Shakespeare: Rebel, Aristocrat and Pessimist



The rebel will last as long as the human race. Revolt is a perpetual mood of the human spirit; the myths of the rebel Jove and the rebel Lucifer present a reality that has witnesses innumerable to-day, had them yesterday and will have them to-morrow.

Those reformers who work towards a world where there shall be no cause for any rebellious cry, build their smug dreams on sand. Shakespeare knew better than they, Shakespeare who saw that Man himself, under Fate, is the eternal scourge of Man, Shakespeare who rebelled against refusals and restraints and injustices recognized as of eternal recurrence, Shakespeare who more than any English poet has shown that the supreme emotional aspect of humanity is this aspect of revolt against its own essential air, against all that ministers to and sways it: that the sublimest thing in the world is the explosion of humanity’s irremediable anguish. For no end of “betterment”; not with the possible wish to reform, but with the impossible wish to overthrow.

“It is so and it was so, and Heaven be cursed that it should be so!”

Or, in words familiar even to the “newest constructive thinkers”:

“Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would we not shatter it to bits — and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”

Shakespeare and all great figures of revolt are a part of this destructive spirit; a spirit which well includes reformers in its annihilating aim — for what are reformers, even when they seem to achieve, but the grease on the wheel which is to be smashed?

It is obvious, then, why the modern “Progressive” hates Shakespeare. We understand this moral indignation of Mr. Bernard Shaw as he points out the impotently clenched fist mated with Lear’s cry of revolt in despair:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,

They kill us for their sport.”

The essential cruelties of life, Shakespeare knew, cannot be touched by reform:1) “The world is out of joint.” “The pity of it, the pity of it!”

Reformers in their shallow optimism believe that a juggling with systems of government will so far cure human ills as to make existence generally tolerable or even generally pleasant. Their revolt is against tyranny of a monarch or tyranny of aristocrats or tyranny of rich men. “Take power from these,” they cry, “and give it to the People. Then all will be well!” How much deeper Shakespeare’s rebellion goes! He did not believe in Democracy, that pedantic chimera. He was, in fact, — let us grant this to his critics — a “snob” who mistrusted the people, and was profoundly convinced of the truth that should be well enough proven to our generation, the truth that the tyranny of the masses is the worst tyranny of all. Brutus, lover of the people, is shown as a noble but misguided prig: Caius Marcius, despiser of the people, “chief enemy of the people,” is portrayed with unstinted admiration. In Julius Caesar the conduct of the mob in the Forum justifies to the hilt all the contemptuous diatribes of Coriolanus.

“He that trusts you,

Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;

Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,

Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,

Or hailstone in the sun.”

Shakespeare rebels in derision against a proletariat rule which results in the conferring of an unstable authority upon delegates of the capricious mob. Such delegates, he knows — and we have better reason to know it than he — are hypocrites, liars, base men, most of all enemies to the good life. Shakespeare rebels, indeed, against all delegated authority; his rebellion is especially against the kind of government from which men chiefly suffer: for what are the tyrannies of kings or oligarchs compared with the tyrannies of officials, who

“Dressed in a little brief authority

Play such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep”?

Political “freedom” is powerless to destroy such oppressions; it abundantly creates them. We may as well, then, forbear with Shakespeare to rail against kings and aristocrats, and smite rather where he smote, against the instructive unreason and brutality of the human race. This dull cruelty seizes upon authority as an excuse for its self-expense, with equal avidity now as in Shakespeare’s day; only its opportunities for the deflowering and discoloration of life are greater now that rulers are multiplied throughout the length and breadth of our democratic lands.

The people cast votes — sound their “voices” — for their own torment. As Coriolanus told them:

“Your affections are

A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that

Which would increase his evil.”

Well? In democratic America, in this country where every man has a vote, and no man more than one, what is gained but liberty of the masses to afflict themselves? Liberty to be overworked, to be sold adulterated food and villainously “doped” whiskey, liberty to be housed in loathsome tenements, liberty to enjoy monstrous labor for their children. Shakespeare, who regarded that everlasting tragic panorama of the suffering populace with eyes at least as humane as those of any reformer, wished better for the masses than that they should be governed by themselves.

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel;

That thou may’st shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.”

It is a king who speaks, not an official elected by the people; and he indicates the only possible palliation of poverty, by benevolent alms bestowed in protest against a universal and inherent injustice. The only possible palliation — yes! — until men wax strong enough to “shatter the sorry Scheme to bits.”

For human nature, in the main, is evil; the world, in the main, is bad: we live under “the weight of inauspicious stars,” — this is the Shakespearian doctrine. This is why Shakespeare’s rebellion leads him into protests that seem to reformers “impotent” because they are not coupled with a declaration of impotent remedies: this is why Shakespeare cannot believe in multiplying the sinister impacts of human nature upon the individual life by extending authority upon the individual life to the people. He knows how “the mutable rank-scented many” persecute artists: he knows how cruelly the greatest and noblest suffer from the envious gnawings at their flesh by the “common cry of curs”: he knows that “plebeian malignity,” as Doctor Johnson called it, the malignity that is most of all malign when confronted by genius.

“Who deserves greatness, deserves your hate” is an observation justly to be addressed to the populace of all ages as yet known. In America, where all the spleenful devils of bourgeoisie and canaille have freest play, where the commonplace and the undistinguished impose inexorable tyranny, we shall do well to remember it.

In what other country, however “reactionary” or “tyrannical” its government, would such “Suppressors of Vice” and “Censors” as exist so verminously here, be tolerated? Imagine, in Germany or the old Russia, a publisher being impudently “summoned to appear” for having published an obscene book in Homo Sapiens; or Carmen’s embrace of her lover being cut in a Moving Picture to stipulated moral length; or the excision, on burgess compulsion, of the ecstatic abandon of a faun in a Ballet. Grotesque pruriencies of this kind could be multiplied literally ad nauseam, for there is at least emetic value in the spectacle of sewer-rats spilling their own filth on works of art and then licking it up. We know what the author of Measure for Measure, A Winter’s Tale, Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis would have thought.

“What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,

That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion

Make yourselves scabs?”

We know, too, what the creator of Jack Falstaff — no less than that other creator who turned water into wine, and wine into his own blood — would have thought of Prohibition and its prophets — these horrible “evangelists” who make of “sweet religion” “a mockery of vows.” He would scarcely have sided with a democracy that realizes such tyrannies; he knew the ends of a rebellion specialized to the narrow directions of rule of kings and rule of peers. At least his age would have given short shrift to these vulgarian preachers and their “messages,” short shrift to “vicesuppressors,” short shrift to most of the things that make life here more acutely disagreeable to sensitive people than it is anywhere in Europe, even in the trenches.

Yes, Democracy represents only an unsuccessful effort to escape, an effort resulting in worse entanglements in the life-net that vexes us still more than it vexed Shakespeare. There is no help. In the Sonnets, where Shakespeare speaks not as a dramatist, but in his own person, is he optimistic about the nature or the issues of this “mortal coil”?

“No longer mourn for me when I am dead, Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell Give warning to the world that I am fled From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell.”

Does he not in this poem, this great personal utterance, take his place with Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth, rather than with the villain optimist Edmund, who scoffs at the power of Fate and declares it an evasion of whoremaster man to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star? And what are Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth — what are all Shakespeare’s tragic figures — but rebels? Not myopic rebels against little superficial details of injustice, but rebels on the grand scale, in the grand style, against the whole scheme of human existence.

“Duncan is in his grave.

After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.”

“To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is seen no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

In Jacques’s famous speech there is the same sense of the futility of life. From “the infant mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms” to “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,” all are stages in a vain progression, “signifying nothing.” A recurring mood of Shakespeare speaks in Jacques’s phrase “the foul body of this infected world,” and in Hamlet’s “an unweeded garden that grows to seed.” Again, in Hamlet:

“Every man hath business or desire,

Such as it is.”

“What to me is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, nor woman neither.”

“Get thee to a nunnery. Why would’st thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. . . . . To a nunnery go, and quickly, too.”

Here is a revolt against the sex instinct which causes life, a revolt as bitter as that of Schopenhauer who exclaims upon lovers as conspirators against the peace of the world, which without them — without their romantic droops of eyelashes, their half-withdrawals and their half-surrenders, and all their little ways — would mercifully sink into oblivion for ever!

Then we have the arraignment of things as they are, in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the pessimistic reflections, in the Gravediggers scene, on mortality, — that mortality of which Lear’s hand smelt.

Lear himself, shocked by anguish from kingship to anarchy, is the rebel supreme among them all.

“When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools.”

Lear’s destructive fury is terrific, far more terrific than that of the elements which he “taxed not with unkindness,” knowing Man crueller than Nature, as did those Arden exiles who sang: “Blow, blow, thou winter wind, Thou art not so unkind as Man’s ingratitude.” The aged Lear, his illusions of a lifetime stripped from him with sudden fearful violence, seeks a remedy in a return, by way of devastation, to the bedrock of existence. Let us take all these cursed accretions of ours — these hideous graftings on — let us smash them to a thousand shivers, and so only will our rebellion yield its fruit! — “Off, off, you lendings, come, unbutton here!” In his savage intent to reduce all to its elements he tears his clothes from him as a symbolic act, and the echo of that eternal laughter follows: “Prythee, nuncle, be contented; this is a naughty night to swim in.”

Lear, in frantic ecstasy, hails “poor mad Tom,” the naked outcast, as his “learned Theban,” his “noble philosopher.” “Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare forked animal as thou art.”

The “great image of authority” shakes and falls before the tremendous onslaughts of this king turned anarchist:

“A man may see how this world goes, with no eyes. Look with thine ears; see how yon’ justice rails upon yon’ simple thief. Hark, in thine ear; change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? . . . And the creature run from the cur? There thou might’st behold the great image of authority; a dog’s obeyed in office.”

“None does offend, none, I say none!”

Well believed in as reason — can we doubt it? — by Shakespeare the perpetual satirist of little men in authority, Shakespeare, who had been tried by Sir Thomas Lucy, did not forget the inanities of the Law and its pillars when he came to Justice Shallow, to Dogberry and Verges.

“Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand:

Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back.

. . . The usurer hangs the cozener.

Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;

Robes, and furr’d gowns, hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”

An excellent inscription for any Court of Law; but more pleasing to the prisoners than to the judges.

The contempt of Shakespeare for the hypocrisy of the professed virtues — the Purity Leaguers of our day — is constant; but we are stirred more deeply by Lear’s outburst than even by the portraiture of Angelo:

“I pardon that man’s life; what was thy cause?


Thou shalt not die; die for adultery! No;

The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly

Does lecher in my sight . . .

Behold yon’ simpering dame

Whose face between her forks presageth snow;

That minces virtue, and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name;

The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to’t

With a more riotous appetite.”

As it is now, so it was then. The changeless spirit of revolt had no less scope for action in Shakespeare’s age than it has in our own, nor will it have in ages to come. Rebellion will end when an end is made of all we know; then and not before will this one of Shakespeare’s spirits wander in waste air. Then shall be the destined final touch, the touch of conclusion in Necessity, that touch whose ultimate noiseless crumbling of all things Shakespeare, in his last Play, foresaw. There, in the furthest coign of the furthest figure of the Future, stands that Moment when:

“Like the baseless fabric of this vision,

These cloud-capp’d towers, these gorgeous palaces,

These solemn temples, the great earth itself,

Yea, all that it inherits, shall dissolve;

And like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a wrack behind.”

There only, in that consummate dissolution, shall Rebellion be brought to silence.

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The recurrence of familiar quotations must be pardoned, because time has selected for emphasis those passages in which Shakespeare most authentically speaks.


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