Beautified is a vile phrase

With all the argument about his identity, the one thing that no one denies is that Shakespeare was an artist, one of the greatest that ever lived.  Yet what does that mean to most people?  Far too often in discussions of what he must have read, what he believed, why he wrote, even who he was, the one thing that we do know about him, that we can be certain of––that he was an artist––somehow gets lost.  When it comes to discussing his motivations, there seems to be very little real understanding of what makes an artist tick, particularly one of the greats.

To a genuine artist Art trumps all.  Nothing, not religion, not politics, not professorships or money or property or status, not heritage or titles, not even love, that powerful motivator for so many great works of art, come before Art itself.  When Keats said that “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know,” he wasn’t speaking to lawyers, clergymen, doctors, patrons, English professors, etc., he was speaking to artists like himself.  Byron understood.  Shelley understood.  Mary Shelley understood.  Bobby Burns would have understood.  But how many of their readers or publishers or critics or professors have ever understood?

Those who cheerfully accept the notion that the great theater artist we call Shakespeare quit the Stage in mid-career to spend his final decade buying and selling land and hoarding grain in a small market town, two days ride from any theater, certainly don’t understand.  Sure, the author, the true author, cared about important issues, his plays show that.  Sure, he loved his children, his friends, the women (and perhaps the men) he slept with.  Doubtless he wanted to see better governors in power.  But these were not what drove him.  Politics, events, the people he knew, the stories he grew up with, even his own sorrows and disasters, were ultimately but grist for the mill,  fuel for the fire of his uncontrollable creativity.  

It got him into trouble, he cut too close to the bone, he told too much, but all that did was to stimulate his ability to dodge, to equivocate, to hide.  He asked King James to invest him in motley––that is, allow him to continue to write for the Stage––but long before James he’d already invested himself.  It was his path and, will he nill he, he was bound to it.  That he had the will to shake his spear in the face of the most daunting odds and get away with it is one of the great stories of all time.  We should acknowledge him for that, as well as for all he accomplished.

He took his motto from the ancients and from his name, which in Latin means truth (and in French, green), a challenging motto in a time of great and dangerous secrets.  Even his spear-shaking was less to, as he said, “cleanse the foul body of the infected world” than to feel the sense that he was rising to the level of the greats of classical literature.  He learned from experience that the more powerful the circumstances and pressures that besieged him, the better the play, which is why Hamlet, when confronted by his father’s ghost with the horror of his murder, rather than seeking immediate revenge, calls for, and revises, a play!  We can imagine how more than one of his victims, finding themselves skewered, like Claudius, felt like crying “Away!” as they hurried from the room.

Also recorded for posterity is the grief he felt when he first realized how alone he was in his passion.  Raised by a man who, something of an artist himself, admired the artistry of the stylists of antiquity, it must have been a shock to the young teenager to find so many in London, even in his own household, even his own guardian, who not only didn’t respond to Art, but actually disliked it.

How do we know that Burghley disliked Art?  His biographer agrees that despite his immense output of letters and papers, he himself  was a tedious, uninspired writer.  We know that most regard Polonius as a portrait of Burghley.  We also know that two of the books that provided Shakespeare with so many of his stories were published shortly after Oxford arrived at Cecil House––Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1565, and the following year, Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, on which title page the word “Beautified” is emphasized in extremely large type. We can also see that Painter’s Palace was dedicated, not to Cecil, but to the Earl of Leicester.  

In Hamlet: Act II Scene 2, while explaining to Gertrude and Claudius why Hamlet is mad, Polonius reads them the poem that Hamlet gave Ophelia: “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,” then, pausing for an aside, adds his opinion: “that’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase . . . .”  I think we can take Shakespeare’s word for it, that Polonius’s opinion of Hamlet’s poetry was Burghley’s opinion of Oxford’s poetry.

Following where their daimon takes them, to the next painting, or sculpture, or dance, or song, ignoring all obstacles and, if necessary, all obligations to family, friends, patrons and creditors, all health and money issues, critics, rivals, their own best interests, on they go until brought down by death, whether the death of the body or, sometimes, even more sadly, the death of their passion.  Why?  Because, while in pursuit of perfection, while “in the zone” as a modern rubric has it, they stand in the light of a spiritual reality that is closest to that of great scientists like Archimedes, Newton, Tesla, Philip Farnsworth, architects like Philippo Brunelleschi, Andrea Palladio, saints like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Edmund Campion, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, athletes like Babe Ruth or Mohammed Ali,  dancers like Nuryev or Michael Jackson.

If the needs of family or community concern them at all they will, if necessary, shove them aside; aimed at eternity, they see that in the long run, once they’re gone, these things won’t matter, all that matters is that from their activity a tangible work is born, one that combines both beauty and truth to the highest possible level, something that, unlike their lowly sinful selves, has the potential to survive death.  Disappointment or inspiration only drives them to try again.  And again.  And again.

This is not to say that all who are born to this path find success––far from it.  The restaurant kitchens and taxicabs of the great art centers, New York, Paris, Rome, LA, are manned by struggling artists who haven’t yet and probably will never leave behind works that posterity thinks worth keeping.  They care of course.  They would like to be successful, but only to buy more paint, rent a real studio, get new head shots or a better camera, get the piano tuned.  What matters most is the calling itself, is being able to stand in the light of truth and beauty as often and as long as possible.  For a genuine artist, that is all they know and all they need to know.

For this reason we must keep in mind that from whatever works formed the foundation of his education in childhood, the boy who became Shakespeare would take different things from what other bright boys, what boys who became lawyers, clergymen, scientists, adventurers, or statesmen, would take.  Where future Latin or Greek scholars would want never forget the correct form of a verb, Shakespeare was content with what sounded best.  Where future grammarians were concerned with syntax, again, Shakespeare was concerned with sound.  Where future historians were concerned with the accurate timing of past events, Shakespeare was concerned with their meaning.

Life, he could see, was filled with drama.  How to take the facts of history, to distill away the dross, bringing to life the essentials.  That’s what concerned him.  Where most students then would experience little beyond the drudgery of translating, the boy Shakespeare would feel that frisson described by one poet, that repeating a great line will make the hairs of his chin stand up while shaving, every single time!  Long before he shaved, he knew what poetry could do.  In the imaginary gardens described by Marianne Moore, he would have seen real toads.  

There’s a good reason why Sir Thomas Elyot and other Reformation pedagogues like him warned tutors like Sir Thomas Smith against allowing noble children to become too attached to an art.  Once Art (or Science, or God) claims your soul, it may drive you to self-destruct, to poverty or madness, but it rarely lets you return to your hometown to invest in land and grain and engage in trivial lawsuits with your neighbors.

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8 responses to “Beautified is a vile phrase

  1. Well said, as always. Henry James was not one of those who cheerfully accepted the premise that Shakespeare had made all the money he needed, so he just quit writing. I don’t know if he was the first to do so, but James eloquently drew attention to this large hole in the traditional authorship legend. He wrote of the mystery of Shakespeare’s alleged early retirement from writing, “its power to torment us intellectually seems scarcely to be borne.”

  2. steve steinburg

    Great essay, great point. Coincidentally, I ran across this yesterday.

    “The second discovery covers a longer time span, sometimes encompassing much of the creators adult life. My study reveals that, in one way or the another , each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a [Faustian] bargain, deal, of Faustian arrangement, executed as means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence.”

    From: Gardener, Howard. Creating Minds, An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, Basic Books/Harper Collins, NY, NY, 1993.

    Curiously, I have yet to find a book text on creative development or genius that mentions Shakespeare.

  3. hopkinshughes

    Indeed, he is the great anomaly. In her book, Gifted Children: The Myth and the Reality, child psychologist Ellen Winner uses Hamlet’s speech, “I have of late––wherefore I know not––lost all my mirth . . .” to describe depression, yet among the geniuses whose lives and personalities she uses to emphasize her points, Mozart, Picasso, etc., there’s no mention of Shakespeare.

  4. The failure of some Shakespearean scholars to adequately acknowledge the nature of the creative mind relative to Shakespeare’s genius comes, I believe, from the schism that exists between the way average academicians and creative artists cognate. Critics, historians, biographers, etc. approach their work linearly, as a project that is logically and temporally cohesive. Creative minds do not work the same way. For most artists there is nothing linear about the process. It is a scattered mess that somehow, at some point, manages to assemble itself. And the drive to create is obsessive, intensely personal, with the method of creation often a mystery, even to the artists themselves [ seeding no small portion of insecurity]. Artists may “retire” from world attention, but never from their art. It hounds them, nags them, pricks them with an anxious, tamping persistence. This drive is difficult for scholars who don’t experience it to parse. With Shakespeare, the result is something like hemming a line of print to fit a template that just can’t cover it–almost, but no.

  5. hopkinshughes

    Exactly! The difference is the same that separates Berowne from Holofernes (LLL I.1). Berowne can describe Holofernes: “Small have continual plodders ever won, save base authority from others’ books”; but Holofernes will never understand Berowne: “that hath a mint of phrases in his brain.” Which is why I don’t argue with Stratfordians––it’s simply a waste of time. They want to drag you down their linear little path to argue over every oddly shaped bit of rock, and when you try to get them to look up or sideways, they simply can’t.

    Your description of the process of artistry, “a scattered mess” with “nothing linear” about it is exactly the point I was making in a recent essay: most academics are “Flatlanders,” capable of functioning mentally in only two dimensions, where (sadly) they’ve been stuck by the school system ever since second grade.

    Berowne puts it best:

    These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights
    That give a name to every fixèd star
    Have no more profit of their shining nights,
    Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
    Too much to know, is to know nought but fame;
    And every godfather can give a name.

  6. I just read Steve’s quotation from Howard Gardener on creativity. I had the pleasure of having dinner with Gardener in December (along with Dr. Ruth!). He asked to read my review of Shapiro’s Contested Will. After reading it, he was noncommittal on the controversy. In case it is of interest to others, I will quote from his reply,

    “When one looks at the issue of genius in the abstract, there are two apparently incompatible stories.  

    One is: There are no miracles, and every thing in the life of even the most exceptional individuals can be explained, one step at a time, if one simply knows enough about all of the influences.

    The other is:  What is amazing about our species is that, precisely, every once in a while someone will come along who defies all of our developmental models.  Newton is often cited as one example––despite completely indifferent family and upbringing, he emerges as a scientific genius in his early twenties. And I believe that, despite his talented father, Mozart is also virtually inexplicable in terms of all of our conventional categories. I simply don’t understand where the C minor piano concerto came from, and it was not from Salieri!

    When it comes to Shakespeare, I believe that even someone from the humblest background, if he is a keen reader (and people can teach themselves to read), and a keen observer of human nature, can emerge as a great writer. (Perhaps Faulkner also; perhaps Joseph Conrad; perhaps the Indian mathematician Ramanujan).  That does not at all prove that Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays were written by Shakespeare––but at least it keeps open the door that extraordinary literary productivity can come from an unlikely source.”

    Well, at least he’s more open-minded than the Stratfordians. It’s a start.

  7. I think Howard Gardener is being somewhat willfully short-sighted when he discusses the miracle of creative genius.

    No one can contest the fact that every so often the human race is graced with marvelous and stunning individual talents, minds so rarefied we are profoundly moved by them, and we wonder at the limitlessness of human cognizance. However Gardener, along with many Stratfordians, believes that there are only two ways to approach genius: by clinical explanation, or by appreciative awe at its mystery. That is nonsense. No one can explain the origin of genius and we are all appreciatively awed by it. But what we do know is that the products of genius are fermented through immersion: immersion in study, immersion in craft, immersion in life experience. Without the appropriate milieu, genius cannot flourish.

    Without question, gifted individuals born into humble or adverse circumstances can overcome and compensate for their disadvantages. [My own parents were illiterate.] But look at some of the examples Gardener uses: Mozart, Newton, Faulkner, Conrad. In every case we can trace their development, their commitment to their art, their manner of study, their manner of composition, and the arc of their lives. Gardener seems to believe that had Mozart never studied under the masters, he would still have been able to play music and compose. One of Mozart’s prodigious talents was the ability to improvise complex variations of other composer’s themes. The key words here are “other composers'”. From very early childhood, Mozart was exposed to the masters of his time. Newton was also versed in the science and astronomy of his time and he studied at Kings School and Cambridge. Does Gardener actually believe that Newton would have been able to write the Principia without first puzzling through Copernicus and Kepler? Faulkner not only had university, his works intimately reflect the idiosyncratic history of the region of his birth. Conrad didn’t invent fantasies about the colonial geographies that darken his works–he lived them, as a mariner, the same way Melville did. The idea that an individual can imagine and write (with startling accuracy and detail) about places he has never been is a myth. Geniuses are human beings, not magical fairy pixies, and they create with the stuff life sends them.

    Oxfordians marvel at genius the same as anyone. But we believe that geniuses leaves tracers behind their lives, snippets of archaeological data that, when found, deeply enhance their works. Shaksper of Stratford has left us nothing, and what we know of him doesn’t mesh with the works of Shakes-peare.

  8. Whenever I meet Oxfordians I ask how they came to the Authorship Question and what was it that caused them to cross the great divide. With everyone it’s something different. Even those who give the same answer, for instance Charleton Ogburn’s book, respond to the particular facet of his argument that matches their own personal experience and thinking. With me it was the many books I’d already read about great writers, in particular Lord Byron, to whose amazing life and works I’d devoted several years of study, and who was weirdly similar in many ways to Ogburn’s portrait of Oxford. That, compared with the completely anomalous biography of William, was what it took for me.

    Gardner isn’t being willful or even short-sighted. He simply hasn’t met the fact or done the thinking that will replace the image of a clever provincial yeoman with that of a self-centered aristocrat with a bad reputation. Perhaps he hasn’t felt the need. And I certainly don’t need his opinion to feel secure with my own.

    Again, as I’ve attempted to explain, a lot of the problem has to do with right and left brain thinking. Left brain thinkers, so predominant in the schools, simply don’t get the meaning of anomalies. What to me is an inexplicable thundering silence (the lack of any personal commentary on Shakespeare in London while his plays were first being performed) is to them simply a lack of information of no particular size or importance.

    Point being, attempts to get Stratfordians to see the Shakespeare story from our point of view are just as futile as it is to explain to someone who’s tone deaf what it is that makes Beethovan great or to someone who’s not “visual,’ why someone else is willing to spend considerable time and money for the opportunity to gaze for a few brief minutes at a 200-year-old work by Rembrandt, painted as he faced his aging self in a mirror, probably because he had no one left who would sit still for him.

    The best novel about an artist that I’ve read is The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. His portrait of Gully Jimson may be exaggerated, but not by much.

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