Shakespeare and Milton as Dissidents
Weighing issues of literature, religion, politics and philosophy in a comparison of two disparate poets
By Manfred Weidhorn
Princeton University's Professor of English, Nigel Smith, in the title of his 2008 book, raised the question, "Is Milton better than Shakespeare?" Since the two poets had different specialties, the question makes as much sense as would one about whether baseball player Babe Ruth was better than Ty Cobb or, worse yet, better than Cy Young. A more appropriate version would have been, "Is Milton better than Dante?" A yardstick can surely be established to measure those two men: Both dealt in epic or quasi-epic with weighty issues like the divine order, human destiny, eternity, the problem of evil, the role of Satan and the meaning of sin matters over the head of poor Shakespeare, who was seemingly less an intellectual than a popular playwright.
Or another question that is more plausible than Smith's would be: Is Shakespeare better than Sophocles, Jonson, Calderon, Racine or Ibsen? Ibsen would certainly qualify for this comparison, as he had a strikingly similar career a long list of plays which are divisible, like Shakespeare's, into early period histories, major phase tragedies, and late, somewhat eccentric "romances".
The difference between Smith's two competing Englishmen goes beyond philosophical subject matter to include temperament. Shakespeare is secular and easy-going; Milton is religious and intense. Shakespeare writes prolifically and casually; Milton writes (poetry) spasmodically, selectively, deliberately. Shakespeare writes extensively about diverse human experiences; Milton writes intensively about a limited set of experiences. Shakespeare is reticent, leaving behind only a few facts about his life and his art, which coalesce into an enigma, while the public Milton leaves many facts and convictions on record, which make him, whether one loves or hates him, an eminently scrutable presence. He even manages to insert himself into a literary form the epic redolent of authorial impersonality. In sum, Shakespeare is horizontal, comprehensive, apolitical and non-committal, while Milton is vertical and exclusive, if not politically and religiously engaged.
If Shakespeare is an unsystematic Olympian looking at life non-judgmentally, Milton is a judgmental system builder, his system being Protestant Christianity. One cannot pin Shakespeare down to any central reading of events; by contrast, Milton has only a few themes which recur in work after work and which he explores in depth and from every angle. No play of Shakespeare is representative of his corpus the way virtually every one of Milton's poems is representative of his corpus. Asked to sum up while standing on one foot the vision of each writer, one could easily do so with Milton and not at all with Shakespeare, who rarely steps into the same river twice. Shakespeare, to paraphrase the old saying, is never as sure of any one thing as Milton is sure of everything. The whole of the Shakespearean canon represents the unsuccessful struggle to arrive at a vision of reality; Milton's poetry offers the early and successful outcome of such a struggle if indeed there ever was that particular struggle for Milton! While Milton begins with a confident possession of the Truth and makes literature out of the difficulty of living up to its mandates, Shakespeare makes literature out of his inability to find any truth.
The central Miltonic theme or monomania is testing by temptation (usually sexual). That theme appears in each of his poems, whereas Shakespeare avails himself of it only occasionally (Macbeth, Measure for Measure). To the urbane Shakespeare, testing by temptation is merely one of a long list of challenges which life presents; it is but one of many ways of looking at the human condition. To the pious Milton, on the other hand, it is nothing less than the paradigm for the all-important relationship between Creator and human creature, the only aspect of life which truly matters. The story of the original temptation and fall, in other words, is an archetypal event, replayed daily in the life of every individual, as an omniscient God keeps His eye on all of us at every moment while Satan lurks under every bed.
The difference between the two poets is underlined by the diverging answers given by Smith and by a reviewer of his book to the original question. Smith's conclusion was that Milton, the champion of liberty in all its forms, wins the contest. The reviewer in Time, Shakespeare-scholar Gary Taylor, assigns the prize to Shakespeare: Milton may be erudite, eloquent, and formidable, but Shakespeare is far more easily reachable. Milton, in short, is admired, but Shakespeare is loved. Milton is for that captive audience known as "students"; Shakespeare is for that willing audience known as "readers" (and, Taylor might have added, playgoers). This disagreement between author and reviewer surely begs the question of what is meant by "better" and consequently renders the original dubbio even more problematic.
What, then, brought Smith to such an odd coupling? The answer is that a prosaic fact binds them they are the numbers one and two men of English poetry. The temptation therefore to do something with them jointly, however factitiously, is powerful. Should one therefore still insist on a pairing of Shakespeare and Milton on a level playing field on adding oranges to oranges in order to find one superior in some way to the other, a far better topic would be the question of non-conformity, rebellion and dissidence. Such an inquiry will lead to a surprising outcome. One of the two Milton has rebelliousness written all over him, while the other is passive and quietly conformist. Yet when all the evidence is sifted, the result is counter intuitive.
Both in private and artistic life, Shakespeare appears to have been an acquiescent soul. He was a shrewd businessman the artist as a typical bourgeois, perish the thought! with a financial stake in an acting company and an interest in owning property back home in Stratford on Avon. In personal matters as well as in his poetry and plays, he kept his thoughts on religion and politics and literature to himself. In his art, moreover, he followed fashions rather than innovated. When Marlowe's Jew of Malta scored with anti-Semitism as a subject, Shakespeare cashed in with the Merchant of Venice; when revenge tragedies became the rage, he crafted Hamlet; when an interest in romances developed, he turned from writing tragedies to his late romances. He clearly was no pioneer. His greatness is rather due to his unrivalled craftsmanship in plotting, his brilliant character portrayal (contrast, for example, his Jew with Marlowe's), and, above all, his articulating, as Alexander Pope would later say, "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." He did what contemporaries were doing, only he did it so much better.
Milton, by contrast, was a rebel in both his art and his private life. Though the idea of writing narratives about Biblical characters was gaining traction in his time, he alone, in Paradise Lost, showed originality by systematically combining classical epic form, Hebraic narrative and Christian interpretation. In the same way, he daringly fused a pure form of Greek tragedy with the Biblical tale of Samson. He was innovative in substance no less than in form: His consistent dramatisation of the overriding power of the sexual drive (notably in Adam and Samson) anticipates as Shakespeare, Bacon, Jonson, Hobbes and Locke do not a 20th-century obsession. Move over, Sigmund!
But he was even more rebellious in matter religious and political. Frustrated in marriage and finding that his conservative religious society allowed no exit from his plight, he, unlike the many mutely suffering spouses, advocated for legalising divorce. His divorce pamphlet being suppressed by the government, he, unlike the many mutely suffering writers, advocated for freedom of the press. He alone accepted no impediment to self-fulfillment and insisted on broadcasting that fact. As a Milton scholar once aptly observed, had Milton been in Adam's place, he would have promptly eaten the apple and then written a vituperative albeit erudite pamphlet justifying the action.
His personal problems parallelled the ones he found in religion itself. Raised as an Episcopalian and thinking of entering orders, he became disillusioned by the corruption and oppressiveness of the Church. He proceeded to lurch to the theological left by joining seriatim Protestant sects. Growing in each case disenchanted, he ended up belonging to a far-left Protestant sect consisting of one man, John Milton deeply pious, unbowed, in splendid isolation, an Emersonian rugged individualist.
While religious faith is commonly associated with some sort of conformity, Milton's version of devoutness was idiosyncratic and rugged. Severity of outlook came naturally to him. As perhaps the most pious individual among the great figures of British literature, he regarded obedience and patience as the supreme virtues. Obedience is, of course, to God, and, given the fallen state of individual and society, that necessitates disobedience to man, especially to those poor, specious examples of Christian leadership king and cleric. Through their utterly worldly behaviour, they rebelled against God. Milton, in rebelling against such wicked rebels, is (like his creation, Abdiel) conforming to God's will. As Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (with help from the Apostle Paul) was to assert, to be a Christian is essentially to be a dissident in the eyes of the world. Rebellion is thus turned by Milton from a concept redolent of subversion and treachery into one signifying the highest form of loyalty. We are far indeed from the placid world of "gentle" Will.
Given Milton's disputatious behaviour in matters of religion, equal rebelliousness in the adjacent field of politics was inevitable, especially in an age in which Church and State were intertwined. The dissent from the religion he was raised in swept him into the growing political turmoil. Many others feeling oppressed by the Anglican Church gathered under a large political tent known as the Puritan Rebellion with groups that had parallel sets of grievances. These included Members of Parliament unhappy with out-of-control royal prerogative and, in the socio-economic sphere, members of the middle class chafing at the privileged status of the aristocracy. Joining this eventually triumphant movement, Milton became its resident intellectual and propagandist, going so far as to write a book justifying the unheard-of trial and execution of a dynastic, allegedly divinely ordained king. When the monarchy was restored years later, Milton's life was for a while understandably in danger, and, like many another rebel, he spent the rest of his years in exile, in his case in a village removed from the great hub, London. Living thus the archetypal life of a noisy, wordy rebel l'homme engagι in every way he could not have been more different from the very private Shakespeare.
Yet one can argue that philosophically Shakespeare was the true rebel. For all of Milton's multifaceted non-conformity, he remained a rock-solid Christian. That was the dominant worldview in his day, and he subscribed to it whole-heartedly. There were, to be sure, numerous versions of Christianity, and these sects stridently and often bloodily disagreed with each other, but while Milton the polemicist lustily participated in many of these arguments, he kept them out of his poetry. He wrote Paradise Lost in such a nuanced, ecumenical manner that any Christian from Roman Catholic on the right to Quaker or Socinian on the far left could feel involved in the tale. He had to go into exile because one Christian sect and political party won over another and definitely not because he dealt with ideas that threatened to undermine Christianity itself, such as the ideas forwarded by Montaigne, Bruno, Cervantes, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Bayle. Never questioning the basic religious assumption of his time and place, he even hesitated to jettison the medieval Ptolemaic system as late as the 1660s, when the entire intellectual community had accepted the Copernican system. Milton, for all of his rebelliousness, was on matters of faith as much as Dante a child of the Middle Ages.
Not so with Shakespeare. That he was a skeptic was first intimated by John Keats (who wrote of Shakespeare's ability to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason") and has since been asserted by a legion of critics and scholars. The themes of Shakespeare's plays, a large and variegated series of working hypotheses about life, often clash with each other. He offers tragic and comic versions of the same situations (Richard III and Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear and As You Like It, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida), as though not knowing whether to cry or laugh. He presents opposing readings of reality: Hamlet is undone by delay, Othello by peremptoriness; in King Lear, most characters are all good or all evil, while in Hamlet, most characters are shades of gray, and in Macbeth, one immoral couple is surrounded by noble souls. One gets no coherent view of human nature from such a bundle of contradictions. Unlike Milton, he conforms to F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a "first-rate intelligence" as having the "ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function".
In fact, many more than "two opposed ideas". Shakespeare is a sponge or chameleon (or, in modern terms, a Zelig). He tries out different sets of clothes, puts on different masks. Like an actor, he enters into a role and a worldview with his entire being but only for the nonce. By being unconcerned about establishing an intellectual system or spelling out an achieved philosophy, he implicitly presents the case for Pyrrhonism. Literary works are, for him, never definitive statements about reality but are scenarios, hypotheses, try-outs, rehearsals. Life presents no Answer, only tentative, usually contradictory, eminently impractical, always fragmentary answers. His interpretation of events varies with location, with time of day and state of mind. A play is therefore a photograph expressive of a moment, of a gesture and of an angle of vision, not a definitive reading of reality. The canon of Shakespeare's plays is a photo album quite different from Milton's monumental sculpture.
The truth thus shifts with each change in vantage point. Domination is comical and tragical, domestic as well as political. Love is shallow and love is fulfilling. Jealousy is caused by someone mischievous, or jealousy can be self-generated. Peremptory action is sometimes necessary, and haste is at other times necessary, but which is needed when is a nice question. Sometimes most people on all sides of an issue are pathetic, deluded fools, and sometimes a few good men confront a world of ruthless villains, and sometimes a few bad apples are lodged in a barrel of good ones. There are no simple moral systems, no generalisations, no practical applications of philosophy or literature. This is but another way of saying that the answer to the venerable question of what is the "philosophy of Shakespeare" turns out to be the absence of philosophy, ie. doubt.
Nowhere is this elusiveness more striking than on the ultimate big question: the design of the universe and, consequently, the meaning of life. Where in Shakespeare's works is God? Spanish philosopher and writer, George Santayana, said that in all of them there is only one Christian play (Hamlet) and one Christian sonnet (#146). This assertion, hardly an exaggeration, sheds light on the truth. Religious institutions or functionaries sometimes appear in the plays, as well as the occasional Christian symbol, metaphor, sentiment, blasphemous expletive but, with the exception of that one play and one sonnet, no God or afterworld. The strong suspicion is that those two exceptions are merely another tentative probe, another experiment Shakespeare trying on Christian robes to see what that feels like and not making a definite assertion about anything cosmic; Shakespeare using the second shortest word in the language, one to which he had correctly assigned massive weight, and which indeed embodies the skeptical temper more than any other word: "If." The very first words of that play, "Who's there?" haunt protagonist and audience, detective and metaphysician, alike. Skeptics notoriously specialise in along with "if" interrogatory sentences.
The 17th century that both men lived in was still a religious age. Various underground currents were making their way to the sea of secularism that was to be found among 18th century thinkers, especially in France, but expressions of agnosticism and atheism had to remain private. The penalties for public voicing of such thoughts were severe. Even a putative unbeliever like Thomas Hobbes hid behind a host of Biblical quotations. As a creature of that century, therefore, Shakespeare was a silent rebel against its basic presuppositions, while Milton, iconoclastic in all else, was a solid conformist to the reigning Christian vision. If Milton was in a sense medieval, Shakespeare's perspectivism, relativism, subjectivism and doubt make him in a sense modern.
Whatever his dissents on institutional religions as messengers of the divine vision, the intellectual and rebellious Milton confidently, assertively and unwaveringly adhered to the traditional and still dominant faith in an interventionist, all powerful, all knowing, all good God. The unintellectual Shakespeare, outwardly so "gentle" and unassuming, in being agnostic or taciturn on the central metaphysical issue, was quietly the more daring, inquisitive and dissident soul. With all of his rebelliousness, Milton could not bring himself to make the ultimate leap from faith into the great unknown. With all of his conformity, Shakespeare took that leap.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010