No Shakespeare Skeptic Can Be Trusted

Gary TaylorIn their criticisms of Shakespeare, Wittgenstein and Tolstoy enact the stance they admire: they struggle against the idolatries of their day, they set up the emotional honesty of their own responses against the cant and convention they hear all around them and in Shakespeare himself. They play the fool, the deflator of common (non)sense. And they have generally been treated as though, by criticizing Shakespeare, they had made fools of themselves. George Orwell explains Tolstoy’s criticisms of King Lear as a function of Tolstoy’s own uncomfortable similarity to Lear; as usual, since the days of Dryden and Rymer, the critique is not rationally answered but taken as proof of personal weakness. Hume and Wittgenstein and Santayana were philosophers; philosophers can’t be trusted. Voltaire and Emerson and Tolstoy and Wittgenstein were foreigners; foreigners can’t be trusted. Hazlitt and Cobbett were radicals; radicals can’t be trusted. Oliver Goldsmith condemned Shakespeare’s “forced humor; far fetched conceit, and unnatural hyperbole”; Samuel Johnson said that “Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault”; Matthew Arnold complained about Shakespeare’s sloppy “workmanship” and his often “detestable” style; A E Housman confessed that “it gave him no pleasure to read a play of Shakespeare’s from beginning to end, for though some parts were magnificent, there were others so slovenly that the effect of the whole was disagreeable.” But Goldsmith and Johnson and Arnold and Housman — and Jonson and Milton and Dryden and Pope and Wordsworth and Byron and Landor and Whitman and Shaw and Eliot, who all expressed similar reservations — were rival writers; rival writers can’t be trusted. Rymer was a disappointed poet; disappointed poets can’t be trusted… Ezra Pound admitted that “Hunks of Shxpr bore me; I just can’t read ’em”; but Pound was a rival poet, a madman, a foreigner, and a fascist to boot; mad fascist foreign poets can’t be trusted. Or, rather, any of these categories of human being can be trusted when they praise Shakespeare but not when they venture objections.

—Gary Taylor
Reinventing Shakespeare

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