“The greatness of Shakespeare’s work is apt to blind critics to his limitations and defects, but these must, of course, be recognized in any estimate of him. Broad as he was, he was essentially a man of his time, and while his plays are remarkable for their general truth to what is paramount in human nature, his interpretation of human nature is that of an age in many respects very different from our own. He wrote hurriedly, and signs of hasty and ill-considered production are often apparent. In his occasional coarseness he reflects the low taste of the “groundlings” to whom he had to appeal. At places his psychology is hopelessly crude and unconvincing; his style vicious; his with forced and poor; his tragic language bombastic.”
The Alleged Faults in the Plays of Shakespeare
Among modern critics are to be found several who attack Shakespeare’s power of characterization, mock at what they call the “emptiness” of his philosophy, and accuse him of snobbery. No serious attempt has, indeed, been made to question his genius as a poet but a number of modern writers have done their best to detach him from the great creative artists of the world and to place him “in the second order with Dickens, Scott, and Dumas”. Of course, Shakespeare’s reputation is in no serious danger from these attacks because if he has compelled the homage of such different men as Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Lamb, Coleridge, Shelley, Arnold, Carlyle, Rossetti, Swinburne, Victor Hugo, Lessing, Schlegel, Goethe, Heine, he has nothing to fear from a few reactionary critics.
His Alleged want of a Philosophy
Let us first consider the charge of “empty philosophy” against Shakespeare. The truth is that in any clear and definite sense of the term there is no philosophy in Shakespeare’s writings, nor any attempt at a philosophy. The idea of a philosophy or a message is essentially modern and is utterly alien to the Elizabethan spirit. Shakespeare was an artist and primarily concerned with the stuff of life itself, not with theorizing about life. His plays contain a dozen different points of view, but no definite conclusion. The attempts made by some of his admirers to squeeze a philosophy of life out of the speeches of his characters are unfair and foolish. The modern reader is unfortunately accustomed to the artist- preacher and therefore unduly insists upon a message or a philosophy from Shakespeare.
The Alleged fault in the characterization
The second charge pertains to characterization. It would be insolent, indeed, to attack from the point of view of characterization a dramatist who has created a rich gallery of men and women like Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Othello, Desdemona, Rosalind, and Juliet. Shakespeare shows the same subtlety and searching insight in the portraying of less complex personalities. A ready test of the actuality of his characters is the impression they make on the modern reader. Portia, Rosalind, Beatrice, Cleopatra, Juliet, are startlingly modern. Place them beside the women of Sheridan or Goldsmith and you realize how the latter are dated and how alive and fresh are Shakespeare’s women. Beside them even the ladies of Dickens and Thackeray seem old style. And the reason is that Shakespeare’s women have the fundamental and primal qualities of womanhood, common to every age.
His Alleged Snobbery
A number of modern writers have insisted strongly on Shakespeare’s snobbery, hinting that he was essentially undemocratic, hating the mob. According to one critic, the play Coriolanus is a “mine of insults” against the people. Another critic says that Shakespeare used the poor as material for fun to amuse his richer patrons and had no real sympathy for them. Now, it is true that Shakespeare had no linking for the rough, uneducated mob. The play Coriolanus is a plain, unvarnished picture of a mob’s fickleness and brutality. But we must recognize that Shakespeare was alive to the virtues and merits of the people at large. The play Henry IV shows the truth of this statement. Want of Sympathy with the poor in their sufferings is not to be found in his plays.