Saturday, June 12, 2010

By the Dim Light of Nature by Peter Farey

In about 1615, Francis Beaumont (at least it is generally assumed to be him, as it is signed F.B.) wrote a letter to Ben Jonson. It was in verse and included the following lines (15-21):
...heere I would let slippe
(If I had any in mee) schollarshippe,
And from all Learninge keepe these lines as cleere
as Shakespeares best are, which our heirs shall heare
Preachers apte to their auditors to showe
how farr sometimes a mortall man may goe
by the dimme light of Nature...
Shakespearean scholars - both those with an "authorship" axe to grind and those without - have welcomed this as a clear indication that Shakespeare lacked an advanced education. Jonathan Bate says, for example, "Beaumont specifically praised Shakespeare for writing his best lines 'by the dim light of Nature', without 'Learning'." (1997. The Genius of Shakespeare. p.70). "Furthermore," he says, "his statement that Shakespeare achieved poetic greatness without the benefit of advanced learning precisely refutes the foremost claim of all the Anti-Stratfordians, namely that the plays could only have been written by someone who had benefited from a better formal education than Shakespeare's."

Another good example of how this "information" is used is in the current version of the Wikipedia entry on the "Shakespeare Authorship Question" which says: "Contemporary playwright Francis Beaumont thought this not a disadvantage. He wrote to Jonson: 'I would let slip . . . scholarship and from all learning keep these lines as clear as Shakespeare's best are . . . to show how far a mortal man may go by the dim light of Nature'." (But does Beaumont mean that Shakespeare's best lines are "free from all learning" or that he "keeps them free from all learning"? That's quite important!)

One may forgive the omission of those words "If I had any in mee," but are the others - "which our heirs shall heare / Preachers apte to their auditors" - as unimportant as the omission might have us believe? I don't think so. The first question is why there appears to be no verb in that clause. These "preachers" will have to do something "to showe / how farr sometimes a mortall man may goe / by the dimme light of Nature," so why is there no indication of what it is? It makes no grammatical sense, does it?

The answer is that there was a meaning for "apt" back then which we have completely lost nowadays - as a verb. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the first call for anyone trying to decipher just what someone meant in days gone by) it could be "To make fit, adapt (to), prepare suitably (for)." So these preachers will apparently adapt this Shakespearean characteristic to fit what their listeners presumably want to hear.

But what possible interest would "Preachers" have in approving in their sermons what a playwright had written for performance on the stage? None, of course. Again the OED comes to the rescue with a definition of the word "preacher" which, among other meanings, was used at the time: "a person who exhorts others earnestly; a person who advocates or inculcates something by speech or writing, esp. in a self-righteous or overbearing manner; a person who or thing which imparts a lesson or commends an attitude."

So what Beaumont appears to me to be saying isn't that Shakespeare lacked learning, but that he chose (to the benefit of the overall quality of his work and particularly his "best" lines) not to display it in any obvious way. He also predicts that in the future there will be people who, perhaps "in a self-righteous or overbearing manner," will use this concealment of Shakespeare's learning to prove that he neither had nor needed any.

And isn't that exactly what has happened?

Peter Farey

© Peter Farey, June 2010

Peter Farey has been manning the Marlovian barricades on the internet for the past 11 years, and his Marlowe Page is one of the most respected sites about Marlowe. Peter's essay “Hoffman and the Authorship” is the 2007 recipient of the Calvin & Rose G. Hoffman Prize, administered annually by The King's School in Canterbury for a "distinguished publication on Christopher Marlowe." He's a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.

8 comments:

Martin said...

a very fair analysis, I would say, and thanks for pointing out the convenient ellipses on the Wikipedia quote.

Anonymous said...

an interesting angle

DresdenDoll said...

but why would he opt not to display learning?

Peter Farey said...

DresdenDoll asked...
but why would he opt not to display learning?

If you had had six and a half years at university but wanted people to believe that what you had written was by someone with probably only a truncated grammar school education, wouldn't you?

Peter Farey

Rado Klose said...

Hi Peter
A couple of things. In Levins' opinion " Shakespeare's writing, during Marlowe's lifetime was quite as heavily loaded with classical freight" Maybe Marlowe was alerted to the fact that he was sounding just like himself and had better change or get rumbled. Second, can we look forward to you getting your linguistic forensic teeth into Blount's dedication to Hero and Leander

Peter Farey said...

Interesting point, Rado. Can't say that I have done any counting of my own, so Levin may well be right.
In this case Beaumont presumably still wouldn't have been saying that Shakespeare lacked learning, only that he was at his best when he didn't display it.
As for Blount's H&L dedication, if I come up with anything that hasn't already been said on the subject you'll probably hear it here first!

Peter Farey

The Other Great One said...

an interesting angle indeed!

LeslieTartaglia said...

This is a tough sell for me: trying to cover up your education. I just can't get my hands on it.