Whitman’s Views on Shakespeare: Some Clarifications by Sarani Ghosal (Mondal)
Whitman does not find in Shakespeare any completed statement of the moral, the true and the beautiful. The search for a true democracy is a one-pointed quest for the supreme soul. The true splendour flies away like an “uncaught bird”. Even a mediocre writer attempting to find that glory fascinates Whitman. Hence he is drawn to George Fox, who was born just a few years after Shakespeare’s death....
For Whitman, art must mirror the quest for the immortality of Identity, which is the most neglected aspect of life and yet the material for the “deepest depths” and “highest heights of art”. And to have found just a little flavour of that gives a different value to our life. Poetry in Whitman’s eyes was a progressive manifestation of the soul, a constant search for the ever progressive new. According to Whitman, the grand elitism of Shakespeare-- the projection of aristocracy – was not quite in harmony with the theme and form of his own poetry. But, the great American poet seems to have lost sight of the fact that the common human nature is not far from the central passions of the mighty kings and lords.
Although Whitman’s stress on the limitations of Shakespeare has a strong logic behind it, his own limitations as a Shakespeare critic become obvious in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s positive approach to Shakespeare. Unlike Sri Aurobindo, another evolutionary poet of identical complexion, Whitman fails to see the relevance of Shakespeare in the field of psychological investigation into the human self. The common human nature is still in the trap of the Shakespearian moments. One must know how to tame and transform this world before reaching out to the spiritual peaks. That is why I bring in Sri Aurobindo to pinpoint the limitations of Whitman’s criticism of Shakespeare, who is still relevant, because the average human being is firmly rooted still in the consciousness of an Othello or a Lear. Somehow, Whitman forgot that true spirituality is an evolution of awareness and that it does not exclude the experience of the lower sensations of life.
Sri Aurobindo calls him a seer of life, meaning much deeper than the traditional phrase. Shakespeare in Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation is not just the seer of surface life, but also of the inner mechanism of the surface life. In the great tragic figures, like Hamlet or Macbeth, there is a much vaster and more potent subconscious mind, which loses nothing of what the senses bring to it. It keeps all its observations in an inexhaustible store of memory. Shakespeare, according to Sri Aurobindo, has explored those areas of the human mind, although he has not shown ways to go beyond those troubled areas, which stand as a stumbling block against the transformation of human nature leading to the Whitmanesque idea of Oneness. Humanity owes a great debt to Shakespeare, because he has hinted at those troubled territories located between our heart and the sex-centre. The poet of Savitri himself experiences the Shakespearean world in Book II, Canto IV of the epic, the world of the soliloquies: sensations, stabs, edges of desire, passion’s leaps, the casual colloquy of flesh with flesh, the ill-lighted mansions of our thought etc. If Sri Aurobindo is Whitman’s poetic successor, then he rightly covers up the limitations of Whitman’s Shakespeare criticism by making Shakespeare relevant to the spiritual progress of human society. (Paper presented at World Shakespeare Conference, 2007, Kolkata) posted by RY Deshpande on Sun 04 Mar 2007 07:55 AM PST Permanent Link