Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties

By Edmund Wilson | Go to book overview

J. DOVER WILSON ON FALSTAFF

I DARE SAY that no other national poet presents quite the same problem as Shakespeare to the academic critics who study him. Goethe and Dante were great writers by vocation: they were responsible and always serious; they were conscious of everything they did, and everything they did was done with intention; they were great students and scholars themselves, and so always had something in common with the professional scholars who were to work over them. And this was hardly less true of Pushkin. But Shakespeare was not a scholar or self-consciously a spokesman for his age as Dante and Goethe were; he was not even an "intellectual." He was what the sports-writers call a "natural," and his career was the career of a playwright who had to appeal to the popular taste. He began by feeding the market with potboilers and patching up other people's plays, and he returned to these trades at the end. In the meantime, he had followed his personal bent by producing some extraordinary tragedies which seem to have got rather beyond the range of the Elizabethan theater and by allowing even his potboiling comedies to turn sour to such a degree as apparently to become unpalatable to his public. But he displayed all along toward his craft a rather superior and cavalier attitude which at moments even verged on the cynical--a kind of attitude which a

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