Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization
By R. V. Young.
Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
Paperback, 280 pages, $34.95.
Reviewed by Michael Yost.
It would be almost a miracle if anyone who has read, understood, and formed opinions around the works of Shakespeare agreed perfectly with any other person who has done the same. Any work that is deeply rooted in reality, that truly holds “a mirror up to nature,” will be the subject of controversy. Shakespeare seems, at times, too big; and the sheer weight of secondary literature that he supports, Atlas-like, upon his back is a testament to his strength and our weakness. On the other hand, this mass of opinions surrounding Shakespeare is more often the cause of what Plato called “misology;” one might easily fall into a kind of “via negativa” style of Shakespeare mysticism that seeks to undermine or ironize every possible interpretation, because secretly one believes that no authoritative reading is possible. And yet, most readers of Shakespeare think they alone have read him well.
This is precisely because we do not know Shakespeare. We know merely his texts; and, to bring up Plato again, there is a wealth of difference between a text and a man. Of written words, Socrates says in the Phaedrus: “You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question what has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever…. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”
Hence, an interpreter will seek, normally, to plant his interpretation in some anchor of meaning, either within the text, or outside it, whether in historical context, or his own basic interpretation of some important passage. Any interpretation of a text is only more or less probable; only a human being can “mean” something he says. It is the same with history; one can only ever make an effort to save the appearances; hence the diversity of interpretations. The first question therefore in reading a piece of literary criticism is: what are the appearances, experiences, or contexts of this interpretation? The difference here is that instead of exegesis, structural analysis, or simple appreciation of artistry, the critic of criticism is attacking (more often than not) a structure that is merely a probably true or false interpretation of a text, instead of being simply “given.” It would be ridiculous to make the first question whether Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, or Merry Wives of Windsor is “true” or “false.” It might be said to mean, symbolize, or represent something that could be reduced to a “true” or “false” statement. If it is good art, this is both more and less likely. But, as a work of art per se, it simply exists. It is the case. But once we analyze what is the case, the question of “truth” and “falsehood” arise. Paradoxically, though art means nothing without a human to interpret it, once the human being steps into the work of criticism or interpretation, he finds himself a virtual reality, where, as Plato suggests, “you’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding.” The more work done to assemble and tighten the meaning of the work, the more this is the case.
The stated project of R. V. Young’s book is to establish Shakespeare as the genius loci of Western Civilization, as the artist whose work presents us with a synthesis of Western Civilization as it had developed to his own day and would continue to develop. Young describes this accurately as the book’s “definite polemical thesis.” The book’s secondary objective is to present an interpretation of Shakespeare against what Young describes as the dominant current of Shakespeare studies, the historical-critical-cum-Marxist nonsense that is, seemingly, the dogma of the academic world. The anchor of meaning that Young plants in the midst of Shakespeare’s ocean is that his words and plays mean more or less what most people would have thought they meant. In other words, the locus of his interpretation is the context of the cultural and literary tradition of which Shakespeare was actually a part, instead of a Shakespeare who reinvents himself and humanity, as some of Harold Bloom’s disciples would have it.
But it also begs the question: has Shakespeare always been seen as a bastion of Western Values? Or was he sometimes seen simply as a dramatist and poet, and a faulty one at that? Jonson, Dryden and Pope (representing the critical genius of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries respectively) did not admire Shakespeare uncritically; in fact, they thought him actually un-civilized in comparison with their own neo-classical vision of poetry drama. Moreover, which vision of Western civilization is Shakespeare a proponent of? The danger of traditionally minded rhetoric (however true it may be in contrast to rhetoric of obfuscatory post-Marxist woke-ness) is that it always seeks to present order and continuity where there is often no such thing, usually in order to critique, however justly, some fresh aberration.
Having said all this, the great thrust of Young’s collection seems to be correct in a certain sense: Shakespeare has indeed become, like the body of Patroclus, the center of one of the most violent skirmishes in the larger battle that rages over the gargantuan remains of the West. His works certainly do incorporate the classical and antique with the Christian, medieval, and even modern. In that regard, his work is an excellent example of something we might call Christian Humanism, moderated at times by skepsis, and often nearly thwarted by a deep sense of the tragic nature of human life. But the danger is that one could come away from this work imagining that Shakespeare had intended his work to become a great two-handed engine in the culture wars, a weapon to be wielded, or, much worse, a hook upon which to hang allegiance to a particular political enthusiasm. He intended no such thing.
Fortunately, all that is mostly in the introduction; it is not the entire scope of the work. (Though the introduction is equal in length to most of the individual essays.) In fact, at the very end of the introduction, Young seriously (and rightly) modifies the major claims of that part of the book.
An important qualification is in order: it would be a mistake to assume that Shakespeare deliberately set about to become the spokesman for Western Civilization. . . More important, the idea of Western Civilization had not yet emerged. Europeans had long thought of themselves as participants in Christendom . . . by the time of Shakespeare’s death, Christendom has been rapidly disintegrating for a century in the aftermath of the Reformation. The idea of Western Civilization may be well understood as a conceptual substitute for the concrete institutions of Christendom.
Such a statement throws immense light upon the earlier claim that “Western Civilization is not only an eccentric culture but also a culture that embodies and balances apparent contradictions without ever imposing a definite resolution.” The same cannot be said, perhaps, for Christendom, whose historic insistence upon Altar and Throne implied a definite resolution, even as its institutions suffered from the internal tensions and contradictions present in any society.
In what is really a collection of highly perspicuous essays on the most billable of Shakespeare’s plays—the Henriad, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, The Tempest—Young guides us through the general logic of each one, usually by examining critical moments as cases in point against a cynical, materialist reading that seeks to reduce the full breadth of Shakespeare’s imaginations to something explicable by class warfare, the evils of patriarchal authority, or the Oedipal lusts of psychoanalysis. But the real value of the book lies in the fact that, as Young puts it in the afterward: “My hope is to provide a model of humanistic education, of teaching in the liberal arts . . . my chief goal has been the exposition of Shakespeare’s plays rather than the refutation of his post-modernist critics.” He has succeeded in bringing us back to Shakespeare, while maintaining an admirably common-sensical approach to the ethical situations and stance of the plays and their characters. In particular, Young’s approach emphasizes the importance of close reading, but also of keeping in mind the differences between the plays and their sources. He helps reveal the many resonances within each play, and each essay is in fact well worth the reading. In particular, his essays “Juliet’s Nominalism and the Failure of Love,” “Shakespeare’s History Plays and the Erasmian Christian Prince,” “Hope and Despair in King Lear,” and “The Tempest in the Academic Teapot” are examples of careful and wide reading. There is something pleasingly workmanlike about Young’s approach. He is not trying to upend the average reader’s view of Shakespeare, nor to invite him into hidden doctrines of the kind that surround great authors. He is here to be a faithful reader of Shakespeare. And he succeeds in that.
Young’s dismissal of allegory is, however, suspicious. To give one example, his essay on Merchant concludes that Portia “forgets her own speech when she comes to exercise power herself,” referring to her condemnation of Shylock. He continues, “the end of the play would be much more comfortable for us if we could treat the Portia of the trial scene as an allegory of the Divine Judge, who forces Shylock (the allegorical sinner) to relinquish all his wealth with the conditional restoration of a part of it upon his baptism—that is he must throw down everything and follow Christ.” He rejects this view, emphasizing that it would introduce a contradiction into Portia’s character: “we already know Portia as the high-spirited, self-possessed mistress of Belmont and as a tender, longing young bride. She has no business playing God.” Why could allegory not work hand in hand with realism? Shakespeare’s immediate literary descendants were Donne and Herbert: allegorists of the highest possible power. And why should an interpretive move that makes more sense of the play, without ignoring other datum within it, be rejected precisely because, as Young says of the overt Christological parallels in parts of the Henriad, they are “too neat and tidy?” Allegory need not require the flattening of a character. But a fully three-dimensional character may easily put on the robe and vesture required for allegorical interpretation. In this sense, there is a mysterion to each of Shakespeare’s plays; an allegory that operates within the play, without per se requiring any of the characters to fit exactly to the mold.
In any case, to return to the case of Shylock, it is hard for a close reader of the text to escape the allegorical framework Shakespeare puts before his audience, unless he is determined not to look for it. Shylock is, in his allegorical role, the “devil;” he is not merely a sinful soul and is pronounced to be a devil multiple times within the play. In the trial scene, he takes on the legal and spiritual role of the satan, the accuser, in a typographical scene whose roots extend from Shakespeare back to the Old Testament to the pagan Baal-cycles that preceded it. Portia thus takes on the legal role of a paraclete, or advocate. Antonio is Christ-figure of sorts; the soul saved is that of Bassanio, whose debt of flesh Antonio has willingly taken upon himself. This should not lead anyone to suggest per se that Antonio is a perfect man; or even that Portia is. But it should at least lead us to suspect that there is an intense poverty in a merely “realist” reading of Shakespeare. Fortunately, Young’s exegesis is not usually limiting; rather, the book draws our attention to the intricacies of plot, the shades of irony and nuances of meaning that abound in the plays.
In the end, Young states his goal directly: “this book, then, seeks to engage individual scholars and teachers, individual students, and men and women in the general public who care about reading and thinking.” When writing about so exalted and fraught a subject as Shakespeare, meeting this goal is the best way to appreciate the Bard in his element, and not as the critics would imagine him.
Michael Yost has written and published essays and poems for The St. Austin Review, The Brazen Head, Crisis Magazine, Dappled Things, Communitas, and Hearth and Field. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and children, where he is the Senior Admissions Officer for his alma mater, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
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