Shakespeare and Dante

That Shakespeare is the English giant, all but alone in his stature among the sons of men, is a truth that does not really diminish with distance. But it is a truth with two aspects; a shield with two sides; a sword with two edges. It is exactly because Shakespeare is an English giant that he blocks up the perspective of English history. He is as disproportionate to his own age as to every age; but he throws a misleading limelight on his own age and throws a gigantic shadow back on the other ages. For this reason many will not even know what I mean, when I talk about the greater spaciousness around the medieval poet [that is, Chaucer].  If the matter were pushed to a challenge, however, I could perhaps illustrate my meaning even better with another medieval poet. It is vaguely implied that Shakespeare was always jolly and Dante always gloomy. But, in a philosophical sense, it is almost the other way. It is notably so if, so to speak, we actually bring Shakespeare to the test of Dante. Do we not know in our hearts that Shakespeare could have dealt with Dante’s Hell but hardly with Dante’s Heaven? In so far as it is possible to be greater than anything that is really great, the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet might have made something even more poignant out of Paolo and Francesca. The man who uttered that pulverizing “He has no children”, over the butchery in the house of Macduff, might have picked out yet more awful and telling words for the father’s cry out of the Tower of Hunger. But the Tower of Hunger is not spacious. And when Dante is really dealing with the dance of the liberated virtues in the vasty heights of heaven, he is spacious. He is spacious when he talks of Liberty; he is spacious when he talks of Love. It is so in the famous words at the end about Love driving the sun and stars; it is the same in the far less famous and far finer passage, in which he hails the huge magnanimity of God in giving to the human spirit the one gift worth having; which is Liberty. Nobody but a fool will say that Shakespeare was a pessimist; but we may, in this limited sense, say that he was a pagan; in so far as he is the greatest at describing great spirits in chains. In that sense, his most serious plays are an inferno. Anyhow, they are not a Paradiso.

Chaucer (1932).

Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: