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William Crawley | 17:26 UK time, Thursday, 4 September 2008

I´ve been reading Justin Webb´s new book, Have A Nice Day -- a reasoned and impassioned defence (defense?) of the United States (or some version of that contested concept) against various forms of anti-Americanism. If anyone can make that case, Justin Webb can. And in doing so, Justin demonstrates his confident command of American-English ("suck it up", "OK", and the like).

It´s a potent blend of argument and style which, by my lights (is that American-English?) is extremely successful. In explaining why Americans are not like us (viz., people on this side of the pond, as they say, much too often, on that side of the pond), Justin starts with the landscape of the United States and describes how a natural history characterised by wildness, openness, vastness, adventureousness and danger has helped to create a culture of independence, individuality, single-mindedness and sometimes bloody-mindedness. The link, in respect of the US at least, between landscape and political culture is rarely given the recognition it merits. I could go on beyond this first chapter to comment on the other connections he makes, but I´ll save further commentary for my interview with Justin later in the month.

Instead, let me invite your comments on a few matters prompted by my forays into Justin Webb´s America and some of the developments this week. I justify this interest in the US, not merely because I once lived there, but also because, in a sense, we all live there. It´s often noted that the United States is the closest thing we have today to the Roman Empire, and I have no reason to doubt that comparison. As a consequence of America´s global political, economic and cultural dominance, one commentator recently suggested that the entire world should have a vote in the election of a new US president. It was only partially a tongue-in-cheek proposal.

Presuming, that the US government could actually manage a successful vote-count -- and I have no reason to suppose it could -- who would be elected leader of the free world? If it was a choice between McCain and Obama, I suspect the world might elect Obama. But if the world could also select the candidate -- from the pool of constitutionally available Americans -- who would then be elected? Perhaps Obama would still be in the running, but I have a sense -- OK, a psephologically unsupported sense -- that Sarah Palin might not.

Whatever you think of Sarah Palin´s qualifications for the White House, she is clearly a gift to political satirists. Apparently even her mother-in-law is thinking of voting for Obama. Did the McCain team properly vet Governor Palin? That´s another way of asking: Did they know in advance about her daughter´s pregnancy; did they know she was once associated with an Alaskan independence group; and did they know she has been pictured quite so often shooting at things (often living things)? It´s just possible the McCain team knew all this and still chose this candidate because of her gender, her life-story, and her evangelical Christian moral views. On this side of the Atlantic, Sarah Palin looks unelectably cartoonish. But then, so did George Bush. And he got elected. And the world just had to suck it up.

Which brings me back to anti-Americanism. Is it likely that anti-Americanism within Europe generally will decline after November´s election even if the the leader of the free world turns out to be John McCain, and his running mate becomes the first former beauty queen to actually get a chance do something for world peace?

Your thoughts?


  • Comment number 1.

    Ah, my favorite subject. (US sp.) Okay, so many elements of this discussion.

    I'd agree a form of self-selection created the Americans of today who are more individualistic, more motivated to act on their own behalf, more adventurous. Those are qualities, for the most part. It creates a dynamic, fluid, reactive, exciting, enterprising, sometimes volatile society, and explains America's prosperity, influence, wherewithal. I too have lived both in America and in Europe, and I've made my choice to live in the United States now. The people around me make money quickly and lose it just as fast: money doesn't sit around for decades in bank accounts as much as it does in Europe; it exchanges hands in risky business transactions and incautious luxuries. Adults have toys too. Americans work hard and play harder. Most Americans I know hold strong opinions about life, politics, philosophy, and express them at the drop of a hat. Life happens with gusto, with the highest highs and the lowest lows. Is this generalising? Um, yes, a little. But not much. There is a palpable sense of excitement in America, and I find it very, very agreeable. (Though I admit, it may not be for everyone.)

    What I think anti-Americanism has done in Europe and even here in the States is to use the notions of 'war' or 'Bush' or - most erroneously - 'capitalism', and to cloud the overwhelming good that America stands for on the earth, entirely irrationally and without premise, as though America can be reduced to a flawed foreign policy and some asinine stereotypes. Thankfully, the culture of the US I've been describing also means that Americans usually don't care what pretentious Europeans with illusions of superiority think about them, or even pay attention to the fact (let alone give them a vote in American elections!).

    Do I think anti-Americanism will decrease in 2009? It should. If it doesn't, then the preposterous foolishness of imagining that America is an enemy of some kind should be even more blatantly evident than it is already.


  • Comment number 2.

    Heaven help America if it has to depend on the likes of Justin Webb to defend it. How can he defends what he doesn't understand?

    I think people not born in the US can ever completely understand it. They try to compare it to familiar paradigms, Rome for example. This was the thesis of BBC's six part series, "America, Age of Empire." Some of the few Americans who bothered to listen to it were angered by it, some amused, I merely dismissed it as one more grossly inaccurate picture becuase it was written by people who do not know what they are talking about. They tried like most Europeans to find the profound by examining the superficial. You cannot understand America by the same methods used to understand other countries, it just defies being analyzed that way.

    To understand America, you have to study it from its earliest history. Its landscape only makes sense or has relevance in the context of the way people who came to live in it had to deal with it. One thing that happens in a vast dangerous wilderness is that all people are leveled. There are no class distinctions. Those most skillful at surviving rise to the top no matter what strata of society they came from. Those most enterprising do well. Those who try to rely on pompous status they once knew in Europe are knocked aside as fools.

    America actually has very little in common with the Roman Empire. It is not interested in the conquest of territory. It is not interested in ruling over foreign lands or collecting taxes from foreign people. Its influence spreads around the entire world, far more effectively than Rome's ever did. How many people in China had ever heard of Rome? America is interested in making money. One President Calvin Coolige said, "The business of America is business." America is the most generous nation in the history of the world. It has given more money and assistance to more people and helped more helpless than any other nation especially when you include the voluntary private donations Americans give freely.

    The fact is that America is a unique experiment that invented itself. Its one overriding goal was that the tyrannies which plagued Europe would never be allowed to take root in the US. American culture is very different from Europe's. I've also lived in both. In some ways, America is the antithesis of Europe, a deliberate anti-Europe. Its values are different. Its ways of viewing the world and life are different.

    It is not clear if Anti-Americanism will decline in Europe after the election. That usually depends on how worried Europe is. Worried about its economy, worried about its security. Five or six years ago, it wasn't worried about anything. It strutted around like a proud peacock telling America to go to hell, telling it what a criminal it was for invading Iraq and for not signing Kyoto. Many Americans like me will not forget this betrayal. America does not need Europe to survive or prosper no matter what Europeans think. And America's demographics are becoming increasingly less European. Today, about 200 million out of 300 million Americans are of European descent. By 2050 according to a new study I think by the census bureau, it will be about 203 million out of 439 million. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos will become a larger percentage growing by about 60%. America's outward focus is turing towards Asia. Europe has recovered from the second world war. Now it is time for it to take full responsibilty for its own security and get off of the backs of the American taxpayer. We have footed the bill far too long and all we hear are complaints.

    If Europe wants to get along with America, it had better learn to stop criticizing what it doesn't have a clue about, accept it for what it is, and deal with it on its own terms. Europe is no longer in a position to dictate anything to anyone, its old days of empire a distant memory. If it doesn't, it will continued to be ignored and ridiculed by Americans.

  • Comment number 3.

    Anti-Americanism does exist within Europe, some with good reason and some becasue it's just easy to blame someone else for any problems.

    I'd put the War in Iraq in the first category (it also resulted in anti-British feeling too) - a lot of people felt the US were going to invade for their own reasons regardless of evidence, opinions etc.

    I'd put any negative impacts of global capitalism in the second. It's not right for the rest of the world to blame the USA for any problems capitalism brings, unless that is, you think you have a better system to put in its place.

    John_wright's comments at no1 show that it works both ways. He seems to be assuming Europeans are pretentious, he then goes on to say that thankfully American culture often ignores Europe. This unfortunately is one of the things that sparks anti-USA feeling - USA is seen as an insular culture ignoring the rest of the world.

    Maybe people not born in the US can't fully understand it, the same could be said of any country. For example the UK, but you seem to think you do understand it. Without even visiting.

    You say you merely dismissed the BBC Empire series, yet you constantly talk about it.

    You say to understand USA we need to study it from it's earliest history. Given that all of this history (excluding that of the natives of your continent ) occurred recently, within the period of writen history, this should be achievable, wouldn't you say?

    I for one would be much happier if ill informed US citizens (of which I hope you are in the minority) spend more time ignoring we Europeans and less time ridiculing (btw is it even possible to ignore and ridicule at the same time? Presumably if you're ridiculing something that you're ignoring, then you probably don't even understand it - seems to be the case with dear MarcyII anyway).

  • Comment number 4.

    There are so many totally engaging Americans one begins to wonder where all the anti-Americanism comes from then one reads Mark's rant full of gung-ho paranoia and we have our answer. It strikes me as the political equivalent of the aggrieved child saying My Mummy doesn't understand (love?) me any more. Don't worry Mark - we do love you all (or, more honestly, most of you) really.

    I did laugh though when you said "There are no class distinctions". I knew at university a girl whose family was on the Boston social register and, verily, I say unto you I have not found so great snobbery, no, not in England. America is possessed of both blatant and nuanced social ordering: what it does not have is deference - and for that alone it is greatly to be admired.

  • Comment number 5.


    You're being controlled by the GOP. Fight it, man, fight it!
    Curse those memes!


  • Comment number 6.

    Anti-Americanism among Europeans is the result of ignorance, jealousy, and stupidity. It is stupid because at the very least, it is against Europe's own best interests to be at odds with America. But from America's point of view, it doesn't come as a surprise or have any cost to it. My own personal view of its most recent manifestations is that it demonstrated to Americans clearly whom it s true friends aren't. That alone was worth the invasion of Iraq. It is manifest right here in the last three postings.

    Crosseyes, there is no rational reason for Europe to be anti-American. America has never done anything to deliberatly harm Europe....yet. But if it continues, one day that may change. And like everyone who challenged America before it, Europe will find America a formidable enemy, capable of inflicting enormous damage in ways people cannot even imagine. Just look at the damage the sub prime mortgage fiasco in the US had done and that was entirely inadvertent.

    You clearly don't understand the War in Iraq either objectively or from an American perspective. This is true for most Europeans and unfortunately many Americans have forgotten so quickly. The memory of the American public is notoriously short. The American government on the other hand NEVER forgets. Iraq was seen as both a continued long term threat to oil from the middle east and ultimately part of the war against terrorism that had struck a blow on the US only months earlier. The US government doesn't wait until a dire threat fully matures to prepare and act. Pearl Harbor was a lesson. 9-11 was a refresher course. The US could not afford to allow a nexus between Iraq and al Qaeda to develop. It could also not allow token compliance by Iraq to lead to an end to sanctions against the dangerous regime of Saddam Hussein. The US will act pre-emptively whenever it has to to nip this kind of threat in the bud. It also had to close the gaps in its open society with terrorists found useful to easily infiltrate and attack the US. If the US population is foolish enough to let down its guard internally again, it will get another and likely far more painful lesson. Neither Europe nor anyone else has any way to control what America does, nor does it have any right to. If it persists in its irrational disregard for America's perception of its own security vulnerabities and its measures to deal with them, it will not only continue to be ignored to an even greater degree, it may one day be viewed as a security threat to America itself. America will not wait until it is as weak and vulnerable to its enemies as Britain was when Chamberlain met Hitler in Munich. War with Iran may be just around the corner.

    You are wrong about American capitalism just the way you are wrong about everything else on all the other threads. American capitalism has generated more wealth than the entire rest of the human race combined. What do you think has brought China from a starving agrarian backwater to a developing modern state in just 35 years? What do you think rebuilt Western Europe and Japan after they were crushed in WWII? Where do you think America's military, industrial, and financial strength comes from? Capitalism is an inseparable part of the deepest rooted heart of American culture and ethos. It will never be otherwise. Every other system anyone ever tried has failed to the degree that it rejects the rights of ownership of private property and the keeping of most of the fruits of individual enterprise and corporate. Socialism and Communism have not only brought nothing but poverty to those who tried it but tyranny and war. The impact of global capitalism is that now even the poorest people in India can borrow money from microbanks to start a small business to earn their own way in life instead of waiting for a government handout which is unreliable and forever meager.

    BBC's series "America Age of Empire" purported to explain America to the world. What it explained was its own bias based on a superficial examination of recent American history without tracing its roots, putting in context, or examining the profound underlying principles and causes of more recent events. It was typical of BBC's recent history of weak journalism. What could you expect from a series which foolishly tried to explain what may be the single most complex and important series of events in hisotry in six half hour segments. However, there are occasional pieces of it which can be useful to cite even in the context of its overall badly flawed and inadequate design. How flawed? How did it help to understand America by visiting Hadrian's Wall? What insight do you get about America from asking a Cuban "historian" who has lived most of his life under Castro what he thinks of American foreign policy? Even if he had a dissenting view from that of his govenment's, expresssing it would have at the least cost him his job, maybe landed him in jail too? Talk about dumb interviews.

    The study of American history, culture, and society is achieveable...for those determined enough to want to understand it, if among other things they can dump their own emotional baggage and study it objectively putting its events in the context of the times they occurred in. But not only is that lacking at BBC, it was sad to learn that at even a higher level, that of Sir Christopher Meyers the former British Ambassador to the US as he revealed himself in his interview with Owen Bennet-Jones, he didn't really know much either. Not out of prejudice but out of Ignorance.

    My ridicule of Europe is well founded. I don't know how much American history Europeans in general or Brits learn in school but believe it or not, American high school students are required to study what we call World History which is mostly about Europe (starting with the origins of human life in the rift valley of Africa, progressing to Assyria and Babylonia, and then to Greece and Rome culminating in the 20th century. And Americans get much more of it in college as well as in reading English literature. This Americn doesn't ignore Europe, only its wrongheaded advice based and again on ignorance, stupidity, and jealousy. The only thing failures have to teach the successful is how not to fail by example. Your happiness or unhappiness is of no concern to me.

    whiner, Americans do not care if they are loved or not loved by Europeans. America does not live to be admired or even liked. It lives to succeed by its own efforts no matter what the rest of the world thinks of it. That is why Ameicans don't pay much attention to what goes on in the world, they don't care unless it becomes a threat or an opportunity. The reason you don't hear from many other Americans what you hear from me is because...they are too polite to tell you as a foreigner what they say to each other. Europe is held in almost universal contempt by Ameicans right now. When Obama said in Berlin that it would take a lot of work for Europe and America to come together again, he was politely telling Europe that the work will have to be done mostly by them to undo the damage they've done, to rebuild the people to people bridges they blew up. Chirac and Schroeder said they wanted a confrontation with America and most of Europe cheered. Now they have it. What will they do with it? For better or worse, the Bush adminstration is the democratic will of the American people. To a degree, politics in America still stops at the water's edge.

    gveale, nobody controls me. Not a political party, not ancient philosphers who knew nothing about the world except how to contemplate their navels, and not protagonists for your fantisies of a god.

  • Comment number 7.


    There is, quite literally no arguing with that, what with its entire tone being "We don't care what you think"

    Fair enough, I think attitudes like that will be their own undoing.

  • Comment number 8.


    You think attitudes like that will be their own undoing? Why, it hasn't so far in the last 233 years. It was the American Patriot Thomas Paine who wrote "it is illogical that an island should rule a continent." Since the French blocked the port of Charleston assuring the defeat of Cornwallis, what has Europe or anyone else done for America that it could not have done for itself? What evidence is there that America depends on the good will of anyone outside. It is the opposite that is true. IMO most Amerians really don't care what the outside world thinks of it. It has never thought well of America and it has invariably been wrong. Exactly what has changed?

  • Comment number 9.

    Oh wow, 233 years.

    I'd say it's more likely that America will fall from within.

  • Comment number 10.

    Plus, I'm not altogether sure what your argument is.

    Is it;

    "we don't care what you think! go USA! We're gonna stay on top!"

    If so, then yes, well done. Very good.


    What's your point though?

  • Comment number 11.

    Mark - Thomas Paine was English.

    But he was of course also a great American patriot. Those were heady days - I wonder if we will see the likes of Franklin, Jefferson and Co in American politics ever again..? Not in the current clutch, for sure.

  • Comment number 12.

    The fact that you do not acknowledge their control only shows how deep their control goes into your subconscious.
    Or maybe it's those memes. They promote Capitalism, Capitalists survive, the memes live on. But you're not in control.
    You've nothing to lose but your chains, Marc!


  • Comment number 13.

    You've got to the heart of Marcus' philosophy very quickly!
    Took me a couple of weeks to figure that out. But don't blame him. He's a prisoner of his memes. Just like we've been enslaved by the Papacy. Or something.


  • Comment number 14.

    Why is an American patriot naming himself after a Roman anyway?

  • Comment number 15.

    Helio- You're right. I could weep at the current crop of candidates: no great principled men of liberty, no great leaders able to inspire in the way Jefferson, for example, did. Jefferson was a man whose political and theological opinions came remarkably close to my own: a broadly 'libertarian' political view based on the rights and freedoms of all, and he was a deist for good measure. Alas we don't have anyone even close to him.

  • Comment number 16.

    John Wright ... Didn´t Jefferson own slaves?

  • Comment number 17.

    Sure what's wrong with slaves...

    would be the logical response, given the attitude expressed above.

  • Comment number 18.

    vealechops, pssst, shhh. Don't tell anyone but.....I am....a capitalist. That's right I own capital. In the stock market and in real estate. And guess what. So are most other adult Americans. Who brainwashed me and controls me, myself?

    Helio, Paine left England for France just in the nick of time before they were about to arrest him, try him, and hang him.

    August clipjoint, I said that people who want to understand the US have to take events in the context of their time. Clearly you don't want to. That's your perogative as it is Bernard sightlesses'. If you want to rant about how bad America is, be my guest. I think in the future it will only get..."badder." :-)

  • Comment number 19.

    dearest marcy, I'm worried for you. your obviously very advanced of years to be so wise yet also ramble so inanely. All this agression can't be doing your heart any good at all.

    Here's a suggestion, why don't you read what other people actually write?
    Leaving the Iraq guff aside (you seem to have a different reason every week), I did not criticise US capitalism.

    I said that I felt this was one of the areas where anti-US feeling was unflounded. Sure there are problems with capitalism, big businesses etc, but we all signed up to the system and this is how it works. When rules are broken and fair trade ingnored, we all have a right to complain. I'm no expert, but European companies are certainly guilty of this.

    I do find your view of your govt curious. In your rant above you seem to hold it in high regard, give it the right to 'intervene' wherever it wants, trust it's long memory... but in other posts you don't seem to approve of either of your potential new presidents. will this change when in power? I assume you know Obama personally, as you are able to state the true meaning of his speeches.

    Now you can get back to watching your age of empire DVD on an endless loop.

  • Comment number 20.

    gveale and bernard, you're almost right, there's only a few inconsistencies with the MAII strategy:

    If he doesen't care what we think, why use anti US feelings as a justification for anti Euro feeling?

    But mainly: why spend most of his days telling Europeans that he doesen't care about them or what they think? kind of ironic.

  • Comment number 21.

    crosseyes, i don't see anything wrong with big business. It's what made American what it is today. It's what made the modern world possible.

    I don't think what most people call free trade is a good idea for America. I think America should use its economic clout which is still considerable as a weapon. You see what it did to Cuba, North Korea, and up to recently Iraq, Lybia, Vietnam. It could do that to France,Germany, and Russia if it really wanted to. I think most Europeans don't understand Obama at all. If he wins, they will be very surprised when they learn he is an economic protectionist. But just look at who his friends are, big labor unions and people with low wage jobs that could be exported to where they pay even less like China or Mexico.

    The only problem I have with McCain besides the fact that like Obama he doesn't seem to understand economics 101, is that having spent 5 years being tortured in a Vietnamese POW camp, putting his finger on the button that controls 10,000 hydrogen bombs, there's no telling what he might do. As for Obama, you know I think he's a flake. A likeable and slick talking intelligent flake but a flake nonetheless. Do you think Obama will nuke Hanoi? I wouldn't want to be selling the Vietnamese life insurance policies if he gets elected.

  • Comment number 22.

    so in conclusion -

    McCain = unstable, no economic sense

    Obama = socialist (bad), flake(?), no econmic sense

    MAII votes McCain?

  • Comment number 23.

    and will you still give your government the seemingly unquestionning support demonstrated above, despite your previous doubts about both candidates?

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    Marc Helio:
    The 'American patriot' Thomas Paine’ was born in England, attacked Washington for owing slaves, and was judged by the paper the New York Citizen on his death to have done 'some good and much harm'. Only six mourners came to his funeral. He also wrote: "The world is my country; all mankind are my brothers; and to do good is my religion". Not much patriotism there. Robert Ingersoll wrote: "Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head - and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude - constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine". That was how America treated the man you call 'an American patriot', the man who also supported free public education and a guaranteed minimum income.


    It was, I think, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania who asked: "Why haven’t we all got a vote in the US election? Surely everyone with a TV set has earned that right just for enduring the merciless bombardment every four years". I accept that America is a dominant power, but we do not have to cowtow to everything that happens there? An obsession with an election which is largely about personalities is frankly fatuous and destructive: an endless dissection of every nose pick, fart or teenage pregnancy to see if it furnishes a clue to their fitness for office. 10 months of this inanity doesn't stop Americans electing a Nixon, a Reagan or a George W, in all three cases twice over! Enough said.

  • Comment number 26.

    "John Wright ... Didn't Jefferson own slaves?

    As many did back then. What's the point?

  • Comment number 27.


    Paine died broke. Many great men are not appreciated in their lifetimes. For many students of American history he was one of them. He was clearly well ahead of his time. In many ways, he wrote the rationale for the creation of America. He was part of the intellectual justification for its existance. And unlike other politicos, he wrote in plain understandable language the average man could comprehend. In fact his famous pamphlet was called "Common Sense" and was widely printend and distributed throughout the colonies. That's why elitists, monachist tyrants and their appologists hated him. Brits claiming him in one breath and denouncing him in the next is typical of the irrationality of the European mind. It rationalizes the fact that he rejected them. American history considers him a great American hero.

    It is clear that you do not believe in democracy. But that is hardly surprising. In Britain, you don't get to vote for the man or woman who will be the leader of the executive branch of government. Why should you respect the choice Americans have made? You vote for a party and they pick him for you. Giving away sovereignty to a supranational government, the EU is proof that the ability to control your own destiny yourself is of little value to Europeans. Then why should it come as a surprise that when the cost of defense of whatever liberty is left has to be paid for, most Europeans simply refuse unless they are forced to. They are lucky someone else paid that price for tham because at the same time they were defending their own.

    It would be absurd for the US to consider allowing non citizens to vote in its elections. What interest do they have in America's well being. They are only interested in what they can steal from it for themselves. Go ahead and continue to be jealous and hate America. You still have the rest of your life to buid up anger and frustration at it. Go to it.

  • Comment number 28.

    They have sarcasm in the US? Right?


  • Comment number 29.

    I think Will just has an interest in US politics, and the blog has reignited my own.
    I agree that the coverage does seem childish at times ("Pitbull in lipstick") and it would be nice to know just how much power the President has over his administration. Bush 2 seemed to want to balance Powell with Rumsfeld - and lost both.


  • Comment number 30.

    It's an old joke; Q. What's the difference between a lady lawyer and a pit bull? A. Lipstick.

    Funny how you hear so many Europeans say, we love America but we hate your government. Guess what, in America the government is probably more representative of the mainstream sentiments of the population as a whole than anywhere else, a fact foreigners pretend is not true. That's why they look for affirmation of their notion that it isn't in the noisy but often minority voice of protesters.

    Twenty years ago today, I was in Alaska. I've traveled some in my lifetime and seen lots of travellogs and nature programs about places all over the world but I don't think anything compares to Alaska, at least not in my experience. The rugged land of Montana is a kidergarten for learning survival skills if you want to face the wilderness of Alaska. Few people who live in Alaska can escape it. One joke is that Anchorage (Alaska's largest city) is only ten minutes from Alaska. Another, the year I was there (1988) was that Alaska is a land where men are men and women win the Iditarod. (The Iditarod is an 1100 mile annual dog sled race from Anchorage to Fairbanks and was won by Susan Butcher that year.) Anyone who has the opportunity to see Alaska first hand should grab it. And they should preferably pick a route which takes them as far west as the Anchorage/Valdiz area where the landscape is very different from the Juneau/Ketchikan area. The Kenai peninsula/Chugach area between Valdiz and Portage is a must see. So is a flyover of the glacier fields around Juneau. They should also see Denali Park. Mount McKinley presents an unusual challenge to mountain climbers. Although it is not as tall as Everest (I think only about 21,000 feet) it rises almost from sea level. This gives it its own microclimate which is very unpredictable and extreme. It can be a warm sunny day at the base but partway up, blizzards can arise from out of nowhere. That is why so many who attempt it die in the process. And yes I was lost all by myself in what is technically a rain forest 70 miles from Juneau. And yes I was scared. Packs of wild wolves, grizzly bears who are 9 feet tall, fast, and are the largest carnivores in North America, and Moose who will charge with a rack of antlers backed up by 1900 pounds and can easily kill a man inhabit that area. So do bald eagles. The fijords are also something to experience. An unforgettable adventure, one I'd gladly repeat. Alaska is not for the timid except as a brief well supervised visit. The American pioneering spirit is alive and well in that vast, remote, empty, and endlessly stunning place. Sarah Palin by having dealt with it successfully as a mother and as its Governor has demonstrated that she has the perseverence and inner strength to be qualified to deal with America's problems as President. I wonder how many of you would last even one day alone in Alaska outside its towns and cities. I know I couldn't.

  • Comment number 31.

    I see the anti American sentiment has surfaced again. And of course I can understand why. I mean we're more friendly, more polite, better at customer service, more innovative, more grammatically accurate, and we've never been involved in any wars.

    Oh yes, and we have a culture which is the envy of...emm...has...a...er... oh never mind.

  • Comment number 32.

    Dear, oh dear. Peter, the man who is so critical of many aspects of Christianity as it is practised, implies that we should not be critical of the American world that dominates our culture, our media, our fashion, our economies.

    We teach our young the importance of a critical intellect. There is much wrong with the world everywhere, and if we fail to convey this message to them, then there is no hope of a better future. Attacking 'anti-Americanism' is anti-intellect.

    Democracy should surely not be a protracted celebrity contest. People should vote on parties and policies, not on personalities. The founding fathers of the US made the critical mistake of vesting the executive in one person. They then, of course, proceeded to surround him/her with checks on his/her power so that internally he is less important than he seems. So this ten-month palaver is foisted on the American people and, through the media, on the rest of the world as if it was of earth-shattering importance who is elected.

    From my personal perspective, a Democrat is preferable to a republican, but that is because I prefer their policies.

    As for Norn Irn, David Dunseath is found of quoting from Hermann Goring: "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my revolver".
    That sums up the typical philistine Ulster attitude - unless, of course, we are talking about flute bands or fiddle music. Does that make me 'anti-Ulster'? If it does, then I'm proud of it.

  • Comment number 33.


    I hope you are not being dismissive of flute bands! I abhor the attitude of Middle Class liberals who despise and denigrate the working classes for being culturally authentic - a phenomenon not confined to Northern Ireland.

    When I go to watch band parades the thing which enthuses me most is the orgiastic involvement of the musicians with their music: the Bacchanalian synthesis of dancer and dance stirs primitive emotions and reconnects us with our primaeval selves. I so, so often wish I could play the base drum!

    Just as art did not 'stop short at the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine' so culture is not confined to the educated.

    (Sorry Helio - probably being a bit post-modern here again...)

  • Comment number 34.

    Yet again Brian McClinton shows himself to be blind to and willfully ignorant of the good of America while seeing only its "critical mistakes", a flawed perspective which colours his entire ideology. Doubt it? Read this:

    "Attacking 'anti-Americanism' is anti-intellect."

    Ergo, 'Anti-Americanism' = intellect.

    Haha! What an elegant error.

  • Comment number 35.


    Your logic is flawed. You should have noticed that I put 'anti-American' in inverted commas. The reason is I think that the accusation is misplaced because it confuses being critical of a society and its political/social system with being against that society. I am not against Americans. They are like everybody else in this world: no better and no worse.

    However, the power and influence of America in the world is great, and it is not all good. Indeed, quite the opposite. On balance, I think it has been a bad influence because it is hegemonic, oppressive, imperialistic, exploitative, philistine, poisonous (violent culture), macho and destructive.

    Of course, there is good in America, as there is anywhere. As there is in NI too. However, although I am not against flute bands per se, Portwyne, and I myself originated on the Shankill Road, I resent their dominance of Protestant culture and I resent the general philistine indifference of working class people in NI to culture that is 'difficult', such as classical music or Shakespeare.

    When I drive near an Orange band, I switch to the loudest available classical music  – a Beethoven symphony, Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition, the climax of Ravel's Bolero (Ansermet's 1963 recording), the 1812 or something loud – to drown it out.

  • Comment number 36.


    "Attacking 'anti-Americanism' is anti-intellect."

    Then I suppose it is also OK to attack the Irish. OK, here goes. The Irish are a race of mysoginistic drunks whose main occuption is holding contests to see who can tell the biggest lies. Whatever they have, they stole. Small wonder their heroes are leprechauns. Idle dreamers who never gave the world anything except worthless poetry and literature to amuse each other while wile away their lives going from one pub to the next getting ever drunker along the way. When they aren't drinking, they are out killing each other or planning to kill someone. There's more than a little larceny in every Irish heart.

    Did you like it? Want more? Maybe later.

    "Democracy should surely not be a protracted celebrity contest. People should vote on parties and policies, not on personalities. The founding fathers of the US made the critical mistake of vesting the executive in one person. They then, of course, proceeded to surround him/her with checks on his/her power so that internally he is less important than he seems."

    The world according to brian mcclinton. Too bad the founding fathers of America didn't have your wisdom to guide them. Imagine their horror if they could only come back to see the results of their mistakes. Then they'd really be sorry they didn't have mcclinton back when he might have set them straight.

  • Comment number 37.

    Better read my last one soon, it's sure to be referred to a moderator. An Irish moderator who will take a dim view of it...after he chuckles.

  • Comment number 38.

    I reserve the right to critique christianity, I am one. Nor do I confuse criticism with the exclusion or dismissal of others.

    You might note too that the implicit idea in my comment was that we ought to be as critical of ourselves as we are of others. Indeed maybe we ought, first, to be more critical of ourselves. Finger pointing is easy, the faults of others are always magnified by the lens of our own eyes and that may well be the reason for the astigmatism which results in the narrow criticism of flutes and fiddles. I don't particularly identify with the mix of politics and religion so much part of my Protestant up-bringing, loyalties change, but to suggest that working class people (an odd distinction for a socialist) are Philistines in regard to classical music or Shakespeare is nothing short of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual elitism. Brian, you were a teacher, were you not, as am I; it is our job to inspire all of the children in our care regardless of their social and cultural background, regardless of their perceived academic potential, so that they might celebrate the best that life has to offer, not to perpetuate the stereotype so often imposed upon them. Self-fulfilling prophecy, remember?

    My comments do not make me anti-Ulster, or anti-christian, they merely force me to constantly query *my* culture, my beliefs, my faith and my assumptions.

    Question everything, isn't that right; everything of course except our own ideas and our own heros and our own philosophies. Brian when I have finished reading the first critique of liberalism, secularism and atheism written by your own fair hand, then I will start listening.

  • Comment number 39.

    I'm surprised my tongue in cheek posting about the Irish hasn't been deleted yet. Of course the Irish are not really like that....are they? I'd think that is a rather inaccurate generalization. I'd say to be fair, it is far more descriptive of......the English :-)

    There is nothing wrong with being critical of America per se. But if it is to be meaningful, that is more than mere rhetoric based on prejudice, it has to meet certain tests. Is it based on accurate facts or mere suppositions? Are the facts complete and taken in context of other facts such as history, culture, related events? What are the the consequences, the alternatives, the likely consequences of the alternatives? What do other people in other countries do in comparable circumstances and what results do they get? For much of what has happend to America in the last 8 years, it is traveling in previously uncharted waters. When criticisms from the outside are judged by these standards, they invariably fall apart. Nobody is more critical of America than Americans themselves. But those criticisms are made with far greater knowledge than outsiders could possibly have and never demonstrate. Also they are often directed at serious efforts at self improvement. I don't think any other nation continues to examine itself in a comparable way. For this reason, it is only to be expected that Americans would dismiss foreign criticism as inaccurate and irrelevant to them. It should also be taken into consderation that when American government makes decisions on courses of action, like every other government the welfare of its own citizens takes priority over considerations of others around the world. They may not like it but there is nothing they can do about it.

  • Comment number 40.


    I see no intrinsic cultural excellence in difficulty. In the case of Shakespeare it is only time and the failings of the modern education system which make him difficult. In his own time Will was 'popular culture', warbling 'his native Wood-notes wilde', despised by the sophisticated elites and regarded as coarse and common.

    No-one now could deny his genius, the richness of his language, and his unparalleled insights into the human psyche but this breadth of vision came from a mind that was as at home in the gutters as in polite society. He was a true universalist whose work has the capacity to touch everyone and its redemptive qualities in the most unlikely of environments to this day has been frequently proven.

    The problem is not one of difficulty it is merely one of accessibility and for that the attitudes of the educated Middle Class who make the kind of distinctions you have just made are largely responsible. The false separation of high and low culture, valuing one at the expense of and to the denigration of the other creates barriers to the engagement of the whole of society with art.

    I am absorbed in music - in (almost) all its forms and, for me, what energies it is passionate commitment to intensity of feeling. In all honesty I have often found more of that in a drunken raucous flute band on its way home from a parade where the members lose themselves in their rendition than in a somnolent and mediocre performance of some great classic by a lacklustre orchestra - not thinking of any orchestra in particular here! ;-)

  • Comment number 41.


    "Nobody is more critical of America than Americans themselves. But those criticisms are made with far greater knowledge than outsiders could possibly have and never demonstrate. Also they are often directed at serious efforts at self improvement."

    Nail, hit, head. Improvement is often the beneficial outcome of self-reflection and self-criticism. I don't know if these comments of yours are an accurate reflection of the American mindset because I don't know enough about America, but what I do know it that is contrasts quite markedly with the 'we are the people' mindset so evident of the communities here. A stereotype, possibly, but sometimes I get the distinct impression that we communicate the idea that we have nothing more to learn. It's hard to quantify I know, but it appears to be the subtext of how we Irish think about ourselves.

    Of course another way to understand it might be: big, chip, shoulder!

  • Comment number 42.


    "to suggest that working class people (an odd distinction for a socialist) are Philistines in regard to classical music or Shakespeare is nothing short of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual elitism".

    I didn't refer to ALL working class people. I referred to a 'general philistine indifference'. There are of course exceptions. I was one myself and was constantly teased because of my liking for classical music, but I stuck with it. I'm not blaming the working class at all. I'm blaming the system which creates these attitudes and helps to keep the working class in ignorance.


    And that brings me to Portwyne (40) and his reference to Shakespeare warbling 'his native Wood-notes wilde'. In actual fact, Shakespeare did nothing of the kind. He did not warble about banks and braes or write sonnets to nightingales or odes to skylarks. There is no reference to woodpeckers in the woods, squirrels in the trees or fishes rising from streams. If the plays have rural settings, as in As You like It or The Tempest, they are fantastical, not realistic. The usual settings are faraway places (Verona, Padua, Rome, Venice Troy, Athens), the courts and castles of kings, princes and nobles, and London, the tower and Windsor.

    In short, the author of Shakespeare gives no indication of having lived a country life. On the contrary, he is totally at ease in the life of the court. He knows all about the machinations of Lord Burleigh and is intimate with the Earl of Southampton. He knows about the court order of precedence at a coronation. In his autobiography Charles Chaplin said of the plays that 'whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude', and he was right.

    Shakespeare is difficult because life is difficult. The greatest art is not easy because it seeks insights into the world or challenges the status quo. Hamlet says to Guildenstern that 'you would pluck out the heart of my mystery'. But he knows how complex the mind is and in the play the author paints a portrait of that complexity. That is not likely to be as easy as listening to the Sash. Beethoven wrote the 7th symphony which Wagner described as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’, precisely because it wasn't just dance music but sounds that lifted the work of creation to a higher plain altogether. That is great art. Don’t mock it. Don’t drag it down to the same level as a flute band, please!

  • Comment number 43.

    Shakespeare is hard in part because it is written in a language that is now arcane, difficult to fathom. Words and expressions that were commonly understood at the time and place it was written have changed their meaning or gone out of fashion and usage altogether. It is also difficult because facts and references that were common knowledge at the time but are now largely lost to history are cited. This is why Shakespeare is so heavily annotated. It has to be explained to the reader. This takes time an diverts the reader's attention frequently That means that it often has to be read more than once until the reader understands the full meaning of what is being said without losing the train of thought. This takes persistence, the realization that it is worth the effort, attention span. This is not a common trait for people with more pedestrian and passive ideas of being entertained. But to try to translate it into modern English or worse to create an analagous story in contemporary settings is to destroy it, to create a vile parody, a charicature of it. This happens frequently in art and the results are invariably a disaster when compared to the genuine article.

    Yes Shakespeare is hard. But once you become familiar with it, you realize it can be read at many levels, have many intepretations, give many insights. That is what makes it so interesting and valuable to us and why it won't ever die.

  • Comment number 44.


    "I'm blaming the system which creates these attitudes and helps to keep the working class in ignorance."

    If that's what you're saying then to a degree I agree. However you still seem to be setting up a distinction, possibly an elitist distinction, with the phrase 'keeping the working class in ignorance'

    I think the point portwyne was making was that we don't nurture a wider appreciation of culture by denigrating another. Anyway, I can't play a flute or a fiddle to perform any kind of music so most of what I hear impresses me. An example. Earlier this year my dad organised a couple of musical evenings in his home and over the two nights we were entertained by classical piano, classical flute, classical singing, traditional fiddle, guitar and mandolin, lighter 'music hall' pieces and probably more impressive of all an arrangement of a new piece of music, played on the piano and sight read I might add, combining The Sash and The Soldier's Song. Different guests wanted to stand at different times!

    As for life being difficult, life is difficult for everybody, hence laments and the like so it's not a matter of dragging down the classical to the level of a flute band, we're simply not comparing like with like, and both have their place whether I prefer one over another or not.

    As for being working class, well I work!

  • Comment number 45.


    "We don't nurture a wider appreciation of culture by denigrating another".

    This was precisely the point I was making about Orange culture. In my experience, it DOMINATES the Protestant working class and does not reach out to embrace a higher culture. IT is the expression of an (inverted) snobbery, not my attitude, which is always to live and let live.

    If people like flute bands, that's fine by me. But they insisted on trying to thrust it down my throat in my teens to the exclusion of everything else. I resented this form of brainwashing and decided to get out of the stifling environment and go to university elsewhere.

    A philistine indifference to a higher culture IS a characteristic of the dominant Protestant ethos.
    I'm not saying anything new here.
    Read the historian Lyons. Read the playwright Sam Thompson. Read Louis MacNeice ('the voodoo of the Orange bands').


    I agree with much of what you say about Shakespeare. But the language is only one reason for the complexity. There is also considerable learning (e.g. of the law), and allusions to other authors, ancient and contemporary, references to classical myths, interwoven themes, dialectical arguments for and against, psychological insights, philosophical ideas, all thrown into the immortal masterpieces.

    Shakespeare wrote of Julius Caesar: "Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus". And in The Tempest Prospero describes himself as 'for the liberal arts, without a parallel'. These are descriptions of the Shakespeare mastermind himself.

    But he replays the effort, as you say.

  • Comment number 46.

    The first few times through you have to keep referring to the annotations. That would be bad enough if it were a novel but a play is supposed to have continuity of interaction, spontaneity. You can't have that if you have to look up the meanings of every few words, the signifigances of references you don't understand. Only when you can put it all together and read it through without interruption does it start to make sense. And then there are the nuances.

    We are dying MacNiece, dying. I see someone recently took new interest in him but I forget who.

  • Comment number 47.


    I repeat, Shakespeare is not intrinsically difficult, indeed a great part of his genius lies in the degree to which he laid bare the secrets of the human heart - making complex political, emotional, and psychological ideas readily accessible to ordinary people. He was indisputably a genius - possibly the greatest writer there has ever been in any language but that does not change the historical fact that in his own time he was regarded not as high culture but as popular entertainment. If you want to understand what was considered cultured in his time (and the range of reference an educated gentleman might then have been expected to possess) try reading Lyly's Euphues and his England.

    When I wrote of Shakespeare warbling 'his native Wood-notes wilde' the words were not my own as I thought both the quotation marks and the spelling might have indicated. I used the phrase to illustrate how Shakespeare's contemporaries and immediate successors viewed him: the critique is actually that of another giant of English literature - John Milton.

    Shakespeare produced great art - but great art, I believe, is not about seeking insights into the bowels of life rather it is about the conveying of those insights which the artist has, as Joyce put it, forged 'in the smithy of [his] soul'. Shakespeare, when he asked a question, generally illustrated the answer. Will was in the business, not of difficulty, but of clarity.

    I feel actually it is the same with music - the greatest music totally engages the listener without any effort on his part - either it almost imperceptibly seduces him or it so assaults and assails him that, even if he were to resist, he is inexorably subsumed in the experience. Music which requires the listener to struggle (not the same as music which challenges) is not music but noise.

    Music which can alter one's state of mind towards euphoria is music which is true to the origins of the art. Often what is important is the engagement of the artist with the composition or improvisation. I find one is perhaps more likely to find that engaging abandonment of the self, that fusion of performer and performance, in a Shankill Road flute band than in a stuffy concert hall. At a certain level energy and enthusiasm can substitute for refinement and training but there is no compensation for competence. Of course The Sash is not on a par with Beethoven's Seventh but the mindset which sets them in wholly different categories of experience does great disservice to the extension of the fullest possible range of culture to the widest possible audience.

    Just as a foot note: I have no time for petty Orange politics and, as I am not a teacher or indeed an arts professional in any sense, the views I have expressed above are only those of an amateur perhaps too obsessed with what it is to be human and the whole of the culture that gives expression to that humanity.

  • Comment number 48.


    You say: “In his own time he (Shakespeare) was regarded not as high culture but as popular entertainment”.

    By whom? By the Earl of Southampton to whom he dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece? By the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, to whom the First Folio is dedicated? By the lawyers at Gray's Inn to whom The Comedy of Errors was first performed in 1594? By the audience at Hampton Court to whom Macbeth was first performed in 1606? By the royal audience at Whitehall to whom Measure for Measure was first performed in 1604? By the King and heir apparent to whom The Winter's Tale was first performed in 1610? And again by the King at Whitehall in 1611 when The Tempest was first performed? And what about all those Shakespeare plays never heard of before they appeared in print in the First Folio? Like Timon of Athens, for example? Was it 'popular entertainment'?

    In 1598 Francis Meres described Shakespeare as the 'most excellent' English dramatist for both comedy and tragedy and compared him to the ancients. He also refers to Shakespeare’s sugared sonnets among his 'private friends'. Gabriel Harvey, also in 1598, listed him as one of the great writers and said that his long poems and Hamlet 'have it in them to please the wiser sort'. Ben Jonson in 1623 said that he was ‘not of an age, but for all time’. High praise indeed! Popular entertainment?

    Elizabeth I didn’t think that Richard II was merely popular entertainment. She thought the play was an incitement to rebellion and drew a parallel between the deposition of Richard and her own possible deposition by Essex. "I am Richard, know you not that?" she told Lambard, Keeper of the Records.

    Like the Milton quote about warbling 'native wood-notes wilde', it is a complete misconception to present the Shakespeare plays as if they were regarded in their own time merely as popular entertainment. Lamb, not Milton, was right in saying that the "Shakespeare plays are less calculated for performance on a stage, than those of almost any other dramatist whatever. Their distinguishing excellence is a reason that they should be so. There is so much in them, which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye, and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do".

    I agree that you can approach the plays on various levels. But they have a depth which cannot easily be discerned at a casual look. That is why they are studied in schools everywhere (less so, alas). The same applies to Beethoven. He took music on to a higher level altogether, and did it in a humanist, not religious, manner.

    Look at Michelangelo's David. Look at the Mona Lisa. Look at Las Maninas. Look at the Arnolfini Wedding. The greatest works of art are not obvious but full of mystery. We have to think about them. They try to extend the bounds of our understanding of ourselves and others. They challenge life. They engage our mind as well as our emotions.

    You can enjoy orange flute music as entertainment, just like a Sergio Leone western, but don’t try to tell me that they are better than Beethoven, Michelangelo or Shakespeare.

    It is a pity, too, that this flute music in Ulster is inextricably linked to Orange exclusiveness and triumphalism, whereas a Shakespeare play or a Beethoven symphony reach out to the whole of humanity. Perhaps, this is what I objected to most of all as a teenager about it. It tried to set me apart from others.

    You talk about music that makes the listener struggle being just 'noise'. Well, to me as a teenager Orange music was loud noise and I struggled not to hear it. Not so much the flute of course, but the drum. Talk about banging it hard and rubbing 'the enemy' noses in it. Dreadful!

  • Comment number 49.


    The ways in which each of us relate to the surrounding culture can often be a dilemma for us. So many aspects of it, music, art, education, nationality, symbolism and so on are intertwined with our identities to the extent that people are either included or excluded because of their preferences or learned traditions. This is particularly true when one chooses, for whatever reason, to reject the traditions and cultural expressions of one's 'home' group. How many have been ostracised because they have chosen to dissent, many I expect; and in a society like ours in which the differences and tensions are especially marked, ploughing one's own furrow, so to speak, is at best difficult and can even be traumatic.

    I can therefore completely understand that the negative experiences of our lives effect and condition the way we now live; I guess that in some way many in NI have experienced the suspicion generated by their divergence from the status quo. I suspect too that it is true in many cultures around the world.

    The points you make about being shut out of a community for failing to conform, and then opting out of a community are perfectly valid; societies often seem to thrive by defining what they are not and even the slightest deviation from the party line can generate ridicule or contempt.

    I expect that we might find agreement on many of my above comments, if not, I will be surprised, however I have one remaining concern and it is this. I find, experientially, that the insistence that one conforms to accepted custom and practise is as pointed in liberal and secular communities as it is in any other. I have at times been on the receiving end of a censorious and schoolmasterly glance shot in my direction by those with whom I have disagreed. What I find disturbing about this is that those who champion tolerance are equally adept at and guilty of exclusion when someone chooses to dissent from the prevailing mood.

    And so my question is this, if what you say about Protestantism, or religion, or Christianity (Roman and Reformed) or NI politics is true (and in some instances I agree with you); if it is, in it's many guises narrow and backward and culturally inept; if we have had, "our ear-drums burst by the blatter of (it's) hand-me-down talk", as W. R. Rodgers, Presbyterian clergyman and friend and contemporary of McNeice said, it is imperative, is it not, that the 'new' secular society which one hears so much about is above reproach in it's acceptance of *it's* enemy, otherwise it is doomed to repeat the sins of those it so much doesn't want to be?

    Surely the time has come to listen first to another's point of view in order to ascertain what they actually believe and not to perpetuate the dismissal and exclusion of others on the basis of an ill-informed stereotype of who we think they are. It is, I think, a challenge to all of us. Protestant, Dissenter, Catholic and Atheist. (and portwyne, fluffy postmodernists!!)

  • Comment number 50.


    I agree with your post 49. On the question of self-criticism you raised earlier, I would say what I have said before:

    1. liberalism is in some ways self-contradictory. My freedom may interfere with your freedom etc. It ignores the principle of equality.

    2. Socialism is in some ways illiberal. It ignores the importance of freedom.

    3. Democracy is a crude way of determining policies because truth is not determined by numbers but by empirical evidence and argument.

    4. Secularism and atheism are negative philosophies. They do not offer positive alternatives.

    5. Humanism tries to offer a positive philosophy, but does not yet have a clear programme beyond generalities. There is a wide disagreement among humanists on many things. Some humanists are conservative, oppose abortion and Gay pride (these attitudes baffle me) but I believe above all in tolerating difference, so I would never try to exclude them from a humanist grouping.

    Despite these problems, I am a liberal, socialist, democratic, secular, atheist, humanist. I hope that that is critique enough to be going on with (I have said it all before on this blog).

  • Comment number 51.


    I sought to make the point that the kind of person who denigrates popular culture today, transported back 400 years, might well be the sort of person who turned up his nose at Shakespeare.

    It is no rebuttal of my assertion (and betrays a curiously snobbish sensibility) to cite the approval of the higher echelons of society as indicating that something could not be popular. In the Elizabethan age, as today, members of the royal family, aristocrats, and professionals enjoyed popular entertainment as much as, indeed, I rather suspect, considerably more than the refined and entirely artificial sophistication of contemporary 'high culture'.

    In his day Shakespeare was entirely accessible to people of average intelligence and education. I am not denying his greatness: I applaud it and am in awe of his genius. Shakespeare, however, wore that genius lightly: The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact. It is a measure of his art that he actually makes so much plain - some of his greatest insights are not the ones you hunt for they are the ones where fierce language bludgeons the mind with a truth made obvious in a turn of phrase.

    I should be grateful to Lamb - I can still remember my mother reading the 'Tales' to me as a child - but he is so, SO wrong in suggesting the plays are better read than performed and your endorsement of that view shows me how little you really connect with the bard - his plays live on stage.

    I do not deny the depths there are in great art - it would be a fool that did - I simply demonstrated the folly of allowing a sense of our own superiority to blind us to the real value there may be in what we could too easily dismiss as beneath us.

    One thing I am not about to do is attempt to analyse you, Brian, but I suggest you look at how you have described your own attitude to Orange culture - It tried to set me apart from others. Culture, like God, is without volition. The triumphalism of Orange culture was almost certainly born out of fear: it used the creation of a bond, a koinonia of shared experience, to bolster self-respect, negate self-doubt, and build community. I would be surprised if it took any initiative in excluding you - I rather suspect you (or something in the nature of your personality or interests) chose first to exclude yourself. Do you perhaps blame and resent something else for the unknown (to me) effects of decisions which actually you took yourself?

  • Comment number 52.


    Obviously you know me better than I know myself. If someone says that they are not attempting to analyse someone else, it's a sure sign that they are about to do so.

    I didn't say that it excluded ME. I meant that it was exclusive of OTHERS (i.e. the Catholic minority and any non-Prod). Come on, tell me that it didn't consciously exclude them either. Perhaps they excluded themselves! As for me, it wanted to embrace me but also to confine me and restrict me.

    As for Shakespeare, I didn't say that the works weren't popular either. But I suspect that there was quite a difference between the plays as performed and the plays as written. The latter are 'deeper' and more philosophical. They were not so easily accessible in the latter form, and of course it is the quarto/Folio texts that have come down to us, not the theatrical performance scripts.

    The quarto/folio texts are meant to be read first and foremost, and Lamb was right in this. Consider: the length of many of them; the frequent scene changes; the absence of adequate stage directions; the long monologues which depart from the interrelationship of orthodox drama; the sparcity of action; and the use of characters as vehicles for ideas.

    Lamb rightly said that the characters in Shakespeare are the objects of mediation rather than of interest or curiosity as to their actions. So with the great criminal characters such as Macbeth, Richard III and Iago, we think not so much of the crimes which they commit as of the ambition and intellectual activity which prompts them to overleap these moral fences. But when we see these things represented, the acts which they do are almost everything, their impulses nothing.

    Lamb even argues that King Lear cannot be properly acted: "On the stage we see nothing but corporeal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of Lear. While we read it, we do not see Lear, but we are Lear".

    I think he has a point. The great psychological insight of the Shakespeare mastermind is demonstrated above all when the protagonists subject themselves to relentless self-analysis through dialogues with themselves as much as with others. It is mainly through a close study of the texts that we come to understand the depth of this analysis, which is one of the chief reasons why Shakespeare is central to the literary canon and why his plays are mandatory texts in literary courses throughout the world.

    Lamb's insight is a kind of heresy nowadays because of a fashionable insistence that only an actor could have written the plays, despite the fact that an ever-expanding list of great actors - Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Chaplin, Leslie Howard, Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Michael York, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance - doubt very much that William the actor did.

  • Comment number 53.

    I'm grateful to Lamb also - it's delicious with mixed vegetables and feta cheese.

  • Comment number 54.

    One of the worst trends of recent times in bardic 'biographies' of the Shakespeare 'wallahs' (Germaine Greer's term) such as Greenblatt's and Ackroyd's is to downgrade the Shakespeare intellect. We have to turn to an American above all to expose this nonsense. Harold Bloom rightly talks of his great cognitive strength in thinking more comprehensively and originally than any other writer.

    No western author, he says, is equal to Shakespeare as an intellect. He quotes Carlyle: "If called to define Shakespeare's faculty, I should say superiority of intellect, and I think I had included all under that" (quoted in Harold Bloom: 'Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human').

    Hazlitt also said that Shakespeare 'was as good a philosopher as he was a poet'. G. Wilson Knight regarded him as a profound philosophical writer. It would be more accurate to heed the likes of Lamb, Hazlitt, Coleridge ( our 'myriad-minded Shakespeare' who 'studied patiently, meditated deeply, understood deeply', Swinburne ('every change in the text of Hamlet has impaired its fitness for the stage, and increased its value for the closet in exact and perfect proportion'), Wilson Knight ('Shakespeare removes the mask and goes deeper than personality, and describes the fundamental drives that all people share' and Bloom (Shakespeare is the centre of the canon because 'he sets the standard and the limits of literature').

    Greer is also right in saying: "Intellectual life in the Shakespearian mode is a never-ending learning process: each of the plays enacts the mental adventure of scepticism" ('Shakespeare').

  • Comment number 55.

    I've read about Shakespeare the Protestant, the Catholic and the Skeptic. Is it possible he was undecided? Or is that what you mean by skeptic? He kept all his options open?
    I've read most of the plays, and there my knowledge of the bard ends. So I'm not being polemical - I'd be keen for some insight.


  • Comment number 56.


    In The Advancement of Learning Francis Bacon distinguishes between two types of writer, the 'magistral' and the 'probative'. The former operates from certainty and delivers knowledge "in such form as may best be believed, and not as may best be examined". The probative writer, however is provisional rather than dogmatic, an explorer rather than a preacher, who realises the necessity of doubt and initial suspension of judgment on the road to discovery of truth: "If a man will begin in certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties".

    This, I think, was Shakespeare’s way too. It is difficult to know exactly what he believed precisely because he was a probative rather than a magistral writer, and his plays are explorations rather than sermons. The Shakespeare drama is in fact an exploration of antagonistc or apparently antagonistic forces: good and evil, love and romance, reason and imagination, art and nature, appearance and reality, doubt and certainty, deduction and induction, revenge and forgiveness, extremism and moderation, theology and faith, and so on. Shakespeare was a master of this rhetoric, which Keats called negative capability. The plays are in a sense Platonic polylogues of doubt and question and exploration. And because they are deliberately sceptical and elusive, we can add our meaning to them and thus art is expanded and opened out, not confined and restricted.

    Take The Tempest. Is it an allegory of the pagan mysteries, the Christian religion, the conflict between art and nature, the moral duties of the sovereign, the founding of America, the wonders of Renaissance science, the nature of poetry, the playwright’s personal struggle, the transitoriness of all matereial things? Or more? I think it is deliberately a multiple myth.

    And here we see why Shakespeare was not an age but for all time. The master-workman constructed plays that were deliberately never finished and left us to add more bricks and mortar to his buildings. And we do - in endless book after book of interpretation over four hundred years.

    As to the religion of the Shakespeare mastermind, I think that he was a tolerant, non-dogmatic Christian of the Church of England.

  • Comment number 57.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 58.


    First an apology for my misreading of your comment about exclusion - in the light of previous postings I erroneously took it to mean that you blamed Orange culture for alienating you from your roots and the peer group with whom you grew up. I was clumsy, too, in what I meant only to be the extension of an invitation to examine the origins of your feelings about flute band music which seem to consist as much in visceral antipathy as in reasoned argument.

    Truce over!

    I am incensed every time I hear the old canard that Will, the actor, did not write the plays. That calumny is triple branded: it bears the mark of snobbery, the mark of jealousy, and the mark of a mean mind. Lamb is not merely unfashionable he is so deeply wrong on this issue that it raises the most serious questions about the validity of any any other thoughts he might have about Shakespeare's work.

    The experience of an actor suffuses the plays: look at the nesting metaphor of play within a play within the drama of life which concludes The Tempest; read its its profound and perfectly placed insight into the transience of life; put your hand on your heart and tell me an actor did not write that.

    Somehow I am not surprised that you have trotted out so many critics to support your view, I prefer to let the plays work their own magic on me rather than grub for the second-hand endorsement of scholars. You make much of Will's intellect and genius - and I have agreed but I have stressed that that genius made the dark luminous and luminous for Everyman. The self-congratulatory satisfaction of uncovering obscure levels of meaning or the origins of passing allusions (grist to the academic mill) is inimical to the appreciation of the real art. In so sublime a genius of Shakespeare, so utterly organic a sensibility the only way to see him is to see him whole - it is not inapt to apply here the words of Wordsworth: Our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: We murder to dissect.

    I have often wondered why, of all the commentators on this blog, I seem so seldom to chime with the outlook you espouse: this dialogue on Shakespeare, however, crystallises our differences. Citoyenne Roland in her musings on why, though she liked atheists and found their arguments often more convincing than those of believers, noted that she always encountered a void when she attempted to relate to one. Her explanation for this failure to connect exactly explains how I feel about your attitude to Shakespeare. She said: he lacks a certain sensibility ... the most intoxicating performance leaves his heart cold and he looks for argument and disputation when I am overcome with praise and thanksgiving.

    (Seeing if a paraphrase for the 'rude mechanicals' amongst will get by!)

  • Comment number 59.



    You say: "I am not surprised that you have trotted out so many critics to support your view, I prefer to let the plays work their own magic".

    Coleridge, Swinburne, Keats and Lamb were not only critics but also all great writers and poets themselves. I trust their judgment better than the likes of Greenblatt and Ackroyd. As such, they add their own understanding of the works to ours.

    You say: "The self-congratulatory satisfaction of uncovering obscure levels of meaning or the origins of passing allusions (grist to the academic mill) is inimical to the appreciation of the real art". That is nonsense. You are crassly dismissing 400 years and millions of books on Shakespeare. It strikes me as nothing but inverted snobbery. You misunderstand the entire aim of Shakespeare who, as Ben Jonson remarked, 'shook a lance, as brandish'd at the eyes of ignorance'.

    As I have said, it is open-ended art in which we add our 'sensibility', to use your word, to that of others. So, sure, let it do its magic on you, but don't keep your thoughts to yourself: share them with others, just as all these writers have done. There are different ways of seeing Shakespeare whole, and yours is certainly not the only way.

    You quote a 'critic' yourself  - Wordsworth  - but he is a bad example because, according to Hazlitt, he disliked Shakespeare.

    Doubting William's authorship of the works has nothing to do with that old canard, snobbery, and everything to do with evidence and realism. Emerson was right: it is impossible to marry the man to the verse. Where did William acquire the learning, the knowledge of Cambridge university life, the legal expertise, the intimate knowledge of court life and the aristocratic sympathies and friendships. I ask these questions as someone from a working class background who knows the difficulties of acquiring understanding of the nature of class, privilege and power and my own struggle to 'understand this place'.

    To return my point about 'studying' Shakespeare, which doesn't preclude enjoying the plays in performance:

    Antony and Cleopatra is more than twice as much length as the 'two hours' traffic of the stage at that time. It has no fewer than 42 scenes, one of 10 lines being followed by one of 5, and the action shifts swiftly between Rome, Egypt, Athens and elsewhere. There is no evidence that the play was ever performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, which comes as no surprise. But perhaps, Portwyne, you don't want facts but prefer your own presuppositions.

  • Comment number 60.


    First - I want no other understanding of the works but my own. I do dismiss the countless works of scholarship on Shakespeare as dross - wasted time and wasted lives - both the writing and the reading. I quoted Wordsworth as poet not critic and that from a poem where he was speaking of the wonders of nature and, I assume, not even thinking of Shakespeare.

    As to where Shakespeare gained his knowledge of the various spheres of life outside his origins: like many ambitious lower middle class boys before and since and, given his profession and the time, I would suggest he slept with it. To us, looking back, it may seem as if the detail was perfect but actually it was not. Shakespeare, as is always the case when a person moves, even mentally, between classes, betrayed his origins again and again. Milton in the quotation from L'Allegro I cited earlier called Shakespeare 'sweetest' - he did not denigrate his work but he placed Will socially very nicely indeed. There is no justification apart from snobbery, inverted or otherwise, for assuming that the greatest genius cannot flourish unless it has been born in the right family and properly and formally educated.

    As to length - I am not suggesting that the plays were ever performed exactly as they appear on the page - nor should they be, a good director's own genius will include the ability to select. Shakespeare, though, wrote in a very different age from ours. His audience did not have the short attention span of our TV generation. Many of those attending contemporary performances would have been accustomed to sitting through ninety minute sermons of considerable theological complexity - you've probably read some of Donne's - for that audience Hamlet's soliloquy was a sound-bite.

  • Comment number 61.

    Thanks for your comments - I found them very helpful


  • Comment number 62.

    You can't have "no other understanding of the works but your own". (Especially if you are viewing them through performances).
    You didn't shape the philosophies of our age. You cannot erase every conversation you have ever had about Shakespeare from your mind. You depend on your education for your understanding.
    Why not add scholarship to the list?


  • Comment number 63.


    You say:
    "There is no justification apart from snobbery, inverted or otherwise, for assuming that the greatest genius cannot flourish unless it has been born in the right family and properly and formally educated".

    Of course, genius can flourish anywhere. I am not talking about genius. I am talking about intimate KNOWLEDGE of court life and politics, KNOWLEDGE of the law (e.g. the case of Hales V Petit in Hamlet), KNOWLEDGE of Cambrige university language, KNOWLEDGE of the order of precedence at a coronation, KNOWLEDGE of scientific discovery KNOWLEDGE of foreign literature (some in the original), KNOWLEDGE of Lord Burleigh's life, KNOWLEDGE of the Earl of Southampton's life.

    Genius won't conjure up knowledge out of thin air.

    As for your opening statement, that you want no understanding of the works but your own. How arrogant! (and YOU accuse me of snobbery!). I think my own thoughts, but I also try to learn from others.

  • Comment number 64.


    Of-course my understanding is shaped by my education and by interaction with others but when it comes to opinion it really is only my own that matters. I am of the Jean Brodie school of art appreciation - I don't know if you recollect that wonderful scene where Maggie Smith asks her class 'Who is the greatest artist of them all?' The girls trot out the usual suspects: Leonardo, Michaelangelo... Miss Brodie replies: 'No, you are wrong - it is Giotto because he is my favourite'.

    When I go to a play I enjoy nothing more than the cut and thrust of debate about it afterwards - just as I am enjoying this exchange. The merit of both, however, lies in their immediacy and their ephemeral quality. Scholarship dessicates art - I am with Keats, 'O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!"


    I thought I had proposed a source for Shakespeare's knowledge of the areas you cite. Let me make it clearer. If Will possessed a pert butt as well as a keen mind he had open access to all the spheres of life you mention: no better place to acquire intimate knowledge than on the pillow. In addition - let us assume that as a writer he could also read. Shakespeare lived in the age of the first explosion of knowledge - undoubtedly he acquired a lot of his knowledge from printed sources. Even supposedly esoteric matters like precedence lists, far from being the sole preserve of a few courtiers, were, from the early Middle Ages onwards, a staple of one of my personal fascinations, the commonplace books kept by everyone from leisured ladies to country vicars. There is nothing new in the appeal of Hello!.

    I would hope, Brian, that you do not confuse arrogance and snobbery - the two are actually mutually exclusive. I accept that I can be utterly arrogant but in no way am I a snob. Snobbery is obsessed with the comparison of oneself with others (and vice versa)while arrogance is oblivious of external opinion.

  • Comment number 65.


    In the jolly jape 'Shakespeare in Love', our Will makes it up as he goes along. A street preacher attacks two nearby theatres by exclaiming "a plague on both your houses", and the bard snaps up the trifle for his play 'Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, eventually to metamorphose into 'Romeo and Juliet'. Worse still, he is inspired to write the line, "Stay but a little, I will come again", after experiencing an orgasm. Your reference to Will's alleged per butt reminded me of this film. and my thought at the time that it would not be long before this 'Carry On, Willie' approach would become the norm of Shakespeare scholarship.

    Apparently, Shakespeare gained his intimate knowledge of Ovid, Plautus, Virgil, Homer, Pliny, Tactitus, Horace, Tibullus, Terence, Herodotus, Lucretius, Juvenal, Statius, Livy, Catullus, Seneca and other Latin writers while flashing his assets at the lecherous nobility.

    Imagine a session with Southampton. As the Earl strokes his long auburn hair in eager anticipation of a night of passion, our Will demands his pound of flesh: "Teach me some Latinisms first, so that I can incorporate them into my masterpieces".

    Thus was born 'the rivers that have overborne their continents' in 'A Midsummer Night's dream' (continents being 'containing banks' as employed by Horace); or: "I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Gothes" in 'As You Like It' (Ovid in his banishment dwelt among the Goths and 'capricious' comes from 'caper' a goat, thus a double pun on 'Goths' and 'caper').

    I could go on: about the use elsewhere of 'captious' in its precise classical meaning of that which is capable of receiving but incapable of retaining; or 'expedient' in strict accordance with its Latin derivation of 'that which disengages all entanglements'; or 'premised' in the sense of the word from which it is derived, 'proemissus', sent forth.

    These are only a few examples of Latinisms. I could add: knowledge of Italian literature in the original (perhaps he slept with the Earl of Oxford, who had been in Italy); or the French of Act 3 scene 4 of Henry V (perhaps he also slept with Bacon, who spent two years there).

    The point, Portwyne, is that the knowledge displayed by the Shakespeare mastermind EXCEEDS anything that these Lords could have taught him between the sheets. He knew more than they did PUT TOGETHER. As I said earlier: Prospero (and I think the author) describes himself as 'for the liberal arts, without a parallel'.

    In Shakespeare we are dealing with a literary colossus, and we have the evidence in the works themselves to prove it. We are dealing with "a man so rare in knowledge, of so many several kinds, endued with the facility and felicity of expressing it all, in so elegant, and yet so choice and ravishing a way of words, metaphors and allusions, as perhaps, the world hath not seen, since it was a world".

    That is one reason why we need scholarship to understand it and why we need critics to interpret it.
    And it is one reason why you by yourself alone will never fully understand it.

  • Comment number 66.


    Post 65

    I have no intention whatsoever of getting involved in this literary debate, but I have to say that paragraphs 2 and 3 contain some genuinely humorous 'turns of phrase'.

    Maybe Frankie Howerd should have played the bard!!

    or, come to think of it, our own James Young.

  • Comment number 67.


    I have no wish to understand Shakespeare - my desire (and frequent experience) is to be moved by him.

  • Comment number 68.


    Stop pretending that you are all emotion and sensibility and that ideas don't matter. You are downgrading your own intellect. Otherwise, why are you arguing here and on other threads? (I can indulge in analysis too).

    It is ridiculous to present understanding and emotional appreciation as opposites. Shakespeare is best appreciated with both the heart and the mind.
    He is the most philosophical of poets.

    You quoted earlier 'the lunatic, the lover and the poet' speech from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Surely the point here is that the mastermind behind Shakespeare, through the 'rational' Theseus, is mercilessly mocking his own art. The poet is linked to the madman and the lover, and his eye, 'in a fine frenzy rolling... gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name'.

    Shakespeare is, as Hazlitt, Shelley, and others have recognised, both a poet and philosopher and sees equally into both worlds. Bloom says: "The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually".

    There are 3 essential ingredients of Shakespeare's genius (since you raised the topic of genius) that render him not of an age but for all time.

    They are: the insight into human nature; the mastery of language; and the depth of intellect. We are dealing with a great poet who was also a great psychologist and a great philosopher. It is his triumph in all three worlds that secures his pre-eminence among poets for all time.

    This genius cannot be appreciated merely through 'emotion'. It requires the whole mind.

  • Comment number 69.

    I didn't know Shakespeare was American :-) Funny, he didn't look it.

  • Comment number 70.

    Miss Jean Brodie could tell which works were actually produced by Giotto? Good for her!
    And of course, if Miss Jean Brodie and Keats have shaped your intellectual approach to art, then your not going to get rid of those pesky thoughts.
    Brian's right - we need to experience life, and art (and religion) through the whole person, not just the emotions. To deny the intellectual, or even physical, reactions to art is dehumanising.


  • Comment number 71.


    To follow on from Graham, would the Jean Brodie School of art appreciation tell us whether Giotto painted 'The Legend of St Francis' frescoes at Assisi? It is, after all, a matter of dispute.

    Similarly, would the Jean Brodie School of art appreciation tell us whether Shakespeare wrote 'Pericles'? It is not in the First Folio but that name is on the title page. And did Shakespeare write 'Locrine' or 'The London Prodigal'? Again, that name is on the title page, but the consensus is that he certainly didn't write the last two. What do your 'emotions' tell you? Do you decide these issues on a Portwyne whim?

  • Comment number 72.

    Brian / Graham

    My use of the word 'moved' was not a careless reference just to emotion and sensibility. I chose very deliberately what is perhaps one of the most polyguous words in the English language to convey both the major impact and the nuances of my ambitions in an encounter with Shakespeare. To understand fully what I meant by 'moved' you need to understand the word as the bard himself used it. As an example of its reach you might also consider how Herbert used it, essentially heretically, to speak of no less a matter than the effect of his prayer on God.(Praise II)

    However, given that, and allowing that the intellect has its place - largely, when dealing with culture, in sorting and connecting our experiences - I assert the primacy of the emotions in approaching art, as in approaching God.

    I reiterate my contention that the real genius of Shakespeare lies in his ability to take an image, a theme, a character and so to energise them that the perceptions of the audience are not just radically changed but are enlarged, intensified, and elevated. The blend of poetry, psychology and philosophy subtly conspires against our dull groundedness and all the layered details plot an epiphany to come. The error is to become obsessed with those details at the expense of the panorama. If I may quote Herbert again: A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heaven espy.

    I have very Catholic tastes - I could quote Terence but I don't want any aspiring young playwrights thinking I am laying the ground for a seduction - and sometimes it genuinely rejoices my soul to hear that 'my uncle Hugo loves me'. (It is a source of considerable annoyance that I have never been able to persuade any of my friends to accompany me to one of the road-shows).

    I often think that the foot-tapping welders and bare-backed brickkies enjoying 'Time for Tea with Hugo D' have a rich and valid culture which satisfies the social and aesthetic yearnings of its constituency.

    I have to ask myself then, (as in different ways I enjoy both) if the author of Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day? is to be considered of greater merit than, say, Conal Gallen, what are the grounds for making that discrimination? Surely the answer lies in Shakespeare's capacity to quicken universal themes in every human heart? It is not the side-splitting discovery of a stunning classical pun on goats which will engage a young offender exposed to Macbeth for the first time - rather it will be the mirror held up to his own soul by pure rendered emotion encapsulated in searing language and illuminating image.

    If you can accept this, then it contextualises your perfectly valid intellectual scrutiny of the detail of the text.

    Finally as to the Jean Brodie school of criticism - for me authorship isn't an issue. I couldn't care less if Giotto wrote Hamlet, Shakespeare painted the Cappella degli Scrovegni and both were directly guided by the Angel Moroni. That is something only of concern to scholars! What led to much of this debate was Brian's contention that an actor of middling education could not have written Shakespeare's plays. That incensed me. Authorship is irrelevant to the art but I cannot let pass unchallenged the grotesque travesty which uses authorship as one means to set aside as the privileged playground of an educated intelligensia what should be a treasure for Everyman.

  • Comment number 73.

    this aesthetic criticism isn't really my cup of tea, but you are spot about wee Uncle Hugo.

    Nothing speaks to my soul like wee Hugo singing "Horse it inta ya, Cynthia", "I love Bounty Bars" or "Give us a Kiss, Majella, While your Mammie's in the Scullery"


    I often think if such songs had been created in the Appalachian mountains in the 1920s they would have a massice cult fanbase of trendy students and bearded folk singers.

  • Comment number 74.

    inally, I repeat, the authorship of Shakespeare has nothing to do with snobbery. Compare Shakespeare to Burns. He too was a genius, but his works do not display the same level of learning that Shakespeare does. Burns did not have any regular education and this is revealed in his works. William of Stratford came from a similar rural background and there is evidence that he went to school either. There is no conceibvable way that he would have obtained the knowledge displayed by Shakespeare unless he had access to thousands of books and read voraciously to educate himself. There is absolutely no evidence that he did this.

    In 1781 the Rev James Wilmot, a rector of a parish near Stratford, was asked by a London publisher to write a biographer of Shakespeare. He spent four fruitless years trying to link the Stratford man to the works. He set out to find these books, surmising that even if they were not listed in the will, there must have been books and papers, and that they had probably passed out of the family into nearby collections and libraries in the family homes of the gentry. So he drew a 50-mile circle round Stratford and proceeded to search every grand house and library in the area. He found - nothing: no book owned by William, no letter written by William, not a single page of a manuscript, nor any mention by the local gentry of their ever having met the dramatist. Wilmot concluded that William was not the author of the works attributed to him.

    Incidentally, in his Outlines of a Life of William Shakespeare', written in the 19th century, Halliwell-Phillipps says of books that whether William "ever owned one at any time in his life is extremely improbable". This is surely quite extraordinary.

  • Comment number 75.

    How did we get mixed up as to Shakespeare's identity? Prior to the 18th century do we have any doubts as to his identity? And isn't there a "gap" in William of Stratford's biography? If so, does that help the "received" view, or the skeptics?


  • Comment number 76.


    Re: The Historical Shakespeare and the Shakespeare of Faith

    I have to say, taking a quick look at the web, that it looks like a fun debate. Whatever the answer I doubt it would detract much from the works (but what do I know). I don't think anyone's a snob or a philistine for taking a position on this. Thanks for raising the topic.


  • Comment number 77.


    I am glad Graham raised the analogy of 'faith' because I was just thinking - no surprise that Brian has difficulties with the evidence for the resurrection. Whatever the actual evidence (for resurrection or identity of Shakespeare) one sub-text of the revisionists which makes me particularly cringe is the willingness to remove from our fairly recent ancestors both quite basic human traits and basic human abilities.

    It strikes me that, if Jeffrey Archer can specifically research a novel, Shakespeare could specifically research a play. I see every reason to suppose that he had a basic grammar school type education, acquired there the "small Latine and lesse Greek" which gave him all the grounding needed for his awesome mind to collect and transform the source material for his work.

    If you find it so difficult to accept that one small head could carry all he knew - unless, of-course, it was an expensively educated aristocratic head - may I propose another solution - instead of being a mastermind, perhaps Shakespeare was a committee. Prithee, sir, what think'st thou?

    I rather like the idea of the wrangling there must have been over territory between the Comedy and the Tragedy sub-committees over Measure for Measure and The Tempest. Perhaps, too, like Gerry Anderson, the Shakespeare committee had specialist correspondents: Master Dee (our Faerie correspondent), Mistress Dubber (our Bawdry correspondent)...

  • Comment number 78.

    (This should read before No 74 - it wouldn’t go and I split it in two: the last bit went days ago!)

    I think you are going overboard on 'emotion'. Shakespeare wrote comedies as well as tragedies, and in the former the intellect clearly takes precedence over feelings.

    You admit that the philosophy is there but then proceed to belittle it by allusions to Hugo Duncan, of all people (from the sublime to the truly ridiculous). But then, I suppose, as someone who conflates pearls with dross purely on the basis of "I know what I like", "ye will, ye will, ye will". You are welcome to him and his awful programme. David Dunseath has barely finished speaking before I rush for the off button.

  • Comment number 79.

    You say that you couldn't care less if Giotto wrote Hamlet. in other words, "the play's the thing". Clearly, then, you are not a scholar, for scholarship is the pursuit of truth. For any scholar to say that the authorship of Shakespeare or the accreditation of Giotto's paintings doesn’t matter would be a betrayal of his entire profession. As Voltaire said, "To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth". Of course, Hamlet himself thought the play was the thing "wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king": the play had an external purpose; it didn’t exist for its own sake.

    If the true author of Shakespeare concealed his identity behind an allonym, then it is worth understanding why a disguise was believed necessary. We need to discover the author's motives.

    Justice also matters. The man who is generally regarded as the world's greatest poet and dramatist deserves more than a shrugging indifference about his identity. We owe him the discovery of the truth and to give praise where it is due.

    More generally, the attitude that it doesn't matter implies that we might as well go blindfold through the whole field of cultural history. Who pained the Mona lisa? It doesn't matter. Who sculpted that magnificent David with the sling in his hand, of which Vasari said: "And, of a truth, whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman"? It doesn’t matter.

    And why stop at cultural history? Does it matter who anyone was? Does history itself matter? Does it matter is Jesus existed? Does it matter if god exists? Does anything matter? Anything, that is, apart from your own 'sensibilities'.

  • Comment number 80.


    A couple of points. First, you ask: prior to the 18th century do we have any doubts as to Shakespeare's identity? It is a common misconception that no one questioned the authorship for the first two hundred years after his death. But in fact a number of contemporaries alluded to it, notably John Marston who, in Pigmalion's Image (1598), states that Francis Bacon wrote Venus and Adonis, a poem which, according to Joseph Hall in Virgidemiae (1597) was written by someone whom he calls 'Labeo'.

    On the second question of the 'gap' in William of Stratford's biography, there are the so-called 'lost years' from the early 1580s to the early 1590s. But William's life is always sketchy. he was definitely an actor, a tradesman in corn and malt and a moneylender, (possibly also a broker of plays). But a dramatist?
    I doubt it very much.

  • Comment number 81.


    In 'The Shakespeare Problem Restated' Sir George Greenwood argued that there were many pens but one mastermind involved in 'Shakespeare' and I think that this is substantially correct. For one thing, there are too many words for one man (15,000 according to some estimates, more than two any other author).

    Also, Henslowe's Diary (theatre proprietor) indicates that there was more than one hand. Take 'Trolius and Cressida, entered in the Diary as written by Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle. The style of Dekker and chettle is discernible in the published play, but so too is a philosophical input. In 1904 John Stotensburg suggested that Troilus and Cressida was initially written for the stage by Dekker and chettle (the popular version, in your terms) and then dressed up by Francis Bacon and infused with his philosophical and poetic mind. That I think is also correct. The orthodox say: "Oh no, it was a different (lost) version of the play, not Shakespeare's (for which there is no evidence whatever) - just one of the many unfounded suppositions that are made to tie the works to William.

  • Comment number 82.


    Emotions can be positive as well negative. I would hold that the emotional response is equally as valid in response to comedy as it is to tragedy. The depiction of a boy dressed as a woman dressed as a man or a 'yokel' stumbling around in an ass's head do not strike me as the height of intellectual sophistication but, in the context, they are extremely funny.

    Eliot, in the comment which made me first read Webster, said that he saw the skull beneath the skin; we misread Shakespeare if we do not acknowledge that his penetrating vision saw also the nipple-clamp beneath the needlepoint. He was wonderfully coarse, bawdy and vulgar: he connects with our lusty selves and his genius operates as fully at the level of the road-show as it does at any other.

    It is wonderful to be accused of crimes to which I have already (both frequently and consistently) admitted.

    I have stated clearly that I regard all scholarly activity in the field of the arts as dross - at best superfluous and at worst deeply inimical to the opening of the self to the real impact of culture. Vasari was talking hyperbolic rubbish - I have seen Michelangelo's David myself - wonderful, yes, but I have yet to view any work of art which would merit such an endorsement and knowing the identity of the sculptor, of-course, added nothing significant to my appreciation of the work. Take Praxiteles - we do not know for certain if any of the surviving works attributed to him are in fact by his hand - tell me how it matters.

    You cite Voltaire - he was wrong: to the living we owe our love, to the dead we owe nothing! Shakespeare himself recognised this great truth - look at sonnet 71 -
    O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
    When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
    Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.

    We honour the dead only by enjoying and getting on with life.

    Then you questioned my views on various things mattering - I would have thought I had made my opinion pretty clear. Asking if God exists is not a meaningful question therefore it obviously doesn't matter; the resonances of Jesus' living are important - his historical life doesn't matter. Henry Ford got it spot on about history: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."

    There are, however, things that matter: things that matter greatly. Poverty, injustice, social alienation, lives led in despair, hopelessness, and captive good attending captain ill.

  • Comment number 83.

    'Tis Sprillig, it seems, and the slyvey troves do gyre and wamble through this blog. Which proves you're wrong because it helps me see the wheel-clamp beneath the Porsche.
    Would that Miss Jean Brodie taught in my school. "Who was the greatest artist?" she would demand. "Robert in 12v1, Miss, cos his Bart Simpson's really good". Or, if she were to get the answer she deserved, they'd throw something at her.
    "But who is YOUR favourite", the noble Dame would persist. "We dunno. Aren't you meant to teach us stuff? Something that might give us a clue? Otherwise, we're sticking with Robert in 12V1, cos he's our favorite, and there's more of us than there is if you. Didn't we see you in Eastenders ?"

    In any case..
    how "does God exist" not count as a meaningful question? We have description enough to propose a referent. Is there anything to match such a referent?

    A thoroughly stessed

  • Comment number 84.


    With mentors like Hugo Duncan and Henry Ford, you are clearly not on my wavelength. You are welcome to both. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is about much more than a yokel in an ass's head. In fact, it is about the blindness of romantic love and the mystery of divine love, the former epitomised when Titania falls in love with Bottom disguised as an ass, and the latter in Bottom's speech which provides the true meaning of the communal dream:

    "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream... The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s mind is not able to taste, to tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was".

    This speech is unmistakably a parody of 1 Corinthians II.9ff: 'eye not seen...' etc (but, then, of course, you wouldn't care about link that because art is all about 'feeling'). What is spoken of here is the so-called divine love. For believers it too is a love beyond the power of the eyes and is 'made for the contemplation of heaven and all noble objects'. Paul talks of the 'hidden' wisdom which 'none of the princes of the world know', which is a mystery and which may come from the learned ignorance of 'base things of the world'. So although Theseus in his defence of rationalism against the 'lunatic, the lover and the poet' is right about human love, he is in the playwright's view, wrong about divine love, which is inexpressible and a matter of faith. It is the 'wise fool' who sees more clearly than the 'princes of this world'.

    Now, I don't agree with Shakespeare about the 'divine love', but I understand that this is what he is saying, and I do so because I have used my intellect and the interpretation of scholars to help me. Without them, all of Shakespeare would be reduced to the antics of a 'yokel stumbling around in an ass’s head'.

    As for poverty, turn to 'King Lear' and we see that Shakespeare the author was greatly touched by 'the immeasurable helplessness and poverty of the human race' (Bacon). He is saying that kings should be concerned less with their divine right and more with their divine duty. Lear realises his fault in the prayer in Act 3, Scene 4:

    "Take physic, pomp,
    Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
    That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
    And show the heavens more just".

    The remedy is provided by Gloucester in Act 4, Scene 1:
    "So distribution should outdo excess,
    And each man have enough".

    History and tradition are not bunk. They help to make us what we are. Truth matters if anything matters. In the great scheme of things, Hugo Duncan, Henry Ford and Jean Brodie (wasn't she a fascist anyway, trying to indoctrinate her pupils about the 'great leader' Mussolini etc?), and you or I, don’t much matter.

  • Comment number 85.


    You are quite right. Let the kids choose who is the best artist and you will probably end up with one of them. And Portwyne would say: why not? If they do choose Robert in 12v1, then for them he is better than Michelangelo. Kings of Leon are better than Beethoven. Soaps are better than the news. Before long, if you don't agree, you'll be deemed 'odd'

    It is all about the primacy of feelings and imitativeness, rather than intelligence and analysis supported by evidence.

    Thus we end up with less knowledge, intellectual degradation, nurured superficiality, more apathy, vacuous self-absorption, greater reliance on others to think for us, more susceptibility to simple answers and exploitation.

    We get a celebrity-obsessed media, identity politics, political pandering, a decline in investigative journalism, religious fundamentalism and creationism.

    I have meant to refer to 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'
    Portwyne in praising Jean Brodie perhaps doesn't even realise how silly his admiration is.

    Brodie tells her girls that education xomes from the leading to 'lead out' and it is about a 'leading out' of the mind. But in her case it is very much a 'leading', rather than an assistance in helping people to think for themselves. Brodie knows what she likes: beauty, the Renaissance, fascism, and she wants to brainwash her pupils into liking the same things. She is a lover of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco (she tells Joyce Emily to go to Spain and fight for Franco). She wants her girls to be the 'crème de la crème' and to ignore the poverty around them. (Portwyne's concern for poverty AND admiration for Jean Brodie is a curious paradox, don't you think?)

    Jean Brodie wants her girls to be not unique individuals themselves but extensions of her own fantasies and delusions, instruments of her will. She wants to dominate and direct their lives for her own ends. She doesn't want to educate them, but to possess them. And this is always the danger when you abandon the intellect to 'feeling'.

  • Comment number 86.


    I'm still staying away from the Shakespeare debate, but I'm going to jump in with a few thoughts on history. You make a couple of comments, "history is tradition. We don't want tradition... and the only history that is worth a damn is the history we make today."

    OK. One, I disagree with the idea that history is bunk. I disagree with the idea that history and tradition are synonymous and that tradition is bad, as you see to imply; and I'm completely confused about the idea that the history we make for ourselves is the only history worth having.

    I'm going to try and not respond with a treatise on the relevance of the study of the past, making only a few comments on the matter before going on to simply query your other comments.

    History, bunk? Are we not all products of our own recent past and more generally our cultural and national past? We have certainly all suffered here in NI from someone's understanding of the past, and for better or worse it has contributed to who we are. Have we nothing to learn from the past? No previous mistakes to avoid? I am lead to believe that in Winston Churchill's published account of the Second World War, his final volume was titled, Triumph and Tragedy, which he subtitled, "How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and so Were able to Resume the Follies Which Had so Nearly Cost Them Their life." Surely one need not be biblically minded to realise that the iniquity of the fathers will be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, if we do not pay close attention to our past.

    History/Tradition: aspects of our history can easily become traditions, sacred cows in the eyes of some, however not all historical events are remembered or celebrated, and some fade over time. I have no doubt that over time some of what is considered central to our present cultural experience will someday disappear altogether. Anyway not all traditions are bad. Surely many of the cultural expressions which you have so eloquently championed are the result of traditions? Sorry, I don't follow the line of thought.

    And so to making our own history. I really am struggling to understand. What history? Does yesterday count? It is merely a building of memories as Tramp encouraged Lady in the Disney film? And whose memories, yours, mines, ours? Is there an ours? Portwyne I really do not believe that anyone is an existentialist to such a degree.

    And your conclusion, "There are, however, things that matter: things that matter greatly. Poverty, injustice, social alienation, lives led in despair, hopelessness..." I agree, but is it not reasonable to argue that one fights against these great ills in order that one's future and that of others, might be better than their past. Surely in such instances, a collective history matters greatly?

  • Comment number 87.

    Hummm... Where to begin?

    First then, stating that I followed the Jean Brodie school of art appreciation is not equivalent to endorsing her whole persona and educational philosophy - I do not.

    Education is, however, a good place to start, perhaps looking at Graham's point that teachers are there to "teach stuff" and Brian's apocalyptic vision of the end of civilisation when the notion of some inherent superiority in the classics of art, literature and music is challenged. You pedagogues have a hefty responsibility to prevent that consummation.

    I am, of-course, going to blame the teachers in my own case and suggest that it was mine, at least in part, who made me what I am today - look on their work, ye masters, and despair! I owe a great debt to three inspirational but very different teachers who all thought that their objective was to teach me, not 'stuff', but how to think. If people's choices and opinions are educated and informed surely we have to trust them to decide for themselves what is valuable and meaningful.

    My first-form English teacher was a pot-smoking anarchist hippy who played the guitar in accompaniment to all poetry and Bob Dylan was indisputably her favourite. I still vividly remember one of her first English classes which consisted in a complete period spent reading us the poems of Baudelaire, in French, so we could appreciate the musicality of the language unfettered by meaning. Her career was cut tragically short as, even in a progressive school in the sixties, recommending free love and the creative use of controlled substances to eleven year olds was considered inappropriate. Still - all I can say, even to this day, is Quel elan!

    Dumbing down is not the result of validating choice and discernment it is the result of ossifying the questing spirit of youth by irrelevance and narrowness of vision. Robert in 12v1 may be the next Hockney - maybe he is better than Michelangelo - somebody, someday, will be. His Brad undoubtedly is more relevant to his classmates than the Sistine Last Judgement. Encouraged not dismissed, he might one day see for himself wherein lies the genius of Michelangelo and it will nourish his spirit as it now does mine. On a lighter note, Brian, have you ever tried moshing to Beethoven? I tried to think myself into it but it just doesn't work for me - tell me what you think. For a socialist your attachment to the concept of arete with all its attendant overtones of inequality seems puzzlingly incongruous.

    Peter as to history - history has only one lesson to teach us: men learn nothing from history. I think that is what Churchill was suggesting. The history that matters is not the creation of a legacy nor the shaping of a legend. It is the making that matters not the memory - I often think that some of the most important, most significant, things ever to have happened probably went completely unrecorded.

  • Comment number 88.


    "It is the making that matters, not the memory" and "I often think that some of the most important...things ever to have happened probably went unrecorded."

    Indeed, they probably did, and the making of these events was, I suspect, of utmost importance to these people, whoever they were, as the making of 'it' was probably a significant part of their life, as each and every one of our personal moments are of utmost value.

    But there are other significant events which we do know about, ought we to ignore them, do we really have nothing to learn, even if there are those who refuse to learn anything? Surely, at the very least, we learn from our own personal history, remaking and adjusting, for fear of repeating our mistakes? Is this not possible at a wider level as well. I agree that an obsession with the past, and the creation of traditions to preserve a past which may never really have been, at least not in the way we might portray it, is a fruitless activity, but, I suggest, this is not history.

    For me history is pretty simple, it is telling the stories of the making of events, by the people who have lived before us, and I suggest there is much to learn, not least the learning entailed in understanding as best as we can what actually happened.

    Are you really suggesting that in reading of the past you are only concerned with your momentary interaction with it, are you not moved to reassess the direction of your life, and is this not learning?

  • Comment number 89.

    all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death
    The Shakespeare Mastermind - Macbeth

    That pretty much says it all for me. I try to live my life so as not to have too many regrets and my focus is on the now - not living for the moment - absolutely not! - rather living in the moment. The past is the past - done, dusted, over. I am totally one with Edith Piaf on that issue.

  • Comment number 90.

    Trust me, he's not the next Michelangelo. His Bart Simpson is pretty good. But there's something wrong with anyone who would even compare the two.
    (Not that the kids can't appreciate Michelangelo - Bartholomew presenting his own flayed skin is always a favourite).
    As to history - if you're going to argue that history teaches us not to listen to history, then you're going round in circles. I'm sure you are quite coscious of this.
    So we're back to Sprillig and the Slivy Troves. Rationality is excised - emotion is defined as it's polar opposite.
    Which is an unfortunate and unnecessary postion to take.


  • Comment number 91.


    Dumbing down is the result of many factors, not least the postmodernist conflation of dross with excellence, typified by many of your comments. If anything goes and one thing is as good as another, then OK is as good as The Guardian and Hello is on a par with The Times.

    You can mosh to Mozart, boogie to Beethoven (try the last movement of the 7th if you must mosh) or headbang to Humperdinck, but please do not pretend that that is what they composed their music for.

    Your assumption that a socialist should not be into classical music is another example of inverted snobbery and proves my point earlier. Working class people can appreciate quality culture if they make the effort as I did (in the so-called socialist Soviet Union classical music had a higher status than in the capitalist USA).

  • Comment number 92.


    I have taken real pleasure from children's paintings - a different kind of pleasure than that given by the works of painters I greatly admire like Stanley Spencer or Louis le Brocquy - what I do not do is build category mistakes into hierarchies of taste making some notion of excellence the sole arbiter of worth.

    It is an aside, but, Graham, if your pupils like a spot of ultra realistic flaying, you should recommend a school trip to the National Gallery's forth-coming exhibition 'The Sacred made Real' (October to January) - it promises to satisfy the goriest of tastes while, supposedly, educating the mind and elevating the spirit. I wouldn't miss it myself.

  • Comment number 93.

    ...continued... (The software is forcing me into attempting to submit by paragraph)

    I try to take care to say exactly what I mean and would expect anyone rebutting my arguments to reply to what I have actually said. I did not say, Brian, that a socialist should not be into classical music (I despise the very concept of should), rather I expressed surprise that someone committed to equality could embrace hierarchical notions of value. I do not. I understand the difference between Michelangelo and Robert but I do not seek to compare them or to evaluate one in terms of the other.

  • Comment number 94.


    Graham, a last point on history - I attempted to avoid circularity in my argument by separating teacher from pupil - history has a lesson to teach but man is a very recalcitrant pupil. I think of the past, not as the often quoted "foreign country", but rather as a "Lost World": never to be visited or rediscovered, as much the stuff of imagination and wish fulfilment as of memory and fact, an illusory playground for scholars and a mine of hatred for the agitator.

  • Comment number 95.

    There are days when "the Times" reads like "Hello!"
    For example, this week we were treated to a three page examination of the mind that made Dr Who.


  • Comment number 96.


    Not just 'The Times' - I got quite excited last week when I saw a review in 'The Guardian' Guide headlined 'Amir Khan and Juliette Binoche' - surely the match of the century! I was very disappointed when I read on to find that they meant Akram Khan - it must be this dumbing down affecting the subbies.

  • Comment number 97.

    Your dismissal of history with a quote from Macbeth is misguided. Macbeth is selfish and ambitious and, when found out, would say that, wouldn't be?

    The Shakespeare mastermind doesn't agree with you about history. After all, he wrote several history plays, including the great Henry IV, Part One, which I studied in second form at school, and which gave me an enduring enjoyment of the language. We had to learn Hotspur’s great speech from Act 1 Scene 3 inside out: "My liege I did deny no prisoners. But I remember when the fight was done, when I was dry with rage and extreme toil...." Ah, those unforgettable words: the 'pouncet-boxes' and 'popinjays', 'twixt the wind and his nobility’, 'of guns and drums and wounds', 'parmaceti for an inward bruise'. Fantastic stuff from a poet beyond compare, just as Michelangelo was, as Vasari suggested, an artist beyond compare.

    People who do not learn from history are, to quote Hotspur, untaught knaves, condemned to repeat it. Edith Piaf had a lot to regret! I doubt if she really believed that song - dead at 47, her body wracked by disease, drugs and booze - because her sad voice surely reflected her state of mind.

  • Comment number 98.


    I cannot say if Piaf believed her great song but I do. However, on the question of history, you say that Macbeth was 'selfish and ambitious' but surely the proof of my point is that that very same thing could be said of so many of the makers and shapers of history. It is because of that very fact that we never learn from history.

    If we go back to the very roots of the Western historical tradition Thucydides surely recounts one of the most prescient things ever said in any historical work - let me quote from the statement of the Athenians' position in the 'Melian Debate':

    For of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. (History of the Peloponessian War)

    If you accept this as truth, man, by his nature, cannot learn from history; if you do not accept it as true, give me the proof, from history, that it is untrue.


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