Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 18. Shakespeare’s Censors

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 18. Shakespeare’s Censors

The foregoing survey of Shakespeare’s plays has been made rather from the results of a long and intimate familiarity with their contents, than in reference to traditional opinion in their favour, or to recent efforts in the opposite direction. Some of these latter, such as the attacks of the very remarkable young Breton critic Ernest Hello not long since, and those of Tolstoy, only the other day, have been made, seriously and in good faith, from points of view which, when allowed for, deprive them of most of their effect. Others have come from mere mountebankery, or from the more respectable, but not much more valuable, desire to be unlike other people. But, apparently, they have had the effect of inducing some critics who are nearer to the truth to make provisos and qualifications—to return, in fact, to something like the attitude of George III, that “a great deal of Shakespeare is sad stuff, only one must not say so,” but to put on more show of courage than the king and dare to “say so,” with more or less excuse for theatrical necessities, “faults of the time,” journeyman’s work executed as a mere matter of business and the like. Perhaps this is only a new form of cant. For the characteristics of the time something, of course, must be allowed; with, however, the remembrance that, after all, they may not be faults when brought sub specie aeternitatis. But, except in the very earliest plays—not half a dozen out of the whole nine and thirty—and in passages of the middle division, it may almost be said that there is no “sad stuff” in Shakespeare, though there is a great deal of very sad stuff in what has been written about him. In particular, both the impugners and the defenders on the theatrical side seem to protest too much. It is, of course, quite true that all Shakespeare’s plays were written to be acted; but it may be questioned whether this is much more than an accident arising from the fact that the drama was the dominant form of literature. It was a happy accident, because of the unique opportunity which this form gives of employing both the vehicles of poetry and of prose. But, though in a far milder degree, it was unlucky, because nothing has varied more or more quickly than the popular taste in drama, and, therefore, dramatic work has been exposed to even greater vicissitudes than those which necessarily await all literary performance. Even here, its exceptional excellence is evidenced curiously enough by the fact that there has been no time—the last forty years of the seventeenth century are not a real exception—at which Shakespeare has not (sometimes, it is true, in more or less travestied forms) retained popularity even on the stage.

But, if we regard his work from the far more permanent, and less precarious, standpoint of literary criticism, his exceptional greatness can be shown in divers and striking ways. The chain of literary dictators who have borne witness to it in their several fashions and degrees—Ben Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge—has been pointed out often enough. It has not, perhaps, been pointed out quite so often that the reservations of these great critics, when they make them, and the more or less unqualified disapproval of others, can always be traced to some practically disabling cause. Ben Jonson held a different theory of the drama; Dryden, for a time, at least, was led aside by the heroic play and, for another time, by the delusion that the manners, language and so forth of “the present day” must be an improvement on those of yesterday; Pope, by something not dissimilar to that which worked in Dryden’s case, and Johnson, by something not dissimilar to that which worked in Jonson’s; Coleridge, by “his fun”—that is to say, by occasional crotchet and theory. On the other hand, Voltaire, with all who followed him, differed partly in point of view, and partly was influenced by the half concealed, half open conviction that French literature must be supreme. Patriotism worked in another way on Rümelin, vexed at the way in which his countrymen, led by the Schlegels (from the earlier, and too much forgotten, John Elias onwards) and Goethe, had deified foreigners. Hello was affected by that strange dread and distrust of great human art which has influenced the Roman Catholic church almost as much as the extreme protestant sects, and which descends from Plato through the Fathers. The mere dissident for the sake of dissent need hardly be noticed; still less the mountebanks. But it is a certificate of genuineness to have mountebanks against you; and the heretic, by the fact of his heresy, goes further than he knows to establish the orthodoxness of orthodoxy.