Thursday, March 12, 2009

So Intolerably Dull It Nauseated Me

Or so says a certain Charles Darwin, of our dear friend Mr. Shakespeare.

So I was led to believe when I saw that quote float by my Twitter stream earlier today  (full quote:  “I  have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and I find it so intolerably dull it nauseated me.”)

Curious, I googled the phrase to see if there was some context around it.  Guess what I found?  Darwin’s autobiography.  Thank you, Google Books:

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels, which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure tome, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

Emphasis mine, of course.  The man’s talking about how he’s changed as he’s gotten older.  It’s not that he’s singling out Shakespeare not in the least.  And he’s also not making any sorts of proclamation that Shakespeare is lame.  On the contrary he sounds to me a bit sad that he no longer has the appreciation for these things that he once did.  Note after the Shakespeare bit that he even says pictures and music don’t really do it for him either anymore, only novels.  And even then, only certain novels.  You have to dig the joke at the end about characters whom one can thoroughly love. :)


Leo said...

Until the year 1995 I had read Shakespeare for 20 years. I made a point to read all the Bard's works annually. I did not read criticism or anything about Shakespeare. All I knew about him was what I read in his works. Then while browsing a bookstore I found a book about Shakespeare; and learned that there was such a thing as an "authorship" debate which had been raging for some time.
That changed my attitude and affected the way I understood the plays and poems; but I got over it in time, and now at the ripe age of 80, the only thing I consider about Shakespeare is Shakespeare.I also have a lovely woman at my side who has shared my passion 40 years. In that respect, Darwin should have been so lucky.

Duane said...

80? 80?!

Leo my friend we have seriously got to talk about the evolution of live Shakespeare performances. Tell me you've got some stories about going to see shows when you were younger? I'm half your age, I consider Laurence Olivier "before my time". I'm dying to know how the portrayal of Shakespeare on stage has changed, from someone who can speak to it first hand.

Thanks for the comment, I hope you're enjoying the blog.

Leo said...

Duane, my wife and I resided at an isolated cabin in the mountains of California. We considered it paradise on earth. The nearest village was 50 miles which we visited when necessary. Our only modern convenience was running water from a mountain spring. We did not have television, radio, or neighbors, and rarely a visitor. What we did have was quiet mountain solitude; and our books. We read, recited and discussed Shakespeare and literature in general. We did not attend a live performance until 2003, the year after we departed our mountain home. The information about Shakespeare on the internet is endless. I had to use self-discipline to restrict my time on the World Wide Web; but I still read your blog daily and thank you for it.

Duane said...

Ok, I am fascinated by your story (and somewhat humbled that of all the Shakespeare stuff out there on the net you're coming to my little old corner of the net daily). Do you remember your introduction to Shakespeare? Surely you had it during school?

I'm intrigued because of the way you said that you avoided criticism and such things. I'm wondering, in essence, who planted the idea of Shakespeare in your head. What comes first - someone tells you that Shakespeare is great, and then you confirm it? Or you trip over him in the bookstore one day and you tell your friend "Hey, have you heard of this Shakespeare guy? He's pretty good!"

I'm currently reading (or, well, going to start) Majorie Garber's "Shakespeare In Modern Culture" which I believe tries to get at the chicken-and-egg nature of this question. Is it even possible for someone to come at Shakespeare independently, without already having the thought planted in his brain that this stuff is inherently brilliant? Will the next generation of school children think Shakespeare great because he is, or simply because we said so?

Leo said...

I can’t say exactly when I began to read Shakespeare. It is a pleasure and a passion with me. Occasionally someone will ask what I like to read. They present a rather vague look of astonishment when I tell them. I have a dog-eared Macbeth paperback in the glove compartment. It accompanies me to waiting rooms, or queues. I got caught up in the Shakespeare authorship question. DeVere, Bacon, Marlowe. I read inspiring, thought provoking, scholarly, and entertaining treatises. I had the occasion of making the acquaintance of a charismatic vagabond fry-cook. He traveled from job to job, a book bag at his side containing the works of Dickens. He constantly recited from his magnificent “Boz.” I met him in Beaty, Nevada, and again in a restaurant near Anza-Borrego, then again in Searchlight. I imagine he will turn up in Texas one of these days. He reminded me when I was in the Army; a fellow in our platoon seemed to have a quote from Shakespeare for whatever we were doing. I believe he inspired me to read the works of the “Bard.”