A reader writes to scold what she calls my “overcritical” view of literature. “Great literature,” she says, “is meant to inspire and uplift the human spirit. This is exactly what the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley does.”
“Up with me! up with me into the clouds!” One example; wrong poet. That was Wordsworth, Madam, after spending an idle afternoon observing the mating habits of skylarks. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Another example: John Keats, starting a long poem he finished seven months later. Lots of good stuff there about the sun and the moon and trees and sheep and, of course, the daffodils that class of Romantic gentlemen venerated. Other examples follow, several of them from Shelley himself.
Madam finishes her desultory philippic (“aimless tirade,” to save her the time of looking it up) with the prediction that if I were to write a piece about Shakespeare, I’d grind his golden words into a yellow pulp. “Every word the man wrote was inspired!” she concludes.
Not quite, Madam. The greatest man ever to place quill in inkpot had an occasional bad word day. The bardophiles who run the numerous Shakespeare festivals seem to miss this point. They consistently produce his masterpieces (yes, Madam, I acknowledge the existence of such things) alongside his duds. I’ve seen brochures advertising a summer schedule mixing The Merry Wives of Windsor with Hamlet.
The story goes that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed ol’ Will’s greatest comic character so much that she requested that he, Shakespeare, write another play featuring him, Falstaff, in love. She gave him two weeks to put together The Merry Wives, who stuff Sir John Falstaff into a dirty laundry basket and dump him in the river.
We don’t know that much about Willy Boy, but we can make an educated guess that besides his way with words, he also had the virtue of prudence. Maybe he’d seen the letter, now in the British Museum, that Good Queen Bess had written to one of her four-star generals, ordering him to decapitate one of his colonels. Maybe Will had heard about it. Word gets around. Anyway, the old girl got her wish: a play about Falstaff, probably dedicated to her and presented on her birthday at Windsor Palace.
I challenge Madam to make a comedy about King Lear. I give her all the time she needs. My educated guess is that I will not like it.