Speaking of the dead...
I'm teaching a course this semester on Renaissance English literature, so I have to deal with Shakespeare, a writer whose work I read a lot back in high school and college but whom I've neglected since then.
I feel a bit intimidated at the prospect of teaching him next week.
To prepare myself, I sat down at my kitchen table, opened my Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 1, began reading the biographical information on Shakespeare, and found myself stunned by this statement:
Shakespeare himself evidently had no interest in preserving for posterity the sum of his writings. (page 1026)I hadn't realized this, but the evidence seems to support the assertion, for Shakespeare seems to have made no effort to publish his works.
Mulling this over, I read on and came to the section on Shakespeare's sonnets. According to whoever wrote this section -- either George M. Logan or Stephen Greenblatt, I assume, since they edited material from the 16th century (where Shakespeare has been placed) -- the sequence of sonnets from 18 to 126:
...develops as a dominant motif the transience and destructive power of time, countered only by the force of love and the permanence of poetry. (page 1028)As an example of this motif and its counterpoint, sonnet 18 says:
Now, I realize that Shakespeare is expressing a convention of poetry in claiming the immortality of his lines ... but I have a hunch, though only a hunch, as to why he didn't attempt to preserve his writings for posterity.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
My hunch? Shakespeare wasn't just expressing a poetic convention. He really believed that he had written "eternal lines." Given such a belief, he'd need not expend any effort at preserving them.
They would preserve themselves.
An effort on his part to preserve them would not only be unnecessary, it would imply his lack of faith in the eternal lines.
If I'm correct, then Shakespeare made a sort of Pascalian wager, chose to believe in the eternity of his lines, and therefore left his writings at the mercy of posterity to prove him right that they were eternal.
He would appear to have won that hypothetical bet.