Written for The New York Times
By Benjamin De Casseres
AESCHYLUS was sublime, Homer was godlike, Sophocles was inexorable, Aristophanes was satanic, Rabelais was grotesque, Dante was grave, Shelley was ethereal, Goethe was Olympian, St. Augustine was lyrical, Ibsen was dramatic, Cervantes was humorous, Molière was human, Heine was throstle-throated, Balzac was mystical-realistic, Swift was misanthropic, Nietzsche was torrential, Byron was melancholic and cynical. Shakespeare was all of these.
His mind was the council chamber of all the titans of literature past and to come. In his brain the past came to puberty. Homer was homeric. Aeschylus was aeschylean, Rabelais was rabelaisian. Dante was dantesque. But Shakespeare was not Shakespearean.
He was an All. It may be said of him what Descartes said of the universe, that he was a sphere with its very centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere. Gods, worlds, ideas, intuitions, and embryons of beings-to-be swam in his brain like deep-sea infusoria.
He was the completest human being of which we have any knowledge. Like a substance of infinite protean capacities, he lived all his incarnations at once. We know so little about him because in this human being there was no “him.” He was Many, being All. He had the impersonality of divinity, and, being impersonal, he knew nothing of good or evil. He rammed his body up to the navel in old Mother Earth, and still his Third Eye flamed from Arcturus.
What was Shakespeare’s religion, his beliefs? His life was lived. He left no record of the why or how. No confessions, no “technique of my art.” To him life was an adventure. His plays and poems came from the sweat of his soul. Did he know anything else? Why should he? He was the only pagan who ever lived because he identified himself with the World-Will. And, like Spinoza, he knew that the World-Will was in the alepot and in the eyes of woman as well as in the trans-atomic dimensions. He ate, drank, begat, accouched a fictional universe, and passed.
Will Shakespeare, the intermittent drinker; Will Shakespeare, the snarer of lassies; Will Shakespeare, the pothouse debater; Will Shakespeare, the sometimes obscene; Will Shakespeare, full of tares and blemishes—what we can piece together of you reveals to us a man as human as Christ. You were one of us, a radiant god who kissed matter passionately because you despised the spiritual lickspittles. You were a man? You were THE man. You were that unique—the perfect equilibration of mind and matter, of sense and supersense.
The pink-tea sanies of culture, the scholastic nizzies, the milksops of morality, the winged cows of taste, the orthodox dunderpates, the pretty fellows of literature, the professional jobbernowls—how do they “explain” you, “Will”-of-theWorld, old tosspot. Pierrot-Parabrahma?
Dickens’s works are the immortality of the disinherited. Balzac wrote the dictionary of human vice, but Shakespeare is the Hall of Fame of the human race. Caliban and Hamlet, Mistress Ford and Cordelia, Falstaff and Iago are there—that is to say, in those six creations alone the history of the human race is written forever. In each of us there is a Caliban, a Hamlet, a Falstaff, an Iago, a Mistress Ford, a Cordelia, and man is the enigma of time because these persons interbreed in his soul. Some of us are not in Dickens, and others of us are not in Balzac, but all of us are in Shakespeare, as the part is in the whole.
Shakespeare was a giant orb, and on the whirling ecliptic of his imagination we are only moons. He was a detective and he had a dictograph planted in the human heart.
And of wisdom in him there is never an end. The Orient, Greece, Egypt, and the West are there. There is the practical wisdom of the Yankee horse trader and the esoteric wisdom of the godalepts. He absorbed whole continents of thought and cut the lightning of his dreams into apothegms. He could talk the prose of the cowshed and converse with the sibyls and the Magi. He was all things to all men because he lived neither above nor below the race, but through it. “Whatever exists exists for me,” he said to me once. “Whatever is is mine. The thing that does not belong to me can never be born. Matter and mind and men enter into hypostatic union with me.”
In the womb of his brain every day was a birth month. Greater than the creative human imagination we know nothing, and Shakespeare was the spectroscope to which all rays converged.
Shakespeare is the supreme artist of all time because we learn only two things from his pages, the eternality of Beauty and the sublime nothingness of man. The great Shuttle weaves and we are woven of it—cotton and silk, yarn and sunbeams, rainbow strands and dirty catgut. There are no explanatory prefaces to his plays. God does not explain life. Why should Shakespeare? There is no dry, apologetic cough for epilogue. Iago is Iago to the last; so is Richard II. and Shylock. Hell belched Richard up and the Heart of All Sweetness wafted Ariel down. Here they are. I, William Shakespeare, have nothing to do with it. I am only a reporter.
There is only one man that I know of whose subtlety of mind has so clearly apprehended the interdependence of all things as Shakespeare’s—and that is Thomas Hardy. Shakespeare and Hardy possess in almost equal degree the sense of subtle stupendities and stupendous subtleties. There are no great laws; there are infinitesimal links that chance fastens together, but may break at any moment. The great tragedy of Othello is built up on the airiest trifles, nothings, ripples on the surface of the Moor’s consciousness. Shakespeare knew that the almost nothing is the nebulae of human as well as sidereal cataclysms.
The earth should be renamed Shakespeare.
Source: The New York Times, Shakespeare Tercentennial Supplement, March 19, 1916, p. 3