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Full Online Book HomePlaysDark Lady Of The Sonnets - PREFACE TO THE DARK LADY OF THE SONNETS - Shakespear and Democracy
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Dark Lady Of The Sonnets - PREFACE TO THE DARK LADY OF THE SONNETS - Shakespear and Democracy Post by :Chris_Creighton Category :Plays Author :George Bernard Shaw Date :May 2011 Read :1460

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Dark Lady Of The Sonnets - PREFACE TO THE DARK LADY OF THE SONNETS - Shakespear and Democracy

Now take the general case pled against Shakespear as an enemy of
democracy by Tolstoy, the late Ernest Crosbie and others, and endorsed
by Mr Harris. Will it really stand fire? Mr Harris emphasizes the
passages in which Shakespear spoke of mechanics and even of small
master tradesmen as base persons whose clothes were greasy, whose
breath was rank, and whose political imbecility and caprice moved
Coriolanus to say to the Roman Radical who demanded at least "good
words" from him

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring.

But let us be honest. As political sentiments these lines are an
abomination to every democrat. But suppose they are not political
sentiments! Suppose they are merely a record of observed fact. John
Stuart Mill told our British workmen that they were mostly liars.
Carlyle told us all that we are mostly fools. Matthew Arnold and
Ruskin were more circumstantial and more abusive. Everybody,
including the workers themselves, know that they are dirty, drunken,
foul-mouthed, ignorant, gluttonous, prejudiced: in short, heirs to
the peculiar ills of poverty and slavery, as well as co-heirs with the
plutocracy to all the failings of human nature. Even Shelley
admitted, 200 years after Shakespear wrote Coriolanus, that universal
suffrage was out of the question. Surely the real test, not of
Democracy, which was not a live political issue in Shakespear's time,
but of impartiality in judging classes, which is what one demands from
a great human poet, is not that he should flatter the poor and
denounce the rich, but that he should weigh them both in the same
balance. Now whoever will read Lear and Measure for Measure will find
stamped on his mind such an appalled sense of the danger of dressing
man in a little brief authority, such a merciless stripping of the
purple from the "poor, bare, forked animal" that calls itself a king
and fancies itself a god, that one wonders what was the real nature of
the mysterious restraint that kept "Eliza and our James" from teaching
Shakespear to be civil to crowned heads, just as one wonders why
Tolstoy was allowed to go free when so many less terrible levellers
went to the galleys or Siberia. From the mature Shakespear we get no
such scenes of village snobbery as that between the stage country
gentleman Alexander Iden and the stage Radical Jack Cade. We get the
shepherd in As You Like It, and many honest, brave, human, and loyal
servants, beside the inevitable comic ones. Even in the Jingo play,
Henry V, we get Bates and Williams drawn with all respect and honor as
normal rank and file men. In Julius Caesar, Shakespear went to work
with a will when he took his cue from Plutarch in glorifying regicide
and transfiguring the republicans. Indeed hero-worshippers have never
forgiven him for belittling Caesar and failing to see that side of his
assassination which made Goethe denounce it as the most senseless of
crimes. Put the play beside the Charles I of Wills, in which Cromwell
is written down to a point at which the Jack Cade of Henry VI becomes
a hero in comparison; and then believe, if you can, that Shakespear
was one of them that "crook the pregnant hinges of the knee where
thrift may follow fawning." Think of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern,
Osric, the fop who annoyed Hotspur, and a dozen passages concerning
such people! If such evidence can prove anything (and Mr Harris
relies throughout on such evidence) Shakespear loathed courtiers.

If, on the other hand, Shakespear's characters are mostly members of
the leisured classes, the same thing is true of Mr Harris's own plays
and mine. Industrial slavery is not compatible with that freedom of
adventure, that personal refinement and intellectual culture, that
scope of action, which the higher and subtler drama demands.

Even Cervantes had finally to drop Don Quixote's troubles with
innkeepers demanding to be paid for his food and lodging, and make him
as free of economic difficulties as Amadis de Gaul. Hamlet's
experiences simply could not have happened to a plumber. A poor man
is useful on the stage only as a blind man is: to excite sympathy.
The poverty of the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet produces a great
effect, and even points the sound moral that a poor man cannot afford
to have a conscience; but if all the characters of the play had been
as poor as he, it would have been nothing but a melodrama of the sort
that the Sicilian players gave us here; and that was not the best that
lay in Shakespear's power. When poverty is abolished, and leisure and
grace of life become general, the only plays surviving from our epoch
which will have any relation to life as it will be lived then will be
those in which none of the persons represented are troubled with want
of money or wretched drudgery. Our plays of poverty and squalor, now
the only ones that are true to the life of the majority of living men,
will then be classed with the records of misers and monsters, and read
only by historical students of social pathology.

Then consider Shakespear's kings and lords and gentlemen! Would even
John Ball or Jeremiah complain that they are flattered? Surely a more
mercilessly exposed string of scoundrels never crossed the stage. The
very monarch who paralyzes a rebel by appealing to the divinity that
hedges a king, is a drunken and sensual assassin, and is presently
killed contemptuously before our eyes in spite of his hedge of
divinity. I could write as convincing a chapter on Shakespear's
Dickensian prejudice against the throne and the nobility and gentry in
general as Mr Harris or Ernest Crosbie on the other side. I could
even go so far as to contend that one of Shakespear's defects is his
lack of an intelligent comprehension of feudalism. He had of course
no prevision of democratic Collectivism. He was, except in the
commonplaces of war and patriotism, a privateer through and through.
Nobody in his plays, whether king or citizen, has any civil public
business or conception of such a thing, except in the method of
appointing constables, to the abuses in which he called attention
quite in the vein of the Fabian Society. He was concerned about
drunkenness and about the idolatry and hypocrisy of our judicial
system; but his implied remedy was personal sobriety and freedom from
idolatrous illusion in so far as he had any remedy at all, and did not
merely despair of human nature. His first and last word on parliament
was "Get thee glass eyes, and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see
the thing thou dost not." He had no notion of the feeling with which
the land nationalizers of today regard the fact that he was a party to
the enclosure of common lands at Wellcome. The explanation is, not a
general deficiency in his mind, but the simple fact that in his day
what English land needed was individual appropriation and cultivation,
and what the English Constitution needed was the incorporation of Whig
principles of individual liberty.

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That reply, which Mr Harris does not hesitate to give, is twofold:first, that Shakespear was, in his attitude towards earls, asycophant; and, second, that the normality of Shakespear's sexualconstitution is only too well attested by the excessive susceptibilityto the normal impulse shewn in the whole mass of his writings. Thislatter is the really conclusive reply. In the case of Michel Angelo,for instance, one must admit that if his works are set beside those ofTitian or Paul Veronese, it is impossible not to be struck by theabsence in the Florentine of that susceptibility to feminine charmwhich pervades the pictures of
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