We have been talking a lot of one Will Shakespeare lately. Miss Clemence Dane wrote not long ago a play about him. Mr. Arthur Whitby,3 one of the actors in it, an old Bensonian of ripe and large experience, and as well-graced a player as any we have in these days, told me that never had he been called upon to deliver such beautiful lines upon the stage — save when he had to speak the verse written by Shakespeare himself. And all kinds of fine things have been spoken of the piece, and yet it did not run — principally, I think, because the critics took it into their heads on the first night that Shakespeare was represented as Marlowe’s murderer. Now, I never saw ‘Will Shakespeare,’ so I must say nothing of its presentation, or of the stage management which allowed this tavern scuffle between the two dramatists to be dubious and obscure: but I am a little entertained at the — implied — horror in the criticisms. Supposing Miss Clemence Dane had really made Shakespeare get into a rage with his rival, Marlowe, and draw that little dagger which hung by every man’s side in those days and stab Marlowe to the heart: what about it? Should we have any reason to be shocked or surprised or alarmed or disgusted if such had been the fact, not merely in the twentieth-century play, but in sixteenth-century real life? Didn’t Ben Jonson kill his man? Does anybody suppose that Shakespeare, the social being of his age, was any better than Ben Jonson, any better than the average Elizabethan playwright? Really it is time that we cleared our minds of this cant about Shakespeare; it is worse than the Scottish cant about Burns, a noble poet and a capital fellow in many ways, but — in actual life — not always in the Cotter’s Saturday Night frame of mind.
3 [Since dead, alas!]
Now, be patient. Examine yourself, and, speaking by custom of confession, avow that you hold Shakespeare to have been all good and all knowing and all wise; the genius being taken for granted. In spite of Ben Jonson’s fervent but most truthful eulogy you insist that he had all the science of the age at his command. It has been quite in vain that the good Ben insisted that Will’s education was a mere smattering —‘small Latin and less Greek’— you will have it that the creator of Falstaff must have been to some Dotheboys Hall of the period, where he was ‘instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single-stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature.’ Now, this was not the case. I have just been turning up his January play, ‘Twelfth Night.’ I look over the cast. The scene is laid in Illyria, which is now Jugo–Slovakia. Most of the names are Italian, which passes very well: but what about ‘Sir Toby Belch, uncle to Olivia,’ and his friend, ‘Sir Andrew Aguecheek’? Are Belch and Aguecheek names often found on the Illyrian seaboard? Most certainly not in the year 1600; possibly now, if the Gloucestershire Belches and the Westmorland Aguecheeks have small fixed incomes and are able to take advantage of the extremely favourable rate of exchange in Jugo–Slovakia. This is a small instance. But it does illustrate, and prove, the position that the true Shakespeare was not the creature of the intellectual and moral tea-party that we imagine. He laughs at all the schoolmasters. I dare say he knew that people on the Illyrian seaboard had, as a rule, Italian sounding names. What did he care? When he wanted broad comic effects from his characters he gave them gross and ridiculous English names — because he knew that these names would incline the pit to mirth. The ‘high brow,’ the ‘intellectual,’ the ‘intelligentsia’ would rather perish than use such a device: but Shakespeare — or ‘Shagsper,’ if you like — was not of that world. I have often thought that one of the finest pieces of Shakespearean criticism that I have ever heard came from my old friend, Jerome K. Jerome. I was talking to him about the libraries, especially the German libraries, that had been written on Shakespearean psychology.
‘Shakespeare,’ said Jerome, ‘was not like that. When he had got all those people dead in the last scene in “Hamlet,” he struck a flourish with his pen, and said to himself: “There! that ought to bring ’em in!”’
And there no doubt you have a great deal of the root of the matter. Shakespeare was not, consciously, a moralist, a philosopher, a thinker. He was a Warwickshire lad, with a small scholastic grounding and a universal curiosity, who came up to town and, somehow, fell into the theatre business first as actor, then as playhouse author, then as speculator — he was a member of the little syndicate that took up the land in Southwark on which the Globe was built. In addition, he happened to be a man of the supremest genius. But the chief passion of his life was Stratford-on-Avon. He never forgot it. Amid all the wild whirl of that London life — and it was a wild whirl then, a foaming torrent of such passions, political, sensual, emotional, intellectual, that our poor attempts at being alive in London now are pretty much as the green stuff on a duck-pond is to Niagara — he thought of the friendly fires and the good taverns and the solid, stolid, worthy people and the beloved fields. ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Othello,’— so many steps nearer to the haven where he would be, to the true, secure life that he loved. We think our London a tremendous centre of excitement; we, who are impressed when somebody takes hold of a revue which is a failure and turns it into a revue which is a success! Rubbish! William Shakespeare lived in a London which was impressed when it saw live men disembowelled at Tyburn, and heads of traitor nobles spiked on London Bridge. He lived in a red-hot world; a world of terrific beauty, horror, cruelty, disgust, revelry; our tea-party people and commentating Dons do not begin to have the elementary data — as they would say — for the understanding of Shakespeare. I do not believe that many of them have read Ben Jonson’s description of a voyage down Fleet Ditch; they had better not; it would make them unwell. But it is, no doubt, this imbecile notion of what Shakespeare ought to have been — a Don who condescended to write plays — that has led to the more imbecile notion that he could not have been the son of a Stratford shopkeeper who prospered none too well, and did not keep the roadway in front of his shop any too clean. To the horrible people who are best distinguished as Dons, whose idea of heaven is an everlasting examination, it is repulsive that this young wastrel, with a possible Grammar School smattering, should have written the finest things in the world. ‘The Warwickshire yokel,’ says one of them, in high contempt. Clearly impossible that such a person should have written plays which we annotate with innumerable ‘cf.‘s’ and infinitely tiresome and irrelevant information, plays which we conduct examinations on, concerning which we write infinite dissertations. This author could have been no Stratford vagabond, no miserable player; he must have been one of us. And so has arisen the most marvellous folly of the world; the Baconian hypothesis. Grave men, being first assured that shabby, ‘Bohemian’ fellows do not write immortalities, have committed themselves to all the wonderful lunacies of the bi-literal cypher, have gone a little farther, and have at last found that Bacon wrote, not only all Shakespeare, but all the literature of the age, not only English, but foreign, including Montaigne’s Essays, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The last book which I read on the subject showed that Don Quixote should be read ‘d’un qui s’ôte’— concerning one who hides himself — Bacon, of course. Indeed, the writer proved that the alleged author, Cervantes, had an illegitimate child and was very poor.
Which is evidence, of course, that he could not write masterpieces. The masterpieces notoriously are all written by moral men with large banking accounts.
May this January, this Twelfth Night, bring us better sense, as we sit about our sea-coal fire.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58