Shakespeare the Establishment Conformist, or The Virtue of Disloyalty: Northrop Frye and Graham Greene (3)


The “Cobbe portrait,” allegedly a newly-identified image of Shakespeare fully decked out in establishment conformist finery

In an earlier post, I compared Northrop Frye’s and Graham Greene’s readings of Henry James.  Greene’s criticism often seems eccentric, a product of the same obsessions that drive his fiction.  His discussion of Shakespeare is as distinctive as his essays on James.  In 1969, Greene received the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize, endowed by an Anglophile German, and awarded to British citizens for artistic achievement.  He marked the occasion with an address entitled “The Virtue of Disloyalty” which begins,

Surely if there is one supreme poet of conservatism, of what we now call the Establishment, it is Shakespeare. . . .  If there is one word which chimes through Shakespeare’s early plays it is the word “peace.”  In times of political trouble the Establishment always appeals to this ideal of peace. . . .  Peace as a nostalgia for a lost past: peace which Shakespeare associated like a retired colonial governor with firm administration.

In what follows, two of Greene’s major obsessions, Roman Catholicism and betrayal, coalesce in a discussion which, however inadequate as Shakespeare criticism, reveals much about Greene’s view of the writer’s role in society.  One should bear in mind that the speech was given during the Cold War, at a time when Russian dissident writers were much in the minds of people in the west, and that it was given to a German audience, about twenty-five years after the end of the second world war.

Greene is deliberately provocative in the sardonic manner in which he discusses the great national poet after whom the prize was named.  “There are moments,” he says, “when we revolt against this bourgeois poet on his way to the house at Stratford and his coat of arms, and we sometimes tire even of the great tragedies, where the marvellous beauty of the verse takes away the sting and the last lines heal all, with right supremacy re-established by Fortinbras, Malcolm and Octavius Caesar.”  Greene then continues:

Of course he is the greatest of poets, but we who live in times just as troubled as his, times full of the deaths of tyrants, a time of secret agents, assassinations and plots and torture chambers, sometimes feel ourselves more at home with the sulphurous anger of Dante, the self-disgust of Baudelaire and the blasphemies of Villon, poets who dared to reveal themselves whatever the danger, and the danger was very real.

Shakespeare does not, for Greene, belong in the company of Russians such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, though, anticipating recent postcolonial critics, he detects a note of rebellious outrage in Caliban’s speech “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”

Greene then goes on to contrast Shakespeare, “the great poet of the Establishment,” with the brilliant but minor poet and Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell.  If only Shakespeare had shared Southwell’s disloyalty, Greene says, “we could have loved him better as a man.”  The remainder of the short essay argues that the writer should be opposed to the State, acting as a devil’s advocate in the face of official efforts at scapegoating.  The writer should always be counter-cultural, “a Protestant in a Catholic society, a Catholic in a Protestant one.”  The writer should be ready to change sides at a moment’s notice, for “He stands for the victims, and the victims change.”  This does not mean that the writer is a propagandist, but rather someone who enlarges the bounds of sympathy, “making the work of the State a degree more difficult.”  Greene concludes, perhaps to the discomfort of some in his audience – apparently the lecture was received enthusiastically by the students who were present – by presenting, as his final example of the virtue of disloyalty the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who “chose to be hanged like our English poet Southwell.  He is a greater hero for the writer than Shakespeare.”

“The Virtue of Disloyalty” is a brilliant, unfair, in places inaccurate essay, very much part of the twentieth-century debate about the way that a writer should be engaged in society.  Which brings me back to Frye, who made a significant place in his critical universe for Dante, Baudelaire, and Villon, but a much larger one for Shakespeare.  Frye would I think agree with Greene’s argument that the writer exists in opposition to the state.  On the other hand, he separated the writer from the man in a way that Greene does not do here, so that, for example, Frye could regard T. S. Eliot as a major poet while repudiating the religious, political, and cultural values that Eliot championed.  Similarly, in Myth and Metaphor and elsewhere, Frye distinguishes between the ideology of Shakespeare’s plays and their metaphorical vision of life, using the example of Henry V.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf instances Shakespeare and Jane Austen as two writers whose genius makes them “incandescent,” obliterating all traces of the person and leaving only the art.  Marilyn Butler, in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, challenged this notion by arguing that Austen’s novels are an explicit intervention in the heated ideological debates of the revolutionary period in which she lived.  New historicists have made similar analyses of Shakespeare, and in some ways they repeat the old historicist ideas of Greene in his calculatedly provocative lecture.  Greene was someone who knew the colonial world well, from his restless travelling, and he had a temperamental sympathy with rebels, losers, and outcasts.  His influence on political journalists has been immense, and is captured vividly in an article by Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic in 2005:

A journalist, most especially an Anglo-American travel writer, will run the risk of disappointing his editor if he visits Saigon and leaves out any reference to quiet Americans, or turns in a piece from Havana that fails to mention the hapless Wormold. As for Brighton, or Vienna, or Haiti—Greene was there just before you turned up. Leaving the Orient Express, you will glimpse the tail of a raincoat just at the moment when that intriguing and anonymous fellow passenger vanishes discreetly at the end of the platform. In Mexico or Sierra Leone some old veteran will mumble something about the stranger in the off-white suit who was asking the same questions only a while back. On one of my first ventures as a foreign correspondent, in 1975, I sat in the garden bar of a taverna in Nicosia, reading about the adventures of Dr. Saavedra in The Honorary Consul, visualizing what I had just seen along the haunted “Green Line” that slashed through the ruins of the city, and moaning with relief that Graham Greene had never been to Cyprus.

Greene’s essay of 1969 raises questions about the religious and political allegiances of William Shakespeare that have been hotly debated by scholars in recent years.  It also asks the kind of questions about the role of the writer in society that were fashionable in the middle of the twentieth century, and that may seem naïve and idealistic in comparison to the Byzantine theorizing of such questions that prevails at the present.  Greene no doubt delighted in presenting what he called “a speech attacking Shakespeare” on the occasion of his receiving the Shakespeare prize, for there was a part of him that remained, throughout his life, the naughty boy defying authority.  (He had attended Berkhamsted School, where his father was headmaster, and schools and headmasters are presented negatively all through Greene’s work.)  But given the way that the figure of “the Bard” was constructed along with British nationalism, it may be worth trying to respond to the critique that Greene makes, and to think about the relationship between Frye’s Shakespeare criticism and that of new historicism.  But I will leave it to those more knowledgeable in this area than I am to develop this argument, should they wish so to do.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 thoughts on “Shakespeare the Establishment Conformist, or The Virtue of Disloyalty: Northrop Frye and Graham Greene (3)

  1. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Had Shakespeare shared Southwell’s disloyalty, high school students would certainly have less to dislike.

  2. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Southwell’s death at the hands of the Protestant establishment, like Bruno’s at the hands of the Inquisition, is horrifying. And it makes it all the more odious to expect good poets to follow that example.

    Pegging Shakespeare as an inveterately establishment poet, when in the company of company men like Spenser and Jonson, seems perverse. The choice of Dante is a strange one, since Dante placed into Hell, usually picturesquely, those whom he took to have veered from the established church dogma. Villon is as anti-establishment as it gets, but it is difficult to suppose that the reasons for his itinerant imprisonments- the theft of church coffers, the murder of a priest- were committed for the benefit of any underdog who was not Villon. We only have the joy of reading The Testament because he was precariously spared at the accession of Louis XI. These are two of the greatest writers to whom we have access, and we are only able to read their works because they remained alive long enough to write them.

    In the Anatomy’s Polemical Introduction, Frye points out that biographical criticism “regards the poem as the oratory of its creator, and it feels most secure when it knows of a definite, and preferably heroic, personality behind the poetry.” Greene goes beyond Carlyle when he suggests that we would love Shakespeare all the more had he died a martyr, presumably only after completing a parallel corpus of work. While allegiance to the underdog is admirable, to measure a poet’s worth by his or her allegiance, and by what measure it thumbs its nose at the ascendant ideology, is perverse at best and censorious at worst. It reminds me of how the surrealists projected all sorts of rebellious ends onto Isidore Ducasse, who likely died sick and alone at 24, with two ignored books to his name.

    I should probably apologize for my tone-deaf reply above, and for my more histrionic reply here. But Greene has roiled my boils. The duration of life, as it especially was for Shakespeare’s time, is tenuous, and libraries are haunted by the incalculable omissions of those who died, nobly or ignobly, with their unwritten books.

  3. Russell Perkin

    Trevor, I think Greene’s aim was to produce the effect you’ve described in yourself! There was, as I said in my post, a very childish streak in him. Greene was that common (and often tiresome) English type, the Establishment radical, and while he showed remarkable resilience and courage in his travels, and genuine sympathy for many causes, he could always count on knowing someone at the embassy or in the press wherever he went. And while he was vehemently anti-American, he profited well enough from film rights and _Life_ magazine assignments.
    As for Shakespeare, wouldn’t it be ironic, in relation to Greene’s comments, if he was a closet recusant underneath the apparent conformity!
    Perhaps one thing Greene is objecting to is what others celebrate – the fact that we know almost nothing about Shakespeare, which makes it impossible to love him as a man, only for the works.
    It’s not always easy to love Graham Greene as a man. Michael Shelden began his controversial biography as an admirer of Greene, but says in the Preface that the more he learned the less he liked what he saw, so he wrote what is essentially a case for the prosecution. Norman Sherry produced a monstrous book in three volumes, each less coherent than the last. It may be a while before there is a really satisfactory biography of Greene.

  4. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Thank you for you follow-up! Perhaps there was a touch of Ducasse to the man, after all, who wrote ostensibly to provoke a negative response, and whose Maldoror is in Madrid, tomorrow Pekin, yesterday St. Petersburg.

  5. Joe Adamson

    Russell, a belated comment I’ve been meaning to post: I wanted to plug my aunt Judith Adamson’s books: Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge (St Martin’s), and Reflections, an edited collection of some of Greene’s uncollected writings. Here is a link to a review of The Dangerous Edge:

    Also, another family plug: as a Victorianist you might want to take a look at my uncle Alan Adamson’s book Mr Charlotte Bronte, The Life of Arthur Bell Nicholls. The book is published by McGill-Queens, like yours, and touches on some of the matters you also look at in Theology and The Victorian Novel. Here is a link to a review:

    And just to avoid confusion: I also have a brother by the name of Alan Adamson, who has posted a couple of comments on this blog.

  6. Russell Perkin

    Thanks very much for these references, Joe. In fact, I was quoting from _Reflections_ in my post, from a recently acquired copy. I’ve run across Judith Adamson’s work a number of times, so it’s nice to know of the family connection. And I am planning a senior course on the Brontes next year, so I will definitely get hold of your uncle’s book.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *