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Shakespeare's Snobbishness and Sensuality

This is Frank Harris's response, published in the "New Age" for November 11, 1909, to Arnold Bennett's review of The Man Shakespeare in the same periodical two weeks earlier, in which Bennett had disputed Harris's use of the term "snobbishness" with regard to Shakespeare. ("Jacob Tonson" was Bennett's pseudonym under which he wrote book reviews.)

Shakespeare’s Snobbishness and Sensuality

By Frank Harris

Mr. Jacob Tonson's review in THE NEW AGE of my book, "The Man Shakespeare and his Tragic Life-Story" was so exhaustive and so flattering, his acceptance of my theories and my conclusions so generous and so complete, that it may seem ungrateful in me even to notice the points wherein he found himself unable wholly to agree with me. The subject, however, is so enticing, and I have such respect for Mr. Jacob Tonson's fair-mindedness, that I should like to restate or strengthen my case in the two points which he finds weak. He objects to the word "snobbishness" to describe "Shakespeare's indubitable love of Court and titles, and his equally indubitable lack of sympathy with the common people." Mr. Jacob Tonson should surely have added "and with the middle-classes."

I am conscious that I do not grasp the full force of Mr. Tonson's objection to the word "snobbishness." At first blush it may seem a little harsh and even unjust to speak of snobbishness in connection with so superb an artist as Shakespeare. Still, it is surely "snobbish" to ape gentility; "snobbish" to desire titles and flattering labels; most "snobbish" of all to confuse titular with real distinctions and to pay rever- ence more willingly to name and place than to intellect and character. Yet it can easily be proved that in all these respects Shakespeare was a "snob."

Snobbishness is always looked upon as a subject of comedy in England: it is regarded as a foible, a weakness, and not a vice. In itself a certain respect for dignitaries may be considered a virtue of the flock: but when this respect is carried as far as it is habitually carried with us; when it is cherished so extravagantly that it weakens or even destroys one's sense of real values, it becomes, in my opinion, the most pernicious of vices a crime against the ideal, the sin against the Spirit for which there should be no forgiveness. In my book I gave several instances in which Shakespeare's snobbishness went as far as this. He had an exquisitely scrupulous aesthetic conscience, coupled with an Englishman's respect for facts; he accepted the truths of history as he found them set forth, and wove them into his plays almost without personal colour His art he felt should be bottomed on truth, as the beauty of the body depends on the truth in proportion of the skeleton. This high aesthetic conscience is perhaps the finest thing in him, and it is destroyed again and again by what I call his snobbishness. He ascribes the victory of Agincourt to the King and his nobles; though every English schoolboy knows it was due to the English archers; Shakespeare knew it too; the fact was before him as he wrote, but he preferred the lie.

Just in the same way in the South African war, we used generals who happened to have position and titles and no ability and paid the price of our snobbishness in loss of lives and loss of prestige. Our snobbishness is destroying our efficiency as a nation.

I gave other instances of Shakespeare's snobbishness. He had to stoop to deceit and lies in order to gentle his father's condition. Surely this must be called "snobbishness."

Moreover, if Mr. Jacob Tonson cares to recall the way the young nobles are allowed to insult and crow over the broken Jew, Shylock, in defiance of our sense of justice and even of our sense of manliness, I think he will admit that Shakespeare's snobbishness did his art an ill turn in this case. I have tried further to show that Shakespeare's snobbish admiration of the young nobles, who were his chief patrons, prevented him from seeing and understanding the middle-classes, and so limited his intellectual horizon.

In fact, it is his snobbishness as much as his humour which differentiates Shakespeare from the other world-poets, Homer, Dante, Goethe. There is far too much respect for dignitaries in all of us; Shakespeare passed almost unnoticed in the little London of Elizabeth - that fact alone should have taught him that the men who come to honour and power during their lives are usually mediocrities who deserve anything but respect.

But I must get on to Mr. Jacob Tonson's second point. He says of my book: "The epic and utterly disastrous nature of his (Shakespeare's) passion for Mary Fitton is richly proved." But he adds: "The innocence of Shakespeare's relations with Herbert seems to me to be less clearly established." Now if I have succeeded in my attempt to prove that Shakespeare was passionately in love with Mary Fitton from 1597 to 1608; that is before he knew Herbert, and long atfer he had dropped him; if I have further established thee fact that his great tragedies, "Hamlet," "Othello," "Macbeth," "Lear," "Antony and Cleopatra," and "Timon" are all based on his tragic passion for the self-willed and wanton maid of honour, I must at least have shown by implication that his relations with Herbert were comparatively without significance. I have done more than this. Not only was Shakespeare's love for Mary Fitton the master-passion of his life; but as in a great storm, the swirl and turmoil of the waves outlast the wind which caused them, so Shakespeare's jealousy of his gipsy-mistress and bitter sex denigration still survived in "The Winter's Tale" and "Cymbeline" long after the rage of desire had blown itself out. On the other hand, one can find no direct reference to Pembroke later than 1600; after his betrayal he dropped out of Shakespeare's mind. Now if this be true, if I have proved these assumptions, then surely the burden of proof lies on those who pretend to believe that Shakespeare was sexually perverted; there is no evidence of this; nothing in his plays; nothing in his sonnets for those who know the time.

The suspicion has arisen from the sonnets alone, and mainly from the fact that Shakespeare asserts in the sonnets that the loss of the friend is more painful to him than the loss of his mistress. But every poet and gentleman in Elizabeth's time talked like this. Lyly, Shakespeare's master, went even further and made Alexander give up his mistress to his friend. I have tried to prove from the plays that this attitude on the part of Shakespeare is a pose, and not the poet's true feeling.

How can I more clearly establish the innocence of Shakespeare's relations with Herbert? Had the relation been regarded as guilty at the time we should have heard of it; Ben Jonson would have taken care of that. These arguments and many others have not convinced Mr. Jacob Tonson, but they may convince him on reflection, or at least induce him to go on and find more cogent arguments for himself.