Posted By Roger Stritmatter on March 18, 2011
Ok, I can already hear the replies to the previous post, “In Praise of Honest Stratfordians, Part I.”
“Charles Dickens wasn’t a Shakespearean scholar, he was just a Victorian novelist. He knew nothing about Elizabethan England and didn’t even have a PhD in Literary Studies….”
After a while, you’ve heard it all. You don’t even need a local Stratfordian because you know all the arguments by heart.
Fine. Let’s flash forward to a very different kind of expert, one to whom neither the Stratfordians nor Cordelia have up until this point in time paid much attention.
Any decent performance of Lear requires a strong Kent, and here he is.
Logan Pearsall Smith (18 October 1865 – 2 March 1946) is by any estimation one of the leading literary and culture critics of the 20th century.
While not an academician, Smith studied at Haverford College, then at Harvard, and graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1891. For more than forty years he was among the most prolific writers on Anglo-American literary topics, especially in the field of historical semantics.
According to Wikipedia, he is the author of as many as twenty-seven books, including a biography of Sir Henry Wotton, a book of essays responding to the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, numerous books on English words and idioms (a favorite topic of his study), an edition of Donne’s sermons, and a book of critical essays on Milton, as well as at least two books on Shakespeare, including his oft-reprinted On Reading Shakespeare (1933, 1934, 1945, 1946, etc.).
Smith’s friendship with Walt Whitman in the poet’s latter years may in part account for the independent spirit of his commentary on Shakespeare.
One may take for granted, by the way, Smith’s nominal allegiance to the “Stratfordian” point of view. Far from being an overt heretic, he seems to me to be the best possible kind of critic of the orthodox view, precisely because he declines to go too far beyond the conventional landmarks of polite Victorian discourse by endorsing a “Looney” anti-Stratfordian ideal and hence is not easily branded with epithets by our very modern and o-so-educated defenders of Stratford.
That is precisely what makes the candor of his commentary worthy of our attention. For while Smith was no heretic, he evidently was an apostate — someone willing to go beyond the bounds of the limited belief system of the guild in which he was nominally a member.
Smith’s doubts about the bona fides of the official biography of Shakespeare first appear in his introductory chapter, aptly titled “On Not Reading Shakespeare.” He begins from a synoptic point so obvious and yet in such need of emphasis that it is worth reprinting:
The works of great writers doze with their backs to us on our shelves for years, but they are dangerous company. Potent spirits lie imprisoned in those leather bottles. The names inscribed on them are names which have defeated time, and may exert a formidable spell on us….(1).
Smith goes on from this reminder that even the “names” of these long departed bards “may exert a formidable spell on us” to an analysis of the manner in which education can kill the lifeblood of a work:
We want only to look up a quotation perhaps in some old author, but we must go on, page after page, and then go on to read all the books we can find about him. The reader becomes a student, the student a bigot, and what is justly called a blind admirer, for his eyes are blinded by gazing on the object of his worship. Blemishes and merits are all blurred together, and faults seem to him imperfections. Such a specialist is the last person in the world to give a measured and rational judgment on his special subject. (2; my emphasis)
From these general remarks, Smith goes on to analyze the Shakespeare industry, which by 1933 was already an impressive set of institutional practices and economic forces, commenting that “our Shakespeare…has become almost a national industry” (5):
Even the high priests of this established Shakespeare worship seem to betray, now and then, an uneasy consciousness of something equivocal about the object of their devotion; of things to be hushed up, and the need of whitewash. (4)
“…the whitewash, alas, will keep flaking off and leave unsightly patches….” (5).
In the end Smith is left within the iron cage of Stratfordolatry, with all its flaking whitewash. But like any free spirit, he tells us what he thinks of it:
The older I grow, the more I love this affable intercourse with the fair spoken friend behind the book I read, with Montaigne behind his essays, or with Sir. Walter Scott as he writes his novels. But how on earth is one to establish may sort of human relationship with Shakespeare?
For the hero of Carlyle’s Hero Worship I have no great liking, nor is the official all-British Shakespearean and Empire-builder a friend for me. The demi-god, the enthroned divinity of the romantic critics, impeccable, supernaturally inspired, and with a mind out-topping knowledge, I cannot believe in, and equally incredible I find the Shakespeare which his modern, matter-of-fact biographers portray, a man, as it were, outside humanity, a kind of monster, who did not think or feel the things he wrote, but turned out the sublimest poetry and the grossest ribaldry merely in the way of business. Must I then stand glaring at that Inconceivability with white lips in open-mouthed amazement, my eyes starting from my head?
Is “stupefaction” the only word to describe my state of mind when, face to face with Shakespeare’s achievement, I try hard to imagine what sort of a man Shakespeare really was? Hadn’t I better just sit down in silence and quietly go mad? (127)
As I declared at the outset, my intent is surely not to enlist the good Mr. Smith in some sort of sectarian cause about Shakespeare’s historical identity. One could not wish the fate of being hounded by such vulgar critics as Wikipedia’s own Mr. Paul Barlow on any man who is not already mad. If Smith had read Looney, it is not obvious. But it is interesting to notice that he goes on from these remarks to bestow the highest conceivable praise on the much maligned work of Frank Harris, whose 1909 book The Man Shakespeare, although disparaged by Samuel Schoenbaum in Shakespeare’s Lives, was a major influence on Charlton Ogburn Jr.’s Mysterious William Shakespeare.
What Smith would have thought of the most current crop of bardographers, is, however, not hard to guess.
The “new-born school of critics” of the 19th and early twentieth century seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to those “new-born” critics of today. Both promote specialized knowledge of the primitive days of Elizabethan England as the key to unlock Shakespeare’s banal existence:
The modern idea of Shakespeare, according to these critics, is nothing but a windy, vast balloon, inflated by German and Scotch professors… by propagandists, idealists, and blatherskites, who have combined to distend and blow it up with the hot air of modern transcendentalism, sentimentality, psychology, and introspection — all things of which, of course, the Elizabethans had not the slightest notion. Shakespeare was one of these Elizabethans; he was not a “prophet, living in the spirit of the nineteenth century while working in the sixteenth”; not a thinker voyaging in strange seas of thought alone, but a jolly old actor and playwright, who filled his borrowed plots with acting parts and thrilling situations, all concocted to suit the taste and temper of the time. ….we must realize that the meaning of these plays — their only meaning — is their surface meaning, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries understood it. Shakespeare in writing his plays had in fact, they say, no subtle intentions and no deep underlying ideas…..(18).
It sure is a good thing Mr. Smith isn’t alive today. He wouldn’t last a day as a Wikipedia editor.
To be continued….(there are so many honest Stratfordians to praise)….