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Shakespeare And The Germans

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



BY G. K. CHESTERTON.

No one nation can alone create any influence that is common in Christendom ; but there is usually one nation which specially encourages it. And just as France has, on the whole, encouraged whatever is liberal and intellectual, it is not too much to say that Germany has encouraged what is illiberal, and especially what is literal. The German professors have done a great many devastating things ; but perhaps the worst thing about them was that they were the first to understand Shakespeare. It is a great impertinence to understand Shakespeare : for Shakespeare certainly did not understand himself. He never talked so much sense as when he was obviously talking nonsense ; and a man must have the sacred streak of nonsense some-where in his mind before he can appreciate phrases -like : " Those earthly godfathers of Heaven's lights," or " Bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven." Now, the Germans are like the ladies whom Mr. Sparkler admired. They have no nonsense about them. Some of them seem to think that Hamlet meant what he said ; and, thinking this, they come to the not unreasonable conclusion that he was mad. There is in Shakespeare something more godlike even than humour : something which the English call fun. The neglect of this by the Germans during the long night of German intellectual domination has produced some preposterous fruits in English, American and other criticism. The notes in my school books used to be full of alternative explanations, frequently German, of such phrases as: " I know a hawk from a hand-saw." Grumpt says that " hand-saw " should obviously be heron-shaw, to put it in the same ornithological class with hawk; but Mumpt suggests that there may have been an Elizabethan tool called a hawk, to put it in the same mechanical class with hand-saw. And all the time even a boy who had any flavour of literature, or any guess at the kind of man that Hamlet was supposed to be, could see at once that it was a joke. Hamlet said it as a piece of wild alliteration ; as he might have said: " I know a baby from a blunderbuss " ; or, " I know a catfish from a croquet-hoop." By a deep and dry study of the million exaggerations, inconsistencies and ignorances of Shakespeare they build up a sort of rampart round the unfortunate poet to defend him from his real admirers ; for the sulky Ben Jonson had far more genuine sympathy with Shakespeare than the world-patronising Goethe. The Germans are quite capable of maintaining that there was a sea-coast of Bohemia in Shakespeare's time before the divine mission of the German Empire with its hands had prepared the dry land. And indeed a sea-coast is not more unnatural in Bohemia than a great Navy in Germany. The first and fatal step was to take Shakespeare seriously ; the next and more fatal step was to defend him in everything. The next step was to go clean off one's head and say he was a German, or, worse still, a Lord Chancellor.

For Baconianism, whether known or unknown in Germany, is the very type and fruit of the German method of criticism. It is the criticism that will build a topplingtower up to the stars upon one word. It is, as a rule, a word that is possibly a misprint, and certainly a mistake. It thrives upon those thousand-fold and thickly-strewn coincidences which one can find anywhere, as one can find faces in a Turkey carpet. It delights in conceiving the man of genius as a kind of conspirator, going to work in a self-conscious and complicated way, and leaving little clues for the elect. It leaves out of all its calculations three great truths without which art would really be the wasting idolatry that Tolstoi thought it. The first is that a great man is, among other things, a man. The second is, that he is superficial, in the sense that he only brushes the deep with a feather. The third is that every great artist in his heart scorns art, as compared with the greatness of God and man.

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