Shakespeare : Just What Kind of Writer Was He?

Othello and Desdemona in Venice
by Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856)

Earlier this week I suggested that major authors of world literature could be divided into three categories. Each of the categories is an attitude towards fictional and dramatic narrative. I labeled the three approaches as that of the artificer, the reporter, and the fabulist. In that piece I left unsaid where I think Shakespeare fit into this schema. The short answer: he is an artificer, with a touch of the fabulist thrown in.

That last sentence—and the rest of this post—will make no sense if you have not read that earlier piece. Please do that now. Once you have done that we can continue on to the long answer.

Shakespeare is often hailed a master of “psychological realism.” The seed of this claim was planted by Samuel Johnson a few centuries ago. He famously wrote:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

…This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.

…It will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excells in accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never rise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences. [1]

Did Shakespeare have an unusually brilliant grasp on human nature? I think so. But I do not think he was especially invested in having his poetry mirror all that he found in “manners and life.” I doubt he ever met a Hamlet or an Othello, a Lear or a Brutus, a Falstaff or a Cleopatra in the flesh. The souls of Shakespeare’s most tragic creations are greater than flesh can bear. Antony was a man, says Cleopatra, whose:

legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.[2]

Matched to Antony was this same Cleopatra, of whom it was said:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies: for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.[3]

How many men and women have you met that deserve such descriptions?

Shakespeare has no heroes,” Johnson maintains, “His scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.”[4] But how rare is the reader who would have braved Lear’s storm! How hard is it to find a daughter with the grace of Cordelia, an underling with the loyalty of Kent! These characters are incredible—though I will concede, never inhuman. Shakespeare takes pains to ensure that both the audience and his characters themselves are painfully aware of their mortal frailties. They never rise above the human.  But the protagonists of Shakespeare’s histories, tragedies, and romances exist at humanity’s outward edge.[5] They are the titans of human life, personalties of untold force, definers of their age.

I suspect this is why Shakespeare was drawn to them. In the majesties of myth and history Shakespeare had his chance to plumb the depths of human depravity and climb the heights of human grandeur. In terms of our schema, this an argument for thinking of Shakespeare as an artificer, not—as Johnson and many of Shakespeare’s readers like to view him—as a reporter. Shakespeare was interested in the outer-bounds of human nature. He selected stories for his plays that let him push against these boundaries.

This is less obvious for the comedies than the tragedies. The comedies are more grounded in every-day personalities; they devote their thought experiments to extremes in situation, not extremes in character. Shakespeare was fascinated by the logic of the outer-bound. How far can you push a principle before it falls apart? How far can a virtue be stretched before it redounds on itself? Several of the comedies (Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Comedy of Errors) ask this question of the law, devising situations where impartial application of legal writ leads to obvious (if hilarious) injustice. He poses the same sort of what-ifs about revenge and honor (Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet), self-interest or ambition (King John, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth), intellect (Love’s Labor Lost, Hamlet), and erotic passion (Two Gentleman of Verona, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra).  He devises plots whose happenings pit a man’s private moral code against his public face (Love’s Labor Lost, Measure for Measure, King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus)and his appearance against his identity (I will only note here that a full twenty five of Shakespeare’s plays use disguise as a central plot device). Several plays go so far as to question whether human language (and art created from it) can capture any underlying reality at all (this is a theme across Shakespeare, but it is especially strong in Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest).

Now it is possible for writers in the reporter corner of the schema to tackle these same themes, but they will rarely rely on extraordinary devices like gender-bending disguise, ghostly apparitions, hidden forest sanctuaries, or fiercely unforgiving legal regimes to so. In this Shakespeare is more Dostoevsky than Balzac. Dostoevsky centers each of his novels on a murder because he believed that such an extreme act brought out the excesses of human nature. Shakespeare is not so reliant on one plot device, but his fascination with the outer edge is the same. Shakespeare was a playwright of depths and peaks. His plays are not sketches of social interaction or studies in the characters of his own life, but enthralling experiments in the psychology that might bring a person to those depths and peaks of human experience.

On this point Johnson was more perceptive:

 Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life…. Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would probably be such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed. [6]

This is likely the best defense that can be mounted against claims that Shakespeare’s plays are not properly realistic. One of the most convincing of these critiques came in the 1912 with Edward Stoll’s “Criminals in Shakespeare and Science.”[7] Stoll’s piece was in part a reaction to the new field of criminology, which had sent researchers off to the prisons of France and England to interview murderers and criminals of like viciousness to understand their psychology. They discovered that most of them slept soundly at night. They were not haunted by specters of blood. None had been troubled by daggers floating in the air.  They had murdered and got over it—many were proud of it. Those were real murderers. What grounds then do we have to take seriously the guilt of Macbeth and his wife?

The only convincing answer to this question that I have yet found is this: Shakespeare is the wrong place to look to understand the commonplace criminal. Shakespeare did not intend to describe the median motivations, fears, and dreams of the Elizabethan criminal population. Othello was not writ to portray the psychology of the average wife beater. The average wife beater was only of peripheral interest to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was interested in the titans: Othello is the story of a titan in free fall. How does a titan go from holding up the sky to diving downwards through hell? How could a man as genuinely good as Othello kill a newlywed wife as innocent and virtuous as Desdemona?

Shakespeare’s tragedies, romances, and histories worked backwards from questions like these. They could not do otherwise: all were retellings of stories already popular with his audience. Shakespeare’s audience already knew that Cressida would betray Troilus, Richard II would lose his crown, Brutus would kill Caesar, Timeon would become a misanthrope, and the Prince of Tyre would lose both daughter and wife only to find them again.  Shakespeare did not invent new tales, but instead found stories that allowed him to open up the aspects of human life he was most interested in exploring.

Yet Shakespeare was not all artifice and thought experiment. Daggers floating in the air and addled kings wandering across the British wilds might be explained through logic of artifice; horses madly eating each other’s flesh and hurricanes haunting royalty over the heath can not. Those belong to the world of the fabulist. Happenings like these are allegorical or aesthetic; they are designed to establish specific moods or provide comment on the nature of the action we see before us. Those who champion Shakespeare for the psychological realism of his characters underestimate how deeply the personalities of these characters are shaped by these same allegorical and aesthetic concerns.

I would take the argument one step further: It is through shedding realism these plays gain their power. It is no accident that three of Shakespeare’s most thoroughly fantastic plays (Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest) are regarded as three of his best. The image of Mad Lear raging against the cyclone is one of the most powerful expressions of the human condition in world literature—and this because, not in spite of, its disregard for the “real.”

If you liked this post you might also enjoy, “Shakespeare in American Politics” “On Adding Phrases to the Language,”  “Fiction and the Strategist,”   or  “On the Tolkeinic Hero.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


[1] Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” in Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1904), or. pub 1765, accessed here

[2] Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene II.

[3] Ibid., Act II, Scene II. Somebody is going to try and argue with me in the comments that these quotations exist for rhetorical effect or as windows into the psychology of the speakers. The first a product of Cleopatra’s infatuation and unbounded imagination, the second to set off the declaration that Cleopatra is herself a normal mortal who “pants” like the rest of the human race. Both arguments are correct but insufficient. We all know I could hunt down similar excessive descriptions of Macbeth, Goneril, Brutus etc; please don’t try and waste my time by requiring me to actually do it!

[4] Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare.”

[5] For more on this theme, see A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 2nd ed (London: MacMillan and Co., 1919), ch. 1.

[6] Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare.”

[7]  Elmer Edgar Stoll, “Criminals in Shakespeare and in Science,” Modern Philology 10, no. 1 (1912): 55-80. 

This essay is open-access. I recommend reading it in full—it is a good example of what literary criticism could be today if journals forced their writers to stop using dreadful words like “potentialities,” “differentiations,” “homologous,” and so forth.

Leave a Comment


Well, I might have made the argument you pre-empted in footnote 3- although it started to gel only as I read you acknowledging it but declaring its insufficiency, so extra kudos for anticipation.

I probably agree with that assessment. Even those of us infatuated to the maximum possible human degree [I believe I have been there more than once, so have many or most of us, I suppose] neither compose our affections in poetry like that even in our minds, nor quite envision our love objects as quite so perfect. Not even Hallmark movies try to suggest otherwise.

I am relatively convinced by your observations [via that early criminology piece] that Macbeth and his wife's emotional experiences are not true to common murderers on the whole. I suppose it is not really surprising- I'd assume some ordinary murderers like criminals of passion or others with equally everyday motives do have regrets, but I'd never assume that all or even most did. Human types are too varied for that. Similarly, at the level on which Macbeth was actually operating, there are and long have been men [and some women] of power and ambition, too, who have murdered for advantage and slept well at night. And there have been men [and some women] who killed for truly bizarre reasons who probably did too.

But I have always thought the point of Macbeth and his wife was to illustrate the man of power and merit and ambition, and the woman of ambition and intellect, who do seek the ultimate position, and value it, and think they have what it takes to seize it by foul means without personal consequence, as so many can do, but they are not up to it. THey are also ultimately a man and woman of conscience, as not everyone is. In that sense, I cannot exclude the realism of terrifying dreams or hallucinations as a result of the deed, and inability to enjoy the reward.

One thing this question touches on for me is whether or not Shakespeare intended all his talk of visions to be taken literally. In this case, I have automatically treated the dagger Macbeth sees as a hallucination of a sleepless, troubled mind. I wonder if that is too modern a take.

Similarly, but taking the opposite tack, I always assumed Hamlet's father's ghost and its instructions to him were intended to be real, and true, and indeed the two watchmen saw him also. But I have seen criticism from the point of view that the ghost was not real but imagined, which as a modern I should buy save that Hamlet was not the sole witness. Why else I assume Macbeth's vision false and Hamlet's real, I cannot say for sure.

Whether or not the ghost is real is quite significant in interpreting and criticising Hamlet.

All of his intellectual and moral speculation, his reluctance and fear, is entirely supportable as the mind of a partly bookish prince in a culture in which, for all its violence, naked murder of an uncle would not be seen as everyday behaviour. He can just as easily have been dominated by the question of whether the ghost spoke truly or was some tempter sent from the devil. Even as a renaissance man.

His fixation on moral and metaphysical questions is believable, if uncommon to us now. But in the end, I always figure he was overdoing it- he knew his father had been murdered and usurped, a throne that should have been his [even given Denmark's quasi-elective monarchy] taken by his uncle, and so on. Hamlet was also portrayed as a warrior, if only second-hand. What Danish prince, knowing what he knew, would stand for such outrages and not resort to cunning and force? He could convince enough people that his story was true without modern forensic standards, and thus avoid the taint of usurpation himself. So why did he not act at last, and in a less convoluted way that exposed himself to less unnecessary peril?

The out of universe answer is that Shakespeare had ideas to explore along the lines you give for other plays. The in-universe answer would be to add to his mental burdens doubt whether what he saw was even real.

Any of us today would have that as our primary reaction. But until a few years ago it never occurred to me to read the play that way. Not in school, not in watching filmed versions, not once. I always assumed the ghost was real and so intended.

GO figure.

Hope that was clear- I really should be writing something else but am procrastinating at grandmaster level.