Matchless Shakespeare


A long essay in the current issue of National Affairs is devoted to a truth which is known in every corner of the world. But it is also a truth which we need, lest we forget, to keep being reminded of. It is the truth of the extraordinary wisdom and beauty of the inheritance of William Shakespeare.

The focus of the essay is the place of Shakespeare in the cultural life of America, where even in this age he continues to be the most performed playwright in the United States. We talk about film franchises and marvel at the success of Bond and Bourne and others. No franchise matches the volume of Shakespeare’s on celluloid.

But his dominance on the American continent an the film world has really nothing to do with America. His dominance comes from within the universal relevance of his work, it’s wisdom, it’s humanity an it’s beauty. His appeal, the author, Algis Valiunas, points out, has a global extension, and it has long been so.

Sublimity has ever called to sublimity. The great modern nations boast great writers who depict and define the national life and character: Victor Hugo for the French, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for the Germans, Leo Tolstoy the Russians, Herman Melville and Mark Twain the Americans, and Shakespeare the English. Of course their greatness is hardly confined to their parochial impact: They are masters for all time and every place. And even among these titans an order of rank is observed, as a true aristocracy requires, and it is Shakespeare who ranks supreme

With the exception of Tolstoy, who ripped into Shakespeare with unhinged vehemence as a windbag and nihilist moral trifler, all these masters recognized Shakespeare’s superiority. Hugo composed a 400-page eulogy to Shakespeare as the proto-Romantic, which is to say a worthy precursor to the arch-Romantic Hugo himself. Shakespeare’s work, he pronounced, is “absolute, sovereign, imperious, eminently solitary, unneighborly, sublime in radiance, absurd in reflection, and must remain without a copy.” Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, besotted with the idea of a life in the theater, would talk about Shakespeare for days, and, in the role of Hamlet with a fly-by-night dramatic troupe, he believed the elder Hamlet’s ghost to be his own father back from the dead. Goethe told his chronicler of after-dinner conversation, Johann Peter Eckermann, that if he had been born an Englishman the incomparable majesty of Shakespeare looming over his every youthful thought would have left him unable to write a word. And whenever some know-nothing cast aspersions on Shakespeare’s characters, Goethe let him have it with both barrels: “But I cry: Nature! Nature! Nothing is so like Nature as Shakespeare’s figures.”

The full text of this very interesting essay is here.

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