I’ve said before, I think, how utterly fascinated I am with the way each era, since the late 17th Century, has tried to mould a Shakespeare of its own. Rewriting his works to make them merrier, or more classical, or less earthy, but also refashioning again and again what (comparatively) little we know of him into one or other ideal portrait – from John Aubrey’s merry poacher to W.H. Ireland’s perfect gentleman…
It would seem that, when Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, he may have both perfectly grasped and somewhat understated the matter. And I can’t help wondering what Will himself would have made of some of these incarnations…
Matthew Arnold’s not-quite-Shakespearean sonnet is a good example of the Victorian brand of Bardolatry – although George Bernard Shaw had yet to coin the word when it was written. Still, it matches very well Arnold’s demigodly Shakespeare, a veritable titan of poetry, unquestioned and unquestionable, steeped in the beauty of nature, and far above the fetters of formal education:
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask – Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil’d searching of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess’d at. – Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.
How very Victorian and Romantic – isn’t it?