In Praise of Honest Stratfordians (Part II)

Posted By on March 18, 2011

Logan Pearsall Smith: Shakespeare has become “almost a national industry.”

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)

Whitewash?

“…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)….

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

Comments

6 Responses to “In Praise of Honest Stratfordians (Part II)”

  1. knitwitted says:

    Roger, you are to be congratulated for writing these most excellent articles. You’ve given many people some great thoughts to ponder. My personal favorite is Mr. Smith’s “Such a specialist is the last person in the world to give a measured and rational judgment on his special subject.” He is absolutely correct and you did very well to point out his statement. As you may know, I’ve never studied Shakespeare (except the 2 or 3 days in high school)… never read his plays and have only read a few of his sonnets. What intrigues me about the Authorship Question is the open exchange of ideas. As an historian, I see a lot of research that can be done regarding the man from Stratford. Whether such research has already been completed, I’m not aware of. I’m merely recalling from Mr. Shapiro’s book particulars he cites as apparently lacking.

    I hope you will continue more such articles. There is a lot that most of us don’t yet know.

    -Knitwitted

  2. Martin Hyatt says:

    Thanks for the look back at Logan Pearsall Smith.

    The current Shakespeare biographers have stalled out in their certainty. I hope we can find some honest Stratfordians. I’ve devised a short test to help.

    Agree or Disagree?

    1. There is strong evidence that “Hand D” in the Sir Thomas More
    manuscript is in the handwriting of William Shakespeare.

    2. There is little or no evidence of a “stigma of print” for
    aristocrats in Elizabethan times.

    3. The “hate away” in Sonnet 145 is probably a play on “Hathaway,” the
    family name of Shakespeare’s wife.

    4. It is likely that Shakespeare’s earliest version of Hamlet was not
    written until after 1596 and that a lost play by Thomas Kyd accounts for
    earlier references.

    5. Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit provides clear evidence that by 1592,
    William Shakespeare was a well known playwright and actor on the
    London stage.

    6. One can reasonably conclude that Chettle’s Kind Heart’s Dream
    contains an apology to William Shakespeare for what was said in Greene’s
    Groatsworth of Wit.

    7. The evidence for William Shakespeare being a writer is not unusual
    in comparison with other writers of his day.

    8. Shakespeare’s works demonstrate a lack of familiarity with details
    of European geography.

    9. MacBeth was written in part to honor King James (a Scottish monarch).

    10. There is strong evidence that The Tempest was influenced by the
    narratives arising from the Bermuda wreck of the Sea-Venture in 1609.

    11. The Droeshout portrait in the First Folio is probably a reasonable
    likeness of William Shakespeare.

    12. Stylometric studies comparing Shakespeare’s works to others have
    conclusively ruled out any authorship candidates with surviving samples
    of writing to compare.

  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Dear Knittwitted and Martin:

    Thank you each for the delightful responses to this post. I too appreciate the wit and wisdom of Smith’s remark about the folly of modern “expertise” in such a matter as the Shakespearean question. If we wanted an illustration of what he meant we could not have asked for a better one than Professor Shapiro’s recent foray into authorship studies.

    Martin, your list is indeed an interesting challenge with which the anti-Stratfordians should do more. I assume that you retain or can acquire a bibliography to support the identification of the “correct” answers?

    If so, let’s talk more.

  4. Martin Hyatt says:

    Regarding item 2, here is Steven May’s paper
    Tudor Aristocrats and the Mythical “Stigma of Print”
    arguing against a stigma of print.
    And here is Diana Price’s essay
    The Mythical “Myth” of the Stigma of Print
    arguing for a stigma of print.

  5. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Marty–

    A few more possible nominees for the list

    13) As Ben Jonson said, Shakespeare had “small Latin and lesse Greeke.”

    14) The Cobbe portrait is most likely a painting of Shakespeare and the clothing of the sitter supports this conclusion.

    15) The Earl of Oxford was a bad writer and an even worse speller and Latinist, as evidenced by his surviving correspondence (Nelson 2003 etc.)

    16) Throughout the 1980s and 1990s real scholars ignored the Oxfordians almost completely until James Shapiro wrote a balanced analysis of what is wrong with them.

    17) The opinions of Harvard literary scholars about the authorship question have not changed in the last 30 years and almost all of them support Shapiro’s version of intellectual history in Contested Will.

  6. knitwitted says:

    Of course, your #13 is a reference to the dozen small latte spoons given by Shakespeare to his godson, Jonson’s son. The “lesse Greeke” is therefore a reference to Shakespeare’s yearn for a Greek latten vessel having a spigot and used for warming or serving latte.

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