By Duncan Richter
I went to see Nietzsche's favorite Shakespeare play--Julius Caesar--recently, and this summer will be in England where I'll go to as many Shakespeare plays as I can. So Shakespeare's on my mind, and recently thanks to Philip Cartwright (via the British Wittgenstein Society on Facebook) I discovered this essay by Marjorie Perloff on Wittgenstein's attitude towards the Bard. Wittgenstein did not like Shakespeare, and various people have tried to explain why this is. Perloff begins with these quotations, which might help:
People look at [Shakespeare] in amazement almost as a spectacle of nature. They do not have the feeling that this brings them into contact with a great human being. Rather with a phenomenon.
It seems to me that [Shakespeare’s] plays are like enormous sketches, not paintings; they are dashed off by one who could, so to speak, permit himself everything. And I understand how one can admire this & call it the highest art, but I don’t like it.
But here's some more:
I do not think that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet. Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?
I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.
I am deeply suspicious of most of Shakespeare's admirers. I think the trouble is that, in western culture at least, he stands alone, & so, one can only place him by placing him wrongly.
It is not as though S. portrayed human types well & were in that respect true to life. He is not true to life. But he has such a supple hand & such individual brush strokes that each one of his characters looks significant, worth looking at.
"Beethoven's great heart"--no one could say "Shakespeare's great heart". 'The supple hand that created new natural forms of language' would seem to me nearer the mark.
The poet cannot really say of himself "I sing as the bird sings"--but perhaps S. could have said it of himself.
I do not think Shakespeare could have reflected on the 'lot of the poet'.
Neither could he regard himself as a prophet or teacher of humanity. People regard him with amazement almost as a spectacle of nature. They do not have the feeling that this brings them into contact with a great human being. Rather with a phenomenon.
I think that, in order to enjoy a poet, you have to like the culture to which he belongs as well. If you are indifferent to this or repelled by it, your admiration cools off
This seems mostly very reasonable to me. Shakespeare surely was a creator of language, and this is one of his great achievements. Among English writers, at least, he stands alone. Most of his admirers surely admire him for bad reasons, because it is conventional to do so. (I saw a production of Hamlet once at which the audience applauded every famous line.) And we have very little sense from his work of Shakespeare as a human being--was he gay or straight, Catholic or Protestant, anti-Semitic? It is hard to tell. And this is the kind of thing Wittgenstein is surely getting at. You can tell where Dostoevsky stands. With Shakespeare, not so much. He's rather impersonal.
Two more things worth noting: it's possible to infer from the above that Wittgenstein didn't like the culture from which Shakespeare came, which is surely fair enough, and Wittgenstein characterized his own later work as sketches of landscapes. When he says that he does not like Shakespeare he is not saying that he thinks Shakespeare is no good.
Here's some more LW on WS:
The reason I cannot understand Shakespeare is that I want to find symmetry in all this asymmetry.
It seems to me as though his pieces are, as it were, enormous sketches, not paintings; as though they were dashed off by someone who could permit himself anything, so to speak. And I understand how someone may admire this & call it supreme art, but I don't like it.--So I can understand someone who stands before those pieces speechless; but someone who admires him as one admires Beethoven, say, seems to me to misunderstand Shakespeare.
One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all the others in its own ugly way.
Perloff points out some of the implausible things that have been said about Wittgenstein on Shakespeare, but she's not beyond saying odd things herself. For instance,
Wittgenstein’s evolving aesthetic, in the Cambridge years, is difficult to expound because his highly eccentric personal tastes were by no means in accord with his aesthetic principles. The philosopher who regularly insisted that the beautiful could not be defined and that to call aesthetics a science was “ridiculous” – like being able “to tell us what sort of coffee tastes good!” (LA 1966: 11) – was quite ready, in his letters, notebooks, and conversations, to pronounce on a given work with strong conviction.
I'm not sure what Perloff is saying here, but she seems to think there is some sort of tension between Wittgenstein's thinking that some work is brilliant (Schubert's, say) and other work is "dog shit" (Alfred Ehrenstein's poetry) while also thinking that aesthetics cannot be a science. The fact that no science can tell us what sort of coffee tastes good does not mean that no person can tell us what coffee tastes good. But of course the person who says this coffee tastes good does not mean that you will necessarily like it too. In other words I don't see any tension or contradiction at all in Wittgenstein's view. Perhaps I have missed Perloff's point.
Later she refers to Wittgenstein's "demand for realism coupled with the conviction that the poet should be present in his work," but I don't see either the demand or the conviction in Wittgenstein's remarks. Shakespeare is not realistic, not true to life, he says. Surely this is true. And Shakespeare is not present in his work as a human being with evident personal concerns and values. That does not make him a bad writer, and Wittgenstein does not say that it does.
In the end, though, Perloff makes some of the very points I have made here (about Wittgenstein's referring to his own work as sketches, for instance) and concludes that Wittgenstein could value Shakespeare without liking him. I think that's right.