Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Great Shakespeareans

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Great Shakespeareans

Article excerpt

'What was it Shakespeare said?': Peter Holland and Adrian Poole, eds, Great Shakespeareans, set III, vols X-XIII (London: Continuum, 2012). ISBN 978 1 4411 6011 9.

The editors of Great Shakespeareans have described this major series as an 'explor[ation of] those figures who have had the greatest influence on the interpretation, understanding and reception of [William] Shakespeare' (vol. 10, p. vi). Peter Holland and Adrian Poole acknowledge that this task is without conclusion, and, implicitly, immensely challenging: '[c]harting the effect of Shakespeare on cultures local, national and international is a never-ending task, as we continually modulate and understand differently the ways in which each culture is formed' (vol. 10, p. vi).

An indication of the extent of Holland and Poole's undertaking may be grasped by comparing the following quotations:

O mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers; like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties, and in the perfect faith that in them there can be no too much or too little, nothing useless or inert - but that, the farther we press in our discoveries, the more we shall see proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident!1

I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare: [...] not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless.2

Placed contiguously, the observations of Thomas De Quincey and Leo Tolstoy present a stark divergence. For the former, Shakespeare is a dazzling cornucopia of the 'phenomena of nature' and all that is experienced by humanity. In his celebration of the 'Mighty Poet' De Quincey coincides with noted readers such as John Keats, who ascribed to Shakespeare 'negative capability' ('when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason'),3 and Jorge Luis Borges, whose short story 'Shakespeare's Memory' delineates a Shakespearean mind capable of 'states of happiness and darkness that transcend common human experience'.4 For Tolstoy, however, Shakespeare represents tedium, and his cultural exaltation nothing more than a poor reflection on the 'civilized' world's discernment.

Such contrasting views consider the playwright and poet within roughly similar parameters. Analysing what Shakespeare had to say and how he said it, De Quincey and Tolstoy reach different conclusions as to the aesthetic success of the Shakespearean canon. Another more recent comment proffers its own insight into the complexities of engaging with Shakespeare. In a recent episode of the popular Channel 4 comedy programme Peep Show, the bard becomes a somewhat surprising topic of conversation:

JEZ: Who knows how these things happen? There are powers at work beyond our understanding.

MARK: No there aren't.

JEZ: What was it Shakespeare said?

MARK: He said a lot of things, Jeremy.

JEZ: He basically said something about how there are more... things there than there are actual... things you can see with your eyes. [Pause] That's not the exact quote...'5

The line to which Jez alludes is Hamlet's assertion, and, in Jez's understanding, Shakespeare's by proxy, that there are more things in heaven and earth 'than are dreamt of in our philosophy'.

However, that line isn't exactly Shakespeare's. Nor is it Hamlet's. Or at least, it isn't incontrovertibly. Shakespeare, as has been remarked, said quite a lot of things. …

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