. The strength of Shake­speare he can measure also. For it too is quantita­tive color, it too is a pageant of surfaces and peaks. It too is the creativeness of a soul too slight to hold unto itself its world. Shakespeare's wistful love insinuates our love: his clash of noise cheats our respect for power. And his diapason of inner yearning, inner "spentfulness" with outer show is the equation of the modern world.

Moreover, Shakespeare is the compromise can­didate of the Republic of Letters. I am enthralled by the spiritual architecture of Spinoza: Homer makes me nod. But my friend loves Homer, and the Ethica does not win him. We can meet in Shakespeare. The critic who praises Plato, Augustine, Philo, Montaigne, Racine, will find response: but also he will find coldness. These masters, and the others, are too crystally, sheerly one to be commonly adored by the variant world. Their completion of form demands the completion of response that only the completely inclined can ever give them. But when the critic praises Shake­speare, his responses are wider because the con­dition for response is vaguer and less imperiously exacting. The praise of Shakespeare is therefore self-propagating, and in the long run has out­stripped all others.

Shakespeare worked in a music of minor flutes bastioned by brass that is our modern music: the music of our world of imperial machines and of dwarfed souls. Shakespeare worked in an accessible art form. The fallacy of treating extension and ac­cessibility as aesthetic measures is to be found in Goethe, in Coleridge, in Arnold, in Taine—in all the major priests of the Shakespearean Myth.

Twice or thrice in history has drama proved an art form deserving of the name of art. Drama in Athens for a while was great. It could achieve greatness because it was sheltered from the mob. The Attic mass nourished it with its sources and its presence, but was psychologically subdued from debauching it, by the authority of the religious spectacle and by the protecting common knowledge of the religious tale. The Greek could construct a profound design upon the Oedipean myth be­cause the myth was common and because the crowd was ready for ceremonial reasons to accept it. The crowd's attention went to the myth: the artist's attention, freed, went to the soul of man. Such good cultivated soil reappeared under the medieval church. But the popular chaos could not throw up a Sophocles from its myths, possibly because the myths were alien. Again, the crowd was tempered rightly—though far differently—in the France of the great Louis. This was a rare moment of spiritual and social equilibrium, poised between the turmoils of the religious and of the economic wars: and two great men of the theatre rose to take advantage of it. The audience of Paris was genteel and urbane. A deep peace pre­pared it for the contemplation of subtle differ­entiations; an intelligent Court, a temperamental King, checked and attuned it: yet it was close enough still to the soil of Rabelais and Villon to welcome the passionate precisions of Moliere and the precise passions of Racine.

Shakespeare had no such crowd, no such mon­arch, no such land. He worked in a muddied art form. But in its low terms he achieved so highly that ever since he has served as meeting ground for intellectual and crowd: he has provided that "golden mean" for which our modern intellectual (nostalgic for support) and our crowding average (nostalgic for good taste) perpetually yearn.

The Myth of Shakespeare is a sign in the pop­ular uprising which moves like a tide from the failure of Europe to accept Aquinas to the present preparation of Europe to accept Karl Marx. It is a symbol of the age whose curve-plot is the senti­mentalizing and extolling of the qualities of the mass: and the ultimate deification and empower­ing of the mass itself. But now that the mass approaches its own tragic coronation to which the intellectuals through the ages have prepared it, we might reread our Shakespeare and then go on to the creating of more pregnant myths.