Article Title

Shakespeare and the Genius of the Absurd


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Literary masterpieces, Benedetto Croce was fond of repeating, defy comparison; each is an organic whole, best experienced in its uniqueness, as we experience individual· personality. Still, critics persist in their bad habits-as Croce himself persisted in comparing great authors-in spite of the warning. And this is perhaps as it should be because, although greatness in literature cannot be measured by purely literary standards ( as T. S. Eliot insisted), many other constituents of literary value can be measured, and the comparative study of literary works is at least to that extent justified. Shakespeare's dramatic genius certainly towers above the dramatists of our age, even as it soared above the best efforts of his own contemporaries. But it is not too far-fetched-not inexcusably absurd-to suggest that in his treatment of character, in his rich use of symbolic overtones, in his paradoxical juxtaposition of certain themes, in his subtle allegorical shadings, Shakespeare "anticipates" the dramatic habits and practice of contemporary dramatists such as Camus, Ionesco, Beckett, and Albee ( who, in my opinion, is the best-though certainly not the most absurdist---of our playwrights of the Absurd). Macbeth's castle, for instance, like the replica of the mansion. in Albee's Tiny Alice, reverberates with dark-light images that serve to intensify the turns of dramatic action; Albee's manic-depressive characterization of Brother Julian in that play is built, like Shakespeare's characterization of Hamlet, .around the painful surfacing of deep and mysterious motives; in both plays, paradoxical extremes produce a Sophoclean irony, and past and future merge in the obsessive verbalization of actions and intentions. Dramatic art has undergone many transformations since Shakespeare's time; yet with the Absurd, there is at least an apparent spiraling back over old ground. From the new perspective of contemporary drama we may gain a new appreciation of some of the oldest techniques of the playwright's art.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.