Shakespeare: Objective or Subjective?

by L. James Hammond
L. James Hammond 2020
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1. Introduction

Oxfordians say that literature is subjective, that the best writers are the most subjective, and that Shakespeare is highly subjective. Stratfordians, on the other hand, say that literature is objective, that the best writers are the most objective, and that Shakespeare is highly objective. Is Shakespeare objective or subjective, personal or impersonal? This is one of the central questions of the Stratford-Oxford debate. It’s also one of the central questions of literary theory, and has been discussed by all major literary theorists during the last two centuries. Because this is a deep and complex question, it has not yet been adequately treated by Oxfordians or Stratfordians. Both sides have used this issue to strengthen their arguments, but neither side has fully explored this issue. Because this is a deep and complex question, the following pages will require the reader’s full attention, and may need to be read twice.

According to Stratfordians, Shakespeare clearly demonstrates that literature is objective, since he could write about many things of which he had no experience, and many people to whom he had no connection. One Stratfordian, Northrop Frye, said that Shakespeare had “a capacity for subduing his nature to what it works in unrivaled in the history of culture, a career which leaves him not only without a private life but almost without a private personality.”1 Oxfordians, on the other hand, believe that Shakespeare’s works reflect Shakespeare’s life and personality; in other words, Oxfordians believe that Shakespeare’s works are subjective and personal. The father of the Oxford theory, J. T. Looney, made inferences from Shakespeare’s works to Shakespeare himself. The Oxford theory is based on the subjective theory of literature, just as the Stratford theory is based on the objective theory of literature.

In his Mysterious William Shakespeare, Charlton Ogburn argues that literature is always subjective — always a reflection of the author’s personality and experience — and that the best literature reveals most about its creator; Ogburn quotes numerous authors in support of this view. “One writer after another,” Ogburn says, “has told us that what writers write about is themselves....Said Havelock Ellis: ‘Every artist writes his own autobiography.’”2 Stratfordians, attempting to refute Ogburn, say that some modern novels may be subjective, but that literature from other historical periods, and other genres, isn’t subjective. Is modern literature more subjective than earlier literature? Are novels more subjective than plays? Is prose more subjective than poetry?

2. The Objective Tendency Of Ancient Literature

Schlegel and Schiller, two of the most prominent literary theorists in modern times, can help us answer these questions. Schlegel and Schiller both believed that Greek and Roman literature was objective. They believed that ancient poetry was concerned with the external world, modern poetry with the internal world. Schlegel believed that Greek poets didn’t “paint with portrait-like detail ‘interesting men and women as individuals’.”3 Only with the passing of the pagan world, and the advent of Christianity, did Western man become introspective. The “grand style” of ancient poetry was an impersonal, object-oriented style. Homer, supreme practitioner of the grand style, is never subjective; “of all the forms poetry has ever appeared in,” one critic wrote, “Homer’s has the most objectivity, i.e., complete surrender of the creative powers to the object without any intrusions of the poet’s own thoughts, feelings, or personal relations.”4

Literary criticism usually marches in step with literature itself. Just as ancient literature had an objective tendency, so too ancient literary criticism had an objective tendency. Aristotle, the most respected ancient critic, concentrates on the structure of the literary work, and ignores the personality of the author. Modern advocates of the objective approach, such as T. S. Eliot, regard Aristotle as a model critic. (Meanwhile, advocates of the Stratford theory regard T. S. Eliot as a model critic, and quote Eliot in support of the objective theory of literature.)

3. The Subjective Tendency Of Modern Literature

Ancient literature is generally considered to be unsurpassed in quality. If ancient literature and ancient criticism were objective, does that mean that the best literature and the best criticism is objective? Or is ancient literature somehow distinct from modern literature? Schlegel and Schiller explored the difference between ancient literature and modern literature. They believed that Christianity had put Western man at odds with himself, and at odds with nature. They believed that Western man could no longer attain the serenity, the harmony with the external world, that the ancients had attained. On the other hand, Western man had attained a self-consciousness and introspection that the ancients never attained.

Schlegel believed that the task of modern literature was to explore the inner world. He believed that modern literature should be subjective, and not emulate the objectivity of ancient literature. Schlegel considered Shakespeare to be the supreme representative of modern literature, as Homer was the supreme representative of ancient literature. Schlegel said that, “[Shakespeare’s] representation is never objective, but always personal, an expression of his individuality.”5

Writing about 1800, Schlegel foresaw the development of modern literature. He foresaw that modern writers would philosophize, as Shakespeare had philosophized. He foresaw that modern writers would depict, as Shakespeare had depicted, life in all its fullness, and human nature in all its diversity. Unlike ancient writers, modern writers would “paint with portrait-like detail ‘interesting men and women as individuals’.” Schlegel said that Western literature should make use of “direct personal observation.” The best subject for such observation is oneself and one’s own life, hence Shakespeare, and most Western writers since Shakespeare, have been subjective.

Schlegel foresaw that this subjective trend would express itself not only in imaginative literature, but also in biographies, autobiographies, letters, etc. Such books have become an important part of literature. Some of the leading modern writers have been especially fond of such books: Kafka’s favorite books were biographies and autobiographies, while Proust’s favorite books were the letters of Mme. de Sevigne and the memoirs of Saint-Simon.6 The Stratford theory offers us only a hollow biography of Shakespeare. On the other hand, the Oxford theory offers us a full biography of Shakespeare, letters by Shakespeare, comments on Shakespeare by other writers, etc. Every Oxfordian has met people who say, “it doesn’t matter who Shakespeare was. We have his marvelous works, and that’s enough.” Perhaps we can fully appreciate Homer’s works without knowing Homer. But we can’t fully appreciate the works of a subjective, modern writer like Shakespeare unless we know Shakespeare.

As Schlegel perceived, Shakespeare is the epitome of the modern, subjective writer. Shakespeare epitomizes the modern writer’s proclivity for philosophical generalization and psychological analysis, and he epitomizes the modern writer’s proclivity for drawing on his own life. Stratfordians, however, have described Shakespeare as the epitome of the objective writer. Stratfordians have been forced to stand truth on its head in order to make it appear that the Stratford man could have written Shakespeare’s works. The Stratford theory has been bolstered by the objective theory of literature, which has become dominant in academia largely through the influence of T. S. Eliot, especially Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent.”

The objective theory of literature was championed not only by Eliot but also by Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme. In 1912, Pound instigated a school of poetry that he called “Imagism.” The English Imagists of the early twentieth century were descended from the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century. These schools of poetry emphasized symbols, images, metaphors, language, rather than feelings, experiences, stories or events. The poetry of the Symbolists and Imagists was obscure, and had little appeal for the average reader. In its obscurity and unpopularity, the new poetry was akin to avant-garde music and avant-garde visual art. The new poetry was a reaction against Romantic poetry, against the Romantic preoccupation with the self, against Romantic subjectivity.

The objective theory of literature, as formulated by Pound, Hulme and Eliot, was a defense of the new poetry. Those who formulated the objective theory were defending their own poetry. This type of poetry has survived until the present day, just as avant-garde visual art has survived until the present day; avant-garde poetry is still characterized by obscurity and unpopularity, and by an emphasis on language rather than content, sound rather than meaning. Likewise, the objective theory of literature has survived until the present day; the so-called New Criticism is derived from Eliot’s essays.

The objective theory fits modern poetry, but it doesn’t fit modern fiction. Modern fiction is highly subjective, highly autobiographical; Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, for example, is autobiographical, and so is Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were also highly subjective. The character of Levin, in Anna Karenina, is based on Tolstoy himself. In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the main characters are based on facets of Dostoyevsky’s own personality: Dmitri is a losing gambler (like Dostoyevsky), Ivan a journalist tormented by religious doubts (like Dostoyevsky), Smerdyakov an epileptic (like Dostoyevsky), etc. And modern drama is as subjective as the modern novel. O’Neill and Shaw were both highly subjective, as Ogburn has shown, and so too was Ibsen; “If you want objectivity,” said Ibsen, “then go to the objects. Read me so as to get to know me!”7 The Oxfordian view that Shakespeare was subjective puts Shakespeare in the mainstream of modern literature, and sees Shakespeare as the precursor of the great subjective writers of the last century.

4. Subjectivity In Shakespeare’s Work

Oxfordians have found many passages in Shakespeare’s works that are drawn from the poet’s own life. Emerson thought that Shakespeare’s works furnish us with a complete autobiography: “What trait of [Shakespeare’s] private mind has he hidden in his dramas?,” asked Emerson; “so far from Shakespeare’s being the least known, he is the one person, in all modern history, known to us.”8 Before Eliot made the objective theory popular, many scholars recognized the subjective nature of Shakespeare’s work, including such Stratfordians as Georg Brandes and Frank Harris.

Frank Harris showed that the melancholy for which Hamlet is famous is also found in Romeo, Richard II, Jaques and many other Shakespearean characters. Harris inferred that the poet himself must have been melancholy. Nothing is more characteristic of Shakespeare’s temperament than melancholy. Melancholy characters abound in Shakespeare’s plays. A character in Cymbeline, Posthumus, “did incline to sadness, and oft-times / Not knowing why.” Antonio, a character in The Merchant of Venice, says “I know not why I am so sad”; Antonio calls the world “a stage, where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one.” In All’s Well That Ends Well, the clown says of Bertram, “I take my young lord to be a very melancholy man.” Shakespeare’s sonnets, like his plays, frequently express melancholy. Melancholy is not incompatible with a sense of humor; in fact, melancholy goes hand in hand with a sense of humor.

Melancholy is common among men of genius. Aristotle said that all geniuses are melancholy, and Schopenhauer spoke of, “the gloomy disposition of highly gifted minds, so frequently observed.”9 Note that Aristotle and Schopenhauer point to melancholy as the most salient feature in the psychology of genius, just as the Oxford theory points to melancholy as the most salient feature of the poet’s psychology. The melancholy Shakespeare that emerges from Oxfordian biography is consistent with the psychology of genius. But the Shakespeare that emerges from Stratfordian biography is inconsistent with the psychology of genius. A. L. Rowse, a leading Stratfordian, describes Shakespeare as “this busy, prudent, discreet man...with his good nature and good business sense.”10 Emerson inferred from Shakespeare’s works that Shakespeare himself must have been melancholy; Emerson couldn’t accept the “verdict of the Shakespeare Societies” that Shakespeare was “a jovial actor and manager.”11 The Stratfordian view of Shakespeare isn’t credible, isn’t consistent with Shakespeare’s works or with the psychology of genius.

5. Conclusion

The Stratfordian view that Shakespeare was an objective writer is inconsistent with the history of literature, and inconsistent with the history of literary criticism. The objective theory was developed to justify avant-garde poetry, and shouldn’t be applied to Elizabethan drama. Stratfordians have embraced Eliot’s objective theory, and rejected the subjective theory, since they know that the subjective theory leads away from the Stratford man, and leads to Oxford. Unlike the Stratfordian view, the Oxfordian view that Shakespeare was a subjective writer is consistent with the history of literature and the history of literary criticism. The subjective theory offers us a credible and complete portrait of Shakespeare.

1. Quoted in Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, ch. 18 back
2. See The Mysterious William Shakespeare, ch. 18 back
3. A. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, “Schiller and the Genesis of German Romanticism” back
4. Quoted in J. Burckhardt, The History of Greek Culture, ch. 9, #1 back
5. A. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, “The Meaning of ‘Romantic’ in Early German Romanticism” back
6. See Max Brod, Franz Kafka, ch. 4 back
7. M. Meyer, Henrik Ibsen, ch. 15. On Dostoyevsky, see “Dostoyevsky: Epilepsy, Mysticism, and Homosexuality,” by J. R. Maze, American Imago, summer, 1981 back
8. See Emerson’s essay, “Shakespeare; Or, The Poet.” back
9. A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 2, ch. 31 back
10. Quoted in Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, ch. 6 back
11. See Emerson’s essay, “Shakespeare; Or, The Poet.” back