Saturday, April 08, 2006

Shakespeare is Unique, Yet Unoriginal

Emerson loves Shakespeare. In his lecture, Shakespeare; of the Poet he fairly gushes:

He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique.
Okay, so maybe that isn't gushing, but great admiration, certainly. I do not know what the world thought of Shakespeare and wrote of him in 1845, but from the approach Emerson takes to the lecture it makes me wonder if critics argued that Shakespeare was unoriginal or derivative in some way. I say this because Emerson spends quite a bit of time at the opening of the lecture explaining that just because Shakespeare was not original, he did after all borrow stories and even words, this does not matter. Originality, he argues, is not what makes great men. All great men stand on the shoulders of those who went before, therefore, unless you were the one who invented language or the wheel, you can't be original. Besides, those who complain of unoriginality are those who are not themselves Geniuses. The mediocre herd does not like genius because it is not theirs and it messes up the status quo. What distinguishes Genius, greatness, is "range and extent," his sympathy with his people, and what he does with the "river of thoughts and events," the "ideas and necessities of his contemporaries." So it is with Shakespeare, the poet whose work is is built upon "the mass of old plays":
The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within the due temperance. It holds to the people, supplies a foundation for his edifice; and, in furnishing so much work done to his hand, leaves him at leisure, and in full strength for the audacities of his imagination.
Emerson also addresses issues of Shakespeare's biography. He says we know little of the actual man and how he lived his life and declares that it does not matter. What matters are the plays. No matter what researchers are able to dig up on Shakespeare the man, "they can shed no light upon that infinite invention which is the concealed magnet of his attraction for us." Thus, "Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us." Emerson would likely be horrified at all the debate over who Shakespeare really was. I'm not horrified by it, just indifferent. It really is the plays and sonnets that matter. While "no recipe can be given for the making of a Shakespeare," the bard demonstrates for us "the possibility of the translation of things into song." Of course, no one is perfect, and Emerson, as much as he admires Shakspeare, finds him lacking. His fault? Shakespeare used the things of the world
as colors to compose his picture. He rested on their beauty; and never took the step which seemed inevitable to such a genius, namely, to explore the virtue which resides in these symbols, and imparts this power,--what is that which they themselves say? He converted the elements, which waited on his command, into entertainments.
Instead of using his genius in the service of "universal wisdom," Shakespeare used it for "public amusement." And because of this, "the world still wants its poet-priest, a reconciler, who shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act, with equal inspiration." I have to give Emerson credit though, while he is asking for a lot, he does not try to insert himself into the position. You have to admire him for that. I mean the man obviously has a big ego, but he also has enough humility to not set himself up as the poet-priest reconciler he so badly wants. Emerson is letting me down a bit with the vocabulary, or maybe I'm just getting used to it. At any rate, here is the paltry offering from the Shakespeare lecture:
  • aerolites. Noun. A stony meteorite, composed mainly of silicates. Emerson: "Read the antique documents extricated, analyzed, and compared by the assiduous Dyce and Collier; and now read one of those skyey sentences,--aerolites,--which seem to have fallen out of the heavens, and which, not your experience, but the man within the breast, has accepted as words of fate; and tell me if they match." And it's not every day you see "skyey" in a sentence either.
  • euphuism. Noun. An artificial, highly elaborate way of writing or speaking. Emerson: "Though the speeches in the plays, and single lines, have a beauty which tempts the ear to pause on them for their euphuism, yet the sentence is so loaded with meaning, and so linked with its foregoers and followers, that the logician is satisfied." Just a bit of trivia on the origin of the word. It is from Euphues, the name of a character in John Lyly's prose romance of the same name (1578-80).
  • exuvial. Adjective. Derived from exuviae a noun which means an animal's cast or sloughed skin, especially that of an insect larva. Emerson: "The sense remains prosaic. It is the caterpillar with wings, and not yet a butterfly. In the poet's mind, the fact has gone quite over into the new element of thought, and has lost all that is exuvial." I understand the metaphor, but it isn't pretty. Couldn't he have thought of something a little more elegant?
Next week's lecture from Emerson's Representative Men: Napolean; or the Man of the World