- Bernard Shaw as Shakespeare Critic
“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. . . . To read Cymbeline and to think of Goethe, of Wagner, of Ibsen, is, for me, to imperil the habit of studied moderation of statement which years of public responsibility as a journalist have made almost second nature in me.” 1 Bernard Shaw is so famous for his flippant denunciations of Shakespeare that it might seem perverse to ask Shakespeare scholars to take him seriously as a critic of his perennial target, but I propose to do exactly that and indeed to defend him as one of the most important Shakespearean critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one who can still teach us much in the twenty-first century. My object is to explore his qualities as a major critic of Shakespeare, not to show how he uses allusion to Shakespeare in his own plays, nor to work out the psychology of his perception of Shakespeare as a progenitor and rival. 2 Carrying out my project necessitates getting past several barriers, perhaps the most formidable of which, and certainly the most obvious, is Shaw’s countless passages of hyperbolic denunciation. How can one take seriously the Shakespearean credentials of anyone who finds no character in Lady Macbeth, 3 or who compares the poetry of Othello unfavorably with Adam Lindsay Gordon? 4 And even if one assumes that Shaw’s Shakespeare criticism is insightful, it is not easy to assimilate. The writings are widely scattered, many of them available only in the hard-to-find Ayot St. Lawrence Edition of the Collected Works. 5 And most of Shaw’s best essays are reviews of long forgotten productions, whose actors and managers are so faded into the past as to share the fate of Alexander Pope’s dunces, remembered only for being described by a brilliant comic writer. 6
With his habitual bluntness, Shaw frequently makes clear that his attack on Shakespeare is a rhetorical extravagance justified by a strategic purpose. [End Page 118] Indeed the passage quoted at the beginning of this article goes on, “But I am bound to add that I pity the man who cannot enjoy Shakespeare. He has outlasted thousands of abler thinkers, and will outlast a thousand more.” 7 Shaw loves his Shakespeare and knows the canon with an intimacy that enables him to catch actors in their minor textual variations and to excoriate managers for their inept cuts and rearrangements. Phrases from the dramas come naturally to his pen, whatever topic he may be writing about. And he regularly displays not only a detailed familiarity with the plays but a powerful grasp of their dramatic technique, the insights of a fellow playwright. It is no accident that theatrical people as intelligent and informed as Ellen Terry and Harley Granville Barker have been glad to discuss Shakespeare with him on equal terms.
Shaw approaches Shakespeare from the perspective of an agitator for revolutionary reform in society as a whole and also in both drama and theatrical production. 8 The result is that, like Bertolt Brecht, the exponent of epic theater, he locates revolutionary potentiality in Shakespeare even while mocking what he sees as outdated, part of the stodgy past that he campaigns to overthrow. 9 From the 1890s on, he became one of the first defenders of the problem plays, then often unappreciated and thought of as the Dark Comedies. 10 He points out in them the social realism that he values in Ibsen and tries to create himself in plays like Mrs Warren’s Profession. Thus he declares in a summary of his position toward Shakespeare: “That Shakespeare tried to make the public accept real studies of life and character in—for instance—Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well: and that the public would not have them, and remains of the same mind still, preferring a fantastic sugar doll, like Rosalind, to such serious and dignified studies of women as Isabella and Helena.” 11 Identifying such realism...