A mole-hill as high as Tenerife

by Chris Bertram on December 29, 2009

John’s Shakespeare thread, featuring George Scialabba’s somewhat idiosyncratic opinions on the playwright, has reached the point where comments are closed. Not that I specially want to open them. But I was reminded of George’s deployment of Shaw earlier today when reading Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”. Here’s Shaw, as quoted by George, seeking in his poets a kind of will to moral improvement:

All that you miss in Shakespeare you find in Bunyan, to whom the true heroic came quite obviously and naturally. The world was to him a more terrible place than it was to Shakespeare; but he saw through it a path at the end of which a man might look not only forward to the Celestial City, but back on his life and say: ‘Tho’ with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get them.’ The heart vibrates like a bell to such utterances as this; to turn from it to ‘Out, out, brief candle,’ and ‘The rest is silence,’ and ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep’ is turn from life, strength, resolution, morning air and eternal youth, to the terrors of a drunken nightmare.

And here’s Hume:

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous

{ 185 comments }

1

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 3:55 pm

although i agree that shaw’s opinions vis a vis shakespeare are “absurd and ridiculous”, i also do not think he was staking his preference on bunyan’s elegance. bunyan’s diction is not elegant, but rather direct and plain-spoken, and even his admirers would say the same.

the basis of shaw’s criticism seems not so much stylistic as purely ideological.

so he might even share hume’s opinion on the relative elegance of bunyan and addison (and elegance of diction is exactly where addison excelled), while still preferring bunyan’s ideology to anyone’s (other than his own).

2

Chris Bertram 12.29.09 at 3:59 pm

True KB, though Hume refers not to elegance alone but to “genius and elegance”.

3

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 4:04 pm

indeed, which was why i left that half unaddressed in my comment.

it seems perfectly possible that shaw and hume will simply disagree about bunyan’s genius.

(though even in respect of genius, one might wonder whether bunyan’s is not of the kind that we call ‘the genius of the people’ or ‘of the age’, i.e. a reflection of some wider phenomenon rather than a strictly personal possession. but i should leave that point for shaw and geo to enlarge upon.)

4

Steve LaBonne 12.29.09 at 4:05 pm

Am I peculiar for deprecating Bunyan’s ideology yet greatly admiring his prose style (which I will take over Addison’s any day) for its combination of plain-spokenness with remarkable eloquence?

5

Aulus Gellius 12.29.09 at 4:09 pm

Oh good, I wanted a chance to talk about this some more. I think it’s worth pointing out one of the ways that Shaw’s cheating there: aside from the fact that the quote from Bunyan is significantly longer than those from Shakespeare, it’s a difference in style between the two authors. That kind of straightforward, powerful summing-up in a couple of sentences is something Bunyan does beautifully, and works well with the confident, simple, “stay-on-the-one path” journey of Christian. It’s not something Shakespeare tries to do very often, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be done by any character in, say, Macbeth. “Out, out, brief candle” is pretty obviously not famous because it is, in itself, an amazingly beautiful phrase, but because it’s part of a really wonderful monologue. And if you put that monologue next to, say, a big narrative chunk of Bunyan, you could easily “prove” (as too many people think) that Bunyan is dull and pointless.

Also, as I mentioned in the previous thread, if you really want to read some crazy opinions about the relative value of different artists (literary and otherwise), you should pick up Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” It combines some really interesting general ideas about aesthetics with some specific judgments so totally round-the-bend as to boggle the mind.

6

Aulus Gellius 12.29.09 at 4:12 pm

kid bitzer: yes, it’s worth pointing out (what may have been implicit in the original post) that by far the looniest judgment expressed in either of those passages is the idea that Addison is obviously greater than Bunyan. I mean, I like Addison, but that’s ridiculous.

7

Aulus Gellius 12.29.09 at 4:16 pm

Whoops: that last should have been addressed to Steve LaBonne

8

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 4:42 pm

answering anyhow, i’d say:
yes, greatness is not the attribute i naturally associate with addison.

but greatness may also be a third thing, distinct from either elegance or genius (though closer to the latter). the judgment that addison is clearly more elegant than bunyan seems non-loony, however we score their greatness.

i should note, by the way, that this thread will not be complete until someone shows up to champion ogilby over milton. and i’ll cheer them on, at least on the milton-dissing side.

9

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 5:09 pm

irrelevant side note–

i see that tenerife has an elevation of 12,200 ft. (3700 m).
interesting to think that this was hume’s everest.
i suppose none of the american rockies were familiar to europeans yet.
but surely the alps? or is it that tenerife is more monolithic?

10

geo 12.29.09 at 6:09 pm

Chris: George, seeking in his poets a kind of will to moral improvement

No, no, no. The point is not morality but moral imagination. According to Shaw, Bunyan’s is sublime, Shakespeare’s is pedestrian. Bunyan conceives of the universe as an arena of grand struggle, with the forces of supreme Good arrayed against those of fearsome Evil, both on the cosmic level and in every individual life. The meaning of life is larger than individual or tribal ambition, rancor, lust, etc. This is a heroic conception. Shakespeare’s “heroes” (again, according to Shaw) haven’t a glimmer of this moral grandeur. Their aspirations are petty: political power for themselves or their faction or tribe; sexual possession; revenge, etc. This is why they despair so readily and give utterance to banalities like: “Out, out, brief candle” or “our little lives are rounded with a sleep.” Bunyan and Shaw would regard that sort of feeble self-pity with scorn.

As for Shakespeare’s language: remember Shaw’s dig at the “mechanical lilt of blank verse” and Lawrence’s “like the dyes in coal tar.” Shakespeare’s verse is lovely, but it’s liable to Ruskin’s (another Puritan) strictures on the “Grotesque Renaissance”: “Incapable of true imagination, it will seek to supply its place by exaggerations, incoherences, and monstrosities … an incongruous chain of hackneyed graces, idly thrown together — prettinesses or sublimities … associated in forms which will be absurd without being fantastic, and monstrous without being terrible.” That is, Shakespeare’s language is brilliantly ingenious, but, because it’s expressive of mere conventional wisdom and worldliness, it finally palls.

Yes, of course, it’s a long way to “finally.”

11

Chris Bertram 12.29.09 at 6:12 pm

George, I think of you as a more careful reader than that. It wasn’t

“George, seeking ….”

but

“Shaw, as quoted by George, seeking …”

You aren’t the subject of the sentence, Shaw is!

12

Substance McGravitas 12.29.09 at 6:14 pm

Bunyan conceives of the universe as an arena of grand struggle, with the forces of supreme Good arrayed against those of fearsome Evil, both on the cosmic level and in every individual life.

To be fair, it really is cool when The Fantastic Four battle Galactus.

13

Steve LaBonne 12.29.09 at 6:17 pm

Bunyan conceives of the universe as an arena of grand struggle, with the forces of supreme Good arrayed against those of fearsome Evil, both on the cosmic level and in every individual life in thoroughly adolescent terms whereas Shakespeare was a grownup.

Or what Substance just said.

14

Steve LaBonne 12.29.09 at 6:17 pm

Crap, why does strikeout work in rpeview but not for real?

15

Chris Bertram 12.29.09 at 6:18 pm

On the substance, though, we’re in _querelle des bouffons_ territory. Pergolesi in _La Serva Padrona_ (and subsquently Mozart in _The Marriage of Figaro_ ) could make great art out of the everyday. Ditto Shakespeare.

_Bunyan conceives of the universe as an arena of grand struggle, with the forces of supreme Good arrayed against those of fearsome Evil, both on the cosmic level and in every individual life._

Yes, that’s the moral imagination of George Lucas.

16

Chris Bertram 12.29.09 at 6:19 pm

Oh I see everyone had the same reaction!

17

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 6:23 pm

yeah, though even bunyan-haters have never accused him of committing any jar-jars.

18

Bloix 12.29.09 at 6:37 pm

Mt Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe outside the Caucasus, and it’s 15,771 ft. But the thing about Mt Teide on Tenerife is that it’s a peak on a small island with a good harbor – it’s visible from a ship well over 100 miles away and it was so important to sailors in Hume’s day that many cartographers ran the prime meridian through it.

For what it looks like from the sea, go to
http://lh5.ggpht.com/_1g5Xbqyb0zU/SAN-vq7XcqI/AAAAAAAAAKs/adYzbplsQxY/boat_mt_teide.jpg

19

Bloix 12.29.09 at 6:54 pm

Each of the quotations that Shaw takes from Shakespeare is an expression of disbelief in the immortality of the soul.

20

novakant 12.29.09 at 7:23 pm

Shakespeare’s is pedestrian. (…) Shakespeare’s “heroes” (again, according to Shaw) haven’t a glimmer of this moral grandeur. Their aspirations are petty: political power for themselves or their faction or tribe; sexual possession; revenge, etc.

I always felt that this was one of Shakespeare’s greatest qualities – it’s just more honest.

21

roac 12.29.09 at 7:36 pm

Bloix beat me to what I was going to say, but let me restate the point: Several peaks in the Alps are taller, but the difference in elevation between their summits and the nearest point from which you can see them is (I assume with some confidence) less than the difference between the peak of Tenerife and sea level. (Mount Rainier, of which Hume was probably not aware, is taller than Tenerife, visible from sea level, and pretty damn impressive. I have never seen Tenerife. If somebody wants to get me a grant, I would be happy to do some research.

As for the actual topic, some people including Shaw seem to be making the assumption that one or more of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays is expressing the views of the author. This is not an uncommon procedure, which can and does lead to the conclusion that Shakespeare held any set of opinions imaginable.

(Shakespeare’s Lives, by S. Schoenbaum, argues persuasively that we know hardly anything useful about Shakespeare the person. Beyond, of course, the fact that he was a working professional playwright — which is very important, because it conclusively punctures the notion that someone outside the immediate theatrical circle wrote the plays. Most especially not the Earl of Oxford, who I gather is the favored candidate these days.)

22

geo 12.29.09 at 7:38 pm

Chris @11: Yes, sorry for the error. I’m not sure it’s significant, though: I gave what I thought would be Shaw’s answer to your remark about “seeking in his poets a will to moral improvement.” I think, for the reasons I gave, that you misunderstand him.

Chris/Substance/Steve: Shaw, Bunyan, the Hebrew prophets, George Lucas, and Battlestar Galactica all believe that the universe is an arena of cosmic moral conflict. Ergo, Shaw, Bunyan, the Hebrew prophets, George Lucas, and Battlestar Galactica are all on the same level, intellectually, imaginatively, aesthetically.

Chris: great art out of the everyday. Yes, excellent point. But they made great comicart. Can one make great tragicart out of the everyday? Doesn’t a tragedy require, by definition, a hero? Not all great art with an unhappy ending is tragedy, after all.

23

geo 12.29.09 at 7:46 pm

roac @21: some people including Shaw seem to be making the assumption that one or more of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays is expressing the views of the author

No, I don’t think that’s true. Shaw’s argument is that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are an aesthetic failure, because they simply don’t have the required moral stature: they have no conception of a good larger than their own (or their tribe’s or faction’s) success. What Shakespeare himself believed is neither here nor there.

24

Substance McGravitas 12.29.09 at 7:47 pm

Doesn’t a tragedy require, by definition, a hero? Not all great art with an unhappy ending is tragedy, after all.

Pilgrim’s Progress is a tragedy?

25

Steve LaBonne 12.29.09 at 7:53 pm

The Hebrew prophets? You mean, like the author of Jonah, who was a rather sophisticated religious / social satirist? Or the author of Job, who in no uncertain terms mocks the idea that the universe is a morality play?

26

John Quiggin 12.29.09 at 7:55 pm

I’m sure Hume is right to say that Addison is a more elegant writer than Bunyan. That is to say, I’ve read Bunyan and he is certainly not elegant. As regards Addison, I can only go on my second-hand impression which is “elegant C18 writer, paired with Steele, of no interest today”.

To put the same point more directly, it’s a long time since “elegant” has been a term of praise, even among those who value prose style over substance. As has already been said or implied above “honest and direct” is much more commonly used now to praise both both substance and style.

27

alex 12.29.09 at 8:08 pm

“it’s a long time since “elegant” has been a term of praise, even among those who value prose style over substance.”

Maybe in the bar you’re drinking in, but us historians still like us some elegant prose, thanks. Perhaps because we know how rarely it is encountered, especially in our own works.

But then, perhaps the definition of ‘elegant’ that you’re using has something to do with ‘incredibly verbose, in an eighteenth-century kind of way’?

28

M 12.29.09 at 8:09 pm

Ergo, Shaw, Bunyan, the Hebrew prophets, George Lucas, and Battlestar Galactica are all on the same level, intellectually, imaginatively, aesthetically.

That’s certainly where Shaw’s logic leads us. Which is kind of the whole point (of the mockery.)

29

roac 12.29.09 at 8:20 pm

23: Fair enough — I withdraw the words “including Shaw” from my comment, without which, however, I think it is valid.

To start over: Scientific theory is tested by whether it matches the facts observed through experiment. Literary theory, I would argue, is tested by whether it matches the consensus of the educated public as to what is good and what is not. Which is a highly fuzzy and shifting standard — but who can suggest a better one? If your physical theory suggests that a pan of water at sea level will boil at 80 degrees Celsius, people will reject it. Likewise with literary theories like those of Tolstoy, Shaw, and F.R. Leavis, which say that works greatly admired by the “three-dimensional” educated public are actually lousy, if they could only see it.

Leaving Shakespeare out of it entirely, Shaw’s theory in particular is particularly problematic in an age of “demotic” art (namecheck: N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism). For my (fading) generation, the great modern novels were Ulysses, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and Lolita, and I’m sticking with that (though I actually prefer Pale Fire.) Did/would those books meet with Shaw’s approval? He can’t have been unaware of the first two. If he rejected them because they lack noble characters with high objectives, that proves to my personal satisfaction that his theory is full of it.

30

roac 12.29.09 at 8:32 pm

26 & 27: I was thinking about the word “elegant” just the other day, as it happens. My conclusions: (1) I don’t know what it means (2) I admire it when I see it (3) we should all strive for it (4) anyone other than a mathematician who would openly admit to striving for it should be given a wide berth.

Taking it in the narrow sense of “studied and complex” as applied to literary style, I would like to fight with J. Quiggin after he and Alex get through duking it out. “Elegant” is not inherently inferior to “honest and direct” any more than a rock song is inherently better than a string quartet because it is a rock song. Skill is what counts. I mentioned Nabokov in my last post, and I’ll take my stand there.

31

roger 12.29.09 at 9:12 pm

It is hard to take Shaw’s criticism too seriously when you compare, say, Anthony and Cleopatra with Caesar and Cleopatra. Chesterton says Shaw justly represents the Puritan view against Shakespeare’s more complex Catholicism. I don’t know about that – I do know that Shaw’s portrayal of women seems to give us an endless reproduction of the very pleasant, highly placed Liberal Party hostesses of the late 19th century – and his Cleopatra is one of his least successful attempts at that kind of thing, a sort of English school girl (with the executions and brother-sister marriage thrown in to shock ) the good Edwardian bourgeois. Of course, not too much shock – after all, Caesar and Cleopatra did have sex. Which you can easily imagine happening with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra – with Shaw’s, it would definitely be a Lolita act at best. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra seems infinitely closer to royalty – to the real politics of being the ruler of a peripheral state on the losing side of an imperial struggle. And, to continue the characterization, the play also contains one of Shaw’s tiresome projections of the strong man – in a lifelong search for the strong man – Caesar, or Mussolini, or Stalin, they are all seen by Shaw as cynical, genial, truly working for the public good – although having, sometimes, to seize some strong instruments.

32

roac 12.29.09 at 9:22 pm

There was another example of a radical literary theory that was nagging at me when I was drafting no. 28. I remembered — it was the Valdimir Brusiloff theory:

No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me.

33

Gene O'Grady 12.29.09 at 9:37 pm

If you’re looking for a mountain that comes up out of nothing to be huge, why not pick Etna? Most impressive rise I’ve ever seen, well surpassing the Western US mountains, even the Owens Valley where you have 14,000 mountains on either side of a 4,000 foot valley.

Surely the point about Addison is that he’s a pioneer who did a lot to mold a language that everyone could use, not that he displayed some sort of ostentatious elegance? Rather like the once overpraised now no longer read poets who had “molded our numbers,” or whatever Johnson (?) said.

And Bunyan, like his follower Buchan, doesn’t really display the imagination of George Lucas since his point is that this is what is happening to us and in us all the time, not some spectacle out there.

34

geo 12.29.09 at 9:42 pm

M @28: That’s certainly where Shaw’s logic leads us

By the same logic: Shakespeare and Mickey Spillane do not believe the universe is an arena of cosmic moral conflict. Ergo, Shakespeare and Mickey Spillane are on the same level, intellectually, imaginatively, aesthetically.

roger @31: Chesterton says Shaw justly represents the Puritan view against Shakespeare’s more complex Catholicism

Yes, except Shakespeare’s Catholicism doesn’t seem to me very complex. In his case, it was simply an inherited reflex, which he didn’t inhabit the way the Reformers and Puritans did their worldview. In Shakespeare’s case, religion was merely conventional wisdom, just as politics was merely dressed-up worldly ambition. (I’m exaggerating for the sake of argument, but not all that much.)

35

geo 12.29.09 at 9:48 pm

Roger again: For the purposes of this particular discussion, the useful comparison isn’t between Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Shaw’s but between Antony and Caesar. Antony hasn’t an idea in his head. He simply wants to win power and lay Cleopatra. Caesar has a conception of Rome’s civilizing mission. Whatever you think of that ideal, it is at least an ideal — something grander than Antony’s mere lust and ambition.

36

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 10:00 pm

“the difference in elevation between their summits and the nearest point from which you can see them is (I assume with some confidence) less than the difference between the peak of Tenerife and sea level”

yup. that’s what my “more monolithic” in 9 was referring to. when you see matterhorn, you see it as part of the range, and while standing on part of the range.

37

Colin Danby 12.29.09 at 10:02 pm

To turn it around, then, is it possible Shakespeare wears so well because he is not obviously didactic?

38

roac 12.29.09 at 10:07 pm

I think you’re digging a new hole for yourself. Consider two propositions:

Caesar and Cleopatra is a better play than Antony and Cleopatra, because at least Caesar has an ideal, whatever you may think of it.”

“Hitler was a better person than [some random guy at the corner saloon who is trying to get laid and has no other thought in his head], because at least Hitler had an ideal, whatever you may think of it.”

Can you defend the first without having to defend the second?

39

roger 12.29.09 at 10:10 pm

Geo – actually, if we are comparing Anthony to Caesar, then of course we should remember that Anthony has been treated before – in Julius Caesar. Indeed, I think your reading of character=idea is a fatal narrowing of character. To show that a man hasn’t an idea in his head – re Underwood in Heartbreak House – is not to eliminate ideas from one’s work, but to illuminate the circumstances that create the character. I would say that is done very well by Shakespeare – in fact, the fall into a sybaritic idiocy out in the periphery of the empire is an artistic meme that reflects a political fact. To flash forward to our own imperial folly, Bremer was a man with many ideas in his head – but he was an essentially stupid man. Anthony is the decayed end of the republican ideal, once it has saturated itself in unilateral imperial power. To bad Shaw couldn’t see that.

40

kid bitzer 12.29.09 at 10:17 pm

#38–

yeah, that’s kind of how i feel whenever anyone tries to pretend that the “hebrew prophets” are admirable moral exemplars.

41

Peter Robins 12.29.09 at 10:19 pm

The Shakespeare criticism in Shaw’s Saturday Review theatre column is most directly aimed at a particular Victorian version of Shakespeare, in which his genius lies in great heroic characters as portrayed by Henry Irving. Shaw campaigns not only for new, more serious playwrights (such as this Shaw fellow we have all heard so much about), but also for productions of Shakespeare that are less bombastic and more attentive to the text; in this he was fighting on a winning side, and helping it to win. It’s also some of the most gleeful and effective trolling in the history of journalism.

Which is not to deny that it’s also a sincere position, as argued ably here by George; only to say that there are thick layers of Sensible and Brilliant on top of the foundation of Bonkers or (if you prefer) Wise.

42

geo 12.29.09 at 10:19 pm

roac @29: Did/would those books meet with Shaw’s approval?

Very interesting question. I suspect, as you probably do, that he wouldn’t have understood, much less approved of, them. All three of them were written from a sensibility or standpoint I think it’s fair to call post-moral, or at any rate post-heroic. They don’t merely “lack noble characters with high objectives”; their authors think the very idea of such characters is stale, futile, a cul-de-sac. They were disillusioned to a degree Shaw doubtless couldn’t imagine, having spent most of his life in Victorian and Edwardian England.

But this doesn’t have any bearing, I think, on Shaw vs. Shakespeare. Shakespeare was not a modernist; he was not disillusioned or post-heroic. He was an intellectual and moral mediocrity with superlative stagecraft, astonishing verbal gifts, and a stock of utterly conventional ideas, absorbed from his milieu without any original reflection.

43

Chris Bertram 12.29.09 at 10:21 pm

_Doesn’t a tragedy require, by definition, a hero?_

Sounds like you’re attacking Shakespeare for not being sticking to a formula now.

44

Chris Bertram 12.29.09 at 10:26 pm

John Q:

_it’s a long time since “elegant” has been a term of praise, even among those who value prose style over substance. As has already been said or implied above “honest and direct” is much more commonly used now to praise both both substance and style._

I don’t think “elegant” has to mean “mannered”, and I’m not sure that Henry James and James M. Cain are the only choices. Philip Roth, Tim Winton, and P.G. Wodehouse all display, to my mind, a certain elegance. Perhaps not Addisonian elegance, but shape, rhythm, and turn of phrase.

45

roac 12.29.09 at 10:26 pm

33: Etna, Fuji, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Hood in the Pacific Northwest, and Aorangi/Aoraki/Mt. Cook are all stratovolcanoes fairly closely visible from sea level or thereabouts. Rainier is the tallest at over 14,000 ft. Impressiveness is obviously a subjective criterion, but it beats Baker and Hood IMO.

46

geo 12.29.09 at 10:34 pm

roac @38: I think your formulation is a wee bit tendentious. What I’d say is: as a dramatic hero, Shaw’s Caesar is more interesting than Shakespeare’s Antony, since, unlike Antony, he has large ideas and makes readers think. Analogously, I’d say that of two chaps in the corner bar trying to get laid, the one with an idea in his head is likely to be more interesting than the one without. Of course there are degraded and pernicious ideas, like Hitler’s. In that case, the idea-ridden person would be morally inferior. But still, as a potential literary character, probably more interesting.

roger @39: Interesting argument, but I think you’ve got your examples wrong. Antony was never an idealist, republican or otherwise. He was always loyal to Caesar and looked for the first opportunity to betray the genuine idealist, Brutus. And Underwood — you think he’s without ideas? I’m kind of speechless.

47

geo 12.29.09 at 10:46 pm

roger: Sorry, I thought at first you meant Undershaft of Major Barbara. Yes, Underwood is quite brainless. Remind me, please, what this goes to show?

Peter @41: Thanks, that’s fascinating.

48

John Quiggin 12.29.09 at 11:00 pm

roac @30 I think your fight is with Hume, not me. It’s Hume who takes it for granted that “elegant” is an eternal standard rather than a time-specific C18 preference. I’m not saying that the current preference (of some of us, at least) for directness and honesty is better than Hume’s preference for elegance, just that (mathematicians and, apparently, historians excepted) it is the modal preference.

49

roac 12.29.09 at 11:49 pm

I can’t be fighting with Hume when I haven’t read Hume. I was exposed to Hume in a sophomore philosophy survey course, which I scraped through with a D after it became very clear that this was not for me. I’m just a lawyer who once thought he wanted to be a literary critic. I am on this blog on rare occasions and on the proprietors’ kind sufferance, like a vampire coming out during a solar eclipse. The post you refer to stated my opinion that there is nothing intrinsically inferior about a mannered literary style (though there are pitfalls involved). It’s all a matter of fashion.

(Honest-and-direct has its pitfalls too. People get fooled into thinking it’s easy. Good writing never is.)

50

Gareth Rees 12.30.09 at 12:03 am

George Orwell’s essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool“, is worth reading. Orwell describes Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare, which is along similar lines to Shaw’s: Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his morality is not particularly Christian or even noticeably religious, his plots are borrowed, complicated and often improbable, and so on.

“One cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be ‘not guilty’. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.”

51

roger 12.30.09 at 12:14 am

geo – you misunderstand my argument if you think I am saying Anthony is a republican! Rather, he is a product of the decline of the republican ethos. Just as Underwood is a brainless administrator who is the epitome of the imperial ethos – whipping the natives.

Although I’m attacking Shaw, I’m attacking him from the perspective that Shakespeare was a better playwrite, as well as poet. Partly this is because ideas are worthless, in art, if they aren’t put into action – and you don’t put them into action by allegorizing an idea into a human figure and setting him lose in some landscape that you’ve gamed to trip him up or make him triumph. There is no chance, in Bunyan’s world, that the Christian ideal is simply wrong. It gets its force and its limit from that. In Shakespeare’s world, there’s every chance.

52

roger 12.30.09 at 12:16 am

By the way, this is the reason that science fiction – the fiction of, after all, ideas – is so often bad. The allegorical impulse meeting the game the game impulse undermines the credibility of the ideas. They make you ‘think’ – but they make you think in precisely the wrong way. They make you think that thinking is easy. That’s why Shakespeare’s plays are intellectually superior to Shaw’s.

53

roac 12.30.09 at 12:19 am

42: When you say that Shakespeares was “an intellectual and moral mediocrity,” I have to revert to the argument I made at 21, which is that we know nothing about Shakespeare’s intellectual interests or moral standpoint. All we have is his plays, which were written with the overriding goal of putting butts in seats and enabling Hemings and Condell to go on paying his salary.

At 38, I think you are evading the point originally made by someone else in a post I cannot now find. Shaw’s Caesar is not merely intended to be” interesting”; he is, as I remember (I was in high school when I read C&C, and that’s a long time ago), pretty clearly the mouthpiece for paticular views which Shaw wanted to sell to his audience. If that is correct, then the merits of the play have to be at least partly contingent on the merits of the ideas

My clearest memory of the play is of Caesar’s reaction to being told that the Library of Alexandria was on fire: “It is better that the Alexandrians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.” I remember trying to agree, since I was obviously supposed to, but ultimately failing.

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novakant 12.30.09 at 12:37 am

He was an intellectual and moral mediocrity

Have you ever considered that being a brilliant intellectual and a model of morality is not a requirement for being an outstanding playwright (or novelist, or poet, or film director)? Or even, as I would argue, that this might often be a hindrance rather than a quality?

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JanieM 12.30.09 at 12:41 am

geo: Peter @41: Thanks, that’s fascinating.

I think you would enjoy the Collected Letters (4 volumes, edited by Dan H. Laurence) if you haven’t already. Amazon.com shows some used copies, e.g. here.

The Harvard Bookstore had a complete set in very nice condition a couple of summers ago for $90. I was on the verge of going back in and buying it so that I would have a less battered set than my old one, but someone had beaten me to it.

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geo 12.30.09 at 1:06 am

novakant @54: Have you ever considered … ?

Yes, often, and still haven’t come to a conclusion. What is the relation between intelligence and imagination, truth and beauty, wisdom and art, anyway?

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Steve LaBonne 12.30.09 at 1:08 am

Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his morality is not particularly Christian or even noticeably religious

The blatant obviousness of this always makes me shake my head when the currently fashionable topic of Shakespeare’s supposed Catholic-ness comes up. I’d have a hard time thinking of a writer anywhere between antiquity and the 18th Century whose work shows fewer traces of any variety of Christianity.

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Substance McGravitas 12.30.09 at 1:14 am

Sounds like you’re attacking Shakespeare for not being sticking to a formula now.

Indeed it does seem weird to demand that Shakespeare’s tragedies follow the formula of Christian allegory.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 1:34 am

“the fiction of ideas ” vs the fiction of preferences and of preferences described in common form. When the fiction of ideas lasts, it’s not because of the author’s intent but in spite of it. The only immorality in craft is hypocrisy. There’s something hypocritical in fascist art, but there’s nothing hypocritical in a Titian portrait of the schmuck Philip II.

What Titian gives us is a complex description of the language and categories of meaning in the period. Categories of perception in Venice in 1550 are worlds away from those of Florence in 1520: the difference between flat and idealized images of substance and substance used to to describe immateriality. At the end of his life Titian was painting with his fingers. Try reading Kant for half an hour and then a page of Hegel. You feel like you’re suddenly on a different planet. Same thing

Mimetic art is the description of something you love so much you can be honest about it, or that you hate so profoundly and know so well that you show it in all its complexity. Marx and both Eliot work. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong about the subject only that you’re observant, articulate and honest in describing your response.

Shakespeare will be with us as long as Plato. But Plato’s taste for intellectual elegance is both his strength and his weakness. It’s only possible because Socrates is supplied with straw men to go against.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 1:36 am

Feh. Someone get me a copy editor.

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bianca steele 12.30.09 at 1:41 am

geo@34 Where did that “cosmic” come from? The idea that Bunyan’s way is superior might be almost persuasive without that “cosmic.” And how does that square with @35 Julius Caesar’s idea of “Rome’s civilizing mission” anyway?

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geo 12.30.09 at 1:57 am

Substance: No, of course I’m not attacking Shakespeare for not sticking to a formula, much less for not writing a Christian allegory . (In any case, that the protagonist of a tragedy should be a hero, or a villain of heroic proportions, is not a “formula”; it’s simply part of the traditional definition of a tragic drama.) In any case, Shakespeare did stick to the formula. He thought Macbeth, Hamlet, Antony et al were heroes. Shaw thinks they were pretty paltry heroes: who cares, after all, whether Macbeth is king or Antony is emperor or Hamlet’s father is revenged? It doesn’t matter a fig, really, to a grown-up reader.

Steve: I think what people mean by Shakespeare’s Catholicism is his apparent unreflecting acceptance of the divine right of kings, his dim view of popular sovereignty, his lack of speculative curiosity, his almost instinctive distrust of rebellion and heterodoxy, etc. He seems — again, to most people — to have had a conservative sensibility and worldview. You think his outlook was less Christian than those of Boccaccio, Villon, Rabelais, or Montaigne, all of whom seem to me (and to the Church, which condemned them and not Shakespeare) as more or less pagan?

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geo 12.30.09 at 2:09 am

bianca: By “cosmic” I simply meant that in every corner of the universe, to readers at any stage of evolution, Christian’s struggle to conquer his baser self and achieve his salvation, or Caesar’s ambition to bring engineering, rational administration, and Greek literature to the slave empires of the East and the barbarians of the North, will probably seem more interesting than whether Macbeth or Duncan wears a silly round piece of metal on his head, or whether Antony or Octavian wears laurel leaves and presides at the Coliseum.

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novakant 12.30.09 at 2:25 am

What is the relation between intelligence and imagination, truth and beauty, wisdom and art, anyway?

“Ein zu weites Feld” of course, but I think the writer (cannot remember who) who said, that if everything in his novel could be condensed into an essay of ten pages or so, he wouldn’t have bothered going through the painful process of writing it, made a pretty good point.

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roger 12.30.09 at 2:53 am

I’m not sure what this could possibly mean: “Caesar’s ambition to bring engineering, rational administration, and Greek literature to the slave empires of the East and the barbarians of the North. The slave empires of the East? So, Sparticus goes down the hole of forgetfulness. Rome was the greatest slave principality of the Mediterranean, and exhausted the patience of its conquests with its penchant for enslaving inhabitants.

Indeed, the ‘slave’ empires of the east were doing pretty good as far as engineering and Greek literature goes. Adrienne Mayor makes a pretty good case that the first mechanical calculating machine – found off the shore of Antikythera Crete – was probably made at King Mithradates court, the king who opposed the Roman advance in the Eastern meditteranean, and was easily able to rouse the people of Asia minor to slaughter 80,000 of them – since the Romans came to pillage and prey. What did they bring Egypt but an inordinate appetite for grain. Caesar, of course, was in Egypt – Ptolomeic Egypt, the last redoubt of Hellenic culture once Sulla devastated Greece – to have his debt repaid. The Romans spread culture in the same way the mosquito spreads malaria – both the Romans and the mosquito were out to sate themselves on blood. Culture, like disease, was an accidental byproduct.

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rea 12.30.09 at 2:53 am

whether Antony or Octavian wears laurel leaves and presides at the Coliseum.

Warning! Temporal Anomaly in progress!

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bad Jim 12.30.09 at 3:14 am

To come at this discussion from another angle, is it reasonable to apply the same critique to music? Should sacred, patriotic or revolutionary works be exalted over mere secular fare? In this case the question of meaning or intent is a bit more difficult to resolve, since the title of a piece might be the only indication, and might not be dependable.

For example, the third movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet starts with a theme entitled “A convalescent’s holy song of thanks to the Godhead in the Lydian Mode”. Should this be taken at face value, or was Beethoven just noodling around with modal music and using it as a ground from which “Feeling new strength”, the lyrical contrasting theme, could rise? (The next untitled movement sounds like more modal musing, and the finale is positively perky.)

The issue seems to be that Shakespeare’s art isn’t sufficiently instructive or instructive. I seem to recall that similar complaints once were lodged against Shostakovich, as well as practitioners of the visual arts. It’s now no longer fashionable to insist that the arts ought to have practical value beyond the pleasure they give us (and of course their value as class and cultural identifiers). Perhaps literature deserves an exception because it can’t always be distinguished from exposition.

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geo 12.30.09 at 3:31 am

Roger: Don’t be ahistorical. Shaw didn’t know that the Romans were so nasty. He thought they had a civilizing mission, or at least he thought they thought they had a civilizing mission. Or that someone, somewhere once had a civilizing mission. Or that the idea of a civilizing mission was potentially a good idea. It doesn’t matter. The point is that Shaw’s Caesar has this idea, and this makes him a more interesting character than Shakespeare’s Antony, who has no ideas.

Jim: No, the issue is not that Shakespeare’s art isn’t sufficiently instructive. It’s that Shakespeare’s heroes, presented to arouse our “pity and terror,” as tragic heroes are supposed to do, are actually (to exaggerate a little, again, for the sake of argument) whiny, petty-minded blowhards, at least compared to Bunyan’s, and that this diminishes the value (interest, significance, etc) of Shakespeare’s art.

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jdw 12.30.09 at 3:34 am

Anyone mention Wittgenstein yet? He didn’t like Shakespeare either did he? Lawrence, Shaw, Wittgenstein…It seems to me what unites these people is a devotion to complicated and structured thinking, and at the same time a yearning to be literary people, to master words and make words work for them, so they thought of those two things as tied together. Shakespeare was thumbing his nose at them, and they didn’t like it.
So I think maybe the moral-grandeur thing is almost a red herring. Maybe it would be better to say they thought putting words together and making them work goes with another another kind of activity you could call intellectual or in the broad sense visionary or “prophetic”, that the one was an expression of the other, and that it was under suspicion of self-promotion and cheapness if you tried to sneak into great literature without the latter.
It’s a tough view to really understand or assimilate nowadays, as I think we can see from this discussion…
Anyway, what about Wittgenstein’s views on this, you professional philosophers?

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 3:45 am

“It’s now no longer fashionable to insist that the arts ought to have practical value beyond the pleasure they give us”
Fashionable is the word, there’s no logical reason. Read Jerome Groopman on doctors as diagnosticians and the risks of going straight to testing rather than close observation and examination. A diagnostician is and needs to be a connoisseur: someone who doesn’t let rules do his thinking for him. What role does a connoisseur have in naturalized epistemology? None. Is an idea ever as complex as a human being? No. So maybe we need connoisseurs of humanity, not experts. And that’s what trial lawyers and politicians and actors and novelists and confidence men and playas are.
Hamlet is not an idea and even as an invention he’s more complex than most people. That’s a bit much but it’s the sort of rhetorical flourish that gets people in trouble. I’ll live with it.

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roac 12.30.09 at 3:59 am

Before packing it in for the night, let me just ask: Does anyone know who OGILBY was?

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Substance McGravitas 12.30.09 at 3:59 am

who cares, after all, whether Macbeth is king or Antony is emperor or Hamlet’s father is revenged? It doesn’t matter a fig, really, to a grown-up reader.

Why it matters to grown-up readers is that the characters do things in a human way. It seems to me that you’re worried about the MacGuffin instead of the drama. Yes, a crown in itself means nothing to me, but the flaws, strengths, and will of a well-drawn character does.

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Substance McGravitas 12.30.09 at 4:06 am

Good lord I write terribly.

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Matthias Wasser 12.30.09 at 4:16 am

By the same logic: Shakespeare and Mickey Spillane do not believe the universe is an arena of cosmic moral conflict. Ergo, Shakespeare and Mickey Spillane are on the same level, intellectually, imaginatively, aesthetically.

I don’t know who Spillane is, but I assume I’m supposed to disagree. If that’s the case I think you’ve missed the point, which is that Shaw’s logic is crazy and that to say Bunyan is better than Shakespeare because Bunyan is a manichæn and Shakes a nihilist is a non sequitur.

“Ein zu weites Feld” of course, but I think the writer (cannot remember who) who said, that if everything in his novel could be condensed into an essay of ten pages or so, he wouldn’t have bothered going through the painful process of writing it, made a pretty good point.

A stab at Tolstoy, I presume. Even if it’s unfair in the end.

Appropos of nothing, I think it might be interesting to look at more or less moralistic works by the same artist and see what sort of patterns lie there. Like, I think Ivan the Terrible is a better film than Alexsandr Nevskii in part because it’s not a one-dimensional fight of good-vs-evil, but that’s just one data point.

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bad Jim 12.30.09 at 4:40 am

¿Playas? ¡Ando por la playa cada día! (Beach town humor, sorry.)

That Shakespeare’s heroes and villains aren’t exemplars wasn’t a defect in his day and isn’t in ours. Obama hasn’t met our expectations, nor could he; Reagan, in his bumbling geniality was a worse monster than twisted Nixon, who out of expediency furthered Johnson’s agenda. The banality of good is seldom emphasized, while the ideals of heroism tend to be orthogonal to merely human needs (God, honor, nation, &c).

We can see ourselves in almost any of Shakespeare’s all-too-human characters, from comic foil to tragic fool. That’s hardly a defect; it makes them more real. More to the point, though, we watch them again and again for the sake of the music of the verse.

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nick s 12.30.09 at 5:05 am

“Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison.” It’s Johnson’s conclusion on his entire output, and while he speaks highly of Cato, he sides with those (like Pope) who considered it more poetic dialogue than drama:

Nothing here “excites or assuages emotion:” here is “no magical power of raising phantastic terror or wild anxiety.” The events are expected without solicitude, and are remembered without joy or sorrow. Of the agents we have no care; we consider not what they are doing, or what they are suffering; we wish only to know what they have to say.

Does anyone know who OGILBY was?

The masque-maker and map-maker. The maps are worth a read; travelling between Oxford and Cambridge has not improved much since the 1660s.

And so, onto George:

and that this diminishes the value (interest, significance, etc) of Shakespeare’s art.

A logical leap that reminds me why I always picture a certain strand of moral high-horse critics dressed like Jimmy Edwards, cane an’ all. The foundations are so wobbly that I don’t quite know where to begin (it seems to require a hobbled conception of Shakespeare’s output that’s more understandable to someone drawing from Irving’s Lycaeum) so I’ll put Bunyan aside here for a second and wonder whether Marlowe’s Faustus (messy text and all) or Jonson’s Catiline pass muster, or more generally, whether this geo-Shavian flaw is to be extended to all tragic protagonists of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 5:05 am

“More to the point, though, we watch them again and again for the sake of the music of the verse.”
It’s more than that. The characters themselves are works of art: complex and contradictory and memorable unities, even if we can’t quite say of what sort.

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bad Jim 12.30.09 at 5:22 am

Mathematical elegance, insofar as I understand it, inclines more to parsimony than mellifluousness, less Addison or Pope than Hemingway or Vonnegut, and can only be properly exhibited in its unique notation. This is not to suggest that math belongs among the visual arts, or that mathematicians ought to be prohibited from learning languages employing different alphabets, but math texts might be cheaper if their authors had spent more time chained to a keyboard and forbidden pens.

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geo 12.30.09 at 5:28 am

Matthias: Shakespeare was not a nihilist, in the sense that Nietzsche was, or in the somewhat different sense that Bazarov in Fathers and Sons was. On the contrary: nihilism is a rejection of social convention and received wisdom. Shakespeare has no interest whatever in rejecting social convention and received wisdom. It’s not that he embraces them. He simply takes them for granted, apparently never giving the matter any thought at all. The powers that be are ordained of God; be loyal to your prince; sow your wild oats when young; avenge wrongs and insults; do not overreach; moderation in all things; etc, etc. A stock of aristocratic and bourgeois platitudes, ready-made; that’s all his characters live by. It isn’t that they’re not “moral exemplars,” in the sense of not being sufficiently virtuous. It’s that they’re not tragic enough. Tragedy, remember, is supposed to “purge the soul, by means of pity and terror.” Shaw thinks Shakespeare’s heroes are simply too small to accomplish this. As I mentioned before, I’ve only begun to think about the matter, but I have a suspicion he may be right.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 5:42 am

To add one more thing about the whole thread and my defense of a kind of thinking.
These sort of arguments are important even though, or even because, there’s no one answer. It’s still arguing about ideas one step removed, as sensibility. Conversation itself creates culture. Since arguing over preference sharpens your awareness of it and actually changes it, making whatever you think a more sophisticated version of what it was.
And the morality of Shakespeare lies in this, and in his and his characters’ relation to the audience and theirs to him. The plays are very directly about and for and played by “us.”

Matthias Wasser: Alexsandr Nevskii was my Star Wars. And I saw it first couple of times in a theater. You have a point (but not a “data point”). Eisenstein wrote wonderfully about the difficulty of creating three dimensional characters for the new revolutionary culture. He loved Noh theater as a classical form with cardboard cutouts… that weren’t. That worry on his part makes even the pure propaganda films like The General Line worth seeing.

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Gar Lipow 12.30.09 at 5:53 am

There may have some good sense layered on top of the bonkers in Shaw’s attacks on Shakespeare. But I think there was something simple below too – g0od all fashioned envy. Shaw was not satisfied to be a great playwright. He wanted to be the greatest. And it was conventional wisdom that Shakespeare was not only a better playwright than Shaw, but a better class of playwright than Shaw. Well Shaw had proven the conventional wisdom not only wrong but absurd before, so why not when it came to Shakespeare? Only, the conventional wisdom happens to be right here. (Shaw was also under the illusion that he was a competent poet. As someone who loves Shaw, I made the mistake of buying a collection of his poems. I won’t retype any because I can’t bear to, but here is a link to one that happens to be online. I’m afraid it is is typical: http://www.vegsoc.org.au/religion_poetry_shaw.asp. (If you are curious to read more of Shaw’s poetry, pick up “Lady Wilt Thou Love Me?” – but only in the same spirit one rents “Plan 9 From Outer Space).

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Substance McGravitas 12.30.09 at 5:54 am

Shakespeare has no interest whatever in rejecting social convention and received wisdom. It’s not that he embraces them. He simply takes them for granted, apparently never giving the matter any thought at all. The powers that be are ordained of God; be loyal to your prince; sow your wild oats when young; avenge wrongs and insults; do not overreach; moderation in all things; etc, etc.

Polonius: wiser than we thought.

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nick s 12.30.09 at 5:58 am

A stock of aristocratic and bourgeois platitudes, ready-made; that’s all his characters live by.

In the words of the great tragedian, that is all my bum.

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jrb 12.30.09 at 6:03 am

George:

1) So how do you feel about Sophocles?

2) Is there a reason that you’ve avoided Othello and Lear as examples?

Best,
John

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Ceri B. 12.30.09 at 6:49 am

Geo: “A stock of aristocratic and bourgeois platitudes, ready-made; that’s all his characters live by.” Two things.

First. Hamlet? Richard II? Richard III? Henry V? Iago? Hotspur? Viola? I’m not seeing it.

Second. In an era of Bush and Blair, I think you and others are way selling short the merits of some of those ideas, like “do not overreach; moderation in all things; etc,” The fact is that no matter how banal they may seem to you, great power has been gathered up by people who either aren’t aware of them or don’t feel obliged to do anything about them, and affirming the existence of communities and the desirability of a balanced life and stuff like that doesn’t strike me as trivial at all.

I don’t live in the cosmos at large. I am a human body with a human mind living among humans and the rest of our world, and I don’t feel that I live in the midst of a glut of effective, compelling messages about the importance and worth of some simple moral principles. I do feel I live in a glut of vainglorious praise of epic schemes, and would like fewer of them, and if this makes me a moral cripple inclined to dubious art, well, so be it.

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Bloix 12.30.09 at 7:03 am

#s 33 and 45 – Teide on Tenerife is also a stratovolcano. It’s bigger than Etna, and it had erupted reasonably spectacularly a few years before Hume was born. But the main thing about it was that it was important – it’s a big fixed object out in the ocean. In the days before longitude could easily be calculated, sailors were always a little bit lost once out of sight of land. If you could see Tenerife, you knew where you were.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.30.09 at 7:47 am

A stock of aristocratic and bourgeois platitudes, ready-made; that’s all his characters live by

Come on, George. Leave it to Khrushchev.

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geo 12.30.09 at 7:47 am

Ceri: The sentence you’ve quoted was part of a response to another comment to the effect that “Shakespeare was a nihilist.” The point of the response was: “No, he wasn’t; nihilists reject the commonly accepted rules and values of their time and place, but Shakespeare didn’t.” The characters you mention (except perhaps Viola, whom I don’t remember) did not reject the prevailing rules and values. Richard II was a duffer; Richard III a gloriously vile intriguer; Henry V a reformed wild-oats sower; Hotspur a blustering, swaggering soldier. Hamlet is a charming, engaging, verbally dazzling, but fretful and narcissistic young man. None of them had any conception of or allegiance to a noble, original, capacious ideal, something that transcended their personal ambitions or grievances.

Second: yes, of course, the conventional wisdom contains much wisdom, which is how it gets to be the conventional wisdom. Those “simple moral principles” are essential, and quite sufficient for ordinary life. Which is precisely what a tragic drama is not.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.30.09 at 8:08 am

Here it is, Samuel Johnson:

Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents: so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.

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magistra 12.30.09 at 8:37 am

Geo @68: The point is that Shaw’s Caesar has this idea [of a civilizing mission], and this makes him a more interesting character than Shakespeare’s Antony, who has no ideas.

But most of us don’t have big ideas, or if we do, are not able to implement them. We’re just ordinary people flailing around in the here and now. Bunyan’s aim was to make the ordinary Christian life seem heroic, but he suceeds only by flattening it out and hyping it up, giving it a clarity that it doesn’t really have. The everyday choice even for Christians isn’t between heroic good and evil, but between shades of grey.

And some of Shakespeare’s characters, for all their trappings of monarchy/aristocracy, have something of this ordinary quality. We can see ourselves in them and their decisions. The characters of Othello and of Romeo and Juliet, for example, have been repeatedly transferred into other settings because they still speak to us in those. In contrast, you can’t transfer Shaw’s characters, because they only fit in his ideological framework. And ideological frameworks and ‘big ideas’ generally date far quicker than rounded characters. Bunyan was once vastly popular: I don’t know about the US, but in the post-Christian UK he’s marginal, whereas Shakespeare is still meaningful.

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novakant 12.30.09 at 9:23 am

The fact that, generally speaking, the world is run by “whiny, petty-minded blowhards” rather than tragic heroes might help explain our continued appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays, their timeless relevance.

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novakant 12.30.09 at 9:31 am

Shakespeare has no interest whatever in rejecting social convention and received wisdom. It’s not that he embraces them. He simply takes them for granted, apparently never giving the matter any thought at all.

Maybe, probably, I’ve become a totally jaded cynic over the years as far as politics and society are concerned, but I think Shakespeare displays a pretty grown-up attitude in rejecting utopian dreams of change and instead focussing on exposing the men behind the curtain in all their pettiness. Unless we take the step of deciding to resort to terrorist action, which would be pretty pointless, we’re all pretty much going along with the program, despite the radical pose we might like to assume.

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JoB 12.30.09 at 9:55 am

novakant, well, yes, but timeless? I don’t think anything will prove to be timeless – and the convoluted here-and-there (I just finished re-reading a play in preparation of some personal project of mine) of Shakespeare is becoming quite dated. I also went to a play recently and the horrible pettiness of most characters really cannot but be overacted – as per usual Hume has it right I think but his is a comparison, not an absolute appraisal.

Also, there is a difference between the genius of an individual – and the everlastingness of her work. The former is not merely a show of cultural pessimism (“they do not make them like that nowadays”).

PS: even if he truthfully degraded what was considered ‘grand’ – he did not belittle what was common because it was ‘common’ – which is some kind of morality right there

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JoB 12.30.09 at 10:12 am

Also, magistra is on to something. Instant popularity is correlated with saying things in a certain ‘correct’ big framework. That’ll get you the support of the powers that be, and consequently the access to readers. Whenever somebody gets a little subversive and is trying to make something understandable that was hitherto off limits it’s uphill. Mainly I think because one needs to rely on word of mouth and no constitutional support for a wooing of readership. (which is quite as Hume would have had it, imho)

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kid bitzer 12.30.09 at 10:44 am

@75–
i’ve not seen ogilby’s maps, but i’m pretty sure that hume has compared him to milton because of his translation of vergil’s aeneid. (that would give you the right apples-to-apples, or at least epic-to-epic, sort of comparison).

a little clicking around shows that it was well-received until eclipsed by dryden’s vergil. i wish i could also read a few couplets–then we could vindicate it against that puritan botcher.

oh–it’s also clear that ogilby was a middle-class scotsman who got ahead with his wits and his pen. part of what hume is doing in dissing him is to join in the typical self-loathing gesture of the anglophilic scot.

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novakant 12.30.09 at 11:18 am

True, timeless is a rather big word, so I’m willing to make concessions in that regard. But it also depends on how Shakespeare’s plays are produced on stage – a friend of mine is a theatre director and what he does with Shakespeare can be pretty radical: he just throws out sections he deems not useful to his aims and likes to transpose the settings and adapt the costumes etc. to suit contemporary themes. It also helps that he is working in German and so has considerable leeway with the translations. So there’s a lot you can do with Shakespeare.

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JoB 12.30.09 at 12:24 pm

96 – we’re agreed.

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Matthias Wasser 12.30.09 at 12:26 pm

By nihilism I just meant rejecting (or at least frustrating) the idea of a moral; perhaps to describe Shakespeare as “amoral” would be better. But I think we ought separate two things: whether characters believe in something higher than themselves, and whether the idea they believe in isn’t just “a collection of platitudes.” As for the former, isn’t (among others) Brutus a clear example? (He doesn’t care only about ideas, it’s a struggle to balance them against his personal relationships, but that’s what makes him a good character.) And as for the latter, does Christian represent some new and original idea? I think Bunyan would think his aim unaccomplished if you said so; rather, Bunyan wanted to present the recieved Puritan worldview with enough beauty that it seems fresh again, which is more or less what Shakes does for the “Pagan wisdom” about revenge, love, &c.

And as far as scrapping before the morally-repugnant-to-us wisdom of the time, my God, let’s look again at Shaw’s Ceasar. How is Shaw’s White Man’s Burden any more admirable or original than Shakespeare’s Tudor propaganda? It’s just the horrifying conventional wisdom of the time. (Not that that’s a problem for it as art.)

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Aulus Gellius 12.30.09 at 1:24 pm

Yes, I think this goes back to a point I made in the earlier thread (and that several other people have made in this one). All these Shaw-vs.-Shakespeare comparisons start from accepting a very contentious set of terms: grand systematic ideas are good, confused petty ones are bad. Of course, if you have the opposite set of preferences you can easily turn this on its head: Shakespeare’s ideas are human and realistic, Shaw’s are abstracted, preachy and ham-handed. (that is, in fact, my set of preferences, by the way.)

C.S. Lewis has a good passage in “The Allegory of Love,” where he talks about Spenser vs. Ariosto/Tasso, and how easy it is to show that either is truly greater. Really, it turns out that this isn’t a very useful way to talk about literature: writers do different things (which is certainly itself worth pointing out), and you can say of any two great writers, “Writer A does great thing X, which you will find nowhere in Writer B.”

100

Aulus Gellius 12.30.09 at 1:35 pm

And, to get back into the midst of an argument I just said was pointless: I think Shaw, if he’s making the points you claim, geo, is really stretching with the people he’s putting on his side. I think if you told the Greek tragedians that they were so great because they weren’t concerned with moral platitudes like “don’t overreach,” they would give you a funny look. Ditto for the Hebrew prophets, for that matter.

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Platonist 12.30.09 at 1:47 pm

In any case, I think we can all, no doubt, agree, that Addison is the bees knees, and Teneriffe is just about the highest thing ever.

Great examples, David Hume! They sure help you beg the question in your essay on taste! But then, in his value theory, does Hume ever not beg the question?

102

Hogan 12.30.09 at 2:58 pm

He thought Macbeth, Hamlet, Antony et al were heroes.

And we know this how?

103

Substance McGravitas 12.30.09 at 3:28 pm

It’s awfully easy to oscillate between hero as functional necessity and “hero” as admirable individual.

104

mark 12.30.09 at 3:32 pm

@ #88: “Hamlet is a charming, engaging, verbally dazzling, but fretful and narcissistic young man. None of them had any conception of or allegiance to a noble, original, capacious ideal, something that transcended their personal ambitions or grievances.”
Isn’t this too simple?
Hamlet:
“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!…
That I, …
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion! O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!…

Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg…

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery…

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know…
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event…”

105

novakant 12.30.09 at 3:33 pm

According to my admittedly hazy memory of English Lit, Hamlet is a prime example of an anti-hero and Shakespeare somewhat special for promoting the concept of anti-hero.

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roac 12.30.09 at 3:46 pm

103: Hence the usefulness of the ethically neutral term “protagonist.”

107

kid bitzer 12.30.09 at 3:48 pm

105:

yeah right. even by calling it “ethically neutral” you are complicit in western culture’s arbitrary valorization of tagonists.

108

bianca steele 12.30.09 at 4:17 pm

Shaw was undeniably good at one thing: making speeches to push through Sidney Webb’s agenda for Fabianism. And at acquiring disciples who had never met him but who quoted him as if he were infallible. (Shakespeare, on the other hand, acquired admirers within his own professional circle.) I really don’t feel he’s admirable.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 4:20 pm

#98 “perhaps to describe Shakespeare as “amoral” would be better”
But he’s not amoral. Is Euripides amoral because he’s not Plato?
In as English harden chaotic because it’s not modeled on Versailles?
And Geo is the one arguing for Versailles. He’s the conservative. Shakespeare is radical by comparison, but he describes the radical so as to make it normative, and in a sense unthreatening.
Shakespeare’s order is unstable and protean but it’s an order. It’s just not something you can remove from the language of the plays: the subject matter and form are inseparable. There’s no takeaway without loss. The plays the thing. That’s the idea.
He doesn’t profess a philosophy he makes one manifest.

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Colin Danby 12.30.09 at 5:10 pm

Some of this does remind me, Joaquin, about the complaints that Euripides marked the decline of Greek tragedy because he made his characters too interesting.

George’s point about convention is useful, though you could turn it around and point out that Shakespeare shows convention’s fragility and, in a sense, its moral emptiness. You end up with a result not unlike a lot of Greek tragedy, that redemption comes, if at all, in small acts of human love and forgiveness and not from anything supernatural or divine.

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geo 12.30.09 at 5:26 pm

Between Samuel Johnson and the rest of you, I’m floored, at least temporarily. Very much to think about. Thanks, all.

112

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.30.09 at 5:52 pm

“…complaints that Euripides marked the decline of Greek tragedy because he made his characters too interesting.”

That’s great. Wow.

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Sam C 12.30.09 at 6:05 pm

‘But then, in his value theory, does Hume ever not beg the question?’ (Platonist @ 101)

Depends if you think Hume intended to recommend particular values to us, or just to offer a naturalistic psychology of valuing based on examples conveniently to hand.

114

Substance McGravitas 12.30.09 at 6:12 pm

I hope everyone’s read Poe’s Philosophy of Composition. Short and funny, whatever his intention.

115

StevenAttewell 12.30.09 at 10:19 pm

Geo –

Regarding tragedy and heroes, I would say that Arthur Miller’s corpus is a pretty good brief for how ordinary people can be tragic heroes.

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Substance McGravitas 12.31.09 at 12:24 am

I don’t think the Scialabba/Shaw position is about station, it’s about ideals. The Miller plays I’ve seen seem to me to be contests of ideals and so would fall into that argument.

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Gene O'Grady 12.31.09 at 4:20 am

If anyone wants to sample Ogilby’s Virgil translations, there are six pages of them in the Virgil in English volume of the regrettably short lived Penguin series of poet X in English.

Did anyone really say that Euripides killed tragedy by making his characters too interesting?

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nick s 12.31.09 at 5:17 am

If anyone wants to sample Ogilby’s Virgil translations, there are six pages of them in the Virgil in English volume of the regrettably short lived Penguin series of poet X in English.

They killed that? Oh, tragedy.

I actually have that volume, worth it for the Gavin Douglas with which it begins, and had (to my shame) forgotten about the Ogilby translation, having spent more hours poring over the maps in Britannia.

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Ian 12.31.09 at 7:49 am

Geo @ 88: Richard II was a duffer; Richard III a gloriously vile intriguer; Henry V a reformed wild-oats sower; Hotspur a blustering, swaggering soldier. Hamlet is a charming, engaging, verbally dazzling, but fretful and narcissistic young man. None of them had any conception of or allegiance to a noble, original, capacious ideal, something that transcended their personal ambitions or grievances.

These are clever little phrases, but I don’t think they really work. To take one example, Prince Hal is not “a reformed wild-oats sower”; he plays one for public consumption. At the end of the second scene of 1 Henry IV, he informs us that Falstaff and all his other low-life companions are merely the “sullen ground” that will make his apparent reformation “show more goodly.” Is this betrayal merely for personal ambition? In one sense, yes: Hal is determined to be a more successful ruler than his usurping father. On another level, though, Hal does it because it is his role to rebuild a country torn apart by that usurpation, an act which (in Shakespeare’s hands) shattered one understanding of the commonwealth without replacing it with another. His task is “redeeming time,” which carries an apocalyptic aspect that will not be fully realized until Henry V but which also relates to his role as a symbol for national unity in Shakespeare’s own time–a role that clearly is being both celebrated and examined critically. The sheer brutality with which Hal consolidates his power, the inexorable way in which reasons of state demand the destruction of Hotspur, Falstaff, Pistol, and just about every other humane character across three plays is breathtaking. And yet we are placed in the uncomfortable position of endorsing these actions as part of the process of nation-building, not least because Hal is captivating: poetic, charming, philosophical–there’s a restless and creative mind there, one that understands the power of the political in compelling ways, one that is clearly engaged in a project larger than himself.

And yet, again, at the edge of Hal’s greatest triumph, the victory that will cement his fame for centuries to come, Shakespeare has a common soldier demonstrate a fairly ferocious moral imperative: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.” The soldier’s calculus pretty much demolishes the morality of any claims for the value of war as symbol of nation–which is surely what we’re all here in the audience for, to see “warlike Harry, like himself / Assume the port of Mars” (doesn’t Agincourt still cause a little thrill for some Britons?).

The next morning, before the battle, Hal will turn this indictment into the St. Crispin’s Day speech, transforming the testimony of the dismembered dead at Judgment Day into the proleptic nostalgia of “we band of brothers,” who will keep the memory of this day alive until the end of time. That is, he does what Shakespeare has been accused of doing: he turns it into the a beautiful expression of moral platitudes, conventional in implication and limited in scope. But Shakespeare is the one who shows us Hal doing this.

I can understand one thinking that Hal is something other than heroic, but he’s certainly not petty. He has great moral clarity; Shakespeare leaves us in a much more ambivalent place.

120

chris y 12.31.09 at 8:54 am

Don’t be ahistorical. Shaw didn’t know that the Romans were so nasty.

This is not to be ahistorical. It’s to note that Shaw had no interest in history. Parenthetically, Shaw had no interest in anything much besides Shaw (and certain ideals at a level of abstraction that left them largely as reflections of the Shavian self image). This is unremarkable, because it’s true of many, if not most people. It’s not true of Shakespeare, though: he seems to have been profoundly interested in everybody.

121

Patrick 12.31.09 at 5:05 pm

Can’t we just note that Shaw is criticizing Shakespeare for writing about what Shakespeare wanted to write about, and not what Shaw wanted Shakespeare to write about?

I tend to fall more on the Shakespeare side of things, probably due to a deep suspicion of people who feel that the world needs more Grand Heroic Narratives to give it meaning. But we’re arguing about topic choice.

122

Aulus Gellius 12.31.09 at 6:29 pm

The more I think about this (which is to say, the less I get my actual work done) the more I think Shaw’s summary underestimates both Shakespeare and Bunyan. It’s not really true that Shakespeare doesn’t have any sense of a grand systematic worldview; it’s more that those worldviews tend to get demolished, rather than built up, in Shakespeare. Lear has a very strong sense, in the beginning of the play, of a firm medievalish hierarchy, where subjects obey their kings, and daughters obey their fathers. But then it turns out that, once he’s put aside his material power, being officially king and father leaves him as nothing more than a lonely old man with no knights to protect him. (He’s constantly threatening Goneril and Regan with dreadful curses, which they take about as seriously as you or I would.)

And on the other side, Bunyan doesn’t just show a simplistic, nice, straightforward path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Christian can wander off on a side-path; but (a) that leads him to a giant’s dungeon, and (b) it turns out that even this has been planned for, when he was given the key to escape. Simple (unless I’m confusing him with a different character) thinks he’s doing very well, walking along the right road as “my heart tells me.” But it turns out, when he gets to the end, he gets all the way to the gate and then is thrown into hell, because he doesn’t have the right paperwork.

Shakespearean characters can trust in overarching world orders, and then find out how little protection they have when those fail. Bunyan’s characters occasionally try to find their own, idiosyncratic way, only to be violently reminded how powerful the world order really is. That’s probably still a gross oversimplification of both authors, but it’s better, I think, than looking only at Christian after he’s arrived at the City, and Macbeth after his kingdom has started to crumble. They both took quite a while to reach those points, and neither traveled in a straight line.

123

kid bitzer 12.31.09 at 7:45 pm

no, no–you’re misreading ‘lear’. it’s not about fealty, feudalism, faith, or family. it’s not about gratitude, grace, or human frailty. none of those important ideas is in there. it’s just a real-estate transaction that went sour. oh, and an old man complaining about the weather. i think he may complain about his cataracts as well.

you can’t fool shaw.

124

geo 12.31.09 at 7:58 pm

Ian @119: Yes, I agree almost entirely about Hal (I still can’t get over a residual dislike for his cold-bloodedness). He did indeed have the larger aspirations you cite, and the common soldier’s speech does complicate the picture brilliantly and profoundly.

chris @120: Certainly Shaw was vain and occasionally cruel, even before he became inhumanly doctrinaire late in life. But he was also a great artist, critic, and social reformer, all of which required being interested in more than Shaw.

Patrick @121: No, not just about topic choice. Shakespeare clearly means us to think that Macbeth, Antony, et al are heroes, that there’s something sublime and awe-inspiring about their character and purposes. Shaw thinks that, in general, there isn’t.

Aulus @122: Again, it’s not exactly a matter of having or not having a “grand systematic worldview.” It’s a matter of having a grand or petty character, and part of that, Shaw suggests, is the largeness or smallness of one’s ideals and aims. A lust for power or revenge is less heroic, Shaw believed, than a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

125

nick s 12.31.09 at 9:07 pm

It’s a matter of having a grand or petty character, and part of that, Shaw suggests, is the largeness or smallness of one’s ideals and aims.

Again, that makes me wonder whether any protagonist in Elizabethan or Jacobean drama (from Kyd to Ford, let’s say) passes such a test. If this is something which you’d consider a general characteristic of the period’s drama, then it becomes less a case of sacred-cow butchery and more an assessment of period and genre.

126

jdw 12.31.09 at 10:10 pm

@122 & 125
right. To put it the other way around, maybe what irks these folks is that 18/19th century Enlightenment doctrine isn’t magically retroactive through all time, superseding in value all prior political forms, and all literature. Of course it seems silly, but there you are. The idea of Lear as insufficiently noble of character gives us a good clue…

(Btw I guess Voltaire was another Shakespeare hater)

127

geo 12.31.09 at 10:12 pm

nick: I don’t know Elizabethan or Jacobean drama well enough to judge, myself. I suspect Shaw would say that it’s mostly because Shakespeare-worship conduces to the notion that merely personal ambitions of the kind that typically motivate Shakespeare’s heroes are something other than paltry and contemptible, and because that notion is partly to blame for the miserable egotism, selfishness, and shallowness prevalent in a world that worships Shakespeare and professes to be taught by him, that he thought it worthwhile to have a tilt at said Shakespeare-worship.

128

Substance McGravitas 12.31.09 at 11:14 pm

miserable egotism, selfishness, and shallowness prevalent in a world that worships Shakespeare

SHAW IS THE CURE!

129

Aulus Gellius 12.31.09 at 11:33 pm

geo: I’m not sure I buy the claim that Shakespeare thinks his goals are more noble than they are. There are people in Shakespeare who thirst nobly for righteousness and virtue: Cordelia, for example, is quite willing to sacrifice her well-being to be sure that she is acting “according to her bond.” It’s just that Shakespeare doesn’t think that this gets you to the Celestial City, he thinks it gets you murdered by someone like Edmund, with much lower ideals (“Thou, Nature, art my goddess”).

In general, the idea that “hero with higher ideals” translates to “better tragedy” would take some really significant reimagining of the canon. Oedipus and Antigone, I suppose, can be said to thirst for justice. But not Medea or Phaedra.

And for that matter, within Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian has a lot more base intentions than Hopeful or Faithful; should one of them have been the hero? I would have thought that a large part of the point of Christian (as of Hamlet or Macbeth) is his deeply flawed, selfish nature; he’s very much not saved because of his heroic character (perish the un-Protestant thought!) but because God decided to save him.

130

Hogan 12.31.09 at 11:34 pm

102: He thought Macbeth, Hamlet, Antony et al were heroes.

And we know this how?

124: Shakespeare clearly means us to think that Macbeth, Antony, et al are heroes, that there’s something sublime and awe-inspiring about their character and purposes.

Just adding “clearly” and defining “hero” doesn’t count as offering evidence.

131

Matthias Wasser 12.31.09 at 11:49 pm

I suspect Shaw would say that it’s mostly because Shakespeare-worship conduces to the notion that merely personal ambitions of the kind that typically motivate Shakespeare’s heroes are something other than paltry and contemptible, and because that notion is partly to blame for the miserable egotism, selfishness, and shallowness prevalent in a world that worships Shakespeare and professes to be taught by him, that he thought it worthwhile to have a tilt at said Shakespeare-worship.

There’s an assumption here that Shakespeare means his characters to be admired. I don’t see where that comes from. Nothing about Shakespeare requires that you endorse the protagonists’ goals in the say that Shaw or Bunyan does. (Maybe that’s why Shaw couldn’t understand him?) You’re just supposed to think all the contradictions they go through on the way there are heartbreaking, familiar, funny, &c.

132

Ceri B. 01.01.10 at 12:11 am

Matthias beat me to it. As nearly as I can tell, Shakespeare wants his characters to be interesting.

133

Joaquin Tamiroff 01.01.10 at 12:19 am

124: Shakespeare clearly means us to think that Macbeth, Antony, et al are heroes, that there’s something sublime and awe-inspiring about their character and purposes.

“You, say that reality is under no obligation to le interesting. To which I’d reply that reality may disregard the obligation that that we may not”
Borges.

I think Geo doesn’t understand the difference between reactionary intellectualized nihilism and a sympathetic interest in people as they are. Wilder’s Double Indemnity like Macbeth has a central character as killer. And no one would justify his actions because they’re interesting, without misunderstand the movie. It’s not a mash note to Leopold and Loeb. Others have done that, and defended such things as necessary to counter bourgeois banality, but not Wilder, and not Shakespeare. To understand people you have to risk sympathizing with them, even if they’re murderers or pedophiles or criminals of whatever sort. It’s a standard line that authors needs to love all their characters, even the bad ones. And sympathy is risky, but not as risky as walling yourself off from experience. As I said on another thread refusing to ever take a drink is not a guarantee of being clearheaded. It could be another symptom of the opposite.

Count me among those who dislike Borges as a illustrator rather than an artist, and as a reactionary. But both Borges and Geo are interested in ideas more than people.
And by the way, the authors of mash notes to L&L are classed as a category of postmodernists and they are in the sense of being mannerists: imposing formal clarity on an unclear world. Like Borges. The mature post-modern is baroque. With Dworkin for example, neither legal positivism nor natural law theory but law as theater and argument as constitutive of justice. And with Shakespeare: conversation not truth is constitutive of society.

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geo 01.01.10 at 12:24 am

Substance @128: Not Shaw but socialism. (I have every confidence that you’re not going to shoot back: “So only socialists can write tragedies?”)

Aulus @129: the idea that “hero with higher ideals” translates to “better tragedy”
Not exactly: the idea is the “hero with larger soul” translates to “better tragedy.”

Matthias @131: There’s an assumption here that Shakespeare means his characters to be admired
Not admired, exactly, but taken for tragic heroes; that is, characters of sufficient depth and interest that their downfall inspires us with pity and terror. Shaw’s claim is that , nowadays at least, you can hardly feel that about the fate of people who care for nothing more than political power or status or revenge or filial ingratitude or stealing someone else’s wife.

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geo 01.01.10 at 1:07 am

Revised to escape moderation.

Substance @128: Not Shaw but soc1alism. (I have every confidence that you’re not going to shoot back: “So only soc1alists can write tragedies?”)

Aulus @129: the idea that “hero with higher ideals” translates to “better tragedy”
Not exactly: the idea is the “hero with larger soul” translates to “better tragedy.”

Matthias @131: There’s an assumption here that Shakespeare means his characters to be admired
Not admired, exactly, but taken for tragic heroes; that is, characters of sufficient depth and interest that their downfall inspires us with pity and terror. Shaw’s claim is that , nowadays at least, you can hardly feel that about the fate of people who care for nothing more than political power or status or revenge or filial ingratitude or stealing someone else’s wife.

PS – Ceri: Yes, exactly. Shaw is saying, in effect: “How can one be interested nowadays in such flabby specimens, puling and mewling over their frustrated desires for power, status, revenge, filial reverence, sexual conquest, etc.? The universe is so much bigger than that.”

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Gene O'Grady 01.01.10 at 1:45 am

Do Antigone and Oedipus really thirst for justice (certainly a classical Greek concept?) I would think that Medea and Phaedra do so at least as much.

And maybe I’ve read too much Aristotle, but is Shakespeare concerned with interesting characters as much as interesting actions, which presuppose some status in the characters? But then I’m happier in the forest of Arden and suspect that he was too.

137

Aulus Gellius 01.01.10 at 1:51 am

geo: Okay, but I think putting in “larger soul” doesn’t help. Is Medea’s soul large, in this sense? As opposed to Macbeth’s?

And again, I think we’ve moved a very long way indeed from Bunyan at this point. Bunyan would be horrified to hear it said that his book is great because of Christian’s “large soul.” Christian could be just about anyone; that’s why he’s named Christian, not John or David.[1] He’s saved because God chooses him (not only can he not escape Despair’s dungeon on his own; he can’t even remember that he’s been given a key to escape on his own) — and there are several monsters waiting to eat him if he tries to be saved by some greatness in himself. If that’s really what Shaw is saying, I can hardly imagine a worse example.

[1] Late in Part II, his kids appear, and they are named things like John and David, and it gets very odd indeed.

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jdw 01.01.10 at 2:47 am

But where’s the payoff?! How exactly in this view does a “large soul” make for literary excellence? Seems to me it’s as if I said Dante’s influence was pernicious and his poetry stinks because he lures us away from the need for environmental consciousness. It says what my historically-conditioned preoccupations are, that Dante didn’t share them, other than that there is nothing of interest in what I am saying.

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matthias wasser 01.01.10 at 2:56 am

Shaw’s claim is that , nowadays at least, you can hardly feel [pity and terror] about the fate of people who care for nothing more than political power or status or revenge or filial ingratitude or stealing someone else’s wife.

For a person who actually is politically engaged, is your circle of empathy really that narrow? I find that extremely unlikely.

140

geo 01.01.10 at 3:44 am

Gene: Well, Antigone does thirst for justice, in a sense: she thinks it would be a violation of the natural, eternal order of things to leave her brother’s body dishonored. But Antigone’s or Oedipus’s altruism or lack of it is not the point. The point is: what made the Oedipus plays tragic, at least to the Greeks? I’d say the answer is: two sacred duties — to obey one’s king and to honor one’s kin (in Antigone’s case); to be a just man and not to be a parricide (in Oedipus’s case) — can come mysteriously into conflict, destroying even the noblest of mere humans. This aroused the Greeks’ pity and terror.

Aulus: I don’t think Shaw is saying that Bunyan is a greater tragedian than Shakespeare, or that he’s a tragedian at all. What he’s saying to his readers is: “Enough of this mindless, automatic Shakespeare-worship. You know you don’t really care about the trivial grievances and petty ambitions of his ‘heroes,’ at least in comparison with the genuine heroism on display in Pilgrim’s Progress, where men and women are forging their souls, not merely satisfying their lusts. And if you momentarily suspend your ecstatic shivering over Shakespeare’s supposedly divine language, you’ll recognize that a lot of it is empty bombast and ingenious contrivance, whereas the plain speech of Bunyan’s characters can sometimes pierce you to the quick.”

jdw: Any number of things make for literary excellence. I’m really not trying to suggest a formula for doing successfully something that Shakespeare and Bunyan were both trying to do; nor even suggesting that they were trying to do the same thing and Bunyan did it better. Shaw was simply trying to suggest that a lot of Shakespeare-idolatry was simply thoughtless conformism, and he did it by comparing them in one or two key respects.

Matthias: I’m not sure I understand. I do care about ordinary, flawed human beings, both known and unknown. But not because I take them (or myself) to be proper tragic heroes.

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Aulus Gellius 01.01.10 at 4:02 am

geo: but I still think this claim of “genuine heroism” is totally misapplied to Bunyan, who, again, is not concerned with great or heroic people at all. In Part 2 of Pilgrim’s progress, we do get characters like “Great-heart [or -spirit, or something]” and “Feeble”; but both of those characters get into the Celestial City. The difference between Christian and his neighbors is not that he is concerned with higher things, but that he realizes his city is doomed to destruction, and they don’t believe it. Christian is, in fact, concerned with trivial things like which path looks easier; but God saves him from his errors.

I don’t buy that Shakespeare’s plays are wholly concerned with trivial affairs. Also, I need a better explanation of the difference between “divine language” and “ingenious contrivance.” I certainly agree that Bunyan’s simple language can pierce me to the quick; but I find that Shakespeare’s complex language does also.

At some point, this really belongs in the comments to David’s post about relativism: our ideas about what makes literature great, after all, must to some extent come after we identify some great literature. If Shaw’s really saying what you describe him as saying, it seems like I’d have to deny greatness not only to Shakespeare, but to, e.g., Euripides, Austen, and just about every comic author ever. At which point I would say, not “wow, I guess those authors really aren’t great,” but, “I think we’re talking about some quality other than greatness.”

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kid bitzer 01.01.10 at 4:50 am

yeah, austen–nothing in that except a bunch of uptight biddies scheming to get hitched. none of the hebrew prophets’ real moral seriousness in that–nothing like, say, committing genocide against the midianites.

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Ceri B. 01.01.10 at 5:51 am

Geo: Yes, exactly. Shaw is saying, in effect: “How can one be interested nowadays in such flabby specimens, puling and mewling over their frustrated desires for power, status, revenge, filial reverence, sexual conquest, etc.? The universe is so much bigger than that.” This fills me with horror. I’m queer and transgendered and I hear in it the echoes of everyone who’s ever set out to destroy the ability of some group of people like me to find comfort or joy in life for the sake of their vision of greatness or just the uniquely true and correct bracket of acceptable human identity.

I think that there is no glory greater than human life, day by day, lived humanely and well. I dearly love Yosemite and the Cascades, but they are not more magnificent than an afternoon of joyful company, or an evening of loving cooperation on chores. I’m fascinated by the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy and by the life in deep-sea volcanic rifts, but they are not more deserving than my neighbors struggling to make ends meet and to raise the puppy they’ve adopted not to bark so much. They are different, but they’re not better, not more important. Moral worth doesn’t scale like that, despite it being such a common superstition of our age. (One of C.S. Lewis’ better observations.)

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Ceri B. 01.01.10 at 5:54 am

Aulus Gellius: At some point, this really belongs in the comments to David’s post about relativism: our ideas about what makes literature great, after all, must to some extent come after we identify some great literature. If Shaw’s really saying what you describe him as saying, it seems like I’d have to deny greatness not only to Shakespeare, but to, e.g., Euripides, Austen, and just about every comic author ever. At which point I would say, not “wow, I guess those authors really aren’t great,” but, “I think we’re talking about some quality other than greatness.” That’s really well-said, and since I wouldn’t have said it as well there at the end, I’ll just quote and agree with it.

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nick s 01.01.10 at 6:46 am

What he’s saying to his readers is: “Enough of this mindless, automatic Shakespeare-worship.

I can run with that, but only to the extent that Shaw’s writing in the context of early 20th century EngLitCrit in its adolescent disciplinary period, when it had a tendency towards character- and author-based enconium. Read some of the published stuff from lofty scholars of that period, and it feels embarrassingly jejune, like looking back at your A-level essays.

We’re a century past that now, though; so while I’ll grant Shaw might have been a breath of fresh air amid contemporary critical pot-pourri and moribund dramatisation, I’m not sure that invoking him now actually gets us anywhere– not when most people who care about this stuff are much more comfortable citing and discussing Johnson’s assessment of Shakespeare than Leslie Stephen’s.

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alex 01.01.10 at 8:38 am

GBS = Bit of a dick, really.

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Gar Lipow 01.01.10 at 9:24 am

Alex
>GBS = Bit of a dick, really.

In some ways, but also a brilliant scholar, social reform, critic and playwright. Many of his characters still live and breathe when performed on the stage today. Even in the context of his own time, his critique of Shakespeare was wrongheaded and over the top, but people who dismiss his life and work for that reason are making essentially the same kind of mistake he made in dismissing Shakespeare.

Incidentally those who dismiss Shakespeare’s historical plays as propaganda are ignoring historical evidence. Shakespeare’s source for many of his plots were the plays written as Tudor propaganda. But he took those crude bits of propaganda and turned them into real stories. But as far as we know propaganda was not his primary purpose. As most playwrights did in his time he looked for good stories to retell. There were both good commercial and good artistic reasons to choose the stories he did. And no doubt patriotism was good business on several levels. It was popular, and it helped stay on the good side of a powerful monarchy. But as many have pointed out the result was a lot more three dimensional that “England good. Tudors good. Everyone else bad, or at the minimum, not quite as good”>

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John Quiggin 01.01.10 at 10:33 am

So, coming back to the OP, would we see the merits of the history plays if they weren’t written by the author of Hamlet? I’d like to think we would, but I have my doubts.

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novakant 01.01.10 at 10:53 am

To be fair, I do sometimes sympathize with part of Shaw’s and, I think, geo’s point – on a gut level more than having a well thought-out position on this . I was watching “Frost/Nixon” and Olli Stone’s “Nixon” recently and thought to myself:

Why is all that effort made to explain such a vile character, isn’t Nixon being granted too much of our attention when we should just dismiss him as a major league @sshole with issues? Even if these artistic efforts are the opposite of a hagiography, isn’t the mere fact that this character is granted so much prominence questionable and testament to our celebrity obsessed culture and our preoccupation with great men making history? Shouldn’t literature, as Updike said, tell the stories of those who are living in oblivion, give people that are never heard otherwise a voice and make us sympathize with their plight.

Obvioulsy I’m only sympathizing with a very small part of Shaw/geo’s point and even that might be an extrapolation. Updike’s protagonists for instance are anything but heroic in the classical sense, but I do find them heroic in a modern, pedestrian sense and I think changing our perception of this concept was part of Updike’s mission.

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Ceri B. 01.01.10 at 11:33 am

John Quiggin: I actually saw Derek Jacobi’s performance of Richard II for the BBC series of the ’70s before his Hamlet, and “Come, let us sit on the ground and speak of dead kings” hooked me so deeply. I like to think that the history plays’ strengths don’t depend on their association with the tragedies, though of course in practice there’s carry-over influence.

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bob mcmanus 01.01.10 at 5:37 pm

149:“Come, let us sit on the ground and speak of dead kings”

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings

Sorry, but “dead kings” didn’t feel right, and it is my favorite part of my favorite S play.
Jacobi was good, but would have loved to see McKellen play the part in 1970.

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?

Wiki mentions Kantororowicz The King’s Two Bodies in its Richard II article. What Shaw was trying to get at could have been developed and defended a little better than has been done in this thread, although certainly Shakespeare was not unaware of the Heroic.

I know they weren’t necessarily planned that way, but I feel that the histories are a structured series from the corruption of one body in Richard II to the corruption of another in Richard III. Those eight(?) plays feel like one sustained story, and is by far my favorite Shakespeare.

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bob mcmanus 01.01.10 at 5:43 pm

In other words, the Histories and Richard II tell me that Shakespeare is probably closer to Bunyan than Shaw says he is. Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello are not merely about the ambitions and insecurities of men, but also and perhaps primarily to Shakespeare about the spiritual health of the state.

Shaw was wrong about Shakespeare, but correct about the modern readers of Shakespeare, who have reduced his miracles to soap operas. MacBeth is not Tony Soprano.

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geo 01.01.10 at 5:48 pm

bob: What Shaw was trying to get at could have been developed and defended a little better than has been done in this thread

Could you say a bit more — a hint, at least?

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bob mcmanus 01.01.10 at 5:52 pm

147:”So, coming back to the OP, would we see the merits of the history plays if they weren’t written by the author of Hamlet? I’d like to think we would, but I have my doubts.”

I sure would. The Histories are more than enough.

Again, some in this thread have so crudely reduced the Elizabethans and Ancients. Oedipus and Antigone are not merely seeking “justice” as you or I would, they are royals and heroes, and taking care for the body politic and spiritual. All Thebes is suffering for the sins of the King and his family.

That Shaw chose Bunyan and not for example Milton is part of Shaw’s problem.

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bob mcmanus 01.01.10 at 6:05 pm

You know, I’ll take part of 151 back. just a little. Shakespeare might be in opposition yo Bunyan, who I really don’t know.

Shakespeare is indeed conservative, and closer to the Catholic and Medieval than the Protestant and Reformation/Renaissance.

I avoided this argument for 150 comments, and really don’t want to play, but as a Joyce fan, well the distance between the Heroic and the Modern is something I have pondered. But Shakespeare belongs to the former, and can be made comfortable for Moderns only by reducing his work to psychology and the drama of character.

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bob mcmanus 01.01.10 at 7:40 pm

Good grief, “geo” is scialabba? I, infamous for the inability to construct an argument, am so outahere.

Especially since I was about to try to connect Shaw’s wrong kind of soc1alism to his misunderstanding of Shakespeare.

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geo 01.01.10 at 7:43 pm

bob: Please, pleeze come back.

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EMG 01.01.10 at 7:56 pm

I attended an ultra-conservative Catholic college. The campus bookstore used to rent videotapes.

One day I was in line at the counter behind two girls who were looking for “Mel Gibson’s ‘Hamlet'”. The cashier politely explained that they didn’t carry it.

“Why not?”

“Because of the adultery.”

George’s comments here seem like little more than a highly refined, abstract and sophisticated version of same.

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geo 01.01.10 at 7:59 pm

EMG: Yes, I guess that’s what it comes down to. Like Shaw, I wholeheartedly disapprove of adultery. Fornication, too.

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bob mcmanus 01.01.10 at 8:27 pm

Look, I am not qualified, and mostly confused.

I spent my New Year’s Eve reading this entire long series on Georg Lukacs H & CC last night (I had read H & CC log ago) and my head is still swimming with, say, thoughts about individualism and identity. But my initial feeling is that Marxist/Leninists have an affinity with the Medieval in the ways they view the individual. Not dualistically, but at least dualistically, as individual and social.

1) Shakespeare probably bridges the Medieval and modern, but I think more the former. Did Shakes believe in the Divine Right of Kings? My reading is that he did, and that is why Richard II is a tragedy. Richard is a very bad king, yet he is King, and Bolingbroke a usurper.

From the Wiki article on Richard III

Thus it seems possible that Shakespeare, in conforming to the growing “Tudor Myth” of the day, as well as taking into account new theologies of divine action and human will becoming popular in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, sought to paint Richard as the final curse of God on England in punishment for the deposition of Richard II in 1399.[4] Irving Ribner argued that “…the evil path of Richard is a cleansing operation which roots evil out of society and restores the world at last to the God-ordained goodness embodied in the new rule of Henry VII”.[5]

Note: “cleansing operation”

From Wiki on Richard II

“Even Critic J.D. Wilson notes that Richard’s double nature as man and martyr is the dilemma that runs the play eventually leading to Richard’s death. Richard acts the part of a royal martyr, and due to the spilling of his blood, England continually undergoes civil war for the next two generations.[12]”

The history plays have failures/martyrs as bookends?

This is the deterministic reading I have of the plays, and the determinism puts the peak of Henry V in a different, tragic light.

2) Shaw saw Shakespeare’s characters as individuals, and thought them small & petty. Many of the commenters see Shakes characters as individuals, and find them fascinating. My contention is that both are missing that Shakespeare saw them both as individuals and as (here is where I fail, and where I would like to connect Marxist-Leninism) embodiments? social manifestations? spiritual roles? and it is that other social (partly determined) dimension that makes them Heroic and/or Tragic.

When a peasant won’t revenge his father, he may be just a coward. When Hamlet fails to seize the throne, and plays intellectual games, or whatever…Denmark falls to Norway.

(I could go on about Shaw’s individualism, his elitism, social democraticism, eugenicism, eventual Stalinism, work Rosa in here, but I’m tired.)

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Salient 01.01.10 at 8:34 pm

would we see the merits of the history plays if they weren’t written by the author of Hamlet?

I can’t speak to the exposure side of the counterfactual (would I/we even know of the histories), but I suspect in particular the histories wouldn’t be taught in high schools anymore. I forget if Julius Caesar is categorized as a history, so maybe this is irrelevant.

This prompts another sorta-interesting (at least to me) counterfactual: take Shakespeare out of the high school curriculum for a couple generations, and have the kids read Shaw instead… to what extent is the preeminence of Shakespeare authorship-counterfactual sustained by public school curriculum?

After all, I really don’t think we would be asking “Would we have the same appreciation for Major Barbara, if it turned out someone else wrote it.” (Throw in nearly anything not by Shakespeare for Major Barbara, and even counterfactually presume the same set of historical discoveries and trumped-up controversies that imply some similar potentially-plausibly-legitimate questions of authorship. The same point applies. I’d compare the mystique to the popular conception of Milton; the answer to “would we still appreciate Paradise Regained the same way?” is clearly yes.)

I think Shakespeare is the one author for whom “we” all have a strong conception of the person (for some inevitably problematic definition of ‘we’) — even moreso than other figures, e.g. George Washington. In the U.S., specifically in the North because I’ve learned there’s a stark difference down here in the South, perhaps only Abraham Lincoln rises in comparable stature.

(By stature, I mean: one can envision the person, and acknowledge him as an exemplary human, the way we might in other circumstances revere a famed ancestor. By envision, I mean: you have some concrete sense of what it would be like to hang out with him for a day and chat over a beverage.)

And I think it’s this shared sense of stature, the sense of commonality it brings us, which fuels and informs

Therefore, I think questions of the form “would we recognize the merit of X by Shakespeare under an authorship change” are ambiguous between two questions: we are either asking “to what extent does our personal vision of Shakespeare and/or the commonly-shared stature of Shakespeare cloud our judgment of X?” or we are asking “to what extent would we be aware of X and what’s the change we’d hear about X in a way that prompts us to bother to read it considerately, if it wasn’t by our revered ancestor Shakespeare?”

Shorter me: Shakespeare is our common great grandfather. Our only one.

And what interest we have in Shakespeare authorial-counterfactuals arises because it allows us to probe, indirectly, what it means to have a common great grandfather.

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Salient 01.01.10 at 8:49 pm

Crap that’s a mess. That’s what I get for typing out and revise a long comment, stretching half a sentence’s worth of idea into ten paragraphs. Nevermind.

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EMG 01.01.10 at 9:09 pm

George, faux-stupid literalism doesn’t wear well on you, or anyone. You would never get hung up on anything so *small* as sexual morality, right?

Presumably, the person making the decisions at the college bookstore was a straight-up philistine, unable to distinguish between an author and his characters. (Even his villains!) I won’t tar you with that. But – correcting for, or bracketing, levels of sophistication in readership and worldview (coolness toward sexual morality? lack of enthusiasm for the civilizing mission of empire? tomayto, tomahto) – your objection is fundamentally the same as his or hers: Shakespeare is insufficiently devoted to the Great and the Good; which trumps literary aesthetics (and even tempts one to argue that the various authors’ respective standing in aesthetic quality is something other than what everyone knows it is).

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geo 01.01.10 at 9:45 pm

your objection is fundamentally … : Shakespeare is insufficiently devoted to the Great and the Good; which trumps literary aesthetics (and even tempts one to argue that the various authors’ respective standing in aesthetic quality is something other than what everyone knows it is).

Well, now you’re talking. This is very cogently put. Could you take a shot at defining, at least for the purposes of the present discussion, “aesthetic quality” and explaining how we might determine various authors’ aesthetic standing?

“Insufficiently devoted to the Great and Good” is a little tendentious, though. Suppose you had said (what would be a little closer to the spirit of Shaw’s objection): “mesmerized by trivialities” or “under the illusion that his protagonists, with their paltry and philistine purposes, are genuine ‘heroes.'” If, formulated that way, the objection is true, is it entirely irrelevant to literary or aesthetic quality?

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jdw 01.01.10 at 11:20 pm

CT’s Boldface Names

George Scialabba</b was at a party last night, and he tells us Shaw was there, and he was going on about how a lot of people overdo it with Shakespeare. Called Shakespeare a pimp for petty scoundrels. Bunyan, he said, is “morning air and eternal youth.” Wow! People were pretty surprised! I mean it sounds crazy, but George tells us he actually agrees. Double Wow!! Are they both crazy? Every time we ask him what it means, he keeps repeating: What is beauty anyway, if not the avoidance of the mundane? What’s going on here?

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jdw 01.01.10 at 11:24 pm

sorry about the missing phrase at the top: “was at a party last night. …”

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matthias wasser 01.01.10 at 11:33 pm

I doubt that there’s ever been a US President who was a good person, but I’d much rather watch a movie about Richard Nixon than such a hypothetical creature.

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Wotan 01.01.10 at 11:40 pm

Anglo buccaneers at times attacked the spaniards’ colonies in Canary islands, including Tenerife . Hume had no problem siding with protestants when necessary, and sort of upholds an early form of RealPolitik, mo’ or less: eh blokes, remember Milton (not to say Cromwell and puritans)–let’s keep the croppies down .

Shaw sounds like his usual plebian self, and also not averse to some papist bashing (and Schackaspeare was considered papist by puritans, supposedly).

.

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geo 01.01.10 at 11:44 pm

Are they both crazy?
Most likely.

I have, though, explained “what [I think Shaw] means” fifteen or twenty times now over the course of two threads. Enough, maybe?

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Aulus Gellius 01.02.10 at 12:32 am

geo: but I still have work to put off doing!

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novakant 01.02.10 at 12:40 am

I’d much rather watch a movie about Richard Nixon than such a hypothetical creature.

I understand where you’re coming from, but wouldn’t it be nice if more directors (there are just two exceptions I can come up with from the top of my head) took it upon themselves to make a feature about a Vietnamese peasant at the receiving end of the actions of the creatures we love to hate on screen. Such people’s tragedy is much more real, moving and interesting than Nixon’s petty issues.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 01.02.10 at 12:40 am

As I’ve tried to make clear you’re not arguing about literature but about values. Geo says that Shakespeare is conservative and defends what others call a schoolmarmish conservatism. He criticism Shakespeare worship but defends idealized heroes. Are they even appropriate for a democratic culture? Is it fair to say that Shakespeare only indulges human foibles while offering nothing better? I think the plays themselves offer something better: a public discussion of human foibles
Was Shaw’s socialism ever viable? What was it rooted in but paternalism? Is paternalism ever liberal? Stop talking about literary “tastes” and start talking about moral preferences. You are already anyway.

Art is the manifestation of ideas in ordered form. The artist concentrates on the form, the critic concentrates on the ideas. Art by critics usually sucks. Historians are too smart to try. And the criticism by artists is as idiosyncratic the conducting of composers. But we learn from both the authors and their interpreters.

Q- Is Geo a liberal or a conservative? The fact that he may consider himself a liberal is irrelevant.

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jdw 01.02.10 at 12:53 am

that was my feeling too

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jdw 01.02.10 at 12:55 am

I meant “enough maybe” was my feeling too…

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Joaquin Tamiroff 01.02.10 at 1:03 am

I have one in moderation. I won’t repost it, since I have no idea what set it off. Or maybe it’s just me. But I want to add something that makes the same point.
The title of Geo’s book is “What Are Intellectuals Good For?” not “What are Poets Good For?”
There’s a lot of Platonism in modern criticism, even modern literary criticism. Just throwing that out as a defender of poetry over professors.

This whole debate is over philosophy by means of literature. Maybe you should make the philosophical debate explicit. In the wider scheme of things, is Shaw in fact a liberal? Are Geo’s arguments actually liberal?

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geo 01.02.10 at 1:41 am

mcmanus @160: I spent my New Year’s Eve reading this entire long series on Georg Lukacs H & CC

That may be the most austere New Year’s Eve celebration I’ve ever heard of.

Shakespeare saw them both as individuals and as … embodiments? social manifestations? spiritual roles?

Well, we (after being shown how by critics like Lukacs) see them that way, and it’s a very fruitful way to see them, at least potentially. But do you think Shakespeare actually, consciously saw them that way?

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bob mcmanus 01.02.10 at 2:41 am

175:But do you think Shakespeare actually, consciously saw them that way?

To the degree I can see into the “myriad-minded” playwright himself, and am not projecting my own closeted conservatism, yes I do.

“That way” for the characters of Shakespeare, being agents and victims of their social roles and responsibilities, socially determined yet determining, maintaining society by acceptance (or not) of their roles. The audience would walk out of the Globe knowing that Romeo and Juliet were just WRONG, and caused much horror in their disobedience. But oh, wasn’t it beautiful and sad. There was the consensus about roles that allowed Shakespeare to make his sins and sinners so interesting and attractive, his job was to sell tickets after all, but this is like Milton giving Satan the best lines. Shakespeare was profound, but never socially subversive.

The Histories are what convinced me. Henry V is good and glorious and noble, maybe sorta, yet is accursed and a curse upon England because of his usurper line.

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nick s 01.02.10 at 4:33 am

do you think Shakespeare actually, consciously saw them that way?

Does that matter? Leslie Stephen is not our critical touchstone any more.

Picking up on Salient’s point: I do think it’s the academic minority (of which I’ll admit myself a member) that get past “gentle Shakespeare meek and mild” biography-driven criticism to start looking at a set of plays, or more precisely, a set of texts that can be assembled into plays that approximate to the ones that were first performed alongside other plays written by other people at a particular point in time around 1600. Those plays usually concern themselves with a particular kind of protagonist — and when they don’t, they do so in explicit formal opposition to the expected protagonists, e.g. Bartholomew Fair, Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Anyway, the Iago vs Malvolio comparison is hardly a new one (though one I thought of afresh, seeing Richard Wilson in the role) but it bears mentioning to make the point that after 1600 or thereabouts, Shakespeare’s plays seem to continually test the boundaries of tragedy and comedy, so that by the time you reach The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest there seems to be an appreciation that you can write and perform plays that start like the end of tragedies and end like the beginning of comedies, or that you can drastically alter the portrayal of conventionally comic or tragic narrative through stagecraft alone. That’s a primarily formal critique, though it requires acceptance of authorial continuity, i.e. a dramatic career that takes into account a lifetime of writing for the stage and a recollection of past work.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 01.02.10 at 4:44 am

Shaftesbury in The Moralist (1709). seems to have been the first to stress the basic contrast between such “tailored” gardens and untouched nature “where neither Art nor the Conceit or Caprice of Man has spoiled” the “geiiuine order” of God’s creation. Even the rude rocks” he feels “the mossy Cavern. the irregular unwroght Grottoes, and broken Falls of Waters. with all the horrid graces of the Wilderness itself, as representing Nature more, will be more engaging, and appeal with a Magnificance beyond the formal Mockery of princely gardens.” It took only one further step to postulate that the gardens themselves conform to the “genuine order of nature” instead of contradicting it. Where Le Notre had said that good gardens must not look like woods, Joseph Addison in the Spectator of 1712 paintewd the image of an ideal garden which comforms to the laws of “nature unadorned” (as Pope was to express it seven years later).
…To conceive of a garden as a piece of “nature unadorned” is of course a contradiction in terms; for a Joshua Reynolds was judiciously to remark in his Discourses on Art, ” if the true taste consists. as many hold, in banishing every appearance of Art or any any traces of the footsteps of man it would then be no longer a garden.” He therefore prcfers the definition of a garden as “Nature to advantage dress’d”; and it was this concept (well expressed by Pope when he admonishes the gardener “to treat the Goddess [Nature] like a modest Fair,/Nor Overdress nor leave her wholly bare”

Erwin Panofsky, The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator.
In Three Essays on Style

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nick s 01.02.10 at 4:48 am

And to finish my point: I’m not sure if a hypothetical (and barely imaginable) Shakespeare that depends upon tragic heroes who pass Shavian muster can pull off that kind of modulation, can strike out into that generic border country in the way that he and many of his Jacobean peers attempted, and an English dramatic tradition that lacks the repertoire of the Blackfriars Theatre in the 1610s is as depleted as one that lacks the big, famous tragedies of the 1600s.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 01.02.10 at 5:00 am

“ to treat the Goddess [Nature] like a modest Fair,/Nor Overdress nor leave her wholly bare” The best response to Hayek..

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magistra 01.02.10 at 8:51 am

geo@140: I don’t think Shaw is saying that Bunyan is a greater tragedian than Shakespeare, or that he’s a tragedian at all. What he’s saying to his readers is: “Enough of this mindless, automatic Shakespeare-worship. You know you don’t really care about the trivial grievances and petty ambitions of his ‘heroes,’ at least in comparison with the genuine heroism on display in Pilgrim’s Progress, where men and women are forging their souls, not merely satisfying their lusts.

Then Shaw is factually wrong. More people do care about Shakespeare’s characters than they do about Bunyan’s and Shaw’s, even if, according to Shaw, they shouldn’t do. Think how many millions enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – and compare how many you’d get to see ‘Pygmalion’ rather than ‘My Fair Lady’. And the idea that Shakespeare is successful largely because he is hyped doesn’t hold up. I don’t know about in the US, but the UK educational system I went through 30 years ago, with its compulsory Shakespeare, seemed designed deliberately to turn you off by its tedious trudge through the text. I have never again voluntarily opened a book by most of the English authors I studied at school, but I repeatedly go and watch Shakespeare. So Geo , you’re welcome to say that people shouldn’t prefer Shakespeare’s characters to Bunyan’s or Shaw’s, but you have to accept first that most of us do.

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Ceri B. 01.02.10 at 9:41 am

Looking back over the thread, I realize there’s one other thing that I wanted to say.

Bunyan’s heaven doesn’t exist. Whatever celestial truth there may be, it isn’t that one. To the extent that his pilgrims succeed in turning their back on the world of humanity to pursue the Celestial City, they’re failing at dealing with the only world we actually do for sure share. By contrast, all the passions Shakespeare wrote about, all the things that make his characters great, small, smart, stupid, dedicated, flaky, whatever, those really do exist. Shakespeare is telling us stories about the world we share; Bunyan is only telling us how we can do our part to pull that world apart for the sake of a delusion.

Bunyan’s vision is not a matter of trying to replace the existing web of social bonds with something better – it’s not either a revolutionary vision, nor an incrementalist one, because it just gives up on the world as anything but a place you suffer through. But it’s the world we have, and it’s the one I want to understand and to improve, if possible. Bunyan doesn’t really have anything to say to people wanting to live in the world except “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Without even the benefits of getting stoned.

The hell with that. There’s a lot I don’t like about the material, social world, but since it’s here, I want to understand it and improve it.

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JoB 01.02.10 at 10:22 am

180- not only to Hayek.

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Substance McGravitas 01.05.10 at 12:00 am

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