James Shapiro and the Sources of Literary imagination

Posted By on April 1, 2011

One of Ben Heine's Meditations on the Relationship between Imagination and Reality. See more at www.thewondrous.com, linked at the end of this post (or just click on the image!)

A guest post by Heward Wilkinson, MSc, Psychotherapy.

In Contested Will James Shapiro emphasizes the bard’s ordinariness and all-hail democratic good-fellowness,  ostensibly making his writing more compatible not only with the world and life of William Shakespeare of Stratford but also with a populist need to recast him in the common mold.This emphasis links with Shapiro’s related strategy of denying any profound autobiographical connections in great literature, in the name of defending ‘imagination’.

Sadly, I believe that, in so far as this kind of argument is accepted in our culture, great literature is, in effect reduced to a banal aestheticism.

Although influential for many reasons over the last century-and a-half, through such doctrines as ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ (Walter Pater), ‘Significant Form’ (Roger Fry, Clive Bell) the attack on ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley), and the ‘autonomy of the aesthetic’ (Bloom),  this view has been exaggerated in Anglo-American literary discourse due to  the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) influence of the authorship question. These doctrines would not play nearly so great a role in modern European literary theory if it had been possible to recognize an otherwise normal literary relationship between life and work in the instance of our greatest Anglophone author, Shakespeare, rather than the null relationship we actually discover between the author of the plays and poems, and William Shakespeare of Stratford.

This relationship between life and literary work is very clear when we consider the great nineteenth century novels. The only question is whether this also applies to the age of Shakespeare and/or to Shakespeare himself. Thus, in Dickens’s Little Dorrit we easily apprehend the relation to Dickens’ own experience of Marshalsea Prison and his father’s bankruptcy.

In Little Dorrit we see the true nature, not reductive at all, of imagination – a great writer’s preoccupation with, and lifelong meditation upon, certain central modifs in their experience, resulting in their profound transmutation, and ‘sea change Into [the] something rich and strange’ of art.

Now, it is not an accident that for Dickens, in this novel, King Lear is pervasively present, and the parallel of the relations between Lear and Cordelia, and that between William and Amy Dorrit, being profound indeed. Fallible fathers are at the heart of this novel, as they are Shakespeare’s play. Dickens is a great implicit critic, and his novel is, among much else, an implicit commentary on, and transformation of, King Lear.

And the idea that Shakespearian drama does not reflect the same type of deep creative-imaginative preoccupations and imaginative transformations – in this instance, again, fallible fathers, but elsewhere, for instance, the constant, the incessant preoccupation with violent overthrows of monarchs and emperors, as well as the theme of betrayal in sexual love, and its concomitants – seems to me so astonishingly naive that one must question the literary education of anyone, who thus, caught in the modern age’s demagogic fashions, has not been able to read what screams at us from almost every page of Shakespeare — namely the profound imprint of,  and imaginative organisation created by the author in relation to his world. Lear, like Little Doritt, is drawn from a literary wrestling with the entwined and inextricably interfused predicaments of a real life in a real world.

Indeed such a misreading is so profound that it is a textbook lesson in the modern a-historical incapacity to understand another civilisation or phase of civilization in terms other than our own – and the shallowest understanding of our own at that. It is indeed a kind of epistemological ethnocentrism of the worst kind. Shapiro is of course entirely happy to make use of historical allusions in the plays – like that which is usually assumed to refer to the return of the Earl of Essex from Ireland in Henry V — but he entirely omits the inextricable connection with the author’s inner life and life experience, which we see writ large in such works as Little Dorrit, and one can not only reasonably infer from Shakespeare, but which are actually supported by Shakespeare’s own practice and articulations!

Shapiro, to be sure, quotes at the end of his book (quite inconsistently with his official doctrine of not taking character utterances out of context) the very positivist, Enlightenment theory of imagination  — and does so long before the Enlightenment (which itself might have given Shapiro pause, in his accusations of anachronism, if he could read what is in front of his eyes!). Consider the speech of Theseus on imagination:

‘Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.

Thes. More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’

The positivistic discrediting tendency of this is even clearer in the total context of the fifth act, yet it is profoundly belied and indeed reversed by Bottom’s great speech (with its resonances of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2.9):


[Awaking] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.’

For Bottom’s vision is not actually a dream; on the contrary, it is a transmuted reminiscence of Bottom’s actual experience with Titania (Shakespeare would have had little to learn from Freud’s theory of dreams!). And in this marvellous passage, summoning the deepest resonances of Shakespeare’s particular relation to his life and vision in his art, Bottom transmutes and recreates his experience, in the manner of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.
This mode is likewise manifest in Shakespeare’s own quasi-autobiographical account of his creative process in Sonnet 30, from which Scott Moncrieff felicitously drew his translation of the title of Proust’s great book:

‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.’

What a marvellous evocation of creative reminiscence and reverie!

If we wanted to go further, we need only turn to Hamlet’s exquisite evocation and articulation of dramatic art, in which, as the late great Peggy Ashcroft was wont to point out, the ‘as ‘twere’ indicates the limits of the direct biographical reference (of which Oxfordians are so commonly stereotypically accused by Stratfordians), for art is indeed always a transmutation of experience, and the relationship between art and life is always dialectical, reflecting neither raw “reality” nor pure “imagination”:

‘Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.’

Yes indeed!

‘Fie upon’t! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’

These are not, – and how could they possibly be? – the words of one who was indifferent, as Shapiro claims (and has to claim, to by-pass the Oxfordian threat), to the relation of life and work. And so, if we read Hamlet, King Lear, and all the rest of the mighty oeuvre, we are free once more to recognise the profound truth of Walt Whitman’s (no snob, no defender of aristocracy) famous comments in November Boughs:

‘We all know how much mythus there is in the Shakspere question as it stands to-day. Beneath a few foundations of proved facts are certainly engulf’d far more dim and elusive ones, of deepest importance — tantalizing and half suspected — suggesting explanations that one dare not put in plain statement.

But coming at once to the point, the English historical plays are to me not only the most eminent as dramatic performances (my maturest judgment confirming the impressions of my early years, that the distinctiveness and glory of the Poet reside not in his vaunted dramas of the passions, but those founded on the contests of English dynasties, and the French wars,) but form, as we get it all, the chief in a complexity of puzzles. Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparallel’d ways the mediaeval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.’


For more of Ben Heine’s provocative photo-art,  exploring the dialectical relationship between reality and imagination, please visit  The Wondrous.com.

About the author

Heward Wilkinson, BA MA, MSc Psychotherapy, UKCP Registered Integrative Psychotherapist, studied English and Theology at Cambridge, and Religious Studies at Lancaster. Originally a psychiatric nurse, he practices psychotherapy in London, with a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. He has developed the poetic analogy in his new book The Muse as Therapist: a New Poetic Paradigm for Psychotherapy and in chapter 4 of Beyond Post-Modernism: New Dimensions in Clinical Theory and Practice, edited by Roger Frie and Donna Orange. He is Fellow of United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy. He runs Philosophy Courses relevant to Psychotherapy in both UK and Ireland. His interests include: the interface between art and psychotherapy; Shakespeare and the authorship question; and the philosophical roots of our modern understandings of the world. He tries to bring jest and humour to serious matters without dismissing their seriousness.


5 Responses to “James Shapiro and the Sources of Literary imagination”

  1. Roger Stritmatter says:


    Rereading your article a few times (it repays several readings), it strikes me that Shapiro’s effort to make Shakespeare more like the common man — to talk down his literary achievement — is in active tension with his desire to put such an emphasis on imagination. Its not that these two things can’t, in the best of all possible worlds, be reconciled — but that they are running in different directions. After all, isn’t it the essential quality of imagination that it transcends the normal and opens a door, as it were, to “Pan’s labyrinth” (that movie being, btw, an astounding modern example of the interdependence of imagination and reality, a theme very fully controlled by the writers, directors and producers).

    And the whole point of such a place as the labyrinth is that it is NOT common, not ordinary, but that, while composed at least in part of elements drawn from experience, it breaks through, enables the artist to make a metacommentary on reality. Metacommentary, I think, is a very important word here, because one of the things the Oxfordians can bring that neither the Stratfordians nor other critics can, is to show how the plays are not merely “reflections” or “parallels” of de Vere’s life, but an active metacommentary on it — just as you have shown in your selected passages from MND, that other passages form a metacommentary on such literary or artistic problems of the relationship between reality and imagination.

    What do you think of Ben Heine’s image. I just loved his work and thought that it illustrates perfecting the argument you (and the bard!) are making about the interdependence of experience and art.

    Thanks for such a great guest post.


  2. Roger
    Thank you for your kind compliments!

    But Shapiro’s concept of imagination is ‘imagination – but not as we know it Jim’! When I read Shapiro on imagination I am reminded of a remark of Dr Johnson’s on Ogilvie’s poetry: “And what might be called imagination in them was, to be sure, imagination once; but it is no more imagination in him than the echo is sound. And his expression too is not his own. We have long ago seen ‘white-robed innocence’ and ‘flower-bespangled meads’. ” (Boswell, Life of Johnson, from 1763)
    Wittgenstein also writes: “A wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not a part of the mechanism.” (Philosophical Investigations para 271)

  3. I was not able to finish the previous entry as my computer’s writing mode went frozen.

    It is because Shapiro has no genuine conception of imagination, that he ‘imagines’ his Shakespeare is compatible with democracy, consensuality, and political correctness, though this does not rule out a great deal of covert malice in his portrayals. I cannot actually find the real Shakespeare anywhere in Shapiro’s book. Many Stratfordians do offer us a Shakespeare who is truly alive, Frank Harris, Wilson Knight, FR Leavis, but this is now gone in Shapiro. It is a sign of the age. But, as Charles Beauclerk points out in his video you show on this topic, ‘imagination’ in Shapiro has replaced the old Stratfordian emphasis on Shakespeare’s all-transcending ‘genius’. This use of needed code words as emptied of their meaning is of course the characteristic of our epoch which Orwell diagnosed so acutely.

    I do not think a real grasp of imagination necessarily leads one to left or to right politically, Keats and Hazlitt were radicals, Shakespeare and Johnson conservatives with a small ‘c’, but it certainly takes one into a realm of transformation OF, and, as you say, meta-commentary ON, experience. But we Kantians, Wildeans, Coleridgeans (let alone we post-modernists!) know that experience itself is an imaginative construct which inextricably entwines life and creation… And yes that is caught very well in Ben Heine’s images!

    ‘There were no fogs in London till Whistler painted them.’ remarks Oscar Wilde, but that does not imply they were not THERE, we simply did not see them! Masses of perceptual psychology theory confirms this way of thinking. But when we see the Ames room we are not hallucinating either!

    In short the usual polar contrast between ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’ is itself a solecism!!


  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    “In short the usual polar contrast between ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’ is itself a solecism!! ”

    O, ya! Great stuff Heward.

    Regarding the “sign of the times” nature of the entirely missing Shakespeare in Shapiro’s book, I think he does appear at least in one place — namely in the parenthesis in which he refers to “Shakespeares’ somewhat more complex psychology” when he is going on about Henry Cuffe. He knows that his statements about how impoverished 16th century psychology was and how little self-understanding those primitive people had will sound ludicrous if he doesn’t insert a parenthetical exception for Shakespeare. Its a profoundly revealing moment in the book (near the end; I quote from memory and may not have the exact words).

    If we turn to the history of criticism, a turning point in the process was the 1991 book by psychoanalytical Shakespeareans, responding to Ogburn (which is termed by one contributor a “lunatic book” — always reminds me of the line from Lear “what have you done with the lunatic king?”), Shakespeare’s Personality. Here is my review if you haven’t seen it:


    By the way, I want to start up some You-tubing authorship videos, and would love to interview you for one of the installments, using a split screen. You have any clue of how do do that, and would you be game?

    Check out my most recent blog entry on Romans 7.20 — a very “Freudian” moment in the NT.

  5. Roger I’d be glad to try the split screen – we’ll figure it out. Thank you!

    Your ‘Romans’ comments are intriguing indeed. I cannot forbear to note that this is pure Derrida!!
    ‘In supplying the word, the annotator inscribes himself in the volume, quite literally becoming the Pauline “I.” If unwilled, he did not do it – instead the sin that dwelled in him did it — whatever it may have been. A more elegant and potent merger of author, message, and reader is difficult to imagine.’

    Il n’y a de hors texte…..


    It is not I, but deconstruction in me, who write……

    I agree with you about the psychoanalytic critics – as I explored in my book chapter, psychoanalysis is beset by parallel problems about ‘impersonality’ to those which haunt the English literary tradition (Pater, Eliot, Fry, Clive Bell, Wimsatt and Beardsley, Bloom, Shapiro etc).

    What I call the ‘dialectical’ relation between work and life, to me corresponds to the more intelligent versions of ‘deconstruction’. For instance, Derrida’s evocation of Freud and the background to the writing of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (BPP)
    is far from eschewing relation between personal history, and what Freud does with it in BPP. The WHOLE relation is transformed and deconstructed, it is not that bits of it are eliminated. It is very subtle. I have written about this in an extended passage in my doctoral commentary on The Muse, which I have in PDF if you were interested – but I think this is a back burner issue! But for instance what I did with Wilson Knight in the first part of the Shakespeare chapter in my view is ‘deconstruction’ in the Derridean sense, and I think in general the better Oxfordian writing is deconstructive.

    I would have thought that deconstruction is the enemy of the Stratfordian ontology, in the sense that the Stratfordians need a unified single-self undeconstructed-subject author, an ‘authentic ego’ in psychoanalytic jargon, whilst Oxfordian perspectives veer much more to multiple frames, identities, transformations, plays within plays, time-slippages, relativisation of insanity, etc etc etc.

    I am not saying they dont use it – but, like the dating of the plays issue, the thing they think is a trump card is no such matter! Surely for instance Oxfordians view Jonson’s shaping of the First Folio profoundly deconstructively, they do not. Marcy North’s book, The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England, would surely come in here. Was not the Renaissance the first era of deconstruction, before Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ let in Enlightenment modernist conceptions? Arguably the Romantic period is the second (Coleridge, Hegel, Keats, the chameleon poet etc, the poet ‘has no self, no identity’ etc), and then the post-Heideggerian the third. But Eliot, Empson, Leavis and Winters themselves, though ostensibly ‘modernist’, are heading towards deconstruction, for instance, Leavis’s turning Milton against himself by using Comus as illustration of the Shakespearean use of language which Milton gradually repudiates! And rediscovering the 17th century Metaphysical in Pope!

    I think there is a big reconfiguration of the gestalt going on here.

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