Nineteenth-Century Shakespeare

By Nancy Leonard, Bard College

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

An old science-fiction story has William Shakespeare traveling mysteriously through time to register at a major American university for a course in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” He flunks the course. Despite the obviousness of the anti-academic satire, the story tells a home truth. Shakespeare has somehow become “Shakespeare,” a word nearly impossible to define. How the dramatist became so unrecognizable to himself (and to his teacher!) is a strange tale in its own right. So many ideas, phrases, character traits and experiences have been identified with Shakespeare that his actual life and work seem to recede into the distance. The jumble is so confused, the distance so great, that Gary Taylor, the leading recent historian of Shakespeare as a cultural Fixture, calls the result a “black hole”:

Shakespeare no longer transmits invisible light; his stellar energies have been trapped within the gravity well of his own reputation… And it is no use pretending that some uniquely clever, honest, and disciplined critic can find a technique, an angle, that will enable us to lead a mass escape from this trap. If Shakespeare is a literary black hole, then nothing that I, or anyone else, can say will make a difference. His accreting disk will go on spinning, sucking, growing.

The “gravity well” of Shakespeare’s reputation persists through the very process by which we try to overcome it: the prodigious number of times and ways we recall Shakespeare, through performances and films and programs and courses and phrases dropped to friends. Asking if Shakespeare really was Shakespeare (rather than an alias for Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford) is simply another way of participating in all this, which we might call using his name to say things about our world. It is a process that began, really, in nineteenth-century England, France and Germany, as part of the great cultural upheaval known as European Romanticism.

The starting point is sheer admiration. In 1835, for instance, the French novelist Victor Hugo explained his exaltation of Shakespeare like this:

Admirable power of genius! He make’s things higher than us which live like us. Hamlet, for instance, is as true as any of us and greater. Hamlet is colossal and yet real. For Hamlet is not you or I. He is every one of us. Hamlet is not a man; he is man.

(Over sixty years later, Sigmund Freud would similarly make Hamlet “every one of us” as the modern prototype of the Oedipus complex.) Shakespeare’s genius is repeatedly said to comprehend and summarize the whole human condition. For August Schlegel, the foremost Shakespearean critic and translator in Germany, Shakespeare “stood like a magician above the world, penetrating with one glance into all the depths, mysteries, and perplexities of human character.” Schlegel’s ideas were closely linked with those of the English poet Coleridge; their views did much to initiate the romantic Shakespeare of literature, music, drama and art of the last two hundred years. For Schlegel, Shakespeare is enabled “to act and speak in the name of every individual,” and he “gives us the history of minds”; for Coleridge Shakespeare’s characters “were at once true to nature, and fragments of the divine mind that drew them.” divinity, profundity, wisdom, character: the terms of admiration focus our attention on the rendering of character and the sublimity of thought.

The Romantic Shakespeare is especially identified with the figure of Hamlet. The painter Delacroix, though loudly contemptuous of the romantic school, fancied himself Hamlet; he would not “set his life at a pin’s fee” and judged the world to be “out of joint.” He painted his own portrait dressed in a black cape, with long flowing hair and somber looks; his vision of the play was conveyed in famous lithographs of Hamlet and Horatio; and he repeatedly bemoaned, in journals and letters, the insignificance of man. In Germany, philosophers were strongly drawn to Hamlet. Hegel and his school saw in the figure of Hamlet the principle of reflective thought, and read the play as demonstrating an optimistic synthesis of reflection with an antithetical principle of action. A very different philosophical view was that of the pessimist Schopenhauer, who saw Hamlet as forcefully recognizing the meaninglessness of life and sage-like in renouncing the will to live.

Few images of hold on the nineteenth-century imagination are as vivid as that of Hector Berlioz. Going beyond writers like Coleridge who had stressed Shakespeare’s divinity, his “omnipresent creativeness,” Berlioz let out all the stops:

Shakespeare! Thou art our father, thou who art in heaven, if any such place exists. God is stupid and atrocious in His infinite indifference, thou alone art the God who is kindly to the soul, of artists.

Berlioz wrote this passage while musing on his failed marriage to the actress Harriet Smithson, with whom he had fallen in love on seeing her play Juliet and Ophelia. His idealization of the woman could not survive his life with her; his idolization of Shakespeare could and did.

But what purposes did such idolization serve? The phenomenon has never been systematically studied, so we can only speculate. Perhaps by turning Shakespeare into a kindly deity and all-knowing seer, nineteenth-century artists and critics set up a model for their own role in society. Shakespeare’s accomplishment could justify the later artists’ ambitions, which were large indeed, embracing both spiritual and worldly knowledge. Perhaps, too, a cult of genius helped to justify the existence of the artist in an increasingly commercial world in which traditional structures of patronage were rapidly eroding.

One thing, however, is certain. In keeping with the unprecedented preoccupation with individuality in the nineteenth century, many people thought of Shakespeare as a source of universally valid images of self. To know oneself, one had to know Shakespeare. As Coleridge put it, “In the plays of Shakespeare every man sees himself,” or, better discovers himself:

“[Shakespeare] makes visible what we should not otherwise have seen” in ourselves. Similarly, the critic William Hazlitt claimed that Shakespeare “was all that others were, or that they could become . . . . He was like the genius [guiding spirit] of humanity, changing places with all of us at pleasure.” So literally did the nineteenth century take statements like these, its “mental science,” the forerunner of modern psychiatry, often resorted to clinical case studies of Shakespeare’s characters.

This process of taking one’s identity from Shakespeare was enhanced by the availability of anthologies of bits and pieces from the plays- -Beauties,” as they were called-that could be assembled as the reader liked. A Shakespeare made up of favorite passages could be infinitely individualized. In our own day, by contrast, we seem to value Shakespeare for restoring a lost sense of romantic collectivity. Witness not just Renaissance fairs and summer Shakespeare festivals, but also the popular films of Kenneth Branagh. This summer’s Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, symbolizes social life with a scene Shakespeare somehow left out: a spa-like romp in which attractive young men and women bathe, rub down, and dress (but only loosely).

As today’s program should illustrate, concert music participated strongly in the nineteenth-century imagination of Shakespeare. Composers, no less than philosophers and critics, sought ways to grasp human character in the sublime and universal, and the sublime and universal in human character.