Thursday, September 12, 2013

G. Wilson Knight is Feeling Cranky this Morning

The critic G. Wilson Knight goes looking for the root of Shakespeare's art in the soil of contemporary Elizabeth society and somehow stumbles on the bones of Matthew Arnold:
We see [Shakespeare's] contemporaries for the most part as busy hack writers of untidy genius, sharing a particular sense of the tragic mood: this sense, such as it is, merging into the mere sense of what the public wanted. They confuse us by the fact that what at first appears to be their 'philosophy of life' sometimes turns out to be only a felicitous but shameless lifting of a passage from almost any author, as those of Chapman from Erasmus. This, indeed, is a habit which Shakespeare shares; he has his Montaigne, his Seneca, and his Machiavelli, or his Anti-Machiavel like the others. And they adapted, collaborated, and overlaid each other   to the limits of confusion. Nevertheless, they do seem, the best of Shakespeare's contemporaries, to have more or less faint or distinct patterns. (I was tempted to use the word 'secret' as an alternative to 'pattern', but that I remembered the unlucky example of Matthew Arnold, who said much about the 'secret of Jesus', a secret which having been revealed only and finally to Arnold himself, turned out to be a pretty poor secret after all.) In Marlowe, surely, we feel the search for one; in Chapman a kind of blundering upon one; in Jonson the one dear and distinct, slight but much more serious than it looks, pattern. There is something in the Revenger's Tragedy, but one play does not make a pattern; and Middleton completely baffles me; and as for Ford and Shirley, I suspect them of belonging to that class of poets not unknown to any age, which has all of the superficial qualities, and none of the internal organs, of poetry.
Knight, G. Wilson (2001-05-18). The Wheel of Fire
 (Routledge Classics) . Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition..
Insofar as it seems to apply to Shakespeare himself, this may be too severe.  Forgetting about Matthew Arnold, whose "secret" remains undisclosed to me, later  critics have found more coherence in Shakespeare's thought.  See, e.g., Colin McGinn, Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind Shakespeare's Plays.

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