Monday, April 02, 2007

Thoughts on the Mystery of Shakespeare

Lines are due today, so I’ve been working hard on them. The best way to learn lines is to work on them every day over the course of weeks or even a month. When you work on lines, then sleep on them and then go back to them the next day, you really cement them in the subconscious mind. The worst way is to do what college students do and wait until the last minute and cram. But even if you work over the course of weeks, there will be some cramming come the last moment, especially on the scenes at the end of the play that you have not gotten to in your previous study sessions.

I have a big role in Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff; he is the central character in the story and he has a LOT of lines. I don’t know if I have ever played a role that gives me so much opportunity to clown around and do funny things. Falstaff is a character of seemingly infinite comic freedom.

I also have a small role in Julius Caesar, Titinius; he has one big scene at the end of the play. I did not anticipate getting too excited over Titinius, but as I work on these lines, I am discovering a fabulous part. If you want to know what I mean, get out your Shakespeare – you have a Shakespeare, right? – and look at Act V, sc. iii of Julius Caesar.

For example, on discovering Cassius’s dead body, one of Titinius’s lines is “Mistrust of my success hath done this deed.” In other words, he is saying, “Cassius killed himself because he thought I would screw up.” The line has guilt, grief and vulnerability. Any actor would kill to say this line – and I get to say it!


Shakespeare was not a writer to agree with Nietzsche’s line, "It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book." No, when his pen started moving, it seems he had to fight to stop it. Ben Jonson commented on Shakespeare’s speed and ease of composition:

I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech.

He continues,

Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, "Caesar, thou dost me wrong," he replied "Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause," and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.
Shakespeare was an artist of abundance, but not, perhaps, the best editor of himself.

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare. It would take a whole essay to analyze his provocative thoughts fairly. Some of his points might be valid, but they must be disentangled from his mysticism. Essentially, Tolstoy thought Shakespeare had nothing to say:

All his characters speak, not their own, but always one and the same Shakespearean pretentious and unnatural language, in which not only they could not speak, but in which no living man ever has spoken or does speak.... From his first words, exaggeration is seen: the exaggeration of events, the exaggeration of emotion, and the exaggeration of effects. One sees at once he does not believe in what he says, that it is of no necessity to him, that he invents the events he describes and is indifferent to his characters -- that he has conceived them only for the stage and therefore makes them do and say only what may strike his public, and so we do not believe either in the events or in the actions or in the sufferings of the characters.
He alone can write a drama who has got something to say to men, and that something of the greatest importance for them: about man's relation to God, to the Universe, to the All, the Eternal, the Infinite. But when, thanks to the German theories about objective art, the idea was established that for the drama this was quite unnecessary, then it became obvious how a writer like Shakespeare -- who had not got developed in his mind the religious convictions proper to his time, who, in fact, had no convictions at all, but heaped up in his drama all possible events, horrors, fooleries, discussions, and effects -- could appear to be a dramatic writer of the greatest genius.

But these are all external reasons. The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare's fame was and is this that his dramas corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours.
It is fascinating that Tolstoy attributes Shakespeare’s popularity to German philosophy. One wonders – if modern philosophy gave way to a more rational philosophy, would Shakespeare’s popularity wane? But then, how do we explain Shakespeare’s popularity during the Enlightenment, before modern philosophy?

Philosophy aside, I think Tolstoy shows an inadequate appreciation of poetry and theatricality. Shakespeare was a first-rate poet and a first-rate theatre professional, and the combination makes for powerful playwriting, even if he had nothing to say.

George Orwell responded to Tolstoy’s attack. The most interesting thing in his essay to me is how much he concedes to Tolstoy:

Shakespeare is not a thinker, and the critics who claimed that he was one of the great philosophers of the world were talking nonsense. His thoughts are simply a jumble, a rag-bag. He was like most Englishmen in having a code of conduct but no world-view, no philosophical faculty. Again, it is quite true that Shakespeare cares very little about probability and seldom bothers to make his characters coherent. As we know, he usually stole his plots from other people and hastily made them up into plays, often introducing absurdities and inconsistencies that were not present in the original. Now and again, when he happens to have got hold of a foolproof plot — Macbeth, for instance — his characters are reasonably consistent, but in many cases they are forced into actions which are completely incredible by any ordinary standard. Many of his plays have not even the sort of credibility that belongs to a fairy story. In any case we have no evidence that he himself took them seriously, except as a means of livelihood. In his sonnets he never even refers to his plays as part of his literary achievement, and only once men-tions in a rather shamefaced way that he has been an actor. So far Tolstoy is justified. The claim that
Shakespeare was a profound thinker, setting forth a coherent philosophy in plays that were technically perfect and full of subtle psychological observation, is ridiculous.
George Bernard Shaw, who coined the term “Bardolotry,” was another Shakespeare hater. I believe he called Shakespeare a coward, afraid to take a stand, but I can’t find the passages online. I suppose I’ll have to read his book on Shakespeare and report back later.

Aside from poetry, I think Shakespeare’s greatest genius was in his observation of human character. I would disagree with Orwell: Shakespeare's plays are full of subtle psychological observation. As an actor, I am astonished time and again by little moments in his lines that show acute psychological insight. Characters say the exact thing one would say in a situation.

I suspect, although I cannot prove, that his genius is something particularly British. As Orwell wrote above, "He was like most Englishmen in having a code of conduct but no world-view, no philosophical faculty." Britain has a long philosophic tradition of empiricism stretching back at least as far as William of Ockham. Having “nothing to say,” as Tolstoy held, fits the empiricist mind. Shakespeare could depict characters in specific situations and could show all sides, but he did it without ideology. Modern critics, in our age of naturalism, think this is a virtue. I don’t know if I would go as far as Tolstoy and Shaw, but something central in Shakespeare does seem to be missing.


madmax said...


I highly recommend that you buy Leonard Peikoff's taped lecture series "Eight Great Plays." One of the plays Dr. Peikoff analyzes is Othello. He gives not only his analysis of Shakespeare, but Ayn Rand's exact analysis of Shakespeare. That alone is worth the price of the course. I think you will find it (and the entire course which is dedicated to plays not novels) very interesting.

Myrhaf said...

I own "Eight Great Plays" and I've heard it several times. It is great. I would include Ayn Rand's criticism of Shakespeare, if I had a transcript. As I recall, her criticism is similar to Tolstoy, that Shakespeare is amoral and without a point of view.

EdMcGon said...

Shakespeare a philosopher? What idiotic essayist threw that label on him?

If I were to compare Shakespeare to anyone living today, I would compare him to Steven Spielberg, whom I sincerely doubt anyone would refer to as a philosopher.

Myrhaf, as you correctly pointed out, the wonder of Shakespeare is involved in the acting required. That is why there is a world of difference in reading Shakespeare vs. watching his plays performed.

To read Shakespeare is like watching a good show on a black and white tv. To watch a Shakespearean play performed is like seeing the same show on a big screen HDTV.

madmax said...

"As I recall, her criticism is similar to Tolstoy, that Shakespeare is amoral and without a point of view."

I think its deeper than that. She argued that Shakespeare was one of the spiritual fathers of nihilsm. To him morality was useless, "life is a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing." Dr. Peikoff added that at the time of Shakespeare, the Churches' stranglehold on morality was breaking and in its wake essentially skepticism and amoralism followed. Shakespeare was an example of this. Dr. Peikoff also labeled Cervantez (a contemporary) as an example.

Anonymous said...

"you have a Shakespeare, right?"

Oh, yes, I keep him locked safely away in my basement.


I understand that the man's work certainly had its flaws, driven by his premises and all that. But the point about Shakespeare is not his meaning, his plots, or the integration of character and action. It was wit, and now that you mention it wit of the English variety, that makes him a treasure.

And, let's face it, the man pens a good line.

All of the worst aspects of his work... I just never got the impression that he took it too seriously. It was like those nihilistic parts were required of him by an overbearing producer or something. (that producer being his philosophy, no doubt)

But I'm no expert. I've only read and seen a play of his or six.