In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), Erich Auerbach took up the case of Shakespeare in his chapter “The Weary Prince.” The chapter begins with a bit of the prose dialogue between the Prince and Poins that introduces act 2, scene 2 of Henry IV Part 2, but unlike the ample texts for explication that head up most chapters in Mimesis, this passage is cut short. Auerbach has a problem with Shakespeare’s realism. He admires the achievement of the history plays, and he rightly addresses their mixture of high and low styles—blank verse for the noble personages and prose for common folk—and the alternation of serious and comic scenes. Yet Shakespeare’s “conception of the sublime and tragic is altogether aristocratic,” according to Auerbach ([Princeton University Press], 315). Subsequently, “Protestantism and the Counter Reformation, absolutistic ordering of society and intellectual life, academic and puristic imitation of antiquity, rationalism and scientific empiricism, all operated together to prevent Shakespeare’s freedom in the tragic from continuing to develop after him” (324). Auerbach instances a couple of plays by Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca as “more decidedly popular, more filled with the life of the people, than English realism of the same period” (331). In Auerbach’s view, modern European realism took off from the Romantic movement and required a more uniform treatment of unprivileged ordinary people’s lives.
Except for remarking that Walter Scott helped inspire Honoré de Balzac’s historicism, Auerbach has not a word to say about the major novelists treated in this book. The omission of Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy from Mimesis is forgivable, since his specialty was romance literature. The deeper reason, I suggest, is that Auerbach does not engage with the pronounced mixture of styles that these British novelists borrow from Shakespeare’s drama. Why, for example, does Shakespeare introduce, in act 2 scene 1 of Henry IV Part 1, two carriers and a servant at the inn where they are briefly putting up? The playwright counts on his audience to infer, from the plaints and lingo of these low but productive members of society, following upon the iambic pentameter lines of the nobility about impending civil war in the immediately preceding scenes, that this indeed is the history of England, inhabited by still other ranks and occupations besides those now economically presented on stage. And thereby the audience connects with the irony that most of England is oblivious to the gathering political storm.
The authors of the present book—Nicola J. Watson on Scott, Adrian Poole and Rebekah Scott on Dickens, John Rignall on George Eliot, Peter Holbrook on Hardy—do not sufficiently reckon with the persistent mixture of high and low styles in British as distinct from European realism. Since neither does Auerbach, they may be forgiven too, yet this may have been Shakespeare’s most renewable gift to the British. Scott was clearly the leader here: as Watson notes, the “Author of Waverley” was a close student of Shakespeare’s historicism and in turn helped create the burgeoning awareness of history in Europe and America as well as Britain. Shakespeare was not his only inspiration, to be sure. One of Scott’s earliest publications was a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (1773). Scott not only read Shakespeare but also worked on a wide range of dramas past. In his Waverley novels the mixture of styles [End Page 321] became a mixture of standard English and Scottish dialect, with formal English spoken by nobility and landed gentlefolk, and dialect by servants and the lower orders.
As with Shakespeare’s lower orders, Scott’s are mischievous, capable of bending the law to their will at times, and inadvertently funny. The juxtaposition of the two ranks and voices tells mostly against the higher, who are the fictitious principals of the plot in hand along with its historical personages. The wit and clowning tend to be subversive...