Shakespeare Apologists

XXXSo I’m reading Shakespeare. And I’m watching Shakespeare.[1] In particular, I am studying the Henry IV plays and Henry V. And I notice something: all these low characters (Falstaff, Prince Hal) speak in prose, while all the high characters (Henry IV, Henry V) speak in verse. This does not come as a shock. I think that for a layperson to really appreciate Shakespeare, he must admit the poet’s defects—which are many. And perhaps his biggest defect is how much he sucks up to authority.

It is hard not to see Shakespeare’s personal story as anything but a 16th century Horatio Alger: poor young man goes to the big city and comes back home triumphant. And therefore, it is hard not to see Shakespeare as primarily a businessman rather than an artist. He apparently did not write anything the last several years of his life. It is doubtful that this is due to the high standards he had by this time, because his last few plays were garbage. Maybe the old man (My age!) just felt he didn’t have it in him any more. But doesn’t it make more sense that his fortune was secure and that it was always about the money?

One of his last plays, Cardenio is lost to us. There is probably a reason for this, like: it was not very good. It is believed to be based upon Don Quixote. So perhaps Shakespeare and Fletcher[2] can be forgiven, because as I know, Don Quixote is a damned hard book to adapt; it’s the novel version of The Illiad. But this does provide a nice contrast: Shakespeare as the landlord during his last years compared to Cervantes, who pretty much died with pen in hand.

Shakespeare Apologists

I tried to find some information on how much of the various plays were verse and how much prose. I’m sure I’ve seen this kind of information before, but I couldn’t find it online. Instead, I found the following on Cummings Study Guides:

Why are some [lines] in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and plebeians—or wine-swilling hooligans, like Falstaff (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II)—often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters, like Hamlet and Volumnia (Coriolanus), sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Even the lowest of the low—the beast-man Caliban in The Tempest—speaks often in verse. In The Merchant of Venice, the characters associated with the dirty world of money speak frequently in verse, and the characters associated with the rarefied world of nobility and refinement speak often in prose. Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing is almost entirely in prose, with highborn characters only occasionally speaking in verse.

This is the ultimate. It would make Christian apologists proud. “Yeah, it’s true that Shakespeare clearly thinks that royalty are better than common men, but there are exceptions so it isn’t true!” Let’s see the logic here. Hamlet—an enormous part—is sometimes written in prose. The same goes for a minor character in Coriolanus. Does this need comment?!

The witches in Macbeth and Caliban, son of a witch, in The Tempest are written in verse. Maybe the fact that they are not, you know, part of the normal world has something to do with this? Consider, if you will, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It is hard for me to speak of The Merchant of Venice, because I don’t know it very well due to the fact that it is such an offensive play—far more offensive than Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Let me only say that the evidence here is pretty unsatisfying. Are we really to believe that Shakespeare, the landlord, really thought it was the dirty world of money?

And Much Ado About Nothing? I just don’t see how a comedy written almost entirely in prose is an argument against the original claim.

The Case for Shakespeare

Let me make the case that Shakespeare wasn’t a classist asshole: he was. But everyone was. He wasn’t writing in modern America. You have to take an artist in the context of his time. I make this case to people about film all the time: Citizen Kane is not a great film because it is better than films today; it is a great film because it was head-and-shoulders better than anything in 1945. So why should Shakespeare be held to a higher standard?

Now let me demolish this argument, which I think is as strong a defense as one can make for Shakespeare: Cervantes. Miguel de Cervantes was very much a man of his time. He too was a classist. He was a Catholic. He was in no way a modern man. And yet, Don Quixote and Exemplary Novels transcend this in a way that Shakespeare’s work never did.

Still, I accept the argument I made above for Shakespeare. But I also accept the fact that Shakespeare was simply one of the best five or so playwrights in London at the end of the 16th century. I don’t think he was the best at that time and place, much less the best in the English language or (Gasp!) ever. This is what I find so frustrating about Shakespeare. There is so much to like. Hell, I memorize speeches from his plays for no reason but the joy of it. There are characters I love like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. But there are also characters I despise like Claudio and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Why can’t people see this? Why are good plays by Ben Jonson and John Webster and many others so rarely performed, while bad plays of Shakespeare are finely tuned to make them palatable? I don’t know. It is all about history, I suppose. But so are the Nazis. That doesn’t mean we honor Nazism as the greatest form of governance the world has ever know![3]

[1] It is wrong to say that I, or anyone, watches Shakespeare. Each play gets so much help from editors, writers, directors, costume designers, art directors, and perhaps most of all, actors, that any Shakespeare play or movie is a collaboration, with That Bard giving less than he gets. It is perhaps also wrong to say that we read Shakespeare. Gary Taylor has pointed out that pronunciations have changed so much since the late 16th century, that when reading Shakespeare, we are reading another language. This, of course, does not stop the worshipers. Just one example about a production of Titus Andronicus from Wikipedia [Underlining is mine -FM]:

In 1995, Gregory Doran directed a production at the Royal National Theatre, which also played at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, starring Antony Sher as Titus, Dorothy Ann Gould as Tamora, Sello Maake as Aaron and Jennifer Woodbine as Lavinia. Although Doran explicitly denied any political overtones, the play was set in a modern African context and made explicit parallels to South African politics. In his production notes, which Doran co-wrote with Sher, he stated, “Surely, to be relevant, theatre must have an umbilical connection to the lives of the people watching it.” One particularly controversial decision was to have the play spoken in indigenous accents rather than Received Pronunciation, which allegedly resulted in many white South Africans refusing to see the play. Writing in Plays International in August 1995, Robert Lloyd Parry argued “the questions raised by Titus went far beyond the play itself [to] many of the tensions that exist in the new South Africa; the gulf of mistrust that still exists between blacks and whites […] Titus Andronicus has proved itself to be political theatre in the truest sense.”

[2] I really don’t know why I mention Fletcher, because many of Shakespeare’s plays were collaborations (probably many more than we know). In general, Shakespeare gets all the credit, so I see no reason why he should not get all the blame.

[3] Might as well cut to the chase and end with Godwin’s Law.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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