Did Shakespeare Ridicule the Working Man?

Here’s another piece from John O’London’s Unposted Letters. At first I thought the title was stupid – of course Shakespeare wrote of ordinary people, he is our greatest playwright, loads of working people used to pay to see his plays. But plays had to be licensed, and that meant sucking up to the powers that be, so in times of political instability,  mocking the rich and powerful. could be a very dangerous game. But some good pints are made. See what you think.

“This question was put to me in a challenging spirit by a young literary friend whose ideas about Shakespeare had been informed by Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw, the late Ernest H. Crosby, and other iconoclasts. And he lent me a little green paper-covered book issued by the Free Age Press, in which the views of those critics were set forth.

Beerbohm Tree encountered this curious attitude to Shakespeare. It was in Poplar Town Hall. He had there delivered, with great applause, a Sunday afternoon lecture on “The Humanity of Shakespeare”, under the chairmanship of the late Mr. Will Crooks. After the lecture (I quote from a report in the Daily Chronicle):-

“A Young man rose quietly in the middle of the hall and asked if he might put a question to Mr. Tree. “It is just this,” said the young man : “Did he, or did he not, ridicule the working classes?”

Mr Crooks disallowed the question, and the lecturer was obediently silent. But there was much pavement discussion later, and opinions were expressed that Shakespeare did ridicule the working classes – “and worse.” “You wouldn’t believe,” said one man, “the nasty things he says in that here play!”

One can understand that at a certain stage in his approach to Shakespeare a young working man might put the question which agitated that Poplar audience. But I think that he would be much more likely to put it after hearing a lecture on “The Humanity of Shakespeare,” at Poplar Town Hall, than after seeing Shakespeare’s humanity for himself on the stage of the “Old Vic”. In other words, it is more likely to be suggested to him by Shakespearean criticism than by Shakespeare himself. I do not believe that this question troubles the mind of the working man, who probably takes a larger, a truer, and altogether finer view of Shakespeare than is here suggested.

Mr Crosby based his attack on hat selective method by which all sorts of inquirers have tried to educe all sorts of conclusions about Shakespeare fro his text. He had found, what anyone may perceive, that Shakespeare’s principal characters are kings, noblemen, courtiers, and aristocrats, and that, as a general rule, his low-born characters are his minor characters. And he said:-

“A glance at Shakespeare’s lists of dramatis personaeis sufficient to show that he was unable to conceive of any situation rising to the dignity of tragedy in other than royal or ducal circles. It may be said in explanation of this partiality for high rank that he was only following the custom of the dramatists of his time, but this is a poor plea for a man of great genius, whose business it is precisely to lead and not to follow.”

where did Mr Crosby learn what is the precise business of a great genius? It is the nature of a man of genius to have no business which can be defined by other men. You take from him what he has to give, and you respond to the gift or you do not. But to to to Shakespeare with a list of requirements, or even with one outstanding demand, is to misconceive one’s relation to genius. As Ruskin, in his chapter on “The Mountain Glory”, says:-

Shakespeare was forbidden of Heaven to have any plans. To do any good, or to get any good, in the common sense of good, was not to e within his permitted range of work. Not for him the founding of institutions, the preaching of doctrines, or the repression of abuses. Neither he, nor the sun, did on any morning that they rose together receive charge from their Maker concerning such things. They were both of them to shine on the evil and the good; both to behold unoffendedly all that was upon the earth, to burn unappalled upon the spears of kings, and undisdaining upon the reeds of the river.”

In another page I point to the familiar fact that Shakespeare has almost nothing to tell us of his own times. Shakespeare’s theme was human nature, and he knew that any series of events, any condition of society, and any group of men could supply him with all he needed. He took his materials where he found them to be abundant and convenient, “animating them with pure human nature of any time and all time.” The working man knows this. Today he is asking many things of life, and he frames his demands in terms of work, wages, housing, political power, and other external things; but to gain these he is not throwing away, or allowing himself to forget, the highest satisfactions of Art, and he greatest appeals to the life within him. He knows what another poet meant when he wrote of Shakespeare: “Others abide our question, thou art free.”

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