I saw Shakespeare’s Richard II for the first time this weekend, via the BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the lead role. He was exceptionally good, as was the whole production. But it was the play itself which stood out – so intelligent, so radical, so well constructed. It re-kindled the flames of my admiration for Shakespeare. I studied his plays at university, for my English degree, and enjoyed studying him more than any other writer – because he is so much better than any other writer. I also think he is a deeper thinker than any philosopher, by far.
So why is he such a great artist? I suggest he has three superpowers:
1) His command of language.
Language is like a mattress. Some people’s language is so used, so tired, it’s like lying on a bed where all the spring has gone. Other people’s language is captivatingly new and springy and bouncy – Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example, or Martin Amis, or Tom Stoppard. Shakespeare’s language is the springiest of them all. He has such a range of registers – from the majestic to the bathetic to the lyrical to the savage. And when the existing words weren’t there, he invented them: addiction, amazement, impartial, rant, lacklustre, remorseless…the list is long. And he created so many golden phrases that have become part of our language – just from Richard II, I noticed ‘a leopard never changes his spots’, and many others. He hugely extended the capacity of the English language, and helped thereby to call the modern world into being.
He also commanded metaphor and simile like no one before or since. They can be very slippery and tricky, and a bad artist conjures up too many and too varied metaphors which end up contradicting each other or simply clogging the sky with their imagery. Shakespeare is incredibly controlled in his metaphors and similes, so that throughout a play he will use particular ones masterfully, weaving together a coherent artistic whole, getting them to complement and comment on each other rather than crashing into each other like planes directed by a bad traffic controller.
Take this one passage from Richard II, where the king confronts Bolingbroke and accuses him of treason. The rhythm, the imagery, the phrasing, it’s all so powerful.
Tell Bolingbroke – for yond methinks he stands –
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason: he is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood.
It’s just sensational stuff…the way the ‘b’ of bloody explodes like a body hit by a cannonball, the imagery of fallen Englishmen as poppies in a field and anger on the face of a mother. I particularly like ‘bedew her pastures green’, for some reason I can’t put my finger on.
2) His empathy.
Some people have the ability to sing their own world – like Woody Allen, for example, who created one particular persona and sang it repeatedly. Shakespeare had the ability to step inside an infinite variety of characters, to imagine their world, to see the world through their eyes, and give them voice. Kings, grave-diggers, generals, teenage girls, sprites, madmen, widows, clowns, murderers. As Harold Bloom has argued, Shakespeare called our world into being, by giving us a sense of the sheer range of human experience, our capacity for suffering, and our capacity to reflect on that suffering and rise above it.
3) His X-ray skepticism.
This is, I think, his real genius, his greatest superpower. He has a sort of x-ray specs ability to see through conventions, and to see the nothingness beneath them. He sees human life in all its pomp, power and glory, and then sees how quickly all that can pass. He sees the insecurity beneath all human experience, and how quickly we are reduced to dust. The most famous instance of this, of course, is Hamlet, and his self-paralysing capacity to see through the illusions that drive us. Nietzsche wrote well about this coruscating skepticism in Hamlet, in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy:
In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet. Both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their actions can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion. That is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about John-a-Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, too many possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No! The true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man. Now no consolation has any effect. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied, together with its blazing reflection in the gods or an immortal afterlife. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia; now he recognizes the wisdom of the forest god Silenus. It disgusts him.
This same x-ray skepticism is apparent in Richard II, in the famous speech where Richard comes back to England to discover his authority has been challenged by Bolingbroke. Rather than simply leaping into battle, he suddenly sees through to the heart of the matter, sees the terrible fragility of majesty, sees our cosmic vulnerability, sees death grinning through at him. His courtiers urge him into action, but it’s the capacity to see through all action, to feel that sort of nausea at all action, that makes both Richard and Shakespeare so interesting. Have a listen to his speech:
This nausea reminds of the Buddha, who also sees through the brilliance of material things, and glimpses the skull grinning beneath. But the Buddha left the world and became an ascetic monk. Likewise Tolstoy, another human with extraordinary x-ray skepticism, left literature to become, in effect, an ascetic holy man. It’s interesting to me that Shakespeare, who possessed that x-ray skepticism to a greater degree than any other human, should not have left the world, should not have become a monk. He saw through the illusions of mankind, but perhaps, unlike the Buddha, he saw nothing beyond them. And yet the dignity of his characters lies in their ability to see through their illusions, to confront their condition, and to see that it affects not just them but all of us. Humans can at least know their condition, can reflect on it, can laugh at it or commiserate with each other over it. It reminds me of the lines of Pascal, lines surely inspired by Shakespeare:
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.