Anti-Bardolatry Through the Ages - or, Why Voltaire, Tolstoy, Shaw and Wittgenstein Didn't Like Shakespeare

Erin Sullivan

Abstract


Long before today’s debates about English literary heritage, compulsory school readings, and whether or not England’s national poet, William Shakespeare, should remain safe from the national curriculum’s axe, members of the European public passionately debated the value of Shakespeare’s plays and their place in an increasingly modern world. Indeed, more than one hundred and fifty years before Harold Bloom declared that Shakespeare invented the human, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge similarly promised in him a ‘wisdom deeper even than our consciousness’ and characterised his talents as god-like. In his public lectures, Coleridge assured his audiences that Shakespeare’s art was of such majesty that every line was instantly recognisable – ‘not a sentence could be read without its being discovered if it were Shakespeare’ – and, furthermore, that it was so noble as to be morally impeccable, ‘keeping at all times the high road of life’ and making its ‘readers better as well as wiser’. Notes from Coleridge’s lectures, writings, and conversations reveal his unequivocal devotion to Shakespeare, expressed to its full extent in his discussion of the playwright’s rhythm: ‘He goes on kindling like a meteor through the dark atmosphere; yet, when the creation in its outline is once perfect, then he seems to rest from his labour, and to smile upon his work, and tell himself that it is very good’.1 In his version of Genesis, Coleridge envisioned Shakespeare as a divine Creator, shaping form out of chaos as he dashed off a few hundred lines of his sublime iambic pentameter. The effort was minimal, the result ‘very good’, and the appropriate response on the part of the reader humble veneration.


Keywords


literary criticism; adolatry

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