Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)
Author:
McBride, Phyllis
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The author of two lyric poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), and 154 sonnets, this Renaissance poet and playwright remains best known for his plays, which include histories, comedies, tragicomedies (the so-called problem plays), tragedies (most notably Hamlet [1600–1601], Othello [1604], King Lear [1605], and Macbeth [1606]), and romances. Over the years, Shakespeare has evolved into one of the representative icons of the Western literary tradition.

Whitman's view of Shakespeare can best be characterized as ambivalent. While he recognized and acknowledged Shakespeare's poems and plays as masterpieces, he at the same time felt compelled to criticize them for espousing what he considered "feudal" principles.

In his youth, Whitman became intimately familiar with Shakespeare's works, reading and rereading them and even carrying a copy of the Sonnets or one of the plays torn out from "some broken or cheap edition" in his pocket so that he could read it "when the mood demanded" (Prose Works 1:294). Indeed, Whitman memorized long passages from Shakespeare's plays (especially from Richard II), then "spouted" them "on the Broadway stage-coaches, in the awful din of the street" and on the Brooklyn ferries (Traubel 246). Yet Whitman did not content himself with simply memorizing excerpts; he somewhat methodically compared the written texts with stage productions. Whitman would read the plays "carefully the day beforehand," then attend performances of them, frequenting "the old Park, the Bowery, Broadway and Chatham-square theatres" (Prose Works 1:21, 19). These performances, given during the heyday of Shakespeare on the American stage, clearly made a lasting impression on Whitman, for he was able to recall details of the players and performances years later. Perhaps it was such close familiarity with Shakespeare that led Whitman to refer to Shakespeare more than to any other poet.

Despite his obvious admiration for Shakespeare, Whitman nevertheless considered the poet-playwright the key representative and proponent of what he terms the "feudal" literary tradition, which he believed to be "poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the lifeblood of democracy" (Prose Works 2:388). Consequently, Whitman repeatedly and adamantly criticized Shakespeare and "his legitimate followers, Sir Walter Scott and Alfred, Lord Tennyson," at one point even going so far as to claim that they "exhale that principle of caste which we Americans have come on earth to destroy" (Prose Works 2:475–476).

Ultimately, however, Whitman tempered his criticism of Shakespeare and feudal poetry, acknowledging his—and, by extension, American literature's—debt: "If I had not stood before those poems with uncover'd head, fully aware of their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have written 'Leaves of Grass'" (Prose Works 2:721).

Bibliography

Furness, Clifton Joseph. Walt Whitman's Estimate of Shakespeare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1932.

Harrison, Richard Clarence. "Walt Whitman and Shakespeare." PMLA 44 (1929): 1201–1238.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 1908. Vol. 2. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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