Lecture 85: Chesterton on Shakespeare

With this collection of his essays on Shakespeare, we get a glimpse of what might have been, namely, G.K. Chesterton’s greatest book, which unfortunately he never wrote. He was commissioned to do a book on Shakespeare, but he died before the first page was ever written. However, he had already written enough on the subject to fill a book, and some thirty five years later, his secretary, Dorothy Collins, assembled most of his essays on the Bard, many of which had previously appeared in other collections. God bless Dorothy Collins, but this wonderful volume is almost impossible to get a hold of because Chesterton’s literary executrix was growing a bit eccentric in her later years. She made the decision to have the book published by Lord Darwen, a local nobleman who knew almost nothing about publishing. He printed perhaps a thousand copies, did no marketing, told potential reviewers they had to buy the book at full price if they wanted to review it, and thus can take credit for one of the publishing world’s great secrets. In the 1970’s Chesterton was in an almost total eclipse. This did not help change that.

We could argue that Chesterton is less a critic of Shakespeare than he is a critic of the critics of Shakespeare. He is a critic of those who would psychoanalyze not only Shakespeare but Shakespeare’s characters, of those who would try to force and squeeze Shakespeare into narrow modern philosophies, of those who concluded that Shakespeare was despairing, only because they discovered that Shakespeare could express their own despair, of those who would turn “good poetry into bad metaphysics,” of those who cannot connect with the audience and who therefore cannot understand why Shakespeare does connect with the audience and why after four centuries he can still pull them in, and of those who have the audacity to say how they would have written Shakespeare, when it is Shakespeare who has written us. And of those who say Shakespeare was somebody else.

Chesterton states quite matter-of-factly that Shakespeare is Catholic. When called upon to defend the comment, he writes “Shakespeare is possessed through and through with the feeling which is the first and finest idea of Catholicism: that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it.” Milton, on the other hand, writes to “justify the ways of God to men… Milton’s religion was Milton’s religion, and that Shakespeare’s religion was not Shakespeare’s.”

Most of the essays in this collection deal with Hamlet, who, “like the Catholic Church, believes in reason.” Who is able to praise God’s creation (“What a piece of work is Man!”) even when he is not in the mood to do so. Who has a Catholic conscience, and not, as Freud would say, a complex.

As great as the play Hamlet is, Chesterton claims that Macbeth is actually Shakespeare’s greatest drama and greatest tragedy. Just as Hamlet is accused of being a skeptic and a pessimist based on few often-quoted passages, Shakespeare is accused of being a pessimist because of Macbeth. One of the accusers was George Bernard Shaw. And the passage used by Shaw to prove the pessimism of Shakespeare, the “out brief candle” soliloquy, with its “Life’s but a walking shadow,” and so on.

As Chesterton explains to Shaw, the importance of this speech is in its dramatic value, not its philosophic value. It is Macbeth at his lowest point, just before his final defeat. “It is a speech,” says Chesterton, “made by a wicked and wasted human soul confronted by his own colossal failure.” It is not a metaphysical statement at all; it is an emotional outburst. To call Shakespeare a pessimist for having written the words “out, out, brief candle” is the same as calling him a champion of the ideal of celibacy for having written the words, “Get thee to the nunnery.” “It is not Shakespeare’s fault,” says Chesterton, “that, having to write pessimism for the purpose of a theatrical point, he happened to write much better pessimism than the people who are silly enough to be pessimists.”

Chesterton says that Macbeth is the supreme Christian Tragedy; as opposed to Oedipus, which is the supreme Pagan Tragedy: “It is the whole point about Oedipus that he does not know what he is doing. And it is the whole point about Macbeth that he does know what he is doing. It is not a tragedy of Fate but a tragedy of Freewill.”

But even though Chesterton maintains that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s greatest drama, he does not say it is his greatest play. That honor he gives to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It is the mysticism of happiness….In pure poetry and the intoxication of words, Shakespeare never rose higher than he rises in this play.”

It is interesting to note that you can have comic characters in a tragedy, but it doesn’t quite work to have tragic characters in a comedy. You can have the gravedigger in Hamlet, even if Hamlet doesn’t like him making merry while he is digging a grave. Chesterton says “The common man, engaged in tragic occupation, has always refused and will always refuse, to be tragic.” But you can’t have Ophelia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It would ruin the whole atmosphere. And it is precisely that atmosphere that is so magical and dreamlike. All of the events in A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be considered tragic and cruel, but instead they are hilarious. And the most hilarious character of all is Bottom, who is the incarnation of Merrie England. Chesterton says Bottom “is greater and more mysterious than Hamlet.” He is “as firm as a tree and as unique as a rhinoceros, and he might quite easily be as stupid as either of them.” His presence fills the room like a roaring fire, and his absence leaves an unexplainable void.

Finally, there is one other critic Chesterton dispenses with: the small-minded scholar who manages to sneer that Shakespeare borrowed all his plots. If Shakespeare borrowed, says Chesterton, he jolly well paid back.