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The way we were: Shakespeare: loved and loathed

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
March 24, 2016
The 23rd of April marks 400 years since William Shakespeare died.

In 1725, Alexander Pope writes: “It must be own’d that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other.”

In 1728, while in exile in London, Voltaire comments: “[Hamlet] is a rude and barbarous piece… Hamlet, his mother, and his stepfather drink together on the stage; they sing at table, they wrangle, they fight, they kill; one might suppose such a work to be the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But in the midst of all these rude irregularities, which to this day make the English theatre so absurd and so barbarous, there are to be found in Hamlet by a yet greater incongruity sublime strokes worthy of the loftiest geniuses. It seems as if nature had taken a delight in collecting within the brain of Shakespeare all that we can imagine of what is greatest...”

In 1765, Samuel Johnson, in his Preface to Shakespeare, writes: “He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently... for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better...”

In 1814, Jane Austen in Mansfield Park has Mr Crawford observe: “But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere... No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”

In 1867, Elizabeth Forsyth, discussing the sonnets in her book on Shakespeare, observes that: “[Shakespeare is] a sycophant, a flatterer, a breaker of marriage vows, a whining and inconsistent person.”

Charles Darwin confesses in his autobiography in 1876 that: “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found... that it nauseated me.”

In 1906, Leo Tolstoy publishes Tolstoy on Shakespeare in which he observes: “In Shakespeare everything is exaggerated… One sees at once that he does not believe in what he says… In all of [his works] one sees intentional artifice; one sees that he is not in earnest, but that he is playing with words.”

In the same year, George Bernard Shaw writes a letter to the publishers of Tolstoy’s book: “I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker... Unfortunately, the English, being bad analysts, worship their great artists indiscriminately...”

In the 1920s, AE Housman is recorded by JJ Thompson, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, as saying: “It gives me no pleasure to read a play of Shakespeare’s from beginning to end, for though some parts were magnificent, there were others so slovenly that the effect... was disagreeable.”

In 1932, when Robert Byron was in Russia, his guide insisted that Shakespeare’s plays could never have been written by a grocer. Byron replied: “They are exactly the sort of plays I would expect a grocer to write.” Ezra Pound writes in 1939: “Hunks of Shxpr bore me; I just can’t read ‘em. Despite me admiration fer other hunks.”

In the 1940s, Ludwig Wittgenstein observes in a notebook: “When I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare... I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention.”

In 1954, JRR Tolkien writes to Hugh Brogan deploring the elves in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I now deeply regret having used [the term] Elves [in The Lord of the Rings]... But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgivable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome.”

In 1986, Germaine Greer concludes her book on Shakespeare: “As long as Shakespeare remains central to English cultural life, it will retain the values which make it unique in the world, namely tolerance, pluralism, the talent for viable compromise and a profound commitment to that most wasteful form of social organisation, democracy. To an outsider such a lack of system may seem amorphous, disorganised, and even hypocritical, from within it is evident that such an inclusive mode can be no more inconsistent than life itself.”