The Feast of St William

Shakespeare, that is.  Saints are remembered on the anniversaries of their death.  April 23, 1564 is the traditional date for Shakespeare’s birth but he conveniently died on the same day in 1616.  I once made the pilgrimage myself: I visited his home, his grave, and the site of the Globe theater.  A cheap postcard image of the Bard, purchased at Stratford, keeps watch over the door of my house.

Shakespeare’s personal sanctity is dubious.  Not so his canonization, however irregular it may have been, though it was a long time coming.  He enjoyed some renown among contemporaries but his reputation found its nadir in the first flush of neoclassicism. Shakespeare’s disregard for the three unities and his homespun verse got him labeled either an uneducated simpleton or a brazen philistine.

Dr Johnson’s appreciative analysis in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays might serve as a handy turning point, though Johnson also had plenty of complaints.  A dozen years later, an unknown critic named Maurice Morgann prophesied the Upstart Crow’s climb heavenward. In his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Falstaff, Morgann wrote:

Whatever may be the neglect of some, or the censure of others, there are those who firmly believe that this wild, this uncultivated Barbarian has not yet obtained half of his fame… When the name of Voltaire and even the memory of the language in which he has written shall be no more, the Appalachian Mountains, the banks of the Ohio…shall resound with the name of this Barbarian.

The final apotheosis of Shakespeare was left to the Romantics and their heirs.  Preferring the vaguely mediaeval to the strictly classical, nursed on Rousseau and in love with all things wild, imaginative and untutored, the poets and critics of the 19th century went to often embarrassing lengths to lay their finest, costliest hand-woven laurel crowns over the Bard’s ghostly receding hairline.  It wasn’t all gushing enthusiasm, but even the clever and sophisticated couldn’t help granting Shakespeare semi-divine status or mixing biblical allusion with their praise in order to give some scale to his greatness.  Consider William Hazlitt’s estimate:

The striking peculiarity of Shakespeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another.  He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men… There was no respect of persons with him.  His genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar… He was like the genius of humanity changing places with all of us at pleasure, and playing with our purposes as with his own.

Strictly speaking -at least according to the Bible- it is God who is “no respecter of persons” and who “causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust.”  But Hazlitt knows what he is up to.  Sometimes God lends his better qualities to men, after all, and Hazlitt’s Shakespeare had a soul that was simply larger than anyone else’s, that encompassed us all and rained down universal light and benevolence like the vault of the summer sky.  He had a natural omniscience; he “knew what was in the heart of a man” – what passions, what fears, what ideals, what tenderness, love and madness, what capacities for generosity and pettiness, nobility and vulgarity – all the half-angelic, half-demonic qualities that make up our common nature.

Inasmuch as we love Shakespeare today, we agree.  We can quibble about his poetry.  We can debate his slim biography.  We can be hot or cold or lukewarm over this play or that.  But we love him because he succeeds in showing us ourselves, because he speaks to each of us with the words of Cassius to Brutus in Julius Caesar:

And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Feast of St William

  1. Hazlitt’s analysis seems like a variation of Keats’ idea of negative capability, of Shakespeare’s talent for inhabiting modes of life that were very different from his own and yet doing so in uncertainty, without “irritably reaching after fact and reason.” In this view, his role as a playwright seems to be merely reflective rather than actively creative. I wonder to what degree we take this view of him because we know so little of his biography and therefore understand so little about how his life influenced his work. In spite of this contextualizing difficulty, it is still possible to see Shakespeare’s personality shining forth in every phrase of his writing and it seems that this individualism is as important a consideration as his universality. His Hamlet is very different from the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus. His Lear is very different from the Leir of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He has the Troubadour’s ability to tell tales of universal human experience without appearing to impose his own personality onto the narrative. And yet, somehow, he does.

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