Monday, March 25, 2013

William Shakespeare is Naked

I confess: I don't like Shakespeare very much.


In one of Hans Christen Anderson's stories, a dandyish emperor walks into town naked, proclaiming that his clothing is only visible to the wise. The townsmen, each one wanting to demonstrate his wisdom, all announce their admiration for the emperor's fine clothing. Finally, a little boy, seeing that the emperor is naked, says so, and the town quickly acknowledges its mistake.

It might be that Shakespeare is wearing beautiful clothing that I can't see. It also might be that he's naked. Whichever one it is, I'm going to say what it looks like to me, and it looks to me like he's naked.

I. Shakespeare's Verse. 

Shakespeare is above all a weak poet. Let me give two examples, picked at random. First, here's Hamlet's first soliloquy from Hamlet:
O, that this too too [sic] solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
This just doesn't take an aesthetic foothold with me. In the first place, what's the point of the first metaphor? Sure, solid flesh melts, but then to thaw and become dew? Why? (Also, how can something thaw after it melts?) Then there's a mention of God—wonderful!—that immediately veers into a discussion of ecclesiastical law. Rats. After God is invoked twice to no great effect, Hamlet delivers a weary, stale, flat and unprofitable lament for his vague discomfort with the world.

Next, a sonnet:
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind's imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial's shady stealth mayst know
Time's thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
     These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
     Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.
What's going on here? The dominant thread is an attempt to convince the youth to write down his thoughts. But the argument is made in an extremely confused way. In the first two lines, two separate images are introduced to show the passage of time. In the next two lines, Shakespeare drops those images in order to baldly state his case for the youth's keeping a journal. Then, for some reason, he spends four more lines returning to the two metaphors from the opening, elaborating on them uselessly. The rest of the poem is a lengthy rephrasing of lines 3 and 4, in a way that doesn't add anything. In short, the poem is a jumble of boring argument and conflicting imagery.

I've never understood, by the way, the pathos behind Shakespeare's repeated exhortations that the youth write things down. It's not an exclamation of affection; nor does it speak to any common human passion. I prefer my poetic attempts at persuasion to deal with heavenly wars and intense love, not teenagers' authorial careers.

II. Shakespeare's Characters.

On to his characters. Briefly: Prospero is bizarre and his motives incomprehensible. The sex-swap in The Merchant of Venice is forced and unnecessary. Valentine's proposed wife-gift at the end of Two Gentlemen of Verona makes no sense. Hamlet's indolence and pessimistic sophistry is too often mistaken taken for psychological depth.

Macbeth is an exception—he is monomaniacal enough to be really exciting. "Stars, hide your fires! let not light see my black and deep desires." So is his wife, but her jarring reversal at the end is weird. And what does she die of? Guilt?

I like characters like Milton's Satan and Eve—complex, human, and lyrically expressive. Shakespeare doesn't have them.

III. Shakespeare's Moral Vision.

It doesn't exist. Tolstoy explains this in excruciating detail in a novella-length polemic, which I recommend. Also, he was an anti-Semite.

I don't dislike all of Shakespeare. Some of the sonnets, especially when they stick to a single metaphor and aren't too analytic, are very good. And I've always liked Macbeth and—though Tolstoy disagreesKing Lear. I'm only saying that I don't like most of his poetry, and that I think that's okay.

You might see the emperor's clothing. I envy you, but enjoy it!

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