Arnold Bennett on "The Man Shakespeare"

The following is Arnold Bennett's astonishingly positive review of Frank Harris's The Man Shakespeare, published in the "New Age", October 21, 1909.

Bennett's small cavil about Harris's description of Shakespeare as "snobbish" was replied to by Harris in the issue published two weeks later.

Books and Persons.


If this column has any interest of originality, it is that it expresses the point of view of the creative artist as distinguished from that of the critic. There is a one-sided feud between artists and critics. When a number of artists are gathered together you will soon in the conversation come upon signs of that feud. I admit that the general attitude of artists to critics is unfair. They expect from critics an imaginative comprehension which in the nature of the case only a creative artist can possess. On the other hand, a creative artist cannot do the work of a critic because he has neither the time nor the inclination to master the necessary critical apparatus Hence critical work seldom or never satisfies the artist, and the artist’s ideal of what critical work ought to be is an impossible dream. I find confirmation of my view in other arts than my own. The critical work of Mr. Bernhard Berenson, for instance, seems to me wonderful and satisfying. But when I mention Mr. Berenson to a painter I invariably discover that that painter’s secret attitude towards Mr. Berenson is-well, aristocratic. The finest, and the only first-rate, criticism is produced when, by an. exceptional accident, a creative artist of balanced and powerful temperament is moved to deal exhaustively with a subject. Among standard critical works the one that has most impressed me is Lessing's "Laocoon" - at any rate the literary parts of it. Here (I have joyously said to myself) is somebody who knows what he is talking about! Here is someone who has been there. But how rare the accident! I make these remarks to introduce - not without the solemnity which I most genuinely feel - another of those rare accidents, Mr. Frank Harris's "The Man Shakespeare and his Tragic Life Story", published by Frank Palmer. I shall not attempt here - I could only do it in the form of fiction - to express the emotion, the ever-increasing emotion, which I experienced as I read steadily through his elaborate book. I can only compare it with unforgettable sensations that have perturbed me at moments when I stood between earth and sky on some high tor of Dartmoor. . . . I realised that a masterpiece on Shakspere had at length been written.

I say "at length" because I suppose it to be the first. It must surely be the first that could satisfy a creative artist. I am not a Shaksperean scholar. I regret it. The private regret of very many artists is that they cannot be scholars. I dare say that any University Extension Lecturer could double me up on a thousand interesting Shaksperean points. But I have read Coleridge and Swinburne. And I have read Professor Dowden and Professor Bradley and Mr. Sidney Lee. I believe that Professor Dowden's principal book comprises nearly all the notions generally received about Shakspere in correct circles. In asserting that these writers leave me cold or tepid I do not wish to be rude to them, especially to Coleridge and Swinburne. Swinburne was a great critic, but he did not attack the whole subject, and his illumination is a series of flashes. Coleridge was a great but capricious critic - and he is responsible for nine-tenths of all the bad Shaksperean criticism that exists. I can give you an instance of the sort of thing that exasperated me in Coleridge. He fastens on the introduction of the gardener (what a gardener!) in Act III, Scene IV of "Richard II" as an example of Shakspere's "wonderful judgment," and claims that it helps to realise the situation. The pronouncement reaches the final degree of ineptitude. It is too silly for contradiction. Shaksperean criticism is full of similar absurdities. Coleridge was an artist. Yes, one of the greatest and one of the worst. But he was not a dramatic artist. I could show fifty things in Coleridge's Shaksperean criticism that a dramatic artist of any experience at all would be bound to smile at. What is true of Coleridge is still truer of his imitators. They are cultured fellows; they refrain from violence; they serve a harmless purpose in describing the adventures of their sensitive souls amid the Himalayas of Shakspere. But when it comes to explaining the artist, his psychology, and his methods, they simply do not know what they are talking about; not one of them! The artist is completely hidden from them. They are incapable of getting themselves into his skin. And, quite unconsciously, they give themselves away, by turns of phrase, on every page. Thus Professor Dowden: "Practical, positive, and alive to material interests, Shakspere unquestionably was. But there is another side to his character." Good Lord! To me, in the spectacle of a n excellent person like Professor Dowden sitting down to write a book under the title "Shakspere, his Mind and Art" there is something tragically comic; so hopeless is it that Professor Dowden could ever come within miles of any sort of imaginative understanding of Shakspere's artistic mind. Nothing is more sure than that the pretentious weavings of men like Professors Dowden and Bradley, with all their petty and nice eloquence, are fated to eternal death, the death of the unimportant. These and similar critics are receptive, feminine, and naught else. Still, I would not; deny their temporary utility.

The opening pages of "The Man Shakspere" at once produce certainty that the mind of its author is worldly, non-academic, and powerfully creative. I use "worldly" in a good sense. I mean that the author knows the actual world, moves about in it freely, and is versed in life itself: qualities denied to professors, or to most of them. And he writes as an artist. He does not fit words ingeniously together; he plastically moulds the whole phrase. Also he has no use for the Ark of the Covenant. In England Shakspere has come to be only a little less sacred than the Bible. The mandarins have built up a tradition according to which you must speak delicately when you say anything about Shakspere. All English literature is divided into Shakspere and the rest, and in the subconsciousness of the race is a notion that Shakspere's defects are finer than other writers' virtues. Mr. Frank Harris has a very short way with all this. His fist goes through the pane instantly, and the breezes of commonsense blow through the stuffy chambers where the commentators have been mumbling at their priest-like task. Naturally Shakspere has been praised for the wrong things, all sorts of wrong things. Mr. Frank Harris sets these matters right. "He could not construct plays or invent stories," says Mr. Harris. It will shock, but it is true, of course. As for the claim made on Shakspere's behalf that his range was as wide as human nature, Mr. Harris demolishes it in two toothsome pages. "He never drew a reformer, never conceived a man as swimming against the stream of his time." "The best of a Wordsworth or a Turgenev is outside him." Obviously true, when you think it over! The claim of universality is ridiculous, will not stand looking at. And yet it has been seriously made a thousand times.. Decidedly refusing to treat Shakspere as a god, or even as half of one, Mr. Harris treats him lovingly and reasonably as a man. The book is full of passionate admiration.

The main thesis of the work deals a tremendous blow to the accepted theory of Shakspere's august invisibility behind his plays, due to a supposed large and god-like impartiality. "As it is the object of a general to win battles so it is the life-work of an artist to show himself to us, and the completeness with which he reveals his own individuality is perhaps the best measure of his genius." Yet Hallam .said that it was "impossible to learn anything certain about the man Shakspere," and how many have not followed Hallam! Mr. Harris everywhere insists that the material out of which Shakspere built the essential part of his plays was himself. Only a creative artist knows this. Only a creative artist can feel that the artist's paramount desire is self-expression. The creative artist is continually thrown back on himself. Minute portions of himself are built into every character, and his greatest characters at their greatest moments contain most of what is finest in himself. The mere notion of a creative artist "keeping himself out" of his work is grotesque. In examining the plays Mr. Harris works upon the theory (a) that if in an artist's work the same important character is created and re-created again and again, that character reveals most of the artist's self - that character is broadly, and as far as it goes, the artist himself; and (b) that the assurance of identity between the artist and the type-character is strengthened into absolute certainty if the artist, when by momentary error he drops out of any dissimilar character which he may be drawing, unconsciously drops into the type-character. On this impregnable rock the entire book is constructed, and by the time it is finished you have a picture, not of a legendary demi-god, but of a clearly individualised and very living man.

The type character is, of course, Hamlet. Everybody is agreed that Shakspere put himself into Hamlet. But it has needed Mr. Frank Harris to trace the same character, in earlier or in later stages of development, in many other of Shakspere's personages: Romeo, Jaques, Posthumus, Duke Vincentio, Duke Orsino, Antonio, Macbeth, and others. When, a dozen years ago in the "Saturday Review," Mr. Harris began to show that the so-called savage Thane of Cawdor was simply Hamlet grown older, the astonishing revelation came with a thrill. It startled Oscar Wilde. Some people cut out the articles and kept them. Others, including a professor, merely appropriated the idea. Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton had noticed that bits of Hamlet were scattered all through the plays, and had most weirdly and mandarinically conjectured, to explain the phenomenon, that "Shakspere seems to have kept a sort of Hamlet note-book, full of Hamlet thoughts," and to have "tossed them indiscriminately into other plays." What an exquisite ignorance of creative processes is here disclosed! Mr. Harris alone has furnished the true explanation, now in the finished book exceedingly brilliant and complete. I shall not attempt here to transcribe briefly his portrait of Shakspere. It is too elaborate, and too surprising in its immense convincingness. I will quote from the last page:- "Shakespeare was not the kind of man Englishmen are accustomed to admire. By a curious irony of fate Jesus was sent to the Jews, the most unworldly soul to the most material of peoples; and Shakespeare to Englishmen, the most gentle, sensuous charmer to a masculine, rude race. It may be well for us to learn what infinite virtue lay in that frail, sensual singer." There is not much of Professor Dowden's "prosperous country gentleman" left when Mr. Harris has done. The one thing that I object to in the delineation is the word "snobbishness" to describe Shakspere's indubitable love of courts and titles and his equally indubitable lack of sympathy with the common people. Standards and ideals have changed since Shakspere's time, even since George the Fourth's, and snobbishness is an unfair and misleading word. The second part of the book disengages Shakspere's life from the plays. This portion of the exegesis is not put forward with the same certainty as the portrait of the man, but to myself it is just as convincing. The epic and utterly disastrous nature of his passion for Mary Fitton is richly proved. The innocence of Shakspere's relations with Herbert seems to me to be less clearly established, but many excellent people will be glad to have Mr. Harris's authority for believing that the first sequence of Sonnets is not, after all, unspeakable. I have far outrun my habitual space, and I am still far from having expressed my estimate of this book. It is probably unique. It is unquestionably unique in the annals of Shaksperean criticism. It is bound to, be received in certain quarters with contumely or with anger, for it abrades a hundred susceptibilities and deracinates a hundred pet ideas. But by its courage, its originality, its force, its patient ingenuity, its comprehension of art and the artist, its acquaintance with life, and its perfectly astounding acquaintance with Shakspere's plays, the ultimate destiny of the book is assured. It marks an epoch. It has destroyed nearly all previous Shaksperean criticism, and it will be the parent of nearly all the Shaksperean criticism of the future.

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