A continuation of our last post Barzun wrote in 1987 this fascinating look at how the reputation of Shakespeare was reconstituted by the Romantics of the 1810-1840s and some of the considerations that went into the new awareness of Shakespeare’s works as it encountered different cultures. It really was a group effort and makes me wonder how Scripture has passed down to us after 2000 years with probably many of the very same processes and influences.
In the Romantic period, a still wider public attended the e great plays, and after a time the name Shakespeare became in the popular mind a synonym for great drama. But it was clear from the box office returns that the public went primarily to see a great actor in a big part John Kemble or Mrs Siddons in Shakespeare, rather than Shakespeare played by Kemble or Siddons.
With readers, as against spectators, Shakespeare’s popularity in the Romantic period was further extended by Thomas Bowdler’s special edition The Family Shakespeare. It took out all the obscene passages and low jokes; it even replaced the word “body” by a suitable substitute such as “figure,” depending on the context.
That this was needed at the very time when Shakespeare came to be considered perfect may seem yet another paradox but an anecdote will make the point. Mrs. Trollope, the mother of the future novelist, came to this country in 1827 to make her fortune by opening a general store in Cincinnati. She failed, but recouped her losses by publishing a lively book called Domestic Manners of the Americans. In it she satirizes the people of Cincinnati, including a gentleman with whom she had an argument about English literature, which he did not appreciate. “And Shakespeare, sir?” asked Mrs. Trollope. “Shakespeare, madam, is obscene, and thank God, we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out!”
Of course, the gentleman was right, and Mrs. Trollope exemplified the indiscriminate fervor for the new poetic star. The dialogue in Cincinnati makes it clear that in the nineteenth century Shakespeare could not be swallowed whole, except by writers and artists of large views. But what were these missing elements newly found in Shakespeare’s works? Variety of scene, violent contrasts, striking events, psychological insight, and character development. Compared with tle Neo-Classical tragedy, which had dominated playwriting for 150 years, Shakespearean drama was chaos.
That is why Voltaire had called Shakespeare “a savage,” a man who wrote “like a drunken brute.” There was no order, symmetry, or conventional restraint in those would-be tragedies and comedies. Only the English mob could stand them. Why, even the two dramatic genres were mixed together: there were jokes to Hamlet and Macbeth, and as mentioned earlier, one English critic found Othello mostly “burlesk.” In short, the stateliness and decorum of tragedy was shattered, while the systematic working out of one great human passion in conflict with another was neglected in favor of a tangle of motley figures, strange events, and disparate purposes. In Shakespeare, restless movement and vulgar emotions distracted the mind from the contemplation of pure feeling and strict form.
It was these very faults, these horrors that were now wanted by people who called themselves artists, who were artists and critics too. What had happened to pervert their taste? Why did Stendhal write two pamphlets contrasting Racine and Shakespeare to the former’s disadvantage? For one thing, boredom with the old tragedy had set in. Every great genre or form wears out, and a new generation comes along that says, like Othello, “no more of that.”
But boredom is negative; it tells us we want something new but not what the novelty shall be. By the time Coleridge lectured in London, all Europe had suffered twenty-five years of almost incessant war and revolution. The eighteenth century seemed terribly far away. Danger, death, destruction had become familiar and seemed permanent. Nothing stayed put for more than a few or months. The minds educated in this school of violence were attuned to a different kind of art from that which had reigned in the days of absolute monarchy and hierarchy. Shakespeare’s “chaos” thus looked like human experience itself.
The notion of experience as a literary element is complex and cannot he made clear because of its very scope: experience covers anything and everything, including error, illusion, and (as shown in Faust) superstition. But one thing about it is clear and that is its progression, its movement. Experience is what takes you from one state of mind or body to another, not predictable by logic.
Consider the feature of Shakespearean drama that is called character development. It is achieved by choosing a set of situations such that the persons in the drama are changed by successive events. We come to know them through and through, because they are not “types” who repeat their response, but individuals whose inner workings are complex, even mysterious, yet plausible and surprising.
The reason they develop is that the play covers a long series of events, it is a history of those people in an extended spectacle. Such a play defies the classical rules of tragedy which called for unity of time, place, and action. It depicted the working out of a problem: Will the hero obey the call of love or of duty? Will the heroine give up her love or her religion?
The conflict does reveal character through behavior in a clear-cut situation, but the change is from doubt to decision on that one point. In Shakespeare — for instance in Hamlet – the changes are from doubt to murder to rejection of love to pangs of conscience about killing, to disgust with one’s mother to swift action at sea to meditation on death to fencing with friends and to death by treachery; all this, followed by posthumous praise from a soldier who has taken no part in the action.
Now, these two linked elements – psychological explanation and narrative history — were Romanticist concerns par excellence. From small beginnings, the taste for history grew apace in the early 1800s. Walter Scott’s novels fed this new interest, which became universal and lasted until the early years of the twentieth century. As for psychology, the Romantics made a specialty of it, precisely because they felt that the Neo-Classic abstraction Man-with-a-capital-M-did not exist.
So when we speak of the Romantics’ “morbid introspection” or of their “love of the exotic,” what we are actually referring to is their desire to know what different individuals and different cultures can tell us about the diversity of mankind. Similarly, one should stop talking about the Romantic “revolt against reason” and say “revolt against abstraction.” The reason of the eighteenth century had its merits; it accomplished great things, but it was incomplete and concealed realities under general propositions; it needed the concreteness of experience, history, and psychology.
In the course of time, the admiration for Shakespeare became conventional rather than the expression of individual judgment. By then, it had created an industry. Innumerable books explained large meanings and difficult passages; there Were “keys” to Shakespeare: editions of the complete works with illustrations, single plays with notes for school use; scholarship upon the early folios and quartos of the plays; attempts at biographies based on the meager evidence; speculation about the woman mentioned in the Sonnets and “Mr. W. H.” who shares the honor with her; comparisons with the other Elizabethan playwrights; finally, rival theories about the true authorship of the plays and the solving of the “ciphers” supposedly hidden in the text.
The latest subject of analysis is the personality of Shakespeare’s typesetters. They have been identified by their errors and whims in composing the quartos and folios. And the computer has been used to count words and phrases, so as to determine how much of Henry VIII Shakespeare wrote and whether Two Noble Kinsmen is by him or someone else. Add to all this the applications of critical methods” — myth, symbol, theme analysis, psychoanalysis, deconstruction — and it is clear that the fuss and fret around Shakespeare is of far greater economic and cultural importance than the works themselves.
The plays are indeed produced, often and in many places; actors still want the big well-known parts. But the productions rarely last long or make money. The several Stratfords all need subsidies, and when the English Shakespeare Theater decided to cobble together a two-day show out of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, it was because they had gone broke playing Shakespeare. When he is put on, his work is cut, rearranged, and these days almost invariably altered in some essentials to make it “attractive.”
For example, in The Winter’s Tale Mamilius is shown frolicking around the stage on a bicycle, which reappears later as “a symbol” by being walked slowly across the stage. In Measure for Measure, Isabella’s great scene with her brother is played virtually as slapstick, because she is proud of her chastity — today a ludicrous idea. Richard III, the King is shown not only as deformed but as creeping on all fours in imitation of various insects — spider, cockroach, and so on. In another production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in an American high school — the main characters are dropouts. As for The Comedy of Errors, it is turned into a circus that shows Shakespeare on stage balancing an electric guitar on his chin while other members of the Karamazov troupe of jugglers and acrobats clown it up.
After such things, one can take Professor A. L. Rowse’ rewriting of the plays in modern English as the completion of the effort by which Shakespeare’s drama and poetry are cured of their many defects. Left as he is, he is too dull for a sophisticated audience.
Thus the “greatest of poets hitherto” stands between two worlds: unlimited praise and fame and study on the one hand, and on the other the works on the stage. The true position of Shakespeare that the Romantics discovered and worshipped is hard to characterize. The regression is striking — at least for the public Shakespeare. To find who really appreciates his plays as written, one must fall back on the small group which read and enjoy him in private — poets, artists, playwrights, or critics, and unassuming lovers of literature. It is a special coterie, as it was in the days of Coleridge, Goethe, Hazlitt, Lamb, Delacroix, and Berlioz. For although the Romantics managed to get their cult of Shakespeare accepted very widely in principle, it was an active faith only for a time. We have Hazlitt’s testimony on this point. Writing in 1829, he says: “With us Shakespeare forms a sect, and if the truth were to be spoken, not a very numerous one.”
Over the years, the best readers have reservations. T. S. Eliot declares Hamlet “an artistic failure.” A. C. Bradley tells us that “something of the confusion which bewilders the reader’s mind in King Lear recurs in Antony and Cleopatra, the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies.” Also about King Lear, Wolcott Gibbs, long the drama critic for The New Yorker, says that the motives of everybody in that play “arouse in me no emotion more exalted than hilarity.” Andre Gide, who was fluent in English, thinks The Tempest strange and unsatisfying, Richard II badly constructed, Henry V mediocre, and King Lear execrable. John Crowe Ransom, the American poet, found Shakespeare’s poetry poorly composed: the “‘Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth is “possibly effective dramatically,” but as poetry it “did not work out.”
Current drama reviewers are even more severe: one says that The Tempest is rarely played because of its inherent difficulty; another thinks that the transformation of The Taming of the Shrew into a good play is a modern miracle; a third, after seeing All’s Well That Ends Well, complains of the “slow exposition, crabby poetry, and infelicities of structure and characterization.” As for Love’s Labour’s Lost, the preciosity is hard to bear and the plot “certainly demands patience.” George Moore objected to Macbeth: “I cannot endure a play with thirty-two curtains.” It was left to Logan Pearsall Smith to draw up a catalogue of faults in the essay “On Not Reading Shakespeare.” To Smith, Shakespeare is “the most inaccurate of all the poets, the most completely devoid of all artistic conscience.”
As is well known, the greatest onslaught on Shakespeare’s reputation was mounted by Tolstoy, himself a playwright and a reader of literature in five languages. It is true that he made his repeated attacks in the name of a theory of art which condemns subtlety and complexity. But part of Shakespeare’s merit has traditionally been that he is a popular author who, given a chance, appeals instantly to everybody as he did in his own day. How far this is from the truth, we have seen in the extravagant efforts to jazz him up and make him likable. One can agree with Tolstoy that Shakespeare is difficult, not simple, without sharing Tolstoy’s desire and purpose to cure the world of its “insane delusion, its collective hallucination” about Shakespeare.
How do we sum up? Where does the Romantics’ Shakespeare stand? The answer depends on temperament, education, and geographical situation. The French and the Italians have relapsed into rather classical attitudes toward Shakespeare, now that the Romanticist fervor is past. The English- speaking and the German publics do not support their conventional attitude with cash at the box office, though actors and stage directors keep soliciting their patronage. The travesties of the plays that producers found necessary would be unthinkable for Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, Chekhov, Pirandello, or, for the rare performances of such classics as Moliere and Congreve.
Meanwhile, the Shakespeare academic industry goes on full tilt and gives no sign of weakening. The final surprise is, the Romantics did not gloss over the objections to Shakespeare’s playwriting and poetry. Lamb developed the thesis that the tragedies should be read and not seen on the stage because Shakespeare addresses not the senses but the imagination. Hazlitt agreed in part and went on to say that “if Shakespeare had been only half what he was, he would perhaps have appeared greater.” Carlyle himself adds to his encomium: “All his works seem, comparatively speaking, cursory, imperfect, written under cramping conditions.”
So the Romantics did not labor under an illusion; but they accepted the faults first for the “elements” they wanted at the time, and later because they saw that in works of art faults change their aspect. What seems a weakness in one cultural setting becomes a strength in another: what is “irrelevant” according to the classical rule becomes “a realistic touch” later and what is unreal now may eventually be called surrealism for instance, the stage direction in The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
These perceptions and nuances within the Romantics’ view of Shakespeare explain for us the last category of judges of his work: those whose conception of the work of art is — Shakespearean. Such was Victor Hugo, who said he “admired like a brute.” Berlioz and Flaubert likewise found Shakespeare “not a man, but a continent.” As Flaubert puts it: “There were great men in him, whole crowds, whole countries. In such men, there is no point in attending to style, they are powerful in spite of all their faults, and because of them.”
At this point, take your choice: the Romantics’ estimate or its contradictory — Flaubert or Tolstoy. What is not allowable for a serious literary mind is to ignore the pros and the cons and remain in the conventional rut, saying out loud: Shakespeare — oh, wonderful, sublime!” and thinking: “what a bore!