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Three Early Articles
by Maurice Spector (1916)

Shakespeare’s Age and our Own

by Maurice Spector
Canadian Forward, December 2, 1916.

What a certain critic has said of Plato may with equal truth, be allowed of Shakespeare: “He is for all time; yet to understand him rightly, he must be studied in relation to his own age.” That is to say, it is impossible to abstract Shakespeare from the historical period in which he worked. For one need not be an extreme adherent of the theory that the environment is the greatest determining factor in an artist’s development, in order to admit readily that the various characteristics of the dramatist’s age were far too significant to have missed exercising a pervading influence on his achievements. It is our present purpose to make a brief study of these characteristics and to compare or contrast them with the outstanding features of the Twentieth Century.

The spirit of the Elizabethan age was dominated by two epoch-making historical movements—the Renaissance and the Reformation. The former, by opening the flood-gates of classical culture, broke the spell of Europe’s long intellectual torpor of the Middle Ages, and inaugurated a period of enlightenment. The mind, released from the iron sway of mediaeval religious orthodoxy with its constant brooding on the problem of heaven and hell, was free now to speculate on new contents and new forms for those contents whether they dealt with astronomy or literature. The Reformation too, was not only a religious experience of the Northern European nations; it was also an additional invaluable impetus to the spirit of criticism independence and protest which is fundamental for all original thought. The outcome of the iterating influence of these two movements, was to make the Elizabethan Age eminently practical and positive. Accordingly Professor Dowden, a critic of Shakespeare, asserts that “in that period instead of substituting supernatural powers and persons and events for the natural facts of the world, men recurred to these facts and found in them inspiration.”

As the “heirs of all preceding ages” we have naturally inherited and retained both the positivism and the Protestantism of the Elizabethan Age. Superficially it might appear, then, that the form and spirit of the two ages under consideration were similar. But in reality there is a profound difference owing to the very fact of the development of the positivism and Protestantism which were only in their genesis during the Elizabethan Age.

The freedom of scientific research has become a matter of course with us and anyone attempting to restrict it would be justly considered an absurd anachronism. Science has in our days been so widely applied to practical life, and the development of machinery has been so amazingly extensive that the external structure of society would seem radically changed to a resurrected Elizabethan. Our methods of transportation communication and production, with all pertaining thereto, have made an industrial age. They have destroyed feudalism, with its problems and relations, ad [and] instead raised new problems peculiar to industrialism. The class-struggle is now no longer between the noble nad the burgher, but between the middle class—burgher class—and the proletariat. We read very little of any activities of the Elizabethan proletariat—it seems to have lacked effective protesting force and individuality; whereas the modern proletariat which daily streams in thousands in and out of the factories, is a power to be reckoned with in the social and political life of the state. It is the demos which is leading the new proletariat movement, this time not against religious corruption but against social corruption and injustice. For here lies an important difference between our age and the Sixteenth Century—it is more concerned with social problems than with religious issues. And herein is evidenced the greatest positivism of modern democracy, which strives to solve practical questions of human social conditions rather than the problems of religion.

Democracy, the general critical interest and active participation of the people—the masses—in social as well as the political aspects of natural life, that is the concept which marks such a vestal distinction between our age and Elizabeth’s. The latter was an aristocratic, monarchical age, to which democracy as we understand it, was unknown, or at least unfamiliar. It is indeed true that Puritanism had a democratizing tendency, but the prominence of the religious issue almost obscured the political in its struggle with the royal authority. The fact of the Restoration finally states the lack of fundamental democracy at that time.

As might be expected, the attitude towards democracy in political and social life of the two periods is reflected in their respective literatures. Elizabethan drama is said to be a drama without a “tendency,” whereas modern drama is represented by a Shaw, an Ibsen, or Strundling, has a “tendency,” that is, the former drama takes no definite or particular stand on a certain question dealing with social or political life, while the latter is a direct criticism of some phase of modern life. This phenomenon is obviously a result of the fact that the Elizabethans did not feel any stir of social protest around them. The people were too absorbed in guarding and strengthening the foundations of English national liberty, to criticize existing institutions. A dramatist like Shakespeare, of the universal mind, is yet so far a child of his age that he ignores or holds up to ridicule the common people, but writes several plays dealing with English national history. It is on this ground that Whitman condemns the great poems (Shakespeare’s included) as being “poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the life-blood of democracy....They had their birth in courts... and all smell of prince’s favours.”

But how differently moulded would the contents of Shakespeare’s dramas have been had he lived in our eventful century when the struggle for the attainment of social democracy occupies the chief place on the world stage. If modern social life contains such potentialities as inspired the work of a Henrik Ibsen a Bernard Shaw, and an Anatole France, it is an interesting and fascinating speculation to consider to what extent it would have influenced the master genius greater than them all—Shakespeare.

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