Friday, November 11, 2016

Is Shakespeare Any Good? A Postcard from the Eighteenth Century

If you're like me, you're probably thinking that this is not a good year to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, that it'd be in everybody's best interest to step back from what threatens to be a relationship damaging political confrontation. Me, I'm stepping all the way back to the eighteenth century, which has stood me in good stead as a haven in times of crisis. It was, the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift notwithstanding, a literary century of great urbanity and exemplary civility.  But Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of my usual safe havens, failed me this time around—accounts of the destruction of a once great polity by human folly turned out to cut a little too close to the bone.  My emergency back-up plan—to read Addison and Steele's Coverley Papers from The Spectator—seemed like a sure cure, but when I came upon passages about Whigs and Tories refusing to dine together, and footnotes about the violent hatred between these parties, I had to set the book aside. So I turned, at last, to the pages of The Mirror, a lesser-known imitator of The Spectator from the other end of the century.  Here, in an essay on Hamlet, I ran across the following words:
No author, perhaps ever existed, of whom opinion has been so various as Shakespeare. Endowed with all the sublimity and subject to all the irregularities of genius, his advocates have room for unbounded praise, and their opponents for frequent blame.  His departure from all common rules which criticism, somewhat arbitrarily, perhaps, has imposed, leaves no legal code by which the decision can be regulated, and in the feelings of different readers, the same passage may appear simple or mean, natural or preposterous, may execute admiration, or create disgust.
This is fascinating. Right away, we see that the late eighteenth century was a period with a richer variety of opinion regarding Shakespeare than is our own, in which no figure in all of English literature, and few in all of world literature, receives such a universal praise as does Shakespeare. Indeed, Shakespeare's name and image have become shorthand for the idea of literary greatness, the broad collar and high dome of the Droeshout portrait of him from the First Folio becoming for literature what Einstein's crazed white mop of hair has become for science: a universal signifier of genius.

It is precisely the status of genius that matters in understanding the difference between our era's estimate of Shakespeare and his rating under the late eighteenth century's regime of taste.  "Genius," in our common parlance, is an unmitigated term of praise. But when the article on Hamlet appeared in The Mirror in 1781, "genius" was still very much a descriptive term, rather than a purely laudatory one. The article on genius from Diderot's Encyclopédie describes works of genius not simply as works of excellence, but as works of a particular kind, whose virtues did not include beauty:
For something to be beautiful in accordance with the rules of taste, that thing must be elegant and polished, highly finished but with the appearance of effortlessness. But to be a work of genius it should seem careless, appear irregular, rough, and wild. Sublimity and genius flash in Shakespeare like lightening at night, but Racine is always beautiful: Homer is filled with genius, while Virgil is filled with elegance. 
The Mirror, then, speaks from the consensus position of its time, in which rule-breaking genius wasn't necessarily a sign of greatness, but a matter of trading off one sort of excellence for another. The excellence of Shakespeare comes at the expense of another kind of excellence, the excellence of a purely Aristotelian tragedy, a tragedy of the sort written in accord with the unities of time, place, and action supported by the Académie française.

It's not hard for most of us to understand the division between an aesthetic of beauty and an aesthetic of genius—but I imagine it is difficult for us to enter into a state of mind in which we truly empathize with the eighteenth century, and find at least some fault in Shakespeare for not following the classical rules. Most of us are inclined to look at that as a needlessly arbitrary and uptight position.  We live, after all, in the considerable wake of Romanticism, and that greatest of English Romantic thinkers, Coleridge, solved the matter of Shakespeare's irregularities for us—arguing, in "Shakespeare's Judgement Equal to His Genius" that no work of genius could truly be without rules, because such works generated their own rules.  Anything that seems weird or incorrect in a play of genius only appears that way because we are imposing rules from without, rather than understanding the new game the playwright has asked us to play.

Whatever historical and theoretical knowledge I may have been able to bring to bear on the passage from The Mirror, I couldn't find my way to an emotional place where I could feel for the kind of eighteenth century critic who could fault Shakespeare for insufficient conformity—until, that is, I talked it out with my wife, Valerie.  "I just don't feel that way about anything," I said, over a late evening drink at home. "Sure you do," she replied, "you feel that way all the time, when people say something you approve of, but fail to use correct grammar." She was, as usual, entirely right.  "We need less of these crude quantitative assessments in academic administration" is a statement of which I'm quite likely to approve, but I'm also likely to mutter "fewer, not lessfewer" even as the statement is made.

One understands that grammar is ultimately descriptive more than prescriptive, that speech acts can convey meaning despite breaking rules, and that some kinds of statements can only be made, or are made most effectively, with grammatical rules in abeyance.  But for many of us, there's a high regard for the rules that make most communications intelligible and precise, and we hesitate to relinquish them. Like many eighteenth century critics of Shakespeare, we may admire the rough forcefulness and originality of a verbal construct, even while tut-tutting a little about the bending of the rules of grammar, style, and usage.  I mean, perhaps you admire the following bit of verbiage from our own time, even as you find the repetitiousness, the sentence fragment, the loose use of the second person, the clumsy attempt at parallelism, and the bizarre deployment of the words "with us" offenses against rules of usage we instinctively honor:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Of course you don't admire the rough forcefulness of this verbal construct, because you are a decent human being and neither the type to tar whole categories of humanity with the same brush nor the type to slyly incite violence against people based on their apparent origin and ethnicity.

I see that my attempt to hide in the eighteenth century has done me no good whatsoever. This cannot be a postcard from another time, after all. It is inevitably a statement made from the present, a time of the most grave concern and most foreboding darkness.


  1. >It was, the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift notwithstanding, a literary century of great urbanity and exemplary civility.

    The characterization seems a bit misleading. It was an age of satire and polemic, and these extended far beyond just Swift! The withering, sometimes not very "civil" satires of Pope, the harsh polemics around the Ossian affair, Chatterton, and Psalmanazar, the Ballad Wars, much else. It is our poetic age that is characterized by civility and careful decorum and literary professionalism. On the surface, anyway.


  2. I'm familiar. Was sort of hoping to use Swift as a metonym for the indignant wing of the 18th C., the overall characterization of which I'll stand by, page for page (civility needn't be bland or without edge—I mean, read Gibbon). As for the here-and-now, I know you're doing everything you can to make it other than what you take it to be.