How did a man of so little education come to write plays of such varied erudition? But it was not really erudition. In no field except psychology was it extensive or accurate. Shakespeare knew the Bible only so far as his boyhood studies might have opened it to him; his Biblical references are incidental and ordinary. His classical learning was casual, careless, and apparently confined to translations. He knew most of the pagan deities, even the lesser or looser ones, but this knowledge could have been from the English version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He made little errors that Bacon, for example, could never have made: called Theseus a duke, had Hector of the eleventh century B.C. refer to Aristotle of the third,19 and let a character in Coriolanus20 (fifth century B.C.) quote Cato (of the first).
He had little French and less Italian. He had some knowledge of geography, and gave his plays exotic locales from Scotland to Ephesus; but he gave Bohemia a seacoast,II and he sent Valentine by sea from Verona to Milan,23 and Prospero from Milan in an ocean-going vessel.24 He took much of his Roman history from Plutarch, of his English history from Holinshed and from earlier plays. He made historical faux-pas unimportant to a dramatist: put a clock in Caesar’s Rome, billiards in Cleopatra’s Egypt. He wroteKing John without mentioning Magna Charta, and Henry Vlll without bothering about the Reformation; again we see the past changing with each present. In outline the English historical plays are correct from our current view; in detail they are untrustworthy; in standpoint they are colored by patriotism—Joan of Arc, in Shakespeare, is merely a wanton witch. Nevertheless many Englishmen, like Marlborough, confessed that most of their knowledge of English history came from Shakespeare’s plays.
Like other Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare used many legal terms, sometimes improperly; he could have gleaned them in the Inns of Court—the law schools in which three of his plays were staged—or in the several lawsuits engaged in by his father or himself. He is rich in musical terms and was evidently sensitive to music—”Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?”25 He lovingly remembers the flowers of England, strings them on a rosary in The Winter’s Tale, and decks Ophelia with them in her delirium; he alludes to 180 different plants. He was acquainted with the sports of the field and the points of a horse. But he had little interest in science, which was soon to fascinate Bacon. Like Bacon, he retained the Ptolemaic astronomy.26 At times (Sonnet 15) he seems to accept astrology, and he speaks of Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed lovers”;27 but Edmund in Lear and Cassius in Julius Caesar vigorously reject it: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”28
All in all, the evidence indicates that Shakespeare had the incidental learning of a man of affairs too busy with acting, managing, and living to sink his head into books. He knew the more startling of Machiavelli’s ideas, he referred to Rabelais, he borrowed from Montaigne; but it is unlikely that he read their works. Gonzalo’s description of an ideal commonwealth29 is taken from Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals”; and Caliban, in the same play, may be Shakespeare’s satire on Montaigne’s idealization of the American Indians. Whether the skepticism of Hamlet owed anything to Montaigne’s genial doubts is an unsolved problem; the play was published in 1602, a year before the printing of Florio’s translation, but Shakespeare knew Florio and may have seen the manuscript. Montaigne’s subtle criticism of traditional ideas may have helped to deepen Shakespeare, but there is nothing in the Frenchman that corresponds to Hamlet’s soliloquy, or to the bitter indictment of life in Lear, Coriolanus, Timon, and Macbeth. Shakespeare is Shakespeare—pilfering plots, passages, phrases, lines anywhere, and yet the most original, distinctive, creative writer of all time.
The originality is in the language, the style, the imagination, the dramatic technique, the humor, the characters, and the philosophy. The language is the richest in all literature: fifteen thousand words, including the technical terms of heraldry, music, sports, and the professions, the dialects of the shires, the argot of the pavement, and a thousand hurried or lazy inventions—occulted, unkenneled, fumitory, burnet, spurring… He relished words and explored the nooks and crannies of the language; he loved words in general and poured them forth in frolicsome abandon; if he names a flower he must go on to name a dozen—the words themselves are fragrant. He makes simple characters mouth polysyllabic circumlocutions. He plays jolly havoc with the grammar: turns nouns, adjectives, even adverbs into verbs, and verbs, adjectives, even pronouns into nouns; gives a plural verb to a singular subject or a singular verb to a plural subject; but there were as yet no grammars of English usage, no rules. Shakespeare wrote in haste, and had no leisure to repent.
The marvelous style, “manneristic and baroque,”30 has the faults of its lawless wealth: phrases fancifully artificial or involved, farfetched images, word plays tiresomely elaborate; puns amid tragedy, metaphors falling over one another in contradictory confusion, repetitions innumerable, sententious platitudes, and, now and then, hilarious, nonsensical bombast filling the unlikeliest mouths. Doubtless a classical training would have chastened the style, silenced the doubles-entendres; but then consider what we should have lost. Perhaps he was thinking of himself when he made Ferdinand describe Adriano as a man
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;
One whom the music of his own vain tongue
Doth ravish like enchanting harmony …
But, I protest, I love to hear him lie …31
From this mint issued an almost universal currency of phrases: the winter of our discontent;32 piping time of peace;33 wish father to the thought;34 tell the truth and shame the devil;35 sits the wind in that corner?;36 uneasy lies the head that wears a crown;37 paint the lily;38 one touch of nature makes the whole world kin;39 what fools these mortals be!;40 the Devil can quote Scripture to his purpose;41 midsummer madness;42 the course of true love never did run smooth;43 wear my heart upon my sleeve;44 every inch a king;45to the manner born;46 brevity is the soul of wit47 … but this is a hint to stop. And of metaphors another thousand, of which one may serve—”to see the sails conceive and grow big-bellied with the wanton wind.”48 And entire passages now almost as familiar as the phrases: Ophelia’s disordered herbal of flowers, Antony over dead Caesar, Cleopatra dying, Lorenzo on the music of the spheres. And a whole repertoire of songs: “Who is Silvia?,”49 “Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings,”50 “Take, O take those lips away.”51Probably Shakespeare’s audience came for his plumage as well as for his tale.
“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact”;52 Shakespeare was two of these and may have touched the third. He creates a world with every play, and, not content, he fills imagined empires, woods, and heaths with childlike magic, scurrying fairies, awesome witches and ghosts. His imagination makes his style, which thinks in images, turns all ideas into pictures, all abstractions into things felt or seen. Who but Shakespeare (and Petrarch) would have made Romeo, exiled from Verona, fume with envy that its cats and dogs might gaze on Juliet and he be disallowed? Who else (but Blake) would have made the banished Duke, in As You Like It, regret that he must live by hunting beasts so often more beautiful than man? Little wonder that a spirit so keen in every sense should have reacted passionately against the ugliness, greed, cruelty, lust, pain, and grief that seemed at times to dominate the panorama of the world.
His originality is least in dramatic technique. As a man of the theater he knew the tricks of his trade. He began his plays with scenes or words calculated to jolt the attention of his nut-cracking, card-playing, ale-swilling, woman-ogling audience. He took full advantage of the abundant “properties” and machinery of the Elizabethan stage. He studied his fellow actors and created parts suitable to their physical and mental peculiarities. He used all the jugglery of disguises and recognitions, all the shifts of scenery and the complications of a play within a play. But in his craftsmanship he shows some scars of haste. Sometimes the plot within the plot tears the tale in two; what has Gloucester’s tragedy to do with Lear’s? Almost all the stories turn on improbable coincidences, concealed identities, highly opportune revelations; we may be reasonably asked to make believe, in drama as in opera, for the sake of the story or the song, but an artist should reduce to a minimum the “baseless fabric” of his dream. Less important are the inconsistencies of time or character;53 presumably Shakespeare, thinking of rapid production, not of careful publication, judged that these flaws would pass unnoticed by an excited audience. Classical norms and modern taste alike condemn the violence that often dyes Shakespeare’s stage; this was another concession to the pit, and an effort to meet the competition of the slaughterhouse school of Elizabethan-Jacobean dramatists.
As he developed, Shakespeare redeemed the violence with humor and learned the difficult art of intensifying tragedy with comic relief. The early comedies are wit and humor unrelieved, the early historical plays are stodgy for lack of humor; in Henry IV tragedy and comedy alternate but are not well integrated; in Hamlet the integration is achieved. Sometimes the humor seems too broad; Sophocles and Racine would have turned up their classical noses at the jokes about human flatulence54 or equine micturition.55 An erotic quip now and then is more to the modern taste. Generally, Shakespeare’s humor is good-natured, not the savage misanthropy of Swift; he felt that the world was better for a clown or two; he suffered fools patiently, and emulated God in seeing little difference between them and world-explaining philosophers.
His greatest clown rivals Hamlet as Shakespeare’s supreme achievement in the creation of character—which is the supreme test of a dramatist. Richard II and Richard III, Hotspur and Wolsey, Gaunt and Gloucester, Brutus and Antony rise out of the limbo of history into a second life. Not in Greek drama, not even in Balzac, are imagined persons so endowed with consistent character and vital force. Most real are those creations that only seem contradictory because of their complexity—Lear cruel and then tender, Hamlet thoughtful and impetuous, hesitant and brave. Sometimes the characters are too simple—Richard III merely villainy, Timon merely cynicism, lago merely hate. Some of the women in Shakespeare seem plucked from the same mold—Beatrice and Rosalind, Cordelia and Desdemona, Miranda and Hermione—and lose reality, and then at times a few words make them live; so Ophelia, told by Hamlet that he had never loved her, answers without recrimination, but with sad and moving simplicity, “I was the more deceived.” Observation, feeling, empathy, astonishing receptivity of senses, penetrating perception, alert selection of significant and characteristic detail, tenacious remembering, come together to people this living city of dead or imagined souls. Play after play these personae grow in reality, complexity, and depth, until, in Hamlet and Lear, the poet matures into a philosopher and his dramas become the glowing vehicles of thought.