Axson, Stockton: Goethe and Shakespeare



chandos10N Friday, January 2nd, 1824, Goethe said something to Eckermann which suggests that, like discouraged people of today, he looked back upon good old times in unpleasing contrast with his own deteriorating age : “Let him who will not believe that much of Shakespeare’s greatness appertains to his great vigorous time, only ask himself the question, whether a phenomenon so astounding would be possible in the present England of 1824, in these evil days of criticizing and hair-splitting journals . . . tame and weak has life itself become during the last two shabby centuries. Where do we now meet an original nature and where is the man who has the strength to be true, and to show himself as he is? This, however, affects the poet, who must find all within himself while he is left in the lurch by all without.”

One recalls something about the kingdom of heaven being within you. Goethe had first to find himself and then to apply the spiritual energy within himself to the renewal of spiritual life in a world which seemed to him to be on the decline. A whole world, mind you, not merely Germany. For he was the true cosmopolite ranging his vision beyond the boundaries of the kingdoms and principalities of Germany to survey the world in its entirety. Herein he differed strikingly from Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a nationalist, intensely patriotic; Goethe was what the world seems crying out for now, an internationalist, not by declaration only but by the instinct of his being. This connects with another distinction between the two men : Goethe is thought of as the sage; somehow the word does not seem mite to fit the English dramatist; with all his wisdom, with all his sense of the insubstantiality of actualities, he can scarcely be said to have framed and phrased wisdom for its own sake. He could write such a Platonic passage as Prosper0 uttered in The Tempest:

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

But this same Shakespeare could turn about and write the florid addresses which Henry the Fifth made to his soldiers, the waggeries of Falstaff, the denunciations of Hotspur, the fooleries of the clowns and much else as earthy as the soil of the England in which he lived and which he loved. It is difficult to conceive that Shakespeare ever consciously thought of himself as a purveyor of wisdom in the abstract. Wisdom there is in the plays-they are overflowing with it-but viewed historically we must think of it as the overflowing of a procreant mind, chiefly occupied with the practical business of making producible plays and with the concrete sources of human tragedy inseparable from a world of actual men and women entrapped by the intrigues of others, by their own frailties and disabilities, or by the incurable complexity of life itself. Hazlitt’s observation holds, that Shakespeare “without being a moralist was the most moral of poets.” But the moral is never deliberately drawn by Shakespeare, is merely deducible from his true observation of human beings and their disasters. The ashenfaced, shuffling, shambling gin-drinker carries his moral palpably, but obviously without purpose or intent of correcting or edifying other people. In short, Goethe wrote, when at his greatest, with a deliberate purpose to convey wisdom ; such is the office of the sage. The primary difference between Shakespeare and his dramatic contemporaries was not that he had a more moral purpose than they, but simply that he saw life more accurately and presented the phenomenon with a wider scope than they. His moralities are secondary to his practical business as a showman, whereas the moralities of Goethe are the reflex of a mind, not more powerful than Shakespeare’s, but more intentionally didactic. The philosopher that was in Shakespeare was a thoughtful by-product of his daily enterprises. The philosopher that was in Goethe was indigenous, purposeful, altruistic.

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