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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
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Sean McCann
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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Studied and Moderate Statements About Shakespeare

Posted by John Holbo on 09/24/06 at 10:19 AM

I’m getting into this George Bernard Shaw stuff - Dramatic Opinions and Essays, vol. 2 (1907). I came for the Troilus and Cressida commentary but stayed for the ‘shiv a genius then bark like a surgeon, nurse, we’re losing blood here‘ schtick:

There are moments when one asks despairingly why our stage should ever have been cursed with this “immortal” pilferer of other men’s stories and ideas, with his monstrous rhetorical fustian, his unbearable platitudes, his pretentious reduction of the subtlest problems of life to commonplaces against which a Polytechnic debating club would revot, his incredible unsuggestiveness, his sententious combination of ready reflection with complete intellectual sterility, and his consequent incapacity for getting out of the depth of even the most ignorant audience, except when he solemnly says something so transcendently platitudinous that his more humble-minded hearers cannot bring themselves to believe that so great a man really meant to talk like their grandmothers. With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how inaccessible his and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity. To read “Cymbeline” [a performance of which is the occasion for these ventilations] and to think of Goethe, of Wagner, of Ibsen, is, for me, to imperil the habit of studied moderation of statement which years of public responsibility as a journalist have made almost second nature in me.

But I am bound to add that I pity the man who cannot enjoy Shakspeare ... ("Blaming the Bard”, p. 52-3)

Who is conceded a way with words. And we’re off.


Comments

"when I measure my mind against his”: that’s a hot spot. But even after setting envy & all that aside, what’s w/the obsession w/the author’s mind?

I know it’s a popular way to read, & I’m in a minority (the Unregenerate Modernist Impersonalists), but I’ve never understood the reduction of the book to a mind. & if I were interested in minds, why would I go to a playwright/novelist/poet & not a philosopher? Does Shaw hold the slightest candle to the mental wattage of Kant?

I know, I know, it’s silly to turn it all into Battle of the Great Books Stars. --Next up, Emily Dickinson and Anaxagoras solve quadratic equations!--But he (Shaw) started it!

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/25/06 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm.  Shaw is, you know, joking?  Meant to be, you know, funny?  (Is funny, I’d say).  No?

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/06 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, Adam, he’s joking. There’s probably some gawdawful Latin rhetorical term (or terms) for what he’s doing, but he’s doing it—whatever it is—indirectly.

Come to think of it, in African-American culture there’s this usage where “bad” means “really really good.” It’s a verbal usage, with the tip-off in the pronunciation, the ‘a’ is drawn out at bit—baaad—and there’s a little up-down inflection on it. In this usage a stylish braggart might say “on a bad day I’m good, and on a good day I’m baaaad!” I think Shaw may be doing something a bit like that, though highly elaborated.

<SMALL>damn literalists!</SMALL>

By Bill Benzon on 09/25/06 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please clarify: did I fail to catch the joke, or John, or both of us? (I’m more than willing to believe it’s me. I am painfully literal-minded.)

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/25/06 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Shaw is only half joking, actually. He really does think Shakespeare has horrible faults.

By John Holbo on 09/25/06 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And let me say that I think he’s fully 75% serious about the mind-measuring business.

By John Holbo on 09/25/06 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the contrary, despite only having read the section of his essay that you posted online, I got the impression that he was being rather serious and that his final declaration was one of self-pity. Like the man who refuses to read novels but nonetheless acknowledges that he is missing out on something by not being able to enjoy them.

By Simon Holloway on 09/26/06 at 05:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Incidentally, what’s with the defective spelling of Shakespeare’s name in the final line? Is that a typo, or was Shaw digging at the manner in which the Bard himself appears to have spelled it several times?

By Simon Holloway on 09/26/06 at 05:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’Shakspeare’ was common in late Victorian England as a spelling; it is how Shakespeare spelt it, after all (the middle ‘e’ there was inserted only in printed texts, and only because the piece of type with a k (long tail on the lower right-hand stroke) and piece with a long ‘s’ (’f’) couldn’t be set together without bending the type.  What I don’t know is when that supposedly ‘authentic’ spelling fell from favour.

By Adam Roberts on 09/26/06 at 07:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm, this is getting interesting. I left my copy at school today. Tomorrow I’ll report back to you all a bit more about where Shaw actually takes this outrage against the bard. Also, my typing leaving something to be desired. I think - although Adam is absolutely right about Shakspeare - that Shaw uses the ‘e’ and it was only my middle finger that someone failed to report to that effect.

By John Holbo on 09/26/06 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

SomeHOW. somehow failed to report.

By John Holbo on 09/26/06 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I have a small question. Do we know how the authentic spelling was pronounced? Was that first “a” long or short? Mis-spelling his name throughout history would be one thing, but mis-pronouncing something else.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/26/06 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, it would.

OTOH, all his plays are divided into 5 acts, but not by him. It was done by editors who wanted to conceive his dramaturgy on classical models. We don’t bat an eyelash at this bit of fiddling.

By Bill Benzon on 09/26/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

When Browning’s friend F J Furnivall founded his ‘New Shakspere Society’ in 1873, people commented on the modish new spelling; but F. was in the right.  (He and the society got into a big row with Swinburne, but not over the name).  It was how Shakey wrote his own name, certainly, as you can see from this illustration (the middle and bottom ones are clearest).  On the matter of pronunciation; my understanding is that it would have been with a relatively short ‘a’.  The first syllable did mean ‘shake’, as it does today (as when Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit slags him off as somebody who considered himself the only shakes-scene in the country), but ‘shake’ was pronounced with a more rustic accent than today’s RP; somewhere between the ‘a’ of ‘shack’ and the ‘aey’ of ‘shake’.

I’d be surprised if Shaw, who loved unconventional spellings and ended up inventing a whole new phonetic alphabet (or paying for the invention of one) spelled Shakespeare in the conventional way.

By Adam Roberts on 09/26/06 at 11:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gosh. Shaw said that Shakespeare was unbearably pretentious and platitudinous? What else did he say - “Also, Shakespeare’s beard is too big”?

By on 09/26/06 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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