- Shakespearian Dimensions by G. Wilson Knight
Harvester, 232 pp, £22.50, May 1984, ISBN 0 7108 0628 0
In 1929 Wilson Knight wrote an essay ‘Myth and Miracle’ which deeply impressed T.S. Eliot. So deeply, in fact, that Eliot offered to persuade the Oxford University Press to publish Knight’s essays and to write an introduction for them himself. The result was The Wheel of Fire, one of our century’s seminal books on Shakespeare. At the same time Eliot sent Knight an inscribed copy of his poem ‘Marina’, ‘a perfect poetical commentary’, as Knight observed, ‘on those Shakespearian meanings which I had unveiled’.
Those meanings, set out in the essay on ‘Myth and Miracle’, were summed up by Eliot in his introduction as the search for ‘the pattern below the level of plot and character ... [a search for] subterrene or submarine music’. The appeal to Eliot, to a poet finding his way into the new world of his poetry, is also an appeal to the creative power in the ordinary reader’s response. Shakespeare remains so great an inspiration because he continually reveals new ways of understanding the most fundamental processes of art. Wilson Knight gave Eliot the clue to ways of developing meaning in his own poetry. As Eliot put it in his Norton Lectures, given at Harvard in 1932, ‘in a play of Shakespeare you get several levels of significance ... For the simplest auditors there is the plot, for the more thoughtful the character and conflict of character, for the more literary the words and phrasing, for the more musically sensitive the rhythm, and for auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding a meaning which reveals itself gradually.’ Eliot desired to be ‘something of a popular entertainer’, and yet by means of a Shakespearian music – that music which for Ferdinand in The Tempest ‘crept by me upon the waters’ – to lead the elect by degrees into the mystery of things.
Eliot took up the same theme in his 1937 Edinburgh University lectures on ‘Shakespeare as Poet and Dramatist’. There he described the characters in the final plays as ‘the work of a writer who has finally seen through the dramatic action of men into a spiritual action which transcends it’. Shakespeare’s characters have become ‘vehicles for conveying something of which they are unaware. It is in these late plays that we become most conscious of the fact that we know neither what we do nor what we feel.’ This is a very searching comment indeed. Even if we do not believe in Shakespeare’s ‘spirituality’, as such, we must admit that the late plays are unique as art in giving us a latent feeling of strange blissfulness, the magic of poetry seeming to suggest a deeper magic of which it is only the echo, of which we can only know by ‘hints and guesses’, by a healing surrender to our sense of truth in the art.
There is, of course, a great and indeed a slightly absurd contrast between the Shakespearian achievement and Eliot’s very conscious if shrewd assessment of what it means for him, and what he might make of it. What he did make of it was both bad and good, corresponding to the tone of those comments. ‘Marina’ and the Quartets show the way in which Eliot’s genius could and did use the uniquely gentle – what Coleridge called the ‘paradisal’ – atmosphere of the last plays. The waves, the mist at sea, the birdsong, the rose garden – they are uniquely Eliotian, but they also work, as art, in the manner of that subterrene or submarine music which Eliot, following Wilson Knight, found in Shakespeare. In fact, the success of the Quartets as poems depends upon these echoes, as on the great bravura passage inspired by Dante: depends upon their power of conjuring a world of significance which is suggested rather than specified. Insofar as they do specify, the Quartets are ‘not very satisfactory’: but their achievement is to marry ‘the words of the dead’ – those potent and revived images from Shakespeare and Dante – with ‘the language of the living’.
On the other hand, the tone of Eliot’s comments on Shakespearian ‘levels of significance’ is surely too pat, so pat as to be patronising? It explains why his own plays are artificial and ineffective, in that they seek self-consciously to separate out the plot, the jokes, the persons and the controlled release of meaning to ‘auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding’. The idea that some of us go to Shakespeare for one thing, some for another, is true only in the sense that the greatest art always offers the most to, and about, our own deepest individuality. It is perverse to pretend, as Eliot seems on the verge of doing, that the more intellectually distinguished our reception the more it is tuned only to the ‘submarine’ music.
Wilson Knight has so complete and detailed a grasp and comprehension of Shakespeare’s world that he has never erred in this direction: besides, he is not, like Eliot, using something in Shakespeare’s art to create an art of his own. Eliot’s admiration for his approach was fully justified, for it is based upon a deep and scholarly awareness of the text as a whole, as well as on practical experience of theatre production. Wilson Knight would certainly see the unreality of Eliot’s notion that a play should be written so that it offers something for everyone, at every level of ‘sensitiveness’. Shakespearian theatre never encourages what Eliot elsewhere called ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Although its perpetual latency allows us to choose and see what we want, it never gives the impression of having been set up for that purpose.
‘Shakespearian Dimensions’ is, as its author points out, a proper title, because it suggests a distinction of a very different kind from Eliot’s audience levels. What Wilson Knight finely suggests in his opening essay ‘Soul and Body in Shakespeare’ is that it is not easy for an audience that does not take for granted the existence and separation in us of a soul and a body to respond fully to the Shakespearian dimension, ‘its blending of colloquial phrase with, and often within, high poetry; imaginative idealism with character; soul with realism’. This is so obviously true that one sees why modern criticism and modern productions ignore it, in an age in which its contemplation can only seem artificial and historical. But, as Wilson Knight suggests, the distinction is still totally and naturally alive in Shakespeare’s work, alive above all in the sense in which poetry and music, the properties of the soul (‘the man that hath no music in his soul ...’), combine with plot and intrigue, character and realism, the properties of the body. This has got nothing to do with ‘spirituality’ in Shakespeare – the modern term and its use would most likely have been incomprehensible to him – but is the simple result of taking the soul for granted in a world of art.
A materialist critic to whom the distinction means nothing is often in the position of regarding the poetry as ornamentation, or as a ‘beautiful’ way of expressing purely psychological or factual truths. Wilson Knight courteously points out that H.A. Mason, in Shakespeare’s Tragedies of Love, was doing this in making a case against Antony and Cleopatra as self-deluding clowns whose self-appointed superhuman status is nowhere justified by the play. In a materialist sense this may be true, but ‘we cannot but admire the temerity with which Mr Mason offers clusters of the most mind-ravishing quotations as a logical part of his indictment ... The play is not only about “infatuation”, it is actually written as from a consciousness of infatuation. We are continually, though not always, being invited to see the lovers as they see each other. The drama is conceived, and the poetry written, from this centre, and from this centre it must be understood.’ Shakespeare shows us the souls of the lovers, visible in their poetry, and souls can never be seen, as it were, from the outside. The play assumes our participation in its glory, which, from the body’s point of view, is also its absurdity. Nor, as Eliot would put it, do we, in the body, know what we are and what we feel. Enobarbus does not, but his soul involuntarily escapes him into poetry, and as he dies.
‘Soul and Body in Shakespeare’ is so fundamentally simple in the position it takes up, and yet so important, that it seems to me to overshadow even the original essay on ‘Myth and Miracle’, and to enlarge, at this late date of Wilson Knight’s always fertile studies, the scope of his original insight. Immanent as it is in the play’s dimension of music, whether that is eloquent, as in the tragedies, or seeming to sound behind the beckoning of silence, as in the last plays, the soul is not a miraculous and spiritual entity but a wholly vouchsafed and personal one. Wilson Knight emphasises this in what he says about Othello. ‘We can say that it is the inward quality, or soul, of his heroic adventures that empowers the poetry. He speaks not as a soldier but as a soldier poetically interpreted or idealised, the essence shown. Throughout the play he employs a particularly noble poetry, all his own: in writing of it I gave my essay in The Wheel of Fire the title “The Othello Music”. This music is the music of nobility, and without regard to this, analysis of Othello’s “character” is fatuous, and the acting of him misdirected. When angry, he is not an ordinary man happening to speak poetry; he is a poetic man of poetic anger, and the demands on the actor, in voice and gesture, are in accordance.’ That should be written up in letters of fire in every greenroom or stage director’s office. Every modern Shakespearian production requires the hero to be interpreted, as if he were a particular sort of man, whose nature it was the play’s function to show forth dramatically. There is nothing wrong with that, because character and soul are perfectly compatible, but it is soul – ‘my eternal jewel’, as Macbeth calls it – that must possess and be exalted by the poetic music, whereas in the modern production poetry is too often spoken as if its function was to give the character away. Almost any speech of Othello’s will show the relation of Shakespearian humanity to poetic soul, to what Wilson Knight calls the ‘essence’ of the part.
Had it pleased heaven
To try me with affliction; had they rained
All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head,
Steeped me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some place of my soul
A drop of patience: but, alas, to make me
A fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!
Yet could I bear that too: well, very well.
But there where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries us. To be discarded thence!
In some sense, of course, this lament of Othello is extremely ‘human’, showing how any of us, in his situation, might seek to ‘cheer ourselves up’ (as Eliot put it in a famous essay) by telling ourselves how stoical we might be in any other situation, what endurance and patience we might display in any of the normal ills of life. And even in this one: the misery of knowing oneself secretly laughed at and mocked as a deceived spouse. Most human, too, though much less often expressed, the sense of one’s life being stopped at its emotional centre, the source of all kindness and satisfaction. But Othello’s poetry goes beyond this. He has been robbed of his essential being by Desdemona’s supposed infidelity: it is his soul itself which has been taken from him.
Desdemona herself shares in the same fellowship with essence which, as Wilson Knight perceived, is as essential to the play as it would be out of place in a 19th-century novel like Madame Bovary. Eliot, we might remember again, thought Othello a case of ‘bovarysme’, of self-deluding and self-insulating dreams. So he might be, under the microscope of a novelist with no belief that the human animal possessed a soul. Desdemona knows differently. When Othello mistreats her, her human instinct is to resent it.
I was, unhandsome warrior that I am,
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul ...
Her soul has found in him for herself the essence of a warrior, and, though she may weaken momentarily, her soul is with his, the soul he feels he has lost in losing her.
Without this music, as Wilson Knight rightly says, the play has no meaning, but is merely a cliffhanger with a popular theme, at best a psychological thriller. Timon of Athens, the play in which Wilson Knight has shown a special interest, is not so very different. In his essay here, ‘Timon of Athens and Buddhism’, written in 1979, he remarks on the way in which Timon seems above the play, above his own predicament of rage and disgust, and says that his death may be compared to a kind of Nirvana. Wilson Knight has acted the part many times, and stressed in his most recent production the symbolically spiritual demise of Timon, removing his last covering to die beside ‘the light foam of the sea’, with its music in the ears of the audience. This would indeed be a moving moment, but I feel that Shakespeare’s trouble in Timon – of which he seems to have been aware as a playwright, since it was never completed or staged – is that the music of the play, its spiritual dimension, becomes too absolute, takes on too much authority. Timon’s
Of health and living
is too strongly contrasted with the idea that ‘nothing brings me all things.’ This might indicate an important truth in the nature of Shakespeare’s drama: that, however distinct the entity of the soul, it is always totally compromised with the theatre of living, with the trials and triumphs of the body.
In the same way, it might be said, Shakespeare was himself compromised, at every point in his career, by what had to be done. It was the grace of the dyer’s hand to be subdued to what it worked in. There is a danger that both Eliot and Wilson Knight may be repeating, in their own fashion, that Victorian vision of the spiritual Shakespeare which we associate with Edward Dowden, the Shakespeare who went down into the deeps of the tragedies, and rose after much travail to the serene heights of the last plays. This Man of Sorrows is as mythic a figure as the Elder Statesman. But Wilson Knight does not in practice present this image at all. He has always combined a visionary presentation of Shakespeare with a scrupulous attention to the niceties of the text, as is shown by such admirable essays in this collection as ‘Folklore and Spiritual Healing’ and ‘Visual Art in Kyd and Shakespeare’, essays as full of insight and suggestion as any he has previously published.