AD's English Literature : Shaw and Shakespeare: A Modern Battleship and An Elizabethan Man-of-war

Shaw and Shakespeare: A Modern Battleship and An Elizabethan Man-of-war

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) are the two greatest dramatists of England. They lived in different ages and worked under different conditions of time and circumstances. Their mental attitudes and dramatic methods too were different. So, there can be no comparison between them just as there can be no comparison between a modern battleship and an Elizabethan man-of-war. But in spite of all their differences they resemble each other in one important respect that both of them have made valuable contributions to the development of the English drama by using the heterogeneous dramatic materials of their respective ages and welding them into a harmonious whole by the wizardry of their dramatic genius. Regarding the points of similarity between Shaw and Shakespeare A. Nicoll’s valuable observation in his book, A History of Late Nineteenth Century Drama deserves careful reading. He states as follows: “To compare Shakespeare and Shaw may be a trifle foolish, for such comparisons of persons far removed in time from one another savour of the purely academic; but provided we maintain oar sense of proportion and balance, the parallel may yield material for critical evaluation. Shakespeare was born in 1564 and came to the theatre in the early nineties of the sixteenth century. Shaw was born in 1856 and had his first plays produced in 1892. When Shakespeare joined a company of London players he found a renascent drama which as yet had not realized its own destiny. Lyly had provided a new model in mythological fantastic comedy; Gascoigne had experimented in translation from the Italian Commedia Erudite; a strange romantic style was being exploited by Greene and a peculiar revenge drama had attracted the attention of Kyd; above all, Marlowe was plumbing the depths of a new tragedy and displaying the full powers of blank verse. Shakespeare’s virtue it was, not surely to bring a still further outstanding genius to the stage, but to seize from Lyly and Greene and Kyd and Gascoigne and Marlowe just such materials as might be regarded most valuable and to weld these into one harmonious whole Marlowe’s verse and high tragic conception be made his own, and combined with that the subtlety of The Spanish Tragedy: to the Italian wit as reflected in Gascoigne he  added Lyly’s over-delicate grace and Greene’s romantic robustness.

Shaw’s position is by no means dissimilar. From Jones and Pinero he learned music, and still more did he learn from Ibsen. To Wilde he went for some for his skill in quip and epigram, and many a device he borrowed from dramatists whose very names, may be, are now forgotten. In our excitement over all that seemed so novel and co startlingly thrilling in Shaw, we often forget that when he was a young man of twenty or thirty he frequented the theaters and eagerly watched performances of all the good plays from earliest melodrama to Jone’s The Silver King, from Lytton’s Money to Robertson’s comedies and Byron’s latest successes. His dramas so far from being new, are a tissue of reminiscences of earlier works just as Shakespeare’s plays are broadly based upon the foundations laid by his predecessors. One of the most surprising things about drama is that greatness does not really spring from complete originality. ‘The thief of all thieves was the Warwickshire thief’, sang David Garrick in The Jubilee and almost the same might be lilted of every dramatic genius.”

This much is the similarity between Shaw and Shakespeare. Beyond this they offer points of contrast. Pearson has drawn the following contrast between Shaw and Shakespeare. “The two great playwrights can not be compared, because Shakespeare was solely concerned with the portrayal of human beings and the expression of the human soul in poetry; While Shaw was mainly concerned with ideas and philosophy, with making people think and giving them a faith. It is the difference between a pure artist and a prophet. But Shaw, too, was an artist and many characters in his plays were admirably presented. What observation could do, his observation did. He saw people with exceptional shrewdness, and could exhibit their characteristics vividly, but he had not Shakespeare’s mediumistic power of feeling and living his creations, and a great deal of Shaw’s own kindliness and common sense is given to some of his characters where it is utterly out of place.”

Shanks brings out the following contrast between Shaw and Shakespeare: “Shaw believes in the purpose of art. There is no need to quarrel with him for it. But it may be observed that he is trying to do one thing and Shakespeare another. Shakespeare presents as rich an image of life as he can, and communicates no more by the image than his own intense abundant appreciation of life. Shaw demands and attempts to supply a co-ordination of the essential facts of life into a system; but the intellectual effort required for this is a comparatively clumsy instrument which misses much of what is real in life and rules out most of the vague but electric intuitions of the poet. It may also be observed that All’s Well That Ends Well, though more confused and perplexing, is a subtle, deeper, richer work than Man and Superman. To use these adjectives is perhaps to beg a question which I would not raise at all. Shakespeare is one kind of artist , Shaw another; and it is much more important to define and distinguish two kinds than to enter into any argument as to which is the superior though I imagine that definition and distinction once clearly established, the good judgment of mankind has no difficulty in making its choice. 

Shaw’s insistence on explaining something or other to his audience naturally determines the character of all his dramatic work. His characters must not be perfect themselves, they must never forget that they are put on the stage to expound some theory which has been born in their creator’s mind or else to be convinced of that theory. It has been said of Shakespeare’s characters that they seem to us to have as vivid and real an existence outside the play as in it, off the stage as on. The same cannot be said, without reservation, of Shaw’s people. For the most part they appear before us ready-made and we know no more of them than they tell us themselves.”

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