The Shakespeare Boom?

“An age cannot respond deeply to a poet,” writes ALFRED HARBAGE, “unless it responds to what that poet stands for. He cannot flourish upon aesthetic and intellectual appeal alone.”Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and at Columbia, now teaching at Harvard, Dr. Harbage is troubled about the failure of our generation and of Americans especially to rediscover Shakespeare. Shakespeare does well among the Zulus, the Russians, the Czechoslovakians, the Uzbeks, but only a handful of Americans sit through a Shakespearean performance with true relish.



WE HAVE been hearing lately of a Shakespeare boom, and it is natural to wonder why. True the plays are being translated into Zulu and making a hit among the kraals. They are doing well in Turkestan, as newly rendered into Uzbek. Othello has appeared in forty-seven Russian theaters in the past two years, and five Shakespearean comedies have run simultaneously in the theaters of Prague. But in these same years there have been no productions on Broadway. What boom? Where?

We have “off-Broadway Shakespeare” — marked, like the vanguard quarterlies, with a very large spirit of experiment but a very small clientele. We hear of plans to film all thirty-seven plays in color, but the films already made are not risked in the “ neighborhood I. ” theaters. Radio and television are such voracious consumers of material that the wonder is not that they turn to Shakespeare, but that they do so so infrequently and with such an air of reckless temerity.

Our summer festivals are splendid, an honor to their sponsors and the brave pilgrims who seek them out, but it must be remembered that they have come into existence as a result of the almost total disappearance of Shakespeare from the regular stage, and their audience is microscopic. In 1955 the combined admissions at Stratford, Canada, Stratford, Connecticut, Ashland, Oregon, San Diego, California, Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, were 286,000. More admissions are necessary to make a single Broadway musical an authentic hit, or a single low-budget movie a merely minor failure; yet, to woo even this many, twenty-two Shakespearean plays were offered to the nation.

Perhaps the sensation of a boom is conveyed by the frequency with which we hear Shakespeare’s name, usually in connection with efforts to prove it fraudulent by X-raying spurious portraits or opening irrelevant tombs. This, alas, is no sign of vitality. Since quackery feeds upon ignorance and apathy, it is rather a sign of recession.

This is the topic I wish to discuss — the symptomatic character of the “authorship controversy,” and the standing of Shakespeare in the first half of the twentieth century as compared with his standing in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the stacks of any large university library will be found a whole section devoted to books and periodicals proving that Shakespeare was Bacon, Raleigh, Dyer, Rutland, Derby, Oxford, and so on endlessly. In the line of duty I have read more of this material than I like to recall, and I have noticed an interesting thing about it. The writers never say anything witty or wise about the plays themselves, whoever the supposed author. They often link together the commoner words of encomia, but they never achieve criticism, and it soon becomes evident that to their peculiar insight the plays are transparent as cryptograms or allegories but impenetrable as works of art.

Perhaps this is to be expected. These writers have never been persons of literary or scholarly attainment, but eccentrics of the most familiar type — pathetic victims of the idée fixe, or wealthy old gentlemen safely indulging a latent hunger to be “radical” about something. Only a few have had a lust for the limelight. More typical is the mild recluse, tirelessly assembling misinformation in a spirit of happy confusion. Their “block” (in respect to the plays as art) is significant only as it is reflected among their converts.

The most famous convert of the Baconian stage of the “controversy” was Mark Twain. He is often quoted as saying that the plays were not written by William Shakespeare but by another author of the same name, but he was actually a fanatic Baconian who in his later years became livid if Shakespeare was even mentioned. The germ of this obsession, one may guess from the purodic Shakespeare allusions in his works, was Mark Twain’s suspicion that the plays themselves were fake — like King Arthur’s court and the bulk of English culture and tradition.

One may put it this way: To claim the plays for another is often a childlike act of appropriation, almost like claiming them as one’s own; but to accept such a claim is often a childish act of hostility, resulting from their proving beyond the range of one’s understanding or sympathy. The most notable exception to this rule is presented by Sigmund Freud, who discussed several of the plays with appreciation and acumen, yet plumped for Oxford as the author before he died. I have no explanation unless it be the “credulity” which his biographer Ernest Jones lists as one of the three marks of his genius.

The discoverers of the “real Shakespeare” and their professed converts are few in comparison with the throngs of the uncommitted — the neutralists — and it is the mental processes of these that offer the most depressing food for thought. I rarely attend a social function without being asked to explain, in a few well-chosen words, who really did write the plays, with Shakespeare himself admitted as a possibility. The questioner is never a reader of the plays, yet is always elated by his question — as indicative of his concern for the higher things of life. It was once said, of the students studying Greek in an English public school, that they did not learn Greek but acquired a firm conviction that there was such a language. An equal accomplishment cannot be claimed for the millions of Americans who have “studied” Shakespeare in school and college. Little seems to have remained with most of them except his name. This exercises a fascination that is clearly recognized in journalistic circles.

The most recent of the anti-Shakespearean theories won notice in magazines as various as Coronet and Columbia, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. Its progress was reported in small local newspapers and in Life and Time. The exemplary New York Times deemed it news that was fit to print on no less than twelve occasions, once on the front page. I myself was nearly catapulted into fame when I violated a principle by writing a comment on the theory. In the following months I was asked to expand my remarks in a book (once), in magazine articles (twice), on television (twice), on radio (four times), and in lectures (nine times). In declining these golden offers, I several times suggested, experimentally, that I might supply a few remarks on the plays as literature. The proposal was met with the chill reception which its irrelevance deserved.

The general indifference to the writings of Shakespeare is often blamed, when admitted, upon the high school teachers — as if these writings were a dose that should be more skillfully administered. Actually there would be even fewer lovers of Shakespeare were he not required reading in the schools. To be loved a person must at least be met. There are, of course, true lovers of Shakespeare in America — an intransigent corps distinguished by lack of interest in the “authorship” controversy. For the habitual reader of his plays, Shakespeare is a reality, and the relevant facts have been remembered or learned.

But the well-informed seem to be an ineffectual minority. Many Americans can name the inspired amateur responsible for whatever new authorship theory is current, but few can name the greatest Shakespearean scholar of the twentieth century. This was Edmund K. Chambers. Since professors are accused of having a proprietory attitude toward the bard, a “vested interest,” I am glad to report that Chambers never held an academic post. He was a British civil servant who spent the spare hours of a long lifetime in analyzing and ordering the complex record of the Medieval and Renaissance stage, and of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. His paleological, linguistic, and critical equipment, as well as his unswerving intellectual honesty, was superb. When he died in January, 1954, he left behind a whole shelf of matchless reference works, but about this amateur not one of the journals I have mentioned published even an obituary note.


So MUCH for this melancholy business — I turn now to what it means. Shakespeare is a reality to only a small fraction of even the most literate sector of the American public for one very simple reason: a poet is a reality to a people only when he is clearing its vision, moving its heart, and shaping its dreams. Shakespeare was this kind of reality to both England and America in the early and middle nineteenth century. It is impossible to imagine what Scott, Coleridge, and Keats would have been without him. Their language reveals complete absorption of his idiom, their thought full acceptance of his values, and their fictions constant reflection of his images. They are the kind of storyteller, sage, and singer naturally produced in an age of Shakespearean devotion, and what is true of them is true of many of their English contemporaries.

Shakespeare was equally meaningful to America. That the Bible and Shakespeare reached the frontier along with the rifle and the ax is more than a pious fancy. His plays were the staple of our eastern theaters and were played more often than any others on the stagecoach circuits of the Rockies. A writer belongs to a people only if his works are known to a people, not to their leaders alone. On the Jersey cape where I spend my summers, old diaries record the activities of Shakespeare reading clubs in what was then an isolated community of farmers and fishermen. In claiming its cultural heritage, it was only being typical.

Often the minor writers of a period supply the easiest clue to its literary loyalties because in them “influences” are less disguised. Turn, for instance, to one of the popular tales of the eighteen-forties, W. Gilmore Simms’ “Those Old Lunes, or Which was the Madman?” It is about comical high jinks on the Mississippi border, such as might be treated now as a pulp “Western,” but its title is followed by a quotation from Hamlet, and its first two sentences lift two phrases from the play. When the narrator describes his twin sweethearts, “one or other of whom still usurped the place of a bright particular star in my most capacious fancy,” the style almost becomes blank verse. And observe: “still usurped” is Shakespearean for “always occupied,” “bright particular star” comes directly from All’s Well That Ends Well, and “most capacious fancy” is the distillation of a speech upon the imagination of lovers spoken by the Duke in Twelfth Night. There is so much Shakespeare that there is little Simms, yet nothing resembling plagiarism. The writer is simply using the language that he and his readers loved.

But, one may say, this absorption of the Shakespearean idiom is impossible among modern American writers because they no longer write like Simms — thank God! True enough; they no longer write like Simms, or like Keats either. The way they write may be better, but the point is that it is different, and different in a symptomatic way. To readers who have come to regard the style of Hemingway as the norm of emotional discourse, the rhythmic trope must seem unfunctional, and Shakespeare as well as Simms must seem distressingly “ flowery.”

We may agree that the old style was not only different from ours but often bad — especially among the nineteenth-century dramatists, who truly kept “Shakespearing too long” — and yet concede that it reflected love. The question is whether any age, specifically our own, can love what it disdains to imitate, either well or badly, and whether radically new ways of writing do not signal radically new ways of feeling.

On my desk is a publisher’s prospectus of a college anthology designed for courses in English literature. Instead of short selections by many authors, it offers long selections by a few of the “most representative.” The twentieth century is represented only by Shaw, Joyce, and Eliot. While I am dissatisfied with this choice, I am unable to suggest any “more representative.” The three authors represent, if not the best literature of the twentieth century, at least its best efforts to liquidate the literature of the nineteenth century — and, incidentally, the hold of Shakespeare.

There are Shakespearean reminiscences in all three, but not in the assimilated form of those in Scott, Coleridge, Keats, and their American contemporaries. They are now self-conscious and usually parodic. It has been found that Joyce knew little of Shakespeare at first hand, although he knew the commentary of Lee, Brandes, and Harris, who were scarcely the ideal guides. Shaw knew Shakespeare well, as, of course, does Eliot. Eliot admires Shakespeare but does not seem to like him very much. Joyce’s capacity for admiration and liking was fully exercised by the works of Joyce. Shaw liked Shakespeare, after his fashion, but was vociferous in his lack of admiration. Now it is commonly recognized that Shaw’s forte was less originality than impudence. He was a sturdy pioneer of wellblazed trails, with a genius for saying strikingly what others were secretly prepared to think.

I come now to the heart of the matter. An age cannot respond deeply to a poet, masterful though he be, unless it responds to what that poet stands for. He cannot flourish upon aesthetic and intellectual appeal alone. Readers may be able to understand his works and even appreciate them, yet still be unable to experience them. They can be experienced only if their ethical and emotional postulates are in large measure accepted. Indeed, mere acceptance is not enough; these postulates must be greeted with relish. The poet’s prestige is one thing, his true currency another, and the latter depends upon what may be called the currency of answering sentiments.

As a simple example, the lovely lines of Sonnet CXVI,

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come,

can be understood by any educated reader, and appreciated by any student of metrics and imagery, but they are most likely to be experienced by a generation that can sing, without embarrassment,

But my darling you will be, will be
Ever young and fair to me.

Call the song a weed and the sonnet a flower, still both flourish in the same soil and both will die in a soil that nourishes only cacti.


WHEN I mentioned a moment ago the Shakespearean images in nineteenth-century literature, I was not referring to imagery but to themes, situations, and characters. One finds, for instance, the “Cordelia image” — in Jeannie Deans, Little Nell, and a host of similar characters. One fails to find this image in contemporary literature, and the reason is obvious. What old Lear demands of his daughter is nothing to what Shakespeare demands of that daughter. Lear wants her to say she loves him; Shakespeare wants her really to love him — deeply, selflessly, compassionately. Such filial love is out of fashion, indeed is viewed as none too wholesome. Audiences cannot experience a play it they must try to sympathize with its heroine, try not to sympathize with her sisters — when everyone knows that an old man in the house is a nuisance, a demanding old man a pernicious nuisance.

The heirs of a poet’s sentiments, in any particular generation, are not necessarily the heirs of his blood and language. King Lear in Yiddish seems comical only to those who have not attended a performance. In this immigrant milieu where patriarchal traditions are remembered, and where family love and loyalty have held a hostile world at bay, the play regains its life. Real tears make it really beautiful. In contrast I recall a young lady whose ancestors “came out” to these colonies almost in Shakespeare’s own time, and who told me she could not report on the play because she found it primitive and disgusting. She was damask-cheeked and golden — indeed might have been well cast as Cordelia — but she spoke of the play with a hatred that left me really scared.

Works of art can be appreciated in parts, but cannot be experienced and loved in parts. Modern critics tend to speak of “levels of meaning” in Shakespeare — one message for the simple-minded conveyed by plot and characters, another for the intelligent conveyed by the imagistic underscoring. This criticism seems sometimes intent upon reshaping the plays to modern taste, and reminds one of post-primitive exegetics struggling with the Christian texts about rich men entering heaven. Any deduction that Shakespeare may seem to make from his central theme is seized upon as eagerly as “Render unto Caesar. . . .” Rut this won’t quite do. The central theme counts, not only the subtle deductions; and the plot and characters, not only the verbal technique. To love a literary artist, an age must love those elements in his work that can survive the hazards of translation.

A few years ago I attended the Birthday festivities in Stratford-upon-Avon. Several hundred foreign nations were represented in the diplomatic corps that pays yearly tribute at Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church. Ambassador Malik, in proffering his huge wreath, proudly informed the Lady Mayor that one million copies of Shakespeare’s works had sold in his nation the preceding year. This may have been a round Soviet number; still, the current devotion to Shakespeare among Russian readers and playgoers is a proved and amazing fact. Perhaps it is explained by what several of our correspondents have called the “ Victorian” quality of the artistic sensibility among the Russian rank and file; perhaps these are naive enough to take Shakespeare upon “ a primary level.”

I mentioned earlier the Shakespeare boom in Prague. It is thus explained by Otakar Vočcadlo: “ He is on the side of moral laws. . . . These plays teach us to accept without despair and rebellion the temporary triumph of evil. They strengthen our faith in the ultimate victory of eternal values.”

The words echo strangely the praises of Shakespeare by the great liberal of nineteenth-century Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini — “be my tomb thy steppingstone.” I mentioned also the boom in Zululand. It is explained thus by a South African correspondent: “The plays were performed by a specially trained cast of over thirty players, including teachers, students, clerks and social workers; and they claim that the folklore of their people abounds in the moral virtues of courage and loyalty, and some of the evils that are depicted in Shakespeare’s plays.” These are quaint ways of looking at art, but they are auspicious ways. Shakespeare should continue to do well among the Zulus — an honest, generous, and noble race.


BUT what of our own society and this matter of moral laws? What if Shakespeare’s virtues are not our virtues, his evils not our evils, except in some transvaluated and abstract sense? The trouble is that dramatic poetry is not abstract. In Shakespeare, men sometimes express the wish to die when their liege lords, friends, or masters die, as in the case of Falconbridge, Horatio, Kent, and Eros. What are our audiences to make of this? Must they predicate some sinister sexual attachment ? What of Shakespeare’s whole treatment of sex? his consistent and passionate endorsement of chastity? Chastity in his society was admired even by those who failed to practice it; in ours the reverse seems true, with the possible result that purity has become less gratifying and impurity less exhilarating.

What of Shakespeare’s conception of personal and family honor? Hamlet’s emotion, says Mr. Eliot, is “inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” As they appear, that is, to the more subtle of twentieth-century minds: since the o’er-hasty marriage of one’s mother to the murderer of one’s father is a mere trifle, Hamlet’s emotion must be Oedipal. What of Shakespeare’s whole basic emphasis upon human dignity, upon order and degree, upon obligation to others rather than “living one’s own life”? It is not modish.

I am not implying that our society is morally inferior to that of the sixteenth or nineteenth century — I do not believe it is — but only that it lacks the kind of moral enthusiasm that Shakespeare’s kind of drama assumes. Courage, loyalty, and patriotism, like the seven cardinal virtues, may be viewed as very estimable, yet something of a bore. So also may heroic action and romantic love, at least among the more literate sectors. Those retaining a taste for such things, and for “conventional” morality, are unable or unwilling to take them on Shakespeare’s complex terms, and seek them in radio, television, and films. Fortunately for our society, they are there to be found.

Whether my explanation is valid or no, there is little evidence abroad of a general familiarity with Shakespeare’s life and works. Recently I conferred with two directors of a national cultural program, a man and a woman, both highly intelligent and both graduates of a famous university where they had “studied” Shakespeare. Presently came the inevitable question: “Of course I am not a Baconian, or anything like that, but how do we know that the Shakespeare of uncouth, illiterate St rat ford was the Shakespeare who wrote the plays?” I pointed out that the last will and testament signed on each page by this Shakespeare of Stratford leaves bequests to John Hemming and Henry Condell, his fellow actors, who in turn signed the dedication to his collected plays; and that the prefatory matter to this collection mentions Shakespeare’s “Stratford monument.” Already erected within seven years of his death, this monument may still be seen, and with even a “little Latin" its uncouth, illiterate inscription may still bo translated “In judgment a Nestor, in intellect a Socrates, in art a Vergil: The earth covers him, the people mourn him, Olympus has him.”They looked at me roundeyed, as if this were the kind of thing only a deep scholar would know. When the conversation turned to the plays themselves, both confessed their “ignorance,” and I regret to report that it was the mot juste. The average French clerk knowing as little of the works of Moliere, or the average German postman as little of those of Goethe, would have felt disgraced.

This is not the first time that Shakespeare has passed through a wintry season, or one that seems so to an unreconstructed romantic like myself. At the turn of the seventeenth century an old-fashioned playgoer at Drury Lane recorded his distress that the audience chatted of “indifferent matters” while Desdemona lay dying. The plays survived, indeed bloomed more vigorously for having lain in fallow ground for a while. There is no ethical obligation for our age to be interested in Shakespeare. But there is an ethical obligation to acknowledge the lack of interest.

We shall know that a boom has arrived when Shakespeare’s plays are more frequently and faithfully performed — performed as they are, and not dressed up and altered in emphasis as a sop to modern taste. This means that the potential audience will have grown much larger and more exacting than it now is; it will be comparable to the audience that makes possible our many line symphony orchestras. We shall know that a boom has arrived when people cease gossiping about the author and start talking about his plays, comparing their favorite passages as was once the amiable custom.

The most hopeful sign I see is among university undergraduates. These are more interested in Shakespeare than in my day. It is not only that larger numbers are enrolling in Shakespeare courses, but that they seem slightly more tolerant of romantic, heroic, and moral sentiment. A few years ago they quickened to attention only if one discussed the density of the feral imagery in Lear, II. the aptness of the ithyphallic trimeters in Macbeth, I, iii, the deft use of amphibology in Othello, III, i, and similar weighty matters. In a technological age these seemed decently technological. Now the students will occasionally settle for a concord of sweet sounds and an eternal verity. Or perhaps I am only dreaming.

1 am not dreaming when I say that the students at the university where I teach produced last year five Shakespearean plays on their own initiative, and their fellow students paid money to see them. In my own undergraduate days, campus dramatics were limited almost exclusively to the delicious drollery of the hairy-legged chorus and, among the eggheads, experiments with the German expressionists. One splinter organization, of which I was a member, did play Shakespeare, but this was considered affected, and there were no undergraduates in our audience. In fact our audience, as I recall, consisted solely of relatives of the east. It is different now, and the revival may be coming after all. It will augur well for Shakespeare when the young in years become again the young in heart.