[My response to the 15th Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ based on a cue from a reader answers a series of questions on the subject of literature sent me by Mara Eastern, whose blog https://maraeastern.com/ I heartily recommend.]
Mara asked me “What makes good literature?” “What do you look for in a book?”
These are very hard questions to answer. My first instinct was to re-post the manifesto section from my recent posts on Dogme poetry, but that seemed not only lazy and disrespectful, but also not to answer the question, in so far as manifestoes, my own included, are generally mock-pompous tongue-in-cheek affairs that do not really recommend that writers confine themselves to the ‘rules’ presented or necessarily reflect what the writers of the manifesto actually enjoy reading. The idea is more to draw up loose guidelines for ongoing development of an idealistic future aesthetic project.
“What makes good literature?” Let’s turn that question round and ask “What makes literature good?” And, to make my task a little easier, let’s make it more specific and take an obvious example. “What makes Shakespeare good?”
Few nowadays would argue that Shakespeare is not good, although there is some disagreement as to the relative merits of the various poems and plays. Titus Andronicus isn’t really very good, despite some recent efforts to pretend it is. Hamlet isn’t quite as good as people make out. Coriolanus is underrated. And so forth and so forth. But generally, Shakespeare has nowadays acquired a canonical status whereby no-one seriously questions whether the work as a whole has literary merit per se.
This, however, was not always the case. It was not the case for Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries, for example. During Shakespeare’s own life time, the plays were considered throwaway items (like some classic 1960s TV shows that were aired and then promptly binned). They were considered popular entertainment of no lasting value.
It is only by accident that Shakespeare’s plays ended up being written down and preserved for posterity. Two members of his loyal troop of players, who remembered the memorable lines they had memorized, thought them worth putting down in writing and publishing in the first folio. Shakespeare himself only formally published his sonnets. Poetry was regarded as a much more prestigious and politically influential (if not economically lucrative) art form than the popular theater of the time.
Furthermore, even by the standards of the lowly genre of theater, Shakespeare’s works were not regarded as especially polished or fine examples of the art. The way he wrote was considered vulgar and populist and his blatant disregard for the unities (of time and place and theme) of classical drama was widely criticized and compared unflatteringly to the polished niceties of the French and Spanish classical dramatists and the English writers who imitated them.
Even in the 18th century, Shakespeare was regarded with a certain suspicion (over-emotional, vulgar, messy) by writers schooled in a newfangled fussy elitist rationalist neo-classicism shot through with ironic erudition, good manners and bons mots.
The consolidation of Shakespeare as, at first a national and then an international icon, occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries and for very different reasons.
In the 19th century, romantic poets and thinkers began to value emotions over reason, and they came to realize that Shakespeare was much better at expressing these than many of his contemporaries and literary descendants. However, 19th century romantics tended to view Shakespeare through a patina of contemporary sentimentality, giving rise to some absurdities such as re-writing King Lear with a ‘happy-family ending’, on the grounds that Shakespeare was such a sensitive soul that he couldn’t possibly have intended the play to end the way it does. Some gnarled cynical interloper must have adulterated the final scenes!
Interestingly I recently met someone who has only ever seen the first half of King Lear. She asked me how it ended. I mischievously asked her back how she thought it ended. And she replied by outlining exactly the kind of Romantic resolution that sentimental Victorians would have preferred.
Sentimentality thus, albeit somewhat misguidedly, played a role in the rehabilitation of Shakespeare’s status as a dramatist. The Victorians, however, also had another much less noble reason for recasting the bard as the canonical national English poet.
Much of Shakespeare’s work contained, on some level at least, a strain of heavy propaganda in favor of the 16th century Tudor regimes, in particular the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His lengthy series of history plays, named after Medieval kings, present a landscape of unremitting political chaos that preceded the imposition of noble order by Henry Tudor and his heirs.
Victorian readers, their minds full of sentimentalism and national pride, at a time when England ruled the waves, saw in this ample scope for recycling Shakespeare’s Elizabethan propaganda for the Victorian age. This approach persisted well into the 20th century. Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V is an overt celebration of Britain’s ‘victory’ in the Second World War and the ushering in of a new Elizabethan age. This was one of the first films I was ever made to watch. The school took us to the cinema to see it. We must have been around four years old. It was a double billing with footage of the coronation ceremony. And very boring to an infant mind.
The 19th century romantic sentimentalist and British imperialist rehabilitation of Shakespeare thus established him as a (if not the) canonical poet and dramatist, but did so in a way that was distorted by contemporary sentimentalities and imperialistic interests that in fact often clash quite sharply with the words Shakespeare actually wrote.
The important thing however was that Shakespeare was now taken seriously. Previously, he had been criticized for being sloppy and lightweight. Now his work was being recognized as possessing considerable (if not unfathomable) political insight and emotional depth.
The 20th century would proceed to look at Shakespeare more ‘scientifically’, while projecting its own anxieties back onto his work.
This was partly just chance. The world that Shakespeare lived in was more similar to that of the 20th century than that of the 19th. Elizabeth I was not a figurehead perched on top of a firmly-established empire the way Queen Victoria was. She had fought for her right to rule by tooth and claw and done so using a unique combination of traditional political violence and manipulation, exotic newfangled propaganda, and feminine wiles. Despite these extensive efforts, however, she was still highly insecure in her position as supreme monarch, and was as paranoid and prone to lash out at rivals as ever Stalin was.
The political turmoil of the 20th century turned out to reveal the true depth of Shakespeare’s political insight. Richard III ceases to be a pantomime villain and comes to constitute a psychological portrait of tyranny. Hamlet, Richard II and the various parts of Henry VI come to be moral tales on the subject of weak leadership and appeasement. Power in Shakespeare is always precarious.
The mass anxiety that would result from the mass destruction of World Wars and technological and political change in the 20th century also worked in Shakespeare’s favor. Again this reflects the way things were in Shakespeare’s age. People in Shakespeare’s day were extremely perturbed by the shift from a Catholic to a Protestant view of the world and the rise of a largely mystical kind of Renaissance science akin to witchcraft, just as people were unsettled by the growing secularism and democracy and technological advances of the early 20th century that would culminate in the invention and use of the atomic bomb.
A third prong in Shakespeare’s latter-day 20th century apotheosis was literary modernism. Modernism aimed not only to incorporate modern technological advances into literature, but also to rehabilitate the vernacular voice and to encourage linguistic experimentation. Shakespeare, far less self-consciously and much more organically, had already outdone the modernists on all three counts, three hundred years earlier, with an aplomb that had not been duly recognized at the time.
The fourth aspect of Shakespeare that made him a major if not the major poet of the 20th century was the way that he writes for, about and from the point of view of female characters. This too stemmed, for Shakespeare, out of political necessity. The absolute monarch of the time was a woman and, unlike previous queens, she refused to depend in any way on the support of a man, to the point of declaring herself a life-long virgin.
We have grown used to queens and female leaders over time, but it is still hard to imagine quite how radical a move this was and still is. Margaret Thatcher had Denis prodding her constantly ideologically from behind the scenes and providing considerable financial support, Queen Victoria ceded her will to her consort and, after his death, to a series of prime ministers and special advisors. Queen Elizabeth II is neatly folded into a comfortable family history of father, husband and sons and eschews political engagement. The Virgin Queen was an active absolutist monarch and operated largely on her own volition, in a much more volatile age amidst much more dangerous hostile forces. No wonder she is still feted today in print and film.
Shakespeare reflects this by giving female characters a much more powerful voice than they had hitherto been accorded in literature and these powerful women are not necessarily regarded as harridans or she-wolves. This theme appears more in Shakespeare’s comedies and melodramas than in the tragedies and historical plays. Although finally cowed, Kate puts up a good fight in The Taming of the Shrew but Shakespeare’s best female part without a doubt is Rosalind in As you Like it.
As you Like it contains layer upon layer of irony like no other in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, in which irony is the perhaps the principal virtue. The title itself is an irony, proclaiming (ironically) that the famed dramatist is finally going to write a romantic pastoral comedy in the simplistic manner that the people like, with a huffy emphasis on the ‘you’. In fact, he proceeds to produce a comedy of manners like nothing anyone has ever seen before or since and, of course, the audience loves it. It is a master-class in how to manipulate popular entertainment for subversive ends.
As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play in which the central protagonist is a woman. Even so, Rosalind (like Queen Elizabeth facing the Spanish Armada) has, at one point, to appear pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman in order to effect her ultimately benign denouement.
All ends well in As you Like It but Shakespeare concludes the play not only with the happy multiple nuptials the audience expects, but also with an epilogue in which the young male actor playing Rosalind (women were not allowed to appear on the stage at the time) tears off his female garb and, as frankly as was possible at the time, dares the male members of the audience to deny that they have homoerotic feelings towards him. This is an extraordinary turnaround in a play that explicitly sets out from the beginning to appeal to populist tastes against the better judgment of the playwright.
The passage is worth citing in full:
It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs no bush, ’tis true that a good play needs no epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes, and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play! I am not furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not become me: my way is to conjure you; and I’ll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women — as I perceive by your simpering, none of you hates them — that between you and the women the play may please. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
Rosalind, the central character, with whom it is impossible for the audience not to fall in love, sketches out here a whole new wholly female (or, at least, ‘non-male’) way of doing sexual and other kinds of politics. From a 21st century viewpoint, the play is still very much fresh and alive.
Back when I was in school, way back in the last century, a rather pretentious young English teacher told us that ‘every century has its favorite Shakespeare play’. The 18th century preferred the Scottish Play, the 19th century Lear, the 20th century age of anxiety opted overwhelmingly for Hamlet. He argued that the play of the 21st century would be Troilus and Cressida. Now I am sort of grown up and equally pretentious and we are actually in the 21st century, I would tend to agree with the general thrust of his thesis. But I would disagree about the identity of the 21st century play. For me, it is As You Like It. I would love to see a post-Trump version that plays on the ironic populist intentions of the title.
I am deviating widely and wildly from my original remit of writing a short text about “What makes great literature?” which I have recast in the form of “What makes literature great?”
In some ways I am glad I have, since I have been wanting to write about Shakespeare on this blog for some time but rather daunted by the task.
To go back to the original question, I think you have to see it from both sides. “What makes great literature?” In hindsight, this seems obvious so far as Shakespeare is concerned: his vibrant use of vernacular and novel language that appeals to the intelligentsia and the masses alike; the emotional depth of his essentially politically motivated characters; his invention of ‘sexual politics’; his willingness to break with fussy preconceived artistic norms; a surrounding socio-political climate of anxiety, hope, oppression and radical change.
All of that is there, objectively, in Shakespeare. And yet it took at least three hundred years before that depth of perspective was really brought out by readings and performances and history. These inherent qualities made Shakespeare great, but they could only be truly appreciated after the passage of a considerable chunk of time. His work could all too easily have all been lost. And had it all been lost, would we now feel the same about Webster or Jonson or Marlowe? I think not.
There is something truly great and profound about Shakespeare’s work. It was preserved by accident and, by accident, has chimed with the sentiments and eventualities of the various historical epochs that have ensued. Like all true greatness, and like the greatness of the political leaders Shakespeare most admired, it is great (not by entitlement, accolade or force of arms) but by, in Shakespeare’s own words, having greatness accidently ‘thrust upon it.”
This, in my view, is what makes great literature and what makes literature great.
History always has the last word.