Archive for May 14th, 2011

Is Shakespeare still our contemporary?

The idea of “making allowances” for Shakespeare seems to me some kind of ultimate in benighted presumptuousness. I assume that if we feel something, he felt it too. Shakespeare was certainly learning as he went along, and learning very quickly. But I believe, and thus assume, that he always knew what he was doing. Even if he did not realize quite how extraordinary it all was. 

Thus writes Tony Tanner in his excellent Prefaces to Shakespeare.

Prof Tanner states this as a belief, and, thus, he says, as an assumption: he does not argue his point. Perhaps wisely, as it is a point impossible to argue either way: we cannot know for sure what was going on in Shakespeare’s mind, and if anyone were to claim that all those elements in his works that we think of as evidence of greatness are merely happy accidents of an understanding simple and unschooled, it is not possible conclusively to demonstrate otherwise. It is hard to answer the assertion that the pathos we find in Malvolio, the elements of the tragic we find in Shylock, are merely accidental, that Shakespeare didn’t actually mean it. It is hard to answer this assertion except by another assertion: 

– Shakespeare didn’t mean it, sir!

– Shakespeare did mean it sir, I answer, very fierce.

 It hardly gets us very far.

 However, it strikes me as highly unlikely that this should be so: if, in addition to being born great, achieving greatness, and having greatness thrust upon us, some of us may also stumble upon greatness by mere accident, then why aren’t more of us “great”? Why don’t we have literary canon teeming with accidentally great Shakespeares?

Shakespeare, we are often told, is “a man of his time”. And “a man of his time” wouldn’t have thought twice about creating Shylock as an antisemitic stereotype: if we see Shylock differently, we are merely viewing him from a contemporary, and not from a Shakespearean, perspective. Similarly, we are supposed merely to laugh at Malvolio’s discomfiture: they were cruel times, and Shakespeare would have revelled in the cruelty of Malvolio’s treatment, because he was “a man of his time”. Or if we find intimations of nihilistic despair in King Lear, or a sense of existentialist terror, then that is once again our modern sensibilities kicking in, and nothing to do with Shakespeare, who, as “a man of his time”, would have believed unquestioningly in Christian doctrine. And so on, and so forth. 

One reason why it’s so difficult to argue against the “man of his time “argument is that those putting it forward never bother defining what it is to be “a man of one’s time”. We are all people of our time in the sense that our own time is the only time in which we can live: so far, so bleeding obvious. But presumably, more is intended, if not explicitly stated, in the phrase “man of one’s time”. What more is intended, I think, is that “a man of his time” is someone incapable of looking beyond what was commonly accepted in his own time. And Shakespeare, it is asserted, was just such a person.

Why such an assertion should be made in the first place, I really do not know. It is obviously nonsense to claim that no-one can think beyond the intellectual boundaries of their times, for if that were so, thought would not advance over the ages. Or, at least, thought would not change – it would remain stationary. As since this is clearly not the case (for if it were, Shakespeare would remain our intellectual contemporary, even if, as is alleged, he were merely “a man of his time”), we must accept, I think, that there must have existed at least certain people capable of thinking beyond their own times. And once we accept this, I do not see any reason why we should insist that Shakespeare, almost unanimously acclaimed across the centuries as a supreme genius, should not be considered one such person.

Of course I am not claiming that Shakespeare had foreknowledge of intellectual developments of the last few centuries, or that he foresaw the various historic upheavals between his time and ours. Despite the awe we Bardolators cannot help but feel in the presence of his works, Shakespeare wasn’t the Omniscient Almighty. But perhaps he came closer to being so than any other human being. All right – if that seems too extravagant a claim for the sceptical reader to swallow, I’ll let that go: but it may be maintained, even to the sceptic, I think, that there is nothing we have learnt about humanity, either through scientific developments or new branches of thought or as a consequence of historic events, that is incompatible with the view of humanity Shakespeare presented. So, for instance, as soon as Freud developed new ideas about the nature of the human mind, the plays of Shakespeare, far from becoming outdated, yielded new perspectives. This does not mean that Shakespeare foresaw Fruedian ideas, and it doesn’t even mean that Shakespeare would necessarily have agreed with Freudian ideas had he known them; but it does mean that he had depicted humanity to such depth and with such accuracy, that the observations we may make and the theories we may propound about humans in real life, we may make and propound also about the fictional characters in his plays.

And how can it be possible, one wonders, to depict characters to such depth and with such accuracy merely by accident? The answer, I think, is that it isn’t. If it is possible for us to see Malvolio from a sympathetic viewpoint, it is because Shakespeare designed it to be so. If it is possible for us to view Shylock as a tragic figure, it is because Shakespeare saw the tragic potential in what would otherwise have been merely an antisemitic caricature. This is why the question “Is The Merchant of Venice an antisemitic play?” is so pointless: just as Mozart and da Ponte, in Cosi Fan Tutte, had taken a simple-minded misogynist anecdote and had transformed it into something that utterly transcended its source, so Shakespeare has taken a story that in its bare outlines is most certainly anti-Semitic (“heroic Christians outwit murderous Jew”), and had transformed it utterly into something very rich and strange. And he did not do this by accident. We find the depths in Shylock for the very obvious reason that Shakespeare had put them there.

The alternative is to imagine that we are nowadays more knowing and more intellectually sophisticated than Shakespeare was, and being so, we can find elements in his work concerning which poor old Will himself really had very little idea. And, as Tony Tanner put it, that really is “some kind of ultimate in benighted presumptuousness”.