ON SHAKESPEARE’S LACK OF LEARNING
Q. 15. “There has always prevailed a tradition that Shakespeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead language”. What are Johnson’s conclusion in this regard?
“But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius.” How far do you agree with this viewpoint of Johnson?
Ans. Introduction. It has been a matter of controversy among the Shakespearean scholars whether Shakespeare had any formal scholastic education, and if so, to what extent. There is little evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was profoundly educated, yet his plays show a good deal of knowledge which may have been gained from various books. There are critics who think that Shakespeare was so thoroughly unlearned that the plays supposed to be written by him could not have been his own creations. Attempts have been carried on to find out the ‘real author’ of the plays and some have mentioned Bacon and Marlowe in this regard. In his Preface Johnson deals with this controversy and endorses the existing opinion that Shakespeare’s accomplishments rested on natural gifts and observation of life and that he owed very little to Books. Johnson also examines the development of Shakespeare’s genius.
Shakespeare’s knowledge in classics. Johnson examines the traditional belief that Shakespeare had no learning, that he did not have a regular education and had no knowledge of Greek and Latin. Johnson holds up the view of Ben Johnson who was a friend of Shakespeare, and must therefore have been well enough informed abut him to say that he had small Latin and less Greek. Johnson is of the view that Ben Johnson had no imaginable temptation to falsify facts and even if he had, he could not have falsified the position because there were then many other people who knew Shakespeare well. Johnson holds Ben Johnson’s view as conclusive and reliable, unless and until it is contradicted by some other evidence equally powerful and forceful.
Shakespeare’s learning. Some scholars opine that many instances may be quoted to prove that Shakespeare was learned in the classics; his passage for instance, are modeled on old writers. But Johnson finds that Shakespeare could have acquired his knowledge in classical literature from the stories or events that had been translated into English in his period. In some other cases, they seem to be just coincidences of thought which are quite likely when two writers think on the same subjects, and condensed statements embodying morality, such as are common in conversation, are transmitted from generation to generation in the form of proverbial saying. Johnson cites some examples in support of his argument. Some critics maintain that the sentence ‘Go before, I’ll follow’, is a translation of the Latin’ ‘I pare square’. Johnson’s view is that it is ludicrous to look for the source in the case of such a statement. Another example cited is that of Caliban, who, on waking from a pleasant dream, utters,” I cried to sleep again” (The Tempest). It is said that this is an imitation of the classical lyrical poet Anacreon, whereas, the fact is that any man who wakes up from a pleasing dream might say the same. There are a few passage, adds Johnson, which may be mistaken as imitated, but they are too few to be conclusive.
Shakespeare may have derived these from accidental quotations, or some one else who was acquainted with classical literature may have quoted the instances to him. Had Shakespeare been learned in the classics he would have made allusions to the classics more often. Therefore the issue whether he was learned in the classical languages and literature is decided by Johnson in the negative. However, Johnson says that Shakespeare could have been learned enough in Latin to understand its construction or structure, but most probably unable to read Roman writers comfortably About Shakespeare’s knowledge in modern languages also Johnson’s view is much the same. He believes it almost impossible that Shakespeare knew French or Latin authors at first hand.
Shakespeare’s wisdom. Johnson supports Pope’s view that there is much knowledge lying spread over the pages of Shakespeare, but he believes that it is knowledge unborrowed from books. Johnson says : “He that will understand Shakespeare must not be content to study him in the closet, he must look for his meaning sometimes among the manufactures of the shop, and sometimes the sports of the field.”
We may agree with Johnson that Shakespeare’s knowledge is not exclusively bookish, but mostly from a direct and first hand knowledge of life itself. Shakespeare might have come across a great many books in English including translations from alien languages. But the lion’s share of Shakespeare’s excellence belongs to his won spontaneous or natural genius. “He found the English stage in a state of utmost rudeness, no easy either in tragedy or comedy had appeared from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare may be truly said to have introduced them both among-st us and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmost height”.
Development of Shakespeare’s genius. Johnson argues that there is no certainty about the steps of growth or development through which Shakespeare’s genius passed. This was because the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays was unknown. Rowe is of the opinion that we• may see in Shakespeare’s plays a reverse of development. Johnson quotes Rowe who says, perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other writers, in his least perfect works; art had so little and nature so large a share in what ‘he did that for aught I know. The performance’ adds Rowe, “of his young, as they were the most vigorous, were the best”. But Johnson refutes this view. According to Dr. Johnson, the power of nature is merely the power of making use of the materials which are supplied by labour or opportunity. “Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them. Shakespeare, however, favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned, and as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he like them, grew wiser as he grew older, could display life better, as he knew it more, and instruct with more efficacy as he was more amply instructed”. By and large, Johnson expresses his views with clarity and it seems plausible.
Shakespeare— an observer of life. Johnson also admires Shakespeare’s keen and vigilant observation of life. This is one of his peculiar gifts, other than his natural genius. He combined this with a careful and profound accuracy of distinction. Johnson says:
“Shakespeare must have looked upon mankind with perspicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers and diversify them only by the accidental appendages of present manners; the dress is a little varied, but the body is the same. Our author had both matter and form to provide, for except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages, which showed life in its native colours
Conclusion. Quite unlike other renowned writers, Shakespeare could hardly hope for any help from his circumstances and environment. Johnson believes that diligence and perseverance can dominate overall external agency and overcome all hindrances. The below of poverty could not beat his genius, nor could the ups and downs of his fortune leave his mind frozen or cold for he shook them off as a lion shakes off the dew drops that lie sprinkled on its mane. In spite of all the troubles he succeeded in deriving, ‘an exact knowledge of many modes of life and many casts of native disposition, to vary them with great multiplicity, to mark them by nice distinctions, and to show them in full view by proper combination. In this part of his performance he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated by all succeeding writers, and it may be doubted whether from all his successors more maxims of theoretical knowledge or more rules of practical prudence can be collected than he alone has given to his country.” Shakespeare, was equally sensitive to the inanimate world as he was to the animate. In this respect he is a classic. As Johnson says, Shakespeare, whether life or nature be his subject, shows plainly what he has seen with his own eyes; he gives the image which he revives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations to be just and the learned see that they are complete”. It is, in other words, immaterial whether Shakespeare was educated or not. The wisdom that his plays present is a wisdom of all ages, true as long as life exists.