There's something so vital about Greek invocations. Their figurative language is so crisp, precise, and yet allusive. Aeschylus was the great innovato...moreThere's something so vital about Greek invocations. Their figurative language is so crisp, precise, and yet allusive. Aeschylus was the great innovator of tragedy, taking to heart the spirit of fearless meddling that infected all Greek genius. 'The Suppliants' is a brief but solid example of his power.
Cookson's translation transmits the evocation and originality of the work, but his penchant for rendering the chorus with rhyme is awkward and not true to Greek traditions. English is too large, complex, and variable to respond well to couplets. It is a wild and many-fathered bastard of a language, made easily silly by such constraints if they linger for more than a sonnet's length.
For me, the effect is that of a bright-colored mix of fonts and interchanging capitals: it may be technically legible, but detracts more meaning from the text than it adds. I will not go as far as Milton and declare it
"the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter"
but I do agree that it should be used sparingly. For verse, English is better served by alliteration, meter, and more subtle sound-play, sparing rhyme--as Shakespeare did--for the occasional unmistakably heavy accent.
It is one thing to rhyme in a language like Italian, where the musicality and continuous aesthetic make such a thing natural, even inescapable, as it might flow from everyday speech. To try to transfer that directly to English is like a painter who, desiring to produce the visual equivalent of a song, paints his canvas in strips of verses and identical choruses; there are methods which are more effective and less artificial.(less)
Here, notable dramatist and theater critic Bentley presents a compelling argument about Shaw, if not for Shaw. Shaw said many things, and his most pro...moreHere, notable dramatist and theater critic Bentley presents a compelling argument about Shaw, if not for Shaw. Shaw said many things, and his most prominent and notorious utterances have come to define him, and they do not paint a very flattering picture. His Prefaces, in particular, are filled with infamous remarks, incomplete arguments, and unclear sarcasm.
A reader with a passing familiarity with Shaw has almost no choice but to take all of these statements at face value, and to conclude that Shaw is either scatterbrained or hypocritical. Yet it is Bentley's assertion that Shaw has a fully-developed, concrete philosophy which underpins all of his writing.
He suggests that Shaw purposefully created an infamous front, saying things which were sure to invite vitriolic responses. He reveled in the role of Devil's Advocate, defending the undefendable and attacking the sacred. Attacking the sacred has always been the prerogative of the author, defending the awful, less so. The problem with devilish advocacy is that it is an attempt to promote the bad over the good. It is not merely a reasonable defense of the unpopular, but an unreasonable defense of a bad concept.
But it does get you attention. For Bentley, Shaw's downfall is that his bombastic public persona so overtakes him that he can never be taken seriously, nor can he discourse reasonably. He is trapped in the role of the eternal iconoclast, and Bentley gives several examples of Shaw's disappointment with the fact that his philosophies are never taken seriously, but his inflammatory remarks always are.
Bentley's argument holds up because he draws from so many sources. It could not be made even from a familiarity with Shaw's major works. Bentley has to rely a great deal on letters, individual lectures, and other such detritus of Shaw's long career–and it is long.
He has quotes by Shaw to support every point he makes, and others to contradict the arguments of other Shaw critics. Yet Bentley also points out that Shaw has said so much, on so many subjects, that his critics may simply pick and choose and support their own interpretation. These critics take those things they agree with and group them under the 'good Shaw' and place all the rest under a separate, 'flawed Shaw'. But is Bentley doing the same thing?
He has separated the private, thoughtful Shaw from the public, caustic Shaw. Bentley doesn't shy away from Shaw's most notorious remarks; his defense of Hitler, of Stalin, of culling political dissidents, his hatred of inoculation. Bentley shows his character and his completeness by trying to make these statements fit into Shaw's overall philosophy of humanitarianism.
Easiest are the statements about Hitler and Stalin, which were meant not as direct praise, but as slights against politics at home. Shaw sought to wake people up to the fact that tyranny and inequality were not solely of the continent. As a young socialist, he criticized the communists for resorting so quickly to violence, and as an old socialist, he used Stalin to criticize British Socialism for resorting to upheaval too late. FDR and Churchill praised Hitler and Stalin before their regimes resorted to mass killings.
Shaw's hatred of inoculation, which was vitriolic and lasted his whole life, repeatedly popping up in his prefaces apropos of nothing, can also be explained, at least in part. To Shaw, the emerging class of doctors was just a new priesthood, swindling the people and passing down holy truths from on high. Bentley quotes a doctor who says that in the early stages, inoculation and germ theory did reach the level of religious fervor, leading to widespread quackery. So we may forgive Shaw slightly for this opinion.
His support of the secret police and their killings of 'undesirables' and 'radicals' is not explained away so easily. After all, it conflicts directly with his equally vehement dislike of censorship of any type. Clearly, if the secret police are going to kill the unpopular, outspoken rebels, then Shaw would be first on the chopping block.
If we accept that Shaw does have a reasonable philosophy behind what he says, then we have to assume that this is another sarcastic metaphor which he never bothers to explain. Bentley mentions and tries to come to terms with many of these, and they are very common among his lengthy prefaces.
One, in his preface to Androcles and the Lion, I took to be a sudden, inexplicable resort to the 'skeptic's argument' which was apparently unrelated to the text before or after it. Shaw argued that since the number seven was sacred to medievalists, they would be right in saying that the sun was seven miles away. He then proceeds to say that therefore, since our scientists say the sun is several million miles away, it is only because our sacred number is a million.
I saw a man who doesn't know the difference between a million and seven, but Bentley has another take: Shaw is saying that to the common man, seven miles sounds just as reasonable as a million, and that the astrologist and the astronomer are passing down sacred truths on the populace in the same ways.
One flaw in the argument is that while mystical astrology is secretive, the methods and purposes of science are easier to devise. There are certainly scientists who treat it as sacred, but that isn't usually the intent. The bigger flaw with the metaphor is that Shaw never makes it clear what he's getting at. The argument doesn't flow from what comes before it (an analysis of the conflicts between the gospels) or what comes after (Shaw arguing Jesus was a socialist).
Like a great deal of Shaw, the point of the argument might be interesting, but Shaw never makes it there. Bentley argues that Shaw never intended to write for a particular audience, but this makes Shaw's constant disappointment in being misunderstood seem disingenuous. I'd suggest that Shaw's writing is for a very specific audience, but one that never existed. He seems to expect his reader to be clever enough to understand his convoluted, acerbic, sarcastic arguments, but not clever enough to have already reached a reasonable conclusion on their own.
Shaw didn't actually write for a 'genius born yesterday', his inability to get his point across comes from another source. Bentley succeeds in presenting a fairly strong front for Shaw's ideas, but never addresses whether or not the ideas were good per se. Bentley likely didn't consider this to be his role as a critic, instead preferring to present Shaw as he is and let us decide.
But Bentley does show that Shaw was not in the habit of researching the theories behind his ideas. His plays were often filled with bizarre anachronisms, beggaring the question: why did Shaw bother to write plays set in colonial America if he doesn't even know where Boston is in relation to New York?
His philosophies are likewise beset with difficulties; he is another moral socialist with no concept of economic or social theory. He believes in things because he likes to believe in them, and he adopts new ideas quickly, rarely bothering to fact-check. He immerses himself in the dialogue about wrong and right, but not in the theory that it was developed from. It is then no wonder that he criticizes the scientific community a a church, because he does not put much stock in basing ideas upon fundamental knowledge.
Shaw isn't the first author to be widely misunderstood and vilified. He mentions Nietzsche in some of his plays, and there were a number of concepts on which they agreed; but anyone who has heard the horror stories about Nietzsche can prove them wrong simply by reading him. Shaw is not so lucky. In order to believe he is reasonable and deliberate requires not only the tireless work of a clever apologist synthesizing all of his works into a whole, but to constantly give Shaw the benefit of the doubt and assume he's being reasonable, even when he is being deliberately unreasonable.
It's all a bit much for me. Shaw can be interesting, funny, and clever, but I'm not convinced he knows what he's doing. He's far too spotty. He'll follow one of his best works with one of his worst, and write a preface that tells you nothing about the play, and likely conflicts directly with the points the play makes.
Shaw isn't brilliant, he never had things figured out, and the fact that he acted as if he did was his worst and most destructive affectation. His need to be taken seriously was always undermined by the fact that he never took his own arguments seriously. He used every perceived failure as an excuse to be difficult.
This might at first seem to be merely a failing of character, but I find Shaw's hyperbolistic iconoclasm to be unsettlingly familiar. The man of ideas who puts himself on a public stage is hazarding himself and his philosophy. There will always be backlash, always critics, and while some of them may be interesting and make viable points, the vast majority will simply be ignorant and angry.
At this point, it is easy to paint the audience at large as an ill-informed, overly emotional mob. Once this has been acknowledged, the author feels no reason to address them directly, instead making jokes, asides, and baiting comments. He becomes entrapped in his own small world where may not be right, but is at least reasonable, and certainly isn't one of the rabid idiots.
This kind of hopelessness is almost guaranteed in an author who chooses to be both public and controversial. His first few attempts at correction or argument will be directed and thoughtful, but here's the problem: his thoughtful, patient responses will receive almost exactly the same response as his ridiculous posturing, and posturing takes less of an emotional toll than trying to be reasonable to a crowd of the proudly ignorant.
So Shaw, like so many authors, hardened himself and distanced himself, unable to convince anyone with his best arguments, he saw no reason to continue putting them forth to the world, and began simply criticizing the world for not taking his well-meaning advice. This posture, even when half-jest, is a mirroring of the antagonism of the masses; the author feels he must become as self-assured and dismissive at the mob, but you can't beat the mod at it's own game.
If you play the game of aggressive histrionics, the mob already has you; at least, it has a part of you. And so Shaw got caught up in his own public image, feeling attacked and disrespected from all sides and changing his style so that every time he intended to write to a public of intelligent, open-minded readers, he fell back on a defensive and overwrought posture that was bound to alienate many of them.
But this is not Bentley's argument, but my own observation. I feel it is closer to the truth regarding Shaw's internal conflicts and the difference between his public and private faces.
This conflict makes it even more remarkable that he was able to write some entertaining, thoughtful works, works which undeniably have their moments of philosophical intrigue. Apparently, if a confused and misguided man produces a large enough oeuvre, some of his uncorrupted thought will still shine through. At least, as long as he's reasonably funny, clever, and willing to take risks.
All I can think of is what he might have done with his talents if he had written not for the ignorant audience with which he constantly clashed, but for the ideal intelligent, reasonable audience. Just because you cannot see them out there, cannot hear them over the clamor, does not mean they aren't there to listen; and this is the greatest lesson we can learn from the Shaw: that descending to the level of our most vocal critics makes less of our work, our ideas, and our arguments.
Perhaps this is why so many great thinkers were also hermits: not because thinking and hermitage go hand in hand, but because the lone thinker can write purely without condescending to the least of men. There is an irony in the fact that Nietzsche's silent, sickly life alone produced a philosophy that celebrates and longs for humanity, in all its dark, emotional fervor, while Socrates, who spent each day ridiculing and condescending to men, created a philosophy that makes man, living, and the world nothing, and his own, alternative, internal world everything.
I can never trust a philosopher who disregards and talks around an idea; it makes him more sure of himself than he has reason to be.(less)
Shaw has two distinct classes of follower: there are those who enjoy his vivid characters and humor, and those who idolize him as a revolutionary spir...moreShaw has two distinct classes of follower: there are those who enjoy his vivid characters and humor, and those who idolize him as a revolutionary spiritual force. Each appreciates a different side of Shaw's character, and each of his plays presents a struggle between his creative instinct and his revolutionary ambitions.
His need to play the iconoclast was not limited to his socialism, his vegetarianism, and his contempt for medicine. Shaw was never afraid to adopt unpopular ideas, especially when they were novel and contentious. Yet, for as hard as he fought for new ideas, he often undermined them with slights and satire.
Those who believe in Shaw the prophet tend to ignore these subversions, or to chalk them up to playful sardonicism, but Shaw's constant doubts are not so easy to ignore, if one strains a bit to listen over the vehement philosophical outbursts which surround them.
Man and Superman represents perhaps the finest balance between his two extremes, neither overpowering the other. In this achievement he comes his closest to the style of Shakespeare, whom he idolized and often compared himself to in predictably favorable terms.
He once rewrote the third act of 'Cymbeline', which has been attributed partially to Shakespeare, excepting the messy third act, which was likely finished by an unknown playwright. In his preface, Shaw states with confidence that his childhood love of Shakespeare allowed him to recreate the Bard's voice and style perfectly; an assertion only Shaw's apostles fail to smirk at.
Like most authors, Shaw is not at his best when confirming his own superiority, which is one reason 'Man and Superman' retains its appeal. He finds many opportunities to place his pet ideas in the mouth of his author surrogate, but doesn't make the character either infallible or sympathetic.
His long diatribes, though impassioned, are rarely successful, and usually end in confusion or self-deprecation. Shakespeare always allows us to try on this or that idea, without coming out overwhelmingly for one side or the other. Shaw usually misses this trick, growing too one-sided or losing his argument altogether between the busyness of his various allegories, symbols, satires, jokes, romantic cliches, and existential realism. 'Man and Superman' is still very complex, relying on lengthy debates, idiomatically overwrought scene descriptions, coincidences that encourage disbelief, and an extended allegorical dream sequence (which is usually left out, reducing both production costs and pretension); but for once, Shaw is mostly able to maintain the elaborate balance between elements.
His author surrogate will be familiar to any Shaw reader, as are his other characters. Drawn from his familiar pool, we have the impassioned young political philosopher, the hypocritical romantic, the woman defined purely by her 'strength', the woman who knowingly takes advantage of the relationship between sex and money, the always 'bullet headed' capitalist, the conservative and blustery father, the clever mother who fails to control her daughter, and the rebellious servant.
He also reuses the same double marriage plot that tends to undermine his oft-asserted loathing of Romanticism. Between the repetition of character archetypes, ideas, and plot, Shaw's society plays can feel more like drafts than distinct visions. They differ chiefly in who wins which arguments, and whether or not the marriages are ultimately engaged.
In structure and satire, 'Mrs. Warren's Profession' is a stronger draft in terms of character, but 'Man and Superman' takes the prize for ideas explored, in both number and depth. 'Candida' presents a more dynamic presentation of the conflict between the philosopher and the hypocrite, but shares with 'Man and Superman' a rushed and unsure climax. Both rely on a debate of competing philosophies to move the plot along ('Candida' being starker in that regard), and both are ultimately content to leave the clash of ideas behind, instead resolving with the spiritual sentimentalism of a pretentious romance.
Another author might have used such an ending to show that in the end, thought must give way to action, and rarely gracefully. Instead, Shaw takes a common and disappointing stance: when his numerous ideas and faculty for reason eventually run out of steam, he personifies his ignorance in a grandiose phrase ('Life Force'), closes his eyes reverently, and declares profundity achieved.
It is the unremarkable endgame of every self-declared prophet, and is a good enough trick to impress those who are as desperate to feel important as they are to avoid the work necessary to become so. Again, Shaw makes the one mistake which will always separate him from Shakespeare: overcommitment.
Though he maintains balance and subtlety through much of the narrative, he loses his control at the moment of conclusion, undermining all the hard work that led up to it, and proves once again that he is peerless in at least one regard: he has no enemy as great as himself.(less)
Of the Shaw I read in my short stint as a dramaturg, this was my favorite. It bears all his hallmarks: feisty women choosing between an artist and a b...moreOf the Shaw I read in my short stint as a dramaturg, this was my favorite. It bears all his hallmarks: feisty women choosing between an artist and a businessman, a basic farcical British romance plot, a hypocritical priest, lots of quipping about philosophy, and attempts to make the characters vivid and surprising.
At the latter task, he succeeds more in this book than in any of the others, truly turning the form of the light comedy on its head and committing to Ibsenesque realism. He still captures neither the minutely precise psychology of Chekhov nor the solid (if predictable) comedy of Wilde, but he does present characters that are more visceral and true than elsewhere in his work.
The characters do not boast quite the same implacable self-awareness that often marks Shaw's puppet debates. Instead, they prove capable of incongruity, uncontrollable emotional responses, and pique. His standard cast of allegorical types seem to chafe at the philosophical bounds Shaw always sets, allowing them to rise above their role as argumentative stances, as they never do in Candida or Man and Superman.
Shaw is always at his best when he lets his imagination run away with him, when he ceases to be obsessively concerned with the message he's conveying, and begins to write fluidly, naturally, allowing the characters to take on the aspect of living. A sweeping pen often captures more, in nuance and paradox, than a precise one does in the endless detailing of careful construction.
Of course, there must first be something within the mind of the author to spill out, and here, Shaw gets as close as he will ever get to admitting a real, central conflict in his philosophies. He is not merely stating both sides in reasonable, forceful, hyperbole, as is usual, he lets arguments fall apart, lets them be unsure and imprecise, and it is in these strange, unshavian moments of unsurety that we get the most interesting insights.
That Shaw let his pen run so freely seems almost an oversight on his part, when compared with his works before and since, but I suspect it merely caught him at a moment of personal and philosophical fluidity, when he was too intrigued by the procession of thought to remember to be the Ridiculous and Overbearing Shaw.
If only he had recognized the use of this ambiguity and embraced it, we might not have had to deal with the unfortunate polarizing mess of the half-sarcastic, self-loving/self-loathing, self-obsessed, larger-than-life Shaw as he wended through his unusually long (and unfortunately long-winded) career.(less)
Chekhov wrote his realist stories between drinks at parties in his home, taking inspiration from the characters around him to create a world of small,...moreChekhov wrote his realist stories between drinks at parties in his home, taking inspiration from the characters around him to create a world of small, short-sighted people who seem real through a combination of meanness and absurdity. They are dull enough to have the problems of a normal person, but eccentric enough to come off as individuals instead of simply mouthpieces or archetypes.
Shaw sometimes works along the same lines, but his approach to absurdity is much grander, and will not yield to pettiness. Shaw writes his characters likes he imagines himself to be: mighty thinkers of great instinctual understanding. At least, this is how he paints himself in his rambling, opinionated, yet unsupported prologues.
While we wouldn't be likely to accuse Chekhov of writing his characters 'too small' to be believable, Shaw's are too grand for anything resembling real life; just as he aspired to be.
His plays are the product of his lifelong struggle between overwrought philosophy and humorous banter. Sometimes the romantic wins out, sometimes the lecturer. He is usually at his best on the romantic side, since he is never quite well-informed or well-structured enough to support the philosophical.
Despite often declaring himself the 'enemy of romanticism', he is very fond of characters, sentiments, and ideas which are very romantic, in that they are 'larger than life'. Of course, he accepts no standard definition for 'Romantic', often indicating it has something to do with 'falseness' as opposed to his own 'heartfelt truths'. Perhaps no one told him that 'heartfelt truth' is precisely the sort of excuse Romantics give for holding tightly to their ideals.
In style, Shaw evokes contemporaries Wodehouse and Wilde, who were likewise concerned with wits (both quick and slow) and the inherent humor of class incompatibility. They both take the whole thing much less seriously than Shaw, making little pretense to 'Philosophical Ideals'. Wilde often discusses such ideas (through his characters), but it's all a farce for him--treating the trivial seriously and the serious trivially, to ape Wilde's beloved chiasmus.
Shaw's plays often seem a farce, but this tends to be the result of his lack of structure. He imagines his grand ideas will be self-evident, and hence rarely bothers to put a foundation underneath them. Instead, moments are strung together with his moments of whimsy and caprice, which almost always undermine any point he was meant to have put across.
Candida is a humorous and interesting play, with rather bizarre characters, but the way the conflict plays out is convoluted and absurd, relying on a natural concordance of thought between the three main actors, despite their drastically different views. They all seem to understand just what the other is getting at, even when it might not be clear to the audience.
Likewise, they draw out the conflict over myriad conversations regarding art, truth, beauty, and human need. They never quite hide the conflict, nor address it, merely rehashing it this way and that and flitting back and forth between confidence and stricken terror with every 'revelatory' utterance.
It's rather clear that Shaw is striking the pose of the realist, but trying to create drama along the lines of Shakespeare. He has admitted as much himself, from time to time, often alongside boasts that he can perfectly reproduce Shakespeare's form and style at will. Again, his lack of humility is our burden to bear.
He tries to create powerful, complex characters and set them at odds, but they all seem to speak with one voice, undermining the conflict of their supposedly variant personalities. They are not grand in specific, discrete ways, but are all built along the same intellectual lines, merely differentiated by their outward character. It is the opposite of the 'Three Musketeers characterization', where four characters seem similar on the outside, in terms of desires and position, but are easily differentiated by personality.
Their outward eccentricities can be vivid--most notable in Marchbanks--but Candida, is another one of Shaw's strong, capable women, who can rarely be differentiated one from the other. Her husband is meant to be the blustering orator, but he is mostly characterized by other characters talking about how much he blusters, instead of by actual demonstration on his part.
Like 'Mrs. Warren's Profession', Shaw tries to produce a surprise ending from all the melodrama, but the story has too few twists and turns. The conflict is introduced early on and remains the same throughout, bereft of new insights or unexpected shifts. Even if he could capture Shakespeare's style and powerful characterization, he would still fall far short of for lack of development.
The play is funny, curious, and idiomatic, as are the best Shaw plays, with plenty of opportunities for actors to display their talent--despite the fact that his plays were mostly intended to be read instead of performed, often more resembling novellas than scripts in their construction. But despite amusing us or intriguing us here or there, 'Candida' is not the gripping, clever melodrama it pretends to be, and it is too long-winded and indecisive for the farce it is.(less)
Shaw was a man of conflicts, and though some came from without, the majority were simply Shaw running roughshod over himself. He was quick to adopt ne...moreShaw was a man of conflicts, and though some came from without, the majority were simply Shaw running roughshod over himself. He was quick to adopt new ideas, then vehement in defending them for as long as he kept them--which was rarely very long.
He first fought to abolish censorship, then supported the right of a fascist regime to silence undesirables. He was a lifelong supporter of the people's revolution against economic tyranny, but praised totalitarian rule by both Stalin and Hitler. He condemned Romanticism in drama, and then wrote plays about beautiful, wealthy people and their conjugal angst, ending with double marriages. He unquestioningly accepted the health benefits of vegetarianism, but held a lifelong grudge against inoculation.
Nothing better represents Shaw's internal conflict than a comparison of one of his plays to the preface that precedes it. His prefaces were long--often exceeding in length the play which followed--sometimes by twice or more. They were drawn from long lectures which Shaw gave to various radical political groups, combining his pet interests with whatever new idea he had recently digested.
Rarely did the prefaces resemble the plays, either in tone, philosophy, or argument. They may have related to the plays by theme, but the combination of two thematic pieces which share no common point of view does not create anything more in conjunction than they might have, alone.
The preface to Androcles and the Lion does take Christianity as its central motif, and so is more aligned to its play than many of his others. In the preface, Shaw begins with a thoughtful analysis of the gospels, showing how each disagrees with the others and reveals the bias of its author.
It is an amusing and thoughtful deconstruction of Christian myth, showing that no sooner had Jesus been martyred than his message was subverted into several inconsistent political movements. Jesus' time as the messiah did nothing to patch the schisms already present in the Levantine faith, and the moment he was gone his followers were more than glad to use his name to their own ends: whether it was Paul returning the church to John the Baptist's tradition, Mark obsessing with early prophecy, or Luke making Jesus into a mighty hero of romance.
They don't agree on where he was born, where he lived, what he said, what he did, what others did around him, or how or why he died. Shaw tries to read between the lines to find the real Jesus, and eventually determines he is an outspoken man who breaks with tradition to bring a personal faith based on deeds, not thoughts, and who became obsessed with the old myth of martyrdom and rebirth, and hence committed a crime which carried a penalty of death and refused the ways out which were offered to him.
All this is interesting enough, if not revolutionary in the realm of biblical scholarship. Shaw then ends his concrete analysis of how men have perverted the life of Jesus for political ends and begins instead to interpret the life of Jesus to match his own political ends, namely: Jesus the father of communist revolution.
What could better show the schism in Shaw's mind than the fact that he can move from ridiculing other men for rewriting Jesus' philosophy, then doing it himself in the span of a few pages whithout showing the least recognition of the irony? He goes on and on about how Jesus' church is the Socialist party and how his goals were the Socialist goals of abolishing and equalizing wealth, and other such pats on the back.
He then abruptly switches gears again, to a yet more unasked-for argument. No longer does he talk about Jesus or Socialism, but about how people come to believe what they believe. Yet, what he presents is both old and useless: The Skeptic's Argument.
This might also be termed 'The Six-Year-Old's Argument' or 'The First Year Philosophy Major's Argument', as it boils down to responding to every statement with "what if that's not true?" or "why?" Shaw suggests that we don't really know anything, and so believing one thing or another thing is merely a matter of taste.
He gives the example of the 'sacred number' seven, which was often given in earlier times as an answer to various questions. He suggests that if the king asked his magistrate how far the sun was from the Earth, the magistrate might say "seven-hundred seventy-seven miles", and be declared correct on the basis of using a sacred number for a sacred measurement.
He then goes on to suggest that the new sacred number is 'a million', and that our new experts telling us the distance of the sun is millions of miles is the same as a medieval astrologer saying seven-hundred seventy-seven. He then suggests the same relationship between a million (rightly, billions of) bacteria and seven evil spirits. This allows him to come back around to his perennial hatred of doctors and especially, inoculation.
There is a viable defense against the Skeptic's Argument, and it is the mere fact that we all act, we all feel, we all argue, and some of us even write complex philosophical arguments. If it was merely a case of 'sacred numbers', then there would be no point to argue, to convince, or even, to believe. If it really all was the same either way, then everyone would be equally successful with various methods.
You could give a rocket seven-hundred seventy-seven miles worth of fuel or ninety-three million miles worth and get the same result. All that is required to refute Shaw's sophistry is to place an eye up to a microscope and simply count the bacteria. Of course, that requires enough knowledge of optics and medicine to recognize what you're looking at, which often seems to mark the difference between theories which stand the test of time and the delusions of pseudoscience.
Unfortunately, Shaw is not renowned for his due diligence. When enraptured by an idea, he would rather be interesting than well-informed, from changing Cleopatra's age by a decade in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' to his confused geography in 'The Devil's Disciple'.
His politics are equally unfounded. His love of Socialism amounts to a love of his fellow man and a desire that all should be treated equally. He declined to equalize any of his own fortune, arguing (quite rightly), that anything he gave to the poor would be quickly snatched up by taxation and rent, thereby changing nothing.
Yet, he gives us nothing else--certainly no economic theory--to argue how a revolution might come about, or even why it should. To Shaw, it seems better that men should not suffer unequally under the yoke of power, and that is enough. Like Marx, he seems to assume that the poor will eventually tire of the inequality and overcome it. Certainly, it upsets him enough.
But the same inequality of power has marked every culture throughout history--when will the patience of the proletariat be well and truly exhausted? He might as well suggest that since violence is harmful, we should quickly tire of it and move on to something else. Shaw's notions are much too lovely a dream for a man who loathes the "dishonesty of Romanticism".
Eventually, we finish the prelude and get to the play, itself, which is Shaw's retelling of a Roman fable about a man who shows kindness to a lion and receives kindness in return. The story has sometimes been attached to Aesop, and indeed it proceeds as an instructional fable, but Shaw rewrites it in the form of a Christian parable.
Even though we have left the prelude behind, we have not left the realm of Shaw's internal conflicts, for this play proceeds along familiar lines: once again, Shaw the philosopher seems intent on producing some deep message but Shaw the humorist will always undermine it by presenting it under the auspices of an aimless farce.
In some plays, the philosopher takes over, but these we rarely hear of and never see performed, for they are as uninformed and overwrought as his introductions. The humorist has created the more popular works, which are usually along the lines of the classic English social farce, as practiced by Wilde and Wodehouse.
'Androcles and the Lion', contrarily, is a less witty comedy, relying on caricatures, physical humor, and absurdly realized arguments. The play contains a Christian allegory and a satire against the unfaithful, and if Shaw had stopped there, he would have simply produced propaganda. But the allegory is wholly fused with a satire against the pride, meekness, and thoughtlessness of Christians.
We might imagine that Shaw is endeavoring to achieve the same effect of his role model, Shakespeare, who would place so many contrary opinions in his carious characters' mouths that the reader might never guess what bias the author carried. Yet Shaw is writing a fable, a Christian allegory, and has peopled his play with caricatures who, while sometimes vividly drawn, are not written as real people, but as symbols. They are the voices of Shaw's many ideas, and as such, are supported not only by their own words, but by the sweep of the story and the acts of those around them.
There is a tonal bias which carries along the argument. It feels as if, in writing the argument or slight, Shaw is able to convince himself of a notion, and hence his work changes enough to admit it--at least, until he can convince himself of the opposing view.
By the end of the play, all the heroes have been ridiculed and all the villains have been made appealing, and each argument has swung into prominence and out again, so that the audience is left asking what Shaw's purpose is: what has been achieved?
In the realist movement, which influenced Shaw through Ibsen, the author deliberately writes in such a way as to negate his character's arguments, and to allow different points of view to be considered, and in the end, leaves nothing decided. This does not leave the audience confused, because Realism intends to depict actual people and conflicts, and for something to remain undecided is a perfectly natural notion. That isn't to say that a Realist play should be just like life, but that its form approximates and subverts the way life feels, if not the way it is.
Human beings create patterns and symbols even where none exist, so it does not strike us as false to see archetypes or metaphors played out, as long as they are well-written enough to leave the author's hand hidden. There is a certain notion of sprezzatura in Realism: the author wants to construct something carefully and deliberately, but without calling attention to himself.
Shaw's works aspire to many aspects of realism--such as shifting morality and vivid, sometimes absurd characters--but as an author he is almost never invisible. He writes with his tongue in his cheek, winking at his audience, trying to allude over their heads, bringing in the newest ideas (before they have had time to mature), and drawing heavily on archetypal stories, both allegorical and Romantic.
Another aspect of his writing which encourages disbelief is his reliance on soliloquies and structured, symbolic debates. Again, he evokes the style of Shakespeare, who also interjected allusion, wit, and light fourth-wall breaks. In the end, what separates their presentation of ideas is how much Shaw seems to commit himself to one idea or the other at any particular time. While Shakespeare can always be read wryly, Shaw can almost always be read earnestly.
We know from his prologues that he has no qualms about attaching himself to ideas, even ideas which are contrary to what he has said or done before, or contrary to his own interests. There is a fine line walked by all writers who mean to tackle and confront grand ideas. The author must be conceited enough to think he has something new to say in the first place, but self-deprecating enough to know when to bow out.
Shaw is given many grandiloquent titles by his adherents, from visionary to prophet, and these terms are more often given to those who go too far than those who do not go far enough. It is easier to impress and overawe with pomposity than with austerity, but what author is driven to write because it is the easy thing to do?
In the end, and author's bombasticity must equal to or exceeded by his competence and diligence. There are such authors, like Twain or Nietzsche, who are more-or-less capable of maintaining this balance, but Shaw overreaches. It is his nature and his delight to overreach. He does it from all sides, and his philosophical over-commitment conflicts with his humorous over-commitment.
He is capable of being both profound and amusing, but he is neither funny enough nor profound enough to finally save this play's lack of purpose. He cannot fall back on the British class humor of his best plays, and his awkward combination of Christian allegory, Roman fable, religious satire, Realist philosophy, and slapstick humor is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.(less)
I'm usually not much for modern authors and their down-to-earth realism, but that's because most of them never create any sort of psychological or emo...moreI'm usually not much for modern authors and their down-to-earth realism, but that's because most of them never create any sort of psychological or emotional interest. This is one of the rare works about the Simple Tragedy that I found true, funny, and inspiring. It's no Chekhov, but what is?(less)
Shakespeare is an adept poet and master of the language. He layers on jokes, puns, and references everywhere. He has a massive output of work, and a n...moreShakespeare is an adept poet and master of the language. He layers on jokes, puns, and references everywhere. He has a massive output of work, and a number of different plots. When we compare him to other authors, it is difficult to find anyone who stacks up--but then, we're often comparing him to the wrong people.
Shakespeare didn't write books or pamphlets or epics, he wrote plays: short pieces of drama that were meant to be fast-paced and exciting. That they are mainly experienced today as bound books and not theatrical productions does not change their origins. If one wants to look at the achievements of Shakespeare, he should be compared to someone of a similar bent.
He should be compared with prolific writers known for catchy jokes and phrases. Writers who reuse old plots, making fun of their traditions. Writers of work meant to be performed. Writers who aim for the lowest common denominator, while still including the occasional high-minded political commentary. He should be compared to the writers of South Park; or the Simpsons; or MAD Magazine.
Shakespeare was meant to be lowbrow and political, but now it only reads that way to those who are well-educated enough to understand his language, reference, and the political scene of the time. If you do know the period lingo, then his plays are just as filthy as any episode of South Park.
For example, the word 'wit' refers to a fellow's manhood (this one comes up a lot), here's an example from Much Ado About Nothing:
Don Pedro: I said that thou hadst a great wit. Yay, said she, a great gross one. Nay, say I, a fine wit. Yay, said she, a fine little one. Nay, said I, a good wit. Just, said she, it hurts nobody.
Plus there's the title of that play, which references the fact that 'nothing' was slang for a woman's maidenhead, which occurs also in Hamlet:
Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs. Ophelia: What is, my lord? Hamlet: Nothing.
Shakespeare often refers to mythology because that was the standard pool of reference for authors at the time. Family Guy references 1980's pop culture. Is that any less esoteric? How esoteric will Mr. T be after 400 years (assuming he doesn't find his way into the latest testament of the bible anytime soon)?
Additionally, all of Shakespeare's magnificent plots were lifted, sometimes whole cloth, from other books and histories, just like how sit coms reuse 'episode types' or borrow plots from popular movies. Shakespeare was not quite as visionary or deep as he is often given credit for. Rather, he was always so indistinct with the motives and thoughts of his characters that two critics could assign two completely different and conflicting motives, but find both equally well-supported.
Is Shylock evil because he's a Jew, evil despite the fact, or evil because of the effects of racism on him? You can make a case for all three. Marlowe (the more practised and precise writer) never left interpretation to chance, and where has it gotten him?
Shakespeare was an inspired and prolific author, and his effect on writing and talent for aphorism cannot be overstated. I think he probably wrote the King James version because it is so pretty. However, he is not the be-all and end-all of writing.
His popularity and central position in the canon comes mainly from the fact that you can write anything you like about his plays. Critics and professors don't have to scramble, or even leave their comfort zone. Shakespeare's work is opaque enough that it rejects no particular interpretation. No matter your opinions, you can find them reflected in Shakespeare; or at least, not outright refuted.
His is a grey world, and his lack of agenda leaves us pondering what he could possibly have been like as a person. His indirect approach makes his writing the perfect representation of an unsure, unjust world. No one is really right or wrong, and even if they were, there would be no way to prove it.
I don't know whether this makes him the most or least poignant of writers. Is the author's absence from the stories the most rarefied example of the craft, or is it just lighthearted pandering? Either way, he's still a clever, amusing, insightful, and helplessly dirty fellow.(less)