George Bernard Shaw on Shakespeare

Shaw "cutting" Shakespeare in Hades
Kyd. G.B. Shaw “cutting” Shakespeare in Hades. Watercolor and ink on paper, late 19th or early 20th century. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART Box C598 no.4 (size L)

William Shakespeare was, famously, a playwright and an actor. George Bernard Shaw was, famously, a playwright and a critic — and a particularly acerbic critic of Shakespeare, whose cult he insisted had mushroomed by the 20th century far beyond what the man’s dramaturgy merited, and whose characters he declared “have no religion, no politics, no conscience, no hope, no convictions of any sort.”

Whew. Mayhap we should see about renaming the Folger.

Or mayhap not: Shaw was also famously a bombastic old curmudgeon (even in his youth), a genius gadfly given to making outrageous claims to get an audience’s attention, then using his peerless wit and erudition to make a watertight case for the more measured position he’d actually come to argue. (Or the opposite position: Shaw is forever giving equal time to the opponents of his own ideas.)

Indeed he would over the course of his long life shower much praise on Shakespear, to use the spelling Shaw preferred, and would even lend his name and pen to the earliest efforts to establish a national theater in England.

True, his utter impatience with “Bardolatry”—his efficiently dismissive coinage for the breathless Victorian fanboying that elevated Shakespeare to the ranks of the prophets and the philosophers—that impatience would remain with him to the grave. (Makes one long for a comic one-act that imagines him meeting a young Harold Bloom for cocktails at the Algonquin, doesn’t it?)

Saint Joan, onstage at Folger Theatre this month, may well be the most Shakespearean of Shaw’s major plays in its matter and its style, as dramaturg Michele Osherow notes. (There is Caesar and Cleopatra to consider, but that’s more of a counterargument, and best left for another season.) Look to the ephemera, though, and you’ll find a scattering of charming artifacts, each one testament to Shaw’s lifelong entanglement with Our Boy Bill.

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, of which a typescript copy resides in the Folger Library’s collection, is probably the best known of these. Written in 1910 as an early contribution to the campaign to establish the National Theatre, it’s a hilariously imagined amongst-the-hedges encounter between an unsuspecting Elizabeth I and a Willy Shakes of such Shavian egomania that he’s barely able to avoid insulting his queen. With its thoroughly flustered monarch and its brusque braggart of a hero stealing plum phrases from everyone he encounters, it reads like nothing so much as an inverted early draft of Shakespeare in Love.

Another tasty morsel of Shavian mischief is also housed here at the Folger, again in typescript, this one bearing Shaw’s hand-inked corrections — including several joke-sharpening changes that showcase a perfectionist at work. It’s a wrecking ball of a book review, published in 1916, in which Shaw recasts the final scene of Macbeth in 2,400 words of hilariously blowsy narrative prose, all for the sake of demolishing author Arnold Bennett’s argument that plays are easier to write than novels. It’s just one of umpteen examples of Shaw’s nine-decade fascination with the Scottish Play, an obsession that might merit its own scholarly subspecialty. It’s also a reminder of both Shaw’s critical stature and his personal charm; despite the review, which was part of an extended public exchange of intellectual fire, Shaw and Bennett were to become friendly-enough correspondents that the novelist would eventually seek the master’s tutelage on, yes, playwriting.

Nothing speaks so clearly to Shaw’s evolving understanding of Shakespeare, though, as Cymbeline Refinished. Late in his life, Shaw audaciously rewrote the fifth act of Shakespeare’s oddball late romance, cutting its length roughly in half, stripping out most of the original’s surprise revelations, and making the play’s heroine Imogen more assertive almost to the point of modern feminism. Yet Shaw does, in a 1945 foreword acknowledge that his youthful dismissals of Cymbeline—as “stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order,” most pungently—were more about how the Victorians staged Shakespeare than about what Shakespeare put on the page. He even acknowledges that the Bard might have known what he was doing when he included the notorious masque played by Sicilius et al during Posthumus’ nap.

Shaw, in short, never entirely backed away from his career-long assertion that Shakespeare was no English literary god—though he did come to view him as a singularly talented mortal. As for his own place on the spectrum between the sacred and the profane? Perhaps this quote from Shaw’s correspondence with the actress Ellen Terry best sums up his self-assessment:

“I have no objection whatever to an intelligent cutting-out of the dead and false bits of Shakespeare. But when you propose to cut me, I am paralyzed at your sacrilegious audacity.”

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