ON the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, a Chesterton fan can’t help but wonder if he wrote much about the bard. He did indeed. But these gems are scattered throughout many of his essays. Even further, this great collection was a bit hard to get a hold of since its publication was not given the attention his other works were. Fortunately, you can find these essays republished by Dale Ahlquist, president of The American Chesterton Society under the appropriate title: The Soul of Wit – G. K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare.
Chesterton, a man who delighted in toy theaters, was also a man who delighted in dressing up and standing on a real stage – even if it was an amateur one. In Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton, we find that Beaconsfield put on its own amateur theatricals and in particular, Chesterton, played a part in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”…
“Chesterton was also a keen participant in local amateur drama. A neighbor called Margaret Halford, who had retired from the London stage to get married, was the leading light of Beaconsfield theatricals. One year she played Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, with Chesterton as Theseus.”
Of course, one immediately conjures an image in the mind (and it is not hard to) of Chesterton as the ruler of Athens, dispenser of justice. We can hear him in that same imaginative thrill offer up Theseus’ famous speech in Act V as if it might be his part in a debate he was sure he would win….
“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.”
Thus we can prove that it is not without some experience of the subject that Chesterton tackles, as critic, the entire play with his focus on the character of Bottom the Weaver, a part he considers the most difficult to discern, even more so than Hamlet!
“It is difficult to approach critically so great a figure as that of Bottom the Weaver. He is greater and more mysterious than Hamlet, because the interest of such men as Bottom consists of a rich subconsciousness, and that of Hamlet in the comparatively superficial matter of a rich consciousness. And it is especially difficult in the present age which has become hag-ridden with the mere intellect. We are the victims of a curious confusion whereby being great is supposed to have something to do with being clever, as if there were the smallest reason to suppose that Achilles was clever, as if there were not on the contrary a great deal of internal evidence to indicate that he was next door to a fool. Greatness is a certain indescribable but perfectly familiar and palpable quality of size in the personality, of steadfastness, of strong flavour, of easy and natural self-expression. Such a man is as firm as a tree and as unique as a rhinoceros, and he might quite easily be as stupid as either of them. Fully as much as the great poet towers above the small poet the great fool towers above the small fool. We have all of us known rustics like Bottom the Weaver, men whose faces would be blank with idiocy if we tried for -ten days to explain the meaning of the National Debt, but who are yet great men, akin to Sigurd and Hercules, heroes of the morning of the earth, because their words were their own words, their memories their own memories, and their vanity as large and simple as a great hill. We have all of us known friends in our own circle, men whom the intellectuals might justly describe as brainless, but whose presence in a room was like a fire roaring in the grate changing everything, lights and shadows and the air, whose entrances and exits were in some strange fashion events, whose point of view once expressed haunts and persuades the mind and almost intimidates it, whose manifest absurdity clings to the fancy like the beauty of first-love, and whose follies are recounted like the legends of a paladin. These ate great men, there are millions of them in the world, though very few perhaps in the House of Commons. It is not in the cold halls of cleverness where celebrities seem to be important that we should look for the great. An intellectual salon is merely a training-ground for one faculty, and is akin to a fencing class or a rifle corps. It is in our own homes and environments, from Croydon to St. John’s Wood, in old nurses, and gentlemen with hobbies, and talkative spinisters and vast incomparable butlers, that we may feel the presence of that blood of the gods. And this creature so hard to describe, so easy to remember, the august and memorable fool, has never been so sumptuously painted as in the Bottom of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
– G. K. Chesterton, A Midsummer Night’s Dream