The slew of events around the world marking the death of Shakespeare (400 years ago today, on 23 April 1616) and celebrating his achievement prompts the question, ‘why Shakespeare?’ Or rather, ‘why Shakespeare still?’
There are many plausible and oft-cited explanations for why, four centuries after his death, we continue to bother with Shakespeare: the matchless creativity and technical skill of the writing; the intellectual adventurousness and range of the plays, and their refusal of oversimplification; the continuing cultural prestige of the works in many parts of the world; and their evident marketability. But perhaps another explanation for Shakespeare’s ongoing appeal, one less adulatory—but also less cynical—is to be found in an observation of the twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, confessing and puzzled by his own unresponsiveness to Shakespeare, drew attention to what he saw as the plays’ sketchy or throw-away quality: ‘His pieces give me an impression’, Wittgenstein wrote, ‘as of enormous sketches rather than of paintings; as though they had been dashed off by someone who can permit himself anything, so to speak’.
Wittgenstein may have not been able, or willing, fully to ‘get’ Shakespeare—such people do exist. But his remark opens up something important about the nature of Shakespeare’s achievement: that there is something incomplete or unfinished about his works. At one level, of course, it seems absurd to describe plays like Hamlet or Twelfth Night as ‘sketches’: surely these are fully worked-up canvases rather than preliminary attempts. Readers and spectators have long praised the ‘reality-effect’ of Shakespeare’s plays: in the later seventeenth century, for example, the writer Margaret Cavendish claimed that his ‘persons’ were so convincing that ‘one would think he had been transformed into everyone one of [them] he hath described’. The vivid actuality of King Lear or Hamlet doesn’t seem the sort of effect able to be generated by something as slight, casual, or gestural as a sketch.
And yet, insofar as a sketch is incomplete, waiting to be filled in or fully realized (either by its creator or another), we may indeed feel that there is something ‘sketchy’ about Shakespeare: that more is still to come, that the works require our attention and thought. To be sure, this is true of any play text, which by its nature calls for performance. But it seems to be particularly the case with Shakespeare. The plays often, for instance, take the form of a debate or argument, requiring us as spectators or readers to make choices. Whose side are we on: Hal’s or Falstaff’s? Prospero’s or Caliban’s? Antony’s or Caesar’s? And, just as frequently, rather than plumping for one position among such options, the plays are quite willing to abstain from choice—to develop and elaborate contrasts rather than close them down or smooth them over. Often, this has large consequences: in a public lecture at the University of Queensland this week marking the 400th anniversary, Indira Ghose commented that ‘what is missing’ in Shakespeare’s plays ‘is moral closure’: ‘the plays resist the attempt to deliver a didactic message. Instead, they appeal to the autonomy of spectators, requiring them to draw their own conclusions’. This is the Shakespearean quality that the poet John Keats famously identified as ‘negative capability’: the refusal—an intellectually honest one—to decide between equally compelling, but incompatible, attitudes towards life. What Shakespeare will not give us is a simple or monological account of the world.
Of course, the astonishing variety of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and of individual plays, has long been recognized as fundamental. The nineteenth-century writer and critic Otto Ludwig characterized Shakespeare’s art as one of ‘contrast’ (think of the way Shakespeare hybridizes the most disparate materials—the boozy Porter and the murder in Macbeth; the bawdy Clown at Cleopatra’s suicide). Nevertheless, it must be conceded that a gallimaufry of contrasting materials can appear to lack unity or overarching vision; can in that sense seem unfinished—as if the plays were, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘come into the world scarce half made up’ (Richard III 1.1.21).
If Shakespeare’s is an art of multiplicity and variety rather than of sameness—a traditional way of valuing as well as criticizing it—it is also, famously, an art of problems. Obscurities abound, often as opacities of motivation or behaviour, as mysterious to the characters experiencing them as to readers or spectators. Why does Hamlet delay? Why does Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, not reveal himself at once to his blind father Gloucester? The Merchant of Venice opens with Antonio’s perplexity at his own melancholy:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself. (1.1.1-7)
The indeterminacy is here clearly intended, and of the essence, but there are also instances (for example, the unexplained disappearance of the Fool in King Lear) where we might reasonably suspect a more straightforward lapse in authorial concentration: Shakespearean ‘unfinishedness’ as a willingness to tolerate a little roughness around the edges. Perhaps it was this seemingly relaxed attitude towards the gloss of the final product that alarmed the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work of philosophical systematisation the attempt of which was to establish, with mathematical rigour, the conditions of true and meaningful speech.
But for many appreciators of Shakespeare, the value of the works lies not with the lucidity (or otherwise) of the plots, nor even, as Cavendish thought, with the verisimilitude of the characterisation, but rather with something like an accuracy of feeling or texture—a virtue seen to reside primarily in the language itself rather than its referent. Thus, for the twentieth-century American poet A. R. Ammons, what makes Shakespeare central and valuable is his focus on the fabric of the verse rather than its subject matter; in the late poem Glare (1997) Ammons writes:
- didn’t really care, as I
don’t either, about any of that ‘content’: he
just wanted to squeeze the syllables and feel
them slide: oh, he wanted to hear the truth,
that is, the accuracy with which the syllables
slit the throat: the way a Hail Mary arcs the
field and lands accurately in the fleet hand:
all this is true, and lies keep it bright
Ammons’s Shakespeare is a poet less invested in straightforward mimesis than in a certain affective precision: ‘the accuracy with which the syllables / slit the throat’. For Ammons, then, the ‘reality effect’ of Shakespeare lies less often in the convincing portrayal of character or other forms of realism than it does in the way that art, however it may violate canons of naturalistic representation, is nevertheless true to feeling or experience in the most expansive sense: ‘All this is true’ says Ammons, (the phrase carries an echo of Shakespeare’s play about Henry VIII, All is True) ‘and lies keep it bright’. Or, put otherwise by the playwright himself, ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning’ (As You Like It, 3.3.15-16).
Peter Holbrook is Director of the UQ Node of the Centre for the History for the Emotions, and the author of several books on Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature.
Xanthe Ashburner is Education and Outreach Officer at the UQ Node of the Centre, and is writing a thesis about A. R. Ammons.
More on The University of Queensland #Shakespeare400 Program of free, public events here.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), p. 83.
 Letter 123 in Sociable Letters (1664), ed. James Fitzmaurice (Toronto: Broadview, 2004), p. 177.
 Indira Ghose, ‘Shakespeare and Modern Life’, Customs House, Brisbane, 20 April 2016.
 A. R. Ammons, Glare (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 192.