The Soul of Wit: G. K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare - Edited and with an Introduction by Dale Ahlquist,
Republished here by permission of Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
THE SOUL OF WIT: G.K. CHESTERTON ON WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. Edited and Intro by Dale Alquist. (Dover Books on Literature & Drama: December 19, 2012), 336 pages, $10.95 paperback.
Dale Alquist has done Catholic readers a double service in his recent collection of G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on Shakespeare, The Soul of Wit. Alquist has brought to publication a work that the English language’s greatest Catholic convert wanted to finish before he died. He has included in this book a healthy portion of arguments concerning the fact that this great English writer was Catholic.
Alquist, who has done perhaps more than any person to revive interest in Chesterton. He builds upon an earlier, posthumous collection from the 1970’s, edited by Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s secretary and literary executrix. Although more discussion and notes concerning the provenance of these bits and pieces of Chesterton’s journalistic remarks would have been useful, Alquist’s new edition does include generally helpful titles, contextual groupings, and identifications of source and date. This takes the reader roughly from Shakespeare’s situation in world literature, to Chesterton’s particular judgment of the Bard in English history. It becomes clear that Chesterton was an original and insightful reader, living and breathing England’s national poet, and letting his own thinking be imbued by Shakespeare’s influence. Chesterton claims that Shakespeare, like most English writers, is in fact a classical Latin author, in the tradition of Vergil, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. He is not in the school of Beowulf, as held by the nineteenth-century German folk historians; gloomier than Dante; less democratic than Chaucer; but formed in Greek and Latin without knowing either intimately.
What follows are many more counter-intuitive, strange, but uncannily perceptive, insights about individual plays, and characters. Falstaff is beloved “by all Christian people” despite being a “coward, thief, an old man encouraging the young in vice” because he has not “one drop of pride,” and “jeers at himself for being what he is.” The Macbeths are like a suburban London couple arguing about postage stamps, only they are arguing about murder. Lady Macbeth represents “industriousness,” and Lord Macbeth “laziness.” In killing themselves, they may have retained “permanent possibilities of humility and gratitude, which ultimately place the soul in heaven.” Bottom, the weaver, transformed into the ass is nevertheless “greater and more mysterious than Hamlet,” with the largeness of Hercules, Don Quixote, Achilles, and Uncle Toby, who were “next door to a fool.” Like the Don, and Uncle Toby, he has a gigantic fool’s laudable taste for rhetoric and belles-lettres. Even in his malapropisms—like “odious” for “odors”—the extra “i” is an “inspiration of metricism.” Bottom’s “rich simplicity,” “rich subconsciousness,” and “silliness on a grand scale” are recognized by the rustic mechanicals as a mark of leadership, for “when he blows his own trumpet, it is like the trumpet of the Resurrection.” Where would Chesterton be without paradox that upsets conventional thinking?
One genius of Chesterton is in getting the reader to believe the most outrageous claims, that women should not vote, that fairies exist as surely as bacteria, that common sense is more certain than mathematical proofs, and that the Resurrection happened. Great minds are completely themselves in writing about others. The reader of this book on Shakespeare understands quickly that Chesterton folds the dramatic giant into his own gigantesque worldview. Alquist quotes Chesterton:
… that Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true. It is supported by the few external and political facts we know; it is utterly unmistakable in the general spirit and atmosphere; and in nothing more than in the skepticism, which appears in some aspects to be paganism.
That strategy is vintage Chesterton, turning the skepticism of Hamlet and Macbeth—usually used as evidence of Shakespeare’s own religious doubts—into evidence of religious conviction. But, he is also not arguing systematically for the truth of a claim, but organically, digressively, conversationally. Chesterton smells the Catholic Shakespeare, he asserts, in the way he can smell that the sea is not an onion. Religion, unlike a philosophy, is recognized at once, like intuiting that a man is a Hindu, but not knowing that he is philosophically a Hegelian. How can you refute an argument like that? Chesterton’s main reasoning, concerning the Catholicism of Shakespeare, tends to be more impressionistic than logical. Shakespeare is was not a Puritan, for instance, as he ridiculed Puritans in his plays, but not friars, or the existence of purgatory. The Puritan, Milton, was proud, frigid, complete, scholarly, certain. Shakespeare resembled his characters, Bottom and Falstaff, by being incomplete, lazy, humble, truant, skeptical, ribald, never spelling his name the same way twice, and dying of overdrinking at a wedding feast with a writing buddy. Shakespeare, in short, represents the kind of Englishman that Chesterton celebrated and emulated. “I, for one,” he says, “am not a Miltonian.” Milton’s religion was “a religion that Milton made,” whereas Shakespeare’s religion “made him.” Chesterton does not practice the critical schizophrenia of “new critical” and “postmodern” hermeneutics: there is no difference between Shakespeare, the man, and Shakespeare, the writer.
Chesterton does not acknowledge the obvious challenge to the Catholicism of Shakespeare: that because someone in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was not a Puritan, does not mean that he was not a Protestant. Richard Hooker’s via mediamay have preserved enough of medieval Christianity to satisfy a traditionalist-leaning Catholic; Elizabeth certainly hoped it did. (I don’t think it could have satisfied anyone with a deep longing for the sacraments who was lost to Cranmer’s Reformation.) But that objection is like quibbling over the kind of ink that Fermat used: the joy of reading Chesterton, even in his occasional prose, is not found in following lines of argument, but in beholding paradoxical, poetic dichotomies. “All Englishmen are either Miltonians or Shakespeareans,” he writes, either tightly buttoned or wearing “morning dress to dinner.”
There are simply no critics left, alas, who can soar so high above the details, while still hitting the nail on the head.