Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca
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[ 245 Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca1† The last few years have witnessed a number of recrudescences of Shakespeare . There is the fatigued Shakespeare, a retired Anglo-Indian, presented by Mr. Lytton Strachey;2 there is the messianic Shakespeare, bringing a new philosophy and a new system of yoga, presented by Mr. Middleton Murry;3 and there is the ferocious Shakespeare, a furious Samson, presented by Mr. Wyndham Lewis in his recent and most interesting book, The Lion and the Fox.4 On the whole, we may all agree that these manifestations are beneficial .Inanycase,soimportantasthatofShakespeare,itisgoodthatweshould from time to time change our minds. The last conventional Shakespeare is banished from the scene, and a variety of unconventional Shakespeares take his place. About anyone so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong. Whether Truth ultimately prevails is doubtful and has never been proved; but it is certain that nothing ismoreeffectiveindrivingouterrorthananewerror.WhetherMr.Strachey, or Mr. Murry, or Mr. Lewis, is any nearer to the truth of Shakespeare than Rymer, or Morgann, or Webster, or Johnson, is uncertain; they are all certainly more sympathetic in this year 1927 than Coleridge, or Swinburne, or Dowden.5 If they do not give us the real Shakespeare – if there is one – they at least give us several up-to-date Shakespeares. If the only way to prove that Shakespeare did not feel and think exactly as people felt and thought in 1815, or in 1860, or in 1880, is to show that he felt and thought as we feel and think in 1927, then we must accept gratefully that alternative. But these recent interpreters of Shakespeare suggest a number of reflections on literary criticism and its limits, on general aesthetics, and on the limitations of the human understanding. There are, of course, a number of other current interpretations of Shake­ speare: that is, of the conscious opinions of Shakespeare: interpretations of category, so to speak: which make him either a Tory journalist or a Liberal journalist, or a Socialist journalist (though Mr. Shaw has done something to warn off his co-religionists from claiming Shakespeare, or from finding anything uplifting in his work);6 we have also a Protestant Shakespeare, and a sceptical Shakespeare, and some case has been made out for an 1927 246 ] Anglo-Catholic, or even a Papist Shakespeare. My own frivolous opinion is that Shakespeare may have held in private life very different views from what we extract from his extremely various published works; that there is no clue in his writings to the way in which he would have voted in the last or would vote in the next election; and that we are completely in the dark as to his attitude about prayer-book revision.7 I admit that my own experience , as a minor poet, may have jaundiced my outlook; that I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance; and to being informed that something which I meant seriously is vers de société; and to having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got out of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience; so that in consequence I am inclined to believe that people are mistaken about Shakespeare just in proportion to the relative superiority of Shakespeare to myself. One more personal “note”: I believe that I have as high an estimate of the greatness of Shakespeare as poet and dramatist as anyone living; I certainly believe that there is nothing greater. And I would say that my only qualification for venturing to talk about him is, that I am not under the delusion that Shakespeare in the least resembles myself, either as I am or as I should like to imagine myself. It seems to me that one of the chief reasons for questioning Mr. Strachey’s Shakespeare, and Mr. Murry’s, and Mr. Lewis’s, is the remarkable resemblance which they bear to Mr. Strachey, and Mr. Murry, and Mr. Lewis respectively.8 I have not a very clear idea of what Shake­speare was like. But I do not conceive him as very like either Mr. Strachey, or...