Mr. Shakespeare’s Plays
Under the listings of Shakespeare, the Internet abounds in essays, reviews, texts, and comments, almost anything one can imagine about his works and about works explaining his works. My Viking Edition of Shakespeare comes to 1,471 pages. I suspect that at least that number of pages of new materials about Shakespeare appears almost every month. In various universities, moreover, from here to India, we can find listed courses on “Shakespeare and . . . —You Name It.” Something is found on every topic and Shakespearean personage from love to war, from atheism to biblical citations, from Sir John Falstaff to Iago, and from Cordelia to Julius Caesar. A student who wants to write an essay on any given play or character of Shakespeare can call up any number of already composed essays. The only thing that prevents him from turning them in as his own is his conscience.
With a class every semester, I myself read Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics. “Shakespeare and War” courses appear in various curricula. Out of curiosity, I checked Google to see if a course entitled, “Shakespeare’s Biology” was listed. I was rather relieved not to find one, though some close calls were evident. One entry was entitled “The Biology of Love,” reputedly about “the effects of love on the chemical state of the brain.” This description is enough to make us hope that we never fall in love, but the lady author enthusiastically assures us, “I mean, I love Shakespeare’s sonnets.”
What I also found that amused me was an on-line essay beginning, “In the time of William Shakespeare there was a strong belief in the existence of the supernatural. Thus, the supernatural is a recurring aspect in many of Mr. Shakespeare’s plays.” I do not believe that I had ever seen Shakespeare formally referred to before as “Mr. Shakespeare.” Somehow, it did not sound right. Shakespeare is one of those few people who are so great that he only needs his last name.
With regard to the “supernatural” in Shakespeare, I was even more perplexed than with the relation between “the effects of love on the chemical state of the brain” and the sonnets. Let us suppose, for instance, that we come across the following sentence: “In the first decade of the twenty-first century, there was a strong disbelief in the existence of the supernatural. Therefore, in Mr. Alexander Smith’s recent plays, the supernatural did not appear.” Now, I grant that both statements about cultural belief or disbelief in the supernatural are logically probable. That is to say, their conclusions generally follow from their premises, though the sudden appearance of Christianity in the first century A.D., or Islam in the seventh, might make us cautious.
Whether Shakespeare himself might have actually believed in the supernatural or my mythical dramatist Mr. Smith might himself also not believed in it, we do not know from such premises. We presume that the culture determines the man, deftly leaving aside the more interesting question of whether the supernatural did or did not in fact exist, whatever the cultural patterns. We would like to know not only whether people in Shakespeare’s time believed in the supernatural, but whether Shakespeare did and, if so, what effect it had on his plays.
In this context, I also found an essay informing me that Shakespeare was an “atheist,” while larger efforts were found devoted to the question of whether he was or was not a Catholic, or an Anglican, or a Puritan. Chesterton devoted several essays to the question of whether Shakespeare was in fact Francis Bacon, and if he was, what difference would it make? Some people think Shakespeare was neither himself nor Bacon. The leading candidate seems to be the Earl of Oxford, but all admit some mysteriousness about just who Shakespeare was if he was not Shakespeare, and even more if he was.
In a column in the Illustrated London News for October 1, 1927, entitled “Shakespeare and the Dark Lady,” Chesterton observes that a certain Comtesse de Chambrun had written a book on the question of the “dark lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets, entitled, Shakespeare: Actor, Poet, as Seen by His Associates, Explained by Himself and Remembered by the Succeeding Generation. Needless to say, this is no mean title. Chesterton acknowledges the erudition of the Comtesse. He says of her: “I hasten to say that the lady is very learned and I am very ignorant. I do not profess to know much about Shakespeare, outside such superfluous trifling, as the reading of his literary works” (CW, XXXIV, 387). The whole difference between wisdom and academic learning is contained in that one sentence of Chesterton.
Mark Twain once wrote an essay entitled “Is Shakespeare Dead?” He was concerned about this same question of whether Bacon was Shakespeare. This issue had famously been broached in 1856 by a woman by the name of Delia Bacon, no relation. Bacon thought that Shakespeare was a kind of modern philosopher advocating love and goodness, not a Christian. She also thought he was Francis Bacon.
Twain himself did not think that Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare’s plays for the same reason that someone who had not worked a packet-boat on the Mississippi could not write accurately about what actually takes place on the water. “Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s words, for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways—and if Shakespeare was possessed of the infinitely divided star-dust that constituted this vast wealth, HOW did he get it, and WHERE and WHEN?” The same argument can be applied to Shakespeare’s accurate knowledge of Italy, or the Bible, or the sea.
In an earlier essay on the Bacon-Shakespeare issue, dated March 9, 1907, Chesterton argued rather in favor of Shakespeare. Bacon’s own works did not show him knowing all the things that whoever wrote Shakespeare knew. A “clever lad” might very well have picked up by reading and observing what he did not experience. After all, this is what books are for. For Chesterton, Shakespeare was the sane man, Bacon the mad scientist:
The truth is, I fear, that madness has a great advantage over sanity. Sanity is always careless. Madness is always careful. A lunatic might count all the railings along the front of Hyde Park; he might know the exact number of them, because he thought they were something else. A healthy man would not know the number of the railings, or perhaps even the shape of the railings; he would know nothing about them except the supreme, sublime, Platonic, and transcendent truth, that they were railings (CW, XXVII, 416).
The point is that Shakespeare, as seen in his works, seems to be the sane one when it comes to that universal balance of knowing things that matter. This is the same sanity that Chesterton saw in Aquinas who affirmed, against all the doubters, that “eggs are eggs.”
Chesterton concludes his argument in this way: “The whole advantage of those who think Bacon wrote Shakespeare lies simply in the fact that they care whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare. The whole disadvantage of those who do not think it lies in the fact that (being folly) they do not care about it. The sane man who is sane enough to see that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is the man who is sane enough not to worry whether he did or didn’t.” That is to say, what is important is the text of the plays of “Mr. Shakespeare,” whoever it be that wrote them. In a sense, to miss the great, overarching, yes “sublime, Platonic, and transcendent truths” found in Shakespeare simply because we do not know exactly who wrote them is indeed lunacy, madness.
In the end, let it be said of all of us, “I do not profess to know much about Shakespeare outside such superfluous trifling, as reading his literary works.” “Mr. Shakespeare” is only “dead,” to use Twain’s word, if we do not read him, even if, or especially if, we may not know exactly who he was. On reading his literary works, what we do know is something about practically everything that is humanly important, and indeed, not a little of the supernatural.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Government at Georgetown University.
Posted: March 18, 2007 in On Essays and Letters.