The Challenge of Shakespeare
… but let your reason serve
To make the truth appear, where it seems hid ...
- Isabella (Measure for Measure, v.1.65)
At the start of a new millennium, and almost four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare continues to shake the shallow presumptions of his critics. He challenges them to question their own prejudices, to put aside contemporary fads and fashions, and to penetrate the perennial truth of the permanent things presented in his plays. Sadly, in an age characterized by superciliousness, few critics rise to the challenge. Some critics even deny that there is a challenge. Harold Bloom, criticising G.K. Chesterton for suggesting that Shakespeare was a Catholic dramatist, asserts that “we cannot know, by reading Shakespeare and seeing him played, whether he had any extrapoetic beliefs or disbeliefs … by reading Shakespeare, I can gather that he did not like lawyers, preferred drinking to eating, and evidently lusted after both genders”. It is perhaps a sorry reflection of the state of modern literary criticism that this woeful lack of penetration not only gains credence in academic circles but actually gains disciples.
Let’s peruse Bloom’s critique a little more closely. Apart from his apparent inability to glean any meaning, intended by Shakespeare, from any of the plays - political, philosophical, moral or religious – beyond the indulgence of the lower appetites, his use of the phrase “extrapoetic beliefs or disbeliefs” is curious. Is he really suggesting that poesis is possible in a vacuum, that poets create in the absence of belief in anything? If they believe in nothing, why are they inspired to say anything? If they believe in nothing, how can they say anything? If they believe in nothing, why do they have anything to say? Pace Bloom, poesis, like thought itself, is rooted in belief and is impossible without it. Shakespeare had to believe in something or else he would have written nothing.
At the heart of much modern criticism, as practiced by a plethora of post-modern parvenus, is an irritation with the power of the author. If one is constrained to listen to the author one cannot do one’s own thing with the text. One must bow before a higher authority, the authorial authority. In an age which hates authority this is perceived as a limitation of the freedom of the reader to do what he wants with the text. Yet, as Edmund Burke reminds us, liberty must be limited in order to be possessed; and as Oscar Wilde warns us (and he should know), anarchy is freedom’s own Judas. Taking liberties with liberty leads to anarchy, and anarchy, in reality, is the rule of the most ruthless and the enslavement of everyone else. We have laws against rape and murder to ensure that we are not at the mercy of rapists and murderers. This might be obvious to most sensible people, but not, apparently, to the intellectual libertines in Literature departments in many of today’s colleges and universities. There is, alas, no law against the rape and murder of literary texts.
Even when post-moderns accept the existence of meaning, and many don’t, they believe that the reader has as much “right” to interpret the meaning of a work as does the author. This is tragic, not for the work of literature itself which retains its value regardless of the ways in which it is abused, but for the reader who is depriving himself of the full depth and beauty of the work he is reading and studying. In this respect it might be said that there are two types of readers; those who do things to books and those who allow books to do things to them. One approach is rooted in pride, and its illegitimate offspring, superciliousness and arrogance; the other in humility, and its fruitful progeny, wisdom and discernment. The former is self-deceptive, the latter receptive. Most modern criticism falls into the former category. If one believes that one knows as much as the author, or has as much “right” to interpret the meaning of the text, or if one dismisses the intention of the author as being irrelevant, one will be squeezing the work into the narrow confines of one’s own prejudiced presumptions, doing things with the work to make it fit into one’s own limited weltanschauung. If, on the other hand, one accepts that the author knows more than the reader about his own work, one will be able to grow and to stretch oneself in the beautiful space that the genius of the author creates. After reading a book in such a receptive way, allowing it to do things to us, we will find that we have grown into someone wiser than we had been before we read it. All of this presumes, of course, that the work in question has literary merit and is worth reading.
The whole issue of the relationship between an author and his work, and by extension the importance of this relationship to the reader’s understanding of the work, was summed up succinctly by J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote that “only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’.” In these few words we are given the tools to form a true appraisal of the role and limitations of literary criticism. Let’s look closer at what he is saying.
One does not need to share Tolkien’s Christian faith in order to recognize, or agree with, his insistence on the transcendent nature of the creative process and its products. Even an atheist such as Percy Bysshe Shelley recognized the quasi-mystical forces at work in the creative process, forces that transcend the conscious will of the author (or artist, or musical composer etc). In his essay, “A Defense of Poetry”, Shelley wrote:
Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.
The insistence by Tolkien and Shelley of the transcendent nature of the creative process is crucial to a true understanding of literature and literary criticism. It is, however, the crucial misunderstanding of this transcendence that has led to much of the error in modern criticism. The modern misapprehension springs from the assumption that the transcendence negates the validity, and therefore the relevance, of the author’s intention. Since the author’s intention is subject to the mystical power of creativity we need not take the intention seriously. Furthermore, if the author’s intention is relatively worthless, so, ultimately, is the author himself, leaving us only with the text. The problem is that this line of reasoning arises from a misunderstanding of what Tolkien and Shelley are actually saying. Shelley insists that “the most glorious poetry … is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet”. In other words, the poet is the original conceiver of the poem, and the poem a pale shadow of the poet’s conception. The poem is derived from, and dependent on, the poet. It follows, therefore, that we will better understand the conception, i.e. the poem, if we better understand the conceiver, i.e. the poet. T.S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men”, echoes Shelley:
Between the conception
And the creation …
Falls the Shadow …
Between the potency
And the existence …
Falls the Shadow.
For Eliot, who was on the path to Christianity when he wrote “The Hollow Men”, the fall of the Shadow was the shadow of the Fall, but, for the atheist poet and the Christian poet alike, there is a shared understanding that the existence of the work cannot be separated from the potency that resides in the personhood of the poet. It is for this reason that Tolkien insists that the author “knows more than any investigator”, even if the author himself cannot grasp the transcendent mystery at the heart of creativity. If for “investigator” we read “critic”, it can be seen that Tolkien, Shelley and Eliot are insisting that we must understand the solidity of the author and his beliefs before we listen to the opinions and beliefs of the “hollow men”. Even if we accept, as we should, that a great work of literature will have a profundity of meaning beyond the conscious design of the author, we still need to see the transcendent beauty through the prism of the personhood of the author. If we fail to discipline ourselves to follow this critical modus operandi we will see literature through the blurred focus of our own inadequate vision, or through the inadequate vision of a critic. Such an approach does not negate the necessity of employing our own judgment, or of giving consideration to the judgment of critics, but it insists that we should subject our judgment, and that of the critics, to the authorial authority of the person from whom, or through whom, the work was given life. This is the literary litmus test. Any literary criticism that fails to take this test, or fails to pass this test, is unworthy of the name.
Let’s take some practical examples to illustrate the crucial connection between an author and his work. Tolkien could not have written The Lord of the Flies any more than William Golding could have written The Lord of the Rings; Shelley could not, and would not, have written Christian allegorical poems such as Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”; Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland” could not have existed without the potency of the poet’s deep Christian faith and his grounding in scholastic philosophy; et cetera, et cetera. Surely this is obvious. Surely it requires a mere modicum of common sense to see the truth that one must see the work, first and foremost, through the eyes of the author, as far as this is possible.
As a further aside, it is perhaps illuminating to compare the study of literature with the study of history. If we insist on studying history through the prejudices and presumptions of our own day we will succeed only in misinterpreting the motives and purpose of historical actions. If we do not know what people believed we will not understand why they behaved and acted as they did. We will not understand what really happened. Our prejudice or our ignorance will have made us blind. In order to understand history we must understand enough to empathise with, even if we don’t sympathise with, the protagonists of the period being studied. And what is true of history is equally true of literature. We must know what the author believed in order to know what he is saying and doing in his work. We must empathise with, even if we don’t sympathise with, the author’s beliefs. Failure to understand the author’s beliefs will lead to a failure to understand the work. Our prejudice or our ignorance will have made us blind.
There was a peripatetic purpose behind this lengthy digression from our Shakespearian topic. It is this. Once we accept that the author-work nexus is axiomatic to a true understanding of literature, it becomes clear that the more we know about Shakespeare the more we will understand his work.
Do the plays reflect Shakespeare’s beliefs? Of course they do. As already illustrated, all artistic work is an expression of the artist’s beliefs. If this is the case, a deeper awareness of the playwright’s beliefs will yield a deeper understanding of the plays. For this reason, the debate over Shakespeare’s religious beliefs is sending shockwaves through literature departments around the world. In Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England, Dennis Taylor, Professor of English at
, discusses the way in which the work of historians was impacting upon the work of Shakespearian criticism. Boston College
In or about 1985, the landscape of Shakespeare and religion studies began to change. In that year, Ernst Honigmann and Gary Taylor, representing mainline Shakespeare criticism, argued for the continuing influence of Shakespeare’s Catholic background on his plays. Since 1985, there has been a flood of criticism reconsidering Shakespeare’s relation to his Catholic contexts … What we have seen since 1985 is the widespread acceptance of the importance of Shakespeare’s Catholic background on both his mother’s and his father’s side, so much so that Honigman and Taylor’s 1985 work – and Peter Milward’s Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973) – are now routinely cited, with various qualifications, in standard editions and biographies of Shakespeare.
If Shakespeare was a Catholic, or was greatly influenced by the Catholicism of his parents and the persecution that surrounded the practice of Catholicism in his day, it forces us to re-read the plays in an entirely new light. The more that historical evidence comes to light, the less able are the doyens of post-modernity to do what they like with the plays. In the past, the lack of knowledge of the personhood of Shakespeare has enabled critics to treat him as a tabula rasa upon which they can write their own prejudiced agenda. For the proponents of “queer theory” he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for “post-Christian” agnostics he becomes a prophet of post-modernity. It was all so easy when Shakespeare was a myth, but, now he is emerging as a man, a living person with real beliefs, the distortion becomes more difficult. For “post-modern” Shakespeare scholars the emergence of tangible evidence for the Catholic Shakespeare is not only a challenge but a threat. If he was a recusant Catholic, or a Church papist, or merely a reluctant conformist who retained significant sympathy with the “old faith”, he becomes irritatingly anti-modern. He would have believed that the practice of homosexuality was a sin, or that the secular state should be subject to the teachings of the Church, or that the religious conformity of the mediaeval past was superior to the post-Reformation fragmentation of Christian belief. From the perspective of the modernist and post-modernist, Shakespeare emerges as an unenlightened and recalcitrant reactionary. From the perspective of tradition-oriented scholars, the evident clarity of moral vision that they had always perceived in the plays becomes more explicable and more clearly defined.
As for Harold Bloom’s criticism of Chesterton for writing that Shakespeare was a Catholic dramatist, or his singularly curious assertion that none of Shakespeare’s beliefs are discernible in his work, it is gratifying to see that the ghost of Shakespeare, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, has returned to haunt him. In a paradoxical twist worthy of a Chestertonian epigram or a Shakespearian plot, the ghost of the author has exorcised the critic.
 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,
: Riverhead, 1998, pp. 7-8 New York
 Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,
: George Allen & Unwin, 1981, p. 288 London
 Dennis Taylor and David N. Beauregard (eds.), Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern
England, New York: Press, 2003, p. 24 Fordham University