The Meaning of Shakespeare

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The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951) by Harold Clarke Goddard.


  • For my part, I believe that we are nearer the beginning than the end of our understanding of Shakespeare’s genius.
  • To our age anything Delphic is anathema. We want the definite. As certainly as ours is a time of the expert and technician, we a living under a dynasty of the intellect, and the aim of the intellect is not to wonder and love and grow wise about life, but to control it. … We want facts for the practical use we can make of them. We want the tree for its lumber, not, as Thoreau did, to make an appointment with it as a friend.
  • “We were saying the other night,” a college girl wrote to her mother, “that we probably know the members of our Shakespeare class, deep down, far better than we shall know any class again. You just can’t discuss Shakespeare without putting a window in your very soul.”
  • So desperate at times appears the condition of the world that it seems as if only a miracle could save us. We forget that in art we have at hand the perpetual possibility of such a miracle. Art is given us to redeem us. All we are in a habit of asking or expecting of it today is that it should please or teach—whereas it ought to captivate us, carry us out of ourselves, make us over into something more nearly in its own image. This transubstantiating power of art is confirmed by all its great masters and masterpieces.
  • “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves,” says William Blake; “everything is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” But we can draw nearer such spirits when we sense their presence. “No production of the highest kind,” says Goethe, “no remarkable discovery, no great thought that bears fruit and has results, is in the power of anyone; but such things are elevated above all earthly control.” Yet we can take advantage of a wind that we a powerless to create.
  • Who can doubt that in just this condition of complete mental tranquility (this “soul of state”) Shakespeare has himself gazed into the spring of his own imagination and found gold at its bottom—into the world around him and found the future in its cradle, the “future in the instant” as Lady Macbeth calls it?
  • Shakespeare saw that the prolongation of innocence—of “infancy” as the biologists say—is the key to mature strength.
  • What is the face but a mask to conceal the man behind it? … What is social position, what are offices, titles, dignities, degrees, but mantles in which men wrap themselves to hide, from themselves even more than from others, the banality of their lives? … What is a human life but a role that a man enacts, as different from his hidden self as the role of an actor is from his part in ordinary life? What are words but means of disguising thought? What is life itself but a play for which most of the players are miscast, a masquerade at which only a few of the rarest and most heroic, or the most brutal and cynical, ever unmask?
  • [Shakespeare] condenses his idea of complete regeneration, through the mouth of Posthumus in Cymbeline, into the words, “To shame the guise of the world, I will begin/ The fashion, less without and more within,” and his remedy for the conquest of Death itself, in the poem that comes closer than anything else in his works to being an expression of his own religious creed, the 146th sonnet, is: “Within be fed, without be rich no more.”
  • [The] critic is invaluable. He permits us to see things for a moment as they are from the outside. But the man who lets this bystander develop unduly runs a fatal risk, the risk of becoming detached from life, the risk of superiority, of pride. It was Lucifer, the angel of light, who fell. He who looks down as from above on the pettiness and hypocrisies of life may escape them, but in doing so he may cut himself off from nothing less than life itself. He may have the satisfaction of perpetual attendance at the theatre of existence but he will never have a part of his own in the play. At the worst he will become a satirist or cynic; at the best, a philosopher.
  • If by stars you mean the material heavenly bodies exercising from birth a predestined and inescapable occult influence on man, Romeo and Juliet were no more star-crossed than any lovers, even though their story was more unusual and dramatic. But if by stars you mean—as the deepest wisdom of the ages, ancient and modern, does—a psychological projection on the planets and constellations of the unconsciousness of man, which in turn is the accumulated experience of the race, then Romeo and Juliet and all the other characters of the play are star-crossed as every human being who is passionately alive.
  • Shakespeare, like Dante before him and Milton after him, knew where the stars are, knew that heaven and hell, and even earth, are located within the human soul.
  • Is it not folly to suppose that Capulet and Lady Capulet were spiritually transformed by Juliet’s death? As for Montague, the statue of her in pure gold that he promised to erect in Verona is proof in itself how incapable he was of understanding her spirit and how that spirit alone, and not monuments of gold, can bring an end to feuds.
  • Cynics are fond of saying that if Romeo and Juliet have lived their love would not have “lasted.” Of course it wouldn’t—in the cynic’s sense. You can no more ask such a love to last than you can ask April to last, or an apple blossom. Yet April and apple blossoms do last and have results that bear no resemblance to what they came from—results such as apples and October—and so does such love.
  • Which is better, the truth without worldly possessions and position, or worldly possessions and position without the truth?
  • Psychology goes deeper than politics and a knowledge of man himself must precede any fruitful consideration of the institutions he has created.
  • [Henry IV’s] life became a continuous embodiment of the strange law whereby we come to resemble what we fear. The basis of that law is plain. What we are afraid of we keep in mind. What we keep in mind, we grow like unto.
  • “Stop to think”! One may determine the orbit of the moon, or make an atomic bomb, by stopping to think, but when since the beginning of time did one man ever get at the secret of another by means of the intellect? It is all right to stop to think after we have taken a character to our hearts, but to do so before we have is fatal.
  • The opposite of war is not “peace” in the debased sense in which we are in the habit of using the latter word. Peace ought to mean far more, but what it has come to mean on our lips is just the absence of war. The opposite of war is creative activity, play in its loftier implications. All through these dramas the finer Falstaff symbolizes the opposite of force. When anything military enters his presence, it instantly looks ridiculous and begins to shrink. Many methods have been proposed for getting rid of war. Falstaff’s is one of the simplest: laugh it out of existence.
  • Life was given for something greater than glory or than the gain that can be gotten out of it.
  • Now [Hal] pretends to be his father and banishes Falstaff. A little later he will become like his father and will banish him. Now he plays king. Then he will be king. Beware of what you play—it will come true.
  • Here, if anywhere, here, if ever, the truth is brought home that we are not single personalities, nor even double ones, but bundles rather of actual and potential, emerging and expiring selves, as many as there are people who love or hate us, or whom we love or hate. Each one out there evokes a different one in here. The relation between two individuals is itself an individual relation, and, when it is set up, something that never was before on sea or land is created. Within the confines of this brief scene, … half-a-dozen Falstaffs and Henrys jostle and elbow, come in and go out, split, disintegrate, and recombine, a veritable phantasmagoria of spiritual entities. Who would undertake even to enumerate, let alone characterize them?
  • In what do love and friendship consist if not in a perpetual acceptance of the angels and rejection of the devils that we discover in everyone with whom we are brought into intimate contact?
  • Practically all teachers have their good points, and even teachers of genius have their weaknesses. It is the art of the pupil to profit by the good points, to let himself be taken captive by genius, and to overlook or reject the weaknesses.
  • The true pupil perpetuates the genius of his teacher not by adopting his ideas or imitating his conduct but by carrying on and living out his spirit under the peculiar conditions of his own life.
  • The poet was beginning to perceive that history has no significance until it is seen as comedy—and tragedy. Imagination was beginning to assert its mastery of fact.
  • “I won’t count this year” is not a whit sounder than “I won’t count this drink.” Life counts every minute.
  • Imagination simply anticipates the fact, with the difference that it not merely foresees but actually helps to bring the fact to birth, as we might conceive the sun saying to the seed: “You are not a seed; you are a flower,” and then setting about to transform it into a flower. Literally, the sun’s statement would be false; but prospectively and creatively it would be true. This is the pivot on which turns the much-maligned doctrine of the will to believe of Williams James. “This world is good, we must say, since it is what we make it—and we shall make it good,” says James.
  • Where faith in the fact can help create the fact, says William James, it would be an insane logic that would deny our right to put our trust in it.
  • Wisdom is to be found in residents neither of the country nor of the city but in those rather who “hither thither fare” between the two.
  • There is generally an Emersonian sentence that comes as close to summing up a Shakespearean play as anything so brief a sentence can: “A mind might ponder its thought for ages and not gain so much self-knowledge as the passion of love can teach in a day.”
  • Jaques prides himself on his wit and wisdom. But he succeeds only in proving how little wit and even “wisdom” amount to when indulged in for their own sakes and at the expense of life. His jests and “philosophy” give the effect of having been pondered in solitude. But the moment he crosses swords with Orlando and Rosalind, the professional is hopelessly outclassed by amateurs. Extemporaneously they beat him at his own carefully rehearsed game. Being out of love with life, Jaques thinks of nothing but himself. Being in love with Rosalind, Orlando thinks of himself last and has both the humility and insight that love bequeaths.
  • Love bestows on those who embrace it the experience and wisdom of the race, compared with the knowledge schools and foreign lands can offer at the worst a mere counterfeit and at the best a mere beginning.
  • It is an infallible rule after reading a play of Shakespeare’s: read it once more and deeper.
  • As mythology shows, how can a being of a higher order enter a lower world except in disguise?
  • “Prove true, imagination, O, prove true,” Viola cries when she first realizes that she may be about to be reunited with her “drowned” brother. It is one of the supremely integrating lines in all Shakespeare, and it shows in a flash that the play deals not only with madness in its lower sense but with the divine madness of imagination that comes into being when things long or far separated are united, or when dreams too wonderful to be true nevertheless submit themselves successfully to the tests of sight and touch: “This is the air; that is the glorious sun;/ This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t/ And though ‘tis wonder that enwraps me thus/ Yet ‘tis not madness.”
  • The greatest poetry has always depicted the world as a little candle of nobility threatened by an immense barbarism, a flickering candle surrounded by infinite night.
  • “Here it is,” [the poet] seems to say, as perhaps God did when he made the world, “take it, and see what you can make of it.” And different men make very different things.
  • A critical reader who sees through the device [that is, dreams first presented as being real] deprives himself of the very experience he would understand. Intellectuals cannot read. A child lost in a story in the model of right first reading. The more ingenuous we are the first time the better. But not the second and third times. Then the critical intellect should being to check the imagination—or check on it rather.

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