"I think there is an important book to be written on the stultifying effect of Protestantism on English Literature. This thought comes from a two-fisted reading of Chaucer and Spenser. In 1380 English Lit. is earthy and saucy, and in 1580 it is a sucked orange. There is a programmatic Anglican-Puritan deadness not only in Spenser but in Milton too. Shakespeare avoided this, I think, only because his poetry had to play live; he could not cram it full of anti-Popish allegory without losing that half or more of the audience who had been forcibly converted or were still closet Catholics. Later I find in Catholic or raised-Catholic writers (Waugh, Acton, Dryden, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Pope, Joyce) something alive that for Protestants is just not there; something which enters English letters again, I think, only with the literary de-ghettoization of the Jews.
I would call this something "hilaritas." Usually translated as "cheerfulness," this Roman public virtue derives from an ancient Greek word, ilarotes, which means specifically the accepting attitude with which Socrates took the cup and drank the hemlock. It links to the idea of "Amor Fati," or love of fate. Strikingly, given the doctrine of predestination, this virtue is not on the list of Calvinist merits; and its absence, I think, contributes to the "haunted mind" of e. g. Hawthorne.
The problem may be broader, however, although still essentially religious (esthetic self-surveillance on both sides after the Great Schism): I'm not sure Italian or German literature have since surpassed the humanitas of Dante or Boccaccio or Wolfram von Eschenbach. As for French Literature, I defer to Aaron Haspel, John Faithful Hamer and Jean-Louis Rheault… but until the French lost their "Roman" beliefs around the time of Sartre and Camus (say up through Rostand) they seem to me to have kept their hilaritas." Mark Riebling
The self-recognized genius that was Goethe doesn’t make your list? Was he not cheerful in a brooding sort of way?
The change might well have been a result of Columbus. There is significant evidence that, amongst the riches of the New World, his expedition also imported Syphilis. The disease became epidemic in the non-resistant Europeans in short order. The cultural impact was predictable.
But I think you are leaving out some key bits: printing, literacy, written vernaculars, and how those factors affected the growth of secular literature.
The plague arrived in Europe in the 1340s, and IIRC the Decameron (Boccaccio) was written for a group off in the country, finding safety from the cities (which represented disease and agonizing death). By the 1380s, society had been altered by frequent death, which resulted in a vast rearrangement of property, which in its turn caused a quiet social upheaval — but throughout that upheaval, scholarship was still in Latin and writing was all done by hand (manu, as in ‘manuscript’, or ‘hand writing). Written documents were works of art, as anyone who has seen an illuminated manuscript will attest.
It was another generation or two before that revolutionary blacksmith, Johannes Gutenberg, had the audacity to re-assemble a winepress into a printing technology that could bring the Bible to ‘the masses’; this new invention would end up driving a movement toward written vernaculars.
In an historical blink of an eye, in the mid-1400s, Wm Caxton brought printing to England, a landscape whose people spoke a hodgepodge of dialects derived from Angle and Saxon (and its near kin Old Norse, IIRC). Even in the land of the Angles, writing was still in Latin, under the control of the Church (Holy Roman Catholic into the 1400s).
The Word of God was conveyed in Latin as long as it was written by hand.
Once type fonts were developed, all hell broke lose and the populace wanted the Word of God interpreted their own vernacular.
Give people a Bible in their own language, and they start learning to read for themselves, and after a few decades they want secular literature. In their vernacular.
The Protestants were probably more dedicated to promoting public literacy than any people in human history, irrespective of their ethnic origins. It was all about having, sharing, and understanding The Word of God in a personal way that dispensed with the clergy. (America’s system of public education owes its origins to this determination to be ‘liberated’ from Latin and scholiastic pedantry.)
Shakespeare’s scoundrels are often vapid in Latin.
His charming rogues, bawdy women, and underlings are all distinctively English speakers, many of whom amusingly garble syntax: inadvertently, or sometimes slyly and playfully, they have fun with language, so to speak. Much punishment 😉
I suspect that religion is part of the chasm that you identify between one era and another, but I think it’s important to see this change within the context of growing literacy and the burgeoning of written vernacular.
Food for thought.
Speaking as a Catholic writer, I think that’s nonsense.
Spenser is probably the most beautiful of all our poets. He wrote at that most wonderful of times, when language was re-inventing itself – with Greek, Latin and Hebrew words pouring into the language, and new words being invented and toyed and teased with on a daily basis. It was plastic and fantastical. Spenser’s poetry has a crystalline quality, it is euphonious, it can chime like glass bells. New ideas and concepts arise from new words and combinations of words. It always make me feel slightly drunk reading him. Chaucer isn’t a poet. He’s a pretty coarse humourist. His verse clunks.
I don’t really see the great neo-platonic tradition of English literature – from Sidney and Spenser and Shakespeare through Donne and the Metaphysicals and onto Blake – as being either Catholic or Protestant. Neo-platonism had an equal effect on Spenser – a militant protestant – and Shakespeare (who modern scholarship suggests could have been a Catholic).
Much as I like Waugh, Dryden, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Pope and Joyce, they’re hardly front-ranking authors. If you want to argue for a pre-eminence of Catholicism in the Arts, I’d go for 20th Century film – Ford, Hitchcock, Lang, Bunuel – with a recent burst of the McDonagh brothers (including “Calvary”), Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games, Paddy Considine, Shane Meadows, Danny Boyle, Steve MCQueen (might be a proddy), even Steve Coogan with “Philomena.” JK Rowling is Anglican so is really neither one or the other.
Mongoose: Granted this is broad-brush, but Goethe is an interesting case; and pondering his case, I decided to edit my original Facebook post (link below), which had stated that I wasn’t sure German literature had advanced after Wolfram. Clearly Goethe is a master craftsman in the way that Wolfram is not; so I couldn’t let that stand. But in revising that thought, I opted for the word “humanitas” rather than hilaritas, partly because I wanted to isolate a deeper and broader Roman quality which the Renaissance possessed and which, I think, the Reformation crushed.
Hilaritas is, I think, an ingredient of humanitas, the humane outlook one finds quintessentially in writers like Cicero and Petrarch. Humanitas stands in contrast to the partisan or sectarian spirit (what Orwell would have called nationalism). Humanitas may be recognized as an ability to criticize and even satirize one’s own side. This requires a certain cultural maturity and confidence. The Catholic Dante showed humanitas when he put certain Popes in Hell. But if I’d pick one sentence in the Great Conversation that shows what I mean by both hilaritas and humanitas, it’s this one by Boccaccio, which an atheist or a Catholic could have written, but which I can’t see coming from a Calvinist pen: “Abraham the Jew… visits the court of Rome, and witnessing the loose life of the clergy becomes a Christian.”
I think it’s important to realize that hilaritas does not mean hilarity or even good cheer (though it’s often translated thus); it means something more philosophical. It’s a very rare term and I came across it only in the prison letters of the Confessional Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He used it to describe the serenity shown in the face of death by Dr. Josef Mueller, a lay Catholic German who served as liaison between the Vatican and Hitler’s would-be killers in the German Abwehr under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Bonhoeffer then proceeds to a discussion of how much better he thinks Catholics deal with the problem of death and suffering and finds that his own faith breeds neurosis because it de-Romanized and therefore cut itself off from the spirit of classical learning (humanitas).
Re Goethe I don’t see the Sorrows of Young Werther for Faust as having in great degree the quality of spirit I sense in Boccaccio or Chaucer – an accepting and indulgent attitude toward human nature and the human condition. Faust for all its fun boils down to kind of literary bitching, a talking back to God. If Goethe has a good conscience, as Nietzsche says, it seems to me because this is because he thinks the outcome will be good for the questing spirit (Faust); whereas hilaritas is an accepting comportment of spirit independent of one’s personal outcome. I would note that German, unlike English and unlike the Romance language, does not have a word derived from hilaritas (thus Bonhoeffer had to reach for the Latin original).
The old quote comes to mind:
“How much nicer this country would have been if only instead of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would have landed on the Pilgrims”
Amen. You should include the Massachusetts Bay Colony in that as well. pl
There is an extremely strong argument that Shakespeare was Catholic. Certainly, the aristocracy, which supported him, was Catholic. What is more, the forces that were aligned against Elizabethan theater were Protestant.
Does Amor Fati and hilaritas overlap with equanimity?
curses – editing glitch!!?? Do ….
“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the Plymouth Rock landed on us.” – Malcolm X.
I cannot find anything in Shakespeare that could be construed as neo-Platonic – say in comparison, Jalal al Din Rumi, whose commentary on the Quran – the Mathnavi – is informed with Neo-Platonism.
In fact, I find Shakespeare a truly English writer; devoid of any sentimentality, conscious of the obliviousness of Nature to Man, and the very apparent meaninglessness and insensibility and purposelessness of Human Condition in the light of the wider Cosmos.
We obviously have very different views on him.
Without launching into a disquisition about it, from Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
One could write a thesis on Shakespeare’s use of the word “nothing” as a synonym for the imagination. The definition of a god is something that can create something out of nothing. Which is precisely what the human imagination can do, thus making it “of god.”
His use of the word “nothing” again and again – Macbeth’s “and nothing is but what is not”, Cordelia’s simple “Nothing” (because true love is not something you speak or boast about) from which the whole tragedy springs, ending with “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing” – using the word in its negative meaning. He even wrote a play – “Much Ado About nothing” – which is all about a false imagination producing a near tragedy out of the “nothing” or the imagination, and its happy solution through a positive use of the imagination – Beatrice KNOWS Hero is guiltless but has no proof of it.
Neo-platonism was the well spring of the Renaissance, just as it was for Rumi or Hafez, just as it was for Jewish Kabbalism, just as it was for Botticelli and Ficino and Giordano Bruno, who was in London just before Spenser and Shakespeare wrote their greatest work. And The Winters Tale quotes two whole pages of hermetic neo-platonism verbatim.
Yes. I, too, have heard it said that Shakespeare was likely a ‘crypto-Catholic’, who was outwardly in conformity with the C of E, but secretly yearned for a rapprochement with Rome. This was common in England for a time.
Mark finds “programmatic Anglican-Puritan deadness” in Milton? OK, “Paradise Lost” isn’t a barrel of laughs, but the subject hardly lends itself to hilaritas. And how do you feel about Wordsworth or Keats, Mark? (I’ve just named the three IMO foremost post-Chaucerian, post-Shakesperean English poets, provided you want to call Shakespeare a poet rather than a playwright.)
In the entire corpus of Shakespeare work, do we find any significant evidence that his core sentiments and understandings of the world bear a close relationship to either sect? Indeed, one can argue that true genius is impossible unless the master has transcended those constraining particularisms – even if they might have been used (directly or through the works of faithful) as stepping stones to the heights to a space above them that the genius has scaled.
The quote alludes to the ideas of Platonism and not Neo-Platonism.
Neo-Platonism, as far as I understood its ideas, envisaged an otherworldly origin for human soul; that men were bonded by matter and there exist a different, more Real, realm than what we experience in this world.
Shakespeare, it seems to me, believes in none of that stuff; there is no other Realm but this – at least as far as Man is concerned – and no meaning in death of a good man or a bad man.
Dante was a Neo-Platonist – one could argue, but not the Bard; in my opinion.
Rather doubtful, his entire corpus is narrated from an unsentimental, un-emotional, and un-religious point of view – men come into being, play act, and leave the stage.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Tidewater to Mark Riebling and All,
The Guru of an English major of the 60’s was Cambridge’s great Basil Willey. Or, at least, he was my Guru! And he still is. ( He is right in his thesis. He gets his points across with dead clarity. He really, really knows the texts, all of them, clear through. He is not up to date (1934!)or fashionable. Just correct.) Although he has been mocked for sounding a bit too much like Sherlock Holmes! (All of this from Max Arnott, VOEGELINVIEW, “Basil Willey and the terrible awful no-good seventeenth century.) I sort of notice Arnott’s flippancy towards the Master, while at the same time I can’t help wondering if that Sherlockian tone is not exactly what an undergraduate would be captivated by. (Or say, a company of soldiers; Willey fought on the Western Front in WWI. I think he would have spoken to his troops to good effect.) Arnott has a few good points. Willey narrowed things down a bit. I remember he gave his view of the religions of the East as deriving from an existential situation so impoverished and full of despair that you could account for them as being a form of escape. His advice: Forget about them.
I now turn to “The Seventeenth Century Background” for guidance about the apparently stultifying Protestant religious hangup that squeezes all the joy out. Or somethng like that.
Basil Willey seems to me to think it simply had to be.
Before even beginning to discuss Milton, Willey cautions the reader (page 219), warning that one needs to understand something about the Seventeenth Century intellect, its poetics and bias, before one can even begin to comprehend something like “Paradise Lost.”
Willey states: “In the first place, then, it must be emphasized that in the seventeenth century there was one poetic genre which enjoyed such peculiar and special prestige that it was proof against the cold climate of “an age too late” –the Heroic Poem. Only the Bible could claim a greater share of reverence than Homer and Vergil. This was the legacy of the Renaissance, when, as is well known, the desire to emulate the noblest achievements of the ancients had become fused with the patriotic nationalism of the time, and poets in each country had aspired to “illustrate” their vernaculars by composing in them works worthy to be set beside the Iliad and the Aeneid. The continued vitality of this tradition is well illustrated in Dryden’s describing the Heroic Poem, at the very end of the century (1697)…as “undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform. It is outside my purpose to account for this veneration for epic poetry, [ 🙂 ] but a few of its credentials may well be mentioned. The ancients had produced their crowning masterpieces in this kind; Aristotle had canonized it; and Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso had in their several ways raised Italian nearly to a level with the classical languages. Not until a work of equal scope, ordonnance [? ] and elevation had been produced in French, for instance, or in English, could these modern dialects claim to have emerged from medieval barbarism. Moreover, the subject-matter of the epic was normally some great act in the drama of national history, and through it, therefore, could be expressed the new-found pride of nationhood, and the passion for great doing, which distinguished the Renaissance.”
On page 220, Willey quotes W.P. Ker: “The ‘Heroic Poem’ is not commonly mentioned in histories of Europe as a matter of serious interest: yet from the days of Petrarch and Boccaccio to those of Dr. Johnson,and more esecially from the sixteenth century onward, it was a subject that engaged some of the strongest intellects in the world (among them Hobbes, Gibbon and Hume); it was studied and discussed as fully and with as much thought as any of the problems by which the face of the world was changed in those centuries. There might be difference of opinion about the essence of the Heroic Poem or the Tragedy, but there was no doubt about their value. Truth about them was ascertainable , and truth about them was necessary to the intellect of man, for they were the noblest things belonging to him.”
It’s interesting to me that Milton’s first choice of subject was the story of King Arthur. “…At the beginning of the Parliamentary regime Milton was in a state of high-wrought excitement, expecting an imminent divine event in England, and that he hoped, in his Arthuriad, or other epic of kindred theme, to sing the glorious coming of the kingdom of God and the victories of the saints…”
After the disappointment of Milton’s political hopes “Paradise Lost” changed. The poem now went off in an altogether different direction. It became tragic. It is “a work of disillusion.” I find this interesting. So what about the figure of Satan?
Anyway, it seems to me like they got stuck with the Heroic thing. Not exactly to do with Protestant hangups.
I think that the Silver Poets ought to be mentioned. I take the soldier-stateseman Sir Philip Sidney to be a Protestant. He was a powerful and important establishment figure. He knew the affairs of state firsthand. I suppose you might say he knew the equivalent of the red dispatch boxes handcuffed to a courier’s wrist.
I remember it from a little gray book of the Silver Poets. I got this from Sonnet Central!
Sonnet 30 (?)
Whether the Turkish new moon minded be
To fill his horns this year on Christian coast;
How Poles right King means, with leave of host,
To warm with ill-made fire cold Muscovy;
If French can yet three parts in one agree;
What now the Dutch in their full diets boast;
How Holland hearts, now so good towns be lost,
Trust in the shade of pleasing Orange tree.
How Ulster likes of that same golden bit
Wherewith my father once made it half tame;
If in the Scotch court be no welt’ring yet:
These questions busy wits to me do frame.
I, cumber’d with good manners, answer do,
But know not how, for still I think of you.
> Neo-Platonism, as far as I understood its ideas, envisaged an otherworldly origin for human soul; that men were bonded by matter and there exist a different, more Real, realm than what we experience in this world.
Which is exactly, I’d have thought, what this famous passage is foretelling:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
“he gave his view of the religions of the East as deriving from an existential situation so impoverished and full of despair that you could account for them as being a form of escape. His advice: Forget about them.”
Steve Jobs came immediately to mind, not for the escapism, other than to escape from responsibility for the economic enslavement of those Chinese factory workers who made him so rich.
Tidewater to Fred, Bill Herschel, Seamus Padraig, All,
Fred, it would interest me to hear (at some point) your ideas on how the US Navy is going to have to deal with China in China’s near abroad littoral waters. They seem to be rewriting the rule book. I don’t see how China’s attitude to well-established international law and law of the sea can lead to anything but a nuclear confrontation. And yes, I agree, seems it’s time for new tariffs. Something’s got to change. I feel like something is going to happen.
But before this thread winds down, I think it needs to be said that there is a history to the arguments that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. Without trying to delve into this history, I would simply quote Frank Kermode’s remark that in 37 plays there is “no unequivocal trace of his beliefs…” There is a more recent book of criticism by AD Nutttall,”Shakespeare the Thinker” (about 2007) which was reviewed by A.S. Byatt, the sister of Margaret Drabble, in the Guardian. As I recall it, it was Nuttall who calls the question of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs “a chronicle of immaculate absenteeism.” And “A huge vanishing act.”
Byatt says something worth noting about the new scholarly opinion shapers: “Criticism in the 1980s and 90s became very powerful, very confident and very territorial. [I think it has to do with being highly motivated to get tenure. You need an angle.] There was structuralist criticism, which claimed that there was nothing outside the “text.” There was post-colonial criticism, which saw Shakespeare as a representative of empire, and feminist criticism, which saw him as patriarchal. [There’s that new word again!] And then there was the new historicism, which interpreted his work in terms of Reformation Britain and emphasized what scholars thought it was possible and probable for Shakespeare to have been thinking about. Also what was impossible and improbable for him to have been thinking about.” [Sweet.]
“Shakespeare the Thinker” has been welcomed as a return to Shakespeare books written for the general reader. Which you could read in tandem with reading the play, as I once did with Carl Van Doren’s “Shakespeare”. Byatt points out Nuttall discusses most of the plays, he is not exhaustive, but he also isolates some groupings, as for example “characters who argue with themselves–Richard II, Hamlet, Brutus, Henry V.” (I think I am going to buy this book. My life is one long internal argument.)
I would probably be a dangerous juror unless I got a grip. I like the Preponderance of the Evidence. I pay attention to that. If a car behind you makes the same turn you make three times, you should be very alert. What evidence is there that Shakespeare accepted the “established church” into which he was, after all, born?
First, every citizen was required to go to the newish (Protestant) established church once a month or pay a fine. It was a security issue, in a sense. A hard shell Puritan nonconformist who refused to attend church would pay a fine. There would be a record. A Roman Catholic would be identified as “Recusant” and also pay a fine for not attending. The Roman Catholic could also not legally attend a Mass. There was and is no record of delinquency in this matter by Shakespeare. He was baptized in the handsome, impressive Holy Trinity church–this is not a country church — which sits by the Avon, on 26 April 1564; he was married there; his funeral service was held there and he was buried in the chancel, which is an unusal privilege, which was either earned by him or given to him as a “lay rector.” There is every sign that Shakespeare knew this church well all of his life. It is quite sensible to think that as he grew in stature in the community, when he lived at Stratford he could very well have attended church at Holy Trinity every Sunday. I don’t think I have covered all the possibilities here, by the way. Where was his son Hamnet buried? Where were his parents buried? Where were his three children baptised?
But the whole question is fascinating. If you were born before 1555 your parents were Roman Catholics. Did a lot of English priests leave England after Henry VIII simply declared himself the head of the Church of England? How did that work? Certainly by 1570 the Pope had declared that any Catholic who killed Queen Elizabeth would not be considered guilty of murder.
I once read that Christopher Marlowe was employed as a secret intelligence agent by, I assume, Burghley (William Cecil). His mission was to go to the continent and make contact with “Papist” English priests and try to lure them back into England. They would meet a terrible death. It seems possible that he did this. I once looked up the website of the famous Catholic school in Britain, Downside. I was curious to see how politically correct they were. My school in Richmond had just gotten rid of the two literary societies, the Lees and the Jacksons. (I was a Jackson. Still am.) Downside is not politically correct at all! They are still infuriated! They mourn and rage for their martyrs. I was impressed!
I thought the exchanges here this thread were fun. After I read johnf I got up and got one of my G. Wilson Knight’s down–The Imperial Theme–I think I have the set, most of which remains unread but have gotten quite beautiful, still in their original dustcovers. (I have read Knight on Antony and Cleo.) Every now and then I would reach over and pat it and think: “Ahh. Belles- lettres!” And sigh.
I don’t mean to nitpick but I think you mean the 1980s and especially the 1990s (and beyond) were dominated by “post-structuralism” rather than structuralism (the heyday of which was the 1960s inspired by French structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss). Post-structuralism means many different things to different people in academe but I think it safe to say that in philosophy and especially literary criticism Deconstruction, as practiced by Jacques Derrida, was one of the dominant if not the dominant discourse and it was decidedly hostile to any and all forrms of Structuralism. If was Derrida who famously wrote in “Of Grammatology” “Il n’y a pas dehors texte,” i.e., “There is nothing outside the text” or “There is no outside text.” (The latter is my preferred “loose” translation.
I hope you note the final word in your quote. It is the ultimate condition of a soul who enters a world of evil where “nothing is but what is not.”
I agree that in his work there is little or no evidence for religious attitudes. It was the most dangerous thing to mention or discuss at such a time. Macbeth and Lear follow the hysteria of the Gunpowder plot, an event which scarred and scared the English psyche as much as 9/11 did the American. James Shapiro has written a brilliant book – “1605” – on the subject.
I think the suspicion of his Catholicism comes from the fact that many of his family, including his sister and, from memory, his daughter, were convicted of recusancy. Indeed, some of his Warwickshire relatives were connected to the Gunpowder Plot.
That is your view and not the Bard’s.
The closest analogue of Bard in his outlook, in my opinion, are the Japanese.
I think when looking at Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, it is unwise to look for too much stability of meaning – and there are concrete historical reasons for this.
If indeed it is a central tenet of ‘Deconstructionism’ that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, all one can say is that many literary critics seem to be as detached from reality as many economists. In terms of method’, the ‘historicists’ are clearly right.
At the time Shakespeare started producing plays – in the 1590s – the theatre was a place where intense political arguments were rehearsed. The question of the succession to the ageing Elizabeth was intertwined not merely with religious divisions, but with the enormous, but also thoroughly ambiguous, impacts of the revival of classical learning.
All these matters produced intense ambivalences, which have a direct bearing on subsequent British – and American – history.
At the outset of republicanism in England is Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and his circle, with their enthusiasm for the great Roman ‘republican’ writer Tacitus. He and his crony Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, were very active patrons of Shakespeare and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
And at the outset, Shakespeare had been an imitator of Christopher Marlowe – who translated the first book of the ‘Pharsalia’, in which the Roman republican poet Lucan – an important influence on Tacitus – described the events surrounding the decisive battle at which Julius Caesar effectively destroyed the republic.
His portrayal, in the ‘Pharsalia’, is the prototype of various versions of the ‘overreacher’, in Marlowe and subsequent writers, through to Marvell and Milton.
From a modern preface to a translation of the poem:
‘In what is one of the most terrifying portrayals in literature of the totalitarian project (to use a rather different appropriation) Lucan’s Caesar – the very type of the absolutist charismatic leader – swallows up the world, obliterating all distinction between the state and individual, as one who “re-deploys around his name all meanings, fixes a new centre from which all discourse is oriented and enforces his signs absolutely”: as Lucan more succinctly puts it, omnia Caesar erat.’
In the event, the Earl of Essex became an ‘overreacher’. And immediately before he and Southampton attempted their abortive coup against Elizabeth in February 1601, they paid the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on ‘Richard II’ – Shakespeare’s story of a monarch led astray by bad advisers and deposed.
So it is unsurprising that Shakespeare was, in a way, a chameleon. As ‘court jester’ to Essex and Southampton, he had been the figure who, as it were, sees through illusions, and tells it like it is.
But already in the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, where ‘Puck’ is a kind of court jester to the King of the Fairies, Oberon, there is an ambivalence – the game the jester plays on behalf of the King does not in the end result in chaos, but could very easily have done.
In ‘Troilus and Cressida’, perhaps the greatest political play in the language, Shakespeare casts himself, with evident self-loathing, as the down-at-heel not-quite-a-gentleman Thersites, who is again a kind of ‘court jester’. As such, he has explained to Achilles the tricks which Ulysses – aka Sir Robert Cecil – has played to keep him under control.
But ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is also in a part a kind of ‘piss-take’ about a most extraordinary work. In the revival of classical learning, Greek had lagged.
And then, in 1598, George Chapman published his translation of the first seven books of the ‘Iliad’. Whether Chapman was or was not a ‘university man’, like Marlowe, is unclear. But it seems clear that he had seen service in the Netherlands, like his fellow classicist Ben Jonson. Both could fairly have claimed to be both scholars and soldiers, while Shakespeare – actor and businessman – was neither.
What Shakespeare was visibly doing was suggesting that the Homeric original as translated by Chapman was partly ‘PR’, like so much of what Cecil and his like claimed – and making a kind of wild and bitter ‘spoof’ about what might lie behind it.
So, on the one hand, Ulysses/Cecil is exposed as a partial sham. Immediately following his great speech in defence of hierarchy, a classic conservative text, he involves himself in a Machiavellian plot to play Achilles/Essex off against Ajax (about whose identity, if there was one, I am not clear.)
But then, Shakespeare was working out very deep ambivalences. Himself a congenital, civilian, he coped with his deep ambivalences about the ‘swordsmen’ of the late Elizabethan court by a sharp polarisation.
So, in different ways, Hector and Troilus are doomed romantics; while Achilles and Ajax are spoiled and brutish boys, easy meat for the Machiavellian manipulations of Ulysses/Cecil (which, however, also do not work out as planned.)
What however also emerges out of all this is a kind of hidden kinship between Ulysses/Cecil and Thersites/Shakespeare. For on the one hand, the latter is right in saying that the former is in large measure a fraud; but the former is also right in suggesting that Thersites/Shakespeare, in exposing him, may be both inspired by resentment and an agent of chaos: a kind of proto-Bolshevik.
And then, it is clear that the Essex rebellion also had a traumatic effect on Chapman. When he published his initial translations of Homer, their dedicatee was Essex, and he compared the latter to Achilles.
Some years after ‘Troilus and Cressida’, however, Chapman himself harked back to the Essex rebellion in his two plays on ‘The Conspiracy and Tragedy of the Duke of Byron’. Telling a story with parallels to that of Essex, he attributes to his protagonist the following sentiments:
‘We must reform and have a new creation
Of state and government, and on our chaos
Will I sit brooding up another world.
I who, through all the dangers that can siege
The life of man, have forced my glorious way
To the repairing of my country’s ruins
Will ruin it again, to re-advance it.’
Sounds a bit like Lenin, does it not?
But then, perhaps a similar spirit animates contemporary American, and British, foreign policy.
Not so much has changed, since the time of Shakespeare and Chapman. They were just better writers than most of their successors.
Tidewater to Mongoose,
Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that is nitpicking. I have just done a quick Wiki-check on “post-structuralism” and take your point. I wonder, whimsically, if some of these new Shakespearean scholars haven’t gone even beyond post-structuralism. But I think Movements obviously should be recognized (on their own terms) and given some definition. How else can one talk about them? I once read that one of the original French Impressionists was at the last moment before the great exhibition read out of the movement. And ruined. (Becoming an Ex-Impressionist?)
I looked up some of the nineteen examples of persons more or less recognized in Wikipedia, at least, as being representative of post-structuralism, and knew only something about Umberto Eco through his “The Name of the Rose.” (He had fifty thousand books?) Well, of course, one has heard of Derrida and others. Those are very interesting, really remarkable people! You could read them for their unusual lives, alone.
So Algeria plays an important part in post-structuralism! I am interested in Isabelle Eberhart’s brilliant little short stories, which had so much influence on Paul Bowles (I think), and seem to me to say some important things about Islam or perhaps Islam in those colonial circumstances.
I think French intellectuals should simply stay out of debates about such laws as those involving sex by an adult with six year olds.
Well, I think that I made it pretty clear–Van Doren, Knight, and Willey– that as far as the new criticism goes, I am one of the Left Behind. [ 🙂 ] Been reading about Crowley (Plymouth Brethren background) and around him. He once thought, as a boy, that he had been Left Behind. Walked out of the hourse into the garden, looked up at the night sky, the fireflies, back at the lighted house, so full of people, went back in, they were all gone. Something had happened down the street and they had gone out to see. I don’t think you get over that kind of Protestantism, by the way.
Ideas: What would Derrida, and some of these others, say about Wikipedia?! How would they evaluate it? Has somone written The book on Wiki, yet? Has anyone every read through Wiki or taught a course on it?
Second idea: Dryden said that Milton didn’t achieve the grand goals that Western thinkers had set for the Heroic Poem. (Which incidentally I can’t help wondering, given the amount of time we spent on “Paradise Lost”, whether or not it is Basic Training for Protestantism. You simply cannot get it out of your mind after working on it studiously, even if you don’t go back to it later in life. There is also the Areopagitia. (Milton’s defense of the freedom of the press.))
The idea: Is it possible that the work that accomplished Dryden’s rules and grand design is the Persian poem SHAHNAMEH. Or Shahnama, which unfortunately reminds me of that refrain from the fifties song, “sha-na-na.” (Perhaps useful for memory.) By the Persian poet Ferdosi between c. 977 and 1010 CE. I mentioned my Ahmadi transatlantic telephone friend. She once described how this poem would sometimes be recited for a very long time, say during a long dinner, and people would sit and listen and weigh it carefully. Shahnameh is an epic but it also a warning poem, she said, it gives accounts of great mistakes made by the Persian leadership and people. I always thought that L’Morte d’Arthur (Mallory), which tells of national leadership failure, a very dark story, is simply remarkable, perhaps darker than Shahnameh. “The Once and Future King” told the tale in modern language back in the 60’s.
Another idea: What are the three best examples–presumably novels– now out there, of metafiction?
You make many observations about which I am incapable of making an intelligent comment but I shall try to answer of few of your questions (or at least provide a few relevant comments). First, I could never speak, er, write, on behalf of Derrida but will try my hand at explaining a few of his interpretative points. First, the claim that there is no “outside text” means, if it means anything, that one cannot simply appeal to the intentions of an author when interpreting a text–language is too rich, too layered with competing and over-lapping meanings to be flattened out or fitted into one interpretive box regardless of the text, be it the Old or New Testament or Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.” Second, any appeal to context is an effort to go “outside” the text to explain it. An appeal to context is at best provisional and ultimately something of a text itself that cannot explain the text which is being interpreted. One example never suffices but here goes: what happened between 1861-65 is known to many as the “Civil War,” whereas many others, including our esteemed SST host, refers to it as the WBS. Somewhat similar beginnings with the same or at least similar facts that produce radically different interpretative outcomes rooted in the same “facts.” But in the end these are interpretations of interpretations generated in the years before and/or at the outbreak of war itself that generated even more interpretations ad infinitum. Awkward I know but I am writing this on my iPhone so please indulge me.
While not a Derridean, I did have the privilege of taking a graduate course under his stewardship and found him to be both brilliant and a very generous teacher (much different than the “violence” of his writing) and someone from whom I learned much about the art of interpretation. Briefly I would like to address one of his arguments about which there is much confusion and/or misunderstanding, some of it willful. And that is Derrida’s provisional privileging of writing over speech. Re Plato’ Phaedrus (Pharmakon) in which the gift of writing is rejected as poison, i.e., the absence of speech. Speech = presence. Writing = absence. Presence > absence. (The presence of God in the world vs. the absence of God in the world, e.g.). In the Pharmakon Plato writes that writing is both poison AND cure. (Think, for example, of the cancer patient who receives radiation and chemotherapy, poisoning as potential cure or a “cure” that might hasten death.) Or again, Socrates didn’t write his philosophy he spoke it. Plato praises his teacher and presence (speech) as superior to writing (absence) yet does so in writing. Plato praises speech in WRITING, an irony of which he was either unaware or didn’t see the contradiction. And I would point out that we would know nothing of the Socratic method or Plato’s “Republic” or any of Plato’s philosophy without writing.
So what do end up with? Interpretation(s), not all of which are equal (obviously this is where judgment enters, in the Kantian sense of judging, at least from my point of view). Some arguments/interpretations are simply better, more plausible than others. Everything then is interpretation; even the idea that there are objective “facts” is itself an interpretation as argued by Nietzsche himself.
Lastly, I’ll take a stab at your question of metafiction. How about Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” And in film I would argue that the movie “Memento” is a great example of the “opposition” of speech and writing, wherein the protagonist turns his body into a “text,” similar to Queequeg in “Moby Dick.”
Not exactly what I wanted to write or how I wanted to write it but it’ll have to do. Hope I did not bore you.
“The Discarded Image: an introduction to medieval and renaissance literature” by C.S. Lewis discusses the importance of the concept of the medieval order of the universe and how it influenced renaissance writers more the christian theology. In fact the relationship between the two was strained and only in Dante was it fused. The poetic and observational description of the cosmos, the discarded image, started in savage mythologies and was refined by the philosophies of the pagans: Socrates,Plato, Aristotle, etc. Aristotle’s Primum Mobile was the highest ring of a hierarchical cosmos. The interior spheres, corresponding to planets (gods), moved around the earth. The sublunary was Natura, everything above the moon was divine, aether. There were faeries, ghosts, daemons, planetary influences, the world was a lively place and man’s place in the world was small.These are reoccurring images in renaissance poetry. The stars are more influential on the actions of men than christian theology in Shakespeare’s plays–Romeo and Juliet is an example.
The writer does not always agree with the characters he creates but Hamlet has a line that transcends the duality of Christian thought: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Losing happiness is the worst fate of all and happiness is an illusion. Sounds like Buddhism or Taoism. Or an existential crisis brought on by the death of his son Hamnet.
Tidewater to Tidewater,
The name “Essex” seems to have suddenly popped up and occupied my mind all day long today. First, that of the noble Earl. Then that of the whaling ship. Hmmmm. A couple of little glitches in all this, weren’t there? Come on, Pepys would admit it. Now if it was a matter of …speech… I would have been embarrassed. Not at a loss for words, of course. But embarrassed. Note to self (mental?) maybe you had better read some of this stuff a little better? So Moby Dick is a metafiction? And it’s in Chapter 45, The Affidavit? One thing about, this…(blog)writing–it seems safer. Like a Commonwealth’s attorney who is suddenly dumfounded by some unexpected testimony. What do you do? Take a recess! The judge will always grant it.
More to say, or rather, write, but it’s late. As Pepys would say, or actually wrote–and Pepys is surfacing isn’t he?–“And so to bed.”
I don’t mean to imply that Shakespeare was a Buddhist or Taoist but that Hamlet says suffering is based on illusion, an attachment to worldly things.
Sometimes my response to a woefully under-informed essay is anger, but after reading this essay, whose author seems unaware of THE most prominent novel, the premier author, of American literature, this particular Protestant just doesn’t give a Huck.
As has been said before of self-congratulatory Catholics and real knowledge of literature … never the Twain shall meet.
“Shakespeare, it seems to me, believes in none of that stuff …”
agreed. Although it is easy to descend into worship. Although really? “and eat no fish”?
Little Latin, and less Greek? adorning himself with ‘someone else’s feathers’? Boccaccio’s, for instance, to the extend the selected translations of the Decamerone tales reached him in translation? I would be hesitant to take the frame story as real, but then I never seriously looked into it.
Tidewater to David Habbakkuk and Mongoose,
I am so very impressed and intrigued by both of your comments, or should I say, essais; in the Montaigne sense of the word, I mean. Thank
you both very much.
I have some IRS problems.