The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare

The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare

by G. K. Chesterton

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"The sane man who is sane enough to see that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is sane enough not to worry whether he did or not," quipped G. K. Chesterton. The prolific author — whose works include journalism, poetry, plays, history, biography, apologetics, and detective fiction — took a keen interest in the English literary tradition, particularly in the


"The sane man who is sane enough to see that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is sane enough not to worry whether he did or not," quipped G. K. Chesterton. The prolific author — whose works include journalism, poetry, plays, history, biography, apologetics, and detective fiction — took a keen interest in the English literary tradition, particularly in the plays of its greatest dramatist. This original compilation by Chesterton expert Dale Ahlquist introduces the best of the noted critic's short reviews and essays on The Bard.

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The Soul of Wit

G. K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare

By G. K. CHESTERTON, Dale Ahlquist

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-32092-2



The Measure of Shakespeare

Shakespeare is so big that he hides England. (Daily News, Sept. 17, 1906)

* * *

English Literature and the Latin Tradition

I fear the title I have chosen is what we should call a priggish title; that is, a pompous and pedantic title. The world has always rightly rebuked even a scholar when he appeared as a pedant; and it may well regard with reasonable derision a pedant who is not even a scholar. As will appear only too clearly as I proceed, I make no remote claim to classical scholarship; and it may well be asked why I should label this essay with the name of classicism.

What I would here advance, very broadly, is this thesis: first that the English are not barbarians; second, that the division between England and Europe has been enormously exaggerated. I admit it has sometimes been exaggerated by the English. But that is because, quite lately, England was dominated not only by the English who were ignorant of Europe, but rather specially by the English who were ignorant of England. For my main thesis may appear more of a paradox. I want specially to insist that the classical tradition, the Latin and Greek tradition in English history was the popular thing, the common thing; even the vulgar thing. All those three words, "common" and "popular" and "vulgar", are Latin words, I do not know whether the Anglo-Saxons even had a word for vulgar; the real modern Anglo-Saxons are much too refined. A culture must never be judged by its cultured people. The Latin culture lives in Britain in the uncultured people. It is not a question of English scholars who know Latin. Kamchatkan scholars know Latin; and if there are any Eskimaux scholars, of course they know Latin. They know the Latin scientific word for blubber; and possibly write the Latin odes to the walrus, addressing him the vocative as "walre".

The point is not concerned with the learned; they know Latin, and they know they know it. My point is that the populace, the common men know it without knowing it. Even the old yokel who said, "I ain't no scholar", used a term older than the Schoolmen, as old as the Roman schools. It is not a matter of a Roman pinnacle, but of a Roman pavement. Our populace in every way is such a pavement; and not least in being trampled under foot. For, as I shall try to show, it was the popular Roman tradition that was trampled under foot; and if anything was imposed by aristocrats, it was the pretence of being Anglo-Saxon. Matthew Arnold used the term Barbarian almost as a compliment to an English gentleman; and there was a time quite recently when it was very genteel to be a Barbarian. But it was never very popular, even then, and it had never been heard of before. I wish chiefly to suggest here that it will never be heard of again. The old influence of the southern civilization had sunk so deep in Britain from the beginning, that it was really almost as impossible to weed out the Latin culture from England as to weed it out from Italy. Suppose somebody tried to persuade Italians that their heritage came only from German mercenaries or English trippers or American globe-trotters. Some professors might say that; but it would not be necessary to find more sane and patriotic professors to answer. If these were silent, the very stones would cry out. Not merely ruins, but the common stones; the stones along the Roman road.

Now, in a much less degree, it is true that the very bones of Britain cried out against the myth that she was barbaric. Our country began as a Roman Province. Popular legend connected it with Brutus, proper history connected it with Caesar. It was such a Province in all common talk and tradition. Only when it ceased to be a Province did it become provincial. It is found not in judgments but in jokes; not in odes but in oaths; in common swear words. I will give one case, because it happens to sum up my thesis. I had a debate with a gentleman who denied this; he said the English were descended only from Vikings; and could therefore despise all others who were only descended from Roman soldiers or Renaissance artists or such riff-raff. He sent me a huge book refusing all Latin friendship in the title. By Thor, No! I delicately evaded reading his book, or the whole of his book; but I said I would prove my whole case merely from the title of the book. I said to him, in effect, "I will give a hundred pounds to the Home for Decayed Vikings, if you can name to me any kind of Englishman, at any period since there have been any kinds of Englishman, who ever in his life said, or even thought of saying, 'By Thor'. But I, on the other hand, will show you thousands and millions of Englishmen, men in clubs, men in pubs, men in trams and trains, ordinary business men grumbling at City dinners, old colonels cursing and swearing on racecourses, all sorts of perfectly ordinary Englishmen, who have habitually said, and do still sometimes say, 'By Jove'." That is the real story of English literature and life; since Caesar, before or after his British adventure, must have gone up to the throne of the Thunderer upon the Rock of the Capitol. De Jova Principium; the song began from Jove.

Let me give some examples. The point is that the classic may be found even in the comic; in comic songs and in those patriotic songs that are unfortunately sometimes rather like comic songs. Here is a rude rhyme about St. George and the Dragon, meant to be sung as a drinking-song in the seventeenth century, with a shout for a chorus. Note that it is full of that vagueness about a very remote past, which is the mark of hero-worship by hearsay; the ballad-monger mentions such names as he happens to have heard, heaven knows where.

Of the deeds done by old kings
Is more than I can tell,
And chiefly of the Romans
Who greatly did excel,
Hannibal and Scipio
Had many a bloody fight,
And Orlando Furioso
Was a very gallant knight.

That is not exactly of marble, in the manner of Racine or Alfieri; but it is classical. It comes out of a people living directly or indirectly on the classics. A rowdy and absurd patriotic song was devoted to the British Grenadiers; but in order to praise those island warriors, it began; "Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules." In the loneliest inland hamlets, or the dreariest slums of the modern towns, English children can still be found playing a singing-game, with the chorus; "For we are the Romans". Thus, the great legend of Greece and Rome and the glory of antiquity has soaked through our society also, descending through poets to ballad-mongers and from ballad-mongers to gutter-boys; and even to me. I may be regarded for the purpose here as the dunce of the school; but it was, in the medieval phrase, a grammar-school; and began with the Latin grammar.

Perhaps, however, the greatest name will be the best illustration. It was often said that Shakespeare is the typical Englishman in the fact that he had "small Latin and less Greek"; but he had plenty of Plutarch, and he was stuffed to bursting with the classical spirit. Consider, for instance, that he was of the Tudor time, which worshipped monarchy and was always saying, "There's such divinity doth hedge a king." And then consider what a revolution the mere reading of Plutarch in a translation could effect, in making the same man write:

There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome,
As easily as a king.

But in a much deeper sense, Shakespeare was classical, because he was civilized. Voltaire criticized him as a barbarian. But he was not a barbarian. The Germans have even admired him as a German; but by some strange accident of birth, he was not even a German. The point here, however, is that the classical spirit is no matter of names or allusion. I will take only one example to show what I mean by saying that Shakespeare was every bit as classical as Milton. Just before Othello kills his wife, he utters those words:

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.

Let me explain why I find it convenient to my argument to take this phrase as a type of the classical. Every classical phrase means much more than it says; in contrast with the too vivid and violent modern phrase, which says much more than it means. Whether it be romanticism in the nineteenth century, or realism in the twentieth century, its weakness is that it says so much more than it means. The phrase of Shakespeare, like the phrase of Virgil, is always much greater than its occasion. The cry of Othello goes far beyond the death of Desdemona; it goes far beyond death itself; it is a cry for life and the secret of life. Where is the beginning of that bewildering splendour by which we are; why can we not make life as we can make death? It may be worth remarking in passing that even chemists who once claimed to manufacture everything, who could make synthetic leather or linen, have finally agreed that they cannot make synthetic life. They tell us that peculiar conditions must have existed once somewhere; though their laboratories should surely be capable of creating any conditions that could exist anywhere. "I know not where is that Promethean heat", nor do they. That cry still resounds unanswered in the universe. But the point for the present is that this profound resonance, striking such echoes out of such hollows and abysses, could not be thus achieved without a very deep understanding of classical diction. It could not be done without the word "Promethean"; without the legend of Prometheus; with those rolling polysyllables that are the power of Homer and Virgil. In one practical and prosaic sense, of course, a man might say what Othello says. He might say, "If I kill this woman, how the devil am I to bring her to life again"; but hardly with majesty; hardly with mystery; not precisely with all those meanings and echoes of meaning which belong to a great line of verse. But we need hardly condescend to deal with the realistic critic; the serious gentleman who points out the unquestionable fact that a man just about to smother his wife with a pillow does not talk about Prometheus or speculate on the spiritual origin of life. It is enough to tell him, to his bewilderment, that the soul never speaks until it speaks in poetry; and that in our daily conversation we do not speak; we only talk.

I have dwelt too long on that one example; but it happens to be essential to the end of my argument to insist that Shakespeare did possess a certain great quality that is sometimes denied to him, as well as many other great qualities, which are generally conceded to him. Shakespeare did not merely possess the things which Victor Hugo magnified and which Voltaire mocked; wild imagination, wonderful lyric outbursts and the power of varying tragedy and the fantastic and the grotesque. His work was more patchy than that of pure classicists like Virgil or Racine, largely owing to the accident of his own personal circumstances, mixed motives and practical necessities. But the patchwork did not consist only of purple patches. It did not consist only of passages that are vivid in the romantic or unrestrained manner. He was also capable of that structural dignity, and even of that structural simplicity, in which we feel that we could rest upon every word, as upon the stones of a stairway or a strong bridge. It is also important to realize, in relation to the rest of the thesis, that, after all, it was this classical part of Shakespeare, much more than the romantic part of Shakespeare, that was handed on as a heritage to the English poets immediately after him. His triumph was not followed by a riot of fairies; but, on the contrary, by a return of Hellenic gods or Hebraic archangels. But the soliloquies of Satan and the choruses of Samson Agonistes Milton, in his youth, exaggerated the youthful irresponsibility of Shakespeare; describing him merely as Fancy's child, who warbled his native wood-notes wild. But Milton did not continue the work, merely warbling wood-notes or behaving as fancifully as a child of fancy. He set himself to do consistently and consciously what Shakespeare had only done incidentally and unconsciously; to bring English literature into the full inheritance of Latin literature and the classical culture of the Continent.

Dryden, the next great name after Milton, was in some ways even more classical and certainly much more Continental. The whole tendency of his movement, which culminated in Pope, was to make English poetry not only rational enough to suit Boileau, but almost rational enough to soothe Voltaire. The tendency had its deficiencies in other ways; but that is not the point here. The point here is that with the coming of the full eighteenth century, English literature is entirely classical even in the merely scholarly sense of a study of the classics. I summarize these things in a series, because they illustrate the main truth of how long that Latin tradition retained its continuity; how steady was its progression; and, above all, how very late, how very odd, and how very temporary, was its interruption.

English-Latin literature and English-French literature are much older than English literature. The Middle Ages were international; and England was completely Continental. But even if we begin with Chaucer, who created English by making it more than half French, the tradition of the classics runs on steadily for fully five hundred years. The last point at which it was undisputed might be represented by Macaulay. And he is an excellent example of my whole thesis. Macaulay had not, perhaps, a first-class mind; but he was completely in contact with the common mind. He was not one of our best writers, but he was emphatically one of our best-sellers. He was, above all, a popular writer; and he was popular because he was classical, in the sense that he took a classical education for granted. He identified England with a classical education and in one place he quotes a line from one of Milton's Latin poems in threatening an attack on what he would call the new cranks in Germany; "Frangere Saxonicos Brittanno Marte phalanges"; "To break the Saxon ranks with British battle." That phrase is a landmark, because it shows that not only Milton, but also Macaulay, thought of himself simply as British, and Saxon simply as German. England had not yet been taught that Englishmen were all Saxons, but under the name of Anglo-Saxons.

But while Macaulay was girding himself to attack the German cranks, there had already arisen in his own time and country a German crank who was not a German. His name was Thomas Carlyle; and he threw himself enthusiastically into a new racial theory that had come to England from Germany. It must be most carefully understood that it was a theory of race and not of nationality. The nations of Europe are now all under conditions that are recognized. Politically, each is independent of all the others. Culturally, each is connected with all the others. For all inherit the civilization of antiquity and of ancient Christendom. Germany, considered as one of the great European States, would be no proper subject for criticism here; but then Germany, considered as a great European State, is just as much a growth of the old civilization as the other European States. Classic antiquity was stamped all over it, whether we like the symbols or no; its eagle was the Roman eagle; its Kaiser was only the German for Caesar; even its Iron Cross was said to be of Christian origin. Its great medieval men were in full touch with the common culture, from Albertus Magnus to Albert Dürer. And it was, if possible, even more true in modern times than in medieval times. Goethe was, perhaps, the most purely classical sort of classicist who ever lived, and his watch was much more on the Mediterranean than on the Rhine. And Schiller called back from Hades the gods of Olympus and not the gods of Asgard.


Excerpted from The Soul of Wit by G. K. CHESTERTON, Dale Ahlquist. Copyright © 2012 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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